Dear Christ Church Family,
Sometimes we think we have God all figured out. But often that’s only because we have misunderstood God. At times like that, we desperately need a course correction in our thinking. In our passage from Exodus today, Moses gets such a correction, and it changes his life, and starts a change in the life of all Israel that reaches down to you and me today. Check it out!
Thursday, May 7, 2020 RCL Daily Office Readings, Year 2
AM Psalm 50
Exodus 34: A Course Correction. There come moments in the Bible where a people’s understanding of who God is gets a massive course correction. Occasionally, such as in our reading from Exodus today, it happens suddenly. As we saw yesterday, Moses is pretty sure of his worth to God. When God has a “Final Word” about the Children of Israel that Moses thinks needs reconsideration, Moses just tells God so. He is no longer surprised when God agrees with him. But Moses is still assuming that he has God figured out; that he knows what’s most important to God, and what motivations really drive God’s actions and desires.
For Moses, God is best understood as an angry God – where jealousy and vengeful vindictiveness are always just under the surface, and ever ready to punish offenders of the Divine will in rage. Nearly every pronouncement Moses has delivered from God to the people, to this point, has begun with a threat of judgment if disobeyed. Moses is sure that he is all that stands between that judgment and the people.
Suddenly, now, just after Moses has had a new face-to-face encounter with God, God issues a course correction in Moses’ thinking. In verses 6-7, God’s love and mercy are the first things cited in the catalog of Divine attributes. The pronouncement begins:
“The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin,”
This new order of understanding is intended to underscore how, above all else, the God of Israel is gracious and loving, forgiving and merciful, even (and perhaps especially) to repentant sinners. Yes, judgment still gets its place, but now it is in a secondary place to God’s love. This might be hard to see with the “visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children…to the third and fourth generation.” But this phrase is best understood as part of the consequences of sin. In a time when 45-year-olds could already have their great-grand-children living under their roof, with great-great-grands on the way, it is easy to see how a truly serious sin could have its consequences visited upon a family to the third and fourth generation. But this is completely overshadowed by God’s love, which will last to the thousandth generation. A better way to understand this part about judgment – and the intended way to understand it here – would be to say, “The consequence of sin may last a lifetime, but the love and mercy and forgiveness of God will last forever.”
This is such a transformative moment for Moses, and for the Children of Israel who hear this pronouncement, that its recalling and retelling will happen repeatedly throughout the rest of Israel’s history. Even (perhaps especially) when they are in trouble. In the future, repentant individuals and throngs alike will appeal to God for forgiveness, not so much because they have repented sufficiently, but because it is by God’s own word to be in God’s nature to do so. (See Deut. 9; and the great prayer of Ezra in Neh. 9:17,31)
Centuries later, the continually unfolding experience of God’s love and mercy will enrich the People’s understanding of God. For instance, in Psalm 103, the Psalmist quotes the lines from Exodus 34:6-7, then adds that God does not deal with us tit for tat, demanding punishment for every sin we commit. Instead, God even goes so far as to remove our transgressions as far from us “as the East is from the West.“ Later still, in the time of the Prophets, Israel comes to understand that God’s love and mercy is for the whole world, even enemies, when Jonah is remembered (quite humorously) as excusing his personal failure to obey God in preaching repentance to the hated Ninevites, by accusing God of planning to forgive them, because that’s what God does by nature, as he quotes Exodus 34.
As Christians, of course, we know the most profound course correction in our understanding of God has come with the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. In Jesus we learn that God’s mercy is actually self-sacrificial; that God will go to the Cross to save us and win us back to God’s love. Here’s the point of my bringing up all this history of God’s corrective encounters with God’s people. If your understanding of God is more pre-Exodus 34 than it is post-The Cross, it’s time for a serious course correction in that understanding. Give yourself to encountering Jesus in the pages of the Gospels, and in the moments of your prayers. Let Jesus work that course correction of love and mercy in you, and for you.