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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
What can I do?