Last week we were reminded that some of the passages in the Bible are very hard to listen to and challenging to say the least. They can seem harsh or cruel or unforgiving, lacking in compassion or understanding for mere human beings who from time to time get things wrong. It can be tempting to gloss over such passages or leave them out altogether but as was said we shouldn’t neglect them because they make us uncomfortable. I used to find it very difficult to listen to many of the Old Testament stories for all the reasons I’ve just mentioned. I couldn’t equate the loving God I believed in with the angry, judgemental one I was hearing about who always seemed to be punishing people for doing what humans do, i.e. getting things wrong. I mentioned this to our then vicar and he said that he found the Old Testament stories very honest because they didn’t shy away from the harsh realities of life as it was for many of the people at the time it records. Over the years I too have gained a greater appreciation of this and find that there is a great deal to learn from its pages.
Having slowly worked my way through the Bible and I’ve now started on the Apocrypha, I’ve noticed patterns of human behaviour which repeat throughout history again and again and again. Particularly when it comes to the bad stuff, it seems we never learn so no wonder God sometimes loses patience with us and there is punishment or the threat of it. Even when we are trying our best we often get things wrong, we misunderstand or don’t listen, we go flying off in some misguided direction because we think we know best or we want our own way. I don’t mean to make us sound like petulant children because we are adults capable of thought and reason and self discipline but I can’t help but see a comparison between how God responds to us and how we respond to our own children, especially when they are being difficult. Sometimes we get frustrated by their behaviour and lose our patience; perhaps we even lose our temper and occasionally we might punish more harshly than we intended. If only we weren’t so angry we might be a bit more understanding and forgiving. When the anger abates we probably hope that eventually our children will understand our actions and see that we had their best interests at heart because we love them. We want them to see things from our point of view and to know that we are not just being mean when we deny them what they want.
I love and adore my children, I always have and thankfully I’ve had very little trouble from either of them but I have to confess that when they were younger there were times when I lost my temper with them. The other day my beautiful little granddaughter, who looks so angelic it’s untrue, had screaming abdabs because she wanted her own way and my daughter was equally determined that she wasn’t going to get it. I kept out of the ensuing battle of wills as I didn’t want to make matters worse but I was impressed by my daughter’s calm efforts to explain why she was saying no; not that it made much difference! As we all know, you can’t reason with someone when they won’t hear you which is quite often the case with small children but I can’t help wondering, how often are we like that with God when we don’t like what we get in life?
I suppose part of the problem is that God’s perspective and ours are very different and we can’t always see or comprehend his plans for us. We are told that vast periods of time are like the blink of an eye to him whereas we can’t really grasp such a timescale in relation to ourselves. We are human beings and most of us only last between 60 to 100 years and we have needs to be taken care of regularly within that span. Just as waiting 5 minutes is like an eternity to a child, so waiting years or decades can seem to us.
The passage we heard from Exodus is from a part of the story of the Golden Calf and I think it demonstrates the difference between how God and people see time and how this leads to trouble. The people have been travelling through the wilderness for a very long time and the promises they were given about a wonderful land of their own seem very far off. Moses, who is supposed to be leading them, has disappeared onto Mount Sinai and has been gone a long time and they don’t know when or even if he is coming back. They are getting impatient and want some direction, some plans, some certainty, some results for all their struggles and sacrifices. I have to say I have some sympathy for them on that score although not for how they chose to behave by demanding that Aaron make a Golden Calf for them to worship instead of God. I can even see why Aaron chose to placate them by going along with this even though it was a huge mistake. Because we are human beings we see things from a human perspective but when we try to view this situation from God’s perspective perhaps we can see why he finally loses patience and gets so angry that he wants to destroy his chosen people. Time and again they have turned away from him and then said they were sorry and he has forgiven them but they go on to do the same thing again and again and again. He describes them as “stiff necked”. It is easy, especially in the Old Testament, to see God as an angry, judgemental punisher but how often is he blamed for what we bring on ourselves. In this instance, Moses intercedes with him not to destroy his people and disaster is averted. We get to see another side of God, that he does listen and is open to persuasion that we are not a hopeless case. He is persuaded not to give up on us.
Going back to our perspective, we need to understand that living our faith is a lifetime’s work and commitment and that the timescale is long, longer than our earthly span. We need to learn from our mistakes and those of others if we are to avoid just repeating history with its patterns of disaster. Above all we need to understand that we are loved and nurtured by God and to trust him, especially when the going is tough and, like the children of Israel, we are not getting the results for our efforts that we’d expected. Hopefully, next time we are feeling frustrated or disappointed or even angry about this, we will look beyond our own perspective and try to see things from God’s. Perhaps then we will realise just how much we are loved.
This was where my sermon was going to end, and it having passed muster with my sermon vetting committee (aka my sister Jan & my mum), I thought my job was done, apart for the preaching bit of course. But then as I was watching television last night I saw a documentary called “The Falling Man”. Everything has been so busy lately that I hadn’t connected with the significance of the date, September 11th, the anniversary of the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Centre in New York. The documentary wasn’t easy to watch as it was about the people who had jumped from these colossal buildings before they collapsed and about how their part in the story had been “airbrushed out of history” because it was too uncomfortable and painful to look at. Understandably people were horrified. Sadly since then we as a world have continued to produce stories and images that are equally hard to look at. But pretending to ourselves that they will go away if we don’t acknowledge them is not only denying recognition of the suffering of the people involved but also enabling us to go on failing to learn from the mistakes which pattern our history.
Again let us try to look beyond our flawed human perspective and attempt to see things from God’s and to rise to the challenge this sets by building a peaceful and compassionate world for all his people.
May those who have died rest in his peace.
Kath Boyd – Reader