I'll give you fair warning: I am ordained as a Baptist, which means that I'm used to having 45 minutes to preach. So, this is going to be difficult for me.
This story which we are focusing on today has long been a favorite of mine. It has been pivotal in shaping my understanding and practice of prayer. Gazing at the depth of what is going on here makes me wonder at God's power, mystery, justice, and grace. And I love the controversy of the question which always emerges from this passage: 'Does God change his mind?' So much about this portion of scripture gets me excited when I read it.
The story starts with a golden calf. So quickly have God's people run astray. And this offense strikes God so powerfully that God disowns his people. The reminder of who God is, the story told down through generations of Jews of 'The Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt' is turned on its head when God says “Leave me, Moses, for your people whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt have corrupted yourselves.” God then proposes a different plan: what if I destroy all of them and begin afresh with you, Moses. I can imagine that Moses would have had every motivation to say 'Sure, God. That sounds like a wonderful plan.' He knew all too well how stubborn the people were. Complaining about the food, complaining about the water, fighting, looking back with a longing eye towards Egypt. This must have tempted him at least a bit. I wonder if the first part of Moses' response could even have carried a bit of disowning in itself: 'Oh, no, Lord, they are your people whom you brought out of Egypt with your mighty hand.' But seriously, Moses' response can teach us a lot about prayer.
The first thing to note that Moses, though he could have been the new Noah, God's fresh start, doesn't desire such greatness for himself. Though he may have been tempted to sit down up there on the mountain and watch the fireworks as all of his worries disappear, he instead pleads for mercy on behalf of the people of Israel. He doesn't debate their innocence. He certainly doesn't have to go down the mountain to see with his own eyes to believe that the people have once again forgotten God and gone after their own wills. So Moses does an interesting thing: he begins to make a case for why God should acquit the guilty. This is unimaginable! I mean, quite possibly, Moses is standing before God holding stone slabs on which are written the law that condemns the people, pleading for their acquittal. Before the law has even been delivered, it has been broken. How can he expect God to do anything other than that which is just? In effect, here is a story of Moses pleading with God to be unjust.
Here are his arguments. They are two. First, he says, “Why should the Egyptians say, ‘With evil intent did he bring them out, to kill them in the mountains and to consume them from the face of the earth’? “ Moses is arguing for God's reputation, for his glory among the nations. In a time when every nation and tribe had their own gods, and God was revealing himself through Israel as the One True God, Maker of Heaven and Earth, what would it say to the world if God destroyed those whom he had just delivered with such a mighty hand, and promised to make such a great nation? That is the gist of Moses' first plea. “But the Egyptians will say, 'Ha! We knew it! They said that God wanted them to go into the wilderness to worship, but really, their God meant evil for them and only led them out there to wipe them out. Some God that is. Well, at least they didn't get away. We may have lost them at the Red Sea, but we didn't need to get them there anyway. Their own God destroyed them.” Moses pleads, “Lord, show the world that you are indeed mighty to save and deliver your people not only from slavery but all the way to the promised land.”
Which leads to his second petition: “Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, to whom you swore by your own self, and said to them, ‘I will multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your offspring, and they shall inherit it forever.’ “ I love this one, and it can help us tremendously as we consider how to pray. Moses goes back to Abraham, and the night God brought him out of his tent to gaze at the starry nighttime sky. That night, God made a promise: “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” Moses reminds God of his promise. Lord, remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, to whom you swore by your own self. And that phrase is important. To whom you swore by your own self.
Hebrews 6:13 - “For when God made a promise to Abraham, since he had no one greater by whom to swear, he swore by himself, saying, “Surely I will bless you and multiply you.” And thus Abraham, having patiently waited, obtained the promise. For people swear by something greater than themselves, and in all their disputes an oath is final for confirmation. So when God desired to show more convincingly to the heirs of the promise the unchangeable character of his purpose, he guaranteed it with an oath, so that by two unchangeable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled for refuge might have strong encouragement to hold fast to the hope set before us. “
Do you hear the hope of those verses? God promised, and it is impossible for God to lie. This becomes the basis of Moses petition. “God, you promised to make your people outnumber the stars of the sky, remember your promise. Uphold your character, remember your servants, and don't start over with me but keep this promise with these people, lest the world exalt their wooden and stone gods over the One True God.”
Now, here I want to pause and talk about how this might aid our prayer life then we'll jump back into the story. The first part of Moses' petition is essentially a plea for God's greater glory. This is a great prayer strategy. God does everything he does to display his glory...and that's not a bad thing! He's the only being that actually deserves everyone's undivided attention. As humans we can sometimes see this as a mark of insecurity, right? If I try to do everything for my greater glory I look silly and insecure because everyone knows that I am not all that great (if you don't know yet just hang around a bit!). But God is not like me. He actually is all that great. So we want, and God wants that more and more people might see and be enthralled by his glory. So, it's not a bad idea to align our prayers with the greater purposes and glory of God. So when I pray for healing or provision, I will often pray that God do it in a way which will draw much attention to himself.
Secondly, and to me this is the most helpful: Moses remembers God's promises and prays them back to God. Not that God has forgotten them, but displaying that our hope is in God's power and ability to carry out what he has promised. This hit me so pointedly while reading a biography of George Mueller. Mueller ran many many orphanages throughout England in the mid-1800's. He is know for his commitment to make known the needs of his orphanages only to God and for the countless stories of God's provision on behalf of his orphans. In a biography on Mueller I read, “It was in this devout reading on his knees that this whole soul was first deeply moved by that phrase, 'A Father to the Fatherless.'
“He saw this to be one of those 'names' of Jehovah which he reveals to his people to lead them to trust in him...”
Mueller writes, “By the help of God, this shall be my argument before him, respecting the orphans, in the hour of need. He is a father, and therefore has pledged himself, as it were, to provide for them; and I have only to remind him of the need of these poor children in order to have it supplied.” Milk truck story? Boiler story?
That is how we pray the promises of God.
This is where it gets really interesting. Moses' prayer has put God in quite a predicament. Now, we have to be careful here. I'm not saying that Moses has backed God into a corner and forces him to comply. Do you remember God's response to Job's questioning? “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Dress for action like a man; I will question you, and you make it known to me. Where were you when I made the earth? In what were its bases sunk? Who says to the sea 'this far you may come, but no farther'? Where is the dwelling place of light? You know, for surely you were born then, and the number of your days is great. Have you entered the storehouses of the snow and hail?” No, man cannot back God into a corner and demand anything from him.
What Moses has done is point out one of those Divine Paradoxes: How can God keep his promise to sinful people and still remain just? He could easily toast the people and begin again...they would receive the just penalty of their actions. Or he could keep his promise, and heed Moses' prayer, and be unjust...letting the guilty go free. I know what I would have done. So why does God choose to relent from the disaster he was about to unleash on His people? And why do we still worship this God, and not put him on the same level as a poor father who does not discipline his kids but lets them get away with whatever mischief they can cause?
The answer is the Gospel. How does he do it?
Romans 3 - But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God's righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.
What former sins did he pass over? One of them is right here! How could he pass over these sins? Looking ahead to Christ, and the just wrath he will pour out on his own son, God withholds his wrath from his people, keeps his promise to Abraham, displays his glory to the nations, maintains his justice by transferring the penalty of this sin onto the back of his own son, and answers the prayer of his servant Moses. All that transpired in this one little prayer. Can we just bask for a minute in the beauty of God's work; in the beauty of the Gospel?
My brothers and sisters, our God is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. He has made a way to show us mercy and not wrath. We see this same character in Jesus in our Gospel reading today. The woman from the reading had been caught in adultery. As she fell helpless before the crowd, it was obvious she was broken by her guilt. The angry crowd brings her to Jesus, demanding the just punishment of the law, and with the turn of a phrase, Jesus send away her accusers. As with Moses on Mt. Sinai, God shows himself to be slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. He is both just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. All glory and honor be unto God our savior and the one who hears our prayers.