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Exodus 32:7-14; Luke 15:1-10

I just love these stories from the Old Testament where people argue with God. Today, Moses calls God out, right there on top of the mountain, because God is about to do something way over the top. Here’s the background: Moses has been up the mountain for a long time, and the people down at the bottom of the mountain have started to wonder where Moses is. They’ve asked Aaron, the high priest, to give them a new god to have led them out of Egypt. So Aaron, always happy to please, takes their gold, melts it down, and makes a calf (one of the ancient Canaanite deities). God, the Lord, is steamed, so he tells Moses to get out of his way while he finishes off the people once and for all.

Moses, to his eternal credit, talks back: “No, God. You can’t do that, because these are your people, whom you brought out of Egypt. Just imagine what your reputation would be like, if you were known as the god who calls people out of Egypt just so you can cut them down in the desert.” Instead, Moses calls God’s attention back in time to the promise he had made to Abraham, to make his descendants a wonderfully great nation. He has the nerve to hold God accountable to God’s own promises.

What I think Moses was arguing with there was his own understanding of who God is. He had known this God to be so high and so mighty, always ready to pour out wrath on the people, whenever they screwed up. That’s what gods looked like at the time, in that cultural imagination. I think Moses is learning that this “Lord” he’s dealing with is not like that. So when that image of a hot-blooded god reared its head, Moses, in faithfulness to the God he’s actually dealing with, needs to call that image to account. He holds this threat up against the truth of God who had made an eternal, unconditional covenant with Abraham, a promise he will never break.

As he stands there arguing with God, I think he learns that God has changed, or really that God has always been different from what we imagined – not a distant, cosmic force of punishment, but God who makes faithful promises to God’s people. As he does that, I think he learns that God values his people. Moses is arguing with the idea of God, but he’s speaking from the love of God that is already present in his heart, and so he comes to recognize God more deeply.

Jesus did much the same thing in these stories he told. He talked about an owner of some livestock. This person owned a hundred sheep (that’s a lot!), and one of those sheep wandered off. That person left the other 99 sheep, stranded in the field, to go save the one that had gotten lost. Because God is not just the owner of some livestock; God is not just a rancher of the universe; God is a caretaker of people who have value.

Jesus tells us a story about a woman who had ten coins and lost one of them. So she turned her whole house upside down and found that one coin, and thenĀ  she threw a party to celebrate that she had gotten the one back. Because God is not just a careful accountant of resources, God is a faithful giver who celebrates us and our lives, because we are people with value to God. (Next week, Jesus will tell another story that brings this even closer to home.)

What Jesus talks about here is how much we matter to God. If you have a hundred sheep, and one of them gets away, there’s only so far you’re going to chase that one. At some point, the prudent thing to do is to acknowledge that the lost coin is what they call “water under the bridge.” At some point, you need to focus on what you have – be it sheep, coins, or whatever. But that only works unless the sheep has value, unless the coin matters.

So let’s remember whom Jesus was arguing with here. He was arguing with people who were mad at him for spending time with tax collectors, with sinners, people whose behavior was so bad that they should no longer be counted among the people of God. And Jesus spends time with them, because if people matter, you can’t abandon them. If people matter, you can’t simply ignore them when they need you. If the sheep matter, you can’t simply say, “Well, sheep are stupid; they wander off; it’s no big deal.” If people matter, you can’t just say, “Oh, well, accidents happen; what can you do?” You can’t just say, “He got that chronic illness because he always ate so poorly.” You can’t just say, “She’s poor because she doesn’t know how to take care of money, she’s made bad choices.”

Our culture likes to say those things because it’s built on the idea that life is “fair,” that anything good or bad that happens is based on whether a person made good choices. Jesus says that this isn’t necessarily the case. In a world that’s fair, the sheep wander off and are never heard from again. In a world that’s fair, the coins roll under the couch and are never seen again. And “it’s your own fault for being so careless.” Jesus seems to say, “You can have your fairness, but people matter more than some abstract idea of getting what you deserve.” People matter more than our own notions of how God ought to interact with the world.

Jesus finally shows just how important people are to God. He shows that God is not interested in just stamping us all as “spiritually okay” and leaving it at that. If God wanted to do that, Moses wouldn’t have had to argue on the mountain; God could have just stood at the top and said, “No worries, everything’s fine.” Instead, God incited Moses to argue on behalf of the people and reveal God’s love in his own heart. And if God simply wanted to give us invisible tickets to heaven at the end of our lives, not much of what Jesus came to do, teach, and live would have been necessary. But God is interested in more than that. God is interested in making this new spiritual reality an earthly reality, even as we move on this finite journey. Instead, Jesus came to embody what it means to be a human community where that reconciling welcome is practiced, where God’s relentless drive to restore us to relationship could be lived out.

So here’s the Good News: God does indeed endlessly, relentlessly seek to restore us to relationship. With each other, with ourselves, and ultimately with God. God wants that to happen here, and now, and always. Just in case we missed that, Jesus came to give his very self to remove any barrier between us and that relationship.

We’re invited to live as Christ’s people, to join him in endlessly, relentlessly seeking to restore people to relationship with God, with each other, with themselves. You know who needs that searching-out most today. Maybe it’s you. Maybe you need to be reminded that Jesus has come because you matter, that your life is invited to become something new, real, and restored in Jesus’ love. Or maybe there’s somebody in your family who needs to be sought out – not because they’ve gone and done something wrong, but because they matter to God and so they matter to you. Or maybe there are people outside this congregation, outside the circles we travel on a daily basis, who don’t know yet that God loves them that much. We get to go show them. We get to go offer ourselves to them, with a kind word, a generous gift, a warm welcome. We’re invited to live in this world on behalf of God, because God’s people are worth it.