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God pondered this, and replied to Moses, “I will grant your request, because you have found favor with me, and I know you by name. I will pass by you so that you can see me in all my glory, but you cannot see my face, for no one will see my face and live.”
So the next day, Moses went up to Mt. Sinai, with two stone tablets, as he had been instructed by God. And God was there, but God did not show Moses God’s face. But Moses saw God, fully present, as God passed by him. And there, Moses was given the 10 commandments by God, and there Moses etched them into stone.
This beautiful story has become a family joke for us—God would not show Moses God’s face, but God was ok to pass Moses by, so Moses could see God’s butt.
Maybe this says more about my family than about this story, but in my defense, Hebrew scholars, by the way, call this story, “the divine moon.”
This story, as irreverently as it may have been told today, it does illustrates an important point—the people of God are always seeking God’s face, even if they never see it in its fullness or completeness.
Our Psalm today is all about seeing the face of God. The people of Israel, with this story of Moses rooted deeply within them, long for the face of God. In fact, this Psalm is actually a liturgical hymn, sung as the people of God enter the temple. And, it looks like the hymn is broken up into three verses.
The first verse of the hymn is Psalm 24:1-2:
The earth and everything on it—
The world and all who live in it—
Belongs to God.
God built it on the deep waters,
Laying its foundations in the ocean depths.
In this first verse of the hymn, we hear references to “In the beginning”, our creation stories. God made all of this. All of this belongs to God. It’s the equivalent of the praising portion of our service. “Thank you, God, for being so big, for creating everything, for being in charge of this vast universe.” You can imagine hands raised, praises being sung, to God the creator.
The second verse of this 24th Psalm is the equivalent of the confession and words of assurance.
Who has the right to ascend the mountain of the Lord? Who is allowed to enter God’s holy place? Those whose hands are clean, and whose hearts are pure, who do not worship idols or make false promises.
God will bless them;
God their savior will declare them innocent.
Such are the people who seek the Lord,
Who seek your face, God of our ancestors.
We hear references in this verse to the story of Moses, ascending Mt. Sinai, to see a little bit of God, even if it was only the rear of God. Even if he couldn’t see God’s face, he needed to see something of God.
We also hear allusions here to the 10 commandments, and to the beatitudes. Some scholars have even wondered if this hymn inspired Jesus in portions of the Sermon on the Mount. “Those whose hands are clean, and whose hearts are pure, who do not worship idols or make false promises. God will bless them.” This sounds a lot like “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God”.
The second set of verse is the heart—the real meat—of this Psalm 24 temple hymn. Those who have pure hearts may ascend the holy mountain, may enter God’s sacred space, the temple. Those who are pure in heart may see God.
The third section of this Psalm 24 hymn is sung as the people of God process into the temple.
Fling wide the gates,
Open the ancient doors,
And the Glorious Liberator will come in!
Who is this Glorious Liberator?
The Lord, strong and mighty,
The Lord, victorious in battle!
open the ancient doors,
And the glorious liberator will come in!
Who is this glorious liberator?
The Lord God is our Glorious liberator.
This verse makes me think of the regal hymns we hear in Handel’s Messiah. “Who is the king of glory”. You can just imagine folks processing into the temple, inviting God, the glorious liberator to enter, opening the gates to allow the glory and the presence of God to enter in, and hoping, hoping, hoping, to catch a glimpse of God’s glory, of God’s face.
The people of Israel understood, just as we do, that you don’t really know someone until you see their face. You can hear a voice, and understand the inflection, the raising of the voice in anger and frustration, or the quiet voice of reflection and uncertainty. But, until you hear the voice in combination with seeing the face, I would argue you do not fully know someone.
Face to face reflects an intimacy, an openness to be vulnerable to another person. Face to face also admits to the other person that you are paying attention. You are focused an attuned to what they are saying, to the emotions they are expressing.
This is what makes long distance relationships such a challenge. This is why family and good friends try to get together over holidays. We need to see each other’s faces. We need to experience each other in a real way. Not just through social media or phone or text. We need to see the face of our friends and family members. We need to experience their presence.
Hebrew scholars actually define “seeking the face of God” as “seeking the full presence of God.” Moses longed to see the face of God, to fully experience God. But even he couldn’t handle all of God. Even Moses couldn’t handle seeing God’s face. God’s backside was as much glory as Moses could stand.
There are a couple of other places where people in the scriptures have said they have seen the face of God. Jacob, when he wrestled with the angel, said “I have seen the face of God, and lived.” But he saw the face of God, mediated by a human/angel form. And Hagar, the abused slave of Sarah and Abraham, saw the face of God, also in an angelic/human form. And she lived.
If Moses, who God loved and with whom God found favor, could only handle seeing the back of God, why do the people of Israel keep seeking the face of God? If Hagar and Jacob saw the face of God, but their experience is mediated by a holy figure, why do the people of Israel continue to long for the face of God? Do they wish to die in the presence of the holiness of God?
The desire to know God, to be in the presence of God, to seek God’s face, comes from a desire to understand. To know. To be more deeply connected to God.
The people of God continue to seek God’s face, knowing that it will never happen in this lifetime, knowing that we can’t handle it seeing the face of God, that it will be too much. But we seek God, hoping to catch a glimpse of the holy one in our seeking.
The moments that we see God on the mountain sustain us. The moments that we welcome God into worship, and God shows up, keep us going. The times we have called out to God, and asked for a sign, for God shows us God’s glory—in those moments when God shows up—we hold on to those moments. We cling to those moments when we have seen the mystery and the glory of God.
Three years ago, when my dad turned 60, my brother and I treated my dad to a trip to the Oregon coast. We went together to a place that had been very special to my parents, a place they went just a few weeks before my mom died. We did our typical Yoder things, we ate too much, laughed too hard, played too many card games. And we also took long walks on the beach.
The walking on the beach was the most important part of the trip. We all knew that the place we were was a special place for my mom, and the last time she was able to see the ocean. I wanted to see that last piece of ocean she had seen.
But I was not prepared for what I saw.
After walking about 100 steep rickety steps down to the beach, my family came upon hundreds of rock formations. I asked my brother, “What is this?”, not expecting an answer. He answered, “they are ebenezers.” I laughed at him. Because I had always thought ebenezers were larger glasses used for wine or ale back in the day. In the song, Come Thou Fount, the second verse says “Here I raise my Ebenezer, hither by thy help I’m come”. I always thought the author was raising a glass to God. But it turns out, the author of this hymn, and hundreds of people , had experienced the presence of God and had to erect a monument to the moment. Right there, in the place where they had seen a glimmer of God, they made a rock formation. Some of them were short little things—some incredibly tall. But I knew from seeing them, that because these unknown souls had experienced God on that beach, and because my mom had experienced God there, I too had a moment of resting in the presence of the holy one.
We may never see the face of God. No one has seen the face of God and lived. But, we still long for a glimpse of God, our glorious liberator. And when we catch it, we build an Ebenezer, we mark the occasion, we share it with others, we write about it, we sit in holy reverence, we dance and sing. AMEN
Mark 4: 21-39
July 1, 2012
Last week, I
spent five fun filled days camping in the hills of North Carolina at the Wild
Goose Festival. This is a festival of progressive Christianity, and a
glimpse of the ways that the church is changing and evolving.
interesting mix of people, ranging from recovering evangelicals to social
justice Mennonites to charismatics to post-Christian types.
One thing that
characterizes this event is that it is coming out of the emergent church
movement, which—in a nutshell—is a movement (especially among young people) to
re-imagine what church looks like. Now, I have a lot of questions about
the movement—I love the theology that’s emerging, but I have a lot of questions
about the worship style that’s coming out of it.
worship style tends to be a lot like you are hanging out in your friend’s
living room. It’s sharing stories, with a focus on a spiritual theme.
It’s not my bag. But—this is not a sermon criticizing the emergent
movement. What I appreciated about this casual worship style is that
people really opened up. They talked about times when they were really
down, and God was there. In God’s presence, it wasn't all warm
and fuzzy, it wasn’t perfect, it was still bad. But God’s presence and
God’s people were there, being the hands and feet of Jesus in broken and
There was a
transparency and openness at this event, an openness that perhaps comes with
living together in a field in extreme summer heat and humidity, sharing trips
to the water pump and ingredients for s’mores, and taking turns looking after
each other’s kids. It was a glimpse into the Christian community, as it
was intended when we love God, listen to the spirit, follow in the way of
Jesus, and bear each other’s burdens.
Our gospel story
today comes from Mark. It’s actually a series of stories, all of them
important to each other, and all of them connected. In this stories there
are four main characters—Jairus, the father of the unnamed girl; the 12 year
old girl who is ill then dies; the unnamed women with a gynecological problem;
religious leader and a rabbi, went to Jesus to ask for help. He managed
to get the attention of Jesus, who was surrounded by a large crowd. He
begged Jesus to help his daughter. Jairus got on his knees and begged
Jesus—in front of this large crowd—to heal his daughter.
that. A religious leader, a man respected by the people in his community,
on his knees in front of a controversial yet popular religious leader.
Jairus was desperate for help, and was willing to put his reputation on the
line to save his daughter’s life. And he had faith in Jesus, that Jesus
was really the one that could heal his daughter, at a time when she was about
to blossom into womanhood.
As Jesus and
Jairus were heading to Jairus’ home, Jesus was surrounded by people clamoring
to see him, to be near him. And Jesus, in the middle of this crowd,
notices that someone has touched the edge of his robe. Even in the middle
of all this attention, the crowd pressing up against him and demanding things
of him, Jesus managed to be open enough to notice the needs of someone
desperate enough to touch even the edge of his clothing. He noticed this,
the text says, because he was aware “that power had gone forth from him.”
Jesus asked the
crowd, “Who touched me?” Probably a dozen people could have answered, “I
did!”, but this woman knew what Jesus was talking about because she knew she
had been healed. She felt the power too. So, in front of the pressing
crowd, this woman told Jesus everything. She told Jesus that she had been
bleeding for years, that no one could help her, that doctors only made it
worse. She revealed her intimate, personal, reproductive problems in
front of this crowd of people.
And even in the
middle of this confession, Jairus’ friends arrived and told him that Jesus was
too late—that his daughter, herself about to be of child-bearing age, was
dead. But Jesus had faith and encouraged those around him to believe,
particularly Jairus, the Rabbi. He brought just a few of his disciples to
the home of Jairus, and when he arrived, there were already mourners
everywhere. It was a scene reminiscent of the raising of Lazurus.
Jesus told these
mourners, rather matter of factly, that the daughter was not dead, but
sleeping. And they laugh at him. Which is a much better reaction
than what I may have had. I could see myself lashing out at Jesus for
making such a ridiculous claim.
upstairs to where Jairus’ daughter was, took her by the hand and said to her,
“Talitha Kum”. Little one, get up. Now, as an aside, I’m struck by
the use of the Aramaic here. Talitha Kum. We know Jesus spoke Aramaic,
but the story of Jesus is written here in Greek. Why did the writers
leave this statement in Aramaic? I haven’t been able to figure out the
why, but from a cursory read it strikes me that speaking in one’s native
language the sweet words, “Little one, get up” is very parental, very pastoral,
very kind and personal.
This story is
actually 3 stories wrapped into one. It’s the story of Jairus, the story
of the woman who touched Jesus’ robe, and the story of Jesus healing Jairus’
daughter. And at the center of all of this is Jesus. Now, as a
preacher, there were about 100 different and wonderful directions I could have
gone with this sermon. But, today, in the context of Germantown Mennonite
Church, what strikes me about this story is that Jesus doesn't say
much. There’s a frenzy of activity, people trying to get near to Jesus,
people pressing against him, crying, or telling Jesus intimate things.
And in all of this, Jesus said little. He noticed when the woman touched
his clothing, and asked “Who touched me?” He gave her words of hope,
saying “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in
peace, and be healed of your disease.” When he heard that Jairus’
daughter was reportedly dead, he said “Do not fear, believe.” And when
Jesus saw the girl, he said to her, simply, “little girl, get up.”
The words from Jesus were simple. Simplistic, perhaps some could
say that they are simple-minded. But they come from a place of deep
listening, of being deeply in tune with what’s happening around him. When
Jairus came to Jesus, begging Jesus in front of the crowd to heal his daughter,
risking his reputation, his community standing, Jesus didn’t say
anything. He listened and followed Jairus to his home.
With the woman who was ill, Jesus said so little. He asked “who
touched me” and the woman told Jesus everything. She poured out her soul
to Jesus, and all he did was ask a perceptive question, a question that
indicated that Jesus was aware of himself and his surroundings, even when the
crowds were pressing up against him.
And with Jairus’
daughter, Jesus only had to say, “Talitha Kum”, and the power and gentleness of
those words restored her.
the Wild Goose festival, there is a forced community atmosphere that takes
places. There’s something about camping and heat and sharing stories that
creates an intimacy. But, the intimacy cannot and does not happen when
there is not vulnerability. I would not have gotten to know my neighbors
if I didn’t ask for a can opener, or if I my kids hadn’t asked the neighbor’s
kids to play frisbee.
The folks in
this story were vulnerable in this community—perhaps in desperation, thinking
that Jesus was their only hope, or perhaps with hope that Jesus truly had the
power to heal.
today as a community of believers. Some of us talk more than we listen,
others listen well and intuitively. Some of us come with heavy burdens—we
are grieving, we are sick, we fear the future, we are worried about our
finances, we are underemployed. We bring those burdens here, and here we
can share them. We share them, and those whose burdens are lighter gladly
pick them up, carry them for a while, and help the load feel lighter.
And as those
burdens are indeed lightened, we have stories of hope to share, stories of the
ways that God has been fully present in difficult situations. We testify
to them here too, offering words of encouragement to those who need them.
We say to our sisters, “Talitha Cum”, friend, get up. We stretch out our
hands and help our sister up. We say to our brother, “I’m listening to
you, and I’ll walk with you.”
This is what it
means to follow in the way of Jesus. It means not having it all together.
It means sharing our burdens with others, and holding each other up when we
have the strength. It means listening, it means being perceptive, it
means asking questions.
This is not a
contrived community, born out of being forced to be together in the heat and
discomfort of five days of camping. This is a real and voluntary
community of people. We choose this. Which means we choose it when
we are struggling, and when others around us are struggling too. And in
choosing this community, we covenant to walk with each other, to listen, and to
speak words of healing and hope to each other.
What can I do?