In the Breach

Exodus 32:1-14 | Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23 | Philippians 4:1-9| Matthew 22:1-14

“…Moses, God’s chosen one, stood in the breach before God to keep God’s wrath from destroying them.”

Most of you have probably met my mom by now. She was here last week for the celebration of my one year anniversary here at Grant Park. You’d probably never guess that that sweet little lady used to be quite the rebel as a child. Up until junior high, she and her siblings got into quite a bit of trouble.

My mom grew up on a farm, and one of my favorite stories of hers was when she was in elementary school her and her siblings had a little “fort” where they went and smoked cigarettes – cigarrettes she once got caught stealing form the local store (the “fort” was actually just a hole in the ground that they covered with boards). One day, when her parents were away, someone either didn’t put a cigarette out, or they left a candle lit, either way, the boards caught on fire. Her brother jumped on a tractor to put the fire out, but accidentally hit a metal gate, denting it. Once they got the fire out, they had to decide what they would tell their parents about the dented gate. They got my mom, who was the youngest, to deliver the lie that one of their bulls had rammed the gate. When her parents got home, my mom was sent as the emissary of the children to speak to the adults. To use the language of our psalm, describing Moses, my mother stood in the breach (and her parents believed her).

To stand in the breach is a scary thing. There’s a reason “don’t shoot the messanger” has become a saying…because often the messenger is the one who gets shot. To stand between two groups who are at odds is to be in a precarious situation. When I think of standing in the breach, I think of pictures I saw a few years ago of Orthodox priests standing between Ukrainian protestors and police – the two sides clearly defined, masses of people with a single strip of land between them, and in that space stood those people of God.

But I don’t think there’s any breach more intimidating, more precarious, than the one Moses occupied – the breach between an angry God and a sinful people.

At the beginning of our reading from Exodus, the people have begun to worry that something has happened to Moses. Chapter 24 tells us that Moses had, indeed, been gone a long time, 40 days to be exact.

Moses was their leader, the one introduced them to God, the one who spoke to God for them. Without Moses they lost touch with God. After 40 days without seeing Moses, they decide they have to do something. They want to hear from God, but how do they contact God? They don’t know, so they turn to what has been modeled to them, like little kids looking to parents. Most of their lives were spent in Egypt, and in Egypt there were golden idols that represented deities. They figure, “Sure, Moses never made an image of God, but Moses is gone and we don’t know how to communicate with God. Idols seemed to work for the Egyptians, let’s do that.” They aren’t trying to disobey God, they’re trying to find God, but in doing so they make God into an immovable, inanimate object.

This isn’t an intentional sin, it’s simply replicating what has been modeled to them. It’s so engrained in them that it’s second-nature. After all, how are they supposed to worship a God they can’t see? Do they pray looking up, down, side-to-side? Where is God? Who is God?

The Israelites want something to hold onto. Before this, God has been a pillar of cloud and fire. Cloud obscures and fire burns. Neither can be grasped. But this calf, made by Aaron, can be grasped. It can be seen from far away. People can dance around and offer sacrifices to it. When they doubt, they can look to it.

But the calf, for all it’s postivie attributes, doesn’t speak, doesn’t listen, doesn’t see, doesn’t move.

The God of Israel, though – the real God, the One who really did bring the people out of Egypt – that God sees and speaks and listens and moves. That God sees the Israelites with their puny idol. That God sees them trying to turn God into a small, immovable god like the gods of Egypt, and God gets angry. Really angry. God says God takes back God’s decision to make a great nation out of these people. Instead, God wants to wipe them out and replace them with Moses’ offspring.

And this is where Moses finds himself standing in the breach.

Moses tries something audacious, something we would probably never think to do, he tries to change God’s mind, and he does it in such a weird way. He tells God, “Look God, if you destroy them, the Egyptians are gonna talk bad about you. They’re gonna be like, ‘God took them out of Egypt just to do evil to them.’” And God listens to Moses! Moses changes God’s mind. Can you believe that? How many people have heard this story before? I remember being floored the first time I read that Moses changed God’s mind.

This story reminds me of one of our lessons in Adult Sunday School when we were studying the prophets. Walter Brueggemann, who led the video series, says that our idea that God is immovable (kind of like a golden calf), the idea that God is set in God’s ways, comes more from a Greek understanding of God, but in the Old Testament, God is a God people argue with and make deals with, and God even changes God’s mind from time to time, like in this passage.

The idea that God said it so there’s no arguing is extremely unbiblical. That’s why it’s so frustrating when people quote the Bible like it’s the end of discussion. Just because it’s in the Bible doesn’t mean we don’t argue and wrestle and question it. Moses challenges God in this passage, if he didn’t we might not have this Bible, because we wouldn’t have the Israelites!

About a week and a half ago, a woman showed up at our door because she was interested in our church. She quickly got to the point. She wanted to make sure we didn’t let some people in our church. I don’t need to tell you what “kind” of people she didn’t approve of, because we’ve all heard it before, and I think I speak for us all when I say we’ve heard about it enough. I gladly disappointed her and let her know that we invite everyone into our church.

She said, “God says it’s a sin. I open my Bible and it’s right there. God said it.”

I tried to explain to her why we believe in a Gospel of inclusion, but she kept cutting me off, “God says...The Bible says…” She ignored my attempted explanations about how we believe the Bible should be read, what it’s for, and how some words have been misinterpreted.

The Bible has become the golden calf to so many Christians today. It’s not something they find God in – moving within the pages, appearing in the white space around the words – it is God. And it is an immovable, static God, like the golden calf. But that isn’t the God of the very Scriptures their idolizing.

From Abraham bargaining with God over the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah, to this passage where Moses changes God’s mind, to the prophets pleading with God to have mercy and remember God’s promises, the God of Scripture is a God known best through dynamic movement and dynamic dialogue. God is known best not through passive submission but active participation, not through simply listening but through debating and pleading and screaming and crying.

Did you known that the word “Israel” means to wrestle or struggle with God? Jacob receives the name Israel after he spends a night wrestling with God at Peniel in Genesis 32. If Israel’s very name means to “wrestle with God,” then this wrestling must be a key characteristic of the people of God.  At times, to be the people of God means to “stand in the breach” the way the psalmist describes Moses standing in the breach between God and Israel.

Hebrews 4:16 tells us that because of Jesus, we all can “approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in our time of need.”

That’s what we mean when we talk about the priesthood of all believers. It means that we all have equal access to God through the Holy Spirit. This is, of course, a great honor, but it’s also a great responsibility.

It means we also, constantly, stand in the breach – between the living God who isn’t a static image but an elusive pillar of cloud and fire, and a world that, despite its best efforts, is constantly misunderstanding that God – a world that, right now, seems to be breaking apart. From natural disasters like fires in California and Hurricanes in the Caribbean, to governmental policies that aim to take away healthcare from those who need it most, to the spiritual, demonic forces of racism, sexism, homophobia, and ableism.

We stand in the breach between a world that seems hopelessly sick and a God who lately seems not so much angry as absent. I can’t speak for you, but I have to be honest that it’s getting harder and harder to answer the question “Where’s God in all this?” whether it’s someone else asking, or myself asking that question.

Lately I’ve been vacillating between expecting God to simply make something miraculous happen without me, and thinking that if I work hard enough I can do it on my own.

But to be like Moses, to stand in the breach, means relying on God, certainly, but not passively. It means believing our prayers matter. That we can actually influence God to change God’s mind. It means reminding God of God’s promises. It means demanding that God hear the cries of the suffering, that God might deliver them as God promised God would. Just as Moses reasoned with God, saying, “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'?” we might also remind God that many in our world have stopped believing in God, because God seems so absent. We might pray with the psalmist in Psalm 79: “…we are in desperate need. Help us, God our Savior, for the glory of your name; deliver us and forgive our sins for your name’s sake. Why should the nations say, ‘Where is their God?’” (vv. 8-10).

We have, perhaps, become too timid in our prayers, praying everything with the qualifier “if it’s your will…” but Moses here is unwilling to accept God’s will, as unbelievable as this sounds. God’s will is to wipe out an entire people, a people God had promised to raise up, and now God wants to destroy them? Moses can’t go for that. And Moses isn’t alone, the prophets regularly go to bat for the people, the psalmist pleads with God over and over to deliver.

The state of the world today is a far cry from the kingdom of God that we regularly pray would come “on earth as it is in heaven.” The gap between rich and poor continues to grow, we continue to ravage and exploit the earth, violence has become so common it’s hardly shocking anymore.

What would it mean for us to step out of the crowd into the space between God and our world – a world that desperately needs God?

What would it look like to call God out of silence and into action?

How might we remind God of God’s promises?

What if we stood in the breach?