The Humble King

I’m not really sure if it is still Lent or not (answers on a postcard) – and I have one Moses post left, but it is late to write now, so instead I am posting my reflection from the evenings Maundy Thursday communion service.  I love this night in the run up to Easter.

13 It was just before the Passover Festival. Jesus knew that the hour had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.

2 The evening meal was in progress, and the devil had already prompted Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot, to betray Jesus. 3 Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; 4 so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. 5 After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him.

6 He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?”

7 Jesus replied, “You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.”

8 “No,” said Peter, “you shall never wash my feet.”

Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.”

9 “Then, Lord,” Simon Peter replied, “not just my feet but my hands and my head as well!”

10 Jesus answered, “Those who have had a bath need only to wash their feet; their whole body is clean. And you are clean, though not every one of you.” 11 For he knew who was going to betray him, and that was why he said not everyone was clean.

Jesus knew 2 things.

  • The hour had come
  • That the Father had put all things under his power

What would you do if you knew your time had come and that the Father had put all things under your power?

What could God use his power to do in this world right now?

And what could he use his power to do in your life right now?

What does Jesus use his power to do?

He got up from his seat, took off his outer garment, wrapped a towel around him. He poured water, washed feet, and dried them

The job of the servant – the lowliest servant – was the fact that no-one had washed their feet what triggered the disciples argument in the other gospels about who was the greatest? Did it begin as an argument about who was the greatest? And was this Jesus’ way of answering that argument. 

Jesus is doing two things here.  One is a simple demonstration of his love as an example to follow – that followers of Jesus must take the role of the lowliest servant.

The second is that he is acting out a parable of his action on the cross.  Feet washed by Jesus.

Knowing all that he is, and knowing all that is about to happen Jesus gets down from the table, just as he left the glories of heaven, and takes on the job and the status of the lowliest servant just as he had taken on human flesh and blood in order to live and die for us.

Why does he do this?  Why did Jesus become man?  Why does Jesus step down from the glories of heaven.  Because he loves his disciples. We are loved to the end.  We could say loved all the way to the finish line. Remember Jesus’ lasts words on the cross ‘it is finished’.   Jesus loved to the finish – ‘it is finished’.

And what this acted parable shows us is that in order to be part of Jesus’ followers we have to first let him serve us.  Peter’s objection is so much like the objections we are tempted to make. Do we really need Jesus to stoop down to wash our feet.  We may well have given our lives to him – we have had the bath. But he still needs to wash our feet.

Because we get dirty.  We walk this life in this world and the dirt of the streets sticks to us.  Sometimes we choose to wallow in the dirt. Sometimes we are self centred and full of sin, and we need our feet washed to cleanse of us these things.  We need to stop and let Jesus wash us clean.

Sometimes we get dirt and mud splashed on us. Sometimes walking is very hard work, and our feet get calloused and sore.  We need to let Jesus wash our feet. Sometimes the answer is not to press on. It is to stop, and to let Jesus wash our feet.

This is what God’s love is like.  Self giving. Not self regarding. He gives himself for us.

Pause to reflect on that.  

Some have come today with a burden of sin.  Something you want to stop, but it just seems so ingrained.  You need to sit and let Jesus wash your feet.

Some of you are tired and weary of all you do.  You do so much. You work so hard. At home, in church, in the community.  Giving. Giving. Giving.

Your feet are sore.  You have worked hard. And you need to stop and let Jesus wash your feet.  You need to see afresh the wonder of the reality that the God of all creation, the one who made the universe with a word stoops, kneels in humility and washes our feet.  There is no greater wonder. There is no greater love.

Today Jesus says: stop: I want to wash your feet.  

Jesus says: remember: I love you. And I want you to know that love.  The love that went to the end.

At that point we listened the song: Humble King by Brenton Brown.  The lyrics read like this:

Oh kneel me down again
Here at Your feet
Show me how much You love
Humility

Oh spirit be the star
That leads me to
The humble heart of love
I see in You

For you are the God of the broken
The friend of the weak
You wash the feet of the weary
Embrace the ones in need
And I want to be like you Jesus
To have this heart in me
You are the God of the humble
You are the humble King

Oh kneel me down again
Here at Your feet
Show me how much You love
Humility

Oh spirit be the star
That leads me to
The humble heart of love
I see in You

You are the God of the broken
The friend of the weak
You wash the feet of the weary
Embrace the ones in need
And I want to be like You Jesus
To have this heart in me
You are the God of the humble
You are the humble King
You are the humble King

You are the God of the humble
You are the humble King

Or listen/watch here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YV_3l6Ng5lA

12 When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. “Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked them. 13 “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. 14 Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. 15 I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. 16 Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. 17 Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.

Do as Jesus has done because of what Jesus has done for you.  We look to Jesus’ example, knowing that what Jesus did is what gives us the power to walk in his ways.

We don’t have to screw ourselves up and pull ourselves up by our bootstraps. Instead we have to look to Jesus, see what he did. First allow him to wash us clean, and to wash our feet, and then in the strength given by that we do likewise.  We do the nasty, dirty, hard things – and we do them because we are set free by what Jesus has done for us.

For he is indeed the God of the broken.  The friend of the weak. The one who washes the feet of the weary and embraces the ones in need.  

Then we sang and moved into communion – where I read this poem by Edward Shillito (written in the aftermath of WWI.)

If we have never sought, we seek Thee now;
Thine eyes burn through the dark, our only stars;
We must have sight of thorn-pricks on Thy brow,
We must have Thee, O Jesus of the Scars. 

The heavens frighten us; they are too calm;
In all the universe we have no place.
Our wounds are hurting us; where is the balm?
Lord Jesus, by Thy Scars, we claim Thy grace.

If, when the doors are shut, Thou drawest near,
Only reveal those hands, that side of Thine;
We know to-day what wounds are, have no fear,
Show us Thy Scars, we know the countersign.

The other gods were strong; but Thou wast weak;
They rode, but Thou didst stumble to a throne;
But to our wounds only God’s wounds can speak,
And not a god has wounds, but Thou alone.

And then used this prayer:

This is the table not of the Church but of the Lord.
It is to be made ready for those who love him,
and who want to love him more.

So, come,
you who have much faith
and you who have little,
you who have been here often
and you who have not been for a very long time,
you who have tried to follow
and you who have failed.

Come, not because it is I who invite you:
it is our Lord.
It is his will that those who want him
should meet him here. (Iona Community)

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Moses: Shining Face

Now we get to the final part of these amazing chapters:

Exodus 34:29 When Moses came down from Mount Sinai, with the two tablets of the testimony in his hand as he came down from the mountain, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God. 30 Aaron and all the people of Israel saw Moses, and behold, the skin of his face shone, and they were afraid to come near him. 31 But Moses called to them, and Aaron and all the leaders of the congregation returned to him, and Moses talked with them. 32 Afterward all the people of Israel came near, and he commanded them all that the LORD had spoken with him in Mount Sinai. 33 And when Moses had finished speaking with them, he put a veil over his face.

This time Moses comes down to a much more ordered scene.  The people have learnt that 40 days and nights is not so long to wait (although it can feel like an eternity in some situations).  Moses comes down with the skin of his face radiant because he has been talking  to God.  He has glimpsed the glory of God and it has had a physical impact on him.  Notice the little detail that Moses was unaware of this – he didn’t know that his face was shinning.

Aaron and all the people do see.  They see the skin of his face shinning, and they were afraid to approach him.  Even the reflected glory of God in Moses’ face is too bright for the people to come near.  Moses has to call to them, and then they come near.  He talks with Aaron and the leaders.  Then the people approach and he tells them all that YHWH has said to him.  And then when he finishes speaking he puts the veil on.

Notice that he doesn’t veil his face when he is speaking God’s words.  It is almost as if Moses’ shining face is a visual aid for the people to see what God has done for them.  There is a irony here, when we remember back to the start of this story.  In Exodus 32 the people make a bull calf of gold to represent the gods who brought them up out of Egypt.  They want a visual image of what God has done for them, a god that they can see and touch.  God does in the end provide them with a visual image – Moses.  It is through the sight of a person transformed because of seeing God’s glory that the people will see that God is truly in their midst.

The Old Testament is crystal clear that all images made by people to represent God are inadequate – and the key reason for this is that God’s image is already supposed to be in the world, so that people can see what God is like.  In Genesis 1 people are created in the image of God, to represent God to the world, to rule over and care for God’s world.  The story of the fall shows Adam and Eve’s rebellion, and the way in which that image is now marred as people rebel against God, fight each other and destroy God’s world.

Moses reflecting God’s glory is one way in which God shows his image to the people – Moses becomes the image bearer of God to Israel.  And then he must be veiled so that the glory does not become part of the everyday.  God speaks directly to Moses, and the shining face of Moses authenticates Moses’ authority as the one to speak God’s words to the people.

34 Whenever Moses went in before the Lord to speak with him, he would remove the veil, until he came out. And when he came out and told the people of Israel what he was commanded, 35 the people of Israel would see the face of Moses, that the skin of Moses’ face was shining. And Moses would put the veil over his face again, until he went in to speak with him.

There is a parallel idea in the transfiguration of Jesus – only in that case Jesus is transformed into what he truly is and the disciples witness the shining and God speaks telling them to listen.  But Jesus does not walk around shining, or veiled with a physical veil – although in a sense the entire incarnation is a kind of veiling of God’s full glory, so that people can actually walk around with God incarnate.

Paul writes of Moses’ veil in 2 Corinthians 3:

7 Now if the ministry of death, carved in letters on stone, came with such glory that the Israelites could not gaze at Moses’ face because of its glory, which was being brought to an end, 8 will not the ministry of the Spirit have even more glory? 9 For if there was glory in the ministry of condemnation, the ministry of righteousness must far exceed it in glory. 10 Indeed, in this case, what once had glory has come to have no glory at all, because of the glory that surpasses it. 11 For if what was being brought to an end came with glory, much more will what is permanent have glory.

Here Paul is saying that the ministry of the Spirit has even more glory than that of Moses, such that now, by comparison the former glory has come to have no glory at all.  The law that Moses gave was only temporary.  A way to teach Israel what it was to walk with God, and to show God’s character, but for one nation, at one time.  By contrast the Spirit is given permanently.  So Paul goes on:

12 Since we have such a hope, we are very bold, 13 not like Moses, who would put a veil over his face so that the Israelites might not gaze at the outcome of what was being brought to an end. 14 But their minds were hardened. For to this day, when they read the old covenant, that same veil remains unlifted, because only through Christ is it taken away. 15 Yes, to this day whenever Moses is read a veil lies over their hearts. 16 But when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed. 17 Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. 18 And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.

Paul seems to be playing slightly with this idea of veiling.  Moses’ glory was veiled to protect the people, but Paul also here suggests that their hearts were veiled, they did not understand, or respond as they should.  But in Christ the veil can be removed, and so we actually see the glory of God and are transformed into his image. What in the Old Testament was only for Moses is now for all believers.

It is true we don’t (usually) see a physical representation of that glory – the transformation Paul speaks of is moral and spiritual rather than outward – but it is still glorious for all that.  We see the glory of God when the Spirit removes the veil from our hearts and we look on Jesus and all he has done for us.  When we contemplate the cross this Easter we are beholding God’s glory.  When we read reflectively on Scripture of what it tells us about God that is beholding God’s glory.

That takes time – we need to pause long enough to move beyond simply reading to reading + thinking + imagining + praying + listening – and as we do that we will behold God’s glory.  It may not make our face shine, but it will make us change inwardly.  And as we do so we will be transformed more and more into the image of God that we were always supposed to be.  More and more into the likeness of Christ.

And as that happens people will see a difference.  Isn’t that our longing deep down.  And I think we all know what we should do.  But doing it is a different matter.  Stopping long enough to properly reflect and pray on and chew over the Bible – or at least long enough that we can take it into the rest of the day to chew over as we get on with our daily lives – is always hard for us to do – both practically, and also because sometimes it can be uncomfortable and reveal hard truths about ourselves.

I read Paul’s words again:

17 Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. 18 And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.

As I do I ask myself: how much do I really know this freedom, and what are the practical steps to stepping forward into this freedom?  What does it look like to behold the glory of the Lord, and so be transformed?  Right now in the midst of all the craziness of life here and now it seems a long way off.  Tom Wright suggests in one of his books, that just as we often give up something for Lent, so we should find something to put on for Easter – for the period between Easter Sunday and Pentecost.  Perhaps this is my challenge for this year. To behold the glory of the Lord.

Clearly there is only one hymn possible to quote.  May these wonderful words of Charles Wesley be your prayer and mine this Easter:

1 Love divine, all loves excelling,
joy of heav’n, to earth come down,
fix in us Thy humble dwelling;
all Thy faithful mercies crown.
Jesus, Thou art all compassion;
pure, unbounded love Thou art;
visit us with Thy salvation;
enter ev’ry trembling heart.

2 Breathe, O breathe Thy loving Spirit
into ev’ry troubled breast!
Let us all in Thee inherit;
let us find the promised rest.
Take away the love of sinning;
Alpha and Omega be;
end of faith, as its beginning,
set our hearts at liberty.

3 Come, Almighty, to deliver;
let us all Thy life receive;
suddenly return and never,
nevermore Thy temples leave.
Thee we would be always blessing,
serve Thee as Thy hosts above,
pray and praise Thee without ceasing,
glory in Thy perfect love.

4 Finish then Thy new creation;
pure and spotless let us be.
Let us see Thy great salvation
perfectly restored in Thee.
Changed from glory into glory,
till in heav’n we take our place,
till we cast our crowns before Thee,
lost in wonder, love, and praise.

 

 

A Psalm in the midst of silence

You will get the glory and honour,

One day.

Today though praise is far from my lips. It’s there.  As my eyes opened I realised I was praising you.

But when my brain woke up there was no praise to offer of my own choosing. There was rants and tears.

I know the so called right answers.

Today that faith I claim, that others have said I must have more of than them; that faith doesn’t look much like walking by faith as I imagine at times it should be.

I look at the news, pick a country and the need of God to step in and put an end now to it all is needed. He is slow to anger. I dread to think of His anger if He is not yet stepping in. His word says He weeps, that He is father to the fatherless.  If He is holding back because His ways are not ours and He sees the bigger picture and so is waiting, what is there that we can do to make a difference in the mean time?

The news doesn’t tell it all, there will be stories in all those places where God was seen to step in.

You will get the glory.

All I wanted was to serve You, to have You at then center, to love Your people. Somewhere it seems I thought that meant the things we needed would be met. Somewhere along the line I didn’t think it would be this messy or hard.

All I wanted was to be a mum and wife and honour You. I am tired of You getting the honour when people are the ones going through it in all sorts of ways. People being stretched so thin there are holes appearing. Lives quite literally being ripped apart. People not living as they were created to because that doesn’t seem to fit with the way the world is going.

You get the honour in the end because Your ways are not ours and we cannot see it all.

Sometimes I wonder if You remember that children need roofs over their heads? But why should ours get a roof any sooner than children around the world with nothing? I wonder if You have forgotten that to feed children parents need jobs to pay. But the world says one either has the wrong or not enough experience.

All we wanted to do was honour You. We thought we were making wise, responsible decisions, living in faith. We thought we were following You. This wasn’t in the plan. This wasn’t where I thought You would take us.

People, I, say there are no coincidences, that God wastes nothing. His ways are not the way of the world because none of this makes sense. The world makes little sense.

Is it God I hear or voices that should be treated by yet more pills. I want to honour You. I want to say You have us. I want to walk by faith. I want to see Your word made clear, not twisted and distorted.  I want our children to know You love them.

I want You to get the honour. Does it have to be this way?

What does it mean to walk by faith? What does it mean to be wise stewards and makes decisions based on the minds you have given us? How do we walk both those questions at the same time in the face of silence?

And when this wave at some point passes You will get the glory, You always do. For You always do and You do as You please. Right now that just doesn’t help.

One day You will get the honour and glory.

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Moses: Covenant Restored

Following the instructions about idols YHWH also re-iterates several other sets of instructions from the previous set of laws in Exodus 21-23. Firstly the passover:

18 “You shall keep the Feast of Unleavened Bread. Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread, as I commanded you, at the time appointed in the month Abib, for in the month Abib you came out from Egypt. 19 All that open the womb are mine, all your male livestock, the firstborn of cow and sheep. 20 The firstborn of a donkey you shall redeem with a lamb, or if you will not redeem it you shall break its neck. All the firstborn of your sons you shall redeem. And none shall appear before me empty-handed.

These instructions go back to God’s words to Moses in chapter 4 where God spoke of Israel as his firstborn son, and that the penalty for Pharaoh would be the death of his firstborn. In chapter 12 the Israelites are told to slaughter a lamb and put the blood on the doorposts so that the firstborn might live. The firstborn belong to God – as a sign that the people as a whole are God’s firstborn who belong to God. Remember that in many of the cultures of that day the firstborn child had a high status as the heir of the family estate.

This firstborn imagery carries on into the New Testament, where Jesus is the Passover Lamb, who dies – God’s firstborn who dies that we might all become children of God.

21 “Six days you shall work, but on the seventh day you shall rest. In plowing time and in harvest you shall rest. 22 You shall observe the Feast of Weeks, the firstfruits of wheat harvest, and the Feast of Ingathering at the year’s end. 23 Three times in the year shall all your males appear before the Lord God, the God of Israel. 24 For I will cast out nations before you and enlarge your borders; no one shall covet your land, when you go up to appear before the Lord your God three times in the year.

Then there is instruction about rest and about festivals. Notice how the Israelites are to rest even at peak times – even at harvest when all the crops are to be gathered in they are to rest. It would be easy to look out and say “Today is a good day, it is time to gather in all my crops – if not they may be wasted by a sudden storm tomorrow – I can always rest another day”.

No, they are to rest each 7th day. Sabbath is an act of trust in God. It is saying that he can work while we rest. We may not be bound by a particular day in the same way, but the Sabbath principal is still vital. Success in God’s work does not depend on our efforts – we sow and plough and harvest – but, as Paul writes to the Corinthians, it is God who gives the growth.

The same kind of principal applies for the festivals. They might say ‘do we all need to go up to the tabernacle, won’t that leave our homes unguarded’. But God promises that their land will not be coveted in that period. God will protect. The question for the people is: will they trust God that he knows best, or will they think that the obvious, rational choice is the right one? The same question faced them through a number of their laws – the jubilee principal of restoring land to the original owners every 50 years, for example. The same question applies to us. Will we trust God to do things his way and operate in line with that, or will we try to make things work out way?

That means keeping the commands he gives us. Should I make more money by cheating, or by breaking a law, or by lying?  Answer – no.  It may not be easy to do, but it is usually relatively straightforward to tell.  When we have a straightforward command from God in the Bible then we need to obey it.  We need to keep our activity in line with what he has revealed.

In addition sometimes following God sometimes means taking an action that looks slightly odd to others.  All Israel’s men leaving their homes undefended and going up to celebrate YHWH’s rescue and provision looked like a reckless act – but it was what YHWH had commanded because remembering that he is the one who protects, and he is the one who delivers is what matters most.  Giving away part of our income is one way that we demonstrate this principle in our lives.  At other times it may be more radical – a change of career direction, a move to a different country – but each time we step out in such a way we show that we trust YHWH’s ways above human wisdom.

25 “You shall not offer the blood of my sacrifice with anything leavened, or let the sacrifice of the Feast of the Passover remain until the morning. 26 The best of the firstfruits of your ground you shall bring to the house of the Lord your God. You shall not boil a young goat in its mother’s milk.”

At this point I’m going to confess to ignorance over why boiling a young goat in its mothers milk is so wrong that it is mentioned both here and at the end of Exodus 23. Instead we will move on to the end of these words to Moses.

27 And the LORD said to Moses, “Write these words, for in accordance with these words I have made a covenant with you and with Israel.” 28 So he was there with the LORD forty days and forty nights. He neither ate bread nor drank water. And he wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant, the Ten Commandments.

These are intriguing, because back at the start of chapter 34 YHWH declared that he would write on the tablets – but here Moses is described as writing them. Whether that means that YHWH inscribed some words, leaving Moses with the ten commandments (literally ‘ten words’), or whether YHWH commanding Moses the words to write down to do the actual writing still counts as YHWH writing on the tablets is debatable. The important thing is that the writing of the words shows that the covenant is still in force. Israel are restored to the position they occupied before the golden calf. God has completely forgiven them, and so Moses has the evidence of the restored covenant in his hands.

Notice how he is up the mountain for a second period of 40 days and nights – parallel to the first period of time when he received the instructions for the tabernacle. Each of these details in the story fits together to show just how securely the covenant between YHWH and Israel was now restored, and so each of the details works together to show us how complete YHWH’s forgiveness is of Israel, and therefore of us when we sin and turn back in repentance.

 

Moses: Yahweh whose name is jealous

Yesterday we saw how YHWH declared his intention to renew the covenant. Today we see his instructions to Israel, and their basis in God’s character.

11 “Observe what I command you this day. Behold, I will drive out before you the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. 12 Take care, lest you make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land to which you go, lest it become a snare in your midst. 13 You shall tear down their altars and break their pillars and cut down their Asherim 14 (for you shall worship no other god, for the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God), 15 lest you make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land, and when they whore after their gods and sacrifice to their gods and you are invited, you eat of his sacrifice, 16 and you take of their daughters for your sons, and their daughters whore after their gods and make your sons whore after their gods.

Notice first of all the interesting juxtaposition here of the promise to drive out the inhabitants of the land with the instructions not to make any covenants with those inhabitants. A covenant was an agreement, or treaty, and it would have been tempting for Israel to make its way in the land by making agreements with the tribes in the land. It is as if God is saying to Israel: don’t make your way in the land by coming up with clever policies. Instead trust me, and don’t make agreements that will lead you astray, or be a snare to you.

Instead of making agreements they are to tear down the altars, and break their pillars and cut down their idols – they are not to compromise in any way shape or form, but simply destroy. I imagine we’d be tempted to criticise the cultural vandalism of this programme, and complain about the narrow mindedness of this invading force.

Before we do that though we should consider what the Canaanite religion involved. It was essentially a fertility religion. Religious rites involved prostitutes. Sacrifices were sometimes human. Religion served the interests of priests and rulers, and kept a population in check, in often brutal ways.

This was not how God wanted his people to live and so he tells them here not to compromise. Not to make agreements with the people of the land. Not to take part in their sacrificial meals, or intermarry so that they are not led astray to worship their gods. Notice the language used ‘whore after’ – it isn’t exactly pleasant to picture idolatry as prostitution – yet that is what it was for Israel.

Israel were betrothed to YHWH. Sin was not just treason against their King, it was adultery against their betrothed. Not just breaking rules, but cheating on God. That is why at the heart of this section is the comment put in brackets which gives the reason for all these instructions:

for you shall worship no other god, for the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God

YHWH is jealous for his people. We’ve looked at how this can be positive before. But in this context even more so. He doesn’t want them to ruin their lives in Canaanite idolatry. He knows it will look good, and be easy to follow, but will ultimately lead to ruin. He knows it is going to make Israel stand out in the brutal world of the ancient Near East if they don’t worship other gods as part of the pursuit of money, sex and power.

And so it is for us too. He is jealous for us. Jealous that we do not give way to sin. Jealous in this case meaning that he is passionately devoted to us knowing Him, because that is the relationship which we were made for – and which will therefore bring us most happiness and lasting joy.  So he is jealous that we do not go for the equivalents of Canaanite religion in our day. We need to remember that God is jealous, and that sin is at essence cheating on God.

That implies that sin causes pain in God. As adultery causes pain in a wronged spouse. So we cannot take sin lightly in our lives. We need to identify the idols and tear them down. Sometimes that is a simple action – removing certain books or music or images that leads us in an unhelpful direction, or stopping a particular relationship. Other times it is much harder and requires careful examination of our hearts with someone we trust to help us untangle what the idols we are following are.

That is always worth it. I was forcibly struck by the end of Tim Farron’s resignation speech in the summer:

“Imagine how proud I am to lead this party. And then imagine what would lead me to voluntarily relinquish that honour.
In the words of Isaac Watts it would have to be something ‘so amazing, so divine, (it) demands my heart, my life, my all’.

If you read more of what Tim Farron said on that occasion and since, it seems that for him to continue to lead his party would have led him into intolerable conflict with his faith.  You may disagree with him about that, you might wish it could be otherwise, but the important thing is that if for him the conflict was intolerable then he needed to make that decision.

We need to be ready to relinquish any honour, let go of any hope, or cut out any habit if those things are leading us away from Christ. We do that because we know he is jealous for us with a passionate, burning zeal that longs for the best for us. And we know that he longs for us with that passionate, burning zeal because we can look to the cross, and see the lengths he was prepared to go to for us, and for our salvation.

So to close, to reflect on God’s jealous love for us – a jealousy that is passionate longing for us to enjoy the relationship with him that will make us whole again:

When I survey the wondrous cross
On which the Prince of glory died,
My richest gain I count but loss,
And pour contempt on all my pride.

Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast,
Save in the death of Christ my God!
All the vain things that charm me most,
I sacrifice them to His blood.

See from His head, His hands, His feet,
Sorrow and love flow mingled down!
Did e’er such love and sorrow meet,
Or thorns compose so rich a crown?

Were the whole realm of nature mine,
That were a present far too small;
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all.
Isaac Watts

Moses: Covenant renewed

After hearing YHWH proclaim his name, Moses reacts in worship:

8 And Moses quickly bowed his head towards the earth and worshipped. 9 And he said, “If now I have found favour in your sight, O Lord, please let the Lord go in the midst of us, for it is a stiff-necked people, and pardon our iniquity and our sin, and take us for your inheritance.”

Here it could almost sound like Moses is in doubt about whether he has found favour with God. It is more likely, however, that this is simply picking up on 33:17 where God assured him that he had found favour in his eyes, and that Moses is using that as the basis of his request. There is no longer any doubt, however since he has found favour in God’s eyes he asks God to come in the midst of them.

His reason for asking God to come with them is the very reason God has given for not going with the people. He wants God to go with them because they are a stiff-necked people. This is similar to Genesis 9 where God promises not to send a flood /because/ people are evil all the time.
God’s renewal of the covenant has to take into account this reality that people are sinful and so Moses pleads with God to go with them and forgive them.

He knows that a stiff-necked people cannot hope to make any progress unless God goes with them, and he knows that to do that God will need to forgive their sin and take them for his inheritance. This is an interesting word, which is often used to talk about the inheritance Israel will have in the land, but here it seems to be used as if Israel are God’s inheritance. This may be a similar thought to that we saw in chapter 19 where Israel were called God’s treasured possession.

It is a request that God’s forgiveness will enable Israel to be the people God has called them to be. God’s reply is a re-iteration of the rules he has given them previously, with some additional emphasis on staying faithful to YHWH. His reply begins like this:

10 And he said, “Behold, I am making a covenant. Before all your people I will do marvels, such as have not been created in all the earth or in any nation. And all the people among whom you are shall see the work of the LORD, for it is an awesome thing that I will do with you.

This is where we see Exodus 34:6-7 in action. God shows himself to be truly the sort of God he claimed he was by his forgiveness of the people and establishing of a renewed covenant with the people. God will do marvels to bring the people into the land. Think of the parting of the Jordan and the walls of Jericho. And all the people around shall see God’s wonders – think of the reputation of Israel that caused the inhabitants of the land to be trembling in fear. It is an awesome thing that I will do with you, declares God – literally, a ’terrifying’ thing. God will act to save his people.

And there is another marvel that God could be talking about here. Not only will he do marvels to bring Israel into the land, but he is right now doing a marvel in his forgiveness of the people. This marvel of forgiveness is unparalleled in the nations around. They have sinned, but God has forgiven them – and such forgiveness is truly awesome. The Psalmist writes ‘with you there is forgiveness, therefore you are feared’.

This marvel of forgiveness is offered to us too. We have the reality of God’s forgiveness and grace brought into clearer focus through what Jesus has done for us on the cross. This is what the name of YHWH means for us. We see what compassion and mercy, steadfast love and faithfulness look like worked out in history. Like Moses, and like Israel, we can know the benefits of this name in our lives:

One Puritan writer put it like this:

The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty.

Exodus 34:6-7

“Well, you say, but though God is able to help me, I fear that God is not willing to help me, and therefore I am discouraged.

But be of good comfort, says the Lord, for my name is Merciful, and therefore I am willing to help you.

But you say, though the Lord is willing to help me, yet I am a poor unworthy creature and have nothing at all to move God to help me.

Yet be of good comfort, for the Lord says again, My name is Gracious. I do not show mercy because you are good, but because I am good.

Oh, you say, but I have been sinning a long time, ten, twenty, thirty, forty, fifty years. If I had come to you long ago, I might have had mercy. But I have been sinning a long time, and therefore I fear there is no mercy for me.

Yet, says the Lord, be of good comfort, for my name is Slow to anger.

Oh, you say, but I have sinned extremely, so many sins that I am never able to reckon up and to humble myself for them, I have broken all my promises to God and all the vows I made to him, and therefore I am discouraged.

Yet, says he, be of good comfort, for I am abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness. Are you abundant in sin? I am abundant in steadfast love. Have you broken faith with me? Yet I am abundant in faithfulness also.

Oh, but though the Lord is all this to his chosen ones like David, Abraham and Moses, yet I fear the Lord will not be this to me.

Yes, says the Lord, keeping steadfast love for thousands. I have not spent all my mercy on David or on Abraham or on Paul or on Peter, but I keep mercy for thousands.

Oh, but my sins still recoil on me. I am the greatest sinner in the world, for I have sinned all kinds of sin. I fear there is no hope for me.

Yet, says the Lord, be not discouraged, for I forgive iniquity and transgression and sin, even all kinds of sin. This is my name forever.

Oh, but I am afraid to lay hold on this promise, for I think this is a doctrine of license. Do not say that, says the Lord, who will by no means clear the guilty.

But if there is ever a poor, drooping, fearing, trembling soul that desires to know my name, here, says the Lord, is my name by which I will be known forever.

The name of God quiets the heart against all discouragements.”

William Bridge, A Lifting Up For The Downcast (London, 1961), pages 270-272. Slightly edited

Tomorrow we’ll see the warning that goes with this assurance.

Moses: Yahweh who punishes sin

Today we come to the end of YHWH’s disclosure of his name:

5 The LORD descended in the cloud and stood with him there, and proclaimed the name of the LORD. 6 The LORD passed before him and proclaimed, “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, 7 keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.”

Yesterday we looked up until the second half of v7 when the mood seems to change. Having been a very positive statement of God’s love and faithfulness, his grace and mercy, and his forgiveness of sins, we then get the ‘but’. He will not clear the guilty, and his punishment of sins will last down four generations.

Some scholars go far as to suggest that this represents a fundamental instability in YHWH, so that Israel never finally knows what YHWH will do. I think to say that is to read this text out of its context in the narrative. I think it is clear from the story of Israel in the Old Testament that YHWH forgives those who repent. Yet he will not clear those who wilfully refuse to repent.

In today’s society in the west we tend also to have a problem with the concept of sin being punished down the generations. We need to remember that this was written to a society with a much stronger concept of family, and family history and solidarity. In the Bible individuals do not exist alone, they are part of a society made up of families.  In the Bible families usually share the fate of their ‘heads’.

It is also possible that to the third and fourth generation refers to the possible extent of the living family – so that it is not so much that the punishment impacts to generations yet to be born, but to generations now living as part of the extended family unit. In this case what happens to the ‘head’ of the family, will inevitably impact on the rest of the family.

Sin has consequences beyond just me. It is never private. God will punish sin, and sometimes that punishment will be to leave people to face the consequences of their actions – and those consequences inevitably also impact those in the families of those who are punished. If we live in families the state my relationship with God is in impacts on my family. A habitual practice of sin will lead to patterns of life which will impact on a family for several generations. God will not clear the guilty who do not repent.

That is not a contradiction to the first half of these verses. It is a direct consequence of them. God is a God of love and faithfulness, and so anything that gets in the way of people experiencing this love and faithfulness needs to be dealt with. God’s love and faithfulness are not a license for us to sin – God is a God who will not clear the guilty who stubbornly refuse to repent.

God is a God who is angry with sin, a God whose wrath burns against sin – because he sees the impact sin has on his good creation. And he is a God who is angry with those who sin, because he sees the impact they have on people made in his image. That is fundamentally good news in a world which is marred by sin, and ruined by people exploiting other people.

Yale theologian, and native of the former Yugoslavia Miroslav Wolf puts it like this:

I used to think that wrath was unworthy of God. Isn’t God love? Shouldn’t divine love be beyond wrath? God is love, and God loves every person and every creature. That’s exactly why God is wrathful against some of them. My last resistance to the idea of God’s wrath was a casualty of the war in former Yugoslavia, the region from which I come. According to some estimates, 200,000 people were killed and over 3,000,000 were displaced. My villages and cities were destroyed, my people shelled day in and day out, some of them brutalized beyond imagination, and I could not imagine God not being angry. Or think of Rwanda in the last decade of the past century, where 800,000 people were hacked to death in one hundred days! How did God react to the carnage? By doting on the perpetrators in a grandparently fashion? By refusing to condemn the bloodbath but instead affirming the perpetrators basic goodness? Wasn’t God fiercely angry with them? Though I used to complain about the indecency of the idea of God’s wrath, I came to think that I would have to rebel against a God who wasn’t wrathful at the sight of the world’s evil. God isn’t wrathful in spite of being love. God is wrathful because God is love.

It is good news that God is angry about sin and will not clear the guilty because it means that evil doers will not get away with it. I remember when the news reports of Pol Pot’s death came, one radio headline was ‘Pol Pot escapes justice’. No. He escaped an earthly court, but there is a throne to which Pol Pot, Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin, and every other earthly tyrant must bow.

And of course it doesn’t stop there. Volf goes on:

Once we accept the appropriateness of God’s wrath, condemnation, and judgment, there is no way of keeping it out there, reserved for others. We have to bring it home as well. I originally resisted the notion of a wrathful God because I dreaded being that wrath’s target; I still do. I knew I couldn’t just direct God’s wrath against others, as if it were a weapon I could aim at targets I particularly detested. It’s God’s wrath, not mine, the wrath of the one and impartial God, lover of all humanity. If I want it to fall on evildoers, I must let it fall on myself – when I deserve it.

Also, once we affirm that God’s condemnation of wrongdoing is appropriate, we cannot reserve God’s condemnation for heinous crimes. Where would the line be drawn? On what grounds could it be drawn? Everything that deserves to be condemned should be condemned in proportion to its weight as an offense – from a single slight to a murder, from indolence to idolatry, from lust to rape. To condemn heinous offenses but not light ones would be manifestly unfair. An offense is an offense and deserves condemnation…

That is why we see the second half of Exodus 34:7 as scary news. Because it is. Because each of us has sinned. But as we approach Easter we approach the cross. On the cross we see how it is that God can be a God full of grace and mercy to people as sinful and rebellious as us.

The cross is where we see God’s wrath and love combined. In Christ God took on himself the full extent of his wrath and anger against sin. God himself bore the wrath he has against our sin, that we might become children of God who know the love of the Father for his dearly loved Son as the love he has for each of us. On that day God came, and God punished sin, so that for all who trust in Jesus there is no condemnation.