Standing in the breach

October 6, 2008

What a great party Aaron managed to throw while Moses was on
sabbatical! (Perhaps Exodus 32 is a caution for associate pastors
against starting new initiatives while the senior pastor is on
vacation—even if the people beg.) Jesus too offers a parable of a
party. Such festivity will likely be the last thing on most people's
minds this week, however. The economic news is a woeful threat that
inhabits parishioners imaginations like "outer darkness, where there
[is] weeping and gnashing of teeth" (Matt. 22:13).

Our
epistle lesson counsels "Rejoice in the Lord always"—even when
financial institutions fail. "Do not worry about anything"—not even a
weakening dollar or crashing markets or the threat of financial loss
and economic ruin. And the earlier command to "stand firm in the Lord"
seems especially helpful as the stock market crashes down around us and
our financial foundations quake. Be careful though, for none of these
admonitions is the gospel. It isn't gospel to tell the glum to rejoice
and the worried to stop worrying and the shaken to settle down. The
gospel, after all, is never an imperative; it always an indicative
statement of what God has done and is doing in Jesus. Here the good
news lurks in the prepositional phrases: stand firm in the Lord, be of
the same mind in the Lord, rejoice in the Lord, don't worry and pray
thankfully and be guarded by peace in Christ Jesus. Preach that if you
want to offer comfort and hope to the fretful faithful!

If you
want to engage the golden calf, you'll need to engage God's wrath
staring us full in the face. Be cautious here. Don't silence the text
by refusing to read it or by ignoring what it says about wrath in the
sermon. Instead, be like Moses and stand in the breach on your people's
behalf. The psalmist tells us that Moses stood in the breach for Israel
that day (Psalm 106:23).

What's this breach? It's easy to read
it as a fissure in the divine life. Over here is God's wrath against
sin and over there God's love for sinners. Reading the breach as a gap
in God's character forces Moses into the role of therapist to a divine
schizophrenia. "Thank goodness Moses talks that hothead Yahweh down"
this psychologizing anthropomorphism thinks. Yet this is no revelation
that wrath and mercy compete in the divine psyche, with human well
being hanging in the balance, even if Yahweh demonstrates a wild
unpredictability here that knows nothing of the button-down regularity
of the theologian's God.

What is the breach? It is the gap
between God's holiness and Israel's sin, the tear in the fabric of
fidelity caused by Israel's disobedience, the divide between God's love
for Israel and Israel's refusal to be loved. It is another version of
the breach that opened in Eden beside the tree of the knowledge of good
and evil, a typical example of the truth that all have sinned and
fallen short of the glory of God.

Here is a revelation that
God's wrath against Israel is but the flip side of God's love for
Israel (and thus for us); it is so broad and deep that it cannot but
burn white hot against the self-destructive, death-inviting practice of
offering worship to what isn't God. In other words, God's wrath is
utterly real and absolutely good precisely because it is God actively
loving sinners by actively opposing their sin. Divine wrath is thus not
so much a feeling that our behavior causes, but the form love takes in
the face of sin.

That is the breach, and Moses steps into it for
Israel's good and for God's glory. In Jesus of Nazareth another chosen
one, a prophet greater than Moses, stood in that same breach for our
good and God's glory. Indeed his cross marks the divide between God's
will and our waywardness; it fills the gap between God's love and our
refusal to be loved. Jesus pours out God's wrath against sin in
suffering love and we are not destroyed but saved. He stands in the
breach on our behalf, so that we can stand firm in him (Phil. 4:1).