“What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he lose one of them, doth not leave the ninety and nine in the wilderness, and go after that which is lost, until he find it?” [St. Luke 15:4]
Sheep, like turkeys, are one of the dumbest animals God has ever created. I had an acquaintance in College that owned a sheep farm with her husband. She said that, when there were thunderstorms, which are quite common in the summer months in Maryland, the sheep would spook. They would throw themselves into the barbwire fence over and over again to get away from the thunder. If they were not stopped, they would do it until they killed themselves. We have a lot in common with sheep.
Someone once said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting a different result each time. Humans are famous for this. I know personally it takes me several times committing the same error until I wise up and learn not to do it again. And even then, if enough time passes, I will forget that lesson and do that very act again that I thought I had learned NOT to do.
Our lessons for today deal with this human nature and God’s great capacity to forgive:
And the LORD said unto Moses, “Go, get thee down: for thy people, which thou broughtest out of the land of Egypt, have corrupted themselves. They have turned aside quickly out of the way which I commanded them: they have made them a molten calf, and have worshipped it, and have sacrificed thereunto, and said, ‘These be thy gods, O Israel, which have brought thee up out of the land of Egypt’.”
Our friend and fellow parishioner, Aaron Cummings, wrote a very good article on this passage several months ago. The Israelites had not created this golden calf to replace God, but rather to represent Him.
This may be a difficult concept, but we must remember that the Israelites had been in Egypt for a long time. Many had married Egyptians who worshipped idols. Thus, when Moses did not return, the Israelites thought they needed something to take Moses’ place – something to mediate between God and Man. And something that would not disappear so easily, like a man. So the Israelites created an idol as mediator and representative of the true God. In other words, according to my Jewish sources, the sin committed here was not the sin of having false gods, but rather of having set up an idol.
God’s people had turned away from God. They had sinned. So, what was God’s reaction? It was very similar to the way many of US react. I remember that, as a child, if I did something good, my mother would say, “Look what my son has done.” But, if I did something bad, she would turn to my father and say, “Look what YOUR son did.” This is what God does here. He does not refer to the Israelites as “My people,” but rather “THY people.” Also, God is no longer taking credit for bringing His people out of Egypt, but rather says to Moses that he brought them out. In other words, God is showing us in this passage how alienated He feels from His own people because of their great sin.
Then comes a section that seems perplexing in juxtaposition with our Gospel lesson for today:
And the LORD said unto Moses, “I have seen this people, and behold, it is a stiff-necked people. Now therefore let me alone, that my wrath may wax hot against them, and that I may consume them: and I will make of thee a great nation.”
There are people who think that the God of the Old Testament is somehow different from the God of the New Testament. They would say that the Old Testament God is vengeful, quick to punish, whereas the New Testament God is loving and kind, quick to forgive. But this is not true. How God is portrayed in the Old Testament is just as loving, just as quick to forgive and have mercy. And where we can see this is in the phrase “let me alone.”
The Jewish Midrashic commentaries see this statement as a hint from God. It is God’s way of asking Moses to NOT leave Him alone. In other words, God is asking Moses to pray for Israel and to make the case to God for Him to spare His people. And this IS a consistent way God acts with His Old Testament prophets.
Often the Old Testament prophets play an intercessory role between God and His people. And they play this role for two reasons. The first is to show that God IS a merciful God. He is NOT unreasonable. In fact, He always has a reason to spare His people. And the prophets show the reasoning of His thoughts through their intercessory prayers. The second reason is precisely to show us that intercessory prayers DO work. They ARE what God wants.
But ultimately this story is told NOT to show how eager God was to destroy His people, but actually the exact opposite. It was told so that we could see God’s mercy.
This theme continues in our New Testament lesson. In response to the Pharisees and scribes murmuring that Christ “receiveth sinners, and eateth with them,” Jesus tells two parables. Like the Midrash, they are told to teach us a lesson. And the lesson is that there is great joy in heaven when a sinner repents and comes back to God. Therefore, of course Christ WOULD reach out to sinners.
The parable of the lost sheep is famous. It is so well known that an important element may have been lost over the years. In our modern age, we have constantly seen it as a metaphor for the love of God, and rightly so. We see Christ hunting for us, the lost, and He does. What we forget is our part in this tale. Not until we look at the Prodigal Son do we see our responsibility.
We are lost, not because it “sort of happens.” No, we lose our way through our own choices. And eventually when Christ saves us, we have to do one more thing – repent. And as a great example, we have our psalmist’s beautiful prayer of repentance:
HAVE mercy upon me, O God, after thy great goodness; * according to the multitude of thy mercies do away mine offences.
2 Wash me throughly from my wickedness, * and cleanse me from my sin.
3 For I acknowledge my faults, * and my sin is ever before me.
Modern man does not want to face the fact that we do wrong. They do not want to acknowledge that sin exists let alone that we may be responsible for our own personal sins. And for that reason, we do not hear much discussion these days for the need to repent and come back to God.
This reminds me of the story about a woman who had been trying for years to change her egotistical husband. This man was obsessed with being number “One.” He talked endlessly about being first in sales, first on the list for the next promotion, and first in whatever sport he played. He could never acknowledge that he did anything wrong. One day, this man stepped onto one of those scales that also told your fortune. He dropped a coin in the slot and out came a card which read:
You are a born leader, with superior intelligence, quick wit and charming manners – magnetic personality and attractive to the opposite sex.
“Read that!” said the man to his wife. She did, then she turned it over and said, “It has your weight wrong too.”
Being a Christian does not mean we do no wrong: far from it. But what it does mean is that, when we repent, when we accept Christ, our sins are forgiven. When we repent, we are brought back into the embrace of God’s love.
We have an incredibly loving God. He loves us so much, He is willing to sacrifice His only Son to get us back. But we must also acknowledge that, when we sin, we leave God. It may only be for a short moment, or it may be for years. But the more we sin, the farther we move away from God. The only way we can come back is by repenting and changing our ways.
However, like lost sheep, it may take us a long time to change. We may slam ourselves against the barbwire fence of sin over and over again. We may have to learn the same lesson several times before we break out of this insane pattern.
But the really beautiful part is that God is always there, waiting for us. He will pick us up and carry us back to the fold over and over again, until we finally learn our lesson. All He asks is that we acknowledge our sins, ask for His forgiveness, and try to change. With a God like this, how can we not echo what our psalmist wrote:
6 But lo, thou requirest truth in the inward parts, * and shalt make me to understand wisdom secretly.
7 Thou shalt purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; * thou shalt wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
8 Thou shalt make me hear of joy and gladness, * that the bones which thou hast broken may rejoice.
- Midrash is the homiletic stories told to explain the Jewish Bible. It is homiletic in nature, originally told by Jewish sages and rabbis. It was an oral tradition that eventually was written down.