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God's Word on Sunday: A merciful, gracious God won’t give up on us

  • June 2, 2023

Most Holy Trinity  (Year A) June 4 (Exodus 34:4b-6, 8-9; Daniel 3; 2 Corinthians 13:11-13; John 3:16-18 )

Moses had an extremely important appointment that he had to keep. The appointment was with God, who would be revealed to him. He would also receive the Ten Commandments on stone tablets.

The text tells us that God descended in a cloud and stood by Moses, but elsewhere in Exodus, we are told that no one can look upon God and live. And God does not have human form, so how are we to understand this passage? The figure is most likely an angel, as angels often act as stand-ins for God throughout Scripture. The figure pronounced what is translated as “the Lord.” In fact, it is the sacred and unutterable name of God. This is often understood as “I am who am” (Exodus 3:14) and indicates a God who is far above human labels and names. God then reveals the divine nature: merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness. God showed all of these qualities on numerous occasions during the liberation from Egypt and the journey across the wilderness.

But this is the same God whom the Israelites betrayed and rebelled against, provoking God to respond in ways that were darker and more violent. God never turned His back on the Israelites, always offering forgiveness and new life. Moses acknowledged before God that the Israelites were a stiff-necked people — stubborn and proud.

This is a weakness or fault that we share in common. It is a full-disclosure before God and a plea that God accept the people and make them His own despite these failings. Humility before God and acknowledgement of failures and shortcomings go a long way. It is a reminder that God is never to be put to the test or pushed too far. We must always face the consequences of our behaviour and we cannot be cavalier with God’s grace and mercy, but God never abandons us. This self-description of God is the way that God desires to be with us — let us not force God to be otherwise.  

Paul was short and to the point: if we want peace, we must be peaceful; if we want love, we must be loving. If we live with one another in love and peace, the God of love and peace will dwell with us. We drive God away with selfish, hateful, violent or negative behaviour and attitudes. How and to what extent we experience the presence of God depends in large part on us.  

John 3:16 is probably the best-known verse in the New Testament and it is indeed powerful. The mercy and compassion described in Exodus are now expanded to encompass humanity. God gives up what is most precious: His only-begotten son. The Son becomes a lifeline let down from Heaven offering salvation to all who cling to it by faith in Him. They will be granted eternal life.

But a number of questions arise. In John’s Gospel, eternal life does not describe primarily life in the hereafter but the type and quality of life that one experiences now — even while they still live. It is living in the conscious awareness of the presence of God — living perpetually the type of life that one would experience before God. We might also ask about those that do not respond with faith in Jesus. There are many reasons — failure to hear the Gospel, upbringing and life experiences, cultural conditioning and so on. It does not necessarily imply ill will or obstinacy.

Every person has a different history. Some would insist that Jesus is the way to the Father — true enough — but there are many ways to Jesus. It is more likely that John had those who actually encountered Jesus personally in mind when He raised the bar so high.

We must look further than that — the long view — and this is hinted at in John 12:32, where Jesus insisted that when He was raised up He would draw all people to Himself. God does not punish those who refuse to take His outstretched hand — the punishment is self-inflicted in that they reject the greatest gift possible. But this need not be permanent, for God never gives up on us or closes the door.

These three readings give us insight into the nature of God: always merciful and compassionate, but never to be taken for granted or manipulated.