Sunday, 26 August 2018

Changing God's Mind

This sermon was first preached at our Evensong service on Sunday 26th August. The Old Testament reading that night was Exodus 4:27-5:1.

Both our readings tonight were quite short, weren't they? Recently I’ve been getting used to an Evensong reading that takes longer to read out than my sermon does, but that’s not the case tonight! (Don’t worry – that’s not a hint that my sermon tonight is going to go on for ever!).

My guess is our readers this evening thanked their lucky stars when they saw how short tonight’s readings were, and also that there were no difficult names to pronounce (though, there’s always a confusion about the pronunciation of Aaron isn’t there? – “Air-run”? “Arrun”?... I think I prefer the longer 'A' myself.)

Anyway. I wonder whether our readers were praying for easy readings tonight? If so, it seems that their prayers worked!

So… tonight, I’d like to think about that first Old Testament reading a bit – the reading from Exodus about Moses. Incidentally, were you aware that Biblical historians have worked out that Moses occasionally wore a wig? It’s true… sometimes he was seen with Aaron, and sometimes he wasn’t…
(I’ve been wanting to use that joke in a sermon for ages. Sorry about that.)

Tonight, though, Moses is seen with Aaron. And, on the surface, it’s all fine, but – when you stop and think about it – it’s all a little bit odd. Moses and Aaron have gone to meet all the elders of the twelve tribes to tell them that God is going to deliver them, but it’s not Moses who does the talking; it’s his brother, Aaron. And it’s not Moses who performs the miracles; it’s his brother Aaron. Back in chapter 3 of Exodus – only a few words before all of this, God appeared to Moses and told him to do it. What’s happened here?

Here’s the recap: God appears to Moses in the burning bush, and tells him to go to the elders of Israel to proclaim to them their deliverance. Moses counters that he’s just a nobody and someone else should do it. God replies that He will be with him, and that Moses will deliver his people out of Egypt, and worship God on that same mountain they are on now. Again, Moses counters – “I won’t know what to say!”, so… God gives him the very words to speak. Once more, Moses objects. “What if they don’t believe me?”, so God gives him some miraculous signs to perform and Moses does them there and then. Check-mate. 

Surely that resolves the matter for Moses now (after all, not only has he seen a miraculous burning bush and had a full-on conversation with the actual God of the universe, including having his future speech dictated to him, but now, he’s been given power to perform some pretty impressive miracles.)? 

But… nope; still Moses objects – “I can’t do it! I’m no public speaker!”. And God – one can imagine getting somewhat exasperated – asks Moses who he thinks gave him his ability to speak in the first place.

But Moses is relentless – “Here I am Lord, send someone else!

And here’s the funny bit. Here’s the bit we gloss over – God changes the plan. Having listened to Moses, God – who knows Moses’ capabilities here even if Moses does not – lets Moses change the mind of the Almighty. He doesn’t let Moses off the hook completely, mind you; he still has to go along, but, just as Moses prayed, God sent someone else as well. 

“What choice did God have, though?”, we might think. If God had kept on insisting, Moses could just have run away and hidden. But, we know that’s not the case. One could suppose the book of Jonah was written to counter this very thought – Jonah, after all, could not run from God’s decision for him. Moses did not dictate to God; the book of Jonah shows that God could have insisted on quite the reverse. Had God not changed his mind, Moses would have still gone off to speak to the elders of Israel whether he liked it or not; God would have got him there in the belly of a whale if needed be.

But that’s not what happened. Moses changed God’s mind – to the extent that not only did God send Aaron with him, but that that change in mind effectively led to the entire system of the Jewish priesthood being created (and, therefore, our own Christian priesthood too). Aaron was effectively the first priest. God changed the whole plan for his whole people based on a single conversation with Moses.

It’s a weird thing to think about, isn’t it, that a human being can change the mind of God? But this isn’t a one-off in the Old Testament. There are other examples of Biblical heroes debating with, and wrestling with, and changing God’s mind. It’s a scary thought to think that we mere mortals could hold such power. Power to change God’s plan.

But it’s a liberating, and exciting thought too. It shows that this relationship between God and us is just that – a relationship. It’s not – as I mentioned before – a one-way dictatorship. God wants to know our thoughts and our feelings, our hopes and our fears, and this episode with Moses and Aaron shows that – not only is He moved by them – he acts on them. 

God listens to us – really listens to us – and the Bible shows us that he is prepared to change the whole plan should we – like Moses – really need him to do so. God knew Moses could do just as God was asking but Moses could not believe it himself. God had enough respect for Moses as an individual he had created to not force his hand.

It doesn’t always happen; it’s true. Sometimes we find we have to fall in with circumstances around us, but God is unchanging, not unchangeable. That’s not just semantics; his goodness and love and wisdom and justice and mercy and grace are constant. Those things will not change. But his plan? His mind? I believe we can have an impact on God in that way. I believe he loves us enough to let us do that.

And as for praying for a shorter Evensong reading, with easy names to pronounce? Well… is that really so different to Moses’ protestations about his own public-speaking ability? Who knows? Maybe God’s mind was changed tonight

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