In your worship bulletin I have included a quote by Richard Rohr who points out that biblical texts mirror the nature of human consciousness. He says the Bible “includes within itself passages that develop the prime ideas and passages that fight and resist those very advances.” He says that we might even call it “faith and unfaith.” I would not not call it “unfaith” I would call it unhealthy faith, or bad faith. Both good faith and bad faith, says Rohr, are “locked into the text.” The Bible mirrors or own faith struggles.
In other words, good faith and bad faith are both part of our sacred tradition, which is why it is so important to read a text critically before we read it spiritually. I think it’s time for churches and Christian leaders to admit that we have done a poor job teaching people how to read a biblical text critically. Many Christians have never even attempted it and wouldn’t know how to start. The result has been that we end up believing a lot of contradictory things that do not make much common sense or seem very reasonable.
The pairing of Exodus 32 and Luke 15 in our lectionary readings for this Sunday provide an excellent opportunity for us to consider how to read a biblical text critically. Reading a text critically forces us to question the text and its picture of God and reality. We can’t just assume that the text gives us a truthful, reliable portrait of God. Exodus 32 pictures God in a way that collides with the way God is pictured by Jesus in the stories of Luke 15. If there is one thing I hope you pick up from me is the need to be honest about all things spiritual, especially the Bible. If you can be honest about the Bible, chances are you can -be honest with others and you can be honest with your own soul.
Today, we have a text in Exodus 32 that pictures God one way and a text in Luke 15 that pictures God in a different way. Moses goes up to the mountain to talk with God and receive God’s instructions. Meanwhile, the people God brought out of Egypt grow impatient and decide to make an image of God and worship the image. So God says to Moses, “I have seen this people, how stiff necked they are” – that is, how stubborn, resistant, and insensitive they are. “Now,” says God to Moses, “let me alone, so that my wrath may burn against them and I may consume them, and of you I will make a great nation.” God says, “Step aside Moses while I destroy these stiff-necked people, and then I will start over with you, and raise up a better people.” God has lost all patience and is ready to consume them, ready to be rid of them.
But Moses intercedes. Moses says, “Now God, let’s rethink this thing you are about to do. Let’s step back and take a deep breath and talk about this. You brought these people out of Egypt by your mighty power. Think what the other nations and peoples will say about you, God. Your reputation is on the line here. They will say: ‘The God of Israel brought his people out of Egypt so he could wipe them off the face of the earth.’ Think how that makes you look. And then too, don’t you remember the covenant you made with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, your servants and how you promised to multiply them like the stars of the sky and give them the land. Are you going to break your promise, Lord? You really need to think this through God.”
Then the storywriter says: “And the Lord changed his mind (some versions read, “repented”) about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.” Moses convinced God to turn aside his wrath and spare the people. I want to ask you and want you to be honest: Do any of you have a problem with the image of God portrayed in this story? Don’t just assume it has to be true. This is what it means to read a text critically. Moses has to talk God into being merciful. Moses is more mature than God is in the story.
In the two parables in Luke 15 God is compared to a shepherd who goes out searching for a lost sheep and a woman who searches for a lost coin, and in both stories, the search continues until that which is lost is found. And when the lost sheep and the lost coin are found, the one doing the seeking celebrates by throwing a party.
What are we to do with these two very different images and portrayals of God? One possibility is to simply ignore the one we don’t like. If you believe in a God of wrath over a God of grace, then you will most likely focus on Exodus 32 and ignore Luke 15. Christians do this sort of thing all the time. When one scripture clashes or contradicts another scripture, one approach is to simply ignore the scripture we don’t like and say, “Well, it will all make sense one day.” That’s one very common approach. But, and this is important, that’s not being honest with the text is it? It’s a refusal to face what is. And in other areas of our life that approach always gets us in trouble. Relate to your spouse that way and see how that works for you.
A second approach that is also fairly common among Christians is to rationalize the one we don’t like so that it means something other than what it actually says. By the way, I used to do this a lot, and was quite skillful at it. When I learned Hebrew and Greek in seminary I discovered that I could sometimes engage in some rather fanciful exegesis and convince myself and others that the text means something other than what it actually says. In other words, I would just keep working the text until I would get it to my liking or at least I would come up with some interpretation that would supposedly resolve the contradiction. Now the problem with this approach is that no matter how fanciful our explanations or interpretations 2 + 2 still equals 4. No matter what we do it’s really hard to make 2 + 2 equal 5, no matter how brilliant our explanation.
One might try to rationalize this story of Moses in Exodus 32 by saying that God was just testing Moses. God was not really going to kill the people he delivered from bondage. But why would God want Moses to think that the God of Israel is the kind of God who would destroy God’s people? And of course, that is not what the text says is it? The text says God changed God’s mind.
In my faith journey I have tried both of those approaches. Now a-days I try to be more honest with the text. And being honest with the text means that I have to admit that there are contradictions, there are different portrayals and images of God that cannot simply be ignored or rationalized away. Being honest with the Bible means I have to face these differences. So I read the biblical text critically before I read the text spiritually. That is, I read the text critically before I try to appropriate and apply the text in some way to help me grow in my spiritual life and become a better person. By the reading the text critically I’m able to set some boundaries and pararmeters that help guide me in the way I spiritually apply and appropriate the text.
When I read Exodus 32 critically I realize that this story reflects what the storywriter and the ancient Hebrews who preserved this story believed about God at that time in their history. This is how they imagined God at that particular time and place in their spiritual journey. (That is, unless the story was intended to be humorous – a kind of holy irony where Moses acts more like God than God does. I don’t think that is likely, and it would be very difficult to argue that position, but it is a possibility.)
Nevertheless, the portrait of God in Exodus 32 clashes with the portrait of God painted by Jesus in the Gospel of Luke. They are both in the Bible, but they do not have equal weight. This is really important: they are both in the Bible, but they do not have equal authority. You see, sisters and brothers, we are first of all disciples of Jesus, so we must always give more weight and authority to the texts that deal with Jesus, who we confess as our Lord. When you get right down to it, no Christian, even the most conservative Christian, believes the Bible equally. We may claim to, but we really don’t. There are some parts of the Bible that we clearly give more attention to than other parts. And we all do this. Some scriptures we focus on; some we ignore. We can be intentional and purposeful about it, or we can be unintentional and haphazard in doing it. I choose to be purposeful and intentional. And I hope you will as well.
As a disciple of Jesus I will always give preference to the Gospels – to the stories about Jesus and the stories Jesus told. I will always give first priority and more authority to those texts that teach me about Jesus and what Jesus taught and believed and did, than other scriptures. Of course, if I am honest I have to read the Gospel texts critically as well. And that means that I have to admit that the Gospel writers sometimes embellished and altered the stories that were passed down to them, and no doubt some of the Gospel texts were altered and changed as they were passed down orally decades before they were ever written down, collected, and utilized to compose our Gospels. Reading the Bible honestly and critically helps us to realize that the Bible didn’t float down from heaven on the wings of angels. The Bible came to us through a very human and fallible process.
When I read the stories in Luke 15 I realize that they are consistent with Jesus’s portrayal of God in the Gospels in general and the Gospel of Luke in particular. In Luke 6, Jesus even says that God loves those who are set against God. God loves evil persons as well as good persons. That doesn’t mean that there are no consequences for doing evil. Jesus clearly speaks of judgment in the Gospels. But with Jesus, judgment is a sub-theme under grace. I believe God’s judgment (whatever form it might take) is a means God uses to pursue and find the lost. Grace always has the upper hand. What judgment involves, I am convinced, it is just another means God uses to pursue the lost. The judgment of God is not intended to banish the lost, it is intended to bring them home.
In Luke 6 Jesus says, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” At the end of these instructions on enemy love Jesus says that when we love like this then we will be like the Most High, we will be like God, because God “is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.” Jesus concludes by saying, “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” So here we have a God who is kind even to the wicked; whereas in Exodus 32 we have a God who is ready to consume the people he brought out of Egypt and start all over with Moses.
So when we compare these two lectionary texts today it should be fairly clear which one has more authority. I don’t think we should dismiss texts like Exodus 32 at all. I think we should read and study them. If nothing else these texts show us that we are not alone in our struggle to understand and know God. One of things this story does suggest that I believe is very true is that God’s plan is not unalterable. God can be prevailed upon. This is how relationships work. My wife can prevail upon me and alter my plans and vice versa. Such are the dynamics of human relationship. This is also, I believe, the dynamics of the divine-human relationship. So I would say this about Exodus 32: It’s get the character of God wrong; but it gets the dynamics of the divine-human relationship right.
So I read and interpret Exodus 32 through the lens of Jesus. The story of Jesus informs how I read and understand and what I take from the other stories in the Bible There is a reason the church calendar centers and revolves around the life of Jesus. There is a reason that the Gospel texts occupy center stage in the Lectionary readings. There is a reason that as Christians we confess Jesus as Lord. The texts dealing with Jesus have more authority for those of us who are followers of Jesus.
The God of Jesus portrayed in Luke 15 is as persistent and longsuffering and faithful and merciful a God as we will find anywhere. God is like a shepherd who cares so much for the one lost sheep that he defies all common sense and reason and convention and goes on a search, leaving the other sheep in the wilderness. There is nothing said about provision made for the sheep he leaves behind because the point of the story is how much the shepherd cares about the one lost sheep. The same point is made in the parable of the woman who searches for the lost coin. The main point in both stories in Luke 15, I believe, is that the shepherd searches “until he finds” and the same is true for the woman who searches “until she finds.” They search until they find. There’s no quitting. There’s no giving up, no abandoning the search.
So the question is not: Will the seeker find what is lost? That’s never in doubt. The question is: What will the shepherd do when he finds the lost sheep? What will the woman do when she finds the lost coin? The finding is never in jeopardy. They search until they find. And when they find that which was lost they rejoice and host a party to celebrate. What does that say about the God of Jesus, sisters and brothers? Let me ask you sisters and brothers? Would you rather be in relationship with the God of Exodus 32 or the God of Luke 15? In Exodus 32 the question is not: Can I be more like God? The question there is: Can I be more like Moses? Moses is more like the God of Luke 15 than God is in that story. And In Luke 15 I ask: Can I be more like the seeking God? Can I become more committed and caring, more patient and persistent, more gracious and longsuffering? Do I love the lost the way God loves the lost?
Rarely is there just one way to view a story, so let’s change the angle a bit. These stories not only contain challenge (we are challenged to be like this seeking God); they also contain comfort. Some days I am the one who is lost, who needs to be found. And there are all kinds of ways to be lost. We can be lost in our sins of course, that’s one way. But we can be lost in depression, we can be lost because of dashed dreams, we can be lost in sickness and ill health. We can be lost in a multitude of diverse ways. It doesn’t matter how we are lost, the good news is that the God of Jesus keeps seeking and searching and looking until God finds. God is never going to give up on you! God is never going to let you go! No one has to convince God not to wipe you off the face of the earth. You are in God’s heart forever.
All of us have played “hide-and-seek” as a kid haven’t we? Actually, I have played it a lot with my granddaughters. Do you ever remember hiding so good that no one could find you? They looked and looked, but no one had a clue. You thought, “Ha, they will never be able to find me here.” Then it dawned on you, “No one is going to find me.” So you edged yourself out of that secret place. Maybe you stuck out a foot or a hand or maybe you came all the way out of the shadows, and eventually you were found.
Now sisters and brothers, the good news about the God of Jesus, who is your God and my God, is this: Our God wants to find us ever bit as much as we want and need to be found.
Our good God, I thank you that you are a God who has infinitely more patience and longsuffering and grace than we do; that you never give up on us; that you will keep searching until we are found. Some of us don’t know what we want and we don’t know what we are looking for and we don’t know that we are lost. Some of us don’t yet realize that we are your offspring and in you we live and move and have our existence; we don’t realize that all our indistinct longings are really spiritual longings to be in harmony with the One who is the source of our very existence. Thank you God for pursuing us and tracking us and never letting go of us until we finally realize that you are what we really want and need. And now as we eat and drink in remembrance of Jesus’ self-giving unto death, may we be reminded that his how much you love each of us.