Pentecost XVII: changing His mind

​We are not at all sure that we want God to change His mind. To do so implies that God’s rational powers and discerning judgment are malleable or incomplete, perhaps only slightly less weak and limited than ours. We are far more comfortable with God as the embodiment of a decision made. We prefer God in the mode of a star- the immovable, trustworthy, guiding point of light in an otherwise very dark night. We are unsettled to think that God might change His mind. We operate far more confidently when we assume that it is we who change our minds as we learn and discern ever more deeply what God has already decided and who God is. Like spiritual navigators, we base our movements in His constancy. And when we hear of God changing His mind, we, like navigators finding that a channel marker is moved or absent, conclude that God is not simply capriciously undependable, but perhaps even dangerous to regard. Like children, when we see God change His mind, we are either 1) utterly shaken, or 2) inspired to scheme, hoping to manipulate that changeability to our own advantage. We just seem to do much better when God doesn’t change His mind.

​Moses communes with The Eternal One on the slopes of Sinai, and at the conclusion of that sacred meeting, God “gave him the two tablets of the covenant, [1] tablets of stone, written with the finger of God.” More than a souvenir, the tablets are the foundation for life[2] in the community Moses is leading. 

Meanwhile, back in camp, Moses’ brother Aaron, the high priest of God,[3] has succumbed to the people’s anxiety and his own and fabricated the golden calf, even establishing liturgy for its worship.[4]  God confronts this apostasy by ordering that Moses “Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely; they have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them; they have cast for themselves an image of a calf, and have worshiped it and sacrificed to it, and said, `These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!'" The LORD said to Moses, "I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are.  Now let me alone, so that my wrath[5] may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation."[6] 

The people have it coming; they’ve earned a full ration of God’s fury. Aaron especially, as their high priest, has really earned it...perhaps even a double share of the worst God can bring. The people have just melted their jewelry and made an idol! They are the same people who were present, who saw with their own eyes everything from a pillar of cloud, to a pillar of fire, to the Angel of Death passing over them as Egypt was decimated. These are the same people, who saw with their own eyes, an impassable body of water made completely passable for themselves. These are the same people, who saw with their own eyes, Moses lead them well and truly, listening to and relying upon God. So, when Moses said, “Stay here. I’m going to talk to God. I’ll be right back,” he probably thought he didn’t have to add “And don’t completely lose your minds while I’m gone.”   

Though his personal feelings make little theological difference in the moment, one can only imagine his embarrassed, baffled incredulity as Moses came down the mountain to find that Aaron his brother, the high priest(!?!?), had gone completely haywire.


Aaron and Moses at the foot of Sinai 

Wanting to throttle Aaron will have to wait. Moses must make a priestly appeal on behalf of the people to God, whose rage is seething. And this is where we feel considerable disease, ‘cause this is where God changes His mind: 

“But Moses implored the Lord his God, and said, “O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? 12 Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people. 13 Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by your own self, saying to them, ‘I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever.’” 14 And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.”[7]  

Moses respectfully reminds God that He is in covenant with the people, and that His purpose was/is to save the people, not annihilate them. Moses confesses his own deep unwavering faith when he reminds God that he could never have led the people at all, never mind miraculously well, without faith in God. God starts this portion of the text with “Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely” and Moses, in faithful prayer responds reminding God that they are not his people, but His people. He says “why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand?” Moses uses the time-honored first-year seminarian’s conundrum: What is the only thing God cannot do? God cannot choose to not do His will. What God chooses to do is, prima facie, His will...what God does is self-evidently God’s will. Moses asks that God not un-choose saving the people. And God persists in the choice He has already made- His will- to save the people. God’s will is to save them, and as crazy-angry making as they are, He does. He is not duped or fooled; He loves. 

Is our fear really that God can/does change His mind, or is our fear that He will not persist in loving us? Is our fear really that God might change His mind, or is our fear that we can go so wrong that God might be angry enough to annihilate us? 

See, where I come down is pretty low-tech and simple- I never want to live in such a way that puts God to a test so strenuous that He could consider un-Loving me. God, appearing to change His mind, remains constant at least partially as a result of a conversation with the human being named Moses. He is still omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent. The abiding lesson here is not whether or not God will change His mind. The real lesson is the faith of Moses to have the conversation in the first place. 

Love you. See you in Church. 

FBC3+, 11 September 2016, being The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

[1] Exodus31:18,NRSV; Hebrew עדח, eduth/ testimony, admonishment

[2] Ted Koppel, in his 1987 Duke University commencement address: “What Moses brought down from Mt. Sinai were not the Ten Suggestions, they are Commandments. Are, not were. The sheer brilliance of the Ten Commandments is that they codify, in a handful of words, acceptable human behavior. Not just for then or now but for all time. Language evolves, power shifts from nation to nation, messages are transmitted with the speed of light, man erases one frontier after another; and yet we and our behavior, and the Commandments which govern that behavior, remain the same.”

[3] exquisitely ironic and not insignificant detail...

[4] Aaron makes me feel the way bad cops made me feel when I wore the uniform. He makes me feel the way predatory and abusive school teachers made me feel when I taught school. In these professions, there are plenty of solid decent people, pursuing their vocations with humility and integrity, and they all can get tarred with the brush of one person’s staggering behavior. Aaron is a cautionary example, reminding me that even and especially those set apart for holy work are not immune to the ills they are ordained to confront. Aaron is comforting too, certainly not insofar as he is utterly apostate, but rather in his survival by God’s Mercy when God rightfully could have terminated him with extreme prejudice. Ordained to a holy office, Aaron becomes the premier weak-minded, deluded, unholy fool. And God calls Aaron to account not by killing him, but by sparing him to recover what is holy and begin again, living a holy life-after-the-golden-calf...justice and mercy meted and shown, all at once. 

[5] Hebrew חרן , charon/ furious burning anger       

[6] Exodus 32:7-10, NRSV

[7] Exodus 32:11-14, NRSV

The Episcopal Church of the Holy Innocents