Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Faith's Underbelly - Living God's Presence

Preached on Sunday, August 27, 2017

Scripture readings: Exodus 33:12-34:9; Matthew 28:16-20

Photos taken around Imperial Beach and San Diego, CA
June 2017
When I was a student in seminary, there was another student named Gordon. One day, at lunch, Gordon shared a conviction of his that people could never properly understand the Bible, unless they knew Hebrew and Greek.
Gordon was a pretty scholarly guy, and I knew that he had more Hebrew and Greek in him than I did; so, naturally, I disagreed with him. I told him to the effect that if you read the Bible sincerely, and prayerfully, and humbly, that the Holy Spirit will help you to understand and to learn whatever you need to know.
Gordon disagreed with me. He and I argued about this for a while, and neither of us changed the other’s mind. I still haven’t changed my mind.
As I think back to that incident, I find myself wondering where on earth Gordon was coming from. For me, one of the primary realities of God is the constant effectiveness of God’s presence. God’s presence is constant and infinite. God’s presence is constantly effective, constantly working: meaning that the Lord’s presence is constantly available to those who seek it, and the Lord’s presence constantly works to give them the help they need.
The Lord’s presence enables us to understand his message in the Bible, according to our need. The Lord’s presence also enables us to do even greater things, and much harder and seemingly relentless things.
Moses and his people had all seen the power of God’s presence. In spite of this, God’s people, and even Moses, show a lack of faith in the constant, continual nature of God’s presence. And, although they knew how powerful God’s presence was, they lacked faith in its effectiveness.
The people were afraid that their problems were too big for God to handle. Moses was afraid that his people were too much for God to handle.
Was God truly stronger than their weaknesses and their sins? There are people who fear that their weakness and their sins may prove stronger than God effective presence. To live life in all its potential and fullness we need God’s presence to work effective within us. We need God to have his own way, and to not leave us to our own ways. “Lord, teach me your ways!”
Growing up, I had some weaknesses that my parents tried to cure, but I outlasted them. Were those weaknesses stronger than my parents’ love? Families deal with such things all the time.
God’s people had a knack for blowing their relationship with God. Since God, himself, claims to be “slow to anger” I think we can assume that we know only a fraction of the times his people got it wrong every day. Was their knack for betrayal and dysfunction stronger than God’s knack for being slow to anger? Did the anger of God that we so often read about really build up slowly?
Moses keeps bringing up the matter of God’s real constant and effective presence. Moses is clearly worried. Under many variations, he asks the Lord: “Teach me your ways. Show me your glory.”
Moses wanted to see, or to know, God clearly enough so that he, and his people, could securely rely on God not giving up on them until his will was done. Would the Lord truly promise to be with them always, and no matter what? Could Moses meet with the Lord in such a way, and with such intimacy and clarity, that he could truly and finally know for sure?
Do you want to know for sure?
So, what does Moses ask to see and know? And what do we read that he saw?
My knowledge of Hebrew has shrunk to a pitiful state, but maybe it would be good for me to give you an idea of the strangeness of what we are thinking about. The Lord told Moses, “You cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.” (33:20) Earlier, in verse fourteen, the Lord told Moses, “My presence will go with you.” (33:14) The interesting thing, here, is that the English word “presence” translates the Hebrew word “face”. “My face will go with you.” But it is a face that cannot be seen. The thing is, here, that the Hebrew word for “face” doesn’t stress the anatomical face with its measurable and physical features: eyes, nose, mouth. The word “face” means being close, and in contact, and directly present. A husband and wife can be face to face together in their room, in the darkness of night.
The word “glory” doesn’t mean appearance. It means heaviness. It means being heavy and weighty. How much weight you carry doesn’t mean what the scale says when you stand on it, or how much weight you can press or lift. The weight you carry sort of means how much push or pull you have in the world around you. God’s glory is a weight like that, and that glory is all powerful. God has infinite push and pull.
In the Bible, God’s glory looks like light. If you saw glory, you would see light. But God’s weight is made of something. The Lord tells us what it is that gives him so much weight, in chapter thirty-four, verses six and seven: compassion, grace, slowness to anger, abundant love, abundant faithfulness or truth, keeping love to thousands of generations (which is what the Hebrew means), forgiving wickedness rebellion and sin, punishing as long as four generations; but that’s comparatively short next to his love lasting for thousands of generations. That last phrase is interesting, isn’t it?
These represent the nature of God. They represent who and what God is, and they describe God’s glory. These are the anatomy of God that describes why God has all-powerful weight, and push, and pull. In God’s universe, God’s creation, these are the energy of God: God’s weight, God’s glory. These are God’s ways: how God operates and even how God expects us to operate.
These are God’s presence. These are what God looks like. It’s what Moses asked to see, and God showed it to him. God made all his goodness to pass before Moses, and that’s what Moses saw. (Exodus 33:19)
Moses’ face got lit up like a light bulb from catching these rays. God’s glory got put on Moses’ face and the people were scared by what they saw, in that light, when Moses came down the mountain.
Why would compassion be scary? Maybe God’s compassion is so much bolder and stronger than ours that it can be terrifying. We would all, perhaps, claim that we would like to see more compassion in this world, but what if that compassion scared us, once we really saw it for what it was?
Think about this on a human level. And this isn’t even a Christian example. In rebel held areas of Syria, there are civilian volunteers called “White Helmets” who are committed to saving and helping other civilians who get trapped and injured by bombings and other violence of war. The White Helmets stand for compassion for those in dire need, even though the White Helmets have a one-in-six chance of being injured or killed in the process of their saving the lives of others. That is some scary compassion.
What if you were called upon to supply some kind of scary compassion? God’s own compassion is scary in exactly the same way. Jesus says, “I will be with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20) When Jesus is with you, it means that a crucified person is with you. Of course, it also means that a resurrected person is with you, but is that any less scary, when you think about it?
Jesus was tortured to death for the sins of the world, and for your sins, and for mine. Think what it means to be guided through life by a person who was unjustly killed for you, as if he were the bad one, and that he got himself into that mess simply in order to die as a sacrifice for all the evil in the world.
He willingly became a bloody mess for everyone, and while Jesus waited in the garden for that to happen, and while he prayed in agony over it, he sweated blood. (Luke 22:44) Jesus found his own compassion to be that scary. That compassion is his glory, and he wants to share that glory with us and make it ours.
Moses prayed, “Teach me your ways.” It’s the same as asking “Show me your glory.” Jesus really says to make disciples by teaching the nations his ways, which means showing the nations his glory: “Teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28:20)
Jesus says, “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:44-45) Jesus prayed for his enemies while they were killing him on the cross, “Father, forgive them.” (Luke 23:34” Jesus is sharing his glory with us by showing us his ways and telling us to follow. “If anyone would come after me he must deny himself and take us his cross and follow me.” (Matthew 16:24) If we do that, we will shine with the glory of Jesus and his Father.
Moses prayed, “Teach me your ways so that I may know you and continue to find favor with you.” (33:13) Moses wanted to learn God’s ways, for himself and for his people, for two reasons. One reason was simply to know God more deeply (meaning to grow in his love and trust for God). The second reason was so that he and his people could continue to find favor with the Lord, by learning God’s ways and obeying them, making his ways into their ways.
Finding favor (as a whole concept in Hebrew) means giving pleasure, but it also means finding grace, and mercy, and the power to do the Lord’s will, by living the Lord’s ways in their own lives. Then the glory of the Lord would shine out from them, just as the glory of the Lord would shine out from Moses’ face.
The Lord’s compassion is to be our compassion. The Lord’s graciousness is to be our graciousness. The Lord’s slowness to anger should be our same slowness. And the Lord’s forgiveness being bigger than any anger should be true of us, as well.
Maybe God’s glory appears as light because our own world is often so dark.
Sometimes it’s said that seeing God’s back but not seeing God’s face means seeing what God has done, but not yet what God will do. Moses didn’t see what God would do in Christ. Moses saw that God’s love reached thousands of generations (well, for at least four hundred years of slavery in Egypt). Moses saw that God’s anger would only go for three or four.
God’s love was bigger than his anger, and this is exactly what God’s face was going to show in Jesus. The victory and the glory of the cross and the resurrection are more lasting, truer, more powerful, and more effectively present with us now, and for all time, than our own weakness, and our wrongs, and the whole world’s evil.

That is the presence of the Lord. That is God’s way. That is God’s glory, and God wants to make his glory your own.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Faith's Underbelly - Trusting a Faceless God

Preached on Sunday, August 20, 2017

Scripture readings: Exodus 32:1-24; Romans 1:18-25

Do you know what Moses did when he saw the golden calf?
He had a cow.
The Golden Calf is the start of a very long and complicated series of events that takes three chapters to tell. Even the language is complicated, in the process of translation. I will get to that in a little bit.
One thing is clear. God’s people did something wrong. The Lord, himself, puts what they did in the simplest possible terms. This is what he told Moses: “They have been quick to turn away from what I have commanded them and have made themselves an idol in the shape of a calf.” (32:8)
August 21, 2017 Desert Aire/Mattawa, WA
The Day of a Partial Eclipse.
But, in Hebrew, a bull could be called a calf for the first three years of its life. Truth is, a three-year-old calf is all bull. That young bull is the very picture of energy, strength, and male-fertility (meaning that he can generate life). In the ancient world, a young bull or a mature calf was a common picture for the gods.
What the people of Israel wanted was a god that they could picture. They wanted a god with a face. They wanted the God who saved them from slavery in Egypt, and who brought them through the desert, to have a face. So, they helped make an idol.
There are plenty of Hebrew words for idols. The Golden Calf points back to the Ten Commandments and the word “graven image”. Once again, it’s an image, a picture, something with a face.
According to Aaron, he pronounced the calf to be a picture of the Lord, even though making such a picture broke the commandments. Aaron declared a feast to the Lord, to be celebrated at the altar of the Golden Calf. He told the Lord’s people to celebrate, because he had given them what they wanted. He had given the Lord a face: the face he thought most fitting for the one God.
The people seemed to ask for more than one god. The Old Testament language about God presents a different way of thinking from ours. It’s a problem of translation, and the tradition of translation, and it involves concepts that we take for granted.
There’s even a problem with the word “Lord”. In our thinking, the term “the Lord” generally means something like saying “the Boss”. But it’s not usually that way in the Old Testament.
Usually, in the Old Testament, you see the word “LORD” in capital letters. Whenever you see that, it is there to translate an almost indecipherable phrase that means “I AM”. I am what? Just “I AM”. Perhaps we could think of “I AM” as God saying, “I AM whatever I want to be and I AM whatever you truly need me to be.”
The word translated as God is almost always a plural singular noun. “God” is, in Hebrew, almost always, the word “gods”, but the verbs, the action words, describing what God is and what God does, are almost always singular, but not always. The term that calls God “God” is a plural of majesty and fullness; like the royal “we”. God is One, but God is a bigger One than words can hope to express.
So, our problem in translating, and even in understanding the Old Testament, is judging, from the context, whether the Old Testament is talking about the one and only true God, or about more than one god, because they’re both plural. Did the people want Aaron to make them lots of pictures of lots of gods, like those worshiped in Egypt, or did they want a picture of the one Lord who brought them out of Egypt?
I was reading in the Book of Nehemiah, recently, and found him praising the Lord for not abandoning his people in the exodus. He says this: “Therefore you did not desert them, even when they cast for themselves an image of a calf and said, ‘This is your god who brought you out of Egypt….” (Nehemiah 9:18)
It stayed light, but the light changed.
In Nehemiah, both the English and the Hebrew versions cast God in the singular “singular”, and this tells us that Nehemiah thought that they had made an image of the one God who brought them out of Egypt. They made a statue, an image, a face of the Lord who was with them always, but never showed his face.
I’m glad that most of the Bible is not so technical and tied up with linguistics and ancient traditions of translation. But this story is.
So, what is it about faces? It’s about knowing, and bonding, and belonging, and loving. Babies study faces to bond, to belong, to know, and to love.
When the family of travelers used to be allowed into the waiting areas at airports, and you flew by plane to visit them, wasn’t it great to see their familiar faces, right there, just when you got off the plane. It was happiness, reunion, love, and comfort too: yes, comfort. You got comfort from their faces.
A familiar face gives you the comfortable message that you know what you’ve got. You know what to expect. There might be faces that give you the opposite message, and those make us uncomfortable.
Strange faces present us with an adventure. We don’t know what role a strange face may play in our future. Familiar faces offer us predictability and stability. Children may enjoy adventures, but they like predictability best. They want you to read their favorite story over and over again, and never try to change the words. They like family traditions and they like to participate in those traditions year after year. When someone goes missing from those traditions, we all feel the loss.
Shadows turned to eclipse shaped crescents.
So, when God’s people wanted to give the Lord a face, they wanted something we can all understand. We may wonder, deep down, why such a thing would be forbidden.
In our life with God, we want to know exactly who he is. We want to read his thoughts. We want to read his motives. We want to know what to expect. And we really expect predictability and stability. In a way, we want faith to be our anchor.
You remember, though, that faith isn’t pictured as an anchor. Hope is the anchor. For faith, hope, and love: love is a heart, hope is an anchor, and faith is a cross. The cross of Jesus is very comforting, but the cross you take upon your own shoulders to follow Jesus may not be comforting, and it’s certainly an adventure, to say the least.
The people who surrounded God’s people were people who had many gods, and each god had a picture, an image, a face. You could look at their image and see what they were there for. There would be a god of agriculture and food with a scythe, or a sheaf of wheat, or a basket of fruit. There would be a god of wealth and money with some symbol of treasure. There would be a god of fertility and sex with an appropriate pose. There would be a god of the home with a roof, or a cupboard, or a hearth with a flame.
If you were those people, you knew what your gods were for. You knew what to expect and how to get it. Their faces told you so.
Actually, we have the same gods today. You can see them in magazines, and in commercials, and on the internet. Those gods offer us ways to get what we want.
The Lord’s people often envied the people who had it simple with their gods. All those other people had an element of predictability and stability that God’s people weren’t allowed to picture and see, in their God. And their life of liberation from slavery, and their wandering in the desert, were not reassuring. They were actually well cared for, all along the way, but they didn’t feel safe. They never knew what to expect next.
Right there, you have a whole different level of faith required. It’s a challenging faith. It makes faith into an adventure at its best; maybe an extreme adventure. The parting sea, the pillar of cloud and fire that led them, the smoke and lightening on the mountain were the signs of the God of adventure.
There was a Promised Land that was promised to them. But they didn’t have any idea what that would be like, or when it would happen to them. The way to the Promised Land was the way of adventure and faith.
God’s people weren’t satisfied with that. It was too much for them. They wanted much less. They want what other people settled for.
This is the place to lay out the words of the Apostle Paul. “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse. For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles.” (Romans 1:20-23)
Photo of the Eclipse: by Laura Swift Engel
West Richland, WA, August 21, 2017
God’s people knew that their God was strong and always with them, but they wanted something less. They wanted something less overwhelming. They wanted something simple, and they weren’t getting it. The Golden Calf was simple, and easy, and it was fun.
When I say goodbye to kids, sometimes I tell them, “Have fun and be good.” I say that because, if they’re trying to have fun, then also trying to be good will hopefully keep them in line.
When God’s people tried to give God a face, they deliberately made him out to be less than he was. If people make you out to be less than you are, how does that make you feel? We read that God was angry.
We know that God’s people knew that he was more than whatever the young bull, or the mature calf, imaged to them: energy, and strength, and creative potency. Their God was so much more. They knew this, and yet they created an easy lie with a face.
How do parents feel when their children tell lies? When I was a kid, lying was one of the worst things I could possibly do. My parents rewarded my lies with anger, and that anger came from love. Lies are a breach of faith, and you can’t have a life of loving and thriving with lies and betrayals. Children need to learn that, and how do you teach them?
It’s the same with God’s people. It’s the same with us. If we make God less than he wants to be for us, if we design God to be our technique for getting what we ask for and what we want, if we design God to be our technique for safety, then we aren’t talking about faith. We aren’t even talking about God at all. We are talking about ourselves.
If we were to read through, into the next chapter, we would find a new kind of faith: the faith of Moses. “The Lord would speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks with his friend.” (33:11)
Photo of the Eclipse: by Laura Swift Engel
West Richland, WA, August 21, 2017
Now this says that it was face to face, but it was also God seeing Moses’ face, but Moses not seeing God’s face. Moses knew the Lord almost the same way as his people did, in terms of faces. Up to this time, all that Moses ever saw was the fire, and the cloud, and the smoke on the mountain. Moses had the faith that comes from being seen, and yet also from being the friend of someone who is something more than you can ever see: something without a face. That is the adventure which God wants for all of us.
When the Lord presented his anger to Moses, as from one friend to another, Moses knew something more than he was seeing or hearing. He heard the Lord called the Israelites “Moses’” people, and not his own, but Moses knew that there was more to God than this. He spoke to God after God’s own heart, which he knew by faith. Moses knew, by faith, that his own people were still, and would always be, God’s own people.
The Lord spoke of blotting out the people of Israel and making a new nation out of Moses’ offspring. Moses knew, by faith, as one friend knows another, that there was much more to the Lord than this.
Moses offered to let himself be blotted out, as the punishment for the sins of his people. Here Moses shows the faith of knowing more of the heart of God than you can see (as one friend knows another). Moses knew that one person might give himself as an offering for the sins of many.
There was no other way for Moses to know this than by faith. We know it was in the heart of God to enter this world as one man, in Jesus, and to offer himself for the sins of others: for the sins of the world. Moses knew something deep, deep in the heart of God that was infinite love. Even though he didn’t know the name of God as Savior, in Jesus, Moses belonged to that God, in Jesus.
Photo of the Eclipse: by Laura Swift Engel
West Richland, WA, August 21, 2017
The faceless face of God, for Moses and his people, shrouded in cloud and smoke, was love like lightening, or like looking into the face of the sun, even in eclipse. For people like us (such as we are in this world), with weak eyes and weak hearts, that faceless love was too strong, and too holy, to see and survive. But God would acquire a face of his own choosing, in his own time.
The Gospel of John says this. “No one has seen God, but God the One and Only, who is at the Father’s side, has made him known.” (John 1:18; New International Version)
Of course, we don’t know what Jesus’ face looked like, either. For us, by faith, Jesus looks like not what we want, but like what we truly need. And this is what Moses knew, and this is what God’s ancient people, in the exodus, needed to know. This is what we need to know.
There’s an author named Frederick Beuchner, who wrote this about belief and unbelief, and it’s not a stretch to apply this to faith. He says: “Unbelief is as much of a choice as belief is. What makes it in many ways more appealing is that whereas to believe in something requires some measure of understanding and effort, not to believe doesn't require much of anything at all.” (Frederick Beuchner, “Whistling in the Dark”)
The God without a face, who chose a face in Jesus, is our adventure. This God is the God who is visible to the eyes of a level of faith that knows that God is much more than we can see or hear. He only has no face because he is both our Promised Land and our Adventure.
There’s a poem I love, and I’ll end with that. The poem is “Christ Who Is Our Life” by Adah Richmond. Knowing that God is like this is what faith is about. The poem goes like this:
“Christ Who is our Life”

“I AM.” Who art Thou Lord?
I Am– all things to thee;
Sufficient to thine every need;
Thou art complete in Me.

I AM- thy Peace, thy Joy,
Thy Righteousness, thy Might;
I Am– thy victory o’er sin,
Thy Keeper day and night.

I AM-thy Way, thy Life;
I Am– the Word of Truth;
Whate'er thy lack, I Am– to thee
El Shaddai, enough.

I AM-thy Life within.
Thine everlasting Bread;
Eat of my flesh, and drink of My blood
I AM– what dost thou need?

-Adah Richmond

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Faith's Underbelly - Our Wedding Jitters

Preached on Sunday, August 13, 2017

Scripture readings: Exodus 19:1-19; Hebrews 12:18-29
Seeing that I’ve never been married, it might not surprise you to know what I think about this part of the Exodus. When I read this story about the promises made at the foot of Mount Sinai, between God and his people, it reminds me of a wedding.
Mission San Diego de Alcala
San Diego, CA
June 2017
Yes, it does. Actually, this is a very Biblical idea. The Old Testament has lots of references to Israel being the Lord’s bride. And the New Testament is full of references to the Church being the bride of Christ.
We believe that those two marriages are the very same marriage. But think of that idea: the idea of getting married to God; because that’s exactly what we are.
In Exodus, though, we see a problem with this marriage. We see a lot of fear and caution before the wedding. How crazy is that: feeling fear before your wedding? How could that possibly happen, when weddings are about love?
Maybe there are reasons to be afraid. You might find yourself wondering if you are actually capable of being a good husband, or a good wife; and, later on, wondering if you are capable of being a good parent. Perhaps, just as with the process of getting old, these things are not for the faint of heart.
Promises can be scary, can’t they? Maybe this shows our deepest need for God. It is the nature of God to make what’s called a covenant with his people. The promises we make in marriage are promises of the covenant kind. For me, that defines covenant as a relationship based on promises, which we find scary.
Some people define a covenant as a contract. I don’t think that’s right.
Contracts tend to be conditional. Marriage might be more of a contract when it includes a prenuptial agreement. But I don’t like hearing about that kind of marriage.
It’s true that the covenant between God and his people seems to have conditions. It sets conditions of obedience, but it really only has conditions for happiness. Obedience, or submission are necessary conditions for happiness. God’s people broke those conditions constantly. That’s the lesson of the Old Testament. That’s a lesson for us, because the Bible is a picture of God, and a picture of us.
The Lord began the covenant with his people on his own initiative. The only condition his people met, at that time, was that they were in great need of help.
Up until this point in the story of God recreating a human family for himself, all of the basic, fundamental promises, and qualifications, were made on his side. At the foot of Mount Sinai, the Lord told his people how he had started the next level of his promises. He said: “I carried you on eagle’s wings and brought you to myself.” (19:4)
God was starting the wedding by acting and proposing unconditionally. This is what brought them through the desert to Mount Sinai.
God knew what would follow. The wedding would follow. His people would say “I do”. They would make the promise: “We will do everything the Lord has said.” (19:8) But they never kept their promise.
Surely the Lord was not surprised by this. The Lord was well prepared enough to see to it that the happiness of the marriage would be conditional, but that the marriage itself would be unconditional. That’s how it worked out in the course of things. Marriage with God is like that, all through the Bible. In our marriage with God, there are conditions set for our happiness, but our marriage itself is unconditional. It will go on.
In Jesus, God won our hand in marriage by his death for our sins on the cross. There is the condition of saying yes, I do, but to truly see Jesus on the cross, unable to kneel at his proposal to you only because of the nails in his hands and feet: to truly see this, robs your heart of the power to say “no”. And you know that it’s always unconditional when you see that there is nothing you can do to adequately repay him for it. Your gifts to him can never equal his gifts to you.
Marriage is a new life for those who undertake it. In marriage, something has got to give; and, in this way, we could compare marriage to faith, as faith is shaped by Jesus. With Jesus, something within us has got to give. In Jesus, we die to ourselves and we rise to a new life.
It’s another way of looking at what Jesus meant when he said: “You must be born again.” (John 3:7) But I don’t think we understand what it means to say, “I’m born again,” unless we can say, “I’m married to Jesus.”
Are you married to Jesus? Can you remember if you got the wedding jitters before you went through with it? Have you exchanged vows with God?
Here’s one of the questions I ask the bride and groom in a wedding. The words are the same for both, except for the personal pronouns. “Will you pledge your loyalty to him, in all love and honor, in all duty and service, in all faith and tenderness, to live with him and cherish him, in plenty and in want, in joy and in sorrow, in sickness and in health, as long as you both shall live?” Are you married to the Lord? Are you married to Jesus?
The problem is that, in Exodus chapter nineteen, something seems wrong with the proceedings of the wedding. There was fire on the mountain, and a dark, gathering smoke, and the flashing of lightening, and some sort of trumpet-like sound that got louder, and louder, and louder. The ground shook. Scurries of rock clattered down the sides of the mountain above them. The Lord was coming to their wedding! What does this say about God?
There’s violence in the long course of this story. There were the plagues in Egypt, and the drowning of the Egyptian army in the Red sea. God’s people have had to fight battles, and face thirst and hunger. It’s been a hard journey, so far, and there’s so much more to come. God has gotten angry with his people. God has gotten angry with Moses.
We don’t know what to think of this. God’s people didn’t know what to think, and it terrified them. Then they and we, both, think of the same thing. We think that God is dangerous, and that following God is dangerous. We think of God’s anger. That fire and lightening could turn out to be quite effective weapons.
Jesus seems like an antidote to the anger of God, but even Jesus got angry, and not just with the money-changers and the Pharisees. Jesus got angry at his own disciples. When Peter protested about the inevitability of the cross, Jesus got mad and said, “Get behind me, Satan!” (Matthew 16:23) But we hope he’s gotten over that, now that he’s been crucified and resurrected.
When I was five, I stuck a wire coat-hanger in a wall socket and got a painful shock, and I screamed really loud. I remember my mother running from the kitchen, and she saw what I had done, and then she screamed at me, and then she hugged me, and then she scolded me, and then she got ice to put on the burn: the big red welt that ran across my hand.
Her screaming and her scolding were a part of her love for an endangered and accident-prone child: which I sort of have been all my life.
There were many other times when I did something I knew I shouldn’t do, when I deserved to be screamed at, or yelled at, by my parents. They did this because they loved me.
The whole story of the Lord freeing his people from slavery, and leading them through the desert to the Promised Land, is a story of love. In spite of his frequent anger with them, and his punishment of them, the Lord never left them. The Lord saw them through to the end of their journey, and beyond. The Lord is with his people, Israel, still.
What other tiny nation of people has maintained its existence for four thousand years? It’s a miracle. It’s love.
God is with us in the same way.
The Letter to the Hebrews (meaning the Hebrew Christians) talks about two mountains. It tells of the scary mountain of Moses, in the Exodus, and the happy mountain of Jesus, called Zion.
It’s very strange that one of the happy things on the happy mountain is also a very scary thing. The scary thing is blood. The blood of Jesus has gotten on everyone who enjoys life with Jesus on that mountain.
There was a time when Mount Zion had crosses nearby, and Jesus hung on the cross. There wasn’t smoke, but there was darkness. Mount Zion shook, just like Mount Sinai, when Jesus sacrificed himself for us there. It was scary, but it was love, and it was a miracle.
We live here on Mount Zion with our spouse, Jesus. And we live here reliving that scary thing. We meet with Jesus as he now is, crucified, and risen, and full of glory, and we receive him into ourselves. We eat and drink, and he comes into us through that eating and drinking. Jesus says that we take into ourselves his body and his blood in the Lord’s Supper; and, so, we live the good news because of a scary thing. We die and we rise with him.
Saint Augustine, back in the late fourth and early fifth century, said that this is a miraculous food. Everything else that we eat and drink we change into ourselves. The food and drink of the Lord’s Table, the body and blood of Jesus, turn us into him.
This changes us. Something gives way. There are so many ways and opportunities to get more of Jesus and grow in our union with him: our marriage with Jesus; two lives growing together, two hearts beating as one.
The love of God is like the sun that shines upon our world. There would be no life without the sun. But the sun is dangerous. It can make you sick. It can even kill you. The sun can blind you, because our eyes are too weak to look at it, and truly see it, and survive.
Only a total solar eclipse can enable us to look into some of the mysteries of the sun. But, even then, the sun will destroy our sight, unless our eyes are properly protected.
Love thundered, and lightninged, and burned, and smoked on Mount Sinai, but it was all love. Perhaps the smoke made it possible for God’s people to see a bit more of him than other ordinary people. The smoke was like the moon that shields us from the sun in its eclipse.
We think that we want love, and we do. We are made for love that never ends. We are made to experience miracles of grace and love. We are made to love, and to be loved, forever.
But our love is weak. We often know this in the marriages and families that form our lives. Love requires great emotional, spiritual, mental, and even physical efforts from us. Sometimes we rise to them. Even when we do so, we see that giving more would be better. Sometimes we know that we have not, or cannot, meet the needs that call to us. Our love may prove very strong indeed, but our fall from what we were created to be has made our love too weak to see, face to face, the holy love that has created each one of us. Our fall has made our love too weak to see all of the love God wants to give to others, and to our world, through us.
The warnings against getting too close were not warnings of anger, but warnings of love. It’s as if the sun could speak, and thunder, and shake us, so that we knew better than to look straight at it.
There are discoveries and understandings that we are not ready for. God, in his love, has the power to give us what we need (and what we are ready for) in knowing and seeing him. That’s why we are told, in another place in Hebrews: “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith.” (Hebrews 12:2)
The dangers of our going too far in, or seeing too much that we’re not ready for, are like the dangers of a baby who has immune deficiencies, who needs the shelter of a bubble, and the parents can only hold their child with gloves that are extensions of the bubble, through which they put their arms and hands. It’s what their child needs, and so they do it. Jesus is like the gloved hand of God reaching through and holding us; getting as close to us as our current health will allow.
But there’s more. The message of Mount Sinai had the power to warn and to teach God’s people, and that message was a gift of love and grace. It’s grace to have good warnings and good learning. But learning may not transform us. The message of Sinai could not transform God’s people, and they showed this all the way through their history.
God becoming one of us, in Jesus, his living our life in our own flesh and blood, his living as a servant, his sharing the darkness of death, his dying for our sins, and conquering sin and death for us: this is the grace that enters us, and changes us.
Only grace can complete us, make us whole, fulfill us, and bring us to what God has created us for; what God has in mind. The old mountain is actually a good place, a good covenant, a good promise, but the mountain we live on with Jesus is so much “better in every way”.
Grace enables us to approach and serve. Grace empowers us to be bridges and mediators of grace to the people and the world around us. That’s what it means to be “a kingdom of priests” like Jesus. Priests are mediators. They are go-betweens.
Grace, in the blood of Jesus, bridges the gap we could never cross by ourselves. It empowers us to become what we could never fully be on our own.
There was a wedding at the foot of Mount Sinai. It was a wedding of God with his people. Well, it was not the full-fledged wedding. It was only one of many rehearsals for the real thing. We have the real thing in Jesus, the real wedding that gives us a new life.
The truth is that the wedding still isn’t finished. We are just in the process of making our vows. When God’s plan for this world is complete, Jesus will step over to us and lift the veil for a kiss. Then all the jitters will be over.
Right now, it can still be awkward. We’re in the middle of our vows. But this is the time for us to say: “I’m doing it! We’re doing it together! We’re getting married together.”

We’re marrying Jesus now. Let’s get into it. Let’s live into it.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Tangent II

The airish* people have their charm,
The leprechaun his treasured gold,
The fearsome jinn his wishes three,
The elven maid her snares of love,
But they are fleeting as the breath
Of coolness on an August eve
(No more substantial are their gifts).
Our quest for magic drives us on
To seek in flesh, and blood, and more,
A fuller magic than before.

Written ‘79

*”Airish” people is archaic English for “aerial” beings, such as sprites, etc..

Tangent I

How foolish I am,
Have I lost my heart?
Mislaid it somewhere,
Until all my art 
Is spent in searching,
And not in giving?

written 1979