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"Reflexive Mercy"

Presented on The Lutheran Hour on July 26, 2020
By Rev. Dr. Michael Zeigler, Lutheran Hour Speaker
Copyright 2020 Lutheran Hour Ministries

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Text: Exodus 32

Daniel's wearing sunglasses, not because it's especially sunny outside, but to cover his black eye. He knows his mom is going to make a fuss about it, but he doesn't want to talk about it. See, there's this gang of thugs at his school, the guys from the Cobra Kai karate dojo, and they beat him up. So Daniel wants to learn karate now, and he asks this guy, Mr. Miyagi. Mr. Miyagi is the maintenance man at his apartment complex. He asked Mr. Miyagi if he'd teach him karate, but Mr. Miyagi declines, at first. But Daniel was persistent, and he keeps asking Mr. Miyagi, and eventually, Mr. Miyagi agrees. But he says to Daniel, "I promise teach. That's my part. You promise. I say, you do, no question. That, your part."

Now, you might recognize that from the story of the classic 1984 film, The Karate Kid, and you might remember that the way Mr. Miyagi teaches Daniel karate is not what Daniel is expecting. He has Daniel do all kinds of work for him: sand his deck, paint his house and his fence, and wash his cars—"Wax on, wax off. Wax on, wax off." And Daniel was wondering what any of this has to do with learning karate. But Mr. Miyagi is teaching Daniel not just head knowledge. He's giving Daniel new reflexes.

And something similar is happening in the ancient account of the exodus, recorded in the Bible. The Lord God is giving Moses new reflexes. Over the last year on this program, we've been listening to the first two books of the Bible, Genesis and Exodus. And in the last seven weeks, we did a flash-forward into the New Testament to hear the whole Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel of Matthew. And we've made no secret as to why we're doing this. It's because we want to get to know Jesus. And knowing Jesus in that way, it's more than just head knowledge. With Jesus, come new reflexes.

If you're anything like me, you could probably stand for some new reflexes, becoming slower to speak and quicker to listen. Rather than asking, "What can you do for me?" saying instead, "What can I do for you?" Not keeping score and getting even, but reconciling and forgiving—those kind of reflexes. In the book of Exodus, we meet the God who gives new reflexes. We meet the God of reflexive mercy, who gives His people reflexes to reflect His mercy in the world. So we're returning to the end of the book of Exodus.

Moses, the man we met at the beginning of the book is a different man now at the end. At the beginning, Moses' reflex was to make excuses. He didn't want to get involved, but now, at the end, he is throwing himself into the action. He wants to serve; he wants to help; he wants to heal. He's not perfect, but being around the Lord God like this, these reflexes are starting to become second nature to him.

Here's how this part of the narrative sets up. Moses begrudgingly did God's will. With the help of his older brother, Aaron, he led God's people Israel out of their slavery in Egypt. And God brought them to Mount Sinai, to Himself, to dwell with them. God wants to marry Himself to these people, so to speak. God wants to bless all the people of the earth through them. God ultimately wants to restore the whole creation through them. But there's a problem: these people aren't any better than any other people. They have the same self-serving, self-centered, self-worshiping reflexes, same as you, same as me. All this becomes apparent after Moses has been at the top of Mount Sinai, talking to God for 40 days. God has given him these two stone tablets, the Ten Commandments. The First Commandment, if you remember, was the one about not having any other gods besides the Lord, your God.

Listen to these excerpts from Exodus 32. Now, the people of Israel saw that Moses was long overdue in coming down the mountain, Mount Sinai, and the people surrounded Aaron, Moses' brother, and they said to him, "Get up! Make gods who will go before us, because this Moses, the man who led us out of Egypt, we don't know what's become of him." Aaron answered them, "Grab rings of gold from the ears of your wives, and your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me." So all the people grabbed the rings of gold from their ears and brought them to Aaron, and he took them from their hands, and he began to fashion the gold with a metalworking tool, and he made it into the image of a calf. The people said, "These are your gods, O Israel. These are your gods who led you out of Egypt." Aaron saw, and he built an altar before it, and Aaron declared, he said, "A feast to the Lord tomorrow." Early the next morning, the people got up and sacrificed burnt offerings, and they brought peace offerings, and they sat down to eat, and drink, and they got up to play.

Meanwhile, on Mount Sinai, the Lord said to Moses, "Go down because they have corrupted themselves. Your people, whom you led out of Egypt, they have quickly turned aside from the way to which I commanded them. They have made for themselves an image. They have made for themselves an idol in the form of a calf, and they have bowed themselves down to it, and they have sacrificed to it. And they have said, 'These are your gods, O Israel, that led you out of Egypt.'" The Lord said to Moses, "I have seen this people and look, they are stiff-necked, obstinate people. Now, leave Me alone, and my anger will burn against them, and I will destroy them, and I will make you into a great nation."

But Moses, he sought the favor of the Lord, his God and said, "Why, Lord, does Your anger burn against Your people, Your people whom You led out of Egypt with great power and a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians say, 'It was with evil intent that He brought them out, to kill them on the mountains, and then to wipe them off the face of the earth'? Turn from Your burning anger. Have pity. Relent from this evil that You have pronounced upon Your people. Remember, remember Abraham and Isaac and Israel, Your servants. You pledged Yourself to them. You said to them, 'I will make your offspring like the stars of the heavens. All the land that I promised to give to you, I will give to them, and they will inherit it forever.' And so the Lord was moved to pity, and He relented from the disaster that He had pronounced against His people.

Moses went down the mountain, with the two stone tablets, the Ten Commandments in his hand. Moses approached the camp, and he saw the golden calf and the dancing, and his anger burned. And he threw the stone tablets out of his hands, breaking them into pieces at the base of the mountain. Moses took the golden calf that the people had made, and he threw it in the fire. and he ground it into powder, pulverized it, and he scattered it on the water, and he made the people of Israel drink it.

And then he said to Aaron, "What did this people do to you, that you led them in this great evil?" Aaron said to him, "Don't be angry, my lord. You yourself know this people, that they are bent on evil. They said to me, 'Make gods who will go before us. As for this Moses character, we don't know what's become of him.'" And I said to them, "'Whoever has gold, take it off.' And they brought it to me, and I threw it in the fire, and out came this calf.''

Now, Moses saw that the people had gotten out of control because Aaron had let them get out of control, exposing them to the whispers of their enemies. So Moses went to the entrance of the camp and he said, "Whoever is for the Lord, come to me." And the sons of Levi came, and Moses said to them, "This is what the Lord, the God of Israel says, 'Each man is to strap a sword to his side and to go through the camp from one end to the other and kill. Kill a man who is your neighbor and a man who is your brother, and a man who is your friend.'" And the sons of Levi did as Moses commanded. About 3,000 men of the people fell that day.

The next day, Moses said to the people, "You all have sinned a great sin. Now, I will go to the Lord. Perhaps I can make an atonement, a covering for your sin." Moses went up the mountain, and he said to the Lord, "What a great sin this people has committed. They have made for themselves gods of gold. Now, if You will take away their sin, if You will forgive their sin, but if not, please blot me out. Erase me from the book that You have written." The Lord said to Moses, "Who is the one who has sinned against Me, him shall I erase from My book. Now, you go down and lead the people to the place where I told you, and My angel will go before you, and on the day I call to account, I will hold them accountable for their sins." Exodus 32, excerpts.

In the movie, The Karate Kid, there's a climactic confrontation between Mr. Miyagi and Daniel. It's the best scene in the movie if you ask me. Daniel says that he's been slaving for Mr. Miyagi, but he hasn't learned any karate. Mr. Miyagi says, "You learn plenty." Daniel says, "Yeah, I learned plenty. I learned how to sand your decks maybe. I washed your car, paint your house, paint your fence. I learned plenty, right?" Mr. Miyagi says, "Ah, not everything is as seem." Then, what does Mr. Miyagi do? He attacks Daniel. He starts throwing punches and kicks at Daniel. Of course, it's restrained, but still, he's attacking him. He spars with him, and Daniel reflexively blocks them with a smooth wax-on, wax-off motion. Daniel has waxed on and waxed off so much that it's almost second nature to him. He didn't even notice that these new reflexes were being formed in him.

This is what the Lord did for Moses in the book of Exodus. God spars with Moses. He announces that He's going to destroy the people, and what does Moses do? He blocks the punch. He waxes eloquently about God's mercy. And by sparring with Moses, God has invited Moses into His heart, into His pain. The golden calf episode is no small offense. You heard what happened. The text says that the people rose to play. It's the same word that Potiphar's wife uses when she accuses Joseph of trying to rape her in Genesis 39:14. Thousands of people worshiping things, making sport of the weak, exposed to enemy attack, and Moses tries to call them out of it. "Everyone who is loyal to the Lord, come to me." He calls and He calls, but most of them do not listen.

You heard what happened next. The people had broken their marriage covenant with the Lord, and they exposed themselves to the worst of human nature and demonic power, and God's heart is broken, and God invites Moses into His pain. Now Moses, he's seen the evil of the people with his own eyes, and so he goes back up the mountain to try to make things right with God. And Moses, on the way up, he's wondering, "God said that He wouldn't destroy them, but will He still love them? Can He forgive them after what they've done?" Moses knows that forgiveness is not the same as pretending that it didn't happen.

You know that's not forgiveness, right? It's not waving your hand and saying, "Oh, it's okay." No. Forgiveness addresses the breach of trust to repair the relationship. And relationships need justice, and justice needs mercy to make room for relationship. And Moses can feel these reflexes inside him, tearing him apart, and maybe he doesn't even fully understand the words that are coming out of his mouth because he loves God so much. And he loves God's people in spite of their sin. So he offers himself up to be cut off, to suffer hell, so that they wouldn't have to. No doubt, the Teacher is pleased with His student's reflex, but He does not accept the offer.

Exodus 32 ends with the appearance that forgiveness is not possible in this case. But as Mr. Miyagi says, "All is not as it seem." Now, there's a sequel to The Karate Kid movie, The Karate Kid Part II, and it begins with an epilogue, a second conclusion to the first move. It reviews how Mr. Miyagi had trained Daniel to compete in the karate tournament, how Daniel won, how he defeated those Cobra Kai thugs at their own game.

Then, after the tournament, they're in the parking lot, and you see the real thug behind the Cobra Kai dojo. It's not the students, it's their Sensei, their master. He is berating his students for losing. He's so angry, he even puts one of them into a chokehold, and the other students are yelling at him, "Come on, man. He can't breathe. You're going to kill him, man. He can't breathe. He can't breathe." Daniel and Mr. Miyagi hear this, and Daniel looks at Mr. Miyagi with a look as if to say, "We need to do something. We need to help." Mr. Miyagi gives Daniel the look as if to say, "I appreciate the reflex, but I don't need your help."

Mr. Miyagi handles the situation in a way that only Mr. Miyagi can. Without even throwing a punch, he defeats evil and restores justice not with force, but with mercy. Maybe you felt reflexes like Moses in your heart. And maybe there's been moments when you feel like you would do anything, you would give anything, you would sacrifice everything to heal this world, to make it right, to repair the breach, to do justice and mercy, and bring God and creation back together again. If you felt even a fraction of this reflex like Moses did, God is pleased with it. He appreciates this impulse in your heart because He put it there. But when it comes to handling the bigger thug—the evil that has this world and you in a chokehold—God doesn't need your help.

In Exodus 34, the Lord Himself renews the covenant without any sacrifice from Moses. Because Jesus Christ, the Son of God, made the sacrifice in a way that only God could. On the cross, Jesus gave Himself to be sin for you, to be blotted out for you, to suffer hell so that you wouldn't have to. And in His resurrection, Jesus defeated evil without ever throwing a punch. He restored justice not by force, but by mercy. If you stay with Jesus, if you walk with Him, and you train with Him, and you listen to His story, and get to know Him—that mercy, that love, that reflex will start to become second nature in you. Amen? Amen.

Reflections for July 26, 2020

Title: Reflexive Mercy

Mark Eischer: Bringing you the assurance of God's mercy during uncertain times. You're listening to The Lutheran Hour. For free online resources, archived audio, our mobile app, and more, go to Once again, here's our Speaker, Dr. Michael Zeigler.

Mike Zeigler: Thank you, Mark. I have joining me again, Dr. Tom Egger. He's a professor of Old Testament from Concordia Seminary here in St. Louis, specializes in the book of Exodus. You've spent many years teaching the book of Exodus, 15 years now, approximately?

Tom Egger: Yeah.

Mike Zeigler: What do you love about teaching this book, Tom?

Tom Egger: Exodus is such a rich story. It has so many familiar scenes that people have heard about, but they haven't necessarily connected them together in the shape and flow of the whole book of Exodus as Moses has given it to us. So it's always great to walk with students through these familiar stories, but help them to connect them to one another, but also to the bigger story of God reclaiming His creation. We talk about Exodus, right? The way out, getting out of some place. But it's not just a story of getting out.

Mike Zeigler: It's a way to.

Tom Egger: It's a story of coming to. The destination is God Himself. He's bringing the people to Himself. But the story isn't over at that point, because we're going to find out that's a tricky thing for this people. For a stubborn, stiff-necked, sinful people to be brought near to God. And that's going to require the depths of divine compassion and mercy in order to make that work.

Mike Zeigler: And the event that is going to cause the problem is this golden calf episode, right? So how is there good news in the way that God deals with the people after that incident?

Tom Egger: It really is a crisis in the book. As the story unfolds, that golden calf incident where God's brought them out in the wilderness to be His, to belong to Him and for the purpose of worshiping and serving Him. And He's given them instructions on how to do so. He's commanded them, "Take up a freewill offering and build this tabernacle in just this particular way." And just as He's giving them those instructions as Moses is up on the mountain, receiving those instructions from the Lord, the people down in the camp, they take up a freewill offering, all right, but it's for exactly the opposite purpose. And God has commanded them. "You shall have no other gods in My presence, no other gods before Me. Don't make for yourself, a god of silver or gold."

That's exactly what they do. It's the train wreck in a sense. The very purpose for which God has brought them out, to be His holy people who will know Him and worship Him alone. They have turned it on its head. They have made a mockery, a counterfeit, a parody, a joke of the holy calling that God has given them, and they've rejected Him as their God.

They're no better than Pharaoh. And we've seen what He did to Pharaoh. But Moses pleads with God. And he says, "You have brought us out. You've placed Your Name on us. You've made promises to our forefathers and to us." And God relents from the judgment that He first decrees after the golden calf, and He forgives them. The reestablishment—the renewal of God's promises to them in forgiveness of their sin—is the biggest miracle in the book. It's the greatest sign, God says, the greatest wonder.

Mike Zeigler: Thank you for having these conversations, and we'll have to have you back sometime soon.

Tom Egger: Yeah, thank you for having me.

Music Selections for this program:

"A Mighty Fortress" arranged by Chris Bergmann. Used by permission.

"From God Can Nothing Move Me" From The Concordia Organist (© 2009 Concordia Publishing House)

Change Their World. Change Yours. This changes everything.

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