Monday, February 18, 2013

A New World: On God's Terms

Preached on Sunday, February 17, 2013

Scripture readings: Exodus 32:1-8; Mark 6:1-6

Photos Taken on a Walk:
Between the Feather River and Live Oak, CA 
There is a place in the prophet Isaiah where we hear God talking about his frustration with his own people. God says: “All day long I have held out my hands to an obstinate people, who walk in ways not good, pursuing their own imaginations.” (Isaiah 65:2)

We see this where Jesus holds out his hands to the people of his hometown. We also see this going on in the book of Exodus, where the Lord was shaping his people in the desert.

They had been slaves in Egypt for generations and, even though they complained about their slavery, they were also really good at it. They were much more comfortable with slavery than they thought.

They wanted liberty (or so they thought), but they didn’t want to live by faith, and courage, and commitment, which form a sort of short-list of what you need to be free. When the Lord heard their groaning for freedom he gave it to them, on the understanding that it included faith, courage, and commitment.

The problem was that he gave this freedom to them on these terms, which were his own terms. Because he didn’t reduce his freedom to fit their terms or their expectations, he showed that he was much more serious and faithful about their prayers than they were. They didn’t like this about him.

At a moment’s notice, or after forty days and nights of inconvenience, God’s people were ready to trade him in for a god of their own terms and expectations, a god of their own imagination, a god in their own image. And so they made the idol, the picture of the kind of god they wanted. They made the golden calf.

They were scared, and they just couldn’t pretend any longer to want what God wanted. The sign of God’s presence, the pillar of smoke and fire, burned above them. The mountain of God, where Moses had disappeared, was also topped with smoke and fire; and with thunder and the sound of an unearthly trumpet. They were collecting that puzzling food that lay about on the ground every morning. They didn’t know what the stuff was that the God of Moses was giving them to eat, so they called it “manna”, which means “what is it?” They were getting their water from springs that appeared when Moses would strike a rock in a dry place with his staff, so that the water flowed for them.

All this frightened them as much as it helped them. Under slavery they knew what to expect. Under slavery they knew how to manage their masters.

But the God of Moses was a master they could not master. Because they could not master him, they were afraid that he might not take care of them when, and how, and where they wanted. When the God of Moses came to their aid, as he always did in their time of need, they were afraid because they had not managed him into doing it.

They could have decided to be brave, and have faith in this God, and commit their lives to him, but they were too scared of him to do so. They were so scared that they did what their fears demanded. The result was that they did something desperately insane.

They did what no brave person would dare to do. Beneath the cloudy pillar and the fiery mountain of God they built an idol to control him. Idols serve as a kind of magic to attract and focus divine power in manageable ways.

The golden calf was golden. It was an offering designed to attract and buy influence with this divine power, as if this power was a thing that could be bought or influenced.

It was a calf; but not a baby calf. Actually it was a young bull in its prime. In the Hebrew world, it could be a three year old; not a baby. (Genesis 15:9, in Hebrew)

The golden calf was meant to serve as the house, and the point of contact, and the very shape for something strong and potent; a fertile and productive power. It was meant to house and shape the God who brought them out of Egypt.

With the help of this calf, if it worked, they would carry God where they wanted him to take them. The golden calf would need the protection, and attention, and care that only they could give. In this way they could make God manageable.

This is how idols work. But the Lord God, the Almighty, the Maker of Heaven and Earth, was not a divine spiritual power that could be captured or bargained with. So the plan of God’s people backfired on them.

They didn’t want faith, or courage, or commitment, they wanted the safety and dependability of a reliable source of power. But God is not ultimately about power at all. God is about compassion, grace, and love. These are, in some mysterious way, stronger than power.

On Mount Sinai, the fiery mountain, Moses was going to ask the Lord to show him his glory. When the Lord did it, he showed and defined his glory in words; these words: “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness.” (Exodus 34:6-7)

People whose hearts and minds have been shaped by a world of slavery and ownership only understand fear and power. God’s people had been poorly brought up, and the great project of God was to bring them up right. In fact his project was to recreate them for a new world of faith, courage, and commitment; or you could say a new world of compassion, grace, and love. So, on and on, God held out his hands to them: such an obstinate people, a people who found faith so hard.

God, in Christ, did the same with his relatives and neighbors in Nazareth. Jesus, in his old village synagogue, was God holding out his hands to his people; his obstinate people who wanted in their hearts some other relationship than the relationship of faith.

They didn’t want faith. They wanted a king. And they were sure (because they had known Jesus just about all his life) that Jesus didn’t have it in him to be the kind of king they wanted.

It didn’t matter that Jesus was a healer and a teacher of amazing wisdom. They wanted to be free from their Roman slavery, the Roman rule and empire. They wanted a leader who would command an army and drive out the Romans.

They were God’s people and so they were accustomed to talking about faith, and courage, and commitment. They thought that these were their priorities, but they wanted the way of power most of all.

Their real interest was not in compassion, or in grace, or in love. If Jesus was not interested in power, then there was nothing in him to trust. Faith in Jesus was not for them.

Nazareth was a very small town, almost not a town at all. Mark tells us that Jesus laid his hands on a few people in that little town and he healed them. If anybody did anything like that here, it would attract a lot of attention.

Maybe Jesus was accustomed to doing more, even in such small places. But the real issue was not his inability to do any wonderful things there, because he could do wonderful things, even in his hometown. He truly did wonderful things there, if healing people is a wonderful thing, if that was the point of his coming there.

What amazed Jesus was what did not happen in his home town. What amazed Jesus was “their lack of faith.”

The one miracle he most wanted to do, and could not do, was to draw his family and friends and neighbors into faith. Those who knew him best did not put their trust in him.

In the Gospel of Luke we are told of a time when Jesus visited his hometown and preached in their synagogue. Either Mark is giving us a summary of that visit, or else Jesus repeated his invitation to his people more than once.

In the visit as told by Luke, Jesus read from the prophet Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” And then Jesus said, “Today, this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:18-21)

Jesus told them that what he was doing with them was the kingdom of God. Jesus and his words and his actions were the kingdom of God in their sight and hearing.

They could see what God wanted to do when they looked at him and listened to him. They could see and understand the freedom of the kingdom of God, as ruled by God in Jesus.

This was clearly a different kind of freedom than they wanted. They had an idol that they worshiped without knowing it. They had a golden calf in their hearts. It had to do with power, not compassion and grace.

In Jesus, God was holding out his hands to them, but they refused because they were an obstinate people. They were pursuing their own imaginations, as Isaiah had said.

They wanted a different kingdom and a different world than God held out to them. They wanted a kingdom and a world in their own image, not in God’s image. Or you could say that they wanted a God in their own image. They wanted a god of their own designing.

They would have put their faith in Jesus if they could be sure that he would want for them what they wanted. They wanted a Jesus in their own image.

The Bible tells us the story of God and his people. It is what we could call a love story, but it is the story of a very stormy love indeed. If we are God’s people, then we are part of this same story. The story of the golden calf and the synagogue in Nazareth apply to us, or else the Bible is not God’s word to us. The Bible gives us the promises of God, but it also gives us his warnings.

Do we want for our selves what we are sure God wants for us? Are we willing to have faith in a God who may want for us something beside what we want for ourselves? Do we want a life on God’s terms, or do we want a God on our terms?

This is where the issue of having faith or not is decided. Faith isn’t a matter of what some Christians say it is; of naming and claiming what we want, or what we think is best.

Praying “in the name of Jesus” is not praying with a magic charm tacked to the end of our prayer. Praying in the name of Jesus means praying what Jesus would pray for.

What would Jesus most want to pray for you just now? What would Jesus’ top ten prayers for you be?

Think of what you want most; what most is on your mind. Now think of what Jesus wants most for you, what most is on his mind.

What if Jesus’ first priority prayer for you runs like this, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me?” (Mark 8:34) What if Jesus’ first prayer for you was for you to pray like this: “Thy kingdom come, they will be done on earth as it is in heaven?” (Matthew 6:10)

The issue of faith is to live and pray in faith, on his terms. You might try this.

There was a Scottish Christian and author named George MacDonald, who lived in the eighteen hundreds. He had the idea that you could begin to learn faith, and you could begin to learn God’s power and God’s reality, by asking what the first thing was that God wanted you to do, and then go and do it.

This never works when you want more options. If you don’t like the first thing God tells you to do, you can’t wave it away and ask God what the second thing might be, or the third. You would spoil the experiment and turn it into a game that God does not play.

For better or for worse, when I am confused about what to do, I ask God what I must do first and then I try to do it. It seems to settle everything.

When my dad proposed marriage to my mom, one of his conditions was that she had to realize that he was set on building race car engines, and he would not give up that dream. Well, he got married and he gave that up. Nine and a half months after the wedding he had a baby son to support, as well as a wife.

He could not be a husband and a father on his own terms. He had to ask what it meant to be a husband and a father on the terms of being a good husband and father.

He made his choice by not worshiping an idol, but by worshiping a calling. He sacrificed a world of race cars for a world of marriage and family. It was not easy for him to give up that older dream.

Without faith, we think we will regret the world we make for ourselves if we leave behind our idols. With faith, we will find a better world; a world of values and relationships that will last.

If we are to be God’s people, our life is the matter of stepping into a new world that works on God’s terms. How will your new world work, if it is going to be God’s new world based on faith, courage, and commitment? How will your new world work if it is going to be God’s new world based on compassion, grace, being slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness? How will your world change? How will you change?

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