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The Cousin that No One Talks About

Posted by on Sunday, September 25th, 2022 in News
Watch the sermon video here

The Cousin the No One Talks About

Hespeler, 25 September 2022 © Scott McAndless
Jeremiah 32:1-15, Psalm 91:1-6, 14-16, 1 Timothy 6:6-19, Luke 16:19-31 (click to read)

Every family seems to have at least one member that everyone else just struggles with. I’m not just talking about those members who hold different political positions from the majority or who happen to believe weird theories about vaccines or international cabals of child traffickers. I mean, family is family, and the truth of the matter is that we don’t all have to believe all of the same things in order to get along and love one another.

No, I am talking about the kind of family member who just has a way of taking all of that too far – who just refuses to talk about anything but their strange theories, even when it is clear that everyone else is doing their best to change the subject so as to not start an argument. I’m talking about the person who floods everyone else’s social media with photos and quotes from dubious sources and who is very quick to say that anyone who disagrees is an idiot or a sheep. That can be a little bit much.

Family and Divisive Times

And so, what do we do in that situation? These are divisive times when people everywhere seem to be at odds with each other, but the very last thing we want to do is see that division creep into our families. So, we don’t really want to cut ourselves off from those family members completely. Sure, we might choose to block them on Twitter or Facebook because we just can’t deal with their issues on a daily basis, but we won’t cut all ties.

We will still make a point of inviting them for Thanksgiving or Christmas even though we know things may get uncomfortable. We will include them in the family discussions about what is going to happen to the old family homestead when Mom and Dad eventually pass on. We don’t write them out of any wills because, well, family is still family, and we are willing to tolerate a bit of discomfort in order to stand up for that.

Hanamel’s Cousin

So, can you imagine the person that I’m describing here. If you don’t have somebody like that in your own family, chances are but you know somebody who does. It seems to have become a very common experience. Well, I want you to understand this morning that, for Hanamel, the son of Shallum, his cousin Jeremiah was that person in the family. Nobody in the family liked Jeremiah.

Do you want to know how bad relations were between Jeremiah and that extended family? The whole family had lived in the town of Anathoth in Judah for as long as anyone could remember. As is the way in many a small town, just about everyone who lived in Anathoth was related to everybody else by blood or by marriage.

Jeremiah had grown up in Anathoth, had become a man there. But he didn’t turn out like most people who lived there. He began to have visions and insights. He had an extraordinary ability to not only see what people were doing wrong, but also to foresee the dreadful consequences of their actions. Above all, he had absolutely no hesitations about sharing such insights.

Jeremiah was Annoying

So, Jeremiah started going around and pointing out to his friends and relations what they were doing wrong. He didn’t care if someone was his elder or if they had been in their position for years and were highly respected. It was just not in his nature to hold back.

And the most annoying part was that he was often right. People were getting things wrong. But being right didn’t make things better. Jeremiah could never be gracious about it; he was too self-righteousness. So, people generally ended up hating him all the more. To say that things got very strained in Anathoth would be a gross understatement.

When Jeremiah Left Town

Let’s just put it this way, Jeremiah left Anathoth because nobody wanted him there anymore. And, yes, he went from there to Jerusalem, the big city. He went on to bigger things and to have a bigger impact and to find a lot more people to hate him. But he also did not leave on good terms. There were a whole lot of hurt feelings in his wake.

As he left town, Jeremiah said, “Therefore thus says the Lord concerning the people of Anathoth who seek your life and say, ‘You shall not prophesy in the name of the Lord, or you will die by our hand’— therefore thus says the Lord of hosts: I am going to punish them; the young men shall die by the sword; their sons and their daughters shall die by famine, and not even a remnant shall be left of them. For I will bring disaster upon the people of Anathoth, the year of their punishment.” (Jeremiah 11:21-23)

When that is the last thing you say to your family and the people you grow up with, there really is no coming back from that.

Jeremiah in Jerusalem

Of course, his friends and family in Anathoth were hardly the last people that Jeremiah rubbed the wrong way. As time went by, he managed to offend just about everyone in Jerusalem as well. He particularly clashed with the kings who ruled in the city, especially the latest, King Zedekiah. When Zedekiah’s nephew had rebelled against Babylonian overlordship, Nebuchadrezzar, the king of Babylon had come and deposed him, elevating Zedekiah to take his place.

Zedekiah should have supported Nebuchadrezzar in return. But, pushed by the anti-Babylon faction in the city, he had followed his nephew’s foolishness and stopped paying taxes, rebelling against the powerful king. It was pure, unadulterated stupidity. And Jeremiah was not the kind of man to stand idly by while this kind of thing was going on.

New Enemies for the Prophet

Jeremiah condemned the king and everyone who had supported this doomed rebellion against Babylon. He proclaimed that he spoke for the Lord and declared that such a course would doom the entire nation to destruction.

Nobody, least of all the king, wanted to hear any of it. In fact, as tensions with Babylon rose, more and more people started calling Jeremiah a traitor and a foreign agent. He was barred from speaking in the temple. Once they even threw him into a deep cistern. Lately he had been placed under arrest in the court of the king’s guard.

The worst part, as usual, was that Jeremiah was right. Things went badly very quickly. The Babylonian army came. They invaded the land of Judah, laid waste to towns and villages everywhere including Anathoth, by the way. And they put Jerusalem under siege. At this point nobody needed prophetic powers to know that the city would fall, the kingdom was doomed. But being right didn’t endear Jeremiah to anyone, especially as he was the kind of guy who never hesitated to say, “I told you so.”

Hanamel’s Decision

When Hanamel went to see his cousin Jeremiah, he was not looking forward to the visit. Sure, they had grown up together, but, after everything that had happened, they hadn’t spoken in years.

He especially wasn’t looking forward to it because of why he was going. He was going because Jeremiah had been right all along. As he had prophesized so many years ago, their shared hometown of Anathoth was suffering from a disaster.

The Babylonian invaders on their way to Jerusalem had, almost as an afterthought, destroyed the entire countryside. Anathoth was in ruins. There was nothing left there for Hanamel and his family and they had fled to Jerusalem with many others before the city was put under siege.

Why he Needed to See Jeremiah

They had, like many other refugees in those days, decided to escape and go to Egypt. But in order to make it there, Hanamel needed to raise some cash. His decision to sell a piece of land that had been in his family for generations was an act of desperation. I mean, who would want to buy a field that was occupied by the enemy? But desperation was their only course of action at this point.

According to the ancient laws of Israel, lands were supposed to remain in the extended family forever. So, before he even tried to sell it to anyone else, Hanamel had to offer it to his last living male relative. Yup: Jeremiah.

A Dreaded Interview

Hanamel made his way into the king’s palace where his cousin was under arrest in the court of the guard with a sinking feeling. He had replayed the conversation he was expecting many times in his head. He fully expected Jeremiah to laugh in his face, to tell him that he should have listened to him all those years ago and left Anathoth too. He expected Jeremiah to make him feel like an idiot for thinking he could get anything at all for a now worthless piece of property.

Hanamel braced himself to hear the inevitable words of his cousin, “I hate to say it, but I told you so.” He didn’t want to put himself through such an ordeal but, you know, family is family.

Jeremiah’s Prophetic Performance Art

I find it fascinating that we are told this story in the Book of Jeremiah from one point of view. We get Jeremiah’s side of the story. And Jeremiah, the prophet, only tells us that the reason why he choses to do what seems to everyone to be a foolish thing and actually buy Hanamel’s field and pay what it would be worth in ordinary times is because God tells him to.

Jeremiah, as a prophet and a natural showman, makes a big deal of doing the purchase in public and then taking the unusual step of preserving both copies of the deed to the land in an earthenware jar so that they will last.

This all makes a clear prophetic point. Even if Jeremiah is right and the whole country will be destroyed, God will not completely forget God’s people. There will be a return. People will again possess the land. They will just need to wait a really long time – like a deed preserved in an earthenware jar.

That was the prophetic performance that was inspired by God. But just because Jeremiah did that because it was what God wanted him to declare, doesn’t mean that it was his only motivation. I’d like to think that there was also a personal dimension – you know, cousin to cousin.

How it Went

The guards let Hanamel into Jeremiah’s cell. When they heard why he was there, they decided to permit his visit because it might be a laugh to see his disappointment. But when he entered, nothing went as Hanamel expected. Jeremiah embraced him immediately – seemed genuinely pleased to see him.

“God told me that you were going to come,” Jeremiah said matter-of-factly. “I would be so pleased to buy your field.”

Hanamel was so taken aback that he began to apologize. All of the positive things he had rehearsed saying about the field went out of his head and he actually began explaining how worthless it was now.


But Jeremiah just waved all of his objections away. He would hear none of it. I’m going to give you seventeen shekels of silver and I don’t want to hear another word about it. And I know that I’m doing this because God wants me to say something to the whole people at this moment when everything seems so dark, but I am glad that the message that I have to give allows me to do something that will do some good for you and your family.

I’m not going to say that I was right. I’m not going to say I told you so because now, now that the worst that I feared is coming to pass, I have finally realized that there are things that are more important than being right – things like hope and family and the people we love.

Families Divided

We find ourselves living, it seems, in very divisive times. Everything, from politics and public health policy to electric vehicles and wind turbines, seems to be an excuse for people to line up on opposing sides of the issues and start fighting. But it is one thing for such issues to divide us on a political level, it is quite another to see them disrupting some of the most important relationships in people’s lives. When families start to fall apart because they can no longer abide one another because of differing opinions, that is devastating on a very personal level.

There seems to be no question that Jeremiah was that kind of divisive figure in his own day. His prophecies and pronouncements definitely had a way of setting people at odds with each other. But what he did when he decided to buy his cousin’s field was a definite break from the way that he usually operated. For the nation, he offered an unusual message of hope, even if it was a hope that was a long way off.

Never Too Late

But I am also struck by how that act of hope was an act of mending broken relationships with his family. I am pretty sure that Hanamel had given up a long time before on any hope of being reconciled with his cousin. But maybe this story can stand as a reminder that, no matter how much water has flowed under the bridge, it is never too late. We should never give up on those people. I’m wondering, even if you were right in the dispute that you had with someone you care about, what might you be able to do to bring about reconciliation that previously seemed impossible?

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The Parable of the Shrewd Manager

Posted by on Sunday, September 18th, 2022 in News

Watch the Youtube version here:

Hespeler, September 18, 2022 © Scott McAndless
Jeremiah 8:18-9:1, Psalm 79:1-9, 1 Timothy 2:1-7, Luke 16:1-13

The parable of Jesus that we read this morning from the Gospel of Luke is one that has troubled many readers down through the centuries. How many people have read this parable, put it down and said, “Why on earth is Jesus praising the manager in this story who starts out being merely incompetent at his job and then goes on to apparently swindle his master on behalf of his master’s clients by forgiving their debts to him?”

Not only is it strange to think that Jesus would have praised a man for doing such a thing, he even says that the master himself, the man who was swindled, praised him too. “And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly.” Who praises a robber for robbing them shrewdly?

Luke is Struggling too

And it seems as if the author of this gospel has about as much trouble with the parable as we do. He tries, as he often does, to sum up the parable with a kind of moralistic lesson. He just throws out a bunch of morals for this strange story that may sound pious but don’t make much sense. He finally ends up by saying this: “If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches?” I mean, what does that even mean?

So, what I think has happened is this. Luke received this parable. It was handed down to him by Christian tradition and he felt certain that Jesus had told it. So, he felt he had to include it in his gospel. But he didn’t really get it, possibly because he didn’t adequately understand the cultural context in which Jesus told the parable.

Making Sense of it

But, if that is what happened, we are even further removed from that context than the author. So, what hope could we possibly have of making sense of this very disturbing parable? Well, perhaps some recent events have brought us a little bit closer to that ancient cultural context. So, maybe, if we just play around with Jesus’ story a little bit, we might find that it makes more sense than we originally thought. Would it make more sense if Jesus told the parable with these modern characters that we can relate to?

The Chief Executive

Once upon a time there was a very powerful and rich country that decided to hire somebody to be the manager of all their affairs. He was the chief executive, the president if you like. Now, they didn’t choose this man because they loved absolutely everything about his policies and his past work history. There were some issues. But he just seemed like the better option when compared to the man who had held the office before him, so they decided to give him a chance.

A Rocky Start

But this president’s time in office was pretty rocky almost from the start. And a year or maybe a year and a half into his tenure, many in the country were beginning to feel as if their affairs were being mismanaged. I won’t go into all of the things that were going wrong, but let’s just say that inflation was out of control, businesses were unable to get workers, a terrible virus continued to cause death and sickness, forest fires raged and hurricanes threatened.

And so, the polls put the president on notice that he was bound to lose power. The people would overwhelmingly vote for his opponents in the upcoming midterm elections and things were definitely not looking good for his own re-election down the road.

A Plan

And so, the president said to himself, “What will I do now that my country is taking the position away from me? I am getting a little bit old, Jack. I am no longer strong enough to dig ditches, and my voice and elocution is not good enough to make money narrating documentaries on Netflix.

“So, I have decided to do something that will make people love me and maybe even welcome me back into their homes and hearts again.”

And so, this is what he began to do. He called in one by one the people in the country who had gone to school and who had large debts that they owed as a result.

$30k to $120k

One woman[1] came in and she said, “I went to school to get a professional degree. To do that, I needed to borrow about $30,000. But I now owe almost $120,000 due to compounding high interest and income-based repayment programs that only drove my principal higher and higher even when I never missed a payment. I’ve paid a fair amount over the years that has done nothing to decrease my balance.

“I have been a hard-working professional all my adult life. The government has collected far more in taxes (which I’ve paid cheerfully) than the cost of my education, yet still, I owe four times what I borrowed.

“I was 17 years old when I entered the student loan program as a college freshman,” she continued. “I had no experience with lending. I thought I was doing the right thing by attending college and trying to lift myself out of generational poverty. Instead, I wound up further in debt, with death or permanent disability being the only way I’ll ever get out of it.”

$25k to $35k

Another student came in and told the president a story in terms of very simple and succinct numbers. “My original debt, when I first graduated, was $25,170.50. In the 21 years since I have graduated, I have repaid $45,650.19. Today, thanks to the wonders of compound interest, I still owe $34,713.11 on that same loan.”

Writing Down Less

The stories went on and on. The numbers varied, of course. Some were large, some were relatively small, but in so many cases the debts that these people still carried had had a huge negative impact on their lives. And so, the president went to the first person and said, “Here, take your account and where it says that you owe 120,000, write down 60,000 instead.” And to the second he said, “Where it says that you owe 35,000, write down 25.”

And so, he went from one debtor to the next providing relief that was maybe not huge and maybe not sufficient in every case, but at least it made some difference in each person’s life.

The Reaction

And what was the reaction when the president did these things? Well, there is no doubt that the reactions were mixed. There were certainly some who said that it was not enough. That it was too little to really help some who needed it most. Others complained that to offer such forgiveness was completely unfair and unjust to those who, in previous times, had managed to pay off their own debts with hard work.

But there were certainly some for whom this began to change their perspective on what had seemed to them to be a failed presidency. Some even began to praise the president, or, at the very least, they had to admit that he was a much more shrewd politician then they had perhaps given him credit for.

A Story to Stir Our Thoughts

I assume that many of you have followed the discussion about the forgiveness of student debt in the United States. It has been all over the news and connects to some similar issues in Canada. But I wanted to tell this story of recent developments around the issue in the United States for a very particular reason this morning.

It is not because I want to make a political point or endorse a political position. I do have my own political beliefs about the forgiveness of student debt, but I’m not here to push them. I just wanted to bring it up because it seems to be an issue that everybody has opinions on.

Varied Opinions

And there are wildly different opinions. Some will declare the forgiveness of such debts to be terrible and unjust while others will say the same thing about the debts themselves. This is actually not very surprising because we are talking about a load of debt that, collectively, is so large that it affects the entire economy. Student debt is totally connected to the inflation crisis, the housing crisis and the employment crisis. These are things that affect us all.

And so, if you hear me tell a story about a president forgiving debts to students in our present context, everyone immediately knows exactly what I’m talking about. Not only that, they also immediately have strong opinions about it.

The Reaction Jesus was Looking for

And I wanted you to understand that, when Jesus told the story about a manager who was forgiving debts that were owed to his master, the reaction would have been almost exactly the same. They all would have known immediately exactly what he was talking about. And they all would have had their strong but various opinions about it as well because Jesus told this story in a very similar situation.

A Debt Crisis

Galilee at that time had a debt crisis. It wasn’t a student debt crisis; it was spread throughout society. People everywhere were being crushed by their debts. They were losing their family homesteads, being pushed into homelessness, begging, marginal labour and even slavery.

This was also complicated because, according to the ancient laws of Israel, debt was actually illegal. The laws of Moses were quite clear, lending at interest was simply not permitted. And yet, in Palestine in Roman times, it was found everywhere. How could that be? Well, when money is involved, it seems that people are infinitely creative. So here is what they did.

How Things Worked

When someone was in a desperate state and needed to borrow, say, eighty bushels of wheat, they would go to rich people and beg for their help. And the wealthy would help, but, as is often typical, they also wanted to know what was in it for them. They wanted interest, but they couldn’t legally demand it.

So here was what would happen. When the manager wrote down the debt, he wouldn’t write, “I owe you eighty bushels plus 25% interest.” No, that would be illegal! No, instead the manager would write down, “I owe you 100 bushels,” even though the poor person only received eighty. There would be no mention of interest, no paper trail so nobody broke the law, right? Only the manager, the master and the debtor knew what had really happened.

Vulnerable Rich People

Except, of course, that everyone knew exactly what was going on. They just couldn’t prove it because there was no paperwork. But Jesus told this parable to illustrate the vulnerabilities of rich people in this system. Basically, their managers had all the dirt they needed to bring them down. So, when a manager falls out with his master, all he has to do is go around to all of the people who owe his master and rewrite the records of what they owe.

The Shrewdness of the Manager

Everyone who heard this parable would have understood that this was what was going on. The manager wasn’t robbing the master of anything but the illegal interest that he had charged. And the best part, of course, was that the master couldn’t do a thing about it. To punish his crooked manager, he would have to admit that he was charging interest which was illegal. So, he really had no choice. He actually had to praise him.

And I can just imagine the press conference. “Uh, I would just like to thank my blessed manager for, um, uncovering the egregious and totally unintentional errors in my financial records and restating the correct amounts that these people owe me. I will be eternally grateful to him.”

So, really, everyone who was listening to Jesus tell this parable would have understood exactly what it was about. They would have understood that it was about forgiving interest on debts. They would have understood exactly how the shrewd manager managed to get away with it.

What Jesus was Doing

So, why did Jesus tell them this story? Was he trying to press them to take a certain position on the forgiveness of debts and what it could do? Possibly. But he may have also just been trying to tap into all of the conflicting thoughts and ideas and opinions that were swirling around at that time. Jesus told his parables, above all, to be provocative, to make people think about the things that they had been trying to avoid thinking about.

That’s why I think that, maybe, what Jesus is looking for us to do right now is not necessarily to embrace any particular party’s policy on the issue of debt, but he is asking us to think and think carefully about what we do with the debts we make people carry. He wants us to think creatively about what we can do about the burdens and the harm that they can cause. He is pushing us to at least think about what we can do to address a huge problem that affects us all.

[1] These are based on real stories found at

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A God who repents?

Posted by on Sunday, September 11th, 2022 in News
Watch Sermon Video here

Hespeler, 11 September 2022 © Scott McAndless
Exodus 32:7-14, Psalm 51:1-10, 1 Timothy 1:12-17, Luke 15:1-10

There are a couple of things that are deeply disturbing about our reading this morning from the Book of Exodus. The first is kind of obvious. We have the image of a God who has just saved a people from lives of slavery and hardship and made them God’s own people. And yet we see this same God choosing to devote the whole lot of them to genocidal destruction. “I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are.” God says to Moses, “Now let me alone so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them, and of you I will make a great nation.”

Why God is Angry

And I realize, of course, that the people of Israel have definitely messed up at this point of the story. God has set before them, in the form of a commandment, the requirement that they must have no other gods before Yahweh. And yet they have created an idol and declared that they trust more in this idol to save them than in the God who has brought them out of Egypt.

So, it is definitely not as if they have done nothing to deserve God’s anger with them. But you have got to at least wonder whether the punishment – complete annihilation – fits the crime. Is total destruction justified?

An Extreme Reaction?

Could you imagine any authority figure whose temper was so severe that, if someone showed them a little bit of defiance or failed to follow an instruction, their outbursts of rage killed people? I think that if we saw anyone responding to disobedience in that way, we would find it to be not just unacceptable but criminal. And yet this is the reaction that we see in God.

Stories About People Struggling to Understand their Experiences

But remember what these stories are there to do in the Bible. These are stories that were written by people who were struggling to come to terms with their experiences of God. They were people who had lived through all kinds of troubling circumstances and yet came out of them with the conviction that, somehow, their God had been with them as they passed through those difficult times.

And, pretty clearly, this story was told by people who were disappointed with themselves. They knew that they had failed, that they had not lived up to what God expected of them and they believed they were coming face to face with the consequences.

When these Stories were Created

Most of these stories of the wandering of the people of Israel in the wilderness actually came to be written down while the people of Israel were coming to terms with their defeat and exile by the Babylonian Empire. They were asking themselves why God had allowed such a terrible thing to happen to them and had concluded that it was because they had failed to live up to God’s expectations.

Since they had decided that they must have deserved all of the bad things that had happened to them, it made sense to tell a story about a God who was angry with them because that was the only way they could make sense of the things that they were living through.

We All Want to Make Sense of Tragedy

That is actually something that we all do. Today is the anniversary of the events of September 11, 2001. How much energy has been spent in the last twenty-one years trying to make sense of that disaster and why it happened?

We all have a deep need to make sense of the tragedies that we have experienced. Accepting that we may be somehow to blame for it is one of the ways that we do that. Strangely, this can actually be a comforting thought. I mean, it doesn’t feel good, of course, to blame yourself, but at least it feels better than the alternative which is to think that tragedy just happens for no reason at all. That seems frighteningly chaotic.

Finding Comfort in an Angry God

This story was told by the people of Israel when they were at a particularly vulnerable moment. Bad things had happened to them, and they needed to understand why. Recognizing their own failure, they needed the image of a God who could not only be angry with them, but who could also be so angry as to consider wiping them out entirely.

They found this to be a comforting image of God because what was the alternative? The alternative was a God who had let such terrible things happen to them out of neglect or disinterest. And so, yes, they did find something oddly comforting in this story because it at least showed that God cared.

But please understand that this does not mean that that was therefore a complete and entirely correct image of God. It was just people trying to make sense of what they were experiencing of God at that moment. That is always a work in progress.

This is a Common Reaction to Difficulty

They are also not the only ones to do this kind of thing as they seek to come to terms with God. I am sure that many of you have known people who have lived through some terrible tragedies in their lives. Perhaps they have come out of abuse or addiction. Maybe they have made some deeply troubling choices that led them into dark paths or maybe they have been deeply damaged by others.

I have noticed that, in the initial phase as they try to heal from that kind of hurt and create some sense of order and morality in their life, it is not uncommon for people to embrace an image of a God who is rigid, inflexible and who has a sense of justice that is hard to satisfy. There is, in such an image of God, something that is deeply helpful to people who are trying to heal in that kind of circumstance.

At the same time, that does not mean that they should remain with that one image of God ever after. In fact, if they are going to mature spiritually, their understanding of God will necessarily change as they do so.

Moses Talks him Out of it

Which brings us to the second troubling thing about this story in Exodus. When God tells Moses that God intends to destroy the people, Moses talks God out of it.

Moses does this by saying. “Don’t you have a reputation to maintain? Here you have saved this people from the Egyptians and made them your own. If you destroy them now, the Egyptians are going to have a field day! They will make fun of your failure to follow through. And what’s more, what of all the promises you made to these people's ancestors? Won’t that reflect badly on you if you break your solemn promises?” And so, God is persuaded, one might almost say shamed, into changing God’s mind.

How Can God Repent?

And that has caused a certain amount of consternation for many Bible readers. “Isn’t God…. God?” They may ask. “So how can the mind of the eternal, unchanging and immutable God be changed?” They might even appeal to scripture itself. After all, does it not say in Numbers 23:19, “God is not a human being, that he should lie, or a mortal, that he should change his mind. Has he promised, and will he not do it? Has he spoken, and will he not fulfill it?”

This story in Genesis is even more troubling in some older translations that translate the concluding verse, quite correctly, as And the Lord repented of the evil which he thought to do unto his people.” Somehow the word repent, though it essentially means the same thing, feels even more uncomfortable when applied to God!

A Difficult Question

People have long struggled with this part of the story for that very reason. It seems to be saying something about God that is deeply troubling. Some people have tried to explain it away by saying that God never really intended to destroy the people, that he was only testing Moses.

But I don’t think that such an explanation takes this scripture seriously. I think that this story is saying something important about the nature of God and to explain that meaning away is to rob it of that power.

People Struggling to Understand their God

Remember how I said that this story functioned for the people who told it? It is a story that people told because they were struggling to come to terms with a terrible tragedy that they had lived through, and they were wondering where their God had been in it. They made sense of that by embracing a view of a God filled with righteous anger who would justly destroy his people for their failures and shortcomings.

Such a view can be comforting when you have lived through a trauma. But that’s not the best place to end your spiritual journey, it really is just the beginning of a process of understanding God.

Surprised by Grace

So, what we also see happening in this passage is a people who have been surprised by God’s mercy and grace. They have experienced tragedy which has brought them into a recognition of their failure to themselves and to their God.

But, just as they have recognized that they may be worthy of destruction, they have also recognized that God has not destroyed them, that there may yet be a path to redemption and hope for them. And the best way for them to make sense of that is to see that God had every right to wipe them away because of their failures, but that God thought better of it.

God’s Unchanging Commitment

This story is not actually about the changeability of God. There is actually something that is deeply unchanging about God in this story because the reason why God ultimately changes God’s mind is because of God’s longstanding commitments to this people.

To act out the wrath of a moment would be to forget the long-standing covenant that God has made with them, promising to be their God and claiming them as God’s people. No, this is not about God changing but rather about God defaulting to God’s truer self and deeper commitments.

It is the People’s Understanding that Changes

It is not really God who changes in this story, it is the people who see their understanding of God change and grow. Once they were living in the Promised Land and they maybe took God’s faithfulness to them for granted. But then they lost the Promised Land which confronted them with the reality of their own failures to live up to the commitments they had made.

Thus was born in them the fear of a vengeful and angry God who wanted to wipe them away. It was, perhaps, a helpful thing for them to believe in that moment of trauma.

But their journey of discovery of who God did not end there. For there, in the land of exile, they met a God who had not forgotten the covenant and whose commitment to them as a people would remain firm despite their failures. In the moment of their greatest fear, they met a God of grace. And it may have been disconcerting and distressing to have to shift their understanding of God in that moment, but it also greatly deepened their experience and understanding of their God.

Are We Worthy of Consequences?

We might be able to learn a great deal from the people who told this story. We too seem to be living in an era when we are coming to terms with our own failure as a people. We are waking up to the uncomfortable truth, for example, that we have not cared for the earth that God has given to us because we have not learned how to live upon it in a sustainable way.

And the sad truth is that we are now living with the consequences of those failures. Extreme weather events, massive forest fires, floods and famines and at least some of the diseases that have been plaguing us are consequences of some of the ways in which we have failed to live well upon this earth. And some are beginning to wonder, to fear, that we might well be wiped from the face of the earth as a consequence of our failure.

The ancient Israelites gathered up those kinds of fears and personified them in the form of an angry God facing off with Moses on Mount Sinai. We, as modern people, may not turn it into that kind of story, but the fear of consequence that we are living with is nevertheless quite real.

Continue Struggling to Understand God

It is a good thing that we are coming to terms with our own failures as a collective human race.  And if we are reacting to that with fear in guilt driven action, that might be the start of something better. But I’m not sure that’s the end of the spiritual journey we are supposed to be on right now. I hope you don’t just stay with the image of an angry God who is ready to wipe us out. Our spiritual journey of discovery has only begun.

I hope you hold on and continue to argue with God – like Moses argued with God on the mountain – because there is another, deeper truth about who God is. God is more than just an angry God intent on punishment. Jesus came to introduce us to a God of compassion and sympathy – a God who understands what it is to be human. Press on, despite the challenges, to know that God. In the very nature of that God is great comfort and actually the best hope that we have for a faithful future.

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