The Heart of God

Pastor Rich Knight
Central Congregational Church
Nov. 25, 2018
Exodus 34:6
One Verse Wonder Series

This Fall we’ve been learning the Bible one great verse at a time.

My theory is that in persuasive writing and persuasive speech – and the Bible is both – it was written to be heard – in persuasive writing and persuasive speech there are often one-liners that encapsulate the important truth that one is trying to convey.

For instance in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s great speech he said

“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they’ll not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

Another example would be this famous line from President Kennedy’s inaugural address:  “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”

In the Bible, of course, we always have to look at the context of a passage. Our context today is Moses is on a mountaintop having a conversation with God, and God really wants Moses and the people to know God’s heart, to know what God is really like.

Please look in your bulletin for: Today’s One Verse Wonder: Exodus 34:6

“The Lord passed before him, and proclaimed,
‘The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious,
slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.”

Look at the note found just below it:

This description of God is also found in Nehemiah 9:17, Numbers 14:18; Psalm 86:5, Psalm 86:15, Psalm 103:8, Psalm 145:8, Jonah 4:2, Joel 2:13.

That’s 8 other times in the Hebrew Scriptures for a grand total of 9! (Math was always my best subject.) And parts of this description are found in numerous other places in the Old Testament. So it’s time we took a close look at it:

The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious,
slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.”  (Ex. 34:6)


To help us understand the significance of this verse I want to tell you about a pastor I know who is always described in the exact same way. I won’t mention name because many of you know him. (His first name might be Peter, or it might not be. I’m not saying.)

Whenever his name comes up in conversation, people always say: “He’s sooooo nice!” Women say this about him 100% of the time! I’m in a clergy group with five other pastors, who all happen to be women. And whenever his name is mentioned, they practically say it in unison, “He’s sooooo nice.” And their voices change when they say it. They get more animated. Their tone & inflection change. And it’s always those same words, “He’s sooooo nice.”

Well, as luck would have it, one day last Spring, the church where my wife works was thinking about collaborating on a project with the church pastored by “Mr. ‘He’s so nice.’” So my wife had to meet with Mr. Incredible for a cup a coffee to discuss the collaboration.

And sure enough, when Alisa & I were catching up at the end of the day, I said, “How was your coffee with ‘He Whose Name must Not be Mentioned?’” She said, “It was good. He is soooo nice.” And as she says it I’m listening very, very carefully, evaluating her tone of voice. Did her voice change inflection? A little bit.  Was she more animated when she said it? A little bit. What does this mean!

We have laughed about this since. But my laughter was fake. (lol)

I tell you this story because when the Israelites of old started talking about their God, they, too, always said the same thing. It’s wasn’t, “He’s so nice.”

It was, “God is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.”

This is THE description of God found in the Old Testament. It’s like the Apostles’ Creed of the Hebrew Scriptures. And I’ll bet their voices changed as they said it:

Psalm 86:15 says: But you, O Lord, are a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.

The Hebrew prophet Joel said the same thing: 

Return to the LORD your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love (Joel 2:13).

I’m highlighting the fact that this description is found in so many places in the Old Testament, because the Old Testament gets a bad rap in Christian circles.

I attended my high school class reunion recently. At one of the events I was seated next to one of our all-time favorite teachers. We loved him because of the discussions we had in class. He had a way of getting us talking, often by saying something provocative – not inappropriate but thought-provoking.

And so I wasn’t caught by surprise when he said to me, “I’m a New Testament Christian. The God of the Old Testament is too harsh and vindictive. I like Jesus and the New Testament.”

Many Christians have this view. It’s like the Old Testament is the story of God before he became a Christian.

The only problem with this view is that the Old Testament was the Bible of Jesus, and much of his teachings came from the Bible he grew up with. And that Bible has this wonderful description of God all throughout it:

Gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.”

In all fairness, I do understand Christians questioning various parts of the Old Testament.  Most of the issues are related to how they wrote history 3000 years ago. If something happened, like a great battle, and it happened a certain way, it must have been the will of God and even commanded by God. That’s why some of the battles and violence are written the way they are (as if commanded by God). We don’t write history that way today. So we have to bring a modern and, yes, a Christ-centered perspective to those passages.

But the overall description of God in the Hebrew Scriptures is filled with beauty and love – “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.”

Let’s take a minute or two on each of those 3 parts.

First, God is Gracious and Merciful.

God is filled with mercy towards us. God is extremely gracious towards us.

That’s why your prayers are never a bother to God. God is so magnanimous – so incredibly gracious and filled with love for us – that God never tires of our prayers. God is never bothered or annoyed or wanting to get away from us. You & I are always invited to talk with God.

Illustration. The example I like is this: if I go to the Governor’s office at the State House, and I knock on the door and say, 

“I’d like to talk with Governor Baker.”

They’d say, “Do you have an appointment?” 

“No. I’d just like to chat with him for a few minutes.”

There’s no way I’m getting in, right?

Compare that to Jesus’ words, “Seek and you will find. Knock and the door shall be opened to you.”

Or in the Book of Revelation, Jesus says he’s knocking at our doors: “Behold I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door I will come in and have fellowship with that one.”   (Rev. 3:20)

God is gracious towards us, and with love, mercy and compassion for us, God welcomes us into fellowship. The Lord is merciful and gracious.

Secondly, the Lord is slow to anger. 

Aristotle once said this about anger: “Anybody can become angry – that is easy, but to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way – that is not within everybody’s power and is not easy.”

It’s safe to assume that God does get angry, but it’s also safe to assume that God gets angry at the right things at the right times and to the right degree.

Years ago I heard a sermon by one of my favorite preachers, Tony Campolo, where Tony said this: 

To be a Christian is to have Joy at the things that bring Joy to the heart of God. 

To be a Christian is to have your heart broken by the things that break the heart of God. 

To be a Christian is to get angry at the things that anger the heart of God.

God is slow to get angry, but surely God does get angry at injustice, at hardness of heart and human apathy toward those who are suffering.

Surely God gets angry when we trash God’s creation and literally change the climate for the worse. I hope you took note of the White House’s own dire report that they strangely released on Black Friday. The outlook is bleak if we don’t change our ways. Little Keith & Hannah (whom we baptized and dedicated to God during the service) may live in a very different world if we don’t do something now.

God is slow to get angry with us, but humanity certainly does many things that must anger God. But God never gives up on us, because, God is, “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and . . . abounding in steadfast love.”

III. Abounding in steadfast love.

Abounding! That’s a very strong word, isn’t it?

Overflowing with love!  Bursting with love!

It’s the same feeling Lisa & Kenny and Abby & Derek have for their beautiful children. They’re abounding in steadfast love for Keith and Hannah. They’re abounding in a love that is steadfast, unquestioning, unwavering, unchanging, passionate, persevering & powerful!

Illustration. A parishioner a mine several years ago told me this story.  She had just had her first child, and her parents were visiting to meet their first grandchild. And together they spent many hours just staring at this amazing child. At one point, the mother of the newborn said to her parents, 

“It’s just incredible and overwhelming how much I love him. It’s a depth of love I’ve never felt before.”

Her mother then replied, “Honey, that’s how much your Father & I love you.”

It was a whole new understanding of the depth of her parent’s love for her. They were abounding in love for her, as she was abounding in love for her baby.

How beautiful is it then that in the Bible God’s love is compared to the love of a Father and a Mother?

Jesus sometimes called God, “Abba,” which was the Hebrew word for “Daddy.”

Isaiah said, God loves like a Mother, too. “As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you, says the Lord.” (Is. 66:13)

Parents abound with love for their children.

Even more so, the God of all love abounds with love for us!

It’s quite a passage, isn’t it?

It’s the most repeated description of God in all the Bible. Merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.”

It was the definition of God that Jesus grew up with.

It’s the heart of God that Jesus revealed to us.

And it’s for you.

It’s not just for the person sitting next to you, or in front of you, or behind you.

And it’s not just for little Hannah & little Keith.

It’s for you!

God abounds in love for you!

Think about it.

Let’s pray about it. 

We thank You, Gracious God, for your abounding love for us. Help us to receive your love this day and all our days. And then help us to live our lives empowered by your love, sharing it with all we meet1 in gratitude to You, the God of love. Amen.

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