I delivered this meditation at our Lenten service last night. Context: our Lenten theme and the handing out of a rock to each worshiper upon entry into the sanctuary.
Traditionally, many of us think of lent as a time of repentance. We search ourselves for signs of sin, of too-small vision, of the ways that we're broken. Then we ask for forgiveness, maybe not quite daring to hope that anything will really be different afterward, but trying anyway to "get right with God" again because...well, because we should. For some of us this is a dreary season, more about rules than relationship; more about guilt than grace. And going through a 40-day exercise of self-examination and self-denial may not seem so helpful when we're grieving or afraid. But is there another way to see it? There isn't one of us who doesn't need to repent, but is there also good news to be found here in the desert?
Let's take a closer look at the Moses story and the chapters in Exodus that lead up to this point. In tonight's chapter, God and Moses are having a conversation...one that takes place as Moses is pleading for forgiveness for his people, the Israelites. They have messed up spectacularly. You remember the Israelites--God freed them from slavery and brought them through the desert to Mount Sinai, where (in Exodus 19) God made this covenant with them:
You have seen what I did to the Egyptians,
and how I bore you on eagles' wings and brought you to myself.
Now, therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant,
you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples.
Indeed the whole earth is mine,
but you shall be a priestly kingdom and a holy nation.
It's a grand vision, isn't it? God will be God, and we will be very, very good, and all will be well. Except that it won't, if we have to depend on the strength of our own goodness. We're frail creatures, and despite our best efforts, we can't hold up our end. But at this point in the story, just after making their first covenant, God keeps Moses running up and down the mountain for a while, handing out all kinds of laws about how the Israelites are to hold up their end of the deal, including the Ten Commandments.
Perhaps inevitably, Moses eventually comes down from the mountain, stone tablets in hand, to discover that this "priestly people," this "holy nation," is worshiping a golden calf--a sacred cow of their own making. God and Moses had been off in conversation for kind of a while, you understand, and so the people filled that void with what they could see...which left them
- worshiping wealth and security
- admiring their own creation in the place of God's work, and
- making a god small enough to comprehend and to control.
Those naughty Israelites. We'd do better, right?
Maybe not...at least, I often don't, despite my best intentions. So let's take a minute here, with this tiny piece of mountain in our hands. (hold up rock) Let's think a bit about our worship of the sacred cows that we create...about our own broken places. In fact, let's sort of mentally glue them to these rocks we're holding.
a few minutes of silence
Now, the story continues: God kicks them off Mount Sinai, sputtering, "You people have gotten on my last nerve. Our relationship is broken; I'm not coming with you to the Promised Land." Imagine the desolation of that moment--they know they're guilty, convicted by the law, and now they have to go back into the desert without God's presence.
Bleak, bleak, bleak.
Now Moses, after smashing those tablets on the ground and ranting at the Israelites a while, begs forgiveness for them, and pleads for a reason to have hope for the future: "Show me your glory, God, so that I'll know you're not really abandoning us."
And what does God do? Something surprising. Something absolutely dripping with grace.
First, God commands Moses to remake the stone tablets of the covenant--saying, in effect, "Yes, I'm still in this thing with you; in fact, I'll meet you more than halfway in repairing this breach. I'll go even a step beyond simple justice in order to stay with you."
That's some extraordinary peacemaking. But honesty is also a necessary part of any life-giving relationship. And so God doesn't just gloss over the sinfulness of the Israelites, but acknowledges the reality that "Hey, you guys really messed up here. According to the terms of our covenant, you were supposed to listen to me...to obey me. And now I'm supposed to punish you, and your children as well, to the third and fourth generation after you. But I'm not going to do that. In fact, I'm tearing up our previous covenant. Let's start again."
At one of the most wretched, sinful moments to date in the story of God's people, God breathes new life into the relationship...and instead of 3-4 generations' worth of punishment, God offers them a renewed commitment, drenched with enough hope for several lifetimes.
And so it is with us. As we heard earlier, God promises to do an "awesome thing" with you...and with you...and with me...with all of us. God promises to stay with us not just on the mountain, but in the desert, too. And in that desert, God drowns our sin and renews our spirits in flood after flood of grace.
As we leave tonight, we'll put these rocks in the baptismal font, where they--and we--are washed clean. We'll remember what God is doing and offer our thanks.
And then, God will go with us out that door.