Monday, September 13, 2010

Help for the Road Home: Heart

Preached Sunday, September 12

Scripture Readings:
Exodus 32:1-35
2 Timothy 1:3-18

A teacher was talking to her class about the human body and she pointed to a little boy’s chest. “Here is where your heart is, put your hand there, and feel your heart beating.” The little boy spoke up and said, “That’s not where my heart is. My heart is where I sit down.” “How did you get that idea?” asked the teacher. And the boy said, “Because, every time I do something good, my grandma pats me there and says, “Bless your little heart.”

I didn’t know how to give a name to what I saw in the heart of God and the heart of Moses through the story of the golden calf. There is a lot to take in. The story runs for three chapters, and we have just read the first chapter of the story.

Did you notice, in that long reading we did from Exodus, that Moses prayed passionately against the expressed anger of God? Did you notice that Moses offered to die for the sins of his people if only God would forgive them? Moses prayed, “Please forgive their sin, but if not blot me out of the book you have written.” (Exodus 32:32)

If we don’t like the thought of the anger of God, and if we do like the thought of the forgiveness of God, do we notice how much we agree with Moses in his prayer? Do we notice how much Moses is like us? If we don’t see this we won’t understand a lot of what the Bible is saying to us.

On the other hand, if we don’t like anger and we do like forgiveness, then we are not at all at home with Moses when he came down from the mountain, and smashed the stone tablets with the Ten Commandments written on them, and ordered the members of the tribe of Levi go through the camp with swords drawn, hacking away at the people. Moses hated the anger of God, but Moses got violently angry, himself.

There is a lot here that mystifies me. The violence of the Old Testament is not allowed for the followers of Jesus. And remember what Jesus said to the disciple who tried to fight off the guards who came to arrest Jesus, the night before his crucifixion. He said, “Put your sword back in its place, for all who draw the sword will die by the sword.” (Matthew 26:52)

It is also true that if the violence that disturbs us in the Old Testament never took place, the people of Israel would never have survived. The books of the Bible that Jesus read would never have been written. And the Jesus we know as the Messiah would never have been born.

I tried to find a word that would pull this story together. I thought of the word “boldness”. There seems to be a lot of that going on in all the prayers and the violence. I thought of the word “passion” because most of the people in the events of the golden calf are very passionate. Certainly God is very passionate; much more passionate than we may care for him to be (which is part of our problem as modern people).

Then I thought of the word “heart”, and I think heart fits the best. There is no heart here in terms of tenderness. No, there’s no tenderness going on in this story, or is there? It isn’t heart in terms of love, though love is there. There is more love than anger in this story, if you look for it.

The word heart pulls the story together in terms of something you put all your heart into. There is the old song, “You Gotta Have Heart.” Heart is what you must have to play a sport well even when your team is losing. Heart is what you need to be a real friend for someone, to marry, to raise a family, to do good work you can be proud of. You gotta have heart. Moses had it. God has it. The people of Israel didn’t have it. Paul told Timothy to have it because he was in danger of losing heart. Paul wrote: “For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands. For God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love and of a sound-mind/self-discipline.” (2 Timothy 1:6-7) You gotta have heart.

God’s people in the desert had lost heart. Only God, who miraculously provided for them, stood between them and death by starvation or death by thirst. This was not a comfortable place to be. Who in their right mind can remain calm when God alone holds their life in his hands?

And yet you gotta have heart. To really be alive, you have to be alive even when everything is in God’s hands. This is not the kind of faith that curls up in a ball of surrender. Having heart is what it means to come really alive even when you don’t see the way through. You trust God to show you the way; to show you what to do, and what to say, and even what to think at every critical moment.

There is a group of athletes called extreme surfers. Extreme surfers use the weather satellites to track down rogue waves. These waves seem to defy the laws of physics, and scientists refused to believe in their existence until very recently; in spite of the stories of survivors. These waves can be a hundred feet high and move with tremendous speed and force. Extreme surfers revel in riding these waves.

I heard an interviewer ask an extreme surfer if he ever had a time when things went wrong and he thought, “This is it.” And the surfer answered, “Yes, but not in the sense of giving up to some unavoidable fate. I’ve thought “this is it” in the sense of looking for the way through it.”

God’s people were forced to live on the edge in the wilderness. They started their journey thinking it would be a quick road home. Instead, they were being led through a trackless desert in the opposite direction from home. And now their leader had been gone for forty days without any word; hidden on a stormy mountaintop.

They were riding a wave that they had not chosen. They didn’t have the heart for it. They were afraid. And so they sought comfort in an idol in the form of a calf or young bull.

It is hard to understand what they were doing. Did they think the golden calf was a different god from the one who led them out of Egypt, or did they think they were making a portrait of the real God; something that they could see and understand? So far, the God who led them was completely beyond their understanding.

More than one thing was going on there, and it is clear that the people, themselves were confused about it. But, if we listen to Aaron (since he was the one who made the statue and organized the worship for it) he tells us that the golden calf was an image of the Lord God. The feast and sacrifices that Aaron announced were celebrated in honor of “the Lord”. (Exodus 32:5)

Moses had led them by the authority of a God who made them ride the rogue wave. They had been impressed by this God, and they wanted this God. But they wanted this God in a form they could see and hold in their minds. And they wanted this God without the waves.

They wanted a comfortable God. The golden calf represented potential and strength. They liked that, but the calf was not likely to lead them on the waves.

We want a comfortable God who will not stretch us beyond our comfort. We don’t want to face our fears. We don’t want to forgive our enemies. We don’t want to serve God in ways that are not easy or natural for us. We don’t want a church that reaches out to people who aren’t like us. We don’t want to change, or to see ourselves as others see us. We don’t want to admit where we are wrong or weak. We don’t want to live graciously with the mistakes and weaknesses of others.

We would rather give a comfortable shape to God. But we have a God who would lead us through the desert. We have a God who would come down from heaven, and live a human life as a carpenter; and die a bloody death, on a cross, for our sins; and rise from the dead with everlasting wounds in his hands and feet. When you think about it, there is something unsettling about this God and the road he is likely to show us. Here is a God who rides the rogue wave and would take us with him. Here is a God with real heart.

There is anger in this story, and I don’t like it, but this anger also tells us about having heart. In fact it warns us against the danger of not having it. It tells us that not having heart, in the end, would be fatal. It tells us that nothing less than passion and boldness in our relationship with God will do. We are created and saved to be the children of God; to be the Great King's sons and daughters.

Heaven (as we will find, and as the Book of Revelation tells us) is not for the wimpy. Read the twenty-first chapter of Revelation. There will be no cowards there. It is for the healing of wounds and the drying of tears. It is also a place where his servants will serve. We cannot imagine how and where we will serve until that day when we are all made new. But we are told that the gates of heaven are never closed, and so it is a fearless place. And the gates are for bringing in glory and honor. Heaven is a place for those who have heart.

The anger of Moses and the anger of God are full of heart. Their anger is full of love. It is the anger of a parent who hears their child tell a lie, or say some hateful thing. The golden calf was a lie about God.

We live in a world where it is good to be cool and stay cool and hip no matter what. We live in a time that is ruled by the word “whatever”. We do not love goodness nearly enough. We do not hate evil and injustice nearly enough.

I like the world cool and use it a lot. But there are times when cool is not cool. The danger is this: we do not realize that we can be too cool in the presence of goodness and badness. Too much cool is deadly for the soul, and it earned the deadly anger of Moses and God.

The violence is forbidden to us. But the passion for goodness is absolutely required for us. In the cause of good versus evil we must be passionate with all our heart.

Part of Moses’ prayer was the offer of an exchange. Moses offered his life to God in exchange for the life of his people. There was a lot of heart in that mysterious offer. It was an offer that God did not accept. It was an exchange that Moses was not really qualified to make, but it is the very exchange that God, himself, has made for us. God exchanged his life for ours, to give us new life and a new heart.

I believe that Moses made this daring offer because he knew God. Moses had spent much time with God by now. In Exodus chapter 33 we can read that, “The Lord would speak to Moses face to face as a man speaks with his friend.” (33:11)

Moses must have seen into the heart of God, and Moses absorbed something of that heart into himself. One of my favorite verses in the Bible is 2 Corinthians 3:18. That is where Paul says this: “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.”

Moses looked into the likeness of God and saw the cross. He saw God himself as the Lamb who takes away the sin of the world. (John 1:29) What Moses saw of the cross in God became a part of him.

In Christ we see the face of God and what we see becomes a part of us. Having boldness, passion, and heart in our faithfulness to a God who stretches us and makes us ride the rogue wave; having a boldness, passion, and heart for the beauty of goodness: these are nothing without having the prayer for the daring exchange in our hearts.

This is the prayer of offering ourselves to God for others. We cannot save others, but we can be servants; we can help, and we can look for ways to live, and speak, and work for God in our families, in our church, in our community, and in our world.

The Lord’s Table is where we are fed for the life that is full of heart. It is where we present ourselves as people in the desert who will die of starvation or thirst unless eat and drink from Jesus Christ who is God in the flesh. Here we meet and receive the God who is full of heart for us, and he gives us a heart like his; for the love of God as he truly is, for the love of goodness, for the love of serving others with our lives: because we have got to have heart. We have this heart through Jesus Christ.


  1. What inspirational thoughts and thought-provoking piece about "heart". Loved how you started and finished your "story".

    Thank you for sharing it.
    Such a great narrative inspiration! It surely made my soul serene and peaceful.

    Most definitely what I needed to hear today.

    And thank you so much for your wonderful comments..always great to hear from you, pastor Dennis; glad you had a sunny, beautiful summer! :)

    Hope you have a wonderful week ahead.


  2. Betty,
    No, your comments are wonderful!
    On your blog I like your eye for, and enjoyment of God's world and of, our life in it; and look forward to more of that.
    As for heart, we live in a formidable world but we have a God who deals with it and with us with passion. It's a lesson I need for myself.