Beholding God – Lectionary 10/18/2020

Exodus 33: 12-33

Moses said to the Lord, “See, you have said to me, ‘Bring up this people’; but you have not let me know whom you will send with me. Yet you have said, ‘I know you by name, and you have also found favor in my sight.’ Now if I have found favor in your sight, show me your ways, so that I may know you and find favor in your sight. Consider too that this nation is your people.” He said, “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.” And he said to him, “If your presence will not go, do not carry us up from here. For how shall it be known that I have found favor in your sight, I and your people, unless you go with us? In this way, we shall be distinct, I and your people, from every people on the face of the earth.”

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.”

Sermon Text

            Our life of faith, in all the different ways it manifests itself, is summed up with us becoming closer to God. We want to know God intimately, to see God face to face. We grow in our love for God and one another, we work toward perfection, and in all things align ourselves with God’s purposes for our lives. The call that we receive when we come into the faith is answered in a life lived toward God.

            Since our entire life is found in pursuing God, in beholding God wherever God appears in our life, we are seekers as often as we are recipients. We do not worship a God who remains in one place, but a God that is constantly ambulating across creation. If we stay in one place too long we risk losing our energy, our drive to chase after God and to seek closer and closer communion with the Divine love which originates us. We must be on the move as God is on the move, if not in a locative sense than in a spiritual and active one. We must seek our God wherever God can be found and acknowledge that that sometimes requires us to break out from the patterns and comforts that we are accustomed to.

            We have spoken several times about the way that God has moved us into new territory in the midst of this Pandemic, both in the literal sense that we spent a long time outside and online and the more figurative sense of so many of the dangers and troubles of our world being exposed with so little to distract us. As happens from time to time, we were pushed out of our comfort zones and found that – beyond the safe walls we have constructed for ourselves – the world remains a fallen and concerning place. Now we have moved into more familiar surroundings. I am back in a suit, our worship is back in the churches in an altered but still familiar format, and we now risk getting back into a situation where life is normal, where we can build up the barriers that keep us from seeing life as it is. We risk becoming stagnant in our pursuit of God.

            This is not a unique problem to us or to our time. Some theorists suggest that, every five hundred years or so in Christianity there is a shake-up. Something happens that changes the field on which we all sojourn. For the early Church the Edict of Toleration put out by Constantine and their subsequent rise to power changed everything about how they interacted with the world. Five hundred years later the oppressed church settled into power sufficiently to begin actively oppressing others, sparking not only the Crusades but centuries of violence over religious and civil disagreements. Then came Martin Luther, King Henry VIII, John Calvin, Ulrich Zwingli, and others who decentralized church power and splintered Christianity into one thousand denominational lines. Now we, five hundred years removed from that, encounter a world of instant communication, of the slow decline of institutions, of a post-modern reimaging of all that we once took for granted.[1]

            The five-hundred-year theory has its faults, and allows us to forget that every century, every decade, in fact every moment of every day is significant in shaping history. Yet, it does show that we can never just keep doing what we have always done. The world spins round, time passes and technology morphs, and attitudes toward all manner of things change. In the same way that the way we live would be unintelligible to a first century Greek, so too would their life be unintelligible to those who lived among Imperial Christianity or the Protestant Reformation. We who are so locked in our ways, we who resist the winds of change around us, we often find ourselves depending on systems and ways of being that have long since passed from usefulness, and because of this we miss out on the new things going on around us.

            Our scripture for today demonstrates an episode in which something is clearly not working for the people of God. Just before God and Moses speak about glory, beauty, and what it means to see someone face to face, the people of Israel made the decision to make a calf of gold and worship it rather than wait for Moses to return to them with tidings from God. The Israelites likely thought that their actions were positive, the cow to them represented the same God who was on the mountain, and wanting to see God face to face they created an idol that would become God for them. They did not think to wait, because they thought they could force God’s hand in the matter.

            God raged against the people, but did not abandon them. Moses began the work of reconciling the people to God and set up a tent of meeting for the people to consult God whenever they needed to through his mediation. Moses wanted to work alongside God to make sure that people did not have to lose hope or try toforce God into any situation. Moses created a space where God and humanity could intersect, a sacred space of mutual relationship.

            Where the Israelites had responded to God by trying to force God into the things they had known before, that is idols that constrained a God to one place, Moses had created a moveable tent that showed clearly that God was never bound. It was a space that God could come into and be with God’s people, but not a place that presumed it could hold onto God. It was a tabernacle meant for meetings, not a house or prison for the deity.

            Moses could have stopped here and would have been find to do so. God would come and be among God’s people, Moses would be the intermediary, and all would be well. Moses, like we today, could have been content to have God enter into the sanctuary as God felt called to and otherwise tolerate the absence of God in the in-between times. Why chase after something? Why seek what you are guaranteed? Why pursue what you know is already yours?

            However, as any of us who are married and many of us who have a sense of what it means to be in relationships generally, settling for “good enough,” in a relationship is never best practices. Even in the covenant of marriage, intended as it is to be a lifelong endeavor, the covenant can only thrive when both parties actively seek not only to love and honor, but daily pursue one another. This is not a vain romantic pining or grandiose display that can be easily Instagramable, but an earnest pursuit to know one another more completely, more fully, to love and be loved and to never stop in seeking new ways to express and inhabit that love.

            For Moses this meant hiking back up the Holy Mountain. It meant looking to God and asking directly, “Did you really mean you were going to lead us through the wilderness? Cause I don’t want an angel intermediary, I want you! Did you really mean you will dwell among us? Because I don’t want occasional visits, I want you to live among us! Did you really mean we can speak, face to face? Because I want to know you more, I want to know all about you, I cannot rest until I see your glory fully!”

            Moses, spoke to God as close as anyone ever had except for Christ, and he still wanted more. Moses was not content simply to meet God once a week in a sanctuary, not content to have some vague notion of a God who lived in his vicinity, Moses wanted all of God and Moses was willing to break the mold to do so. Moses climbed Horeb, Moses shunned idols and pursued God personally, Moses left his tent and found God in an out of the ordinary place in an out of the ordinary way.

            We too can find God in new places. We too can find God beyond the comforts we have tried to constrain God too. Beyond the four walls of a church or the limited bounds of our theologies and expectations. Beyond traditional ways of doing church and gathering together. God is on the move, and if we are willing to follow we will find God again and again.

            Does this mean all of what was is bad? Must faith expressions be completely fresh or else become dull idols and distractions? Of course not! God’s word to us is a sure place to find our footing and the traditions that come before us are often not only time honored but proven means of understanding those same scriptures. Even as our denominational structures are challenged and change, as they shift and are renewed, we find that the core streams of God’s work remains in some way. There is power in the past, there is power in what God has given us before, the eternal quality of God is that a gift of God can never become a curse.

            However, we must not be content to live in what was. We must not be content even with what currently is. The Kingdom of God is always advancing, the work of the Spirit is always renewed, the Son of God is eternally begotten of the Father. Fresh expressions, fresh manifestations of God’s power, they intersect with our ancient traditions in a way that rejuvenates the body of Christ. For two millennia the Church has stood, for two millennia the Church has changed, but for two millennia the Church has remained the body of Christ redeemed for the transformation of the world.

            So, this week let us heed the words of scripture, and seek after the face of God. Let us meet God where we never have before. Perhaps in reading a position on scripture we have never read before. Perhaps in taking up a friend on talking about that thing they are passionate about but that we never really gave any time to. Perhaps in a new spiritual practice like fasting, or praying a certain prayer, or reading scripture in a certain way. Yet, let us unite our pursuit of God with one unifying idea. That however we chase after God, we do with love as our banner, with truth as our guide, and with the brilliant glory of God as our goal. – Amen.

[1] Phyllis Tickle. “An Interim Report.” In Emergence Christianity (Ada, Michigan: Baker Books. 2012)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s