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Face to Face with God

Sermon - 2/18/07
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Exodus 34:29-35

The passage this morning, from Exodus, lies behind the [New Testament] text that Beverly read for us, the story of the Transfiguration.  So let me read, then, from the 34th chapter of Exodus.  

And by the way, this comes after the second time Moses has received the ten commandments.  You may recall in that story that the first time he comes down from the mountain he encounters the golden calf that the people have made.  He becomes so angry, he breaks and destroys the tablets, so he has to go back and ask God for another copy, so to speak.

He comes down, then, the second time and we have this story:

Moses came down from Mount Sinai. As he came down from the mountain with the two tablets of the covenant in his hand, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God. 30When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, the skin of his face was shining, and they were afraid to come near him. 31But Moses called to them; and Aaron and all the leaders of the congregation returned to him, and Moses spoke with them. 32Afterwards all the Israelites came near, and he gave them in commandment all that the Lord had spoken with him on Mount Sinai. 33When Moses had finished speaking with them, he put a veil on his face; 34but whenever Moses went in before the Lord to speak with him, he would take the veil off, until he came out; and when he came out, and told the Israelites what he had been commanded, 35the Israelites would see the face of Moses, that the skin of his face was shining; and Moses would put the veil on his face again, until he went in to speak with him.

 

Star Trek fans will remember the movie "Star Trek 5:  The Final Frontier", in which a messianic figure, the Vulcan half-brother of Spock, hijacks the Starship Enterprise in order to take it beyond the great barrier, where, this Vulcan is convinced, they will find God.  And indeed, they get through the barrier and on this deserted planet they find "God".  And the Vulcan converses with him, and he tells the crew of the Starship to bring the Starship closer.  

Now at this point, Captain James T. Kirk, our hero, who is standing in the background (and of course it's his ship, he's very possessive of it, he's not about to share this even with God) steps forward and says "Excuse me?  Excuse me?!  Why does God have need of a spaceship?"  That's a good question.  But God doesn't take the question too well, and Bones (the doctor in the show), says to him "Jim, you don't question the almighty".  But, face to face with God, Captain Kirk is unmoved.  And so he engages in this first verbal battle with the almighty that then becomes quite physical.  Turns out that "God" is not so divine that a blast from the lasers of a spaceship won't fry his brains, and that's the end of God (at least that God).

And the movie ends with some mindless drivel about humanities' search for God that I've long since forgotten.  But I've never forgotten that scene and this whole quest of the movie.  This idea that there is a place, that if we search diligently, that we may find that special place where we can be face to face with God.

And of course there's nothing new about that idea -- that idea is as old as religion itself.  In ancient Judaism, the temple is that place -- the Holy of the Holies.  And before that, the tent of the tabernacle.  And before that, Mt. Sinai, or Mt. Horeb as it is also known.  

So we recall that Moses first encountered God in the burning bush, remember, on Mt. Sinai.  Then he returns to that place to receive the ten commandments from God.  And Elijah goes up to that same place in order to find protection from God.  And it's there that in the sound of the sheer silence that Elijah hears that still, small voice of God, speaking to him.

And so the gospel the authors conjure up that image when Jesus goes up the mountain to pray and is joined by both Moses and Elijah on the mountain.  That story of the Transfiguration, which by the way is recalled on this Sunday in the liturgical calendar, before the beginning of Lent each year (next Sunday we begin Lent), familiarity with the stories of Moses and Elijah are assumed.  And especially this story from Exodus 34, and so Luke tells us that the face of Jesus changed.  And Matthew tells us that the face of Jesus 'shone like the sun'.  In other words, Jesus, like Moses, radiates the glory of God.

And the point is, when one is in the presence, in that overpowering presence of the glory of God, it shows.  It's visible.  It's present in the world.  That meaning should be obvious, but unfortunately some are so convinced that they are right they won't consider evidence to the contrary.  Even if you have bi-partisan support for your resolution to prove it J.  That's my social commentary for the morning.

When I was a student at Northwest Christian College (eons ago), Francis Hyland (many of you know Frances) was a speech teacher there and I had her in my class and she wanted me to enter the bible reading contest.  Do they still have that contest?  Still do.  So, I did.  We had two scriptures, one from the New Testament that you could memorize.  And the other was selected for you, to be taken out of the Hebrew scripture and it would be given to you the night before.

I had memorized the story of Paul's defense before King Agrippa, in the 26th chapter of Acts.  Very dramatic reading, lends itself well to that kind of contest.  And I had rehearsed that with Frances.  I was well prepared -- you know, I was going to 'wow' the committee and everyone there with my bible reading skills.

Well, that year, the popular book on campus and in the community, caught everyone's fancy, was Chariots of the God, by Erich Von Daniken.  Anyone remember that book?  In that book, Von Daniken makes the case that archeology and ancient texts provide irrefutable evidence that we were visited by alien beings in ancient times.  And he lays his case out for this.  It's a fascinating and sensational claim that is too incredible to be true.  And indeed, in fact it is too incredible to be true -- the BBC did a documentary on it years later revealing that Von Daniken in fact fabricated his evidence.  It was outright fraud.  And the other things he cited there were other explanations for.

But in any event, we didn't know any of that back in 1973, 74, so folks were all caught up with this.  One of the stories in there that he cites is Ezekiel 1.  Remember that account of the wheel within a wheel, this fantastic heavenly vision that Ezekiel has, that includes, among other things, descriptions of creatures with four faces -- a lion, an ox, an eagle, and a human being.  And the Bible reading committee, in their infinite wisdom, selected this text as the one which we were then to dramatically read for the contest.  Let me tell you, reading that text with conviction and authority is a challenge.  It would be much like using Lewis Carroll's Jabberrwocky for a sermon!  Except that poem makes sense J.

"Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
  The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
  The frumious Bandersnatch!"

Well, at least we understand that, right?  Well, suffice it to say, my well-rehearsed dramatic reading of Paul's great speech under the tutelage of Frances Hyland was undone by my pitiful stammering through the psychedelic vision of Ezekiel, and all was lost that day at chapel at NCC.  I think I finished third. 

Well, the point of that whole story (you can forget most of that, it really has nothing to do with the sermon) is that Van Daniken cites this story in Exodus as evidence for E.T. -- extra-terrestrials that visited the earth.  And he provides this helpful explanation:  Moses receives the ten commandments from alien beings (obviously superior, smarter, and so forth), and that place where Moses can confer with God face to face actually was a spaceship.  Which, of course, was nuclear powered, hence Moses was radiated.  And his face would shine when he came forth!

Now aren't you glad you come to church to be enlightened in such ways on scripture?!

Folks, we do not need Von Daniken, Captain Kirk, E.T. or Steven Spielberg to explain scripture for us.  Well, maybe Captain Kirk, he can be helpful at times J.  In fact, the meaning of this odd little story here in Exodus is really quite simple.  And it does not require supernatural explanations or the suspension of the laws of nature to understand.  Better yet, properly understood, it is a story with a powerful message from which we can all benefit.

What I do recommend is that we suspend the requirement to read such stories literally, as if the face of Moses literally shone, rather than metaphorically lit up with the radiance of God.  But, whether you read it literally or metaphorically, in the end really doesn't change the meaning that is quite clear.

First of all, the glory of God is real.

Secondly, that it is a power that is visible in human affairs.

And third, that it leads to transformation.  Changes.  Not only in individual lives, it can change the course of nations, as was the case in ancient Israel.

Friedrich Nietzsche, who popularized the saying "God is dead", also said, from his observations in church, "Christians ought to look more redeemed".  I sure hope he hadn't been to our church, talking about us.  But Nietzsche is right, Christians should look different from the rest of humanity.  We who believe in the power of God's love should look like loving people.  We who believe in life beyond death should not look like we're already dead, especially not on Sunday morning!  We who believe that Christ was the prince of peace should not look like we really believe that war is the answer to the world's problems.  Christians ought to look more redeemed--like our encounters with God really have made a difference in our lives.

Now there are those people, those mentors of faith, I think that we all have who have that look.  You might call to mind some people.  In our spiritual formation group that meets on Thursday mornings, one of our members mentioned Dr. E.V. Moon.  How many remember Dr. Moon?  Great story, from the Northwest, became a missionary in the Congo and his stories inspired the Disciples of Oregon to raise enough money to buy a riverboat that traveled up and down the Congo river.  And Dr. Moon would come back and share those stories.  And when he shared those stories with the people, his face shone with the radiance of God.

Another person I think of is Dr. Ronald Osborn, a member of this church who touched my life very deeply in seminary, is a person I've always looked up to as a mentor, who really had that look of the presence of God.

Another person who I had the privilege of meeting in seminary was Dr. Harold Fey.  Some will recognize him when I share this story, because you know about him.  But before I tell you that story, let me share with you his conversion experience.  Dr. Fey was born at the beginning of the last century, he says in-between his junior and senior year, he 'got' religion.  More accurately, he writes, "the eternal reached me through the simple piety of a country church.  That year, the preacher was a somewhat attractive woman, probably in her 30s, I cannot recall her name, but I remember she ran a rescue mission at Ft. Leavenworth.  Saving fallen women was her specialty and I suppose the stories she told of her experiences helped generate a not altogether holy curiosity in rural minds.  Also, few had ever heard a woman preach.  Soon, the little country church, perched high on a prairie hill, was crowded night after night.  My interest at first was mainly social--my friends would be there, either outside the church or inside on the back rows.  As night followed night, I began to worry about the condition of my immortal soul.  That concern would be described as under the conviction of sin.  The last night, tension was high, the revival was nearing its close and there had been few converts.  As the evening wore on, it seemed to me that the room had become unbearably hot.  The altar call was sounded and I broke into a sweat.  While the evangelists exhorted, the choir sang softly and tenderly "Jesus is coming, sinner, or sinner, come home".  I held onto the back of the seat in front of me until I looked at mother.  Her eyes brimmed with tears as she looked at me and nodded.  Suddenly, I moved into the aisle and stumbled forward to the altar rail.  After I had been leaning there in contrite prayer, dumbly reaching out to the eternal, I felt an enormous sense of relief.  I knew the sweet touch of forgiveness and acceptance.  I do not wish to exaggerate, but in honesty, I have to declare that that total experience of conversion and confession was a lasting, valid, authentic touch of the grace of God.  Henceforth, the tone of my life was changed.  I was soon to discover that old habits would re-assert themselves, that I had not been saved, but had only been set on the way to liberation.  More, many more conversions lay in the future.  But this one was decisive".

Dr. Fey went on to become a missionary in the Philippines, where he witnessed the start of World War II.  Had to come back to this country, and became the editor of World Call magazine, one of the leading publications of our denomination.  And from there he went on to become editor of Christian Century, the leading publication of liberal protestants of the time.  In that capacity, Dr. Fey was one of the leading Disciple clergy, one of the leading voices throughout the 1950s, 1960s, and even the 1970s, for things like civil rights, Native American rights, nuclear disarmament, opposition to the war in Vietnam and other peace and justice issues.

And it all began with that initial encounter with the glory of God that not only changed his life as a teenager, it opened him up to new possibilities and further changes throughout his life as his encounter with God continually challenged him to apply his faith to the relevant issues of his day.

Even now, as I remember Dr. Fey, I can see the glow of that radiance of his encounter with the divine.  

Martin Buber, the great Jewish Philosopher, said:  "The encounter with God does not come to us in order that we may henceforth cling to God, but in order that we may prove its meaning in action in the world.  All revelation is a calling and a mission."  But, Buber said, "we prefer tending to God than tending to the world, and therefore we make God into an object.  A divine "it" to be admired, studied, worshipped.  Rather than a divine "thou", the one to whom we are called into relationship." 

And to do that, requires that we remove that metaphorical veil between us and God, that we, like Moses, may be transformed for a purpose.  To take God's commandments, God's word, God's glory, into the world.  That it too, might be transformed. 

The true face-to-face encounters with God leave a dramatic and lasting impact that changes us in very real ways.  How we look, how we act, who we are, what we do.  That's the message of this story.  That's the message of the gospel.  

The only question, or challenge, to us, is this:  how long will we hide behind that veil that keeps that spark of God's light from shining in the world?

 


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