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God repents, October 15, 2017

God Repents

What do we imagine when we talk about God? What kind of image do we have in our heads?

We know that God is not some old guy with a long beard up there … somewhere. But I suspect that we still most often think of God as some kind of unchanging, immutable being. As the old hymn has it, “Immortal, invisible, God only wise, in light inaccessible, hid from our eyes” … and so on.

We’ve grown up with an image of a God who knows everything that will happen. God has a plan for our lives, a blueprint if you will. Everything is laid out for us, and our part in this is to conform to God’s will, to do what God has laid out for us.

That kind of image grew up in a world where it was thought that everything was planned, every action was predetermined. In the 18th century, for example, William Paley described the world as being like a watch and God was the watchmaker. God wound the watch up at creation, and it kept on ticking as time went on.

That’s changing. Since Einstein, scientists are now talking about randomness in the fundamental building blocks of the universe. The world is not predetermined, as we used to think.

The same kind of shift is happening in theological circles. In the last century, we’ve begun noticing Biblical accounts which indicate that God also changes, that God is involved in an open dialogue with us, that God responds to our choices. The future isn’t fixed or predetermined. Indeed, the future is open as we engage in our lives as a dialogue with God. We change, and God also changes.

We see it in this story of the Golden Calf.

Partly, this story is about Israel’s idolatry. How soon the people forgot about God. They built an idol and worshipped it as if it were God. It happens so quickly—and it’s a danger for us as well. It’s hard to trust God whom we can’t see. It’s much easier to put our trust in what we can make, what we can see, what we can control.

That’s part of this story. But there’s something more going on here.

Let me set the context. Israel fled from Egypt. Now they are on the long and arduous journey to … somewhere else. God promised them a land of their own, they believed. It’s a difficult journey, and they end up complaining and grumbling.

They reach called Sinai (or Horeb in the Psalm). Moses goes up the mountain there to speak with God, and comes down with the Ten Commandments. Israel affirms its loyalty to God.

Then Moses goes back up the mountain. That’s where we pick up the story today. Moses has been up there a long time, and the people are wondering what’s going on. They demand that Moses’ brother Aaron make a god for them.

“What’s–his–name has been up there forever! Is he going to come back? Make us a god who will lead us, a god we can see, a god who is actually there.”

Aaron does as they demand. He melts down their jewelry and gold and makes a calf. “Here is your god, O Israel, who led you out of Egypt.” The people worshipped, they ate and drank, and it turned into a wild party.

Up on the mountain, God is furious. “Get back down there, Moses,” God says in a fit of anger. “Your people have messed up again. These people you led out of Egypt—they’re stubborn, stiff–necked. I’m done with them. I’ve had it.

“So here’s what we’re going to do, Moses. Let my anger burn fiercely. I’ll destroy them, and then I’ll start over with you. I’ll make you a great nation, and we’ll go from there.”

Moses doesn’t let God get away with that. “No deal, God. They’re not my people. They’re your people. You led them out of Egypt. If you destroy them now, what would the Egyptians say? Think of the hit your reputation would take!”

Moses demands three things of God:

  1. Turn from your anger. Get over it, God.
  2. Change your mind. The word here is actually “repent”. Moses calls God to repent, to change God’s heart and mind, to do something different. That’s what it means to repent. It doesn’t mean to feel sorry for something you’ve done wrong. Repentance means to change our minds, to change our hearts, to go in a new direction.
  3. Remember your promises to these people. This is not worthy of you, God. You promised, O God. You promised Abraham. You promised Isaac. You promised these people. Are you really going to break your promises?

Turn. Repent. Remember. These are not polite requests from Moses. Moses demands this of God. In this story, Moses is the only one who finally tells the truth. Moses speaks truth to God. Moses calls God back to God’s intention for these people. Moses demands that God act in grace and compassion, which is the real heart of God.

And God does. God remembers. God turns from his anger. God repents.

It’s such a simple sentence at the end of the story—“And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.”

This is a much different portrait of God than we’re used to. We haven’t noticed these hints in the past. But we’re beginning to. There are glimpses of this image throughout the Bible. It’s there again and again, and we are beginning to see it.

With this understanding, we know that the future is not cast in stone. The world is not in the hands of an iron fate or an impersonal power. We worship a God who is available to us, who responds to us, who is in dialogue with us. We worship a God who repents.

That’s one of the problems with idols. They don’t change. They are forever cast in stone, or bronze, or gold.

But not God. God gets involved with us in the daily living of our lives. God is involved in a deep relationship with us. God changes as we change.

I describe my faith journey this way. God and I are involved in a dialogue. We talk together, we dance together, we affect each other. God and I are working together on what a faithful life looks like for me. The future is genuinely open. There’s no blueprint for my life. Rather, I live my life out step by step, journeying in partnership with God. With each new step, as I respond to God, so God also responds to me.

The important thing in all of this is that God repents in order to do whatever God needs to do to fill our lives with grace and compassion. God repented on the mountain with Moses, and Israel continued its journey. God changes with me so that I also may discover grace and wholeness and compassion in my own life.

It doesn’t just happen with me as an individual. It happens with us as a community. Our vision of God’s ministry in this place has changed over the years. God inspires us with new visions, and as we catch those visions, God’s heart rejoices. As we miss them, God’s heart weeps, and God changes to try something new.

The good news in all of this is that God’s dream of grace and wholeness for the world may become real. God’s dream is that we all grasp God’s wholeness more fully. God will do whatever God has to do so that God’s love may fill our lives and our world.

God’s steadfast love for the world doesn’t change. What does change in the heart of God is the way in which God will walk with us so that we embrace God’s love fully in our lives as individuals and as a community. God will do whatever God has to do to embrace us and hold us forever.

Thanks be to God.

Rev. Dr. Yme Woensdregt

October 15, 2017 (19th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 29)

Exodus 32: 1–14

Matthew 22: 1–14

Philippians 4: 1–9