Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The Grace of God

This is a sermon I preached at Millbrook Baptist Church in Raleigh on October 19, 2008. I was filling in for their senior pastor Rev. Andrea Dellinger Jones who I met in the summer of 2008.

The text is from Exodus 33:12-23.

Elsie Bailey was a teacher. Not just any teacher--a good teacher with a passion for helping her students to learn. On the first day of a class, Ms. Bailey stood before her students and helped them create a list of rules by which to run their class. Raise your hand before speaking. No passing notes. Keep your hands to yourself. No cheating. You know—those basic rules of respect in a classroom. Then Ms. Bailey made up some rules for herself. She promised to give her students the tools they needed to succeed in the sixth grade. She promised to teach them and give them her best for the school year.

And so, Ms. Bailey and the class would learn and grow together. It wasn’t always easy. Sometimes Ms. Bailey knew when to help a student or two out of a rough spot. When a student hadn’t gotten any sleep because the police were in their home investigating domestic violence, Ms. Bailey allowed homework to be turned in late. When a student couldn’t concentrate because she missed breakfast, Ms. Bailey gave the girl part of her lunch to eat that morning. It was those little things—those acts of grace—that set Ms. Bailey apart. The class kept the rules—they had learned them by heart because they would recite them together every day. Ms. Bailey kept the rules set for herself, too. And both students and teachers had a lot of faith in each other.

One day though, something happened. Some of her students got a copy of a test and figured out all the answers. On test day, everyone in class that day had all the answers, except one boy who had been absent the day before. Suddenly, Ms. Bailey had to confront the class who broke the rule not to cheat. Ms. Bailey took away the field trip that the class had planned because she felt that there had to be some consequence. Things got messy. Parents got upset; they turned up the heat on the principal of the school. The parents knew what a teacher was supposed to do. They weren’t very sure about Ms. Bailey’s methods—after all, no teacher had ever taught quite the way Ms. Bailey did.

Ms. Bailey was frustrated. Part of her wanted to just forget the rules she had made for herself since the students didn’t seem to care about keeping their rules. But that one boy now—he didn’t cheat. Robert was the only one that wasn’t making her upset. Ms. Bailey was going to let him and his mother go on the field trip with her. And she told Robert this plan. However, Robert knew better than to accept such an arrangement. He didn’t want to be singled out. As a student, Robert was kind of shy and often stuttered as the words came. He didn’t have all the right answers, and sometimes he lost his temper with his classmates. But in this situation, Robert was very thoughtful. He found courage to tell Ms. Bailey that he didn’t want to go on the field trip alone. Robert wanted his teacher to remember the rules she had made for herself and forgive the class. Perhaps her saving grace would change the hearts of a class in turmoil. So an extraordinary thing happened—Ms. Bailey changed her mind. The class and Ms. Bailey wrote the rules down again, and some peace was made with the teacher, with the students, and with the parents.

In our passage, the Israelites were in a bad situation. After God had led them out of Egypt, they just couldn’t stay on the straight and narrow path. God caused the Egyptians to free the Israelites—this is the redemptive act of the whole Old Testament. They saw God through Moses part the waters of the Red Sea, and they walked through on dry land. How much rejoicing—they were free! Glory be to God, they sang.

God sent manna and quail and eased their hunger. Water came from the rock and quenched their thirst. God told Moses to consecrate the people—the Israelites belonged to God, and God belonged to the Israelites.

Then they messed up.

While Moses goes to Mt. Sinai to receive the rules to live by—not just God’s commandments but also rules for daily living, building the tabernacles and ark, festivals, etc.—the Israelites are down in the valley making an image of a golden calf. The Israelites wanted a god (little g) to go before them—forgetting all about the God (big G) who already went before them as a cloud by day and pillar of fire by night.

As a child, I remember learning about this story of the golden calf and thinking of how the Israelites really blew it. How could they forget the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob so fast? What were they thinking?

But if you know the culture of this time, you know it wasn’t uncommon for people to have those forbidden graven images. The Egyptians did it. The Canaanites. You can almost see God in this passage as a mother figure here—shaking a finger and asking, “If the Egyptians and Canaanites jumped off a cliff, would you do it too?” God intended something special for the Israelites. They were to be God’s chosen people. There was a covenant.

Covenant. It is not something we understand very easily. The obvious example we have in our personal lives is a marriage covenant. Two people pledge to be a family through better or worse, richer or poorer, in sickness or in health…. Yet people do change and marriage covenants get broken. No. It is difficult for us to understand this covenant between God and the Israelites. This covenant was a collective covenant—made with a community, not between individuals. The Israelites were born into it. They didn’t have to accept God and be inducted or baptized—their very births gave them a special place in Gods’ kingdom. And at this place with Moses on the mountain, the Israelites at the bottom of the mountain almost lost the covenant God had made with them.

God wanted to start over and let Moses be the one, the only one, who has a covenant with God. But Moses didn’t accept that. He probably knew about his history all too well from the stories his mother told him. While sitting in her lap, do you think Moses’ mother told him of how Abraham left his people to go to a land that God would show him? Did Moses and his mother ever look at the stars and talk about how the Hebrews had flourished in Egypt because they were Abraham’s descendents? I bet Moses knew his family history. There were even some stories of failure—when anger, fear, or doubts clouded the judgment of those same ancestors. And so, on this mountain, Moses, the man who met God in a burning bush and told God that he wasn’t eloquent enough to speak to Pharaoh, Moses speaks to God in this Exodus passage of our Old Testament lesson. And a most extraordinary thing happens—God’s mind is changed. Moses convinces God not to give up on the Israelites. And God listens and agrees to renew his covenant with the Israelites.

God is pleased with Moses and allows Moses to see the glory of God in the end of the passage. What is this glory? It is forgiveness. It is grace through the renewal of the covenant. And all this is written on God’s face. Faces are funny things. Even when we lie about how we are feeling—“how are you today?” “fine”—we can still sometimes look at someone’s face and know the truth because many people are expressive. Yes, some people do put up masks; but you know that when they are most genuine, their expressions will be on their faces. My three year old son has a speech delay and goes to a speech therapist to help him work on his communication skills, yet he is the most expressive child with his facial gestures. He has learned some impressive vocabulary words thanks to the show WordGirl on PBS. The words are flabbergasted, glum, and pensive. He can’t tell me the meaning of these words—he doesn’t speak in sentences yet—but he can show me with his face. Flabbergasted. Glum. Pensive. Father Joseph Hallit explains that “In effect, the face is the meeting point of the person. It is the person. It is at once that which sees and that which is seen…. God…sees, He foresees, He provides. The glance of God is tied to His creative Word right from the beginning of Scripture. The divine Word creates. His face looks and sees that it is good, that it is beautiful.[1] And the Psalms are full of references to God’s face. The psalmist writes, “My heart says of you, ‘Seek his face!’ Your face, Lord, I will seek. Do not hide your face from me” (27:8-9b). Yet no one could see the face of God and live. That is why Moses only sees God’s back. Sin prevents us from looking at God face-to-face.

It has been a few years since I have seen The Wizard of Oz, so my memory may not be the best at recalling it. But I remember watching it as a child knowing that the goal of Dorothy and her friends was to see the wizard. You remember what he is like when they first see him, right? A giant, smoky head bellowing commands. Dorothy, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and especially the Cowardly Lion are all very afraid. You know how the real wizard in the movie is revealed at the end? It is his back that is seen first. And when you see his back, things aren’t quite as frightening. I’m not suggesting that the Wizard is like God, but there is a big difference in seeing someone’s face and seeing someone’s back. Personally, I wonder how the Psalmist could ask to see God’s face. I think we would be a lot like the Cowardly Lion, turning tail and running and crashing through a window to get away.

There are other things to remember as you approach this Old Testament text. We need to remember the intended audience. While the stories of the Torah—the first five books of the Old Testament—were oral for many years, by the time of the Babylonian exile the stories were in danger of being forgotten. God’s chosen people had been scattered. Synagogues had been formed as schools to help the people remember and to teach the children. And the stories were written down. And as they were written, the scribe could not help but interpret the old stories according to the current circumstance of being in exile.

If we look at this passage of scripture as a Jew in exile, we know that the nations of Israel and Judah failed. While they were prosperous for a while, corruption and disobedience to God had entered the nation. They were conquered just like the prophets said would happen. Never to see their homeland again, many Jews still wanted to follow God. This story of Moses and the changing of God’s mind probably gave them a lot of hope. After all, they wanted an end to the exile, and God’s mind could be changed—it had happened before. Who really knew what these Jews in exile were thinking as they read the newly written story of Moses on the mountain? We can only speculate. Did these people seek God’s face? Did they yearn for a renewal of the covenant even then when they were so far away from home?

As Christians, we can take this Scripture one step further. We have the example of the son of God, Jesus. Jesus’ face was seen. Since he was the incarnate God, it was possible to see his face. Now what are you thinking about when I talk about the face of Jesus? Is it that picture you’ve seen of the white-skinned Jesus with flowing hair looking slightly up toward heaven. Perhaps a halo of light behind his head. Without getting into a discussion on the features of that picture, I would ask you to picture the qualities of this Jesus instead. I imagine that Jesus had pleasant features that conveyed hope and peace to all he met. I even believe that the people Jesus met came away from the meeting with changed lives as well; they had seen the glory of God in Christ Jesus—and those stories are in this book, too.

One story in particular is the story of the transfiguration. You know the story. It is the one where “Jesus takes his disciples Peter, James, and John up on Mount Tabor to pray. While there the disciples are not expecting to glimpse the mystery of the Incarnation. How many times had these disciples prayed with Jesus in the months or years they followed him? Dozens? Hundreds? And never before had the appearance of his face changed or his clothes become dazzling white. Never before had Moses and Elijah appeared with him in glory. So it is hardly surprising that Peter, James, and John are half-asleep as Jesus prays through the night. Only when they fully awaken do they come face to face with mystery: they see Jesus in his glory, a glory that is his from before time, but which has been veiled from their sight until this moment, when they finally see him as he truly is…. [The disciples] know that the cloud signals the presence of God, and they know that no one can look on God and live. It is not simply because we are sinful and God is holy. No, it is because God is Real, and our finite minds can neither comprehend nor our frail bodies bear the eternity and majesty—the utter real-ness—of God.”[2]

God’s covenant was made real for us in the sacrifice of Jesus. As Christians, we believe that God will abide in those who accept Jesus as Savior. If we were to actually see the face of God, we would have no choice but to follow God. Instead God has given us free will and a choice to make concerning who we will follow. That choice to follow Jesus is our covenant. Once we choose to follow Jesus, we have the promise that God will never leave or forsake us. Just as Moses interceded for the Israelites, Jesus is our intercessor—he goes to God on our behalf. All of our sins can be forgiven, and we can have new life and a new promise of eternity.

While on this earth, we seek God. We can even say that we seek God’s face. Despite our sin, we know that there is a longing for more, a longing for God that exists. To the one battling depression who wonders if there is any hope out there, to the one going through a painful separation from a husband or wife, to the one who is insecure about whether he or she will be employed in the coming weeks, to the one who is worried about that bully at school—all these people and others like them are trying to make sense of their reality. When we turn to our Church, when we turn to the Scripture, we are like the psalmist calling out to God. We are the ones who want to remember Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount—“blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God” (Matt. 5:8).

In the Chronicles of Narnia series of books by C.S. Lewis, there are some really good stories that are told. Lewis first and foremost wrote the stories to stand as they are; but if you have encountered them—through reading or through the couple of movies that are out—you know that the Christian story is also being told. Aslan, the character in the story that represents Christ, is the focus of all of the stories. At some point in each one of the seven books, different characters must meet Aslan face-to-face. Every single time, they have their fears. In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, there is a scene where the Beavers are telling the Penvensie children that they must go and see Aslan. Mr. Beaver says, “You’ll understand when you see him.”

“But shall we see him?” asked Susan.

“Why, Daughter of Eve, that’s what I brought you here for. I’m to lead you where you shall meet him,” said Mr. Beaver.

“Is—is he a man?” asked Lucy.

“Aslan a man!” said Mr. Beaver sternly. “Certainly not. I tell you he is the King of the wood and the son of the great Emperor-beyond-the-Sea. Don’t you know who is the King of Beasts? Aslan is a lion—the Lion, the great Lion.”

“Ooh!” said Susan, “I’d thought he was a man. Is he—quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.”

“That you will, dearie, and no mistake,” said Mrs. Beaver; “if there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly.”

“Then he isn’t safe?” said Lucy.

“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver; “don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t’ safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”

“I’m longing to see him,” said Peter, “even if I do feel frightened when it comes to the point.”

And the children in the story are frightened when they see Aslan face-to-face. I have read these stories to my boys several times in the past few years. And I was trying to think if there was a time in the seven books that the ones meeting Aslan were not afraid. And I don’t think that there is a place where one of the characters isn’t worried about that meeting. It is a serious thing to look on that face. To know that we are known by God—all of our shortcomings are there before us.

Where does that leave us today? As a body of believers in Christ, we know a truth about God that we need to share. For all of this talk about the face of God is really about the grace and forgiveness that God offers to all of us. God wants to make a covenant with you. The rules are in this book, in the Bible. We are called to follow Jesus and live our lives by the things Jesus said. And in that covenant, God offers the same free gift of grace that God offered when he renewed his covenant with the Israelites so long ago. There are rules we must keep and there is a promise given to us that one day we will see God face-to-face. Look in your heart. Is God trying to make this covenant with you?

In the baptist church today, there is a time of response. You know what is going on in your hearts. Sometimes our responses are private, and sometimes they are to be made public. As we sing our hymn of response “God of Grace and God of Glory,” I invited you to continue to respond. If there is someone who needs to make a public profession of faith or to renew his or her covenant with God, you can do so at this time. If someone would like to unite with this church to help him or her be accountable to the covenant, they may come forward as well. The invitation is to all of us though. God knows our hearts even as we seek to look upon God’s face.

Please stand as you are able and join with me in singing hymn number 420—“God of Grace and God of Glory.”

[1] http://www.melkite.org/OES-FaceofGod.htm

[2] “Waking to Mystery” by Kimberlee Conway Ireton in Weavings: A Journal of the Christian Spiritual Life. Vol 21, No. 1, Jan/Feb 2006.