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


  1. Beautiful sermon to go along with the amazing eclipse photos. My husband and I chose to see the eclipse at the Monastery and attended the 12:00 service there. One of the readings was this: 2 Corinthians, Chapter 4.

    1. I love 2 Corinthians and chapter 4 and 5.