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“God is God”
The Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost
(Begins at 25 seconds)
The Lord said to Moses, “Now leave me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against my people. But Moses said, “O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people”? Why should the Egyptians say, ‘Their God brought them out of Egypt to kill them?’ Turn from your wrath and change your mind.” And God changed God’s mind.
With those words, this morning’s lesson from the book of Exodus lets us listen in as Moses persuades God to change God’s mind about the punishment God had settled on for God’s people, partly by reminding God that if God went forward with God’s plan against God’s people, it would damage God’s reputation. “Just think what the Egyptians would say about you,” said Moses to God, after which the last verse of today’s passage says, “So God changed God’s mind”; a conversation between Moses and God which is an example of “anthropopathism”; the practice of assigning human feelings to God.
A close cousin to anthropomorphism, which assigns human form to God (“the hands of God,” for example) anthropopathism assigns human feelings to God; something today’s lesson from Exodus does when it says that God is so angry that God is going to destroy God’s people, until Moses changes God’s mind.
All of which makes God sound very human; something which, if we are going to talk about God at all, is inevitable, because we don’t really have any other way of speaking of God, than to assign to God human feelings and emotions.
For example, I often find myself quoting William Sloane Coffin’s powerful observation that, whenever a young person dies in a tragic way, “Of all hearts, God’s heart is most broken”; which is, obviously, a case of assigning a human emotion, broken-heartedness, to God.
Or, take the widely held idea that the larger the number of people who are praying for someone, the more likely God is to answer the prayer. That is an idea which is embraced by many very wonderful people, but it assumes that God is so human that God, like us, is more likely to be swayed by many voices than a few.
Or, take the Christian doctrine which teaches that Jesus had to die on the cross because God could not forgive sin unless a perfect sacrifice was offered to God. Think of how human that makes God. (And, not even the best of being human, either. I cannot speak for you, but, as for me, I know many humans who have forgiven those who have sinned against them without requiring, or even wanting, anyone to sacrifice anything.)
The truth is, throughout the Bible, and in every religion, including ours, God gets assigned all sorts of human motives and emotions. That sort of anthropopathizing is inevitable. But, while it is inevitable that we will speak of God in human terms and assign to God human motives and emotions, we need to be careful, lest we end up with a God of our own creation; a God who thinks what we think, and believes what we believe.
Which includes, of course, being careful always to remember that God is not a Christian. It is hard for us to resist the temptation to create God in our image by enlisting God on our side. But, the truth is, to say that God is a Christian would be not only to anthropopathize God, but to anthropobaptize God. Just as God is not a Muslim, Hindu or Jew, God is not a Christian. God is God.
But we are Christians, and because we are Christians, we believe that the clearest witness we have concerning the true nature of God comes from the life of our Lord Jesus, who told us, in one place, that every commandment God ever gave could be summed up in a single sentence, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” and, in another place, that nothing matters more to God than that we love God with all that is in us, and that we love others as we love ourselves; all of which converges to say that God is love, and our creed is kindness.
God is God, and the God to whom we give our lives is love, and the creed by which we live our lives is kindness.