On Second Thought

One of the things I usually do in premarital counseling for couples is to give each person a personality inventory to complete, that is based on the classic Myers-Briggs system. If you’re not familiar with it, the Myers-Briggs inventory operates on the theory that there are four basic spectrums in everyone’s personality, and it examines on which side of each spectrum you sit.

It’s almost always helpful, and there are even occasional epiphanies. I remember one time I was reviewing the results of the inventory with a couple who were each getting married for the first time in their 40’s, each having lived alone for almost twenty years before that. As I reviewed their respective inventories and explained the opportunities and challenges that each combination of them suggested, they nodded and smiled from time to time.

But then I got to the fourth and final spectrum, which goes from someone who is “Perceiving” vs. someone who is “Judging.” I explained, as I always do, that this spectrum basically represents your decision-making process. Being a “Judging” person doesn’t mean judgmental; it simply means that such a person prefers to make a decision as soon as they have a decent grasp of the issues. They would rather make a bad decision and then correct it than make no decision at all.

The future bride of the couple was strongly over on the “Judging” side of the spectrum, and nodded emphatically as I explained all this. A “Perceiving” person, I continued, wants to acquire as much information as possible before making a decision. They would prefer to wait on making a decision until all the facts are in rather than make a bad decision. At that point, the future bride literally raised her arms, stood up in shock, and shouted, “OH, MY GOD!!!”

Standing there, she continued: “The hardest thing for me in this relationship is trying to decide on dinner. Seriously: if we’re out at a restaurant, he wants to discuss all the pros and cons of every dish, hear every special; whenever the server asks if there are any questions, he has a list. If we’re at home he takes a full inventory of the fridge and the pantry and wants to go through all the different possibilities, ‘just so we know,’ he says. Meanwhile I’ll have decided what I want less than five minutes into the conversation and have to spend the rest of the time waiting for him to catch up.”

She paused and took a breath, looking at him. “It never occurred to me there was a reason you acted that way, much less a whole spectrum of being; I just thought you were crazy.” He smiled good-naturedly and said, “I just don’t want you to make a decision you’ll regret later because you didn’t have all the information.” At that point, her eyes filled with tears and she sat down in wonder. Last I heard they were celebrating their fifteenth wedding anniversary. I’m sure it’s not solely because of the premarital counseling… but you never know.

The truth is, our society is very prejudiced towards the “Judging” part of that spectrum. Decisiveness is something we prize in leaders, whether in business, nonprofit organizations, the military, or politics. Obviously, we all want someone who makes decisions and makes them efficiently and well in such a position of power and responsibility. But what happens when the decisive leader decides the wrong thing? What happens when the judging person judges poorly? That seems to be the problem in the Old Testament lesson today, except that it’s not a person or even a president we’re talking about; it’s God. It opens with God reacting to what the Israelites have been up to while God and Moses have been talking up on the mountain for forty days and nights.

Briefly, God has been laying out the Holy Law to Moses to give to the Israelites to obey, now that God has delivered them from slavery in Egypt. It begins with the Ten Commandments all the way back in chapter 20 of Exodus, and what follows is Moses shuttling back and forth between the direct presence of God high on Mount Sinai, hidden by smoke and fire, and the Israelite people gathered around the mountain below.

But at this point, the people haven’t seen Moses in forty days, and the last they saw of him was being enveloped by the smoke and heat of the divine presence, so they’re pretty convinced he’s been burned to ash by God’s glory at this point. And so they go to Moses’ brother, Aaron, and ask him to make gods for them, gods that are less dangerous and more predictable than the one that appears to have vaporized his own prophet Moses. So Aaron melts down a bunch of their gold and forms it into an idol of a golden calf, then calls the Israelites to worship the calf as the gods that brought them out of Egypt. They start sacrificing offerings to the golden calf, and things descend into a wild party.

Meanwhile, the Lord and Moses have been talking for over a month about all kinds of detailed laws for the Israelites to follow since they agreed to the Ten Commandments at the very start of all this, which famously begin by saying, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. You shall have no other god before me [First Commandment]; you shall not make for yourself an idol [Second Commandment]. But God looking down from all this talk with Moses and seeing the drunken revels of the Israelites, who have made for themselves an idol and are calling it their gods instead of the Lord.

To say that God is outraged is putting it mildly. “Go down at once!” God bellows at Moses; “Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely.” God rails about how quickly they have tossed aside God’s commandments, listing their violations, and finally snaps at Moses, “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.”

This is a tough passage for many of us for two reasons. The first is God’s anger; God is very, very angry in this passage. We don’t like the idea of an angry God, primarily because of how that concept has been abused by generations of preachers to scare and guilt their congregations into obedience to their interpretation of God’s law. “Do what I say God says, or God will be angry with you,” they more or less say.

We believe in a loving God, not an angry God, we say. The problem is, anger and love not only can coexist, they often do. We get angry all the time with people we love: when they make bad decisions, or fail to live up to their commitments, or behave in ways that we experience as indifferent or disrespectful. It’s precisely because we love them that we get angry; we both expect and want them to do better, for their sake and for ours. Anger is not an inherently bad emotion; the real problem with anger is when we allow it to motivate inherently bad actions on our part. Which God doesn’t do in this passage; God does not consume the entire people of Israel in a fireball of wrath.

But that leads us to the second problem many people have with this passage. Our reading today said, “The Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.” Not only that, but God appears to change God’s mind as a result of the conversation with Moses. As problematic as an overly-decisive, judging God who wipes out the Israelites might be, a God who flip-flops on a decision based on the pleadings of a human being is also a pretty big problem. If God is so easily manipulated, where is God’s omnipotence? If God doesn’t know at first that this would be a bad decision, where is God’s omniscience?

Well, we don’t have to get bogged down in esoteric philosophical questions about God’s inner being or nature. I think the answer is much simpler and clearer than all that. It’s not Moses that convinces God to change God’s mind; it’s God. Or more specifically, it’s God’s promises to the Israelites, stretching all the way back to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, generations before the Ten Comandments. Moses simply asks God to remember those promises, and that is when God changes God’s mind.

God made those promises, and just because the Israelites have broken them doesn’t mean God can or will. God doesn’t break promises, even when we do, even when we push back or walk away, even when we forget or change our mind.  There is nothing we can do to incite God to break God’s promises to us, because that is how God has decided to be our God from the very beginning, and beyond the very end. There is nothing we can do to keep God from loving us and saving us, no matter how hard we may try, because that is God’s promise. And that promise is all the information God needs to make the right decision, the only second thought that God requires to change God’s mind.

Today we will be baptizing a child into Christ’s Church. The parents and you as a congregation will make promises to help raise this child in Christian faith and discipleship, and those are important promises. But they are not the most important one. The most important promise is the one in the very waters of the Sacrament of Baptism, the promise of God’s grace and love in Jesus Christ that are already at work in the life of this child and will be throughout their life, a promise that God will never forget for them or for any of us, no matter what, until we are all finally welcomed home in the end.

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