Proper 19c 2013 • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners…
There is a strange phrase at the end of today’s Old Testament reading: “The Lord changed his mind.” Well, it certainly looks as if God changes his mind. It starts when God tells Moses to deal with his problem people as if they belonged to Moses: “Your people, who you brought up out of Egypt!” Sounds like many a parent when a child acts up! Have you ever been told, or perhaps even said, “Look at what your son has done! He sure didn’t get it from me!”? Well, God is giving Moses a hard time on account of the Israelites. And God is prepared to give them an even harder time! So Moses tries to placate God, to intercede. He suggests that if God wipes out the people he will get bad press back in Egypt. And God appears to change his mind, and let the Israelites be.
Well, yes, that’s what the story says. But let’s not forget who wrote the story: Moses. There is a rule when you study history, sacred or secular: consider who is writing it. From Moses’ point of view he is the calm one, the reasonable one. It is God who is flying off the handle.
There is another, better explanation for this passage, that takes account of the rest of Scripture: which shows that God is not likely to fly off the handle; God is not “flighty.” God is wise, powerful, loving, and just; but not flighty or given to whims. As the prophet Samuel would later say, “God is not a mortal to change his mind.”
So maybe Moses misses something in this event, in what is going on here. God is indeed testing his people Israel, as he will continue to do. But in this particular moment God is testing Moses. God wants to know what kind of leader Moses is. If God gives him the chance, will he say, “Yes, God, wipe them out! Make a great nation out of me!” Is that the kind of person God wants to lead his people, a people he’s loved and cared for throughout their bondage in Egypt? the people he’s delivered with signs and wonders, and to whom he has promised a land flowing with milk and honey, a people God loves even when they act up, as any loving parents love their children?
Of course not. Moses doesn’t reveal himself as as someone who would willing to condemn his fellow Israelites, to wipe them out so that he can be the founder of the new kingdom; he passes God’s test. Moses doesn’t grab the chance to become the father of a great nation; in fact he “reminds” God of the promises God had made to the real fathers, the patriarchs, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. God then sees that Moses would even talk back to him, even confront God himself on behalf of his people; he will be a mediator, an advocate, to stand between God and his righteous judgment of those fellow-Israelites (as bad as they are) and beg God to be merciful.
So it isn’t that God has a change of mind or of heart, but rather that God finds that Moses is a man after his own heart. For the heart of God, is love, not destruction, it is mercy and forgiveness. As Jonah would discover hundreds of years later, in very similar circumstances, when God confronted him after he got upset that God didn’t wipe out Nineveh, and said to Jonah, “Am I not to care for this whole city — and you’re upset about a little sun shining on your head because the bush withered?!” People get to know God better when they face God — you know that!
There is a wideness in God’s mercy that goes beyond the measure of our mind: God’s grace is amazing; so it is understandable that Moses might have misunderstood what was going on that afternoon when he thought he calmed God down. Moses passed the test, he passed the trial, without even realizing he was being tested or tried! You might be able to picture God smiling to himself years later, looking over Moses’ shoulder as Moses wrote those words, “And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.”
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No, brothers and sisters, it is not in God’s nature to change his mind as a mortal does. For God is single-minded in loving, in forgiveness, and in willingness to put up with us in our error, our wandering, and our sin. The mind of God doesn’t change. Thank God!
Saint Paul knew this well. He had been a terror to the church. As he says of himself, “a blasphemer, a persecutor, a man of violence.” God didn’t change his mind about Paul; but God changed Paul. God didn’t wait for Paul to come to his senses. God met Paul on the Damascus road, while Paul was carrying in his bloody hands the death warrant for more Christians. God met Paul, a man who thought he was God’s own hatchet man on earth, who thought he was doing God’s work while he was killing God’s servants — and God knocked him senseless to the ground.
Jesus Christ appeared to Paul on the way to Damascus, revealing himself as one who forgives even before repentance; who comes to us while we are yet sinners; who reaches out to us even when we are at our most impossible, tooth-gnashingly, frowningest, mean and ornery and self-righteous, “I don’t need your help thank you very much” selves. Christ revealed himself as the Son of God who is love and who does not change his mind but whose mind is always towards the best for his children.
Over the next few weeks we’ll be reading from the Letters Paul wrote to his disciple Timothy. Today we heard, from the first letter, those familiar words, “The saying is true and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” These are familiar and comfortable words. We don’t often hear Saint Paul’s punch-line: “...Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners of whom I am the foremost.” Paul knows that the grace of God is poured out precisely where most needed, on the dry, hot, mean and angry ground of his own self-righteous self. The water of grace wells up in the desert waste where I am the only lone who is right, and everybody else is wrong and needs fixing.
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Jesus tries to tell the Pharisees and scribes the same thing. They have a chance to join him at the banquet, and instead they stand outside grumbling that he shares his table with sinners. “Just look at the company this Jesus keeps. Guess that tells what sort of a character he is. Birds of a feather!”
You know they were right! Those Jesus calls to supper tell us just what sort Jesus is. This is a true saying, and worthy of all to be received. That Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; to find the lost coin, the lost sheep. He came into the world to find the unloved, the disposable, the outcast, the misfit. He came to find those who know their need of God, and those so far-gone they have lost hope even in God.
But he also came to save the ones like Paul, the self-righteous ones who don’t even know they need saving; who think they have God in their hip-pocket, the ones who think they have it made. Those are the hardest sort to save, since they don’t even know they need saving! Jesus calls them to supper; some will respond, but some, rather than joining the feast, will stay outside, shaking their heads and grumbling. They cluck their tongues and shake their heads, deaf to the voices of all the angels in heaven rejoicing and shouting out loud that the lost has been found, and are sitting down right now to the banquet with the king of heaven. Outside, shaking their heads, they fail the test God put to Moses, hardening their hearts in the time of trial, and imagining they are righteous when they are absolutely and completely wrong.
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And it still happens. Time and again people who profess and call themselves Christians fail that test; they crumble in the time of trial, failing to refrain from self-righteousness, judgment, and prejudice — sometimes even violence — choosing instead to condemn and reject those they judge not up to their standard, forgetting that they too must answer to the one just judge of all.
Today is the 50th anniversary of the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. That bomb was set by the Ku Klux Klan, men who thought they were righteous, who wore on their chest the sign of the cross in a circle, believing themselves just and righteous, secure in their racial superiority. They didn’t just bomb an empty church building to destroy the property of that congregation. They set the bomb to go off at 10:15 on Sunday morning when they knew that church would be full of people, and killed four little girls who were down in the restroom combing their hair, getting ready for the Sunday service. It was Youth Sunday that day, so the place was full of kids and proud parents. And a group of men who thought themselves to be doing God’s work blew up that church.
God is just. God sees it all, and God doesn’t change his mind.
When it comes down to it, there is only one right answer for this test, a test that some so often fail when their limited hearts face God’s abundant grace. There is only one right answer in the time of trial, one right response to the prosecuting attorneys: the clucking tongues and shaking heads, the angry hands full of blood, and the self-righteousness of hypocrites. There is only one right testimony. It is a saying that is sure and worthy of acceptance, that Christ Jesus — our only mediator and advocate, our defense attorney in the time of trial — came into the world to save sinners — among whom, thanks be to God, we have had the grace to acknowledge ourselves numbered, and have accepted God’s welcome to come to this place and sit at his table. Blessed are those who know their need of God! Blessed are those invited to the supper of the Lamb!
May God shake self-righteousness and hypocrisy from the fabric of his world, bringing of all his children, even the most stubborn and resistant ones, even the ones who don’t even want to be seen dead in that company, into the banquet hall. So that we may then on that great day, join with Saint Paul and all the saints who once were sinners, in giving glory and honor to the great unchanging mind of our loving God, giving “to the King of ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, all honor and glory forever and ever.”