The late New York City Mayor Ed Koch was once asked what he believed. “Whatever God wants to do,” he said, “is fine with me.”
That was commendable compliance for a politician. Even in the bible, one might search for days to find that kind of trust in God. Private phobias and social prejudices make most of us turn away when God calls.
God must get used to that.
Humans have been spurning God, figuratively and literally, since the dawn of creation. Adam and Eve ate the pomegranate of insurrection. Cain killed his brother. David committed murder to justify his adultery. The patriarchs cheated and lied. God must have despaired like Casey Stengel, manager of the ’62 Mets: “Can’t anyone here play this game?”
God’s star players were worthless, at least at first. Moses and Peter, early draft picks for greatness, refused to cooperate.
God resorted to unearthly pyrotechnics to attract Moses’ attention. The scene of the burning bush was eye-catching. Curiously, though, the concept of a bush that burns but is not burned is hard to capture in cinematic special effects. Even high tech digital imagery is visually unconvincing and appears more cartoonish than real.
Also, directors have puzzled over how to stage the scene. Does Moses cover his eyes with awe as he approaches the bush, or does he casually amble over like a jaded New Yorker watching a a pillar of steam from a sewer vent? And what about the voice of God? Certainly it must be a male voice, but does it sound like John Carradine or Truman Capote? Would the command, “Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground,” resonate with authority if whispered with a reedy lisp?
No doubt God got the staging just right, but the supporting actor strayed off script.
When God ordered Moses to confront Pharaoh and lead the Israelites out of bondage, Moses was supposed to leap up, slap his fist in his hand, and roar, “Let’s kick that perfumed pissant’s ass.”
Instead, Moses backed away timidly and said, not me. “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?”
Fortunately, God can be persuasive and Moses eventually came around.
Moving ahead a few millennia, Simon Peter was another disappointment.
Protestants don’t grow up thinking of Peter as the first pope, so we’re free to enjoy him as the clod he was.
Hulking, headstrong, and impulsive, Peter was an alpha male. He barked out orders to other fishers who tripped over their nets to obey him. He was not introspective and had no reason to doubt the validity of his impulses, no matter how stupid. He talked before he thought. He was both a braggart and a coward.
But Peter also had a heart of gold and he was loyal to a fault. He protected his mother-in-law and was determined to keep Jesus safe from Pharisaical goon squads.
Often, Peter went too far.
From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.”But Jesus turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” (Matthew 16:21-23)
How frustrating for God. With drama and clarity, God laid out the divine plan to two of the greatest heroes of the bible. One recoiled and said, “Who, Me?” The other tensed with indignation and thundered, “Hell, no!”
Left alone, they would be dismissed as the Dumb and Dumber of biblical lore. It’s almost enough to feed one’s inner agnostic. If God is too feeble to raise up effective leaders, what hope is there for the world?
Fortunately, God has a providential way of accommodating one’s free will while pulling us closer and nudging us to do the right thing. That worked with Moses and Peter. Once they vented their real feelings to God, they went on to become leading stars in our Sunday school lessons.
For the rest of us, it’s a spiritual comfort to know Moses and Peter started their careers with timidity and shame. In one of the bitterest metaphors in the New Testament, Jesus called the future pope Satan.
No doubt each of us have sinned sufficiently that we can imagine Jesus calling us Satan or something more anatomical (see The Book of Mormon, the musical, for clarification). All of us have heard God’s divine plan. But few of us are able to carry it out.
“Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” Jesus said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor and yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” Matthew 22:35-40.
So easy to hear, so hard to do. Sometimes our response is, “Who, Me?” Often it’s, “Hell, No.”
Turn on CNN for an hour and you’ll see the state of humanity on a wide screen. In Gaza, Hamas flings rockets into Israel, which responds with the shock and awe of overwhelming weaponry. In Syria and Iraq, ISIS demands Christians convert instantly to their godless counterfeit of Islam, or die. In Nigeria, hundreds of school girls abducted by the extremist group Boko Haram are still missing as their story fades from the headlines.
And in Ferguson, Mo., where an unarmed African American youth was gunned down by a shadowy white cop, people choose sides. Supporters of the dead youth raise their arms as they shout, “Don’t shoot, don’t shoot.” Supporters of the cop point their fingers and shout, “Shoot. Shoot.”
Lost in the smoke of these events are God’s plan and God’s great commandments. The response is: “Who, Me?” And, “Hell, No.”
No one is so naïve as to think all of these tragedies will go away if more of us step up to carry out God’s plan. That would be too complicated. Violence is usually caused ignorance and injustice, and there is far too much of both strangling the Middle East, Africa, and the United States of America. This will not go away until – as we Baptists are fond of saying to disguise our despair – the Lord returns.
In the meantime, God is presenting to each of us, with clarity and urgency, the divine plan for making the world a little more just and a little more livable.
We may respond, “Who, Me?” and “Hell, No.”
But as Moses and Peter prove: those who overcome their hesitations may one day be part of a mighty movement that can change the world.