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Keep Taking the Tablets

February 18, 2018

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Preached by Revd Canon Dr Andrew Goddard, Honorary Canon at Winchester Cathedral using Exodus 34.1-10 and Romans 10.8b-13 at Evensong on Sunday 18th February , the First Sunday of Lent.

Our Old Testament reading today has – you may be surprised to know – a link to a former Prime Minister.  A link to one of the stories recounted to illustrate Mrs Thatcher’s lack of a sense of humour.  In 1977 Prime Minister James Callaghan had been reported as saying he saw his role as that of Moses leading the people of Britain out of the desert into the Promised Land.   For her 1977 Conference speech her speechwriter therefore proposed that she should say that the prescription the IMF had forced the Labour government to follow was “a good, sound, sensible, Conservative prescription”.  Then she should add – “My message to Moses is this: ‘Keep taking the tablets.'”.  Mrs Thatcher, however, crossly told him that people said “pills” not “tablets” and tried to change the line to “My message to Moses is this: “Keep taking the pills””.

It was – to be fair – not a great joke.  Even if you got the biblical allusion.  And if you got the biblical allusion you would know that the need for Moses to get Israel to “keep taking the tablets” was far from a laughing matter.  Remember what had happened.  Moses had been sent down from the mountain with the 10 Commandments and found the Israelites worshipping the Golden Calf.  In a rage he threw the tablets to the ground and they shattered.  That’s why in our reading Moses has to go back up the mountain to get another set.

After smashing the originals Moses then organised the Levites to butcher their fellow Israelites before asking God to forgive Israel.  We rightly recoil at Moses’ violent response but how do we – how should we – react when we see people we love and we care for reject God and follow idols?  When we see God’s people today – the Church like Israel here – turning their backs on what God wants for them, on what is for their best?

Because that of course is Paul’s situation too in our Epistle.  In Romans 9 he laments Israel’s rejection of Jesus as Messiah and puts himself in the place of Moses in this story.  But not the violent Moses.  No, Paul writes – “I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my people”.  Just like Moses who in Exodus 32 rejected God’s proposal that God just give up on Israel and start again with Moses alone.  Instead Moses prayed, “Please forgive their sin—but if not, then blot me out of the book you have written.”  Here we see the first lesson as to how to respond when those we love – even our fellow Christians – reject God and his revealed will whether in the Law or in the Gospel.  We are to stand as mediators and intercessors and plead for God’s mercy.  And we are to be willing to suffer ourselves – even if we are not directly complict in their rejection – in order to secure their salvation.

That theme of seeking the salvation of those who have rejected God’s way is what opens Romans 10 from which we read.  There Paul writes –“my heart’s desire and prayer to God for the Israelites is that they may be saved”.    And that is what Moses prayed for in verse 9 of our Old Testament reading from Exodus 34.  He does not deny the people’s failings but he asks that they may be saved.  And what does that salvation look like?: “let the Lord go with us. Although this is a stiff-necked people, forgive our wickedness and our sin, and take us as your inheritance”.  God’s Presence.  God’s forgiveness.  God’s inheritance.

The Lord who Moses wants to go with them.  The Lord whose character should shape our response when people reject him.  That Lord is the one beautifully described in his self-revelation of the preceding verses: “the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin”.   The one who, in the final verse, expresses this character by making a covenant.

God of course was already in covenant through Abraham but here – for the first time in Exodus – we hear him say directly and explicitly “I am making a covenant with you”.  Despite Moses breaking the tablets of the covenant law.  Despite Israel breaking the first of those covenant laws and worshipping an idol.  Despite that, God commits himself to making a covenant.

But in this covenant Moses and Israel still need to keep taking the tablets.  God gives a repeat prescription. This is still a covenant of Law.  A covenant in which Israel is starkly reminded that God is also the one who “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.”  A covenant in which God even as he covenants to go with his people is also distant from them – “Come up on Mount Sinai. Present yourself to me there on top of the mountain. No one is to come with you or be seen anywhere on the mountain”

But with our New Testament reading something has changed.  In fact, a lot has changed.  God’s word is not distant.  “The word is near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart”. God’s word is no longer the righteousness of Moses – ““The person who does these things will live by them.”  This not a case of “keep taking the tablets”.  This is a new covenant.  This is what Paul calls the righteousness of faith.  A covenant written not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.  Hearts that believe not in a God who only reissues broken tablets of law for us to keep.  Hearts that believe rather in a God who – faced with an even more serious sign of our stiff-necked wickedness and sin – has raised the broken, dead body of Jesus.  Hearts which profess their faith through lips that declare that the one we rejected and killed – Jesus – “is Lord”.

And this new covenant is open to all.  No longer is it confined to one people – “I will do wonders never before done in any nation in all the world. The people you live among will see how awesome is the work that I, the Lord, will do for you”.  Now, anyone who believes in Jesus will never be put to shame.  Now, there is no difference between Jew and Gentile, those with the Law and those without it.  Because the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him.

And so, as we enter Lent we may find ourselves facing our own failings or the rejection of God’s will by those we love.  We may find ourselves struggling with whatever disciplines we have taken up.  We need to remember that our God is the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin.  And his word to us is not “Keep taking the tablets” but “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”