The Righteous Heart

Romans 2:17-29 (NLT)

You who call yourselves Jews are relying on God’s law, and you boast about your special relationship with him. You know what he wants; you know what is right because you have been taught his law. You are convinced that you are a guide for the blind and a light for people who are lost in darkness. You think you can instruct the ignorant and teach children the ways of God. For you are certain that God’s law gives you complete knowledge and truth.

Well then, if you teach others, why don’t you teach yourself? You tell others not to steal, but do you steal? You say it is wrong to commit adultery, but do you commit adultery? You condemn idolatry, but do you use items stolen from pagan temples? You are so proud of knowing the law, but you dishonor God by breaking it. No wonder the Scriptures say, “The Gentiles blaspheme the name of God because of you.”

The Jewish ceremony of circumcision has value only if you obey God’s law. But if you don’t obey God’s law, you are no better off than an uncircumcised Gentile. And if the Gentiles obey God’s law, won’t God declare them to be his own people? In fact, uncircumcised Gentiles who keep God’s law will condemn you Jews who are circumcised and possess God’s law but don’t obey it.

For you are not a true Jew just because you were born of Jewish parents or because you have gone through the ceremony of circumcision. No, a true Jew is one whose heart is right with God. And true circumcision is not merely obeying the letter of the law; rather, it is a change of heart produced by the Spirit. And a person with a changed heart seeks praise from God, not from people.

The early church in Rome was a mix of Jews and Gentiles, and sometimes they had trouble combining their world views. In today’s text, Paul clearly addresses the Jewish portion of his audience. (A lot of scholars argue he actually began the address to the Jews in the reading for last week’s sermon.)

Paul begins with a call for an attitude adjustment, upholding the value of the law but emphasizing how knowing the law was supposed to move the Jews toward something greater.

I suppose I should pause and make sure we have a basic understanding of what Paul means by “the law.” Certainly, Paul is talking about the laws spoken by God to the Israelites on Mt. Sinai, what we call “The Ten Commandments.” He references three of those commandments, ones related to stealing, adultery and idolatry, when he accuses the Jewish Christians of hypocrisy.

He also may have been thinking of additional, more culturally specific rules God gave Moses to establish a covenant with the Israelites. He may even have been referencing the interpretations of the laws developed by rabbis over the centuries.

To a good Jew, the Mosaic law was everything. How well you followed every jot and tittle of the law served as evidence of your righteousness to God and the people around you. Let’s not forget Paul himself had once been a Pharisee, a sect of Jews known for their rigorous adherence to the law.

And yet, Paul had seen the true purpose of the law through his encounter with Jesus Christ. He wanted to be sure these early Jewish Christians saw it, too.

It helps to think about the law in a big-picture way. You may recall that a lawyer once tried to trap Jesus by asking him to name the most important commandment.

Jesus replied: “‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. A second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ The entire law and all the demands of the prophets are based on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:37-40)

Jesus took the law and explained it as a matter of the heart. He then lived out that truth in how he lived and died. In Romans, Paul developed his message along the same lines.

The Jewish mistake was simple enough; it even seemed noble and holy. God gave the Israelites the law to live by, and those who wanted to be obedient saw the law as a call to action.

There were rituals, sacrifices and festivals to be performed. There were specific actions to be avoided, the “thou shalt nots” that were always to be kept in mind. The pursuit of obedience seemed paramount, and we can tell from Paul’s writings in Romans and elsewhere that even Jews who followed Jesus as their promised Messiah tended to emphasize obedience to rules.

In the fifteenth chapter of the book of Acts, we see this problem reach a crisis. At this point in the life of the church, there was a lot of friction between the Gentile followers of Christ, who were drawn to a message of universally available salvation and grace, and certain Jewish followers of Christ, who essentially believed all converts needed to follow Jewish law as well as Jesus. Perhaps the harshest requirement: the Jewish Christians said the Gentiles needed to be circumcised in order to be saved.

In what is now called the Council at Jerusalem, the early church leaders, including Peter and Paul, decided Gentiles did not need to be burdened with rituals and behaviors that had never been part of their culture. Instead, they simply asked that the Gentiles abstain from sexual immorality, food offered to idols, and from consuming blood or the meat of strangled animals. The ones related to food may have been simple measures of politeness, as Jews found such consumption detestable, making it difficult for the community to eat together. Acts tells us the Gentile Christians rejoiced greatly when they received word of this lenient decision.

Paul and the other early church leaders understood the law was intended to be more than just a call to “head knowledge” or a series of repeated actions. The law was a call to transformation. Understanding the law was supposed to change the heart, bringing a person into a full relationship with God and a proper relationship with others.

This is the full meaning of the word we translate as “righteous.” It’s not just getting certain actions right—it’s having our innermost being aligned with God’s will.

We can see the results of such righteousness in both the Old and New Testaments. One of my favorite Psalms is the 51st, composed by King David after the full weight of his sin has fallen upon him. (He had recently been caught committing adultery and murder.) The psalm contains these words:

Create in me a clean heart, O God.
Renew a loyal spirit within me.
Do not banish me from your presence,
and don’t take your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
and make me willing to obey you.

That psalm was written by a man seeking more than a legal remedy. He was far beyond sacrificing some bulls to atone for his sins. He had seen his brokenness, and in this psalm he begs for God to lay hands on him, to change him, in the process restoring his joy. It is a good psalm, a good prayer. On a personal note, I have to say that it has sustained me in times of brokenness and made me feel restored.

This heartfelt righteousness also appears early In the New Testament. We see the earthly father of Jesus, the carpenter Joseph, described as a “righteous man.” The term is applied not in reference to his adherence to the law, but instead to the moment when he desires to show Mary mercy, despite believing she has become pregnant by another man and knowing how the law said she should be punished.

This kind of righteousness also allowed Joseph to hear from God directly in dreams and better understand the situation, taking Mary and the Messiah in her womb under his wing. A righteous man was the earthly protector of our infant savior.

And of course, the ultimate example of righteousness is the grown Messiah, Jesus. Being God in flesh, his understanding of God’s will was so powerful that he was willing to suffer and die so the power of sin could be broken.

If the law is a call to transformation, then Christ is the fulfillment of the law. Christ makes our transformation and the transformation of all creation possible, and he makes it as simple as us having faith in his work.

We will explore these ideas of righteousness and communion with God’s Spirit in coming weeks. In the meantime, let’s try to do what Paul urged the early Jewish Christians to do. Let go; let God work within.

There are actions to take. Seek God in prayer, seek God in Scripture. But in doing so, seek the changed heart that pleases God. Over time, we may find ourselves looking less like people of the world, but the world will be better for our presence.

The featured image is “King David in Prayer,” Pieter de Grebber, circa 1635.

That Luminous Quality

Exodus 34:29-35

One thing I know for certain about my new appointment at Luminary UMC—I like the name.

The word “luminary” has several meanings, but the obvious meaning in this case would be something that glows because of a light within. Think of those little bags that sometimes line the sidewalks during the fall and winter holidays, the ones with the lit candles inside. My wife reminded me these are called “luminarias.” They create a warm, attractive glow. Everyone wants to draw near.

I use the Exodus text today for a simple reason. The name Luminary made me think of Moses meeting with God and then carrying within him the glow of having been in the presence of God. This particular story predates the existence of the tabernacle. It begins with Moses coming down from Mount Sinai with new tablets to replace the ones he destroyed after finding the people worshiping the golden image of a calf.

As the story proceeds, we begin to realize the glowing face of Moses was not just a one-time event. Early in the Israelites’ desert journey, Moses would go out to the Tent of Meeting when he needed to consult with God. The Israelites kept this tent set up just outside camp, and the people would watch as God would descend in a cloud, cover the entrance to the tent, and talk to Moses. After each of these encounters, Moses’ face would be luminous, evidence of his encounter with holiness.

So, here at Luminary UMC, what becomes luminous with God’s glory? What here is worthy of the name Luminary?

As beautiful as it is, it is not the building. It’s electrified to have light within, but that’s not the kind of luminance I’m talking about. No, our building is our tent of meeting. It is the place we go to encounter God. Perhaps we even find answers here.

It’s not me, either. I’m not Moses in our story. I don’t individually bear some kind of light at which the congregation can only gawk.

No, the answer is better than all of that. You, the members and friends of Luminary, are the ones who are to go forth with shining faces. We all get to be Moses. That should be our goal: to encounter God in such a powerful way each Sunday that others who see us know we have been in the presence of God.

I’ve told you my story of some of those life-changing encounters I’ve had with God. We want to be sure we’re having those first-time encounters and those ongoing encounters, particularly when we worship, and also when we gather in other ways.

Some of you know what I’m talking about. You’ve been meeting God in worship regularly, and it shows. I’ve already seen traces of God shining in your faces.

Some of you want it; I already can see that, too. Know that God has made it easy. In the desert, it was hard. People feared such things. God seemed distant, and there was nothing but the law to guide them.

But we’re especially blessed, because we live in a time after Jesus. We know his teachings: Love God, love one another, fear not and follow Christ. We know the story of the cross. We know the story of the glorious resurrection, and we know the Holy Spirit is with us today.

God’s light shines on us continually. We’re going to let the light in, people of Luminary UMC, and we’re going to carry it to others.

A Most Dangerous Sermon

In the seventh chapter of Acts, we hear the kind of sermon that can get a preacher killed.

A little background on the first Christian martyr: Stephen’s job was to handle more mundane tasks so others would have time to preach. His job was to ensure food was distributed fairly among the church’s needy. And yet, the Holy Spirit had a firm grip on him, working “wonders and signs among the people” as Stephen went about his tasks. In Christ’s kingdom, there are no small jobs.

Despite being primarily a broker of bread, Stephen quickly ended up before a council of Jewish synagogue leaders to answer for his miracles and his declaration that Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior. When asked by the high priest, “Are these things so,” Stephen seized the moment.

I would encourage you to read Acts 7 in its entirety. It is a powerful sermon, one in which the preacher is fully aware of his listeners and their blind spots. In short, Stephen:

  • Started with the story of Abraham, reminding these Jews of how their history was rooted in great faithfulness, a long-term trust that God keeps his promises.
  • Moved on to how the Israelites ended up in Egypt, rescued there from hunger by God’s servant Joseph and slavery by God’s servant Moses, with God’s faithfulness demonstrated across the centuries.
  • Continued with how unfaithful the Israelites were in the desert, causing them to wander for 40 years, until finally a new generation was able to enter the Holy Land and take it from unholy people. Stephen then reminded these Jews of how the Israelites became a great nation, this part of his sermon seeming to peak with Solomon’s construction of a “dwelling place” for God, the temple in Jerusalem.

Throughout this sermon, a man in charge of a first-century Meals on Wheels program kept reminding powerful leaders that their history taught them one was to come who would bring all of God’s promises to fruition. Then the sermon got personal.

“You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do,” Stephen said. “Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute? They killed those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One, and now you have become his betrayers and murderers.”

Talk about getting right to the point, a point the Jews were not willing to accept. The Jews rushed Stephen and stoned him to death, but not before he declared a vision of heaven, one in which Jesus stood at the right hand of God.

One would almost think Stephen was suicidal, except for a fact Scripture makes clear. Stephen was in full communion with God’s Spirit, letting God guide him every step of the way and word-by-word in his sermon. Because of that, I also have to assume there was a genuine opportunity for this audience to understand Jesus to be their messiah.

I’m left a little disturbed by this story. How can so many American Christians be hesitant to speak openly of our faith? Any repercussions we may face are, at worst, mild in comparison to being stoned to death. Are we really that disconnected from the Spirit?

And at the same time, I’m encouraged. In Stephen’s story, we see that a deep relationship with God can give us the strength to do remarkable work, even while executing church tasks that may seem incredibly mundane. Somebody’s got to cook and deliver the food; somebody’s got to drive the bus; somebody’s got to trim the hedges; somebody’s got to clear the septic lines when they clog. The key is to be alert for opportunities to declare Jesus Christ Lord and Savior when doing these things.

Walk with God. Be ready, be willing, and the Holy Spirit will do the rest.


Freedom from Death

Exodus 15:13-18

Last week, we heard how God overcame Pharaoh’s mighty army as he saved the Israelites at the edge of the Red Sea. Once God’s chosen people had crossed through the parted waters and saw God close those waters back upon their oppressors, they had much to celebrate.

The Israelites had learned, at least for a short time, to fear not. They had learned that when God is for us, who can be against us? And their response was appropriate—they worshipped.

Our text today is part of a song sung in that worship, that glorification of God. The song re-tells the miracle of what has just happened; at the same time, it declares truths about God’s loving, redemptive nature. It also is in many ways prophetic, predicting so much of the story to come, the story where God defeats death and changes the way we should view life.

Those of you who have declared yourselves followers of Christ know how the story goes. God’s exercise of power does not end with the defeat of great kings who oppose him. Just as God redeemed the Israelites from slavery, God has redeemed us from sin through Jesus Christ. Just as God moved the Israelites toward his “abode,” the place where he reigns “forever and ever,” God moves us toward eternal life in his presence.

The truth that we are freed from death’s bonds should change us from the very moment we grasp it. We should view everything in the light of eternity, and that light should shine in every corner of our lives now.

Note the “shoulds.” Realistically, I understand how much we struggle with the concept of death. The possibility of our own deaths naturally unnerves us. The possibility of losing those we love can rattle us even more.

If you look at the story of the Israelites, you don’t have to go far at all beyond the song by the sea to see where they wavered in their trust of Moses and God. And every time they doubted, it was the fear of death controlling them, despite the incredible evidence of God they had seen.

At this point, it would be easy to give what we called in seminary a “musty lettuce” sermon. That’s where the preacher says, “We must, we must, let us, let us.”

Simply telling you to trust God and get past the fear of death wouldn’t be helpful, however. Death is a troubling reality we contend with on an all-too-regular basis, despite an intellectual understanding that death has been overcome. I have struggled and continue to struggle myself.

As I pondered this sermon, some images flashed through my mind:

My granny’s passing. She died a very difficult death from a very painful kind of cancer when I was 14. Death seemed to have great power then, and how she died troubled all of us, in particular my mother, who had been my granny’s primary caregiver.

More than two decades later, while I was in seminary, my mother asked some very specific, metaphysical questions about where Granny is now. I knew she wasn’t talking about locating her in heaven or hell; we had seen my granny put her faith in Jesus Christ. The questions simply had to do with what Granny was experiencing in the moment.

As we discussed the fact that we’re promised an immediate experience of God at death, along with an experience of full resurrection at the end of time, I realized what my mother and I were doing. We were letting Granny go, placing her in the story of redemption and eternal life we had embraced as believers.

Those who handle death particularly well. There is Jesus, of course. He seemed to model how to handle grief in Matthew 14, when he learned of the senseless death of his cousin John the Baptist, the prophet who had announced the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. Even Jesus needed to withdraw to a quiet place, taking time to process and grieve. When he saw there was work to be done, however, he quickly leaped back into ministry. Death could not stop the work of the kingdom.

I’m also reminded of a man who died in our church recently. He knew death was coming; he made the decision on his own to end medical care and let death come, telling me, “That’s about enough.” There’s a word for what he exhibited: aplomb. His confidence in what was coming was incredible, an inspiration to me.

Those who don’t handle death particularly well. My mind also went to a woman at a previous church I served who panicked when she learned she had cancer. She told me she had been in church all of her life, but had just then realized she had never taken her relationship with God very seriously. As she faced a grave diagnosis, she wanted to know how she could make up for all that lost time and really understand what her faith was about.

I would like to say she was able to absorb it all quickly, but that wouldn’t be true. She became very sick in just a few weeks. It’s hard to be an intense disciple when you’re desperately ill. Before she died, she did accept that all she had to do was trust God’s grace. At the same time, I so wanted her to have the comfort a lifelong walk with Christ could have given her.

Those images lead me to a renewed understanding of the importance of discipleship, in particular the time we spend in worship, prayer and Bible study. When preachers talk about discipleship, it often starts to sound like they’re giving you a set of rules for salvation that would make any Pharisee proud. But I’m reminded of the real reasons we spend time in discipleship activities—they give us repeated encounters with God.

When we see or experience God, we free our minds from this temporary world still bound by sin and death, and we live into the promise Jesus has made us. Yes, death still hurts. Yes, we still miss those who go on ahead of us, knowing we are apart for a time.

What we have, however, is perspective. Death has no power; death has been defeated. Ultimately, the grace of God prevails.

Freedom to Speak

Exodus 6:28-7:6

I’ve spent a lot of time the last year encouraging church members to rediscover the lost art—and I should also say, the joy—of telling others about Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.

Yes, I mean evangelism, where we do what God tells believers to do, witnessing to the Christian truths we claim to hold so dear. Somehow, it has become a frightening concept to many otherwise committed Christians, a strange development in a nation where we supposedly are free to say what we think.

When someone is brave enough to complain after I’ve asserted the importance of evangelism, I usually hear something like, “I’m just not cut out to do that.” By this, they mean they’re too shy, or not biblically learned enough, or not quick enough when faced with questions, or, frankly, afraid of being labeled as some kind of religious nut.

Well, of course you aren’t cut out to evangelize. Neither am I; when it comes right down to it, none of us in our sin-tainted, time-bound lives is really equipped to show people the way to a holy, eternal God. Blessedly, God does the real work. As children of God, we’re just being told to help, the way our parents might have told us as children to hold something while they did the real work of building and repairing.

In doing so, we get to glimpse how God works, and we begin to grow into the image of God we were created to be.

Our Exodus text today is a good example of what I’m talking about. The story is pre-Christian, of course, but God is working through Moses and Aaron to declare his power over all creation, including Pharaoh and mighty Egypt.

Moses’ concern is straightforward. He does not speak well, complaining in a literal rendition of the Hebrew that he has “uncircumcised lips,” possibly a reference to a physical or psychological speech impediment. In other words, he’s saying he’s not cut out for the job. It’s the second time he’s made the complaint to God.

God’s answer is twofold: I’ll give you help, in the form of your brother Aaron, and I’ll make you “like God to Pharaoh.” God was saying his power and majesty would shine through Moses despite his human frailties.

It is much the same for us today as followers of Christ. If we will stop complaining of our human frailties and fears and trust God, his power and majesty will shine through us as we tell what Christ has done to rescue us from the power of sin.

When this understanding of evangelism takes hold in a church, mighty things begin to happen. One example is not far from Cassidy UMC, at Salem UMC, just four miles away.

Will Shewey, Salem’s pastor, said worship attendance there has grown from about 90 people four years ago to 208 halfway into 2013. Now, growth in worship attendance can happen in a lot of ways. For example, a large number of Christians may simply transfer into a church because they’ve moved into nearby developing neighborhoods or left a church in the area they didn’t like.

Salem’s growth seems to be genuinely evangelism-driven, however. In the 50 days between Easter and Pentecost this year, 26 people joined Salem UMC after declaring their faith in Jesus Christ and undergoing baptism. It’s a pattern Salem has seen repeatedly in the last four years.

Pastor Will passed along the names of two lay people at Salem who have been very active in bringing others to Christ.

Linda Archer has connected with many young adults through a non-traditional Wednesday night Bible study, one inspired by questions her nieces first brought her. The key, she said, is having a heart for all types of people, regardless of what they look like or what their current mode of dress or lifestyle may be.

“I don’t have any manuals to use,” she said. These young adults have questions, and Linda tries to find them biblically grounded answers. She said it’s also important to invite young adults in personal, specific ways to get involved in the ministry of the church—they want to explore faith by living it.

“To make disciples of Christ, number 1, they’ve got to be comfortable with you,” Linda said. “The Lord can do the rest.”

Judy Kregar reaches others with the message of Christ by paying attention to the people around her, particularly at work or in public. “A lot of them look lost, like they need someone to talk to,” she said.

By doing so, she said, she’s helped bring nine people to baptism in the last six months.

Raised Roman Catholic and now 65 years old, Judy said she’s learned to share her faith in just the last couple of years, trusting the Holy Spirit to guide her.

“Sometimes there’s just something that tells us we need to talk to that person, and we need to listen,” she said.

Both my reading of the Bible and my conversations with the people at Salem UMC tell me the path to a new Great Awakening in our communities is not complicated. It doesn’t require elaborate planning or committee oversight.

All that’s really needed is a faithful response from people who already have experienced the love of God, and are willing to take the story of that love to people desperate for answers.

By Whose Hand?

Deuteronomy 8:7-18

The turkey has been eaten, and if you’re lucky, there still are a few leftovers remaining in the fridge. In this season of Thanksgiving, this long weekend of looking around and then looking upward, we find ourselves in a good land.

Some would call such an assertion debatable, citing the recession, high unemployment, rising prices for essentials like food and fuel, and political gridlock as their evidence. And these problems do exist, causing suffering.

We still live in a good land, however. If for no other reason, it is good because it remains a place where we can freely remember and worship God. (I also think there are many other reasons it remains a good land. Despite the current gloom and doom, I’m an optimist, and I’m mindful that we’ve faced much worse as a nation.)

To me, the parallels between our situation and the situation the Israelites were in as they prepared to enter the Promised Land are striking. The book of Deuteronomy largely is Moses reminding the people of their history and their relationship with God, preparing them for Moses’ imminent death and their first steps into a long-anticipated future.

“For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land, a land with flowing streams, with springs and underground waters welling up in valleys and hills, a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey, a land where you may eat bread without scarcity, where you will lack nothing, a land whose stones are iron and from whose hills you may mine copper,” Moses told them, his words recorded in the eighth chapter. “You shall eat your fill and bless the Lord your God for the good land that he has given you.”

With a few modifications to the types of crops and some additions to the minerals, this could suffice as a description of North America.

There also is a warning: “Take care that you do not forget the Lord your God,” Moses said. After reminding them once again of all the perils God had brought them through, Moses added, “Do not say to yourself, ‘My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth.’ ”

I would not go so far as to describe the United States as some kind of new Promised Land. Our nation was not designed to relate to God through a direct covenant. It is, however, structured so that individuals can enter into any kind of covenant with God, assembling with those of like mind without fear of persecution. That freedom has allowed Christianity in all its variations to thrive here.

Yes, the stock market gyrates; yes, gas is well over $3 a gallon. But even if the market crashes and gas is rationed, this land remains a great blessing to its inhabitants and the world as long as our principles of freedom remain. Less stuff does not diminish our connection to God.

The lesson from today’s text is simple, and as relevant to us as it was to those desert people longing for a little variety in their diets and a constant water supply. Remember God—remember the one you follow, the one you have declared to be above all creation. Worshiping God in good times and bad is our primary task.

These words in Deuteronomy also are words of hope, something we celebrate on this first Sunday of Advent. God had begun a relationship that ultimately led the people to look for a messiah, one who would make that relationship with God full and complete. Christians gather to worship because we call Jesus the Christ, another word for messiah. He died on the cross to make that full relationship possible. He first experienced the resurrection, giving us a sign of what is to come.

Many of you find yourselves enormously blessed, with plenty of food, good shelter, and lots of love in your lives. Take care that in your comfort, you do not forget the Lord your God.

Some of you find yourselves struggling, perhaps concerned about your next paycheck or feeling isolated. Take care that in your worries, you do not forget the Lord your God.

Wherever we are in our lives now, we worship a God who has done great things for us and is moving us toward something greater. All God asks is that we love him back, and in the process learn to love each other better.

Capturing God

Exodus 32:1-14

Last week, I talked about how God reintroduced himself to the Israelites as he gave them the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai. It was a big, awe-inspiring introduction, shaking these people to the core.

Indeed, they expressed great fear of God to their leader, Moses, asking Moses to stand as mediator between them and the mighty God they had seen. They found God to be too much.

In Exodus 32, the story of these people and their reaction to God resumes. At this point, Moses had been on the fire- and smoke-shrouded mountain nearly 40 days, and the Israelites had given up on seeing their leader again.

Their solution, unfortunately, was to return to their former understanding of gods, little “g” gods, gods visibly before them in metal, wood or stone.

“Come, make gods for us, who shall go before us,” they told Aaron, Moses’ brother and the high priest. “As for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.”

Aaron fashioned a calf idol from their gold jewelry, while at the same time trying to maintain some control of the unfolding disaster. After building an altar before the calf, he proclaimed, “Tomorrow shall be a festival to the Lord,” using language contradicting the people’s declared need for “gods.”

Big “G” God was not impressed by Aaron’s nuanced language or the revelry that followed. Ultimately, only Moses’ pleas before God saved the Israelites from annihilation.

The Israelites’ sin, a violation of the second commandment, was rooted in their earlier demonstrated inability to accept the magnitude of the eternal God they were called to worship. By making an idol, they sought to capture in some sort of manageable form the power that had led them out of Egypt.

The story seems ancient and disconnected from us, with its talk of “gods” as people dance around a golden idol in the middle of a desert. But the sin of trying to reduce God, to capture and keep God in a manageable and comfortable form, is prevalent today.

The most obvious example I see is when we attempt to make God like us. We define him through a human lens, thinking that what we feel must be what God feels and what we desire must be what God desires.

I also see us committing this sin when we try to force God into a particular human ideology, claiming God resides in a particular political party or movement. This can result in serious perversions of the revelation of God in the Bible. Remember, the Nazis had “Gott Mit Uns” (God With Us) stamped on their belt buckles as they committed some of the great atrocities of the 20th century.

I have yet to find a political party that fully represents God’s will for a nation. God’s will still is best revealed through the study of the Bible, and Christians should fully understand how God is revealed there before aligning themselves with the platforms of political groups.

There also is that easy-to-commit sin of trying to put God in a box, in particular, a storage box, where he can be taken out when needed. Self-reliant people like this strategy: “I’ll take care of myself and turn to God if it seems I suddenly cannot.”

When we try to reduce God in such ways, we resist God’s efforts to grow us into the beings he would have us be. When we make God small, there seems to be no need for change.

Christians must constantly keep in mind that there is more to God than what we can see even in Jesus, God among us in flesh. To make himself more understandable, God did voluntarily limit himself in some ways to take on human flesh. (Matthew 24:36 is one of the better examples of this principle.)

But this choice did not actually shrink God’s eternal nature. It just made the eternal nature approachable.

Had the Israelites waited patiently and sought to grow into the mystery before them, those last couple of days at Mount Sinai might not have ended in so much violence and disease, the punishments that fell on the people. I cannot even guess at the glory they might have continued to experience.

With a much greater revelation before us—the revelation of the loving, sacrificial Christ—I pray we can continue to grow in our understanding of God and our imitation of what we see.