Unconditional Forgiveness!?

In this sermon I have largely followed the interpretation of Exodus 32-34 that is offered by Donald Gowan in his book The Bible on Forgiveness.

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How long do you keep trying?

How many times do you go back to a relationship?

Perhaps you’ve had meaningful years together. You’ve grown together in love and care. And yet in some ways the other person seems incapable of maintaining a loving posture toward you. The other person seems continually to prioritize other activities or other responsibilities or other people, over you? Even worse, perhaps, the other person often seems incapable of a basic faithfulness to you and to the relationships.

How long do you keep trying?

How many times do you go back to the relationship?

These are deeply personal questions – and perhaps questions many of us have wrestled with at some point in our lives.

In the next few weeks we’re going to spend some time exploring relationships –exploring these kinds of situations that arise in our lives. More specifically, over the next few weeks we are going to spend some time exploring the topic of forgiveness. It is by no means a straightforward topic – in fact it is a complicated and difficult topic, both in terms of our personal lives and in terms of our faith. But over the next few weeks that is what we are going to do – we are going to wrestle with the question of forgiveness.

This morning we don’t begin with forgiveness as it is expressed in our relationships with family members or friends. Rather, we begin with the character of God, exploring the possibility that God forgives.

And as we dig into the subject of God’s forgiveness, we stay with those questions we have just asked: How long do you keep trying? How many times do you go back to a relationship when the other party has done so much to violate or break the relationship? But this time we discover that it is God who is asking the questions. It is God who is asking himself: How long do I keep trying with this people? How many times do I keep coming back to them?

In Exodus chapter 32 we find God and Moses deep in conversation. Moses has led the people out of Egypt into the wilderness – Moses has gone up on the mountain to receive the ten commandments from God. And while Moses is there on the mountain, God suddenly becomes aware of what the people are doing at the bottom of the mountain. So in the middle of their conversation God says to Moses: “Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt have acted perversely; they have been quick to turn aside from the way I commanded them; they have cast for themselves an image of a calf, and have worshiped it and sacrificed to it, and said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt’.”

There is something quite startling in these words of God. We’re used to hearing God say things like this: “You are my people and I brought you up out of slavery in Egypt.” But notice what God has just said to Moses. “Go down, Moses. Your people, whom you brought up out of the Land of Egypt have acted perversely.”

In this narrative – in this conversation with Moses – we suddenly find God distancing himself from this people. Suddenly he isn’t referring to them as his own people – suddenly he is referring to them as Moses’ people – the people Moses brought out of Egypt. “Moses – go deal with your people. The people you brought out of Egypt.”

A few verses later, not only has God dissociated himself from this people, but God begins to sound like he wants to start all over again, with a new people, with a different people. God says to Moses: “I will make you a great nation, Moses.” Never mind them.

In a way, it’s as if God has had enough. “I called Abraham out of the East and I promised to bless him and all the generations after him. I walked with his descendants – with Isaac and Rebecca, with Jacob and Rachel. I was with Joseph and his brothers. And now I have rescued this people from slavery in Egypt – and yet here they are making an idol for themselves. I am their creator and I am the one who has delivered them, and here they are claiming that an inanimate statue is their rescuer.”

In his conversation with Moses, God uses some pretty strong language. God says that this people has acted perversely – that they have gone astray – that they are stiff-necked. They have broken the relationship. And it’s not the first time, by any means.

If we go back to where we began this morning, perhaps it won’t be so difficult to understand God’s wish to distance himself from this people. When we experience moments of betrayal in our lives – when those we loved turn their backs on us – when those we love have broken trust or betrayed us – then we inevitably find ourselves asking: How long do I keep trying? How often do I keep going back to this relationship?

Essentially, that is where God has ended up in this narrative. Is it any surprise that God seems to conclude, “I’m not going back. I’ve had enough.” God’s people have turned their backs on God. They have thumbed their noses. They have decided that a statue will do. They have been decidedly unfaithful. So is it any surprise that God seems to say:

“I’m not going back.

I’m going to stop trying, now.

Moses – you go speak with them.

Moses – you go deal with your people. I’m done.

A conversation ensues. In these kinds of relational moments, there are always conversations aren’t there. They are usually difficult and painful conversations. And in this situation it’s no different, as Moses tries to convince God to remain in the relationship. In this conversation there is also an additional complicating factor for us – both a theological and ethical complications – since it become apparent that God wants to destroy his people for their continual unfaithfulness and for their rejection of him.

But as the conversation progresses between God and Moses, God’s heart has begun to soften. And as God’s heart softens he first of all agrees not to destroy this people. He relents from sending such a harsh punishment on them. But it’s interesting to notice that even though God decides to show mercy, decides not to punish them, it doesn’t mean he wants to embrace them as his people again. Essentially God says: “Fine, I won’t destroy this people, Moses, but that doesn’t mean I’m going back to that relationship. It doesn’t mean I’m going to try again. I’m done with this people. They’ve broken trust too many times. It’s over.” There is mercy here, but not yet forgiveness in the deepest sense.

Moses must be physically and emotionally exhausted, but within the narrative he keeps pushing – he keeps the conversation moving. And as he persists, God’s deeper compassion and love begins to break through within the narrative. Moses says to God: “Don’t abandon us. We can’t keep going without you. If you won’t accompany us, if you won’t go with us, then there’s no point. We need your blessing, we need your leading, we need your love and your protection. If you won’t go with us, then there’s no point in us going.” Toward the end of Exodus chapter 33, it seems that God’s heart has softened decisively in relation to Moses and toward the people. God pledges to take a step back toward the relationship.

At this point it’s interesting to notice that within the narrative the people have done nothing to mend their ways – they have done nothing to show they deserve God’s confidence and trust – there is no evidence that they get it. Yet in the conversation between Moses and God, as Moses makes his appeal, God softens. And as God softens we come to one of the most significant passages in the Old Testament.

God speaks to Moses, and says, as we heard read this morning:

“The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin…”

They are words worth reading again:

“The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving inqiuity and transgression and sin…”

As the Old Testament professor Donald Gowan points out, this is the first moment within the Hebrew bible, within the Old Testament narrative, where it becomes clear that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is a God of unconditional forgiveness.

If we step back for a moment we have to say that we don’t know exactly when it was that God’s people came to this understanding of the character of God. This conversation between God and Moses – these words that God speaks about his own character – these words might be as old as Moses himself. Or these words might belong to a later time – these words might have been in a sense written back into the narrative of God’s people. But regardless of when exactly it was that the people came to this understanding, we know that through their history and through their experiences with God, they have found themselves on the receiving end of God’s unconditional forgiveness. The narrative sets it up so clearly.

There was no change of heart on the part of God’s people.

There was no acknowledgment of what they had done.

There was no commitment to do better or differently.

There was nothing, except their leader imploring God for mercy

And in spite of the fact that the people offered nothing, in terms of change of heart and life, God declares:

I will forgive them.

I will go come back to them.

I will return to the relationship.

I will go with them.

I will be their God.

These words of compassion and forgiveness first recorded in Exodus 34 will be repeated time and again throughout the Hebrew bible. These words of Exodus 34 are echoed in the book of Nehemiah – echoed in the Psalms – echoed in Jeremiah’s Lamentations – echoed in the prophets Joel and Jonah – expressed in the narratives of Kings and Chronicles. The people of God have discovered that the God of covenant and creation is a God whose loves persists, whose mercy is broad and deep, and whose forgiveness comes unconditionally to his people. No matter what they have done, God returns to them. No matter what they have done, he will be there God.

“The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin…”

Let me be clear about something. There’s nothing in what we’ve said this morning that suggests all of this should be translated directly into our relationships.

We are not saying that no matter what she does, I have to go back.

We are not saying that no matter what he does, I have to try again.

We are not saying that no matter what they do, we have to remain in the friendship.

This morning we are not talking about our human relationships.

We are talking about what the Hebrew people have discovered about God. We are talking about the fact that unconditional forgiveness has been revealed and discovered as essential to who God is in relation to us. Certainly, we’re going to have to take that unconditional forgiveness of God into account in our daily live and relationships – certainly, that unconditional forgiveness will have an impact on who we are and how we live and relate to others. But there can be no simplistic translation of God’s unconditional into our lives. This morning it isn’t about us – it’s about character of God.

I can’t think of a better place to end this morning than with words from the prophet Micah – words from the 7th chapter of his prophesy. Words that echo what we have heard in Exodus 34 – words that make all the difference for our understanding of, and relationship with God.

Micah chapter 7, verses 19-20:

Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity and passing over the transgression of the remnant of your people? He does not retain his anger forever, because he delights in clemency and loyalty. He will again have compassion on us; he will tread our iniquities under foot. You will cast all of our sins into the depths of the sea. You will show faithfulness to Jacob and unswerving loyalty to Abraham, as you have sworn to our ancestors from days of old.

Thanks be to God, through Jesus Christ, in whom the unconditional love and forgiveness of God are on full display. Amen.

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