A sermon delivered by David Hughes, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Winston-Salem, Nc., on October 9, 2011.
Exodus 32:1-14; Psalm 106: 1-6, 19-23; Philippians 4:4-7
When I think back to prayers I’ve heard in church over the years, 99.9% of them have been dignified and respectful in both word and tone. Most Christians pray as though they believe prayer is no time to give even the appearance of being demanding or uppity with God.
But Walter Wink says “biblical prayer is impertinent, persistent, shameless, indecorous. It is more like haggling in an outdoor bazaar than the polite monologues of the church.”
In his book, Prayer: Does It Make Any Difference? Philip Yancey provides an example of impertinent prayer. Yancey’s church provides an opportunity for people to pray aloud from their seats. Once during such a season of prayer, a young woman stood and prayed, “God, I hated you after the rape! How could you let this happen to me?”
“The congregation abruptly fell silent,” writes Yancey. “No more rustling of papers or shifting in seats.”
“And I hated the people in this church who tried to comfort me. I didn’t want comfort. I wanted revenge. I wanted to hurt back. I thank you that you didn’t give up on me, and neither did some of these people. You kept after me, and I come back to you now and ask that you heal the scars of my soul.”
Now many of us may find ourselves squirming in the face of such raw, uninhibited honesty in prayer. And yet I think Walter Wink is right—such scandalous prayer has ample precedent in the bible.
Five and a half years ago, I preached on one of those biblical precedents in a sermon called, “Haggling with God.” The sermon was based on the story of Abraham’s prayer of intercession to God on behalf of two terribly corrupt cities named Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18:16-23).
When God told Abraham he was going to blast Sodom and Gomorrah into oblivion, Abraham did not bow to the ground and say, “As you wish,” or “Your will be done.” He looked God in the eye and began to haggle as hard as he could. “Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked? Far be it from you Lord to do such a thing! Will not the judge of the earth do right?”
Talk about impertinence!
Long story short, God changed his mind, at least temporarily, and Sodom and Gomorrah were spared. All because of Abraham’s rather scandalous prayer. When I concluded in the sermon that God is not offended but pleased with such prayerful haggling, several listeners let me know they were offended by my conclusions!
Today I am even more convinced that God is surprisingly open to prayers we might consider scandalous. Other Old Testament figures offer scandalous prayers of their own. Job certainly gets in God’s face on more than one occasion. So does the Psalmist and so do the prophets.
But nobody gets more edgy with God than Moses, who time after time goes to the mat for the wayfaring Israelites with prayers that are persistent, shameless, even scandalous.
The finest example of Moses’ scandalous prayers in contained in Exodus 32. Only six weeks earlier, Moses had received the Ten Commandments from God, and had in turned communicated those commandments to the Israelites. Not once but several times the Israelites promised God they would obey his commandments. All that the Lord has spoken, they said, we will do (Exodus 24:3).
Later Moses traveled to the summit of Mt. Sinai to receive the tablets of stone upon which God would engrave in his own handwriting the Ten Commandments. This venture would require Moses to be away 40 days and 40 nights, and Moses left his brother Aaron behind to hold down the fort.
In time the Israelites became anxious about the absence of Moses, and impatient with all the waiting. Have you ever noticed how badly people can act when they are both anxious and impatient?
The restless Israelites gather around Aaron and say, “Come, make gods for us, who shall go before us.”
Surely, after all that God has done for the Israelites, including parting the Red Sea so the Israelites can escape the mighty Egyptian army, and knowing full well that commandments one and two forbid worshiping other gods and making graven images—surely Aaron will not be party to such a request.
But Aaron caves on the spot, a decision that has confounded rabbis and biblical scholars for centuries. Aaron orders the Israelites to gather all their gold so he can cast a golden calf, a pagan symbol of strength and fertility, into an idol. The people rejoice at the sight of this new god. In fact, they throw a party that gets down and dirty in a hurry.
The author of Psalm 106 puts it this way:
They made a calf at Horeb,
and worshiped a cast image.
They exchanged the glory of God
for the image of an ox that eats grass.
Meanwhile, God who is keeping a watchful eye on the Israelites as he deals with Moses on the top of Mt. Sinai is not amused. The Lord said to Moses, “Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely.”
Interesting, isn’t it, how God calls the sinful Israelites “Moses’ people, those people you brought out of the land of Egypt.” One humorous Jewish tradition suggests at this point Moses might have said, “Well that’s great, Lord! As long as the Israelites obey your Law, they are your people. The minute they disobey, suddenly they are my people?”
After repeating their transgressions, The Lord said to 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.”
What’s often overlooked in this story is the amazing opportunity Moses turns down. God is offering Moses the chance to be the new starting point, the new prototype of his chosen people. An ego-driven Moses would certainly have taken God up on his offer. But Moses, who is described in Numbers 12 as “the most humble man on the face of the earth,” says no.
Also, if God really wanted to be left alone so he could obliterate the Israelites, why did he bother telling Moses his plans? Is it possible God gives Moses a heads up about the impending destruction of the Israelites so Moses will have the opportunity to talk God out of his plan?
Now comes the fun part, one of the most daring, scandalous intercessory prayers ever voiced before God!
Moses…said, “O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce wrath, change your mind. 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 have it forever.’”
Notice how Moses argues. He doesn’t claim the Israelites don’t deserve their punishment—clearly they do. Instead, he contends that God can’t destroy the Israelites because they are his people; and it wouldn’t look good to the rest of the world, especially the Egyptians, if God slaughtered his own people after going to such lengths to save them. Besides, if God does this, he’ll be breaking a bushel full of promises he made to Israel. And what good is a promise-breaking God?
At considerable risk to himself, Moses stands like a heat shield between the red-hot rage of God and the people of Israel. Or to quote Psalm 106,
God said he would destroy them—
Had not Moses, his chosen one,
Stood in the breach before him,
To turn away his wrath from destroying them.
And miracle of miracles, Moses’ scandalous prayer worked! The Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people. This verse reads even more dramatically in the KJV and RSV. Both translations say that the Lord repented of the evil which he thought to do to his people.
No wonder this verse has given heartburn to so many people—especially to people who picture God as changeless. The prospect of God changing his mind or anything else, much less repenting of anything, is well…simply scandalous!
To be fair, the story doesn’t end there.
Moses comes down the mountain, sees the people partying the night away in front of the idol, and promptly has a hissy fit, throwing the stone tablets bearing the Ten Commandments to the ground, breaking them into fine pieces. Then he melts the golden idol, grounds it into powder, scatters it on the water, and makes the Israelites drink it.
So much for that new calf who will lead the Israelites forward. And that’s just the beginning.
After interrogating the spineless Aaron who had no good explanation for what he had allowed, Moses rounds up a posse of Levites who promptly slaughter 3,000 Israelites on the spot. Just a few moments ago, Moses was representing the people before God. Now, he is acting on God’s behalf with the people. And he is dispensing stern punishment along the way.
Then, Moses turns the tables once more and makes an even riskier approach to God to spare the lives of the remaining Israelites. This time Moses lays it all on the line. He pleads with God to forgive the Israelites. “But if not,” he says, “blot me out of the book (of life) you have written (Exodus 32:32). Moses is ready to go down with his people if need be—the very people who’ve given him such a hard time on so many occasions.
God agrees—to a point. The idol-makers, God says, will still be blotted out of the book of life. More punishment as yet undefined will be meted out down the line. And all the people suffer a plague of some kind before they set out again for the Promised Land. But while God punished his people, he does not destroy them, thanks to the scandalous prayer of Moses.
Again to be fair, Moses doesn’t persuade God every time. We can assume Moses begs God to allow him into the Promised Land, but instead he dies within sight of the land flowing with milk and honey. Another bold pray-er—the Apostle Paul—prays repeatedly to be relieved of his never-identified thorn in the flesh, but God never agrees. And maybe the most scandalous of all is Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane to avoid the cross. Once more, the sovereign God does not agree to this request of his only Son whom he loves more than himself.
Even so, we cannot escape the impression that God permits us, yea invites us to intercede with him—bravely, persistently, even scandalously. It’s okay to argue with God and haggle with God until you are hoarse. Especially when the point of contention is God’s own mercy. And when changing his mind would offer God still another way to advance his Kingdom on earth even as it is in heaven.
The great theologian Soren Kierkegaard once said that “prayer does not change God, but it changes him who prays.” Kierkegaard was half right and half wrong. When I actually opt not to worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let (my) requests be made known to God, I do change. I trust God more, and his peace fills my soul. Persistent, scandalous prayer changes me.
But contrary to Kierkegaard, prayer also changes God. Prayer is a high stakes business. When we take it seriously, it can change our lives, our church, our community, our world.
What would happen to your prayer life if you actually prayed like your prayers could change the world? Because, you see, they can!