Feb. 14, 2016 “A God Who Forgives” – Exodus 34:1-9
“A Forgiving God”
February 14, 2016 – First Sunday of Lent
I wrote a perfect final in a high school statistics class. The teacher told me it was the only 100 percent test he graded. But then he told me I would receive a “C” for the class. No, I didn’t cheat. But I hadn’t done all the homework assignments. It didn’t matter that I aced the final. He was not going to forgive all that missed homework. I had counted on that forgiveness and it didn’t happen.
The season of Lent began this past week on Ash Wednesday. We started with a time of remembering our sins, confessing them to God, and asking for forgiveness. We counted on God’s forgiveness as we humbled ourselves before Him with prayer and ashes. We came forward to receive the bread and the cup of Communion as the sacrament of Christ’s body broken and His blood shed for the forgiveness of our sins.
So what’s the difference between God and my high school math teacher? Why can we come to our Lord with absolute confidence that He will forgive us? Shouldn’t we be a bit more cautious, like I should have been in high school, not presuming on God’s forgiveness as if it’s our right? Why can Paul say so definitely in Romans 10 that “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved?” Wouldn’t it be wise to worry a bit more about whether we are just going to skate by with all those sins we’ve each added up?
The answer is here in Exodus 34 this morning. Moses is in the process of receiving a second set of the Commandments on stone tablets. He broke the first set in anger at the sins of the people. As Moses picked up those new tablets, God came down in a cloud says verse 5. He stood with Moses and proclaimed His name, “The Lord.”
“Lord” is in small capitals in your English Bible, “Lord,” which means this is God’s unique name in Hebrew, first told to Moses at the burning bush. We sometimes pronounce it “Yahweh.” In Exodus 6, at the burning bush, the King James Bible made it “Jehovah.” We don’t really know how it was pronounced. For Jewish people that name is so sacred they will not say it aloud. We respect that in modern English translations by a tradition that goes back to William Tyndale, that small capital Lord wherever we find God’s unique and holy Name in Hebrew.
This is a special occasion at the beginning of Exodus 34. As He had just a few times, God declared His name and tells Moses about Himself, what it means to be the God who has that name. What God told Moses here in verses 6 and 7 is the reason we can count on God’s forgiveness, the basis of our Christian faith.
Verse 6 tells us God’s very nature is mercy, grace, patience, steadfast love and faithfulness. That is God’s character. We talk about human character and say a person is kind or generous, mean or dishonest. God revealed the traits of His own deepest being. We find it summed up very simply over in I John 4:8, “God is love.” Love is the foundation of all that God is and does.
As simple as that sounds, that God’s character is loving and gracious, it has sometimes gotten lost or overlooked in both Jewish and Christian theology. Recognizing that the Bible also talks about God’s wrath and punishment for sin, God’s people have occasionally focused on it to the extent that it seems wrath is who God is rather than love. In fact, if you talk to some non-believers you will find that’s their picture of the Christian God, a hateful tyrant who just wants to tell people what to do and punish them when they don’t do it.
Yes, there is punishment for sin. God drove Adam and Eve out of the garden. He destroyed most of the human race in a flood. He made the Israelites wander for forty years. He told them to slaughter the Canaanites. He sent His own people into exile. But both the ground and the aim of all that punishment is love, just as it is for any good human parents who truly love their children.
I got to hold a new baby this week. Her parents were already obviously totally in love with her and anyone could see why. Hardly any mother or father could look down into a little face like that and want anything but all the best for her. It’s just human nature to love our children. Yet we all know that does not keep us from correcting and even punishing them when the time comes.
Good parents know that punishment should not come simply from anger, but out of love. That raised voice, that time out, that withheld privilege, that light slap on a little hand should all arise from that same basic love we felt when we first picked up that child as a baby. It’s because we love those small people that we tell them no or make them do their homework or sit them in a corner after they’ve hit a sibling.
God’s love is always deeper and stronger and more basic than ours. Unlike us, God doesn’t lose control and just lash out. He doesn’t punish more than is necessary. He doesn’t hurt just because He’s been hurt. God doesn’t just have love like we do. God is love. As our text is trying to tell us, that’s what it means to be who He is. That’s part of His name.
God’s love is more basic to who He is than His wrath. His wrath comes because He loves us. The love is first and primary. Look at the beginning of verse 7. God keeps “steadfast love for the thousandth generation.” The translation may actually be “thousands of generations.” God’s love goes on and on and on.
Now look down at the end of verse 7. Sure, it makes us uncomfortable. It talks about God punishing the guilty, and handing down that punishment through generations. But look, that punishment goes on how long? Three or four generations. How long did we say the steadfast love of God lasts? A thousand, maybe thousands of generations. God’s love is the beginning and the end of it all forever. His wrath, in comparison, is almost nothing.
That’s why I want to zero in now on the second phrase of verse 7 and the very end of the text in verse 9. Because God is love, it is the very nature of God to forgive. We count on that. We will talk about forgiveness for the rest of Lent, about how you and I are called to forgive others. But it all starts here, in the fact that God is “merciful and gracious… forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin.” If we are going to be forgiving people it will only happen because we have a forgiving God.
It is God’s nature, God’s character to forgive. When someone asked the eighteenth century Jewish convert to Christianity Heinrich Heine on his death bed if he thought God would forgive his sins, he replied, “Of course he will forgive me; that’s his job.” It sounds impudent and presumptuous, but it’s almost right. Of course God will forgive; that’s who He is. It’s what He does.
It’s not, of course, what we always do. That’s our topic for Lent, the fact that God asks us to forgive as He forgives. It’s hard. Heine’s other famous quotation on forgiveness is, “One should forgive one’s enemies, but not before they are hanged.” That’s where most of are. We want revenge or the simple pleasure of seeing those who hurt us get hurt themselves, whether it’s hoping the guy who cut you off on the freeway will get stopped for speeding or wanting to see the girl who broke your heart have her heart broken in return.
Forgiving is not what we always do. Unlike God, it’s not our nature. Yet we need it. The people around us need it. Hemingway’s short story “The Capital of the World,” begins with a joke that was told in Madrid because there were so many young men there named Paco. Paco is a nickname for Francisco. The joke, wrote Hemingway, told how a father
came to Madrid and inserted an advertisement in the personal columns of El Liberal which said: Paco meet me at Hotel Montana noon Tuesday all is forgiven Papa and how a squadron of the Guardia Civilia had to be called out to disperse the eight hundred young men who answered the advertisement.
The joke is about the prevalence of the name Paco, but it also demonstrates, says Miroslav Volf, just how deep and prevalent is the human need for forgiveness. Whether we are child or parent or sibling or friend or spouse, we ache for the offering of forgiveness and suffer when it is not given.
The Good News from the Bible is that God is the Father who is always ready to forgive. That’s the message we read all over this Book. That’s the message Heinrich Heine heard when he made his conversion to Christianity. He said that people wondered if he had a Damascus road experience like Paul or had an ass speak to him like Balaam’s donkey. He said no, “I owe my conversion simply to the reading of a book.” He meant the Bible. He found God in these pages, and God found and welcomed him.
We will see it again in a few weeks as we read together the story of the prodigal son. God the Father is always ready to forgive. As it says here in Exodus 34:6, God is “merciful and gracious, slow to anger.” We need to get both our theology and our lives oriented around the basic truth that we have a forgiving God.
Christians have gone back and forth on how we understand the Cross of Christ. Too often we’ve understood it to be an expression of God’s anger. Look at an otherwise beautiful new hymn, “In Christ Alone,” by Keith Getty and Stuart Townend. One line says, “Till on that cross as Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied.” The idea is that God is so, so, so angry with us that He just has to let it out. His wrath needs satisfaction. So He directed it all toward His Son hanging on the Cross, letting you and me go free.
No, that’s not how the Cross works. Paul Peter Waldenstrom, one of the founders of the Covenant Church, said it a hundred and fifty years ago. God is always loving toward us, just like it says here in our text today. He did not need to vent His anger on Jesus so that He could show us love. He showed us the love He always has for us by sending Jesus, by letting Him die for us, and by raising Him from the dead so that we too can be raised. The Cross is not about God’s wrath. It’s about God’s love.
If we don’t get that basic theology about God and the Cross and our Savior correct, then it’s going to make it that much harder for us to understand forgiveness and learn to forgive. If we imagine that God’s wrath needs to be satisfied, then we may believe our own wrath needs satisfaction. We won’t be able to rest, much less forgive, until the person who hurt us is punished. We will be like all those characters in vengeance flicks who wreak mayhem around them until the people who killed their lovers or stole their money or left them for dead have been dealt with. But we’re not supposed to be like that because we don’t have an angry, vengeful God like that.
It’s hard to forgive. It’s hard, as I said on Ash Wednesday, to live out that line we say in the Lord’s Prayer, “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” It’s a spiritual discipline which takes time and effort to learn. But we cannot even begin, even make an approximation of forgiving like God does until we start here, with the primary fact that God has forgiven us. Again as we read in I John 4:19, “We love because he first loved us.”
This series of sermons is not going to offer you some method for forgiveness; no five simple steps to letting go of your anger or anything like that. No, the place to start is to be assured that your own sins have been forgiven. And, if need be, you may need to back up and look at Jesus being tempted in our Gospel reading today and admit that you don’t fare near as well when you are tempted. Jesus got through three direct confrontations with Satan without yielding. You or I often cannot get through even a single temptation without giving in. Yet knowing and admitting our sin puts us right where we need to be if we want to be forgiven, confessing that we truly and always need God’s forgiveness.
Back when I was a teenager we were taught the “Roman Road to salvation.” It was a few verses from the letter to the Romans arranged to bring you to place where you could accept God’s forgiveness and receive salvation. It begins in Romans 3:23, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” No one is guiltless. Then it goes on to Romans 6:23, “For the wages of sin is death…” There is a consequence to sin. It’s a spiritual death which separates us from others and ultimately separates us from God.
Romans 3:23 goes on, “… but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” The consequence of sin is death, but God loves us enough to give us eternal life in Jesus. The next step on the Roman road is chapter 5 verse 8, “But God demonstrates his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us.” Did you hear that? Christ dying is not a demonstration of God’s wrath. It’s a demonstration of God’s love. It shows how much God loves, enough to give up His Son, to give up Himself for us.
The Roman road ends with a verse we read this morning, Romans 10:9, “… if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” God offers us forgiveness for our sins in Jesus and all we have to do is open our mouths and ask for it. Did you hear what you need to believe? It wasn’t that Jesus died to satisfy God’s wrath. It was that God raised Him from the dead, raised Him up to show that our forgiveness is for real, that the deadly consequence of sin has been removed and that we too are going to live in Jesus.
We can count on God’s forgiveness. That’s what Moses counted on when he prayed in verse 9 for God to forgive the sins of his people. Even while Moses was up on the mountain talking to God and receiving the commandments they were busy breaking them. But because of who God said He is Moses could pray, “pardon our iniquity and sin.”
My hope is that everyone here will walk that Roman road or some other path through Scripture to the same place. Realize and admit your sin. Believe in the love of God that sent Jesus to die for you and then raised Him from the dead. As it says in Romans 10:13, “call on the name of the Lord,” and be saved. The Name you call on is the Name God gave Moses in our verses from Exodus, the God who is merciful and kind, who forgives sin over and over down the generations. It’s the name of a God who loves you.
Knowing you are forgiven makes a difference. It makes you able to forgive. Miroslav Volf tells how his parents lost their first son when he was five years old in a tragic accident in Croatia. A communist soldier took their little boy for a ride on a horse drawn wagon. As it passed through a gate, the unwatched boy stuck his head out and it got caught between the post and the wagon.
The soldier was brought to court for his carelessness, but Volf’s mother and father refused to press charges. They said, “The Word of God tells us to forgive as God in Christ has forgiven us.” His father even went to visit the soldier after he was sent home to tell him more about God’s love. We all need to hear more about that. It’s where it all begins.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2016 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj
 Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005), p. 127.
 Ibid., pp. 121-123.