Changing God’s Mind
The Rev. Canon Frank Logue gave this sermon at St. Patrick’s Episcopal Church
in Pooler, Georgia on September 12, 2010
Changing God’s Mind
Exodus 32: 7-14 and Luke 15:1-10
I was going to wipe a whole nation off the face of the earth. But I changed my mind.
As improbable as it sounds, that is the gist of what God says in our Old Testament reading. The Hebrews have been waiting down below while Moses is up on the mountain chatting with God. In the meantime, Moses’ brother Aaron has fashioned a golden calf and the people have begun to worship it. That’s when God tells Moses, “I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation.”
God says, “Let me alone.” There is a hint there that if Moses says something, God will not act. Moses gets a clean slate to be the father of a nation, while God wipes out all the rest of the people. But Moses doesn’t bite on the temptation. Instead, Moses implores God on behalf of the people saying, “Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by your own self, saying to them, ‘I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever.’”
Then God listens to Moses. The reading from Deuteronomy goes on to say, “And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.”
Here’s where I have to pause and acknowledge that if I wasn’t just reading the Bible to you, I would sound like a heretic. What we have just read is a tale of God ready to wipe out a bunch of people for idolatry, then Moses reminds God of something God seems to have forgotten and finally, God relents, changing the divine mind about punishing Israel for being bad. Honestly, if it didn’t come straight out of the Hebrew scriptures, we would just discount the whole episode. And yet, there this story is…a story of God changing God’s own mind after being reminded of the promise made to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
God and I have never discussed this episode man to God and I don’t have a priest’s Bible with an answer key in the back. So, in making sense of a reading like this, I just have to do what anyone else would do and consider how this fits in with everything else we find in scripture. That everything else must include the reading from Hebrews we had on a Sunday recently which told us that Jesus is the same yesterday, today and forever. If that is true for God the Son, we reason it must be true for God the Father and God the Holy Spirit as well.
So what gives? How is God both predictable and consistent and at the same time, changing the divine mind? Is God the same yesterday, today and forever, or not?
First, we have to ask if there are any other instances of God changing God’s mind. Yes, we do find that in the little book of Jonah where God is ready to wipe Nineveh off the map because the people there are so evil. There is a problem with Jonah running away, but after being spewed out by a great fish, he picks the seaweed out of his hair, heads to Nineveh and the whole town repents. Then God changes God’s mind about the punishment he had planned for Nineveh.
So here we have two cases of God changing God’s mind. In both cases, the people have been bad. In one case, God is reminded of the promise made to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; in the other God sees how the people in Nineveh change their ways. Since God doesn’t back down on promises and God doesn’t punish people who change their evil ways, then it seems as if God changes God’s mind in order to stay consistent. God changes in order to stay true to promises made and to not punish people who repent.
Repent. That is a word shared by our Old Testament reading and our Gospel reading as well. In the Gospel, Jesus is accused of hanging out with sinners. He doesn’t deny the charge, but explains that his job is the job of the whole kingdom, and that is to fix what is wrong, to get people disconnected from God connected once more. As our New Testament reading from First Timothy put it, Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” And the way that happens is that sinners repent.
The word for repent in the New Testament reading is metanoia. Usually translated, conversion or repentance, metanoia means a change of heart and mind. Jesus says that the angels of God rejoice when even one sinner has a change of heart and mind.
A change of heart and mind is what happened in Nineveh and it is what Moses had in mind for the Israelites. It wasn’t that they had changed yet. When God changed God’s mind about zapping the Children of Israel, they were still actively worshipping the golden calf. But Moses was counting on that future repentance, a future change of mind. And because of promises made to their ancestors, God too relented from bringing disaster.
This is what things look like from God’s perspective. Scripture tells us that God wants what is best for us and is willing to go to a lot of trouble to help us come to the place where we change our hearts and minds to be conformed to God’s will.
One of my favorite contemporary theologians has dealt with this issue. On the TV show The Simpsons, Homer gets stuck because he wanted a drink and didn’t have any money. He got his arm trapped in the drink machine. Once there, he realized that he wanted a snack from the snack machine and was soon stuck past his elbows in both a drink machine and a snack machine. Let’s see what happened next.
A rescuer is going to cut off Homer’s arms to get him free from the machines. Homer agrees, after being assured his arms will grow back. Just then another rescuer asks Homer if he is still holding on to the drink can and the snack. He says that he is. He lets go of the snacks and is set free. I know that is silly. Why didn’t Homer just let go of the snack and the drink?
But I have seen this repeated too many times in life to think that this is merely silly. You know that you drink too much. You know that it has crossed the line and you are an alcoholic. But you don’t want to stop drinking. You don’t want to miss late night’s in the bar or even late night’s disconnected from reality. You don’t want to stop drinking and so you just hang on to alcohol as the answer.
The same can be true for drugs, even prescription drugs. You know there is a problem and that they are not the answer, but yet you hang on. Or you can get caught up in a cycle of unhealthy relationships, but keep holding on to that as the answer. Or it can be that you are addicted to approval. You need others to tell you how good you are doing. Somewhere deep down, you know your self worth doesn’t depend on those other people, but yet you hang on to that answer.
Homer only looked like an idiot because he was holding on to a soda and a bag of chips. But all of us can be hanging on to some solution just as worthless. Instead, Jesus tries to break in and provide the real solution, but we can’t let go of the alcohol, drugs, unhealthy relationships and need for approval long enough to discover whether Jesus solution will work.
What Jesus holds out as the answer is sometimes called conversion or repentance. It is a change of heart and mind. It’s the whole reason that Jesus was willing and even wanted to hang around people who weren’t living right—because he wanted them to live into changed lives. He saw how they were living and he wanted something better for them.
But while I am preaching for conversion here, pleased don’t misunderstand my message. If this was a plea for the sinners in our midst to Get Saved, then most of us could nod off to sleep and wait for the prayers and communion. But Jesus is not just talking about a one time decision that puts you off the hook for all eternity and neither am I.
Changing your heart and mind to feel and think the way God feels and thinks is not easy. This takes more than a mere moment of decision. Conversion is an ongoing process. Yes, it begins in a moment of giving your life to Jesus. But it continues by giving your life back to him every day. And for most of us, there is an ongoing series of conversions.
For each of us it will be different, but just so you see what I am saying, you first convert to the idea that there is a God and that God wants to know you. Then you convert to understanding how that relationship with God should effect how you relate to your parents, your friends and your husband or wife. You have to have a change of heart to begin to see those people as God sees them and to treat them differently because of it. Then you convert to seeing everyone, even your enemies in that same way. At another point you convert to seeing your finances differently and begin to tithe, giving an actual ten percent of your income to God off the top before you spend anything else. It seems like a big conversion, but once on the other side with that changed heart and mind, it seems easy. And so go the many conversions that take place.
If you consider yourself “saved,” great, but you still have a long way to go. That’s perhaps why Episcopalians don’t tend to emphasize getting saved. It’s not that we don’t think that everyone doesn’t need to give their lives to God, it’s just that we chose to emphasize that one step as part of a bigger process of conversion.
The problem is that language of getting saved or being saved is helpful to a point. It helps us talk about coming into a relationship with God. But that language also gets in the way. For once we say we have been saved, it gets us off the hook from more God talk.
Instead, I challenge you to consider metanoia, a change of heart and mind. Where is God trying to break down your defenses and enter in with a deeper understanding. One way to ask yourself this is to think back to Homer Simpson, elbow deep in a Coke Machine. You know how clever he looked holding on to a soda. What about you? What are you holding on to? What is it that you need to let go of in order to have that change of heart and mind?
I’ll give you a hint. It will be some lesser solution, offering something less than the peace of God. If it is smoking, or gambling, or wrongly used prescription drugs, or illegal drugs, or…I could go on. You will begin by getting defensive and saying that there is nothing wrong with whatever it is. But notice that I am not picking on you or even on these behaviors. Your next door neighbor might be able to go to Vegas, mess around on the slot machines, play roulette and try there hand at black jack and come home entertained, if a little poorer, while you would get sucked up in gambling fever that would over take your life. I have known people who went to the dog tracks once or twice and found it amusing. I also had a co-worker who had his whole life sucked up at the track as her pursued a system to win. And that is just gambling. The same applies to other areas of your life.
I won’t mention anything else. I just want to note that I am not beating up on you this morning and neither is Jesus. If something has come up for you that is a sense of guilt, remember this is an Episcopal Church and we don’t do guilt well. If when I ask what you need to let go of and something comes to mind, that’s not me speaking but the Holy Spirit. And I challenge you as I challenge myself, to let go and let God handle it. Just have the courage to let that false solution to your problems go and grab hold of God’s love, which is a solution that works for the long run. And know that real metanoia, a real change of heart and mind is more than a one-time step, that conversion is a journey that lasts a lifetime. All I ask today is that you take that next step.