Tuesday, December 27, 2016

What God Reveals to Us

Audio of this sermon is available here.

Try explaining heaven to a six-year-old whose grandmother has just died. Try telling a heart-sick teenager what it really means to love someone. Try describing nuclear fusion to an elementary school science class. When we try to tell someone something new and complicated, we use a certain kind of logic to get our point across--a mixture of analogy and rationalization that fills in the picture but often fails to convey the whole truth. Sometimes, like in the case of nuclear fusion in an elementary school classroom, that's because our audience isn't able to understand the fullness of what we're trying to tell them. In other cases, like telling anyone about heaven, it's because we ourselves don't really know what it is that we're trying to convey. And, still, in other cases, like trying to tell a teenager about love, we might know what we're talking about, and our audience might be up for the lesson, but, even though we've experienced it first-hand, it's hard to put something like true love into words.

The Bible is full of its own kind of logic--a mixture of analogies and extrapolations and rationalizations and projections that are our attempt and God's attempt to communicate God's word in human words. We use human words and human images and human stories to paint a picture of who God is. We trust that individuals and communities are inspired by God's Spirit as they discover those particular images and stories, but there's still a particular human logic behind it all. If an image or a story isn't consistent with the rest of what we know about God, then it doesn't stick. It gets cast aside as "heresy" or simply as a bad story not worth repeating. If it seems to illuminate further what we already know about God, then it gets recorded and propagated and enshrined as a meet and right description of the Almighty.

We see some of that logic at play in Exodus 33:18-23, when Moses asks to see God's glory. This comes near the end of Moses' life. Remember that Moses had a special relationship with God. He went in and spoke with God face to face, and then he came out and conveyed what God had said to the people of Israel. If ever there was someone who got close to God, it was Moses. And still, as we read about in Exodus 33, there are limits even to Moses' access.

Moses said to God, "Show me your glory, I pray." And God responded, "I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you the name, `The Lord'; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. But you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live." This was an amazing offer. God was willing to let all of his goodness pass before Moses. God was even willing to proclaim God's own ineffable name "The Lord" or YHWH to Moses. Think back to the Lord's encounter with Jacob as they wrestled at the Jabbok. To grant to another one's name was a concession of remarkable access, and God was willing to give this to his beloved servant Moses. But Moses was not allowed to see God's face. No one can see God's face and live. "But," God said, "if you hide in the cleft of the rock, I will place my hand over the cleft until after I have passed by you, and then you can look upon my backside--the remnant, the reflection, the afterglow of my glory."

What a strange story! Why was it written like this? What does it tell us about God? What does it tell us about Moses? That God would allow Moses to see his hind parts but not his face is a remarkable description of God's glory--a fullness and magnificence that cannot be apprehended by mere mortals like us--even someone like Moses. There are certain impassable limits to what we can see and know about God.

And then there's Jesus, God's incarnate Son, the Word-Become-Flesh, who dwelt among us and showed us the Father's glory. John the Apostle and Evangelist, whose feast we celebrate today, seemed to understand better than any of the other gospel writers that Jesus was not only God's anointed Son, the savior sent to redeem the world. John understood that Jesus was the fullness of God's ineffable glory spoken, translated, conveyed to humanity in flesh. That which no one could see and live has come to live with us as one of us. As we read at the end of his gospel account, John was a young man who lived long enough for the Holy Sprit to put some of these remarkable pieces together. It took a while for the followers of Jesus to recognize that in him the fullness of God had come to dwell. But, once they saw it, people like John wrote and taught and preached the good news of salvation in a whole new way.

We still believe that God's glory is too much for human beings to see and contemplate. God is infinite, and we are finite. Yet we see in Jesus that contradictory yet life-giving truth that that which is infinite comes to be circumscribed in the womb of Mary, comes to live and breathe in the person of Jesus, comes to die and rise again in the cross and empty tomb. Through it all, we're still just human beings using human logic and human wisdom and human language to make sense of a God we cannot comprehend. Yet, through it all, God reveals himself to us over and over again--most fully and completely in the person of Jesus. God does not wait for us to figure it out. God comes to us and shows himself to us, hind parts and all.

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