What Happens When God Isn’t Near

Sermon delivered on Trinity 18A, Sunday, October 15, 2017, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH. It’s a beautiful day to consider the beautiful Presence of our Lord Jesus in his good creation.

If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of today’s sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.

Lectionary texts: Exodus 32.1-14; Psalm 106.1-6, 19-23; Philippians 4.1-9; Matthew 22.1-14.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

What are we to make of that strange story we read in our OT lesson this morning? Here are God’s people, rescued by God from their slavery in Egypt by an awesome display of power, and then nurtured by God and his servant Moses as they made their way through the desert to the promised land. What would make God’s people Israel abandon their rescuing, faithful God for a lifeless and powerless idol? And why should we care about this story as Christians living in 21st century America? This is what I want us to look at this morning.

To help us make sense of our lesson today, we need a little background. The Lord had called Moses up to the mountaintop to give Moses instructions for building the tabernacle, which would be the place on earth where God would dwell with his chosen people, Israel. Let that fact sink in. God is giving Moses plans that will enable God’s people to enjoy in a special way God’s presence with them as God’s people (cf. 1 Kings 8.1-13). No other people on earth could claim this privilege, dangerous as God’s presence could be at times. God was making preparations with his servant to make good on God’s promise to be their God in a meaningful way.

But the meeting between God and Moses was taking longer than the people apparently expected. Exodus 24.18 tells us Moses was on the mountaintop forty days and nights, but God’s people don’t seem to have gotten that memo. And so they started grumbling to Aaron, Moses’ brother and God’s appointed priest, who would mediate God’s presence with his people once the tabernacle was built (don’t forget that last little nugget). Make gods for us who will lead us, they tell Aaron. As for Moses, we don’t know what the heck happened to the dude. He just checked out on us. In effect, the people were telling Aaron that they weren’t sure God was with them anymore as God had promised, and so they wanted God’s priest to make them gods to fill the perceived leadership void. Astonishingly enough, Aaron immediately agreed and forged a golden calf in direct violation of the first three commandments God had given Moses. Later in the story when Moses challenged his brother as to why he had done this, Aaron had this to say:

“Do not let [your] anger burn hot; you know the people, that they are bent on evil. They said to me, ‘Make us gods, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.’ So I said to them, ‘Whoever has gold, take it off’; so they gave it to me, and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf” (Exodus 32.22-24)!

Seriously, Aaron? The first thing out of your mouth is to pass the buck and then to offer that ridiculous excuse about throwing gold into the fire and it coming out as a calf on its own? Really? Any self-respecting five-year old could do better than that! So it seems that God’s priest was no better than God’s people (I would invite you not to draw too many conclusions about priests from this; I might resemble that statement). Despite having witnessed God’s deliverance of them through the Red Sea, despite the presence of the Lord in the pillars of cloud and fire, despite the manna from heaven, despite God giving his people water to drink in the midst of the wilderness to sustain them in their journey (at that point) to the promised land, God’s people Israel, Aaron included, demonstrated how profoundly broken they were. Once they perceived God to be absent from their midst, they chose to take matters into their own hands pretty quickly so that all hell began to break loose. It is a sad and astonishing story for us to ponder on the brokenness of the human condition. Take God out of the picture for a moment, give us an inch, and we will take a mile. This is the legacy of the sin of our first ancestors, Adam and Eve.

And it would seem that God’s people in Christ are not immune to this problem either. In our epistle lesson, St. Paul addresses the growing problem of a conflict between two prominent women in the house church at Philippi. While Paul does not directly say it, it is not unreasonable for us to conclude that one of the reasons for the conflict was the perception by at least some that the Lord was absent among them. Otherwise, why would St. Paul bother to say in the context of addressing this conflict that the Lord is near? Not only that, but the apostle had some recommendations for the Philippians to help them cultivate the Lord’s presence amongst them. More about that in a minute. So this problem of misbehaving when we perceive the Lord to be absent seems to be common to both the people of the old and new testaments.

But Israel’s misbehavior wasn’t simply a product of God’s perceived absence. As Jesus’ parable about the wedding banquet warns, while all are called to the banquet, many simply aren’t interested in attending if it means they must live under God’s rule and rules. This flies in the face of our modern sensibilities where inclusion is king and we don’t want anyone to be left out of the reindeer games. But as we saw last week, while living in God’s direct presence in this mortal life is a huge privilege, it is also a very dangerous privilege. How can sinful mortals stand in the presence of a perfect and holy God who is opposed to any form of evil? Just ask Aaron’s sons who were consumed by fire when they offered unauthorized fire to the Lord (Leviticus 10.1-3). As Christians, we believe that humans are made fit to stand in the presence of our holy God because of the blood of the Lamb shed for us on the cross. But the sad fact remains that there are many who do not want to live their lives in the manner God desires.

This is the point of Jesus’ parable of the wedding banquet. To be sure, God loves us as we are, but God does not desire to keep us where we are. Think about it. When Jesus was confronted by the lame, the blind, and the demon-possessed, he didn’t tell them he loved them as they were. He healed them. Likewise, Jesus loves mass murderers, child molesters, drug pushers, ruthless and arrogant business people, and manipulative parents who damage their children’s emotions for life. But because Jesus loves these folks, not to mention folks like you and me with our own brokenness and baggage, whatever it is, Jesus doesn’t want to leave us in our current condition because he hates the effect of our sin on us and those we afflict by our sin.

In a few moments we will come to our Lord’s Table to feed on his body and blood and be reminded that we are reconciled to God so that we have a future in God’s kingdom when it comes in full on earth as it is in heaven, just like we pray for every Sunday. But if we love our sins more than we love God, we are effectively thumbing our nose at God and telling him no thanks when he invites to enter his banquet forever. The fact of the matter is that God’s kingdom is a kingdom in which God’s love, justice, truth, mercy, and holiness reign unhindered and God calls us in Christ to be people who embody these virtues, however imperfectly we do so in our mortal lives. And so when Christ calls us to be his, he expects us to act the part, to come and die as Bonhoeffer put it, with Christ’s help, of course. And when we don’t act the part, our Lord tells us to confess our sins and receive his healing love and forgiveness made possible by his saving death. This is what it means to be God’s people—in Moses’ day, in St. Paul’s day, and in ours. All are called. Jesus died for the sins of the world, not just a few. But many will reject the gracious invitation for whatever reason and will face the consequences of rejecting Christ’s love and righteousness. That is the sad reality of the human condition in our world today.

Returning to our OT lesson, what was God’s reaction to the golden calf? God tells Moses that God’s people are no longer his people, they are Moses’s people. In effect, God tells Moses, “Take your people and good riddance.” I’m going to destroy them and start all over. You are going to become the new Abraham, dude! But Moses wouldn’t have it. He reminds God of God’s covenant faithfulness to God’s people, a covenant sworn to Abraham and his descendants. You are good to your word, God. You can’t destroy these people because they are yours, not mine, and if you do that you will look like a cosmic Loser in the eyes of the Egyptians out of whose country your brought your people. You will lose your well-deserved cred.

Of course, God, being who God is, relents. God cannot renege on his promises and Israel is saved, at least for the moment. But hear what else Moses said to the Lord when he returned to the mountaintop after confronting Israel with their colossal sin and folly:

On the next day Moses said to the people, “You have sinned a great sin. But now I will go up to the Lord; perhaps I can make atonement for your sin.” So Moses returned to the Lord and said, “Alas, this people has sinned a great sin; they have made for themselves gods of gold. But now, if you will only forgive their sin—but if not, blot me out of the book that you have written.” But the Lord said to Moses, “Whoever has sinned against me I will blot out of my book. But now go, lead the people to the place about which I have spoken to you; see, my angel shall go in front of you (Exodus 32.30-34a).

It is worth our time to consider carefully the effect that being in God’s presence had on Moses. Think about it. When God first confronted Moses in the burning bush, Moses was reluctant to fulfill God’s call to him to lead God’s people. He made dozens of excuses as to why he couldn’t do what God asked him. And of course Moses later murdered an Egyptian who was abusing a fellow Israelite. Moses wasn’t exactly ready for prime time in his new role as God’s chosen leader. But now we see Moses interceding for his people, begging God to spare them and offering himself in their place if only God would not destroy them. Can you say transformation?

And God did relent, at least partially. God did not destroy either Moses or God’s people. God spared them both. But we also know that there would come a time when God did not spare his chosen One from bearing the punishment of the people for their sins. No, God sent his only Son to be tortured and die a humiliating and agonizing death to spare God’s enemies—you and me—from God’s holy wrath on the evil we commit every day. God’s only begotten Son, Jesus our Lord, willingly gave himself in accordance with the Father’s will to save us from our slavery to Sin and to break its power over us so that we could enjoy our invitation to God’s wedding banquet of which the Lord’s Supper is a foretaste, thanks be to God. This is the kind of God who calls us to be his and who is present to us in the power of the Holy Spirit just as he was present to his people in the pillars of fire and cloud as they wandered through the wilderness. This God is good to his Word. We need not doubt God’s Presence among us. Ever. Yet whether it was through their faulty perception that God had abandoned them or their own willful rebellion against God and God’s rule, God’s people have often gone astray and worshiped false gods or idols.

Now before we get all smug and uppity about our spiritual ancestors and their shortcomings, it might help if we conducted a reality check about our own spiritual condition. Of course when you come to worship on the Sundays that I preach, and hear these divine sermons, you will naturally be tempted to think you have been transported to heaven. I know that temptation is strong, but resist it because it is only an illusion. In fact, we are every bit as prone to go astray because of our own inherent hostility toward the Lord and/or our perception that he is absent among us. Think it through. When sickness or death strikes us or our loved ones, we want to ask where God is in it all. Where was God when the Las Vegas sniper was mowing down innocent people? Where is God in the bombast about nuclear war that we hear coming from the leaders of North Korea and our own country? Where is God in this country as we seem to increasingly tear each other apart, and often irrationally? Where was God when the hurricanes afflicted this county and the Caribbean islands? We are constantly bombarded with bad news, and instantaneously, and are tempted to think God has abandoned us. And it’s not just turmoil in our country and world; it’s all the turmoil in our lives and the lives of our family as well. You get the point. We are every bit as prone to look for something or someone else to lead us (astray) as the ancient Israelites were because we do not perceive God’s leadership.

That is why we should pay attention to what St. Paul had to say to the Philippians in today’s epistle lesson. First he reminds us that the Lord is near in the power of the Spirit. That said, as with any relationship in a broken world, we have to do our part to cultivate our knowledge of his Presence and our relationship with him. Yes, the Lord is near to us. So St. Paul tells us to do three things to cultivate a sense of that Presence. First, come together as his people regularly to celebrate our Lord’s presence among us. That’s what St. Paul means when he tells us to rejoice always. You don’t have to spend too much time here at St. Augustine’s to get a sense of that Presence. Or consider Christian funerals. We can rejoice, even in the midst of our sorrow, because of the fact that God has defeated Sin and Death in the death and resurrection of Jesus his Son. Second, focus on the goodness of creation, especially in prayer. That doesn’t mean we ignore what’s wrong with creation. Rather, it means we focus equally on its goodness because it is a reflection on the goodness of its Creator. Focus each day on whatever is good, right, just, and beautiful in your life and the lives of your loved ones. Give thanks for the little things that happen to you that are good and wholesome. Those things aren’t coincidences. Make this a habit and eventually you will be reminded that God is very much present in God’s world. Last, live as Jesus’ people. Embody his love, mercy, goodness, justice, and holiness. The key concept here is habit. Imitate your Lord in his life and death, focus on his goodness and presence, and you will not be disappointed because as we have seen, God is faithful to his promises, even when we cannot see how. This is the Good News we are called to both embrace and proclaim, my beloved, now and for all eternity. But we must put in our sweat equity and then trust our Lord Jesus to continue to be good to his eternal promise to lead us to the new heavens and earth. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.