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Where Have You Seen God Today?

Sermon – 10/16/05
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Exodus 33:12-23

The text for our reflection this morning is from the 33rd chapter of Exodus.  If you know anything about the story in Exodus, you know that the relationship between God and the people of God (the former slaves in Egypt) is rather contentious.  Kind of an on and off again relationship, complaining throughout the journey.  First they complained about the lack of water -- 'why have you brought us out to the wilderness to die of thirst, it was better back in slavery'.  And Moses of course strikes the rock and the water comes forth.  Then they complain about the lack of food -- 'why have you brought us out here to die of starvation, it was better back in slavery'.  Of course, God provides the manna in the wilderness.

And so the story goes.  And then in the 32nd chapter when Moses is up on the mountain receiving the 10 commandments and doing his best Charlton Heston imitation, and the people are down in the valley getting anxious (they haven't seen Moses for awhile) and they complain to Aaron, and Aaron relents and makes for them a golden calf so they can have a God to worship.  And of course God becomes angry, Moses becomes angry, God says (at the start of chapter 33):  I've had enough of this 'stiff-necked' people.  I'm not going with you -- you go on to the promised land, but I'm not going with you, I'm done, I'm through with you.

Moses then pleads on behalf of the people, and that's our text for this morning, beginning with verse 12, chapter 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.” 13Now 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.’ 14He said, ‘My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.’ [Dan's comments:  Now what you need to understand, in the Hebrew, that 'you' is singular.  Doesn't refer to everyone, it is directed to Moses -- I will give you rest.  By implication then, not anyone else.  And so Moses presses his case:] 15And he said to him, ‘If your presence will not go, do not carry us up from here. 16For 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.’ [You notice that emphasis over & over again on the 'us', the plural] 17The 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.’ [And so Moses presses it a little bit further -- 'one more thing', a request]  18Moses said, ‘Show me your glory, I pray.’ 19And 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. 20But,’ he said, ‘you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.’ 21And the LORD continued, ‘See, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock; 22and 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; 23then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.’.

Now this request of Moses, to see the glory of God, and then the subsequent refusal of God to show Moses the face of God, is actually an odd request in the story.  Because if you read just prior to the beginning of this text, in verse 11, we read that the Lord used to speak to Moses face to face as one speaks to a friend in the tent of meeting.  So Moses has already seen the face of God and yet now we're told that he can't see the face of God, that no one can see the face of God (and live).

So what's going on here?  Well obviously, 'face' is not meant to be taken literally.  As if God actually has a nose and two eyes and two funny ears sticking out of his head.  No, God doesn't have that kind of face.  Face here is simply a way of describing one's relationship to God -- to see the face of God is to know God intimately as you see a friend, when you look someone in the eyes.  You know, you can see that person, you have a close relationship with that person, that's what's inferred, then, in the 11th verse.

So the refusal, then, of God to allow Moses to see the face of God is a way of correcting the impression given previously that Moses can be that intimate with God, can be 'buddy-buddy' with God.  Can be so close to God to know God's every thought.  The idea that no one can see the face of God is simply a way of saying 'be wary of those who say they have that kind of relationship with God', that they know what God was intending in New Orleans.  They know who was being punished by a hurricane.  They know what the tsunami was intended to be.  That they actually know the mind of God and can make those kinds of judgments.  I get those letters from time to time, really sad, people think they can discern the will of God in those kinds of acts.

Anyone who claims to know with absolute certainty the mind of God is someone you should not trust.  Need to have a little healthy bit of skepticism.  The point, then, of the story is that God is both near to us and far at the same time.  God is fully knowable, and yet God cannot be fully known.  To search for God is to be in that cleft of the rock from whence we can see God's back but not his face.  We can see God's goodness but not God's glory.

I have a cousin, Janet Chapman, who's pastor at First Christian Church in Selma, near where Judy and I used to be in Fresno, she's the sister of Marilyn Reed and daughter of Phyllis Warner.  Phyllis was sharing in our elders meeting the story of her daughter, the reverend Chapman, and her husband.  After a marriage enrichment retreat they were given this idea with their daughter, Mikayla (who was then 4 or 5), asking her where she has seen God today.  And they would have these family discussions -- where they had seen God today.  And of course with a 4 or 5 year old you get all kinds of wonderful answers.  And as Mikayla has grown (she's now 11) her answers have matured, her understanding has matured.  What a wonderful idea.  

How would you answer that question?  If we asked where have you seen God today?  What if we began each day with that question in mind, with that expectation -- to look for God somewhere in our life in that day?  Would it not make a difference in the way that we see the world?

There's a wonderful story of Leo Tolstoy of Martin the cobbler, I know many of you know, I've told it a time a two, but it's such a great story it's worth retelling.  The cobbler, and old Russian cobbler, who receives a dream, a vision from God.  The Lord says that He will come and visit him, he will see Christ coming the next day.  And so all day long he watches expectantly out his window for the Lord's coming, as he works about his business making shoes.  And he looks out his window and he sees an old man shoveling snow off the sidewalk and he's tired and cold and Martin goes out and invites him in to share a cup of hot coffee and get some rest.  A little while later he sees a young woman with an infant struggling against that cold winter wind, and he goes out and brings her in, warms her up with a bowl of porridge.  And late in the day he sees an old woman with a sack of groceries and a young boy trying to steal an apple out of the bag.  The old woman catches him by the scruff of the neck and they tussle and the groceries go everywhere.  Martin runs out and separates the two and scolds the boy for trying to take advantage of the old woman, and scolds the woman for being so harsh with this young boy who's just hungry.  Gets the boy to pick up the groceries and to carry the groceries for her and in return receives some of the food therein.  And he goes in and he prepares for bed and he's disappointed.  The Lord didn't come to see him as he thought.  And of course you know how the story is going to end -- reminiscent of Matthew 25, where the Lord in the judgment day says 'I was hungry and you fed me'.  And in his dream that night, the Lord comes and visits him again and shows him the face of each individual he helped during the day.  And says 'Martin, it was I.  It was I, Martin'.

You see, if we look for God in our world, will we not in that seeing, also participate in making the world a better place, as did Martin?

Our Jewish brothers and sisters celebrated Yom Kippur this week, Wednesday evening, with a service at the Shedd because the Synagogue is not large enough to hold them all.  Yom Kippur you may know is one of the most sacred holidays on the Jewish calendar, next to Passover.  In many ways is more analogous to Christmas for us because it has that kind of importance, it's a bigger holiday than Hanukkah that we celebrate in the holiday season. It's the day of atonement, it's the day when Jews believe that they atone for their sins in the past year and thereby are cleansed of those sins to start a new year.  To start afresh.

And I recall a letter published several years ago by Laura Schlessinger, better known as Dr. Laura.  She has a talk-radio show.  Talk radio, you know, is sometimes known as 'hate-radio' for all of it's hateful, harmful speech.  And Dr. Laura, God bless her, published a letter in several newspapers (big newspapers) across the country in which she apologized for any hateful, harmful speech on her part, in her show, and especially that directed against homosexuals.  And I think it was a very sincere letter, heartfelt and impressive.  She published that letter on Yom Kippur because she is a devout Jew.  And it was her act of atonement, her way of reconciling with God and with her brothers and sisters.

You know there's a little football rivalry in town, between the Ducks and the Huskies.  Those kinds of rivalries, sometimes hateful, harmful things get said.  The paper has been running a series on unsportsmanlike conduct, trying to get the fans under control.  I thought in the spirit of Yom Kippur, and following the example of Dr. Laura, I should apologize for anything harmful or hurtful I've said about the Huskies.  But then I thought -- I'm not Jewish!  Heck, why would I do such a thing? J.

Seriously, I do have to say, I was at the game yesterday, and I'm pleased to report (at least from what I observed) that fans were very well behaved.  Everyone was polite and good to our neighbors from the north and it was the way it should be.  Of course, the Ducks won--the way it should be J.

Back to Yom Kippur -- I learned something this week from Rabbi Yitzhak Husbands-Hankin, the Rabbi at Temple Beth Israel.  We have breakfast a couple of times a month, and Wednesday morning was our regular breakfast.  He shared with me that in most Jewish families there's a large meal before Yom Kippur because on sundown, when Yom Kippur starts, you begin a fast.  And that fast extends through the following day until 3 stars appear the following evening.  So about 25-26 hours.  And they also have services all day long the next day -- so Thursday services all day long.  We're trying to figure out whether or not to have a service on Christmas morning because it's a Sunday this year, and there they are having services all day long.

So at the appearance of that 3rd star, they break the fast and the new year begins.  So that was Wednesday morning.  And by coincidence, at noon on Wednesday, Shawna, Yitzhak's wife, came to the lunch gathering of Two Rivers Interfaith ministries to promote the involvement of the faith community in helping evacuees from the Gulf Coast.  Turns out there's about 140 evacuees that have been identified so far that have come to our area (on their own, without the help of any agency) to resettle here either temporarily or permanently.  Temple Beth-Israel has adopted 4 of these households and are working with them for housing, jobs, medical care, whatever the case may be.  Shawna was sharing her story with us and urging others in the faith community to get involved in such a way to sponsor a household.

And she introduced us to Ellen.  Ellen is a young woman, probably in her 20s, someone later described her to me as a former punk-rocker, who's kind of grown up, and Ellen (with a couple of her friends) organized their own effort.  Couldn't find any agency in town that was doing anything to welcome these families, and they -- through web searches and word of mouth -- found these families, invited them to a potluck, learned about their needs and began organizing to welcome those families.  To show that we care about them.  And so Ellen was there sharing her story.  We're going to have a gathering here Tuesday afternoon of folk in the faith communities to begin talking about what we can do and how we can take on some of these families in different churches and faith communities, each sponsoring a family.

And then on Thursday, I met Marie.  Marie is a taxi driver.  She is a client of Elaine, our Director of Youth Ministry, and she shared some of her frustration at seeing so many people on the street who are so destitute and not knowing what to do.  Some of her clients, people she gives rides in her taxi, and some of the terrible heart-throbbing stories she would hear from them.  And her heart breaking for them.  And wanting to do something in some way meaningful.  And so Elaine shared with her our Good Samaritan ministry that is working with folks who come to us off the streets.  And Marie starting coming here this week -- she's in training to be a volunteer in our Good Samaritan ministry.  To do something concrete for people in need.

Well, that evening, as I scanned the skies to see if it would be clear enough for our Jewish brothers and sisters to see the 3rd star of the evening, and to break the fast, it suddenly dawned on me:  I'd already seen them.  The wife of the Rabbi, former punk-rocker, the taxi driver.  The stars of God's light in this sometimes dark world.  

And though I'm neither Jewish and certainly am not Moses, I do see, from time to time, the goodness of God when it passes by.

Where have you seen God today?


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