And [the LORD] passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, “The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness.
Does the universe have a heart? What is down, deep in the center of things? Are modern skeptics right that reality is entirely explicable in terms of the impersonal laws of physics, chemistry, and biology? Are we wholly at the mercy of random forces that have no personal concern for us? As creatures who seem to be hardwired for meaning and relationships, that conclusion is a shock to our system. It’s unsurprising that such an understanding of reality has led to increasingly dystopian visions of the human future in film and art. But is it true? How might we know?
Is there a personal God and what might such a God be like? One of the problems with the way the Bible describes God is that God cannot be manipulated. In other words, no scientific experimentation is possible. If we are to know anything about God, it would require God’s self-revelation. That’s why the Bible is the essential book of human culture, since it claims to be the unique record of God’s self-revelation in human history.
So, what is this God of the Bible like? What are the LORD’s qualities at the core of his being? To use language to which we can perhaps relate, what is his character?
Crises reveal who people really are. I’m sure you’ve experienced it in your relationships at work and at home. Someone you care about does something terrible. It evokes a variety of emotional responses in us. Invariably, these reactions during a time of crisis tell us something about ourselves.
In one of Israel’s darkest moments, the LORD reveals something essential about himself. Today’s text comes in the aftermath of the “golden calf” incident at the base of Mount Sinai (Exodus 32). The LORD had delivered Israel from Egypt and made a covenant with Israel at Sinai. That covenant was, in many respects, like a marriage between God and his people. During that very time, Israel commits the grave sin of idolatry, by making and worshiping a golden calf idol. To get a sense of the gravity of the situation, you might imagine how you would feel if during your honeymoon, the spouse you love decides to engage in an extended sexual orgy with some strangers. I know that’s strong language, but it’s hard to otherwise capture the force and horror of what Israel had done.
Serious consequences follow for Israel. As does a hard conversation between God and Moses about whether the marriage between Israel and the LORD can be saved! In that extraordinary exchange, God reveals something deep about himself. The curtain at the heart of the universe is opened for a moment, and we get to see what God is really like. Wounded by Israel’s sin and betrayal, God shows something of himself previously unknown and unimagined.
Words are so important. Particularly in times of deep pain and suffering, it’s important to slow down and pay close attention. God uses four words to describe himself (and we will reflect on each of them in this series). The first of these is: compassionate. The Hebrew word comes from the word for a mother’s womb. God feels for Israel as a mother does for her child. There is no deeper, more intimate metaphor in human experience available to describe God’s compassion for human beings. A mother’s compassion for her child beats at the heart of the universe. As the prophet Isaiah would say later in even stronger and more explicit terms, “Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you!” (Isaiah 49:15, emphasis mine)
Something extraordinary comes out of Israel’s first, and arguably, greatest sin. God reveals how deeply he loves and cares for human beings. Like a mother, God has compassion for us. Even when we fail. Even when we sin. Even in our faithlessness. Israel’s story at the base of Mt. Sinai reminds us how deeply God love us. Despite how we might feel at any moment, the universe is not a cold, heartless place. We do not serve a God who couldn’t care less: we serve a God who couldn’t care more.
“Descent” by Malcolm Guite (Video with Steve Bell)
They sought to soar into the skies
Those classic gods of high renown
For lofty pride aspires to rise
But you came down.
You dropped down from the mountains sheer
Forsook the eagle for the dove
The other Gods demanded fear
But you gave love.
Where chiseled marble seemed to freeze
Their abstract and perfected form
Compassion brought you to your knees
Your blood was warm.
They called for blood in sacrifice
Their victims on an altar bled
When no one else could pay the price
You died instead.
They towered above our mortal plain,
Dismissed this restless flesh with scorn,
Aloof from birth and death and pain,
But you were born.
Born to these burdens, borne by all
Born with us all ‘astride the grave’
Weak, to be with us when we fall,
And strong to save.