It had scarcely been three months since the Israelites had been set free from the bondage of slavery and oppression in Egypt. The memory of God’s mighty works was still burning brightly in the midst of the people. After all, how could anyone forget witnessing the power of God to part the Red Sea and make a path of dry land? How could anyone forget the pillars of cloud and flame that the LORD used to lead the people? How could anyone forget the plagues that crippled the people of Egypt? Filled with a kind of incredulity, we might ask ourselves these questions, wondering how these mighty acts could be so quickly forgotten. And yet, they were. It had scarcely been three months since the Israelites had been set free from bondage, and yet they so quickly left behind the covenant the LORD had made with them, and set about to worship idols of their own making.
And by all rights, the LORD could have struck down the people for their forgetfulness and blasphemy. By all rights, and by the very words spoken to Moses, the covenant made between the LORD and the people of Israel could have been rendered null and void by the LORD, leaving the people to fend for themselves and creating a new people, a new nation with which to covenant. And clearly, this truth was not lost on God: “I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation.” Banking on predictability would lead us to assume that the wrath of God was kindled, the people exterminated, and that Israel 2.0 came to life through the lineage of Moses alone. But such is not the case. Through the persistent pleading of Moses, calling on the LORD to be faithful to the covenant established with Abraham, the LORD steped back from the path that was rightly his. And more than that, as the Scripture says, “The LORD changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.”
Keeping in mind that this is Israel’s record of the LORD’s dealings with Moses, it’s flabbergasting that they would keep such an event in their religious history. They came about in a time of primal, bloodthirsty deities, whose religious cults often demanded vicious things of human beings. For a God to heed the cries of a subservient human and change the course of action is mind-blowing, and would have risked painting a picture of a weak God who kowtowed to humanity. But such is the God of Israel all throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. A God who is surprising with the sheer amount of mercy shown to a continually obstinate and rebellious people. This kind of mercy is totally unbecoming, inappropriate even, according to traditional understandings of the relationship between gods and mortals. And yet, we have this record of the LORD, the God of Israel, heeding the arguments of a mortal and changing his mind. As I said, unpredictable.
And this isn’t the only time God has acted unpredictably and uncharacteristically following commonly held views about divinity. Take, as an example, the life of St. Paul. Formerly Saul, he was a violent opponent of the burgeoning Christian faith. In his own words, “I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence.” He was unworthy before God. He was filled with hatred and rancor. He was a broken man, “the foremost” of sinners as he calls himself. But despite all of his unworthiness, despite not only his brokenness but the brokenness he inflicted upon others, God saw fit to shower mercy upon him and call him up to the service of God’s Kingdom. “I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because he judged me faithful and appointed me to his service…I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.”
By any standards of measurement, Paul was an unlikely and unworthy candidate to be called into apostolic ministry. Think, for a moment, about the ways in which we evaluate a person’s appropriateness for ministry today. If I had exhibited any of these behaviors in my life, I would have been immediately disqualified from the priesthood. But such is the surprising, unexpected, and improbable grace and mercy of the God we serve. That broken people, even the most broken of all, can be redeemed and called into service in the midst of their brokenness. It isn’t as if Saul recognized on his own the ways in which he was broken and then set about to mend the relationships he destroyed. On the road to Damascus, God saw fit to reveal the divine presence to Saul, which then set him on his course towards being one of the greatest forces for the proclamation of the Gospel. And out of this life, lived in response to the surprising, unexpected, and improbable grace of God we get this wonderful statement: “The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the foremost.”
And that is exactly the message embedded in the Gospel today. Jesus was doing what he does best. Discomforting the religious leaders and upsetting the status quo, breaking the mold of what an expected and predictable Messiah should be doing. “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” And having heard the grumbling, Jesus offers his incredible metaphors to describe the improbable and unpredictable love of God. “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?” What’s interesting about this metaphor is that the most likely answer to his question would be ‘None of us.’ No shepherd would risk the 99 sheep in order to find just one that was lost. It’s improbable, nonsensical, and frankly beyond belief. But this is precisely the image Jesus wanted them to grasp about God. Grace and mercy is, in a way, truly nonsensical. It doesn’t make conventional sense that God would be so concerned with unrepentant and wandering humanity that God would seek to bridge the distance himself.
Truly, what business does God have redeeming humanity, a humanity that has exhibited wandering and rebellious tendencies all along? The burden ought to be upon those of us who willingly break covenant, harm one another, and wander away from the goodness of God. But that is not the Gospel, thanks be to God. The Gospel is that the God of all creation, through the person and work of Jesus, has done, and continues to do, all within God’s power to seek us out, to redeem us, to give us new life and new purpose. As surprising, unexpected, and improbable as it may seem, it is the bedrock of our faith. The God of Israel, revealed in the person and work of Jesus Christ, has looked upon humanity not as something to be cast off and destroyed, but as beloved children worth redeeming by any means necessary, even when we don’t reciprocate the kind of love God has shown to us in Christ. It’s a complete role reversal, the God of the universe coming into our midst to save us. It’s for reasons like these that I am thankful we serve an unpredictable God, because none of us would be here if God responded to our brokenness in predictable and, frankly, appropriate ways.
What then do we do, how do we live in response to this unpredictable and surprising God of grace and mercy? We do all that we can to introduce people to the same grace and mercy that has set us free in baptism to walk in the newness of life. The journey of discipleship, of walking in the steps of Jesus, of taking his work upon us, is a journey that might take us to places unpredictable, lead to do things that are surprising and out of the ordinary, and force us to think creatively and imaginatively about the ways in which we proclaim this unexpected and undeserved love of God. But rather than being a cause for fear, this should be a cause for celebration. For all of us, dear brothers and sisters, are invited to continue the most amazing work in human history…making connections between wandering and broken people and the God of love who tirelessly seeks them out. Answer the call, and then be amazed at what God will do through you.