Reflections on the Readings for Sunday 19 June 2011
Exodus 34:4b-6, 8-9; Daniel 3:52-56; 2 Corinthians 13:11-13; John 3:16-18
How do we imagine God? However sophisticated our concept of God, I’m sure ‘bigness’ of some description is in there somewhere, an immensity and awesomeness that inspires worship. The hymn of praise in Daniel 3 uses words like ‘forever’, ‘exalted’, ‘holy and glorious’ and the striking image of God enthroned looking into the abyss which, presumably, God’s gaze can plumb with ease. If we can think of anything greater than how we imagine God to be, then our image of God is too small. It is too small anyway.
We are often more comfortable with a more manageable God and, consciously or not, we remake God into something that satisfies our felt needs. This is what was happening in the wider context in which the Exodus reading is found. Moses had been up on Mount Sinai for a long time, and God’s people had become tired of waiting. Aaron concluded that the best way to keep the people from revolting was to give them an image of the God who brought them out of Egypt that they could worship, and so he oversaw the construction of a Golden Calf. (It was probably meant to be a mighty bull, symbol of strength and virility.) This shape of god was easier for them to relate to than the numinous presence on the holy mountain and the long silences. They could put it in their midst and do religious activities around it. But Yahweh (=the LORD) interpreted this as idolatry. They were replacing the God who brought them out of Egypt with an idol that they could manipulate. So furious was Yahweh that Moses had to plead with him not to destroy the people then and there. Yahweh is persuaded to renew the covenant with the people, and will replace the tablets on which the covenant was recorded, which Moses had smashed when he saw the people’s unfaithfulness. Yahweh had instructed Moses to continue the journey toward the Promised Land, but with an angel to guide them, since Yahweh’s holy presence would be too dangerous for the fickle people. But Moses is insistent that Yahweh himself accompany them and asks to see Yahweh. The reading narrates that encounter. I’m struck, though, by the omission of verse 7 in the lectionary reading. It looks suspiciously like a manoeuvre to tame Yahweh for a Christian audience. Yahweh describes himself as compassionate and gracious; slow to anger and abounding in love. But the omitted verse goes on to speak of God’s justice, warning that God does not remit all punishment. Here is much more ambiguity, an ambivalence in Yahweh that accounts for his great dynamism in the Old Testament. Although Yahweh’s mercy predominates, Yahweh is also a God who may punish guilt. Moses knows this, yet he is willing to gamble on the kinder side of Yahweh. Even though he knows that the people’s stubbornness may provoke his wrath, yet he still asks that Yahweh accompany them on their journey. He does not want a golden calf – a man-made caricature of God – nor does he want the presence of God to be more distantly mediated to them. He wants to journey with the presence of the living God, with all the glory and danger that that will entail.
The Christian image of God is beautifully alluded to in the words of the well-known blessing: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.” The God who has been revealed to us in Jesus Christ is a God of love. The balance between justice and mercy has shifted in favour of the latter. In Christ we discover abundant life, forgiveness and freedom which we have not earned, but which we receive as gift. We also receive the gift of communion with God and with one another through the Holy Spirit. Moses was willing to risk his life on God showing a face of compassion and patient love to God’s people. In Jesus Christ, that loving face of God is fully turned toward us. This doesn’t make for a smaller, tamer picture of God, but it does remind us that when we think of God’s power and greatness, we must remember also that God is Christ-like. The invitation is to live in that reality. It should affect how we relate to God and to one another. Why live as if we were either condemned or alone when we are neither?
Here is the extract from the hymn in Daniel 3 (verses 52-56) which is not found in all Bibles:
Blessed are you, O Lord, the God of our fathers,
praiseworthy and exalted above all forever;
And blessed is your holy and glorious name,
praiseworthy and exalted above all for all ages.
Blessed are you in the temple of your holy glory,
praiseworthy and glorious above all forever.
Blessed are you on the throne of your kingdom,
praiseworthy and exalted above all forever.
Blessed are you who look into the depths
from your throne upon the cherubim,
praiseworthy and exalted above all forever.