Think about this: Have you ever defied God? Have you ever looked at a circumstance and said to God, “No. You can’t do this. I won’t allow it.”? Would you even dare to do something like that?
We spend so much time in church learning to be reverent and deferential toward God that we can forget that there is more to faithful obedience than being God’s yes-man or yes-woman. We expect our faithful speech to be full of praise and gratitude and thanksgiving. In recent times we have become obsessed with saccharine faithfulness. We have praise and worship services that gloss over life’s difficulties. It’s headline news when a saint like Mother Teresa or a church leader like Pope Francis or Canterbury Archbishop Justin Welby admits to wrestling with God over daily struggles of faith and discipleship. Our prayers are full of chatter about thanking you so much God, and loving you so much God, and being so amazed at how wonderful you are God.
Of course there’s nothing wrong with genuine thanksgiving. We celebrate Holy Communion every week here at Centre, and the main prayer we offer during Communion is called the Great Thanksgiving. It’s one of the oldest forms of Christian prayer. But thanksgiving and adoration are not adequate for some situations. Read the Psalms. There’s thanksgiving in them, to be sure, but there are also psalms that are not at all thankful. We find in them language of sadness, regret, lament, and despair. In a world broken by sin, we need to be able to talk to God about these parts of life, too. We need to be able to pray our grief to God. We need to be able to lament the ways the world works against God’s good purposes. We need to do so in private devotion as well as in public worship. And sometimes, on rare occasions, as hard as it might be to hear, we even need to defy God, to stand up to—not for, but to—God, to call God to account.
In this morning’s passage from Exodus 32, we have two examples of defiance toward the Lord. Moses has been on Mount Horeb for about forty days. Things are not going well in the Israelite camp, where the people are growing impatient. Finally they come to Aaron with an audacious request: “Look, this fellow Moses, where is he now? He’s abandoned us. Make us some gods to lead us into the Promised Land.” Has it been so long since God gave the Ten Commandments that they’ve forgotten number two, “you shall not make for yourself an idol,”? What’s even more shocking is that Aaron, the brother of Moses, the priest of the Lord, says to the Israelites, “Well, okay.” Aaron doesn’t just give his permission; he makes the idol himself! This is the first act of defiance in Exodus 32. It is not an example we should imitate.
Thankfully, the story does not end with Aaron’s sinful defiance. Having seen the Israelites’ blatant disregard for his laws, God, understandably, reacts angrily. Now, for us human beings, anger is a passion stirred up by events usually outside our control. It’s also an emotion or mood, a feeling that seizes our bodies. For God, anger is not a passion or an emotion. Anger is the other side of God’s love; God’s anger is how we human beings experience God’s love after we have sinned.
The Lord’s reaction to Israel’s idolatry is a declaration of final judgment to Moses, who is still on Mount Horeb in the presence of the Lord. The Lord commands Moses to descend the mountain to “your people whom you brought out of the land of Egypt.” God has washed his hands of Israel. Once God had called Israel “my people.” Now God tells Moses they are “your people.” And then God issues the sentence: “I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation.” Verdict: guilty. Sentence: destruction and transferal of covenant to Moses’ descendants. In other words, the end of Israel.
Moses hears the devastating judgment against his people, and instead of offering silent obedience, Moses begins to talk back to the Lord. Two weeks ago we read the story of God’s gift of water from the rock. In that story the Lord places himself on creation’s side, between Moses’ staff and the rock. Here, the roles have been reversed. God’s hand is prepared to strike Israel down, and Moses places himself between God’s anger and God’s people. Moses takes a stand against God. It is, to say the least, a gutsy decision. Moses has dared to defy God.
This second example of defiance, however, could not be more different from Aaron’s defiance. Aaron’s defiance is cowardly, sneaky, and faithless. Aaron gives in to the whims of the people. Perhaps he’s afraid of his life. Perhaps he’s no better than the Israelites who demand the idol. Whatever the case, Aaron’s defiance is shameful.
On the other hand, Moses’ defiance depends on the faithfulness Aaron so sorely lacks. If Moses did not have great faith, he could not have responded to God the way he does. Either Moses believes that the Lord will not condemn him for his audacity or Moses is willing to die for the people God has called him to rescue from Egypt. Moses’ defiance is bold, direct, and faithful. First, Moses reminds God that Israel belongs to the Lord, not to Moses: “O Lord God, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand?” Second, Moses points out that God’s reputation will be ruined if Israel is destroyed: “Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them?’” Third, Moses appeals to God’s deep relationship with Israel’s forebears: “Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by your own self, saying to them, ‘I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven.’” The stunning part is: Moses’ defiance works. God relents and does not bring disaster upon Israel.
Each week this month we’re talking about what it means to be the church. Last week we looked deeply at the commandment not to lie; the church must be a truthful community. Today we discover that, sometimes, the church must be a defiant community, a community, like Moses, ready to stand up to God. When we look around and see the world overcome by sin, we should not wag our fingers or hope for God’s devastating judgment. We should stand in the breach, as the psalmist says, and pray for God to roll back his anger and pour forth mercy instead.
Such prayer only makes sense if God is already involved in our world. Such prayer only makes sense if we believe in the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus Christ. Such prayer requires us to stand with great faith.
In fact, we offer this kind of prayer every week in the Great Thanksgiving. We recite the many ways the Lord has claimed us as his people. We offer up as a continual reminder the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This is our plea for God’s ongoing mercy and love toward us and all people. It’s as if we’re saying to God, “We know human sin deserves your harshest judgment. But why should you destroy, God? You claimed us as your people when you formed us in your image. Don’t forget your Son Jesus Christ! Have mercy on us.” We stand in the breach. And we do this, not because we doubt God will love us, but because we are sure God will answer our prayers.
One last thing. Did you notice how God seems almost to provoke Moses into defying him? It’s as if God wanted someone to stand in the breach between him and Israel. It’s like God expected someone might come along who would offer himself on behalf of God’s people in order to turn back God’s judgment and open the floodgates of grace. We might even call such a person Savior. Amen.