Face to Face

In the Name of God: Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier. Amen.

Some Christians claim that every word in the Bible is “literally true.” Others claim that it is “inerrant”—that is, that it contains no errors. Our own branch of Christianity makes the less extreme but still substantial claim that the Bible contains “all things necessary for the health of one’s soul.”

Whatever we think about the Bible, our beliefs are likely to be challenged when we read the Old Testament Lesson for today. It comes from the second book of the Bible, Exodus, and it reflects a very old speculation about the leader of the people of Israel and his relationship with Israel’s God.

In the Lesson, Moses is seeking guidance. Moses asks the Lord, “Show me your ways, so that I may know you and find favor in your sight. Consider too that this nation is your people.” The Lord replies, “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.”

The dialogue proceeds back and forth in this friendly vein for a while. Moses and God discuss the service the people of Israel will render to the Lord in the years ahead, and the mercy God will show to them when they fail to follow his ways.

But then there is what to us is a very strange request. And that request is followed by an even stranger reply!

Moses asks the Lord to show him his “glory.” The Lord refuses, saying that, “you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.”

So God then says to Moses, “See, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock; and 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; then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.”

What in the world do we make of this passage? The text seems to reflect an ancient belief that God was a physical being, and his form was similar to the human form.

So in this passage, God doesn’t have the characteristics that we modern people consider essential. We believe that God is a Spirit. God is present everywhere; he doesn’t appear in one place, nor does he have a front and a back like humans.

Indeed, the New Testament writer, St. John implicitly rejected the implications of the Exodus passage 2,000 years ago when he wrote, “No one has ever seen God…”

So how do we understand this passage today? What truth is there to be found in it?

Well, we have to recognize that it has elements that we consider archaic. They reflect an ancient picture of God that we no longer hold. We don’t believe that God walks around showing his back but not his face.

We can understand how people once had this notion of God projected out from their experience of human beings. But theological understanding progresses with time. Christians once believed that God made some races superior to others. Now we know that belief to have been tragically mistaken. And we will tend to put the belief that God is a large male into the same category.

But while we can’t agree with Exodus’s idea of God, we can understand the primitive desire that it addressed. Our ancestors in the faith wanted to get close to God. And they had learned from their experience of other human beings that if you want to get close to another person, there’s nothing better than seeing them face-to-face.

Is it any wonder that one of the most popular social media today is called, “Facebook?” While you must use the electronic medium of the Internet to contact your Facebook Friends, you at least know what their faces look like! And that aspect of this medium makes it a lot more personal.

So even though we recognize that God isn’t a physical being, we can sympathize with the spiritual yearning that the ancient Hebrews had. There are times when we, too, long to approach the Divine. Like the people of Israel, we ask, “How can we see God?”

Christians, though, have an answer to this question. The answer is suggested in the text we cited earlier. After noting that, “No one has seen God,” John goes on to add that Jesus Christ “has made him known.”

If you want to know what God is like, then, turn to Jesus. We can’t see God, but the experience that the disciples had of the incarnate son of God gives us insights into the nature of the divine.

After all, the disciples actually did know Jesus face-to-face! Their memories of him fill the four Gospels and for us, today, Jesus makes God known.

Of course, there remain severe limits to our understanding of God. Jewish mystics spoke of times when God seemed to hide himself behind a cloud—what they called, in Hebrew, the Shekinah. Medieval Christian mystics gave a Latin name to the God they called, Deus asconditus—the Hidden Divine who “absconds,” who remains forever beyond our grasp.

Yet, the whole reason God sent his Son to be incarnate in the physical world is to reveal the divine in human terms. Thus when Jesus compares himself to a mother hen who gathers her chicks under her wings, he is describing the depth of God’s love for us.

When Jesus says that the Heavenly Father knows the number of hairs on our heads, he is revealing the infinite range of God’s knowledge of us—and of all creation.

How far we are, then, from the man-shaped deity described in the Book of Exodus! Even so, there remains a profound truth in the ancient story of Moses’ encounter with his Lord: we can’t see the Face of God. There will always be a distance between God and human beings.

And if you think about it, that’s a good thing. The greater our God, the better.

A large supernatural man can’t do what the Eternal Creator of the Universe can do—what our God can do for us.

And now unto God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit be ascribed as is most justly due all might, majesty, power, dominion, and praise, now and forever. Amen.


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