Sunday, October 22, 2023
The Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost
How God appears to us
The Rev. Mark Wilkinson, Rector
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church
Katy TX 77450
The passages in Exodus that we have been reading for the past several weeks contain the most extended narrative of a conversation between God and any human which in this case has been Moses. This extended theophany, an inbreaking of God into our world, prompts a variety of thoughts and questions.
Moses and I think ultimately the people of Israel want to know that God is with them, cares for and loves them. Yet there is also a fear factor with all the reference to fire, smoke and lightening. Most people can relate to this desire to know that God is supporting them. A common comment I get from people who are struggling is they question does God care, does God love them, does God even know them.
I would like to start here. We have ample evidence in scripture that God does indeed know us and knows us intimately. One only needs to turn to the psalms to hear this. In particular I think of Psalm 139. Now granted the Moses and his people do not yet have the Psalms for those date many years in the future with King David. But it is the same desire to be known and experience God.
1 O LORD, you have searched me and known me.
2 You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
you discern my thoughts from far away.
3 You search out my path and my lying down,
and are acquainted with all my ways.
4 Even before a word is on my tongue,
O LORD, you know it completely.
5 You hem me in, behind and before,
and lay your hand upon me.
13 For it was you who formed my inward parts;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
15 My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
16 Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.
In your book were written
all the days that were formed for me,
when none of them as yet existed.
We acknowledge this in the beginning or our Collect for Purity, “Almighty God, to you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you no secrets are hid.” So the intimate presence of God is something that we openly acknowledge yet we also often forget. Ignatius acknowledges this in his teachings of times of consolation and desolation. Times when we feel God’s presence and times when we wonder, like the Israelites in the desert, are you there God?
I spent time last week talking about our image of God. Now the Israelites have panicked as Moses disappears and they want a God that is with them. Their answer is to create a golden calf that they can worship and sacrifice to. Moses too wants God to show God is with him to give him authority with the people. Yet I’m not sure they are looking for the same God.
In the exchange with God and Moses, God makes it very clear that Moses cannot see his face. This is because of the awesome power of God’s presence, God’s glory, goodness or whatever word you want to translate the Hebrew into. Yet in Exodus 33:11 “the LORD used to speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend.” This is just a few verses earlier. Remember last week I said that there are multiple writers contributing to the story so it is entirely possible this is maybe the J writer in this verse, but the E writer who has the all-powerful transcendent God writing the section we read today. I don’t know, that’s speculation on my part. But what is important is that each writer is telling us something about God. The challenge is that they do not necessarily align with each other and that is so true of the Bible.
It may be that as some commentators write that the Israelites create the golden calf as a safe easy God they can pray to, offer sacrifices to, and carry around with them. This is not an uncommon image of a god at that time. More than anything else it is a safe controllable god. One who plays by human rules and doesn’t really ask much of them. This is a god who travels around with them on their journey and we have seen that this image of God going with them has been a consistent theology since the Exodus started. They want God on their side. And there you have the essence the root of the conflict in the middle east. For this is a tribal God who belongs to a specific tribe and is superior to any other God. However, remember that Christian Jew and Muslim all have the God of Abraham as God.
The God that Moses encounters is anything but safe and definitely not a God that we can control or possess. So while the golden calf can be seen, God is so other and inscrutable that he cannot be “seen” Someone commented that she thought this you cannot look at God much like we were told last week you cannot look at the eclipse directly for even a small glance is dangerous. Ultimately, I believe the challenge is that God is so other, so beyond our understanding that we really cannot comprehend God. It is only when we leave this world that we truly encounter God face to face as Paul references in 1 Corinthians 13. Oh I believe some mystics get a glimpse which is what ultimately Moses gets in today’s passage.
Yet because of our limitations we still anthropomorphize God. We try to make God in our image rather than acknowledging that it is the other way around. We do this because it makes God more predictable and understandable. Yet nowhere in scripture do we get a description of God’s appearance. The first appearance in Western culture is the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Rome. That’s where the old man with white hair and a beard comes from, thank you Michelangelo! This is what I mean by anthropomorphizing God. That single image is carried by many people in the world because of the power of his art and the physicality which is something we can understand and grasp.
I do believe that God appeared to Moses in a way that Moses could grasp and relate to. I believe that God appears to all of us in a way that we can grasp at any given time. This is what I also believe that our image of God changes as we grow spiritually. There was a book several years ago called the Shack. I don’t know how many of you remember it. But the main character Mackenzie Phillips’ daughter has been murdered and he receives a note from God inviting him the Shack where this happens. In the course of the story he meets a very unorthodox version of the Trinity. Now this book seemed to have people in two camps. People either loved it or they considered it heretical. The controversy mostly settled on the portrayal of God as a large African American woman who loved Mackenzie and guided him. Now what I loved about this book is this book took the premise that Mackenzie was so angry at God that God needed to appear to him in a form that he could accept despite his extreme anger at God. By the way Jesus showed up in jeans and a flannel shirt and the Holy Spirit reminded me of Tinkerbell which also made some folks nuts. And I understand that because their image of God is so different.
I think God knew exactly how to relate to Moses so that the exodus could continue and the people who would become the Jews would then develop the relationship with God that God desired. It just took a very long time and to be honest is still going on today. This is why I also can believe as the Franciscans believe that Jesus came not to change God’s mind about us, but to change our minds about God. To reveal to us that God is a God of love and that we needed a new way of relating to God and to each other.
Jesus summed it up in the answer to the question “what is the greatest commandment?” Love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind. And the second is like it, love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. But I get ahead of myself, for that is next week’s gospel.