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Christian Cliché: “God won’t give you more than you can handle”

October 21, 2018

When I was pondering this passage this week, and our cliché “God won’t give you more than you can handle,” I started to think about movies. And it wasn’t long before my mind went to my all-time favorite movie, and that’s Steve Martin’s “Father of the Bride.” If you haven’t seen this movie, it’s about Steve Martin’s character, George Banks, coping with the fact that his daughter is getting married and he’s getting older and his life is changing in ways he wasn’t anticipating. And it’s clear through the movie that he takes everything to the Nth degree. Every molehill is a mountain. He doesn’t know how to effectively manage his stress so he overreacts to everything. 


There’s this scene where his daughter Annie and her fiancé Brian get into a fight and she’s venting to her dad about it. And one of the things she’s upset about is that Brian told her she was overreacting, and she says, “Why would I overreact?! No one in my family overreacts!” And the look on George’s face when he heard that was priceless because he knowshow big of an overreactor he is. 


Isn’t this kind of what it’s like in our faith sometimes? Sometimes we get totally overloaded with work and school and church and family and kids and then we encounter some form of this morning’s cliché and we think, “Why would God give me more than I can handle?! God doesn’t give any of my family or my friends more than they can handle!” And thatis where we’re wrong. Because everyone around us is carrying baggage and trying to be all things to all people but if we were to admit that we feel like God is giving us more than we can handle then, all of a sudden, we’re bad Christians or something. 


The reality is that there are about a thousand different passages I could have chosen for this passage, everything from the creation story in Genesis to Jesus praying to the Father in the garden asking that he might not have to be crucified. But I chose this one for a reason, and we’ll unpack that as we go. First, though, let’s take a look at this story: “When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered around Aaron, and said to him, “Come, make gods for us…” 


Alright, so like all good pastors, Moses is on study leave. But he’s taking too long and hasn’t come back soon enough, so the congregation is getting impatient and they ask Aaron to make “gods” for them. Now, I’m convinced that there are two different interpretations of this “come, make gods for us,” business in our text. The first is the people. At this point in time, the Israelites are unique in that their God cannot be captured in a graven image. I don’t think, at this point in Israelite history, the Israelites are purely monotheistic yet. Rather, they’re looking around at other societies and thinking back to their time in Egypt and seeing these people who are worshipping gods who don’t move, don’t act, don’t live. They just sit there on a pedestal.


Let’s stay here for a minute: because it’s easy to scoff at the Israelites here. It’s easy to look at what they’re doing and say “that’s ridiculous; how could they do something like that?” But I think the thing they’re pining after is something that we all desire from time to time, too, and that’s the desire to controlGod. Sometimes, it’s not enough to encounter God, or understand who God is by what God has done through the nation of Israel and the person of Jesus. Sometimes, it’s not enough to control how we address God and what we say to God. We want to control how God hears us and how God responds to us and we don’t get that. And when we don’t get that, its’s easier to worship the things we can control: our bank account, our job, the way we look. There’s any number of things in our lives we hold up to ourselves in the mirror and say “theseare your gods…” It’s not the living God, it’s not the God we can’t grab onto and manipulate and control. It’s the stuff in our lives that we can tuck away neatly and only take it our when we want to. 


Now, that’s one interpretation of what’s going on here. The other interpretation is Aaron’s. Aaron goes along with what they want. He builds the golden calf, but then he says “tomorrow shall be a festival to the LORD.” Now, this is the turning point, because there is a difference between symbols and idols. Aaron thought he was providing the people a liturgical symbol – that’s why he says there will be a festival to the LORD, not this calf. But the people were clear that they understood this calf as an idol – something that supplanted the role of YHWH in their lives.  


Now, there’s something to notice here which is a lesson we can all learn a little bit better. There’s something going on here called “triangulation.” And by that, I mean, A has a conflict with B and is trying to resolve it through C. The Israelites have a beef with Moses but are trying to resolve it through Aaron, right? And, speaking from personal experience, this is something pastors deal with all the time. Somebody has a conflict with a family member or coworker or whatever, and they can’t yell at them and they can’t yell at their spouse and they can’t yell at their boss, so they yell at their 25-year-old pastor. But the presenting conflict, nearly categorically, is not the real problem. There’s something else driving it, be it fear or anxiety or whatever. And I would take it a step further and say that the driver, either in part or in whole, is related to the idea that we feel like we cannot handle whatever burden has been laid on us. 

But, again, if we were to admit that – we’re weak; we’re unfaithful; we’re unworthy of God’s love. “None of my friends or family are having a breakdown! Why would I be having a breakdown?!” “No one I know is having an emotional reaction to this! Why would I be emotional about this?” Well, let’s take a look at the next part of our story: “The LORD said to Moses, ‘Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely, they have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them…the LORD said to Moses, ‘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 [Moses]I will make a great nation.”


EXPLOSION. I mean, how unexpected is this? Isn’t this supposed to be the God who is infinitely patient? And kind? And loving? And merciful? And yet this God just said he wanted to let his “wrath burn hot” against the people he created and chose to love. Now, there are always lots of questions about how to reconcile these various images of God we see in the bible, but I don’t care about that right now. If that’s what we concerned about, we’re not asking the right questions. Our goal shouldn’t be to be “orthodox” enough – it should be to constantly understand anew the radically good thing the bible has to say to us. And, right now, I think what we should be taking away from this is that if the God who supposedly created-and-chose the Israelites is overwhelmed by them, then how much more permission do we have to be overwhelmed, too? If this God feels like he can’t handle all the things he has on his plate, how much more permission do we have to feel the same? 


And look at what Moses responds here, I love this: “O LORD, why does your wrath burn hot against yourpeople, whom youbrought out of the land of Egypt?” So, Moses is putting the impetus back on God and says, “whoa whoa whoa, hold up. These are your people – not mine. YOU brought them out of Egypt – I’m just the messenger.” 


When I was at Princeton, I had a professor who was lecturing on this text one time, and he said, “as pastors, you will have the responsibility of carrying on a two-sided conversation: you will be responsible for taking your flock’s words to God, and for bringing back God’s word to your flock. And if you and your people are to have any hope, then you have to ascend the mountain, tabernacle with the divine, and move the very heart of God away from wrath.”

Talk about not giving someone more than they can handle. I think I probably had a crisis of identity after that lecture. And I don’t tell you this to try to exaggerate the pastoral task in your mind and put myself on a pedestal. I tell you this as someone who looks into the mirror every day and sees the incarnation of inadequacy looking back. There’s not a day I walk into my office or climb into this pulpit when I don’t feel completely and categorically inadequate, inept, and unqualified to be here. Not a day goes by that I don’t ask God why he gave me a task for which I am so unbelievably unfit. God has given me more than I can handle, but I take comfort in the fact that I feel that way because I think it means I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be. 


Moses, at the beginning of his ministry, asked God “who am I to lead these people?” In the garden, Jesus asked the Father to let the cup pass from him, and from the cross he cried out for a God who never came. And yet, they were both exactly where they were supposed to be. 


God never asks for a little. God doesn’t say, “just give me a little bit of your religion; just let me lord over these few parts of your life and we’ll be good.” No, God says, “let the dead bury their own dead.” God says, “no one who puts their hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom.” God says, “leave your nets – [leave the only life you’ve ever known] – and follow me.” God never asks for a little of us – God asks for allof us. And God will, forever, be more than we can handle – he will forever be more than we can wrap out hearts and minds and lives around, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. 

A lot of the time, we feel like God is giving us more than we can handle and we want to just give up. But God has called us to a life worthy of more than just giving up. God wants all of us – all our lives, but also all our inadequacy, all our incompetence, all our ineptitude. Because, in the end, God’s power is made perfect in weakness. And God is big enough to take on our weakness. 

You don’t have to be perfect. You don’t have to feel completely equipped for the task. You just have to offer yourself in service to it, and God will take care of the rest. 

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