Tuesday, October 24, 2017

A Glimpse of God

Exodus 33:12-23

Last week I spoke with how God wants to be in relationship with us. That there is open dialogue, give and take, forgiveness and love. That Moses even changes God’s mind. One of the mistakes that we might make after hearing that sermon is to think then that God is just like us as humans. That there is nothing particularly awe-inspiring about God.

Today’s passage in Exodus remedies that situation. Moses continues to be in relationship in God – they continue to be in dialogue, the give and take is still there, as are the forgiveness and love; but it is clear that this is by no means a relationship of two equals. Moses is still very much human, and God is still very much a power beyond understanding.

You see, Moses craves to see God. In other words he wants to know God more fully and more personally. He wants God to reveal all that God is, but God knows that Moses can’t handle that. For him to experience God that completely would destroy him. So God consents to let Moses catch a glimpse of him as he goes by.

Many of us also crave what Moses craves – we want to see God more fully. We want to experience God’s presence.

In an article Making It Personal Rabbi Adam Morris captures this really well! “The “evidence” of divinity may be all around us, but we human beings are wired to want to know God “personally.” We want God to speak to us as we speak to one another. We want to calculate God’s effect in our world the way we calculate the balance of our bank accounts. We want to be able to invoke God’s presence in the same manner that we can access the piece of news, information, podcast, at a moment’s notice. The story of Moses seeking to see God’s glory (Exodus 33) is part of the Jewish sacred story because it captures the inherent challenge in establishing a personal relationship with God.”[1]

What it shows us is that although we desire to see God, God is bigger than we can handle. We want to know God like we know another person, but that simply is not possible. God is not another person, God is the creator of all that is. That kind of power is truly beyond our comprehension. And yet even though God is so powerful, even though God is so far beyond us, God still wants to be close to us, to know us, and for us to know God. It is a great dilemma of faith – how can we be close to one so beyond us?

There are a couple of theological words that can be helpful for us in this: immanence and transcendence. Immanence is the idea that God is immanent –

the official definition is that the Divine presence permeates the material world, that God is here, that God is within us, close to us, in fact, that God is always with us. It is the idea that there are many ways that God is like us. God is like a father, God is like a friend, God is like a neighbor, a counselor, a mother holding us when we are afraid. We need to know the immanence of God. That’s what Moses is asking for here today. “Let me see your glorious presence.”

But God’s answer is that although God is willing to be there, God is also Transcendent. The official definition is that there are aspects of the Divine that are beyond the material universe,

beyond physical laws, separate from our physical universe. Transcendence is the idea that God is beyond us, is greater than us. It is a reminder that God is unlike us, not only outside of our experience, but outside of the entire universe’s experience. There is nothing in nature that is quite like God.

So although Moses wants to see God. That simply isn’t completely possible. Not only can we not handle seeing God, the universe itself cannot contain God. I know that this is very philosophical. But it is vital for us to understand, even if we don’t completely get it, that God is like us, within us, and close to us in some ways. But at the same time God is far beyond anything we can understand, unlike anything we have ever experienced, mysterious and awesome.

Perhaps it is like our experience of the sun. We know and experience the sun through the light and the heat that it gives us. We know that it is absolutely vital to our lives and everything depends upon it.

We sometimes crave sitting in its light, absorbing its warmth, feeling it upon our skin. We even want to know more about it, and are curious when things like eclipses take place. Yet, despite our desire to look directly at it, we cannot without harming our eyes. Because as much as we know that the sun is part of all that happens in our world, we also know that we could not stand next to it without being consumed in its fire. It is much more than a heat lamp.

Of course, God is not the sun. My comparison is just a weak attempt to explain how something can be close to us, part of us, and yet beyond us at the same time. So that is the dilemma of faith. How can we get closer to the one who made us? How can we see God more clearly and completely?

St. Anselm in his great treatise on God, in the very first chapter writes this: “Be it mine to look up to your light, even from afar, even from the depths. Teach me to seek you, and reveal yourself to me, when I seek you, for I cannot seek you, except you teach me, nor find you, except you reveal yourself. Let me seek you in longing, let me long for you in seeking; let me find you in love, and love you in finding. Lord, I acknowledge and I thank you that you have created me in this your image, in order that I may be mindful of you, may conceive of you, and love you; but that image has been so consumed and wasted away by vices, and obscured by the smoke of wrongdoing, that it cannot achieve that for which it was made, except you renew it, and create it anew. I do not endeavor, O Lord, to penetrate your sublimity, for in no wise do I compare my understanding with that; but I long to understand in some degree your truth, which my heart believes and loves.”[2]

Anselm captures strongly the difficulty of wanting to see God, and yet knowing that as humans, partly because we are sinful, partly because we simply are not wise enough to handle it, we are limited in our ability to see God. We are in the image of God, but we are not God. He also reminds us that, although we cannot find God, although we cannot see God, God can find us, teach us, God can reveal Godself to us.

So here is the amazing thing that happens in this scripture. Although God is so beyond us, God wants to grant Moses his wish. God wants to satisfy his desire to see God’s glorious presence. In fact, God wants all of us to be able to encounter God and draw close to God. This is part of the grace of God.

This song captured that well for me. You can sing along if you like, or just read and meditate on the words and pictures.

[video Who Am I – Casting Crowns]

And so God often grants us fleeting glimpses of Godself. We may catch a glimpse of God in nature, or in the compassionate actions of another person, in a spiritual moment while we are in prayer, or in a dream while we are asleep. Even Jesus is just a glimpse of God, the embodiment of God in a human form, as much as God can be contained by such.

Each of these glimpses is meant to help satisfy what we crave, that meeting with God, while also reminding us that God is far beyond us and bigger than we can ever capture with our smart-phone camera.

What this means in our personal spiritual lives is that God is willing to bless us with glimpses of God. But it also means that those glimpses may never quite satisfy us. There will always be mystery in God. It means that while we want a personal relationship with God, and God in some ways grants it, that relationship is one between the Creator of all that is, and one of the creations. It is not a relationship of equals, but despite that, it is a relationship of love. Love that wants dialogue, give and take, obedience and forgiveness. And that is complex, hard to explain, and yet wonderful to be part of every day!

As Rabbi Adam Morris says, “The Divine Being, regardless of its power and presence in your personal world, is still as mysterious and elusive as the Israelites found it.” And quite honestly, that is exactly what I would expect from God: to be like me, and yet to be beyond me, and that makes me love and awe God even more.

[1] Seasons of the Spirit, p. 121.
[2] Works of St. Anselm, tr. by Sidney Norton Deane, [1903], at sacred-texts.com, chapter 1

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