God’s “Anger” and God’s Invitation
20 Pentecost; October 15, 2023
Saint David’s Episcopal Church
Exodus 32:1-14; Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23; Philippians 4:1-9; Matt 22:1-14
If there is one thing every Christian should know, it is God’s love, revealed above all in Jesus Christ. As our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry routinely says, “if it is not about love, it’s not about God.” In First John, we are told that God not only loves, but that God IS love (4:8, 16).
This morning’s reading from Philippians is one of my favorites because it is all about the blessings of God’s love in our lives. Paul reminds us that “the Lord is near.” Therefore, says Paul, we can “rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.” Paul tells us not to “worry about anything, but in everything…[to] let our requests be made known to God.” Paul promises us “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding.”
That’s all great.
But what about our other readings for this morning, the ones that don’t sound so loving? Our Gospel reading has some hard lines, but I think particularly about our Old Testament reading. There God gets so angry at the idolatry of the Hebrew people that God threatens to “consume” them. Thankfully Moses intervenes. But I am left uncomfortable.
What do we do with readings like that one? Saint Augustine advises Christians to look for love everywhere in Scripture. But is that possible here? Can we find love in our Old Testament reading?
I think so, but it takes a little looking.
As our story begins, Moses has been on top of Mount Sinai where God was giving him the law, including tablets with the Ten Commandments.
Unfortunately, Moses was up there long enough that the people waiting at the base of the mountain grew impatient and afraid. They were vulnerable, waiting around in a barren desert, not so far from Egypt where they had been enslaved. So, they asked Aaron to make an idol for them.
That was foolish, and it was unfaithful. But I get it. I don’t like feeling vulnerable either. And when I feel vulnerable, I sometimes look for comfort in the wrong places. We all do. And fretful people make bad choices that ultimately harm themselves and others.
Back on top of the mountain, God tells Moses what the people have done and sends Moses down the mountain to deal with them.
Then comes the line that sticks out to me. God tells Moses, “Let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them.” And I wonder, why does God tell Moses to let Him alone? It’s not like God needs Moses’ permission to do whatever God wants to do.
Stay with me here! Last week I saw a skit by comedy duo Key and Peele. In the skit, they are in a bar when another man bumps Peele. Peele hands his drink to Key and tells Key that he, Peele, is going to make the man regret it.
Peel turns around, and loudly and publicly challenges the man who bumped him. But as they come face to face and chin to chin, Peele sees that the other man is huge.
Now Peele had a problem. Peele can’t fight this enormous man. But Peele can’t back down in front of everybody.
So Peele gives his friend Key a significant look, then turns back to the big man and starts trash talk about what he is going to do to him. Key seems to get the message, and he grabs Peele, holding Peele back so that Peele can’t actually fight.
If that had been the end of it, Peele’s problem would have been solved. He wouldn’t have to fight the big man or back down. Of course, the skit also wouldn’t have been very funny.
Now we are at the important part for our purposes. Peele wants to make it look good, so he squirms in Key’s grip and demands that Key let him go so he can make that big man pay. Unfortunately for Peele, it turns out Key doesn’t understand his role. When Peele tells Key to let him go, Key does. Now Peele is back with the same dilemma: he can’t fight, and he can’t back down.
The sketch goes on from there, and it’s funny if you don’t mind some bad language.
But for our purposes this morning, the point is that Peele tells Key to let him go, but Peele doesn’t really want Key to let him go. Quite the opposite. Peele counts on Key to hold him so that Peele won’t have to fight a fight he doesn’t want.
I think God is doing something like that in our story.
God says to Moses, don’t hold me back, “let me alone,” so that I can punish those people. But I think God is acting like Peele does in the comedy skit. I think God wants Moses to do what Moses in fact does: that is, the exact opposite, not to let God alone so that God can punish, but rather to plead with God for mercy, to keep God from giving the people the punishment they deserve but that God doesn’t want to give them.
If that’s right, why does God do it this way? We know why Peele wanted Key to hold him back, even when he told Key not to. Peele was afraid of fighting a much bigger man. But God certainly wasn’t afraid. So, what might have motivated God to tell Moses to “let God alone” if God didn’t actually want to punish the people in the first place?
Partly I think it was a lesson for Moses.
As we know from the sequel, Moses himself was furious at his people for what they had done in his absence (Exodus 32:15-28). So, God put Moses in the position of defending the very people who had made Moses mad.
That’s a good lesson for us. When someone has upset us, instead of trying to get even, we should plead with God on their behalf. “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” is how Jesus makes the same point (Matt 5:44).
At the same time, when God threatens to punish the people, God reminds Moses, and us, that sin really is a problem. Our sin can’t hurt God. But our sin can certainly hurt us and the people around us, and that’s a bad thing.
One of my mentors used to describe sin as us beating our heads against a wall.
God sees us doing that and God doesn’t want us to get hurt, so God tells us to stop.
But we keep on beating our heads against the wall. So, God tells us that beating our heads against the wall is likely to give us a headache.
We keep on beating. God warns us that if we don’t stop, we could really harm ourselves.
Still we keep on. Finally, God warns us that we will die if we don’t stop. And sometimes we keep on sinning even then.
Sin has negative consequences. And sometimes, when we experience those negative consequences, we think we are suffering from God’s anger. But at least some of the time, we are actually suffering from our own sinfulness and from the sinfulness of the people around us.
And here is the point. God’s anger is not our problem, not in Moses’ day, or in Jesus’, or in Paul’s, or in ours. Sin is our problem, and God’s love is the solution to our problem.
In Christ’s terms, God invites us to let go of our sin and our resentments and instead to join God’s wedding banquet. May we joyfully accept God’s invitation as the act of love it is.
In Christ’s name. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Harvey Hill
Third Order Franciscan