Sunday, April 29, 2012

The Costly Alternative [Exodus 33.12-17] (21 July 2002)

For the associates PowerPoint presentation click here.

“Grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a person his or her life, and it is grace because it gives a person the only true life.” That is how Dietrich Bonhoeffer described the kind of grace he found in the Sermon on the Mount—a sermon, which he believed described to us the Cost of Discipleship. However, this speaks of what it costs us.

But, what does it cost God? If God rains his grace so freely on us, does that mean it costs him nothing? Bonhoeffer argues that even to God the cost is immense because God paid for it with the life of his Son. Now, I do not intend to play down that sacrifice, but is there no other cost involved from God's side?

We are used to thinking of grace as a New Testament concept foreign to the Old Testament, which is characterized by Law. Being a Lutheran, Bonhoeffer displays this kind of thinking in his book The Cost of Discipleship. However, God is no Lutheran! Little did he know that grace was to come later! Why then does the passage we just read contain grace—not just as a concept, but even the cost? Maybe you did not recognize it. Maybe you still think it is not there in the passage. Maybe I've finally jumped off the exegetical deep end!

Or maybe the problem is that we are so accustomed to the word "grace" that we are unable to see nuances that we are not familiar with. Since we are dealing with a passage from the Old Testament, maybe we should use the Old Testament concept of covenant faithfulness to describe what we normally call grace. We can then say with Bonhoeffer that covenant faithfulness is costly because it costs us our lives, and it is covenant faithfulness because it gives us the only true life.

In order to understand this we need to place the passage in its proper context. Israel has very recently come out of Egypt. Yahweh has promised to take them from a land of bondage to a land of freedom—flowing with milk and honey. He asks them to stop at Sinai so that he can give them the laws by which he wants them to live. So he calls Moses up to the top of the mount. We all have probably seen the Ten Commandments. I remember the scene quite well. A frightened Charlton Hesston ascends the mountain to receive the Ten Commandments. As Yahweh speaks each commandment, we see a fiery bolt lash out at the tablets and inscribe those very words.

But even as Yahweh is speaking the first two commandments, the people of Israel have already broken them. With the help of Aaron, they have built a golden calf, which they proceed to worship. In Yahweh's eyes, they have already broken the covenant he had made with them.

These days, the exposure of fraud within a number of corporations provides a stark example of how these corporations have broken trust with their stockholders. Would you think of investing in Enron or WorldCom now? Probably not! People are probably wondering if they can invest anywhere. No one wants to have anything to do with such fraudulent companies. Broken trust is often merely a prelude to a broken relationship.

That is precisely how Yahweh responds to Israel's idolatry. He tells Moses to let him visit the Israelite camp in order to destroy them. This is important to grasp. We all too often take God's presence very lightly. Yahweh says that his presence among a sinful people would destroy them. Moses knows this well and argues with Yahweh. Yahweh suggests that he will fulfill his promise to Abraham through Moses after he destroys the people of Israel. Moses does not accept this option. He asks Yahweh to destroy him with the Israelites.

In response, Yahweh gives Moses an option. He will spare the Israelites. He will send his angel to lead them. He will give them the Promised Land. But he will not go with them.

So Israel has two options. On the one hand, Yahweh promises them his presence. But his presence will destroy them. On the other hand, Yahweh promises them his absence. And his absence will preserve them.

But is this even a choice? Moses realizes that it is not. For both options have the same result—no people of Yahweh. The first option is clear. The Israelites will not be alive to be the people of Yahweh. But what about the second option? They would, after all, be alive!

I remember clearly a scene from the movie Air Force One. Harrison Ford has been fighting the main villain on the presidential aircraft, Air Force One. That airplane, however, is in a nosedive. After many breathtaking moments, he is taken aboard the refueling plane as Air Force One crashes into the sea. The control tower wants to know the status of the president. A voice crackles over the radio, “Control tower to Liberty-Two-Four, how is the president?” They want to know whether the president is alive and well. The response from the refueling plane, “Liberty-Two-Four to control tower, Liberty-Two-Four is now Air Force One. Repeat, Liberty-Two-Four is now Air Force One.”

What audacity! The common refueling plane dares to call itself Air Force One! What changed? The president had come aboard, not just to visit, but to fly in on this trip. That altered everything. The presence of the president on that lowly plane, transformed it into the flagship.

So it is with the Israelites. Without Yahweh’s presence, they would go into a nosedive and stop being the people of Yahweh. But with Yahweh’s presence, even this idolatrous people would have to be called the people of Yahweh.

Quite understandably, Moses does not care for either of the options Yahweh gives Israel. So he suggests two options of his own. But before doing so, he reminds Yahweh, “Consider that this nation is your people.” We could spend hours debating whether God needs to be reminded of such things or not. But that is not the thrust of the passage. What Moses is saying is this. Israel and Yahweh belong together precisely because Yahweh has dared to call Israel his people. Therefore, Moses dares to tell Yahweh that the options Yahweh has given them are inconceivable. They do not account for the fact that Israel is Yahweh’s people. So Moses, the mediator of Yahweh’s covenant with Israel, suggests two options which would preserve that covenant. But only one of them would also preserve Yahweh’s covenant with the patriarchs. What, then, are Moses’ suggestions?

First, if Yahweh would not go with the Israelites to Canaan, Moses asks Yahweh to let them stay at Sinai. Sinai had been the place where the Israelites had been most acutely aware of Yahweh’s presence. From this mountain, they had experienced Yahweh. The thunder at the top of Sinai had seemed like the very voice of Yahweh. The lightning was like Yahweh’s hand reaching down to brand them as his own. Never again would they witness the terror involved when creator would touch creation. The events at Sinai would prove to be so singular that Israel would consider itself married to Yahweh! Yes, Sinai was where they had met their God. And Moses asks Yahweh to let them stay there. In order to be the people of Yahweh, Israel had to be where Yahweh was. And if Yahweh had chosen not to move from Sinai, then Moses begs him to let Israel stay at Sinai.

At the face of it, there seems to be no problem. What would be so problematic if Israel stayed at Sinai? Surely Yahweh could give them Sinai and the surrounding land! Surely! But Moses is implicitly reminding Yahweh of his promise to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Yahweh had promised them the land occupied by the Canaanites. What would happen to that promise? It would never be fulfilled! And Yahweh would prove to have lied to the patriarchs! God forbid! Exactly! Yahweh can no sooner accept this option than a camel could pass through the eye of a needle.

But Moses has another option for Yahweh. He suggests that Yahweh could go with the people of Israel to Canaan. The argument is twofold. On the one hand, Yahweh had promised the land of Canaan to the descendants of the patriarchs. Therefore, Yahweh had to get the Israelites to Canaan. On the other hand, Yahweh had branded Israel as his people. Therefore, he had to be where they were.

Yahweh had made too many covenants! And by his nature, he had to be faithful to his covenants. He had placed no conditions when he promised the land of Canaan to the patriarchs. He had unilaterally taken the Israelites as his people. Yet these Israelites were guilty of idolatry! And Yahweh, the only true God, the Holy One of Israel, detests idolatry. Something had to give.

Yahweh had demanded sole allegiance to him. He was not going to share this people with idols! Yet, this people were double-minded. Yahweh would be justified in destroying them. But his promises would prove empty. And that Yahweh cannot allow! So Yahweh turns the tables on Israel and Moses.

He will be true to his promises. He will bring the Israelites to Canaan. He will go with them. But at a cost. Now his face will be veiled. Whereas in 33.11 the text says that “Yahweh used to speak to Moses face to face” in 33.20 Yahweh tells Moses, “You cannot see my face, for no one shall see me and live.” Something drastic has happened during the course of Moses’ intercession. Yahweh has veiled himself. He will certainly go with Israel. He will certainly lead them into Canaan. But from now on, no one will be able to see him. And it is significant that no one after Moses ever sees Yahweh face to face. And no one after Moses is called Yahweh’s friend.

There is, therefore, a cost to covenant faithfulness even on God’s part. To be sure, mercy triumphs over judgment. To be sure, God forgives us as a people even as he forgave Israel. And this forgiveness allows him to be present with his people and not destroy them. And his presence ensures that his people remain his people.

It is difficult to live with a hidden God. How often have we felt that our prayers go unheard? Do we not at times wonder if God is listening? And the fact that many sins are more frequent within the church than outside, has made many non-Christians question if God is indeed among the Christians.

Some Christians have tried to solve the problem of God’s hiddenness by looking to the beatitude: “Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God.” The conclusion is that, if only we’d clean up our act, if only we refrained from sinning, we would see God. Some Christians have concluded that there must be something known as the beatific vision—that is, the vision of God described by Jesus in the beatitude. These Christians have tried to purge themselves of all impurities and sins in order to earn the beatific vision.

I see three problems with such thinking. First, such striving is contrary to grace. Grace is, after all, a gift given without regard to our efforts. The contention that we can earn a vision of God is ultimately based on the erroneous idea that we can twist God’s arm to force him to do something.

Second, which of us has managed, by our striving, to conquer sin? As Paul writes in Romans 7: What I want to do, I do not do; what I do not want to do, I do. In other words, striving not to sin is counter-productive. Our only hope is to live lives led by the Spirit. You see, we often think that the worst we can do is to sin. However, sinning is not the worst we can do. Our worst is not asking God’s forgiveness when we sin. God can deal will sin. Indeed, in Jesus, he has. But what can God do in the face of people, who like Adam and Eve attempt to cover their sin?

Third, the assumption is that God’s hiddenness is at odds with his being the dispenser of grace and that we must do something to rectify the situation. The assumption is that God is trying to show himself to us, but that we are blocking him. This makes God out to be weaker than we are.

The three errors I have highlighted have a common thread—arrogance, human arrogance. And it stems from the notion that in the present relationship between God and humans, only humans have to pay a high cost. The errors consider that God’s cost is limited to his giving of Jesus.

But there is a continuing cost on God’s part. God’s giving of Jesus should show us not that God gave sacrificially at one time, but that God is by nature a sacrificial giver. His giving extends to the way in which he remains faithful to his covenants.

In order to be faithful to his covenants, this God, who earnestly desires to reveal himself, must veil himself. God has temporarily set aside his desire to fully reveal himself. The golden calf incident is the archetype of all idolatry. And if the people of God are guilty of idolatry, God must hide himself from his people, even though he forgives them and promises them his presence. Even today, we live in the painful reality that God is in fact hidden from us. For the promise of the New Testament is that in the new creation nothing accursed will be found there anymore. But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him; they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads.

Covenant faithfulness or grace does not come to us cheap. While we can rest secure in Jesus’ finished work, we must not forget the turmoil that the offer of grace creates at the very core of God’s being. God is patient and slow to anger. And so he forgives us. He knows that sending us alone would destroy us. And so he promises us his presence. But he is holy. He cannot look directly at sinners without consuming them. And so he graciously hides his face from us. And there is the turmoil. Even as we wait with hope to see his face, God, who so desires to unveil himself to us, must put off that desire. And he waits patiently and eagerly for the day when he will finally, safely show us his face.

When we celebrate communion, we often do so remembering Jesus’ death for us. This is appropriate. In addition, however, communion is also a remembrance of Jesus’ absence. That is how Luke records the institution of the Lord’s Supper. Let me read from Luke 22.14-23.

Did you notice v. 18? Jesus says, “From now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.” Why? We know, from Jesus’ own words, that he was accused of being a glutton and a drunkard because he celebrated the reign of God with the worst of sinners. As Jesus himself said, “There is more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over a hundred people who do not need repentance.” In other words, Jesus enjoys a good party, a boisterous celebration. Yet, now he is abstaining. The Last Supper is not only Jesus’ institution of the New Covenant, but also his last celebration.

Moreover, when we eat the bread and drink the wine, we may talk all we want about the acts being symbolic or remembrances. We can debate whether Jesus is present in the elements or the act. But what we all mean in these debates, but probably are afraid to admit, is that Jesus is absent. We may say he is here spiritually. But that just hammers home the fact that he is physically absent. And Jesus said he would not celebrate until he was physically present. That is what we observe in communion—the awful fact that Jesus is now not fully with us.

As we come forward to partake of the elements, I urge you to focus on Jesus’ absence. Try to experience the emptiness that this chair symbolizes. Please dip the bread in the juice and take it back to your seat. Imagine the sorrow Jesus must experience at not being able physically to celebrate our salvation with us. Imagine how things might be different were Jesus here. Then eat the elements with gratitude not only for Jesus’ death but also for his waiting to revel with us.

1 comment:

  1. So glad He has not given up on us and is waiting patiently. Thank you Deep for this message