Exodus 34:5-7

I stand before you with deep humility because you asked me to take this service to celebrate the Rev Terrance Wessels’ 30 years of ministering to this congregation.
I’m not going to say much about the Rev Wessels, who I have known since we met in 1985 at the theological seminary of UWC. As some of you will remember, 1985 was a time of unrest and uncertainty in South Africa, with state of emergency laws that caused the closure of the university for long periods. We often complain about the uncertainty of the political environment today, but easily forget that period in our history – when the future looked much bleaker than now.
What I want to focus on today is God’s characteristics and thus, by implication, what He calls his church to be within the community in which we live.

I know the Rev Wessels as a community-orientated person. I remember specifically how he gave me a lift when I walked from the Bellville station to the seminary on campus. He is a person who prefers to give rather than to receive. When he visited me in Rust-Ter-Vaal, he always brought chocolate or cooldrinks for my daughters. One of his main weaknesses is his inability to receive from others. Therefore I’m so glad that you, his congregation, organised this celebration for him.
What are the characteristics of God, our Parent? Especially for all of us who are “parenting” others? Maybe our own biological children, or others in the community or congregation who are not biologically related to us. Personally, I am not much in favour of Mothers Day and Fathers Day, but would prefer a “Parents Day” to honour all parents, including single and unmarried persons, as well as those without biological children who are fulfilling the role of a parent in somebody’s life.
The God of the Old Testament is not only the Creator-God, but also the God of the covenant. He called Abram (Gen 12) and made a covenant of grace with Abraham (Gen 15), with circumcision (Gen 17) as the sign of the covenant – in which we, today, still share through the baptism of babies (Eph 2).

I take you back to the story of Exodus and specifically Exodus 32-34. The time is between the fifteenth and thirteenth centuries before Christ. The nation then was dissatisfied with Moses, who was on the mountain with God, and they approached Aaron to make them a golden calf to worship. God sent Moses down from the mountain and expressed His anger at this “stiff-necked” (obstinate) nation (Ex 32:9). But Moses pleaded with God and reminded God of his covenant (32:13).
“Then the Lord relented and did not bring on his people the disaster he had threatened” (32:14 NIV).
Then it was Moses’ turn to get angry.
“When Moses approached the camp and saw the calf and the dancing his anger burned and he threw the tablets out of his hands, breaking them to pieces at the foot of the mountain” (34:19 NIV).
It is quite complex to explain what followed in terms of our modern culture. Moses gave the Levites a command to kill the disobedient, irrespective of whether they were family or brothers, and three thousand Israelites were killed and the Levites were blessed for their obedience (32:29). God sent a plague and many died (32:35). God, in his anger, said Moses must take the nation into the promised land, but that He would not accompany them, because they were so “stiff-necked”. He might just destroy them on their way (33:3-4). Eventually God agreed to go with Moses (33:14) and allowed His goodness to pass in front of Moses (33:19).
We are tempted to remember only God’s anger and discontent with Israel. If we read on, God’s heart is revealed.
In Exodus 34 God commanded Moses to prepare and bring two stone tablets to Him on Mount Sinai so that He could again write on them. Exodus 34:5-7 introduces the turning point:
5 Then the LORD came down in the cloud and stood there with him and proclaimed his name, the LORD. 6 And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, “The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, 7 maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation.”
Many centuries later, the prophet Joel repeated these words. Most scholars agree that it was in the post-exilic period, after the rebuilding of the temple, thus after 515 BC. In the New Testament there is the well-known reference to the book of Joel in Peter’s Sermon (Acts 2:17-21) and Revelations (6:12, 17; 8:7; 9:2; 7, 9; 14:15, 18; 22:1).
Listen to Joel 2:
12 “Even now,” declares the LORD, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning.” 13 Rend your heart and not your garments. Return to the LORD your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and he relents from sending calamity.
If you read the book Joel up to 2:11, you get the feeling that there is just no hope for Israel. Verse 12 introduces a definite change. Yahweh announces in the first person what they should do, but also says who God is. It is the only time in this book that the term “declares the Lord” is used.
The point that should not be missed is that it is the real heart of who God is, God’s character, that gives the nation a second chance. Who is God? Five different terms were used to describe God. The first four terms are used in pairs of two. God is gracious and compassionate; slow to anger and abounding in love.
“Hier word ‘’n ou, geykte belydenisformule gebruik en vyf begrippe word aaneengeryg om eintlik net een ding te sê: Die klem val op die genadige, lankmoedige en liefdevolle reaksie wat die Here op die berou van sy volk sal toon. In die noodsituasie waarin die volk van die Here verkeer, is hulle enigste hoop die ongekwalifiseerde liefde en trou van die Here.” (Prinsloo 1990:57).
“An old, stock confessional formula is used and five concepts are strung together to say, after all, only one thing: The emphasis is on the gracious, patient and loving reaction the Lord will show his remorseful nation. In the crisis situation in which the Lord’s nation find themselves, their only hope lies in the unqualified love and faithfulness/OR constancy of the Lord.” (Translated by C le Grange).
Another prophet from the same era (between 300 and 500 BC) said the same about God. We all know Jonah, the unwilling prophet. Jonah 4:
2 He prayed to the LORD, “Isn’t this what I said, LORD, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.
In the time of the Nehemiah (445 BC), on one of their religious days, the history of Israel is read to the nation. The nation is reminded of Israel’s disobedience and how Yahweh gives them another chance. Nehemiah 9:
17 They refused to listen and failed to remember the miracles you performed among them. They became stiff-necked and in their rebellion appointed a leader in order to return to their slavery. But you are a forgiving God, gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love. Therefore you did not desert them,
This message is repeated in several of the Psalms.
Psalm 86:15 But you, Lord, are a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness.
Psalm 103:8 The LORD is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love.
Psalm 145:8 8 The LORD is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and rich in love.
In Jesus Christ God makes himself known to His followers, called Christians, far more than the Old Testament followers had the privilege to experience. Many of us grow up with a certain way of thinking about the God of the Old Testament, as being very different from the Father of Jesus Christ.
Is there any consistency between the Yahweh of the Old Testament and the Father of Jesus Christ in the New Testament? I mention all these Old Testament texts as an affirmation that these characteristics of God appear right through the Old Testament and that it is a constant theme throughout many periods/ times.
How does this relate to the message of the New Testament? Suffice to quote only the Gospel of John. John 1:
14 The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.
15 (John testified concerning him. He cried out, saying, “This is the one I spoke about when I said, ‘He who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.’ ”)
16 Out of his fullness we have all received grace in place of grace already given.
17 For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.
We can also say that the message goes further in the New Testament than in the Old Testament. In the New Testament, the message is given either in the context of Jesus preparing His disciples for His death (Gospels), or in the context of the early church living by the grace of God (Rom 3:24; 4:16; 5:2, 15, 17). Christ’s death and resurrection take the unconditional love of God further. There is no indication of punishment for the generations to come, as some churches are still teaching their members.
Still we find it very difficult to live by this point of grace. The need to “earn” something is very deeply ingrained in our thinking. For many of us it is a daily struggle not to base our spiritual life on a reciprocal relationship with God. We do something and expect God to do something in return.
In our congregations we often pronounce the grace of God, but create all types of structures that do not reflect that grace. In a world where nothing is free, the church struggles to live by this understanding of God who freely loves and gives.

Many Christians cannot understand how we can baptise small babies, who cannot show faith. Congregations in our own church cannot think how we can let children share in the Holy Communion even before they are confessing members.
We struggle with basic things in the church regarding grace. We have archaic ways of dealing with the issue of “discipline” (tug) in most of our church’s congregations. As if having a baby out of wedlock (the only thing many congregations use discipline for) is a greater wrongdoing than all the other things people do to each other every day. We struggle as a church to be a community of grace.

As a church we find it difficult to reach out unconditionally to our sons and daughters who are gay and lesbian, without first setting certain conditions. We cannot accept that some of our ministers are gay and lesbian and want to serve the ministry, fully accepted as human beings.
Our existence as a church is embedded in our message. The purpose of our existence is embedded in who God is. People often say the church should be different. How can we as a church be different? Only by being a community of “grace”. By reflecting the heart of God. That should become visible in how we treat each other and those who do not belong to the church.
We can only have an effect on the broken communities around us if we reflect the compassionate love of God. What the gangsters, drug peddlers, criminals all have in common is a life without love and grace.

Today is Fathers Day, and a month ago we celebrated Mothers Day. Healthy families are necessary to create healthy communities. The challenge is for mothers and fathers, for parents and grandparents, to be penetrated by the flow of God’s grace. We as parents should be steeped in compassion, love, grace and faithfulness. We should look at others and our children with gentle eyes, and so create a new way of thinking and doing in a harsh world. As congregations we should welcome the stranger, those who live on the fringes of society, and who may experience very little grace themselves.
May the faithful God of compassion, love and grace give us kind eyes and be with you all.

Frederik Nel

 

References
Allen, Leslie C 1980. The books of Joel, Obadiah, Jonah and Micah. The New International Commentary on the OT
Anderson, Bernhard W 1975, Understanding the Old Testament. Third Edition
Bosman, H L & Loader J A (eds) 1988. Old Testament Storytellers. The Literature of the Old Testament Vol 2
Cole, Alan 1973. Exodus. An Introduction and Commentary. Tyndale OT Commentaries
Deist, Ferdinand & Vorster Willem (eds) 1986. Words from Afar. The Literature of the Old Testament Vol 1
Jonker, W D & Theron P F 1983. Vreemde Geregtigheid. Oor die regverdiging uit genade alleen
Prinsloo, W S 1990. Die boek Joël.
Theron, Flip 2011. Gods geregtigheid en Christus se geloof. Oor die tekens van God se trou