God is Change*
I’m not sure our scripture text for today has made it onto many “favorite Bible passage” lists. I know it is not on mine! In this text, we see God’s reaction to what’s going on at the bottom of the mountain, the mountain where God has been talking to Moses, giving the law that will govern the people that God has just rescued from slavery in Egypt and led to “freedom.” What’s going on down at the bottom of the mountain, of course, is that the people, feeling abandoned by God and by Moses, come to Moses’s brother Aaron lamenting, “We don’t know what’s happened to that Moses guy who we’ve been following. He ditched us without explanation. So, please, make us some gods who will lead us, because we seem to have been left by the God we were following.” Aaron complies, and makes a golden calf, crafted from the donations of gold jewelry from all the people, perhaps items that were symbols of their enslavement. He declares the calf to represent the gods who have redeemed Israel, and the people celebrate with a festival day.
Our text begins with God realizing what’s going on at the bottom of the mountain. God tell Moses: “Quick, get back down the mountain. Your people who you brought out of Egypt are acting perversely. They’ve quickly abandoned the path I set for them. So, go back down to them, these stiff-necked people, and leave me alone, so I can hang out and be full of wrath and plan how I’m going to consume them all. Don’t worry, though, I’ll still make you into a great nation.” (1)
Moses, though, doesn’t take God up on this offer. Instead, as is Moses’s habit, he settles in for a good argument with God. Moses makes sure God remembers whose people these are. “God, why does your wrath burn against your people, the people you brought out of Egypt?” And Moses flatters God into wanting to save face in front of other nations: “Hey God, you don’t want the Egyptians to say you were a bad, evil God, right?” And Moses reminds God of history: “Hey, God, remember Abraham and Issac and Israel and your promises to them?” And Moses tells God: “You can change your mind about this.” And God does. God changes God’s mind. And the author of our text clearly takes a point of view - God changes God’s mind about God’s people.
Like I said, I’m not sure how many people count this text as a favorite passage, because it is kind of troubling, isn’t it? Although there are plenty of biblical passages that mention God’s wrath, God’s anger, God wanting to punish, I know I’d mostly rather think about God’s love, God’s peace, God’s call to community. And here, God’s wrath and punishment isn’t even directed at enemies of God’s people, where we could at least get some satisfaction about seeing our enemies get their due. No, here God wants to ditch God’s people and start fresh with some new people for Moses, and Moses, the human Moses, has to talk the God of the Universe out of it, talk God down, calm God down, remind God of God’s promises. Troubling.
So troubling, in fact, that many of the commentaries I looked at don’t really mention the content of our passage today in articles meant to be about our passage. Several commentaries focus on the “golden calf” scene of verses 1-6, even though they aren’t a part of the lectionary reading. The commentaries focus on our human sinfulness and propensity for idolatry. They have very little to say about God’s response, God’s behavior. Some scholars sympathize with the fear that the people probably felt, the trauma they’ve endured, and suggest a gracious response toward the people in our preaching to all that they’ve been through. But what they don't do is address how God responds in this text of ours, how Moses must plead with God for mercy. In fact, many commentaries don’t directly address God’s response in this text at all. I can only conclude that they avoid mentioning it because they don’t know what to do with a God who doesn’t fit the picture of God we have. Best just not to think about it.
I can relate. I don’t think it ever gets easy to have our picture of someone be troubled by conflicted information, much less our picture of God. God is supposed to be our Rock. Dependable. Never wavering. The One on whom we can count no matter what. But what if God is inconsistent? What if God changes on us? How can we depend on a God like that? This isn’t a new question, of course, and the scriptures, naturally, don’t have a single answer. In contrast to our reading today, for example, 1 Samuel includes a verse which explicitly states: “[God] will not recant or change God’s mind; for God is not a mortal, that God should change God’s mind,” (1 Sam 15:29) almost implying that even questioning such is ludicrous. Many traditions proclaim that “God is the same yesterday today and forever,” a claim based on a verse from Hebrews (13:8) about Jesus. And God’s Immutability - God’s unchanging nature - is a teaching that is still a part of many Christian traditions.
Still, ever since I took Process Theology with Dr. Keller during my time as an MDiv student some years ago, I feel like I’ve embraced a God who changes, that I desire a God who changes, who is responsive, who responds to the world, perhaps even responds to me, not with rigidity but fluidity. Passages like this, though, make me wonder if I’m really so ready for a Changing God as I say. Because this God doesn’t just change. God “relents” from wanting to destroy, to kill, to punish, to wipe us out. “And God changed their mind about the disaster they planned to bring on their people,” we read. Just barely shy of saying, “And God repented.” That’s how we often describe repentance, isn’t it? A change of direction? A change of mind? Reversing the course of our mind, our thoughts, our actions? Can we depend on a God who changes their mind?
I think our impulse - my impulse at least, and maybe that of the commentaries I read this week - is to figure out how to let God off the hook of these difficult questions. But Moses never lets God off the hook here. Moses holds God to the high standard promised by God. Moses demands that God be all that God has promised to be. Although Moses has his own hot rage to reckon with later in this very chapter, Moses doesn’t hesitate to question God, demand of God, expect from God. Perhaps we can give ourselves permission to keep God on the hook, and ask God our toughest questions, and remind God of God’s promises to us.
And then, we can follow God’s example. One of God’s repeated complaints about the people is that they are stiff-necked, or hard-hearted. Those sound to me like complaints about our unwillingness to be moved, to be changed. God changes. God relents. God, dare we say, repents. And every time I see a notation made about God changing their mind in the scripture, it is in the direction of mercy. When God changes their mind about a course of action, it is in order to forgive after all, to save after all, to continue a relationship after all, to offer grace after all. Do we change? And when we change, are we changing in the direction of mercy? If we’re meant to follow God, to imitate God, to try to pattern our lives after God, and God is a God who changes, then perhaps our biggest task is to learn how to change too. To relent. To soften our hard hearts. To repent, too. God doesn’t ask us to do what God doesn’t already do, already demonstrates for us. God changes. Will we?
Friends, may we, like Moses, be persistent with God, wrestling with God for every drop of mercy promised, for every measure of grace - not only for ourselves, but for all who need it. And then let us do likewise: let us change, becoming people of mercy and grace, deeply moved by the world in which we live.
“And then … God changed their mind.” Thanks be to God. Amen.
* The title for this sermon comes from Octavia Butler's Parable of the Sower.
Rolf Jacobson makes note of this “your people” focus in “Commentary on Exodus 32:7-14,” The Working Preacher. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-24-3/commentary-on-exodus-327-14