If you were to find the most reliable, most level-headed person in your life, and you were to ask them if you should go into a high-stakes real estate venture with someone who constantly messes up, who can’t manage to be on time to anything, and who doesn’t know the difference between weekdays and the weekend, your friend would almost certainly say don’t do it. In fact, I don’t think you’d need to find your wisest friend or mentor. Most people would say that committing yourself to a person like that is a bad idea. Just go find someone different, someone better or more mature. There are plenty of people like that out there. Take your pick.
But then, what if you decided to just ignore their advice and go ahead with the partnership? Would you blame your mentor for thinking you foolish? You knew what you were getting into before signing the dotted line; and yet you did it anyway.
Curiously enough, we see a very similar situation playing out in our OT reading this morning. Except this time, it’s not a business proposition between you and your neighbor down the street — it’s a covenant between God, the creator of the world and everything in it, and Israel, a people who will quickly prove that they just can’t get it right, whether or not they try to do so.
Three months after the Israelites escaped from Egypt, they arrived at the base of Mount Sinai. Bedraggled and footsore, they set up camp while Moses climbed the mountain to talk to God. And the LORD said: “Tell this to the house of Israel: You have seen what I did to Egypt. You have seen how I brought you out of slavery. Now, if you will obey my voice and keep my covenant, you will and always shall be my treasured possession, a jewel among all people; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”
Now, it’s interesting that God would say this, would so willingly enter into a covenant with the Hebrew people — because the Israelites have spent the last three months grumbling, forgetting entirely what God has done for them, even going so far as to say to Moses: “Is it because there are no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the desert.”
But despite all this, God chose to commit himself to them anyway. “If you will obey my voice and keep my covenant,” he says, “you will be mine, and I will love you more than anything else I have made.” And in a storm of thunder and lightning, the LORD does so, giving his people the 10 familiar commands that will shape their relationship, that will allow a sinful people to live with a holy God. And Israel, terrified of the storm and of the idea of a God being so involved with them, fell to their knees and worshiped, awed and honored at the beginning of this new covenant.
Now, if we were to stop there, it looks like things will turn out well. The Israelites are amazed and thankful at their change in fortunes, and God has chosen a people to be his people. They will move forward together, traveling out of the desert and into the land of Canaan, the land God had promised to Abraham all those long years ago.
But, and there is always some kind of caveat in this fallen world of ours, the Israelites had already proven that they weren’t up to the task. They had doubted, forgotten, grumbled, failed. Within a few short days of this new beginning, the Israelites will have already built an idol, a golden calf, thinking that this was the god for them. What was God thinking to get involved with such a people? Another nation, another family would definitely have done better. We would have done better.
Would we have done better? It can be easy for us at this point to think that if we had been in the same situation as the Hebrew people, we would never have been so unfaithful, so difficult. If we were hungry and afraid, we would rely on God to feed us, to protect us. If we were impatient, thinking that God had forgotten us, of course we would remember the deeds he has done in the past.
But would we, though? It really only takes a second, a moment of introspection to realize that we are no different than the people of Israel. We grumble. We doubt. We forget. We fail. As St. Paul writes, all have been consigned to disobedience . . . no one is righteous, no not one.
So what was God thinking? God knew what he was getting into, when he bound himself to such a stubborn people. He knew that the Israelites would stray from him, and he knew that we wouldn’t be much better.
What, then, does that make of God’s promise?
If we were to return to our wise friend, who told us from the very beginning that we shouldn’t trust someone unreliable with anything important, they would be justified in saying that we should just end our partnership and look out for better options. Some folks just won’t change. Better to abandon them than to continue digging ourselves into a hole.
But that’s not what God does. He ignores such seemingly wise counsel and continues to commit and recommit himself to people who have a very bad habit of taking him for granted. In fact, as the story continues, we find that the LORD is so intent on saving the Israelites that he will actually die for them. For us.
The logic of God’s actions, as St. Paul describes it, is totally foolish according to the world’s standards. No matter what we say or think about ourselves, in our heart of hearts, we would never willingly die for a people, let alone a person, who constantly insulted us, disrespected us, took us for granted. We don’t want anything to do with people like that. We actively try to get away from them. Yet God did the opposite. He does the opposite. He not only didn’t abandon the creatures who betrayed him in the garden, he came to earth so that he could lead their children — Jew, Gentile, you, me — out of the wilderness of sin and into the promised land of eternal life. “For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.”
Throughout the story of Scripture, throughout the history of the Church, God chooses the weak and the foolish, the inept and the unreliable to accomplish his work. In short, he chooses to work through human beings like you and me. He knows that we have “no power in ourselves to help ourselves,” yet he commits himself to us regardless. Because of that commitment, because God is radical, relentless love, we are today his kingdom of priests, his holy people regardless of the fact that we just can’t get it right, whether or not we try to do so. No matter what we have done, no matter the regrets we have or the mistakes we’ve made, God will not abandon us. He has staked his very life on it. His is a purpose we may not understand, but his is a Word that is unshakeable. “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” AMEN.