God’s Temptation

Bible text: Exodus 32:7-14

This morning I was reading the story of Israel’s creation of the golden calf at Mount Sinai. Moses has been on Mount Sinai 40 days in dialogue with God. Israel gets impatient with his absence. They want action now, and so they ask Aaron to create them a god. He creates a golden calf.

This creates an interesting turn in God’s dialogue with Moses. Hot with anger, God tells Moses to leave the mountain immediately. God says he is about to destroy the people of Israel for their apostasy. Instead he will create a new people from Moses’ line of descent.

What caught my attention is how God introduces this conversation. He says to Moses: “Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely….” [I added the italics.] Suddenly the people of Israel are not God’s people. They are Moses’ people. And Moses is the one who brought them up out of Egypt. God lays no claim to them.

Moses, however, will not allow God to wipe his hands of the connection. He retorts: “O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand?” [Again, I’ve added the italics.]

Moses does not allow God to cavalierly displace the connection between God and Israel. It is not Moses who brought Israel out of Egypt. It is God. And the Israelites are certainly Moses’ people because he belongs to them. But in terms of covenant ownership, they are God’s people because God called and created them.

Moses then reminds God of the stake he has in Israel’s fate. If God destroys Israel, it will reflect very badly on God’s reputation. The Egyptians will laugh in derision.

Furthermore, God has made a promise to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. If he destroys the Israelites, God will show himself an unstable god like all the fickle, unstable gods of the other ancient Near Eastern polytheisms. God will show himself to be a God in whom no one would be advised to place any ultimate trust and loyalty.

The text says Moses wins the argument. God changes his mind.

I find this a fascinating dialogue for two reasons. One is the effrontery exhibited by Moses. Moses is neither bribed by God’s promise to make a great nation out of Moses. Nor is he meekly cowed by God’s presumption to pass the buck of responsibility onto Moses. Moses does not accept the role of scapegoat.

Instead Moses stands up to God. He presumes to argue with God. And Moses wins.

The other fascinating feature is the argument Moses makes. If God is going to be God, then God must be true to himself. God may need to be flexible in dealing with humanity. The story of the Bible gives many examples of this flexibility.

But God cannot be untrue to himself and remain God. God cannot betray his eternal purposes and character and remain a God in whom humanity is called to place ultimate trust. In times when God is thwarted and frustrated with the erring ways of humanity, he may be tempted to act in ways that are less than God. But if he does, he will cease to be God. He will become the Devil.

God faces a temptation. He has been betrayed, and he is tempted to respond in kind. But Moses reminds God that if he gives in to the temptation in the heat of passionate emotion, he will cease to be God.

So God must work with recalcitrant humanity is a way that God remains true to God’s own self. How he does that is the story of rest of the Bible. 

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The Character of Saving Faith

Scripture text: Mark 5:24-34
[Jesus] said to her, ‘Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace…

When Mark tells the story of Jesus healing a woman who had suffered from blood hemorrhages for 12 years, he climaxes his telling with Jesus’ final words to the woman: “Daughter, your faith has made you well.”

The Greek word translated “made well” is the verb sozo. It can also be translated “saved.” So Jesus’ words are a statement about salvation: Your faith has saved you.

But what kind of faith is Jesus talking about? A common misperception is that Christian faith means believing certain doctrines, like the doctrines of the Apostles’ Creed. If this is what faith means, then we are saved by our intellectual beliefs.

But I don’t think the woman with her hemorrhages was thinking about the Apostles’ Creed when she reached out to touch the hem of Jesus’ garment. This is not the faith Jesus is commending. Instead she believed there was power in Jesus to heal her. She believed that enough that she pushed through the crowd so she could touch him.

For the Biblical authors as well as for Jesus, saving faith is fundamentally trust, trust in God and then in Jesus whom God has sent. It is not simply intellectual belief.

This is not to say that the Christian gospel has no intellectual content. The doctrines of the church tell us something about the God and the Jesus Christ we are called upon to trust in. The doctrines point to the fundamental character of God and his Son. That is important if we are truly to trust in God. But trust goes much deeper than intellectual belief.

Now here’s the point I want to make. It is our behavior, not our words or our feelings, that shows whether we trust or not.

Let me use an analogy to clarify what I mean. Let’s assume you are a part of a hiking party walking through a mountainous landscape. You come to a massive crevice in the earth. It separates two sections of your trail.

The crevice is deep, plunging several hundred feet. At the bottom jagged rocks litter a riverbed through which runs a torrent of water. If you lose your balance and fall into the crevice, it will be instant death.

The sole way across the crevice is a rope bridge. The bridge appears flimsy as it sways in the breeze. You are not sure it will hold you if you step onto it.

Your guide tells you it is a strong bridge. He has crossed many times, and it has always held up. He tells you something of how the bridge was made, of what materials it is constructed, to reassure you of its strength. Other hikers attest to how they have crossed it and found it to be as the guide says. The guide invites you to continue your hike by stepping on it and proceeding across.

Now you may be inclined to believe by the guide’s remarks and the comments of the other hikers. You may say to everyone confidently, “I believe this bridge will hold me up if I cross it.” But your faith in the bridge remains purely an intellectual belief, until that moment when you step on the bridge and begin to walk across.

At that moment, intellectual belief turns into trust. You express your trust by stepping onto the bridge. Trust expresses itself in behavior.

Now when our Christian gospel calls us to place our faith in Jesus Christ, it is calling us to more than an intellectual belief in doctrines about Jesus. Those doctrines tell us something about who Jesus is, his character, and his relationship to God his Father. They are like the hiking guide telling you about how the rope bridge was made and from what materials.

Other Christians may share their experience of trusting in Jesus. Again that is like your fellow hikers sharing their experience of crossing the bridge.

You may believe everything they say in your mind, but still balk at stepping on the bridge. Your faith has yet to become trust. But the moment you step onto the bridge, your faith transforms into trust.

To continue with the analogy, we may say that Jesus Christ is like the bridge across the crevice. If we would experience the fullness of life that he holds out to us, we must trust him carry us across to the life he promises. We show we trust him to do so by making as sincere an effort as we can to live out our lives as he teaches, to live in what I call the Jesus Way.

He introduces us to that Way through his teachings and his actions that serve as examples of his Way. This is the way, he says, that leads to life. It is a way that focuses on forgiveness, justice, compassion, and love.

What does such a life look like? We have the gospel stories about how Jesus lived. We have Jesus’ teaching and commandments. We have the teaching and admonitions of the apostles. And we have the stories told in the Old Testament.

It is important to keep in mind what Jesus says to his disciples at the Last Supper:
“As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love….” (John 15:9-10) Our behavior expresses our love and trust.

Here Jesus is consistent with the whole thrust of the Old Testament. Many Christians in fact misunderstand Judaism. Old Testament religion is not a religion of works in contrast to the New Testament religion of faith. The call to trust God and his promises lies at the heart of the Old Testament as much as at the heart of the New Testament.

When God calls Abram to leave his country and family to go to a land God will show him, Abram shows his trust in God by going. Trust in God is shown by obedience to God’s ways as revealed to us in the Torah and in the commandments. Our behavior expresses what we really trust in life.

Of course, as we walk in the way laid out for us by God, we find we cannot truly walk that way by our own will power alone. We must constantly turn to God for the power that comes from him. Prayer is always an essential ingredient in the life of obedience.

Why is all this so important to me? In part, because it says something important about the basis of church membership. In the Presbyterian Church, to which I belong, church membership is based upon two criteria: the profession of faith [or trust] in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior and a commitment to living in a fellowship under his rule. (See the Book of Order of the Presbyterian Church, USA, 2007-2009, Paragraph G-4:0100.)

Notice this does not say anything about believing certain doctrines or following certain practices. That is not to say the doctrines and spiritual practices are not important to Presbyterians. They are. But they are not the essence of saving faith. Trust in Jesus as Lord and Savior and a commitment to living in fellowship under his rule is the essential.

If we sincerely trust in Jesus to the capacity we are able, I believe the Lord will lead us in time to see the truth in the doctrines and the value in the practices of the church and to make them our own. We do not need to believe all the doctrines or practice all the spiritual practices in order to begin to walk the Jesus way.

As we walk in the way God lays out for us, we find that our trust opens up space for the power of God to make us well, in spirit, in relationships, and often too in body.