News Blog

A God who repents?

Posted by on Sunday, September 11th, 2022 in News
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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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Posted by on Sunday, September 4th, 2022 in News
Watch reading and sermon video here

Hespeler, 4 September 2022 © Scott McAndless
Jeremiah 18:1-11, Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18, Philemon 1:1-21, Luke 14:25-33

The letter of Paul to Philemon is unique in the New Testament. It is the shortest of the letters of Paul, but other things set it apart too. While the others are addressed to entire churches and all are focused on the matters of church life, this one is really only focused on one individual, on Philemon, and it is seeking to resolve a personal matter between the two of them – a matter of property.

The Letter About Onesimus

Philemon, who was a leader of the church that met in his home, was also a relatively prosperous man. The measure of prosperity, in that ancient world, was defined by one thing: the ownership of slaves. A poor person in ancient Rome was someone who couldn’t even afford a single slave so Philemon, apparently, must have owned several. One of them was named Onesimus.

Does it surprise you that an early Christian leader was also a slave owner? It probably shouldn’t. The idea that good Christians could own slaves is taken for granted in much of the New Testament. When the topic comes up, New Testament writers never condemn the practice, though they do advocate for good and fair treatment of slaves.

Was Philemon at Least a Good Master?

But at least Philemon must have been a good master – one who treated his slaves well, right? You might hope so, but Onesimus doesn’t seem to have thought so because he ran away.

Onesimus, by fleeing, became a thief and an outlaw. He also became stolen property. So, I can’t imagine that he did it lightly. He must have had a good reason to run. Being a slave of Philemon couldn’t have been a great experience. Though he was a church leader, that apparently did not mean that Philemon lived out Christian ideals in every relationship in his life. Sadly, he is hardly the last church leader to have had that particular problem.

Paul and Onesimus

The occasion of the letter is that Paul has become acquainted with this fugitive slave. In fact, Onesimus has become a convert to faith in Jesus under Paul’s influence. But, now that he knows he is stolen property, Paul has a legal obligation to send Onesimus back to his owner. What we have in our Bibles is a copy of the letter that he writes and places in Onesimus’ hand to give to Philemon on his return.

In this letter, Paul pulls out every trick he can possibly think of to persuade Philemon to grant Onesimus his freedom when he returns. And the mere fact that Paul puts so much pressure on him suggests that Philemon needed a lot of persuasion.

That is where the attention is usually placed when people read this letter, on Paul’s persuasion. But I have always wondered about Onesimus. Even if the title of this letter is, according to tradition, the letter to Philemon, it is the letter about Onesimus. The mere fact that this letter made it into our Bibles tells us something about God’s priorities. So, who was Onesimus?

Born a Slave

When he was born to a female slave in Philemon’s household, his mother, who was a Judean by birth, wanted to call him Simon. It was a common name in her family. But Philemon wouldn’t hear of it. He preferred it if his slaves didn’t have too strong a sense of personal identity and he didn’t like for them to feel a strong attachment to their ethnic heritage either. He wanted them to see themselves as belonging primarily to the household and he wanted them to understand that their value was found in one thing only: their utility to him. So long as they were helpful and beneficial to him, fine, but the moment they weren’t, they became disposable.

So, Philemon looked at the little baby that his mother wanted to call Simon and he said no. No, this one would be called Onesimus. It was not a name, not really. It was an adjective. It meant “useful.” Anytime anyone used it for the rest of his life, Onesimus would be reminded that there was only one thing that gave him any value or meaning. He was there to be useful.

Being Useful

Onesimus never allowed to forget it. As soon as he was old enough to contribute, in any way, to the household or the comfort of his owners, that became the entire purpose of his being. As paterfamilias, Philemon had the power of life and death over every member of his household. He certainly had the right to employ corporal punishment for any reason. I’m not saying that Onesimus was constantly beaten. It was just that he was never allowed to forget that beatings were possible.

But more than the fear of punishment, he grew to resent the narrow definition of his value of which he was reminded every time he heard his name. He couldn’t help but wonder if there was more worth in him than whatever usefulness his master found.

Some Things Change for Philemon

One day, something changed in Philemon. He encountered a traveling preacher named Paul and became a believer in someone called Christ Jesus – a man who Paul said had been raised from the dead and who reigned in heaven at the right hand of power.

Coming to believe in Christ and becoming part of the church didn’t really make much difference to Philemon’s treatment of Onesimus though. When someone has been conditioned all their life to think of a slave as little more than a useful object, it is not a pattern of thinking that is easily changed.

Onesimus was glad, he supposed, that his master had found something that gave a sense of meaning and purpose to his life, but where was there anything like that for Onesimus? He was so convinced that there was something more for him, something beyond mere usefulness to his master, that he simply couldn’t bear it anymore. He saw his opportunity and he took it. Onesimus ran for freedom.

Life on the Run

Once he was free of the household, there was something exhilarating about being responsible for the course of his own life. He could scarcely believe that he didn’t need to be useful to anybody and yet he still existed. But, at the same time, the life of a fugitive slave was filled with many pitfalls. It was not easy to find work. Who would hire a man who had to constantly keep on the move, who was always looking over his shoulder?

Onesimus quickly found that he had to resort to petty theft just to survive. That is how he came to be caught while thieving and, while the authorities were trying to figure out where he properly belonged (for Onesimus was not about to tell them where he had come from) he was placed in detention.

Imagine his surprise when he found himself incarcerated alongside the very man of whom his master had not ceased to speak ever since he had first met him. There, right beside him, sat Paul of Tarsus. And, to tell the truth, Onesimus was not particularly impressed with the man at first. What he had heard from his master had led him to believe that Paul was just like everybody else, that he had won Philemon over by flattering him for his wealth and his ownership of so many other human beings. But, as he came to know Paul, he started to realize how wrong that initial impression was.

A New Creation in Christ

Over the following days and then weeks, Onesimus learned a great deal about the Jesus that Paul preached. One thing stood out to him. Paul taught him that, when Jesus was raised from the dead, he transformed the previous structure of this world. In particular, Paul said that if anyone was in Christ Jesus, that person became a completely new creation. Everything old had passed away; all had been made completely new.

Even more stunning, as far as Onesimus was concerned, was the church that Paul said had been created because of Christ. It was, he said, like a body in which every member could play a vital role. He also said that when all were one in Christ, there was no longer Jew or Greek, there was no longer slave or free, there was no longer male and female. The more Onesimus heard about this church, the more he felt as if it could be, for him, a place where he could find himself, where he could truly belong. Onesimus began to look to this Christ Jesus to save him.

Father and Son

The more Onesimus remained with Paul, the more he saw him not only as a teacher and preacher, but also as a father – the father he had never had and the father that Philemon had certainly never been to him. And, as that bond was formed, something very strange began to happen. He started to feel a deep desire to be useful to Paul – to serve him in ways that would allow him to pursue the important work he was doing.

I am not sure you understand how significant such a thing was to one such as Onesimus. For him, his usefulness had always been his only currency – the only thing he could offer to justify his existence. It was an obligation, an imperative. And so, he had always experienced it as something that drained him of energy and of identity. But now, with Paul who treated him like a son and did not require that he be useful in order to be loved, Onesimus felt filled with the desire to be useful to Paul in whatever ways he could. Even in the menial tasks he performed, tasks that had once only irritated him, he found a sense of meaning and of purpose because he offered them freely.

The Letter

Onesimus came to feel that there should be nothing that he could hide from Paul, and so he did reveal to him what his status was. Paul actually laughed when he discovered that he knew Onesimus’ master. He was also pleased because he knew that Philemon would really have no choice but to give to Onesimus his freedom, at least if Paul asked with the right degree of pressure.

There was really no choice. Now that all was revealed, Paul would have to send Onesimus back to his master. But Onesimus was in the room when Paul dictated the letter. The words that Paul said would remain with him always. As he carried the letter with him on the way to his old household, he repeated the words again and again to himself.

What Paul Wrote

I am appealing to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become during my imprisonment.Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed usefulboth to you and to me. I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you. I wanted to keep him with me, so that he might be of service to me in your place during my imprisonment for the gospel; but I preferred to do nothing without your consent, in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced. Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back for ever, no longer as a slave but as more than a slave, a beloved brother—especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.”

As he clutched the letter close to his heart, Onesimus felt certain that everything would be well.

Slavery and Early Christianity

There are some uncomfortable things about the attitude of early Christians towards slavery. We would like to think that they would be against slavery because of what they had learned from Jesus. But the practice of slavery was so deeply entrenched into every aspect of society that most Christians simply couldn’t imagine going on without it. What we mostly find in the New Testament, therefore, are passages that just take for granted that slavery will continue to exist but put forward measures that will at least make it a little bit less cruel and that will create a certain amount of mutual respect between masters and slaves, at least within the church.

The Apostle Paul, in his letter to the Galatians, says something that is very provocative about life inside the church. “There is no longer Jew or Greek; there is no longer slave or free; there is no longer male and female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28) There is also another similar statement in Colossians 3:11.

Internal Practice of the Church

And this does seem to reflect an attitude that was common in the early church. There is evidence that people who were slaves did hold important leadership positions in the church, as did women. But, at the same time, it seems clear that this attitude towards slaves, and probably women too, only applied inside the dynamics of the church. As soon as you left the meeting, you became a slave again and your life once again belonged to your master, who may have called you a brother or sister and even acknowledged your leadership moments before.

So, the early church did begin the work of changing attitudes towards slavery in its practice. But it did not confront the institution, at least not outside of the church. And that’s what makes the letter to Philemon so significant. Here we do see Paul looking at Onesimus and seeing more than just a slave. Paul is keenly aware that Onesimus’ name means useful. It was a common name for slaves. Paul makes reference to this meaning several times in his letter. But he does it in a way that looks beyond Onesimus’ utility to his master.

How we See People Matters

Paul sees Onesimus as a true person in every sense of the word and that, my friends is the beginning of revolutionary change. In fact, I would suggest that Paul’s decision to see Onesimus as being more than useful, to see him as a multifaceted person, contains the roots of the eventual destruction of the institution of slavery. The world changes when the people we saw as categories we learn to see as people.

And I know that we see ourselves today as well beyond the scourge of slavery. In many ways we are and that is a very good thing. But I will tell you that I am often disturbed by the way we talk about people in our modern economy. We have a great tendency to judge people according to their productivity. That is to say, we judge them based on whether they are useful – whether they are Onesimus – to the economy or not. And whenever we fall into that kind of thinking, whenever we see usefulness as the only thing that matters, we may be heading down a dangerous road.

I would also add this. I think many of us tend to see our own value only in terms of our usefulness to others. Onesimus discovered his value beyond simple usefulness, I believe that God wants you to discover your true value in the same way.

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