09.11.2016 Preaching Text: “‘Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?’” (Luke 15:4)
We tend to think of God in monolithic terms, that he must conform to one timeless, unchanging mood. Yet throughout scripture, both Old and New, we see God at one moment angry and vengeful, and then merciful and kind. It can be confusing.
Take our readings this morning from 1 Timothy and Luke. In 1 Timothy, the apostle Paul talks about how God bestowed upon him, a former persecutor of Christ’s church, and self-confessed sinner of sinners, a life-changing mercy, granting him a new life born of grace (read: forgiveness).
In the same vein, in Luke, God is portrayed as one who will stop at nothing to save his children. God is as a shepherd who leaves the 99 to look for the one lost sheep, and as the woman who searches tirelessly until she finds the lost coin. God’s love, in other words, is a pursuing love, unyielding and unrelenting.
Then again, in the reading from Jeremiah, God is ready to exact vengeance. Pronouncing judgment on a faithless nation, Jeremiah speaks God’s wrath: “The whole land shall be a desolation…”
Of course, we may be tempted to interpret this difference as the dichotomy between the Old and New Testaments. As the argument goes, the Old Testament is all about judgment while the New Testament is all about forgiveness.
The Old Testament God, according to this way of thinking, might be pictured as an old, white-bearded man angrily throwing thunderbolts at a feckless and faithless earth, while the New Testament God might be visualized as the smiling, blond-haired, blue-eyed Jesus we’ve seen in countless Sunday school rooms – you know, Jesus meek and mild.
This strange juxtaposition regarding the nature of this twofold God has become fodder for the mill during our now weeks-long study of the Book of Revelation. In it we’ve been confronted with horrible images of divine judgment that produce unthinkable human suffering, all found in the New Testament.
In truth, both testaments reveal God’s mercy and God’s judgment. The supposed dichotomy between the two is simply false. There are countless examples of God’s mercy in the Old Testament and countless examples of God’s judgment, even vengeance, in the New!
So what are we to make of these seemingly incompatible images of God? Is he schizophrenic? Or just plain moody? After all, if we’re paying attention, he often seems to jump from one disposition to the next.
Perhaps the problem is that we forget God is a living being, a living Spirit. We’re more apt to think of him as the Deists do, as the “cosmic watchmaker” who at Creation sets up life with all its natural laws and moral truths, but who then leaves it to fend for itself as he watches, unmoved, from afar.
The God of scripture, however, is not a passive observer of history. He is an active participant. In last week’s reading, for instance, also from Jeremiah, we’re told that God “changed his mind,” or repented. Rather than remote and passive, he is shown to be capable of deciding and acting howsoever he wills!
In biblical thought, therefore, natural laws and even moral truths are provisional. Because they come from God, and serve at his pleasure, God can suspend them at any time.
When God sends the floods upon the earth during the time of Noah, the biblical idea was that he was temporarily suspending the laws of nature, allowing the primordial waters the biblical writers believed surrounded both heaven and earth to flood in.
The same is true of miracles. Miracles are examples of God’s suspension of natural law, as he sees fit. Thus, unlike much contemporary thought, natural law is not eternal, but a provisional gift from divine Providence, who at any time can suspend or eliminate it.
So to get back to the main question: “Is God moody?” My answer would be both yes and no. While it is true that the biblical God’s ‘moodiness’ is not irrational or impulsive, as we commonly understand these words, and thus neither random nor whimsical, the biblical God nonetheless does react to human situations, both ‘positively’ and ‘negatively’. God is not, in other words, impassive or aloof, but reacts empathetically to human life.
Some years ago I was visiting someone in ICU at Cape Cod Hospital. As many of you know, in order to enter one first must go into the visitor’s lounge and call the nurses’ station for permission to enter.
I picked up the phone and called the desk. The woman at the other end asked me if I was a relative. I said, no, I was the patient’s pastor.
No sooner had I gotten off the phone than a woman in the waiting room approached me and asked, “I’ve always wanted to know. What does the word ‘Pastor’ stand for?”
The answer, of course, is “shepherd.”
And a shepherd has two basic functions. One is to lovingly care for the sheep. The other is to do whatever is necessary to defend the sheep from danger. When you stop to think about it, both seemingly dissimilar “jobs” serve the same purpose, to establish the flock’s well-being.
In Psalm 23 we read about how the good shepherd tends to the most basic needs of the sheep. He leads them to green pastures and beside still waters, where he seeks to restore their souls. He leads them in right paths.
He even medicates the weak or injured sheep with a healing salve, or oil, placed on their wounds. Similarly he offers a cup of fortifying meal. In other words, he gently tends to the very least of his flock with love and care.
At the same time, this same shepherd also fights to protect them from danger. In the darkest valley, he carries a staff to ward off their many natural predators, such as snakes and wolves. At evening he provides a protective shelter with a narrow gate so that the sheep may sleep safely through even the darkest night.
He “prepares a table” before their “enemies,” meaning he inspects and removes from the pasture anything that might injure or harm the sheep, such as scorpions or snakes.
In other words, the shepherd is gentle and mild one moment but then suddenly fierce if not militant. His “mood” depends on how best to tend to his flock.
In the end, one of the ways we seek to control God is by making him fit into our set laws or rules. The biblical God, in contradistinction, is entirely sovereign, free to think and act in ways that produce the godliest result, even when they don’t fit our preconceived ideas and expectations. And for that we should be grateful. Amen.