Sunnyside Reformed Church
A Christian Community Church Making Christ Known Through Word & Deed
The Face of God, Ex 33:12-23 & Mat 22:15-22,
Sun. 10/19/14, Rev. Neil A. Margetson
The Exodus reading we heard awhile ago says that God’s Face cannot and will not ever be seen by a human being. It’s framed as part of a dialog between God and Moses, in which Moses begged to be allowed to see God. Actually he sort of begged and complained and demanded at the same time.
As I read it I couldn’t help remembering what was said about Moses so many times in the OT...that he was able to converse with God face to face, like a friend.
In this week’s reading, it was written that Moses was only allowed to see God’s back. And that with great fanfare, and much ado on God’s part. Yet practically in the verse preceding that, we read the following:
Exo 33:11 Thus the LORD used to speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend.
And, further on, in The Book of Numbers:
Num 12:6-8 And he said, "Hear my words: When there are prophets among you, I the LORD make myself known to them in visions; I speak to them in dreams. Not so with my servant Moses; he is entrusted with all my house. With him I speak face to face--clearly, not in riddles; and he beholds the form of the LORD..."
I did not at first see how we would resolve these two different descriptions of Moses’ with God, but then I thought, Maybe what we’re seeing is the evolution of a relationship? As we have said often, we live in a Universe where the only constant is change, so surely one’s relationship with God also changes and grows?
The fact is that what Moses asked for is something I believe we all want...to know...not just believe but know...that God is real. To see the face of God for ourselves...to have proof of God’s existence.
In previous sermons I have referred to William James’ classic work, The Varieties of Religious Experience. One of the great things about the book is that James gives us many rich examples of faith experiences spread over dozens of cultures and hundreds of years. As one reads it becomes clear that they are virtually all the testimonies of sincere believers. And, as James himself pointed out, most share important common elements, reinforcing the conviction that they are indeed real and true experiences. Perhaps that should be enough to convince us that God can be known...that God is and has been known. It’s not enough. For in the end, these experiences can’t really be shared, only be described. Thus, the rest of us are left to yearn for our own experiences.
If we look at our OT reading more closely we find out that it comes right after the episode of the Golden Calf, which we talked about last week. When the People of Israel forgot themselves in Moses’ absence, and, with help from his brother Aaron, began to worship an idol they had made. It was, I think symbolic of all the other gods that had been worshipped before Yahweh. What the text said - in effect - was that all of those other gods had been conceived of and given flesh by human beings and therefore could not be true gods. Only Yahweh is uncreated, unmatched, unequalled.
Moses was a believer and leader, and because he loved his people he wanted them to see and know God’s Presence and Reality, as he had done. So he asked God, How will your people know that you are with them? How will they know that they are God’s People? And how will it be known to the people we encounter on our journey to the Promised Land unless you show yourself?
And because God did indeed love Moses and saw how deeply Moses loved his people God did as Moses asked...showed him God’s back...and God’s Glory. And said, I will go before you and all will know that it is my back in front of them.
God spoke to the people directly, and made covenant with them - promising to go with them to the new land. Also told them that the promised land was already inhabited, that they would have to fight for it, but that the inhabitants would fall before them...who could stand before them if God was on their side?
I suggested awhile ago that maybe what we see in these stories - at least in part - is the changing nature of the relationship between God and Moses. If we look at the whole of Moses’ life I think we can see that it was a relationship that grew, beginning with his salvation as an infant by a Princess of Egypt...who was guided by God. God was manifest in the conscience of Moses, as he came to see and understand the suffering of the Hebrew slaves, who were his own people. Later, that inner prompting became a transformative outward experience, when Moses saw the Burning Bush and heard the Voice of God...and accepted the Call of God, to be the Savior of his people.
As is nearly always the case, the main message is for us. The progression of Moses’ spiritual life contains embedded within it a template that we can use to help us understand our own spiritual lives.
Just as Moses was saved by the tenderness of his mother and the woman who raised him, are we not also saved at birth, given life and a family that we can belong to? And again, like Moses, are we not addressed through conscience whenever we falter?
And yet again, just as Moses made his fateful choice - killing an evil overseer to save the life of a slave - are we not faced with choices in the course of our lives - to do as we believe and stand up for justice and righteousness - or go along with the crowd?
They may not be a dramatic as the choice that Moses faced, but it’s never an easy choice. For Moses it meant taking a life and giving up his claim to the throne of Egypt! For us, it might mean using our gifts for what is right, instead of what glitters. But whatever the circumstances, I believe it is a moment that comes to each of us.
Moses accepted a Call. He had a job to do. His success wasn’t guaranteed. He had to take like half a million people away from the empire that used them...and then he had to make sure those people got through hostile territories for four decades! Maybe we are faced with a hard choice. Maybe we hear a call, or feel the tug of conscience as we gaze out upon the sorry spectacle of systemic inequality? Maybe we too believe there is something better. A Promised Land where men and women work together for the common good? Whatever it is, God will not make the decision for us. We have to find a way to make our beliefs active, effective, living things that direct our footsteps and convince others. Later, as his relationship with God matured, Moses entered into a conscious dialog and partnership with God that he sought to share with others. This too is something I believe we all come to in our faith-lives. If we are willing any one of us can develop a relationship with God and share it with others.
One of the best things about our Judeo-Christian spiritual tradition is that it acknowledges the real world. Prophets and Messiahs alike were and are prone to go off alone to be with God, in prayer, in conversation, in meditation or simply in presence. But always they return to us, ready to take up The Cross. Ready to live fully in the world as people who have been transformed by faith.
Moses, as we have seen, was many times called away to the Holy Mountain for weeks, yet returned to his people with instruction and transformational inspiration. It was also true of Jesus, who often went off, alone to pray, leaving crowds and disciples behind. Yet he never went far...
Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when
the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. (Mat 13:13)
...after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came,
he was there alone… (Mat 14:23)
In our NT text, those who questioned Jesus hoped to trick him into heresy with the business about taxes. Not only did they fail in that, his answer reminds us that our daily life and our spiritual life are not really separate and apart from one another. We have one and only one life, and within its boundaries we must fulfill the challenges that arise before us.
...they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, "Whose head is this, and whose title?" They answered, "The emperor's." Then he said to them, "Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor's, and to God the things that are God's.
Without any doubt, life will test us. Will seem to mock our concerns and our convictions. As one example, consider the Ebola outbreak that’s dominating the airwaves lately. How are we to respond? There doesn’t seem to be much the average person can do about it. But spiritually we are challenged. Do we have empathy for the victims? Do we take the time to educate ourselves and others? Are we too anxious to be effective, or are we remaining calm and faithful...even helping others cope with a common fear?
Whatever our first reaction, we can draw upon a relationship with God to give us the strength and discernment we need. We can let that process and that Presence transform us, and help others do the same. We don’t have to be perfect. We don’t have to succeed in all that we try. We may, like the Israelites, sometimes make terrible choices...worshipping false idols like money and power, or harming ourselves and others. But we are called upon to try, and when we are faithful, sometimes we will see miracles performed!
When Jesus told his questioners that money and commerce are of the world and therefore rightly governed by the state, he is in effect, telling us that it’s OK...God understands. We don’t have to ignore the world around us. We don’t have to be perfect so long as we are pure of heart. We do have to be willing to be transformed by faith and guided by faith.
This world we live in - as hard as it sometimes seems - is God’s Creation. As are we...God’s Creations. When we remember this...when we treat the world and one another with love and respect, we are at the same time loving and respecting God. Seeing God. We have said that we all long to see God’s Face, so we might know God is real. We think we know what that will be like. We look for the White Light...for an overwhelming experience...like Moses, who begged for a glimpse of God’s Face in spite of the fact that he’d been in nearly constant contact
with God for a long time!
Today, I am remembering what was said so often by one of my former bosses - Father Bruce Ritter, the founder of The Covenant House Under 21 Shelter for Homeless Youth, an institution I am proud to have once worked for. He said, and wrote - sometimes God has a kid’s face.
He was talking about kids who the world had discarded. Kids who wound up in his shelter. They weren’t all what society would call good kids. A lot of them brought trouble. Matter of fact, one brought so much trouble that it ended Father Ritter’s career. But what he knew was that in their fundamental innocence and humanity they brought something else...a realization that we are all one...and in that realization comes an unshakeable hope in humanity’s ultimate redemption and salvation.
I know Father Ritter was right. Sometimes God does have a kid’s face...or a mother’s face or a friend’s face or a stranger’s face. Today, I am convinced that we look upon the Face of God every day, we just don’t realize it. Every time we look into the eyes of another and recognize the God within and allow ourselves to feel what they feel...suffer as they suffer...rejoice as they rejoice and feel the depth and wonder of our shared humanity...we are looking upon God’s Face. Every time we look at a piece of Creation with awe and wonder...we are looking upon God’s Face. Every time we embrace a husband, wife or lover and enter into a Covenant of the heart...we are looking at God’s Face. Every time we come together to worship and to pray...we are looking at God’s Face. Let us gaze upon it together and be transformed.
And all God’s People said...
Sunnyside Reformed Church
48-03 Skillman Avenue
Sunnyside, N.Y. 11104
A Christian Community Church Making Christ Known Through Word & Deed