Sermon for Pentecost 17(c)
Exodus 32:7-14 + Luke 15:1-10 + 1 Timothy 1:12-17
Once again, the scene is set for us in today’s Gospel. The tax collectors – aka those who practiced legalized extortion – and other professional “sinners” were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law complained, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” They were surprised and offended that someone who claimed to be sent from God could have such compassion on people who obviously didn’t deserve it.
The irony of it is that the Law that the teachers of the law were supposed to teach was the Torah – the first five books of the Bible, the books written by Moses. If only those “teachers of the law” had paid closer attention to the Law, then they wouldn’t have been the least bit surprised to see Jesus welcoming those sinners and even standing up for them. Nor would they have been offended by it. Instead, they would have rejoiced over it – as you should, too – because Jesus was acting just like their hero, Moses, did, standing up for miserable, rotten sinners.
Let’s go back to that First Lesson we heard today from the Second Book of Moses, Exodus 32, and see the similarities – Like Moses, Like Jesus – The Sinner Has an Advocate.
The sinners, in Exodus 32, were the entire nation of Israel. It had only been about three months since God, through Moses, had miraculously parted the waters of the Red Sea and rescued them from slavery in Egypt. It took them about two months to travel to the foot of Mt. Sinai, where our text takes place.
They got to Mt. Sinai, and then God gave them the fright of their lives. Thunder and lightning, fire and billowing smoke, earthquakes, blaring trumpets, and then – the voice of God thundering the Ten Commandments to them, beginning with: “I am the Lord – Yahweh – your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol 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.”
The people trembled with fear. They pleaded with Moses to go up and talk to God for them, because they couldn’t handle it. So he did. He got the rest of the laws from God, brought them down, read them to the people and all the leaders of Israel responded. “We will keep these commandments. We will obey.” Then Moses was called back up to the mountain with God so that God could give him the tablets of stone with the laws of God engraved by the finger of God.
Forty days Moses was up there on the mountain, six weeks or so. And the people grew impatient. They told Aaron, Moses’ brother, “Make some gods for us who will go before us, because we don’t know what’s happened to this Moses guy.” So Aaron foolishly crafts a golden idol in the image of a calf and sets it before the people to worship, and they all bow down to it and sacrifice to it and get up and dance around it. So much for the First Commandment! So much for their pledged obedience!
That’s where our text begins. God tells Moses to go down and see just how corrupt these people have become with their idolatry. Then God tells Moses, “I have seen these people, and they are a stiff-necked people. 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.”
If Moses had been like the Pharisees and teachers of the law in the Gospel, he would have taken God up on his offer, wouldn’t he? To be done with “those miserable sinners,” to allow God to consume them in his wrath while rewarding him for his faithfulness.
That’s what the Pharisees and teachers of the law wanted – to be congratulated by Jesus for their goodness, to be rid of “those miserable sinners,” to be rewarded by God. They wanted Jesus to abandon the lost.
But that’s not what Jesus did. It’s not what Moses did, either. But Moses sought the favor of the Lord his God. “O Lord,” he said, “why should your anger burn against your people, whom you brought out of Egypt with great power and a mighty hand? 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. 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.’ ”
See how differently Moses answered from how the Pharisees and teachers of the law answered! He pleads with the Lord. He pleads for the wicked, rebellious, foolish people who had already grumbled against him and against God so many times.
But notice, too, the basis for his plea. He doesn’t say, “Oh, Lord, they’re really not so bad. All they did was make a statue and bow down to it. They don’t deserve to be consumed by your wrath.” Nope. Not a bit of that. Moses agrees that they deserve to be consumed and that God would be just to do it. But he doesn’t plead for justice. He pleads for mercy.
And again, on what basis? Why should God have mercy on these people and spare them from the complete destruction he had threatened? Why? Moses cites one reason and one reason alone: for the sake of God’s own reputation.
First, “You brought them out of Egypt (not I, Lord), with great power and a mighty hand. You did this great thing for them. Why should your salvation go to waste?”
Second, “Yes, Lord, you would be just to consume them, but don’t give the Egyptians the satisfaction. Don’t let them blaspheme your holy name and get the wrong idea about who you are. They won’t understand that it was really the people’s fault. They’ll just see it and accuse you of being capricious. Don’t let your reputation be trashed on account of these wicked people.”
And third, “Remember your oath, your promise made to your faithful servants in the past, to Abraham, Isaac and Israel. You promised them that their descendants would inherit the land! You promised! You promised! Remember your promise! Relent!”
And Moses was heard by the Lord. His prayer for his people was acceptable in God’s sight. God relented. He “changed his mind,” insofar as you can say that about the LORD who doesn’t change. He relented and didn’t bring on his people the disaster he had threatened.
Now, we might get the impression that what God really wanted to do was to destroy Israel, and that it was Moses’ compassion that changed God’s mind. But God is only moved by our prayers if he wants to be moved. It was God who wanted all along to have compassion on his people. He just wanted Moses to be their advocate.
What God wanted was for those who had rebelled against him to know the extent of his wrath over their sin and the deadly consequences that were in store for them. What he wanted was for his chosen leader – Moses – to stand up for his people, to be an advocate for them, to show compassion for them, to hold up God’s honor and God’s own promises as the reason why he should not destroy them. What he wanted was for Moses to become a picture of Moses’ replacement, THE Chosen Leader who would truly lead God’s people to the promised land. What he wanted was for his people to hear about Moses pleading for them, and to know that that’s what the Christ would do, too.
How do we know that’s what God wanted all along? Because that’s what we see in Jesus. Jesus is the exact representation of the Father’s Being. Jesus reveals the heart of God to us. Like Moses, like Jesus – the sinner has an advocate.
Now Jesus didn’t deny the sinfulness of the tax collectors and sinners who were coming to him, nor did he excuse it, or tell them it was OK to continue in it, or leave their sins unpunished. Instead, he came to be punished for their sins. Israel’s Chosen Leader asked to be consumed by God’s wrath instead of them, so that they could go free, so that they could enter the promised land of the Father’s grace and of heavenly glory.
And it would be effective. God’s wrath against the sinner would subside – actually, it would be poured out, but on Israel’s Representative, Israel’s Substitute, Israel’s Sacrifice – the Son of God, the Christ. The Law of Moses has been fulfilled by Christ. There is an advocate for sinners who stands at the right hand of God and says “Remember! Remember your promise that everyone who believes in me will not perish but have eternal life! Remember how you sent Me to be their Substitute, how you poured out your wrath on me on the cross! You promised to save them through faith in me. You promised! You promised!” And God remembers, and relents.
And so the will of God for sinners is not that they be consumed by his wrath. Peter reveals God’s will for sinners: He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. That’s God’s will, that’s what God wants, for sinners to see the error of their ways and turn to him for mercy – mercy that they can count on in Christ Jesus. Jesus says that there is rejoicing in heaven when a sinner repents and looks to Christ for forgiveness.
There is no rejoicing in heaven whatsoever over those who see no need to repent. There is no rejoicing in heaven when self-righteous people wish for themselves to be saved but wish for other sinners to get what’s coming to them.
I may have told you the story of a church I know where the treasurer stole $100,000 and gambled it away. And then, as far as some members were concerned, the worst thing possible happened. He repented, and promised to pay it all back. But, you see, they became Pharisees – Pharisees who got angry when the church forgave his sin, Pharisees who didn’t want the likes of him anywhere near them ever again. There is no joy in heaven over such people. But there is joy in heaven over the thief who humbles himself and repents of his wickedness and turns to Christ for forgiveness.
We need to watch ourselves – how we speak, how we act – that we never give people the impression that sinners are unwelcome among us. What is unwelcome among us is pride and arrogance. What is unwelcome among us is a refusal to call sin sin, and a refusal to repent of it. Our church should be a place where no one is ever ashamed to come, unless they come in pride. Everyone should know that this place – Emmanuel Lutheran Church is for sinners only – sinners who look to Christ Jesus for help.
Let us take on the attitude of the Apostle Paul who confessed himself to be the chief of sinners. Because if that’s how you see yourself, then you’ll never be able to look down on other sinners. Let us be like Moses, like Jesus, and like our Father in heaven who wants everyone to come to repentance and be saved by faith in his Son. And let us point sinners to their Advocate, Christ Jesus. The sinner who repents and trusts in him will never be put to shame. Amen.