Moses and the Goldfish

Moses and the Goldfish

Listen now

I wouldn’t normally play with my phone during a talk, least of all if I’m the one delivering it! But I’m going to throw some numbers at you and I’m going to start the stopwatch function…

I read an article recently (1) that said in the year 2000, TV adverts had to grab a persons’ attention within 12 seconds or they weren’t effective. By 2013 that had dropped to 8 seconds. The attention span of a goldfish is said to be 9 seconds. So, longer than humans now… Stop the clock – 8.75 seconds. The goldfish are still with me but I’ve lost the rest of you!

It seems that with the use of mobile phone technology, the web and even TV’s with remote controls that our attention span is getting less and less. Increasingly TV advertisers are using adverts which are now just 6 seconds long and research shows they are more effective than longer adverts (2). Some of the Strictly adverts in the last week have been even shorter.

How long, O Lord, how long?

Now, in theory, a healthy adult can concentrate on something for around 20 minutes. That’s why on UK commercial TV stations you’ll get adverts every 15 minutes or so. Partly it pays for the programme but partly it’s to keep you interested and stay with them rather than switching to another channel.

A BBC survey in 2010 (3) showed that most Anglican sermons are between 12 to 15 minutes long. I bet it’s shorter than that now. Sermons in UK Evangelical churches were around 25 minutes. I grew up in a Baptist church where if a sermon was less than 45 minutes then the Pastor clearly hadn’t done enough preparation and was summoned to a church elders meeting to explain himself.

My mum and dad are here, so I might get pulled up about the facts on that last one!

And yet we can choose to stay focussed, or to refocus, on the same thing if we’re interested enough or invested enough. The most popular length of a feature film now is 101 minutes (4). That should be too long – yet if it’s good enough, and there’s sufficient snacking opportunities, then we’ll carry on watching.

Out of sight

But we’re still talking about minutes or hours. So, whilst it’s easy to be judgemental, I think we can forgive the children of Israel for their attention span wandering after 40 days and 40 nights. That’s how long since Moses had gone up Mount Sinai and disappeared to have a chat with God.

Rightly or wrongly, for the most part Moses embodied for them their relationship with God. And for 40 long days and nights he wasn’t there. Some of us get twitchy if the Vicar is absent for one Sunday! Some of us just give thanks and praise!

Ironically the point of the conversation between God and Moses was to give the children of Israel more access points to God. First, he gave them his commandments, a set of words that they can consult about what to do. Second, he gave them his Tabernacle, a mobile church, a place to worship and understand God through ritual. Third, he told them how important it was to have a Sabbath, a day of rest.

Visual aids

My reading of it is that initially Aaron wasn’t putting the Golden Calf up there to be worshipped. In the absence of Moses, it was meant as a visual aid, something to help focus their minds on the God who had delivered them from Egypt. But it quickly became something that they worshipped in and of itself. You wonder if Aaron had a dreadful sinking feeling when he realised what the heck he’d done. Perhaps, like many things in life, it was well-meant but had an unintended consequence.

But before we get too sniffy, don’t we sometimes do the same? Remember the reporting of the Notre-Dame fire in Paris, earlier this year. For many it was heart-breaking to almost lose such a fine cathedral. The permanence of historic buildings stands in contrast to the impermanence of so much in life now. They can be ‘thin’ places, places where earth & heaven meet. Its near destruction was shocking, even to those who wouldn’t call themselves especially religious. But we need to be careful not to venerate a church building instead of who it is supposed to point to (5).

Or perhaps we think a lot of a particular Vicar – and when they move on to their next Parish or retire it’s as if our access to God has somehow moved on too?

Your children – not mine

But all this is the back-story to our section of the OT reading today and the exchange between God and Moses. Did it make you slightly uncomfortable? It should have. What do we think about the kind of God that we see here?

It’s like a couple arguing because their children have messed up… again. Each are trying to outdo the other in disowning the kids! God says to Moses “your people, whom you brought out of Egypt, have become corrupt”. In reply, Moses is having none of it and says to God “why should your anger burn against your people, whom you brought out of Egypt…”

And God makes a remarkable offer to Moses. He’s that fed up that he gives the option of wiping the slate clean, again. Getting rid of the lot of them and starting over with Moses and his family, just like he did with Noah. In fact, the words about a corrupt people are almost exactly the same in Genesis and Exodus.

Arguing with God

But instead of Moses ‘doing a Noah’, saying nothing and just getting on with gathering them in two-by-two, he ‘does an Abraham’ and forcefully argues with God. He intercedes. He reminds God of the promise, the covenant, that he’d made with Abraham. You remember, the one where God told him to count the stars and see the bigger picture. Moses reminded God that he had made that promise without expecting anything from Abraham in return, not because Abraham particularly deserved it.

And the Israelites didn’t particularly deserve to be saved from Egypt or saved from the punishment that was due for worshipping a Golden Calf. But God relented. A God of forgiveness ready to find a home for that which was lost. A God like that in our Gospel reading where he is compared to a shepherd looking for a lost sheep or a woman rejoicing after finding a lost coin. But whilst the Israelites are not wiped out, if you read on, they do get punished. There are consequences.

God’s anguish

Perhaps we need reminding that our words and our actions can cause distress and disappointment and, yes, anger to God. Though Rabbi Jonathan Sacks once said that we should often more accurately translate the Hebrew word for ‘anger’ as ‘anguish’ (6). So rather than God’s anger, it’s God’s anguish – an aspect of God’s love for us rather than of the polar-opposite.

And we should remember that, as the human face of God, Jesus too showed anger or anguish when he over-turned the money-tables in the temple. But the same Jesus healed us and forgave us and fished with us and cooked breakfast for us and challenged us and wept over us and loved us… and died for us.

There’s a Jewish fable that I’ve quoted before. Moses found God crying in heaven on seeing the betrayal of the Israelites when they made the Golden Calf. He’d had enough & wanted to start again. Moses tried everything to change God’s mind. It was only when he reminded God of the hospitality of Abraham and Sarah, how they welcomed him and made him feel at home, that God finally relented. God then established the Tabernacle as a reminder to himself of Abraham and Sarah’s tent and to enable him to come down and be a neighbour to the children of Israel.

First and foremost, a God of love

So, whilst at times in this passage it seems that God is like a petulant but all-powerful teenager stomping off to his bedroom, we need to remember that God is first & foremost a god of love. Always has been. He gave us free-will – but we cause him anguish and frustration when we make choices which are harmful to us.

But maybe you’re uncomfortable at the thought that you can change God’s mind? Perhaps another way to think about it is God deliberately placing us in situations where we need to search his heart and his word to claim his promises to come into effect. That we, you and me, are the mechanism which releases his power into the situation. If so, where has God placed you? Who or what should you be praying for? Searching God’s heart for?

A God that longs to be in relationship

Either way, we have to ask: what kind of God do we want? And what kind of people do we want to be? Do we want a distant, impassive God, sitting on a cloud high above it all, seemingly unmoved, untouched & unresponsive to what we’re doing?

Or do we want a God that longs to be in a relationship with us, that’s moved by our intercession, that cares? A God that isn’t looking for people who just say ‘yes’ or nothing at all – but for people like Moses and Abraham who engage with him and talk straight to him? For people like Jacob who wrestles and Job who argues? For people like the Gentile woman who shot back at Jesus with the comment about crumbs from the table?

I know which kind of God I’d prefer. How about you? What kind of God do you want? We need to think carefully about our answers though because our choice has implications on the kind of people that we should be too. Who we are and what we do.  Amen

11 mins and 30 seconds – so a bit less than the 2010 average…

[“Moses and the Goldfish” was given by Ian Banks at St James, Heywood on 15th September 2019. It is based on Exodus 32:7-14 and Luke 15:1-10. For a previous talk by Ian, on faithfulness, please follow this link. For more by Ian please press here.]

  5. Hebrew Word Lessons is a great site and I highly recommend it.
  6. Quoted by Steve Chalke in the ‘The Lost message of Paul’ Page 114


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