There are stories in the Bible that we like, and there are stories we would prefer to skip. Today we think about two stories we would rather skip, and one passage that feels good. Exodus 32 tells about the Golden Calf, followed by an outburst of God’s Wrath. Matthew 22 contains the parable of the wedding feast, with an outburst of wrath against a poorly dressed wedding guest. Paul’s words of encouragement at the end of Philippians 4 come as a relief, more the kind of passage we enjoy hearing. We look at these three passages together and ask what they have to say to us this morning.
When Moses was on the mountain receiving the Ten Words, the people became impatient, and Aaron used their gold jewelry to fashion “an idol in the shape of a calf”. God decided to destroy them and replace them with Moses’ descendants, but Moses pleaded with God to redeem them instead, for the sake of God’s name.
This passage is full of material that we don’t have time to examine. For one, why a calf? Why not a snake (which shows up later)? For another, the idea that Moses could plead with God and God could relent and extend mercy instead of judgment is puzzling. I note simply that Moses was clearly in a real relationship with God, extending to his ability to argue the matter out with God. We can take courage in our own questions about life. We do not need to be afraid of arguing with God. If we are in close relationship with God, we can bring our deepest fears and objections to God – including our objections to the very idea of God. For this morning, I focus on this basic thought: Grace implies judgment. That is the trouble with grace.
The Children of Israel are unable to wait for God, so they try to make their own form of god to follow, even as Moses receives the word from God: “Do not make any idols” (Ex 34:17) or “You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.” (Ex 20: 4-6)
No wonder that God sends Moses and Joshua back down the mountain in wrath. No wonder that Moses calls the Levites to himself to purify the people. No wonder that they range through the camp killing those who had defiled the very idea of God with the golden calf. Yet if it is not a surprise, it is still a profound difficulty for us. Have you ever read this story to a child? Did you then find yourself trying to avoid leaving the child with the impression that God is waiting to destroy us in our sleep? The wrath of God is not an easy concept for us to grasp, and most often we simply avoid it.
In the verses from Philippians 4, Paul exhorts the Philippians to steadfast unity, peace in the midst of conflict, joy in the Lord, and a constant focus on whatever is good. He makes the exhortation concrete by referring specifically to Euodia and Syntyche (the meanings of these names may be “Sweet fragrance” and “Fortunate”), two women in the church whose personal conflict was hindering the life of the church. He pleads with them “to be of the same mind in the Lord” – a practical application of his general plea to the church in chapter 2: 1-4.
Paul’s words in this passage feel better to us: Rejoice in the Lord; Be gentle with each other; Pray about everything; Experience God’s peace in every area of your life. This feels good! The closing words in the passage have become a benediction for many of us: “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things.” Finally, Paul wishes us the peace of God in all our lives.
This passage refers to God the way that we want to think of God: caring, loving, giver of joy and peace, the one who transforms our lives as we walk in the unity and love of the Holy Spirit. We see God’s mercy and grace on display, and it is good! Then we come to the parable in Matthew 22.
Matthew recounts the parable of the wedding banquet, in which the invited guests refuse to come, leading to their destruction, and new guests fill the hall. To this point in the story, the parable is roughly parallel to the same story in Luke 14: 15-24, but then Matthew adds a hard saying from Jesus. One of the new guests who did not dress up for the occasion is also destroyed.
Even in the part roughly parallel to Luke 14, the note of the king’s anger is prominent. Instead of making excuses, some of the invited guests ignore the messengers, while the rest respond with hostility, killing the king’s messengers. In response, the king sends his soldiers, who destroy the invited guests and their homes.
The next section parallels Luke 14, as the king sends out his servants to gather anyone available and bring them into the wedding feast. Here we feel we can relax: God shows grace and mercy to anyone who will come in! Then the story takes another dark turn. One guest has not dressed up for the feast, but wore his regular clothes. We don’t know who he was or what his resources were, just that he had no answer when he was charged. We know also that the king commanded his destruction.
Here God’s grace and mercy are mingled with God’s wrath in a most disturbing way. The king clearly represents God. Jesus is the messenger who is killed. The Jews are the ungrateful guests, and the Gentiles are those who are brought in. The people hearing and reflecting on the parable could make these identifications easily enough. The failure to wear wedding clothes is more puzzling: What makes sense to me is that this guest represents someone who thought he could presume on God’s grace, and instead experiences God’s judgment. So these passages ask us a difficult question: We know and love God’s grace, but what do we say about God’s wrath?
Excursus: When I was in seminary, I learned that parables have one basic point. We are to stick to that point, and not treat them as allegories. I think that Matthew must not have gone to the same seminary I did, because he does seem to move towards allegory (compare, for example, the parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25). Luke had better training (more like my own background), and the parables he records are generally cleaner—showing one basic point with perhaps a few secondary points.
Synthesis: We bring these passages together to say that:
· God’s grace is great, beyond imagining.
· Refusing God’s grace and choosing “another god” is deadly. There is no other path to life than God’s grace extended to us.
· Only the cross is “strong enough” to deal with the evil of our world.
The Greatness of Grace
We like the first point. God’s grace and mercy and love are wonderful! We sing and rejoice as we think of God’s love and mercy in our lives.
Wonderful grace of Jesus, Greater than all my sin;
How shall my tongue describe it, Where shall its praise begin?
Taking away my burden, Setting my spirit free;
For the wonderful grace of Jesus reaches me.
Wonderful the matchless grace of Jesus, Deeper than the mighty rolling sea;
Higher than the mountain, sparkling like a fountain, All-sufficient grace for even me!
Broader than the scope of my transgressions, Greater far than all my sin and shame;
Oh, magnify the precious Name of Jesus, Praise His Name!
Contemporary Christian music celebrates God’s love and mercy, and the old hymns do the same.
The love of God is greater far/ Than tongue or pen can ever tell.
It goes beyond the highest star/ And reaches to the lowest hell.
The guilty pair, bowed down with care, God gave His Son to win;
His erring child He reconciled/ And pardoned from his sin.
O love of God, how rich and pure!/ How measureless and strong!
It shall forevermore endure—The saints’ and angels’ song.
Could we with ink the ocean fill,/ And were the skies of parchment made;
Were every stalk on earth a quill,/ And every man a scribe by trade;
To write the love of God above/ Would drain the ocean dry;
Nor could the scroll contain the whole,/ Though stretched from sky to sky.
God’s love is extended to everyone. A basic point of the parable in Matthew 22 is precisely the fact that the servants went out into the streets and brought everyone into the banquet, “the bad as well as the good”! Most of the guests accepted the invitation; there was just one guest who came in, but showed by his lack of respect by not dressing up for the wedding.
This truth feels good, and we like it. God loves us, and we do nothing to earn that love. All we have to do is receive God’s love and enter God’s Wedding Feast (a reference to the fullness of God’s Reign at the end of time). But the fate of the ungrateful wedding guest – and of the Israelites in Exodus 32 – is more difficult. They stand “on the other side of God’s grace.”
The Problem with Grace
We don’t like to talk about judgment or about God’s wrath—“the other side of God’s grace”. The problem with grace is that it implies also judgment. The wedding guests who refused the invitation are condemned. The ungrateful wedding guest is thrown out of God’s realm. The Israelites who worshipped the golden calf are killed with the sword. All of this is profoundly uncomfortable material, and we struggle to hear it and accept it.
We need to understand something about the nature of language. Both OT and NT were written for people that today we would call “Palestinian Jews”. They were a Semitic people, with a particular way of expressing themselves. One regular part of their communication was what we can call “Semitic overstatement”. So in the Conquest narratives we read that the Israelites destroyed everyone in the land—and then they worked out how to live with those who remained. This is a contradiction, unless we recognize the typical overstatement describing the conquest. Similarly, in Judges 9, Abimelek (Gideon’s son) killed his 70 brothers. The story goes on and tells the story of the youngest son, who escaped. But again, this is a contradiction, unless we recognize the typical overstatement in “killed his 70 brothers”.
Jesus used such hyperbole when he said that we might as well take out our eyes to keep from using them for evil. So in Luke 14:26 Jesus tells his disciples to hate their mothers and fathers if they want to be his disciples. Semitic overstatement: He means simply, “Make following more more important than anything else in your life.” In Exodus 32, I think we see this pattern in Moses’ offer of his own life for the people: “Condemn me, but forgive them.” He is simply pleading with God for the salvation of the people. Again, in Matthew 22, the condemning of all the first guests – as well as the destruction of the undressed guest – is a strong way of saying: “Rejecting God’s love and grace is dangerous. Don’t do it!”
Excursus: I read a page on the web claiming that Jesus did not use hyperbole. “Jesus meant what he said!” The author of the web page then went on a long explanation of the statement that we are to hate our father and mother when we follow Jesus and concluded that we are so single-minded in our discipleship that any other relationship is like “hating”. If the author had just admitted that Jesus used overstatement for effect, he could have saved a lot of time and energy!
Let me restate what I think our passages say in simple straightforward language. God loves everyone. God extends grace and mercy to everyone. Those who turn their back on God’s love stand on the other side of God’s grace, which is to court destruction.
Here is my definition of God’s wrath, or God’s judgment. God loves all people so much that God will do whatever it takes to destroy that which stands between us and God. When our own will, our own choice, stands between us and God, God’s love – expressed as judgment intent on destroying what stands between us and God – becomes God’s wrath towards us. God’s wrath is God’s love, intent on destroying the evil in us.
This explanation of God’s wrath brings us to the Cross. God does not simply move through our midst with a sword, like the Levites through the Israelites. God does not simply throw us into outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. Instead, God as God is lifted up on the cross, where God’s wrath acts against the evil of this world. God’s love and mercy combine with God’s wrath against all that separates us from God – on the cross.
This love is such an incredible and wonderful gift, that we may wonder why anyone would reject it and stand on the other side of God’s grace. The reason is fairly simple: self-will. As C.S. Lewis has said, “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’” (The Great Divorce.) This self-will takes many forms. In Canada and the United States, most people feel self-sufficient and don’t see their need for God. They are, perhaps, like the undressed wedding guest.
Receiving God’s love and grace means that we also have to die: “I am crucified with Christ.” What does it mean that we also die? Every one of us would choose first to run our own lives, to be the ruler in our own lives. Accepting God’s love means also recognizing God as king. God is the ruler of the universe, and God rules also in our lives. This means a death to self-will, so that we can rise with Christ in the realm of God. That is what the Israelites failed to do, and that is what the first wedding guests also refused to do.
I have a friend whose story I have told before. A brief reminder. Her grandparents loved Jesus and taught their children to do the same, but her mother chose to reject their teaching throughout her life. She told me that she flew across the country to visit her mother about a week before she died. She reported her mother’s last words to her before she left, “I’ve wrestled with the devil, and I’ve lost.” Sometime later she was visiting home and her step-father told her what her mother’s real last words were, just before she died: “I’m going to Jehovah’s land.”
We don’t know what happened in that last week, but I have a theory. I think that when her mother said, “I’ve lost”, she stopped fighting against God. She stopped insisting on her own way. She gave up, and when she gave up, God was waiting. God had waited all her life, in infinite love and mercy and grace, and God gave her the gift of life. “I’m going to Jehovah’s land.” You see, there is nothing we can do to be among the wedding guests – nothing except to stop fighting against God in our lives and surrender. You remember another old hymn: “All to Jesus I surrender, all to him I freely give. … I surrender all.”
Now there’s a danger with this kind of story. We can turn this surrender into a highly individual experience, which doesn’t affect our lives. Remember the wedding guest who didn’t change his clothes. Repentance matters. Community matters. When we surrender to Christ, Jesus changes us and makes us part of the church, “the body of Christ.” The passage in Philippians 4 describes the joy and peace we have together, the way that we live together. We are God’s chosen people, bringing God’s peace and joy to the whole world.
The problem with grace is that God won’t force it on us. God is always there to give us love and mercy and joy, but God waits for us to give up and hold out our hands and receive his gift of life.
Grace Bible Church
15 October 2017
32 When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, they gathered round Aaron and said, ‘Come, make us gods who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt, we don’t know what has happened to him.’
2 Aaron answered them, ‘Take off the gold earrings that your wives, your sons and your daughters are wearing, and bring them to me.’ 3 So all the people took off their earrings and brought them to Aaron. 4 He took what they handed him and made it into an idol cast in the shape of a calf, fashioning it with a tool. Then they said, ‘These are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.’ 5 When Aaron saw this, he built an altar in front of the calf and announced, ‘Tomorrow there will be a festival to the Lord.’ 6 So the next day the people rose early and sacrificed burnt offerings and presented fellowship offerings. Afterwards they sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in revelry.
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 favour 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 for ever.”’ 14 Then the Lord relented and did not bring on his people the disaster he had threatened.
4 Therefore, my brothers and sisters, you whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, dear friends!
2 I plead with Euodia and I plead with Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. 3 Yes, and I ask you, my true companion, help these women since they have contended at my side in the cause of the gospel, along with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life.
4 Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: rejoice! 5 Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. 6 Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. 7 And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
8 Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things. 9 Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me – put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.
22 Jesus spoke to them again in parables, saying: 2 ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son. 3 He sent his servants to those who had been invited to the banquet to tell them to come, but they refused to come.
4 ‘Then he sent some more servants and said, “Tell those who have been invited that I have prepared my dinner: My oxen and fattened cattle have been slaughtered, and everything is ready. Come to the wedding banquet.” 5 ‘But they paid no attention and went off – one to his field, another to his business. 6 The rest seized his servants, ill-treated them and killed them. 7 The king was enraged. He sent his army and destroyed those murderers and burned their city.
8 ‘Then he said to his servants, “The wedding banquet is ready, but those I invited did not deserve to come. 9 So go to the street corners and invite to the banquet anyone you find.” 10 So the servants went out into the streets and gathered all the people they could find, the bad as well as the good, and the wedding hall was filled with guests. 11 ‘But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing wedding clothes. 12 He asked, “How did you get in here without wedding clothes, friend?” The man was speechless.13 ‘Then the king told the attendants, “Tie him hand and foot, and throw him outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” 14 ‘For many are invited, but few are chosen.’