Sunday, October 23, 2011

No One Sees the Face

Exodus 33:12-23
October 23, 2011
William G. Carter

The LORD said to Moses, “I will do the very thing that you have asked; for you have found favor in my sight, and I know you by name.” Moses said, “Show me your glory, I pray.” And he said, “I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you the name, ‘The LORD’; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. But,” he said, “you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.” And the LORD continued, “See, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock; and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.”

We are moving with Israel through the wilderness. The stories we hear are signals to us that the journey will continue long after anybody arrives at the Promised Land.

  • God brings Israel out of Egypt. It is a gift of liberation. From point forward, the struggle will be to remain free. The people are no longer slaves, no longer bound to Pharoah. But they will be tempted to fall back into the predictable and confining methods of brick-making. They will skip the Sabbath, thinking they are free when they are no longer free. It’s a recurring human issue.
  •  God gives manna as a gift. It is the daily bread for which Jesus teaches us to pray. It can sustain all of us, and there is just enough to feed everybody. The continuing challenge will be to trust that is true, to take only enough bread for today, to avoid the temptation to hoard more for ourselves at the expense of others, to continually express fresh gratitude to the God who provides the same daily gifts.
  •  God gives the Law on Mount Sinai. This is the gift of Torah, of holy instruction. It is particularly hard to keep from distorting this gift. We are tempted to push up against the Law and think we know better than God. Or we are tempted to reduce the Living Torah into iron-clad policy, becoming ourselves inflexible and obnoxious. Or we are tempted to use God’s very Words as a club to whack others who are still learning to be obedient.
 The challenges are exposed in the wilderness. They never go away. The church, like Israel, will continue to work out its salvation with awkwardness. The gifts of God identify our issues. What happens in the desert does not stay in the desert.

In the story for today, we gain a glimpse of how our true relationship with God will proceed. Moses senses that he is at the point where he can make a notable request. He says, “Lord, show me your glory. Show me the fullness of your face.” God says no. God will remain out of sight. God will not be obvious to us or our children. All God will grant anybody is a fleeting glance.

This is a defining moment for Israel and for us. Revelation will not come readily. God can speak, God may converse. God will offer life-giving words. But God will not show us everything we want to see. Some of the truth will be withheld. This is the kind of God we have.

Now, I don’t know how you feel about that. Maybe you came to church today with the hope that I or somebody else could offer you the magic formula for how you, too, could understand all the holy mysteries of the universe. A lot of people want that. A lot of Christian churches promise that. They write books, offer seminars, hand out charts. Some of them offer “forty days of purpose,” while others suggest forty days of Lent. There was a group of my acquaintance that proclaimed a proper diet would open your mind to God’s presence, while another group practiced long, silent prayers.

In the end, I asked, “What did you see?” The clearest answer: “a cloud” or “a fog.” One pious woman once told me she had a vision and saw Jesus’ wounded feet. I said, “Anything more than the feet?” She said that was it.

This is one of the most awkward things about religious faith. No one sees the face of God.

A lot of people are not content with this. They would like to say something different about the Deity. You can go to some places, they call them churches, but they are really set up more like movie theaters. The lights dim, the soundtrack begins, and video engineers begin to manipulate the senses.

Cue the sound technician. A thunderous orchestra swells through the sound system. There is the roll of tympani drums, a flash of light, footage of a magnificent waterfall, beneath it all a Bible script: “the God of glory thunders…” Everybody says “ooh” and “ahh.” They sit inside, sheltered and protected, watching a clip of a waterfall with a Bible verse.

More and more, that’s what passes as a religious experience in our land – a manufactured, Technicolor miracle. Technology can be used to manipulate people into a temporary suspension of disbelief. Then the show is over, the lights come up, and people leave essentially unchanged, back to over-consume their potato chips and harass their neighbors. On the way out, they fill buckets with cash to keep financing the Big Production.

Yet once the lights return and the amplifiers are turned off, the truth seeps back in. God rarely overwhelms us. God never shows us everything we wish to see. Sometimes God doesn’t show us very much at all. People will go decades of their life, like old Abraham and Sarah did, without so much as a whisper from the Lord. And in this apparent absence, one kind of religious huckster after another will try fill the gap, manufacture some meaning, and make a few bucks to maintain the illusion that they have seen the Lord.

Israel knew the truth: God is hidden. When Moses came down the mountain and made his report, they already knew in their bones what he would say. Israel’s experience is our own. It’s not that God is not there, or here; but that God cannot be manipulated.

We can hear it in some of their prayers. Psalm 27, for instance. It starts strong and declarative: “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?” The presumed answer is “Nobody.” Then the affirmation is repeated, “The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?” And the presumed answer, again, is “Nobody!” The Psalmist goes on to say, “I want to live in God’s house all my days. I want to behold God’s beauty. I trust that God will shelter me and keep me safe.” These are clear, resounding declarations. Faith announces that God protects us.

But then the Psalmist slips a bit. She says, “My heart says, come, seek God’s face! Your face, Lord, do I seek . . . Do not hide your face from me. Do not cast me off.” (27:8-9)

Over and over again, this concern recurs, especially in the Psalms. “You hid your face, I was dismayed.” (30:7) “How long will you hide your face from me?” (13:1) “Why do you hide your face?” (44:24) “Do not hide your face from your servant.” (69:17) “Why do you hide your face from me?” (88:14) . . . and over and over again.

God is elusive. God remains out of sight. This is what Moses learns. It is the same truth that all of us learn. There is always a thick fog in front of God’s face.  

A few years ago, a woman in Miami declared she saw the face of the Virgin Mary in a toasted cheese sandwich. She sold the sandwich on eBay for $28,000, an astonishing sum since the sandwich was ten years old. Shortly after that, I found a little plastic item in a novelty catalog. It was a kind of cookie cutter that leaves an impression of Mary’s Son on a grilled cheese sandwich of your own. Out of deep reverence, I bought one of those for my father for Christmas. Given how God is so elusive, this little gift seemed ridiculous enough to reinforce the point. I would add that, out of deeper reverence, even though he laughed after he opened the package, Dad never actually used the gift.

Is God out of sight because God doesn’t like us? In our text, we can hear Moses badgering the Lord on this point. Four different times, he exclaims, “If we find favor in your sight . . . if we find favor in your sight . . . Lord, will you go with us if we find favor in your sight?”

This tires God’s ears’ “Of course, you have favor in my sight,” says the Lord. Favor is not the issue. You don’t have to keep asking if God loves you. Of course, God loves you. If God didn’t love you, God would never have snatched you out of Egypt, fed you with manna, or give you the Torah. Favor is not the issue.

Well, maybe it’s something else. Maybe the problem is not with God; perhaps it is with us. After all, Jesus made a promise of his own on the mountain top. Remember? He said, “Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God” (Matt. 5:8). It sounds possible that we might actually see the Holy Face, if we are pure enough in heart. So that could be why some of us never see it; not going to mention any names…

Along those lines, there was a period in British history called the “Nineteen Year Winter,” from 1135 to 1154 AD. A season when the country was coming apart, it was popularly called “The Great Anarchy.” The Anglo-Saxon history books described it as “a time when Christ and his saints slept.” Or to put it another way, there was such a total lack of purity within the country that absolutely no one saw God.

Is this hiddenness truly one of God’s attributes? Or is it evidence of human impurity? A bit of “yes” to both, I’m sure. It could simply be the description of an honest religion, where we have to trust what we cannot completely see.

Some years ago, a Hebrew scholar by the name of Richard Eliot Friedman wrote a book called The Disappearance of God. He read the Bible carefully and traced how God slipped more and more into the shadows as the pages went on. In the Garden of Eden, God walked and talked with Adam. By the Tower of Babel, God stopped appearing to the whole human race. In the wilderness, God appeared as a pillar of fire and spoke the commandments to all, but then never spoke directly to the people again.

In the Hebrew Bible, God appears last to King Solomon (1 Kings 9:2) and then the verb is retired. On another rare occasion, God ignited a huge bonfire of wet wood at the request of the prophet Elijah. After that, God stopped doing any more public miracles. It was quiet for about nine hundred years. People remembered the deeds, recited the ancient words, and had to get along without any epiphanies.

This was the world into which Jesus was born. To read those stories, the angels began to sing, a new star was thrown into the sky, and things began to happen. Yet these special moments were not obvious to everybody. In fact, they were largely out of sight. Jesus stayed incognito for thirty years, learning to work with wood, keeping the religious customs, largely blending in.

Then for a brief period, give or take thirty-six months, things began to happen around Jesus. Local events: a crowd fed again with enough bread for one day; the sick and infirmed healed over here, a few over there; rumors of a dead man walking, a blind man seeing, a windstorm squelched. But none of it was obvious to large groups of people, except as one person over there was changed, another here, another there . . . and we have little record of what happened to those witnesses.

And then came the final revelation: the same Jesus who some of the people began to regard was divine was murdered. If God was present that day, it was hidden in God’s restraint. There was no punishment for the people who condemned and crucified Jesus. Instead Jesus uttered a prayer, “Father, forgive them; they do not understand.” His spoken prayer was answered in silence, in sheer silence . . . and hidden mercy.

This is God’s way in the world. To stay just out of sight. To tiptoe through the fog. To refrain from casual banter when there are planets at stake and human hearts to win.

Sometimes I wonder: what does God’s face looks like? On any given day, is God smiling? Or is God frowning? Is God’s countenance passive and serene, like the fat Buddha? Or is God full of emotion, passion, and energy? We don’t always know. But we trust God is here.

That’s why we are going to sing the next hymn. It’s a communion hymn and the opening line announces, “Here, O Our Lord, We See You Face to Face.” That seems to counter the very story we have heard today from Exodus, except that the very next lines declare, “Here would we touch and handle things unseen / Here grasp with firmer hand eternal grace / And all our weariness upon You lean.”

This is what faith propels us to do: to reach for what we trust but cannot see, to claim what we believe but cannot prove. It’s the reaching and trusting, the claiming and believing that make faith real. If God were merely our Errand Boy, answering all our requests, we would simply put in our orders and believe the lie that all the planets orbit around us.

Instead we put our trust where it really belongs: in the God who brings us out of Egypt, the God who gives us what we need, the God who brings us alive by the Word that is still speaking. 

(c) William G. Carter
All rights reserved

No comments:

Post a Comment