Exodus 32:7-14New International Version (NIV)
7 Then the Lord said to Moses, “Go down, because your people, whom you brought up out of Egypt, have become corrupt. 8 They have been quick to turn away from what I commanded them and have made themselves an idol cast in the shape of a calf. They have bowed down to it and sacrificed to it and have said, ‘These are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.’
9 “I have seen these people,” the Lord said to Moses, “and they are a stiff-necked people. 10 Now leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them. Then I will make you into a great nation.”
11 But Moses sought the favor of the Lord his God. “Lord,” he said, “why should your anger burn against your people, whom you brought out of Egypt with great power and a mighty hand? 12 Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he brought them out, to kill them in the mountains and to wipe them off the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce anger; relent and do not bring disaster on your people. 13 Remember your servants Abraham, Isaac and Israel, to whom you swore by your own self: ‘I will make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and I will give your descendants all this land I promised them, and it will be their inheritance forever.’” 14 Then the Lord relented and did not bring on his people the disaster he had threatened.
Do you know who, out of the people in the Bible, was the greatest sinner of all? It was Moses. He broke all 10 of the Commandments at once.
About 400 years before the birth of Jesus, the Greek world experienced a period of enlightenment that still affects much of the world today. Euclid was working out what we today would call geometry, Pericles was refining democracy, and a trio of men were developing the practice of philosophy, which simply means the love of wisdom. The three men that I am referring to are of course Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. And as I like to say, my favorite is Plato, because his name alone brings back fond memories of my childhood, making snakes and spaghetti with my Plato fun factory. Or was that Playdough fun factory?
Plato offered a theory that everything that we see is simply an image of that which is real. Off is some distant location, there are true “forms,” which is the thing that we see, but in its purest and unadulterated state. So we may see a tree, but that is really not a tree. It is simply an image of a tree, which in reality exists as a form somewhere else. The forms do not change and cannot be altered, where things can be changed and altered here on earth. (I’m grossly oversimplifying. Bear with me!)
Plato’s student, Aristotle further developed some of Plato’s thoughts and developed the concept of God as the “unmoved mover.” God is the one that set the world in motion, but God himself is not affected by creation. God moves us, we don’t move God.
Plato had a major influence on a number of early Christians, as many came out of Greek backgrounds. One of them is a man known St. Augustine. If you read Augustine’s work, you will see some of the influence that Plato played in the development of Augustine’s thought. The same is true of later theologians like Thomas Aquinas. Even if you never read anything written by Augustine or Aquinas, but you are likely influenced by their work, even if you don’t know it!
Over the years, Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, and Aquinas’s works have been both praised and condemned, copied and amended. I think some of this work is good, and some is better left in the Dark Ages! We find ideas about the immutability and impassability of God coming out of these men. Immutability does not mean that you cannot silence God, it means that God does not mutate, God does not change. God is the unmoved mover and the “form” of anything that we might imagine. Impassibility is a reference to God suffering, remember that the French/Latin word “passion” means to suffer, like in the movie title, “The Passion of the Christ.” God cannot suffer because that would affect God and change God.
These historical teachings align well with verses like Malachi 3:6, “I the Lord do not change,” and James 1:17, “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.” We even sing a song, “God always faithful, you do not change.”
We can always count on God to be God. God’s attributes do not change. God is always faithful; God is always just; God is always righteous; God is always holy; God is always love.
How many of you have ever run into someone that you haven’t seen for years and you think to yourself, “Wow, you’ve changed!” Maybe that person looks older or perhaps their interests are now different. You might run into your best friend from high school with whom you played video games all night long when you were a kid and now they are a mature parent, spouse, and employee. They’ve changed; that’s a part of growing up and maturing.
I am not immune from this change, and I bet that you are not, either. One hot summer day I toasted some homemade, whole wheat and flax bread and made myself a cucumber hummus sandwich. It was so good! But I remember thinking that if 18-year-old Kevin could see me now, he would totally kick my butt for being such a hippie.
But it’s not just our interests and our tastes that change, our actions sometimes change, too. Sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. There is a heroin epidemic in my home state and even in my little, rural home town. Maybe you saw the picture of the father and mother who overdosed on heroin this week and the police found them in their car with a child in the back seat. That happened in my state. When I was growing up the rowdy kids would get some tobacco and smoke or chew it, or maybe sneak a few Bud Lights from their dad’s fridge. The people in a place dear to me have changed, and not for the better.
Sometimes you hear about couples who have been married for 10, 15, 20 years who are getting a divorce. And almost always you will hear one of the individuals say to the other, “You’ve changed. You aren’t the man or woman that I married.”
People change, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse.
I find it comforting to know that God does not change. Some have said that the one thing that God can’t do is to stop acting like God. God can’t be unjust, unrighteous, unloving.
But what I think is very important about our text for this morning is that it differentiates between two different kinds of change. God does not change his attributes, but God does change his mind. And what is the powerful and mighty force that can cause our great and wonderful God to change his mind? Oh, it’s people. People like you and me. People who pray.
Our text tells us that Moses was on Mt. Sinai where he was receiving the Torah from God. During this time the Israelites, just pretty fresh out of slavery in Egypt, asked Moses’s brother Aaron to make them a god. So Aaron gather’s all of their gold, melts it down, and makes a golden calf for them to worship. Because, you know, if you are going to worship something, it might as well be a bovine.
God was angry, and I think that is the right response. God just protected them through the plagues, led them out of slavery, even separated the waters so that they could go through on dry land, and how do they thank him? By worshipping another god. Then we read God saying this in verse 10, “Now leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them.”
Moses could have responded by saying, Do it, God! Get those idolaters! But instead, we find Moses saying in verse 12, “Turn from your fierce anger; relent and do not bring disaster on your people.”
Let’s jump ahead to verse 14, where we find God’s response: “Then the Lord relented and did not bring on his people the disaster he had threatened.”
I don’t know what is more amazing, the fact that Moses asked God to change his mind or the fact that God actually did.
If you read this in the King James Version, it is even more amazing, because rather than saying that “the Lord relented,” the KJV actually says that the Lord “repented.”
We need to remember that to repent does not mean that God is apologizing for sin, and the NIV translates this as saying that God relented because we have the mistaken understanding of repentance as admitting guilt. To repent means to turn. God was going to do one thing, and God instead turned and did something else.
This is not a one-time event. There are 39 unique passages in the Bible that tell us that God changed his mind. Additionally, there are a total of 200 places where it does not say that God changed his mind, but that tell a story of how God did something different from what he had originally said he would do. Here’s a quick look at some of the “mind changing” verses:
Chron 21:15—God said that he would destroy Jerusalem, but then he relented.
2 Kings 10:1-6—King Hezekiah was told through an inspired prophet that he would not recover from sickness. But after Hezekiah pleaded with God, the Lord told him “I will add fifteen years to your life.”
Ex 33:1-3, 14—In the light of Moses’ pleading, the Lord reversed his plan not to go with the Israelites into the promised land.
Deut 9:13-29—The Lord “intended to destroy” the Israelites, and was even ready to destroy Aaron. Moses’ 40-day intercession altered God’s intention.
1 Kings 21:21-29—The Lord says that he will bring disaster because of Ahab’s sins. But when Ahab repents, he says that he will not bring disaster.
2 Chron 12:5-8—The Lord was going to allow the Israelites to be conquered because of King Reheboam’s rebellion. The king and his officers repent, so the Lord changes his plan.
Jer 26:2-3—The Lord tells Jeremiah to prophesy to Israel that they should repent, saying, “I may change my mind about the disaster that I intend to bring on [Israel] because of their evil doings.”
Ez 4:9-15—God tells Ezekiel to act out a prophesy with human dung, but Ezekiel objects. God then allows Ezekiel to act it out with cow dung.
Amos 7:1-6—The Lord revealed two judgments and two times Amos intercedes. Twice the Scriptures say, “The Lord relented concerning this …”
Jonah 3:10—God “changed his mind” about the destruction he planned to carry out on Nineveh.
Notice what these verses have in common, aside from God changing his mind. When God changes his mind, it is often at the request of human beings.
But God doesn’t change. He is the unmoved mover, the immutable, impassible one. Yet there are at least 200 verses that speak otherwise.
What I want to warn us all of today is to have our understanding of God formed by what we actually read in the Bible, not what some Greek philosophers said thousands of years ago. It is true that God does not change, but that is a reference to God’s attributes, his holiness, his love, his character. God does not change in the way the people of Ohio have moved to hard narcotics, or the way a spouse changes from the person you married. God has shown that he will change his plans, change his mind, when his people humble themselves and pray. As long as what you are praying for is not asking God to act contrary to who God is, I believe God will entertain your prayer. There is a difference between God changing his mind and changing his attributes.
We have the power to influence God’s actions. Do not take that lightly!
Let’s go beyond what is in our text for today. After Moses appeases God and gets him to calm down, Moses descends from the mountain and sees the people worshipping the golden calf. Moses becomes infuriated! He is carrying the tablets upon which God carved the Ten Commandments, and Moses throws them down, breaking them into pieces. He takes the gold calf, burned it, and ground it up into little pieces of gold dust. And what is probably my favorite move in the Bible, Moses mixes the gold dust with the people’s water supply and makes them drink it. This has kind of a Titus Andronicus feel to it, doesn’t it?
There is something here that I think we need to make note of. God was angry because the people had sinned against him. But Moses was essentially able to talk God down and away from his anger. But immediately following this episode, we find Moses getting extremely angry and taking it out on the stone tables from God and on the people.
It seems as if Moses is powerful enough to change God’s actions, but not his own. Moses convinces God not to allow his anger get the best of him, but fails to keep his own anger in check.
If we have the power to change God’s actions, surely we have the power to change our own. Indeed, there are times when we cannot do this alone. But together, with friends, family, the church, and the Holy Spirit of God, we can change.
People change, that is undeniable. I mentioned some ways that change can be bad, but it can just as well be good.
We all struggle with something, addictions, attitudes, finances, relationships. One of the things that I have historically struggled with is watching too much television. When Sonya and I first moved to Virginia in 2005, the local cable company was offering a great deal on basic cable. I’d never had ESPN, TBS, TNT, or the History Channel before! And let’s be honest, I didn’t spend hour after hour watching the History Channel. I found it amazing that I could watch water polo at 2:00 am. I could watch reruns of Friends and Seinfeld while I ate my meals and even into my study time. 24-hours sports and round-the-clock comedies! Who could ask for anything else?
Sonya and I soon decided to “disable the cable,” receiving only the broadcast stations on our home television. I had to make the decision to put down the remote.
I realize that I can easily relapse into those old ways to this day. Now, rather than watching water polo late into the night, I can easily binge-watch a television series on Netflix. And there are times when that is okay. The middle of the winter when you can’t get out because of the snow it is fine to do some binge watching. The point that I am making is that if we have the power to change God’s actions, we surely have the power to change our actions. And sometimes it takes something bigger than our selves. We need to pray for the strength to come from God.
Twelve-step programs, like Alcoholics Anonymous, all begin by saying, “I am powerless against my addiction.” That statement is not true. Maybe on your own, you are powerless over your addictions, but that is why people come together for AA. I may be powerless, but together, we are not. With help from one another, and help from God, we can change our actions and behaviors. We can turn, which is the true meaning of repentance, turn toward something better.
Throughout our scripture for today, God calls the Israelites a “stiff-necked people.” Stiff-necked people do not look side to side, but only straight forward. They do not turn, the do not repent, they do not change their minds or their actions.
God was mad at the Israelites because they worshipped an idol, like was their custom in Egypt. God is calling us all to turn, to repent, to change our minds and our actions. God is calling us to turn to something more beautiful, more life-giving, and more Christ-like.