Proper 19C Sermon (1995)

Proper 19C
Texts: Luke 15:1-10;
Ex 32:7-14; 1 Tim 1:12-17


Our first lesson today finishes with these words: “And the Lord repented of the evil which the Lord thought to do to the chosen people.” Another version of the same sentence reads, “The Lord’s mind was changed about the disaster that the Lord planned to bring on God’s people.” Repented. Changed God’s mind. Either way, these are not generally things that we think of God doing. We don’t often think of God repenting or changing God’s mind. But this story is told from the perspective of Moses. And, to Moses, it seemed that God had changed God’s mind. But today I would like to respectfully disagree with the perspective of this story from Exodus and instead suggest that it was Moses’ mind that was being changed, not God’s mind!

We need to begin with the idea of God that people of Moses’ time typically had: of a wrathful God who punished the wicked. Because more than three thousand years ago, there was only way to think of God, and that was as a being who punishes and rewards. What else does God do, right? At the time of Moses, people couldn’t conceive of God in any other way. And this way of looking at God resulted in a way of looking at people. The corollary was that it was also assumed that if bad things happened to you, then God must be punishing you.

What I’d like to consider this morning is that their typical idea of God had to begin changing for Moses and the people of Israel, because they had been slaves in Egypt. As slaves, they were nobodies. One could only assume that the gods were punishing them. They must have been wicked people to have deserved being slaves. But, no! Moses came to them with the incredible message that the God of their ancestors, Abraham and Sarah, loved and cared about them enough to free them from slavery! Incredible! This must have been some strange God to act on behalf of a bunch of losers like these Hebrew slaves in Egypt.

In today’s lesson, we pick up where these liberated slaves had blown it, wandering out in the desert. They got restless and impatient and began to worship a golden calf. Wow! Any god would be furious for such a flagrant act of disobedience, right? Well, Moses wasn’t so sure any more. The fact that this God of their ancestors had actually freed them from slavery–well, perhaps this God wasn’t just any god. And so Moses felt bold enough to engage this God in a bit of negotiation. Moses reminded God, ‘Lord, these people belong to you. How would it look to the Egyptians, if you had made such a choice and then decided to kill us?’ So Moses implores God: “Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind,” he says to God. And the story ends incredibly by telling us that it worked! Moses negotiated God into changing God’s mind!

Well, I’m suggesting to you today a different way to look at this story. From Moses’ perspective, yes, God changed God’s mind. But from our perspective–more than three thousand years later, and almost two thousand years after God’s revelation in Jesus Christ–isn’t the truly important event in this story that Moses’ mind was beginning to change about God? He was beginning to see God as a merciful God more than as a wrathful God. And I’m suggesting that Moses’ next insight would have been to understand that he was the one changing his mind. He would understand that God has always been merciful more than wrathful. God hadn’t changed. Moses perception of God had changed. It was his mind that was being changed about who God is.

And I’d like to submit to you today that that is always the most essential act of repentance: namely, that we would change our minds about who God is. This is the first step, the key, to total repentance. In order to have one’s whole life changed, I think that the first step is always to first have our minds changed about who God is. We need to know to the bottom of our hearts that the true God has always been a merciful God. It is we human beings who make God out to be someone else, to be a punishing, wrathful, violent God. It is we who are wrong about God and need to change our minds. Isn’t that the very heart of the Christian Gospel? That through Jesus Christ we most truly get to see who God is?

Christian counselor Dennis Linn tells this wonderful story about how his mind was changed about God. (1) He describes how his image of God was like stern old Uncle George, that Good Old Uncle George was the sort of person that people respected the old fashioned way [raising arm and fist to indicate ‘respect’ by brute force]. Then he tells this story of how his mind was changed:

One day Hilda came to me crying because her son had tried to commit suicide for the fourth time. She told me that he was involved in prostitution, drug dealing and murder. She ended her list of her son’s “big sins” with, “What bothers me most is that my son says he wants nothing to do with God. What will happen to my son if he commits suicide without repenting and wanting nothing to do with God?”Since at the time my image of God was like Good Old Uncle George, I thought “God will probably send your son to hell.” But I didn’t want to tell Hilda that. I was glad that my … training had taught me … to [instead] ask …, “What do you think?”

“Well,” Hilda replied, “I think that when you die, you appear before the judgment seat of God. If you have lived a good life, God will send you to heaven. If you have lived a bad life, God will send you to hell.” [In other words, Hilda’s God punishes and rewards. Our image of God has changed much since Moses, has it?!] Sadly, she concluded, “Since my son has lived such a bad life, if he were to die without repenting, God would certainly send him to hell.”

Although I tended to agree with her, I didn’t want to say, “Right on, Hilda! Your son would probably be sent to hell.” I was again grateful for my theological training which taught me a second strategy: when you don’t know how to solve a theological problem, then let God solve it. So I said to Hilda, “Close your eyes. Imagine that you are sitting next to the judgment seat of God. Imagine also that your son has died with all these serious sins and without repenting. Your son has just arrived at the judgment seat of God. Squeeze my hand when you can imagine that.”

A few minutes later Hilda squeezed my hand. She described to me the entire judgment scene. Then I asked her, “Hilda, how does your son feel?” Hilda answered, “My son feels so lonely and empty.” I asked Hilda what she would do. She said, “I want to throw my arms around my son.” She lifted her arms and began to cry as she imagined herself holding her son tightly.

Finally, when she had stopped crying, I asked her to look into God’s eyes and watch what God wanted to do. God stepped down from the throne, and just as Hilda did, embraced Hilda’s son. And the three of them, Hilda, her son, and God, cried together and held one another.

I was stunned. What Hilda taught me in those few minutes is the bottom line of healthy Christian spirituality: God loves us at least as much as the person who loves us the most.

God loves us at least as much as the person who loves us the most. Doesn’t that beautifully sum up the Gospel? Jesus came trying to help us change our minds about God. Jesus spoke to God as his loving Father in heaven. Or, in other words, he opens our minds to see that God is like Hilda and her unconditional love for her son. God loves us at least as much as the person who loves us the most. To know this deep-down in our hearts kindles the power of repentance, the power to change our lives.

Let’s finish this morning with several brief reflections on how our lives can be changed when our minds are changed about God. Our second lesson tells us of how St. Paul’s mind was changed about God. Gracious! What a drastic change that was! St. Paul had previously thought that God had wanted him to stamp out unbelievers, to stamp out unfaithful Jews, people like these new Christians. He had that view of a violent, wrathful God who called him to work violence against bad people. But Paul had his mind completely changed about God. He came to see that his view of God was blasphemy, and that he was simply a violent man. Having his mind changed about God completely changed who he came to see himself as, and what it was that God called him to do. He came to see himself as the foremost of all sinners, and yet a fully accepted recipient of God’s mercy, called to lead a new life. Paul’s change of mind about God transformed him from a persecutor to a proclaimer of the Christian faith. Quite a change!

Consider briefly, too, our gospel lesson. We have heard this story so many times, perhaps we don’t even realize how bizarre it is. This is one of those places where I imagine Jesus with a wry smile on his face as he’s talking, because what he’s saying is so outrageous. He asks the Pharisees about what a shepherd with a lost sheep would do, as if it were obvious that any normal shepherd would leave the ninety-nine to go find the lost one. But that’s far from obvious! In fact, it’s outrageous. No shepherd in his right mind would jeopardize his whole flock to go looking for one sheep! But Jesus is implying that this shepherd’s behavior is what God is like. God totally reverses what we would normally do. So, if we are tempted to think about God’s behavior as being like ours, then we’d better change our minds about who God is. And, if we respond to having our minds changed like St. Paul did, then we’d better be prepared to have our lives changed, too.

How so? How could our lives change in response to this God who is so different from us? One quick example from the business world. When a corporation downsizes, isn’t their reasoning generally that it is necessary to let some employees get lost to save most of the others? Which god is behind such reasoning, a god who forsakes one lost sheep to save the other ninety-nine, or the one that Jesus shows us of a God who leaves the ninety-nine to go after the one? Do you see what a radically different God this is? Well, that’s just some food for thought. I can’t begin to tell you what it would mean to change our behavior to match our God in this case. It would take a number of us, perhaps, with some pretty creative thinking.

Better examples to close with might be some examples where our changed views of God have already begun to change the way we live. There’s three good examples right in our bulletin this morning. The first is the report of the ELCA response to the recent hurricanes. People used to think that people who were victims of such disasters must be being punished by God; ‘Let those sheep be lost’ was their attitude. We don’t respond that way any more, do we? Is it because our minds have been changed about God and so our lives are changed, too?

Then, there’s the long report on the R.E.S.T. shelter program, as we get ready to start up next week. Sometimes, we are still tempted to think that, ‘Well, those homeless people, they’re just that way because they’re lazy, or they’re drunks. Let them be lost.’ But Jesus has changed our minds about God, and so we are beginning to change our lives, to change the way we respond to people who are homeless.

Perhaps the most dramatic change is represented by our guest this morning Joe Feest, and the insert about the Shepherds group home for mentally disabled adults. The timing could hardly be more perfect for his visit! The name of their home perfectly describes this God that Jesus tells us about this morning! For who have epitomized the most lost and vulnerable people among us through the centuries? Haven’t mentally disabled persons long been the frail and lost sheep whom we are willing to let go of? But then think about the radical change in our care for mentally disabled persons over the last few decades. How much has this God of Jesus finally changed our minds and moved us to care for them in a different way? Hasn’t this crazy shepherd God of Jesus moved us to shepherd differently, too? Just some food for thought.

Well, that’s enough for now, because this same Jesus comes to us at this moment with more than food for thought. Jesus comes to us with the substance of his life, death, and resurrection that we might have our minds changed about God and that we might thus be nourished to live a new way. Come share in this food of repentance! Come partake of this mind-and-life-changing meal! Amen

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Emmaus Lutheran,
Racine, WI, Sept. 30-Oct.1, 1995


1. Good Goats: Healing Our Image of God, by Dennis, Sheila, & Matthew Linn [Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1994], pages 8-11.

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