Discovering the God of tenderness and compassion
Discovering who God is, and what God stands for, and what God wants of us, is no easy task. Sometimes Christians talk about the will of God as if it is clearly known and easily accessible. The Church, often enough, refers to the divine law which God has written in people’s hearts and in the natural order of creation. And yet, when it gets right down to it, God’s will is not that straightforward to discern. I use the word ‘discern’ deliberately, for it has been used down the ages by Christians to grapple with and work out what exactly is the will, or mind, of God for me or for us, on this or that matter or event. The word discern means to sort out, distinguish or separate. It comes from the latin words dis (apart) and cernere (to separate out). And this is what we are doing all the time when we are talking about God, the nature and being of God, and the presence of God in our world: we are discerning.
The scriptures give witness to this same process, albeit without explicitly naming it. But the process of discerning is none the less at work. In the book of Exodus, today, we have a passage of the encounter between God and Moses. Exodus in fact tells the story of Moses gradually coming to know God. God is the presence in which Moses feels overcome. God is the presence that is unnameable. God is like the experience of a burning bush that attracts Moses and yet towards which Moses cannot approach. God is discovered to be the law giver and the covenant maker. He demands loyalty from those he has chosen. Sometimes the First Testament describes God as jealous, revengeful and full of anger. So there is much discernment going on in the Scriptures as human beings try to write about and hand on their experience of discovering the living God.
Today we read from Exodus, chapter 34: 4-6 and 8-9. Moses has the tablets of the law in his hands and calls on God. Does Moses think he now has God worked out? Is it that God wants us to live by these tablets: the law? Moses goes up to the mountain and is met by God. The Lord passes before him proclaiming: “Lord, Lord, a God of tenderness and compassion, slow to anger, rich in kindness and faithfulness.” And Moses bowed down and worshipped.
In this short passage the book of Exodus gives us a break through in discernment of who God is. He is not vengeful and angry, he is not the God of violence and blood. God is tenderness and compassion, kindness and faithfulness. This is how God reveals Godself. This is the God that Moses and his people will have to discover again and again. This is the God who will be discerned over and against the false Gods of violence and death. This is the God through whom the law must be read – through the eyes of tenderness and compassion. That is the God who Jesus will ultimately reveal and who according to John’s gospel comes not to condemn but to bring life!
It is interesting to see the intensity with which so many people have responded to the President of the United States standing outside St John’s Church in Washington, holding high a bible in hand. Some have called it blasphemous, many have called it manipulative or empty. Why? Because in order to reach St John’s Church the crowds seem to have been dispersed with violence and force. The very antithesis of God is used to hold high the word of God. The outrage exhibited by so many people in relation to this action is testimony to the power of the God of tenderness and compassion whose name is associated with this book and who has made himself known to a people of faith. To use God in any other way is indeed blasphemy.
And so for me Trinity Sunday is a day when we stop and reflect upon, pray about, and discern in our own hearts – who is this God in whom I believe? What ‘God’ has hold of me and directs my heart in both word and action? The God of compassion and love? Or is there still some sorting out to do in my heart, in my life, with my God. The scriptures and the community of believers are on an ongoing journey, continually discerning what it is that God is asking of us in any particular time or place. This seems to have been the case since the day God revealed himslef to Moses and Moses invited God to journey with his people.