Seeing God

Loraine MacKenzie Shepherd                                                              Oct 18, 2020

Exodus 33:12-23

We have journeyed with our Hebrew ancestors over the past few weeks as they fled from slavery in Egypt, crossed the Red Sea, and wandered in the parched wilderness where they ran out of both food and water. They began to wonder if they would ever arrive in the so-called land of milk and honey. Was this just a mirage of wishful thinking?

The Israelites also began to mix with the local people whom they met on the way. The locals seemed to do ok—in fact, better than they were doing. The Israelites were introduced to the customs and beliefs of the local people, who had statues of gods. Their gods were tangible—they could be seen. They were very much present to the people. Had the Israelite wilderness wanderers been mistaken in their worship of a God who was invisible? Perhaps their God didn’t even exist.

Moses heard their rumblings and led them to the foot of Mt. Sinai where Moses told them to wait for him while he went up the mountain alone in retreat. While Moses was receiving multiple laws and guidelines, including what became known as the 10 Commandments, the people grew restless. Our scripture tells us that Moses was there for 40 days—which is a euphemism to mean a very long time. Eventually, they gave up on Moses, believing him lost for good. They turned to Aaron, asking him to make gods for them, similar to what their neighbours had. Aaron must have had similar doubts because he readily agreed, telling the men and the women to give him their gold earrings. He had them melted down and shaped as a golden calf, telling the people that this was their god who had brought them out of Israel. At last they could see their god! The people were ecstatic, bring sacrifices, feasting and reveling.

In the midst of this wild partying and worshipping of their golden calf…Moses came down from the mountain. There was one big “Uh-oh”. We are told that God was furious and that Moses talked God out of vengeance because Moses know that God, ultimately, is a God of forgiveness. But when Moses saw how far the people had run wild and had abandoned their God, it was Moses’ turn to be furious. He rounded up the faithful and told them to slaughter the others. So much for forgiveness, Moses!

God then told Moses to continue on to the promised land but that God would not be with them because of their faithlessness. The people went into mourning. Even though they couldn’t see their God, they knew that their lives utterly depended on God’s presence and gifts of wisdom, strength and guidance. Moses decided to pitch a tent far from the inevitable inconsistencies of life in the camp for anyone who wanted to go into retreat to seek God. He called it the Tent of Meeting, for there people met God. At this holy place of retreat, we are told that Moses talked to God as a friend and began once again to intercede on behalf of the people.

“Please do not leave us. These are your people. If I have found favour with you, show me your way so that I may know you.” God replied that indeed, Moses found favour with God and that God would accompany the people. “Then show me your glory, I pray!” It was in this moment that even Moses began to slip in faith, just as Aaron and the people had, and yearn for a tangible God whom Moses could see—even a sign of God would help.

God replied with holy mystery that is deeper than we could ever imagine. God refused to be seen because God is so much more than an image. Even God’s name is so holy that it cannot be pronounced. To this day, Jewish synagogues do not pronounce the name of God. When they see the four letters YHWH in the scripture, they pronounce it Adonai—a different name, thereby acknowledging that God can never be captured in one image or name.

There is a way of seeing without eyes—or rather, with our third eye. At the heart of every world religion there is a mystical core that teaches us how to tap into our inner vision and that deep, wellspring of wisdom. This spring connects with the underground river of life that flows beneath all faith traditions, offering a fount of wisdom that springs from our ancestors from various faiths. Each of our religions is connected at its very heart to the others through this mystical centre, which reminds us of the Indigenous teaching that we are all related. This is the source of justice rolling down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream, as the prophet Amos reminds us (Amos 5:24).

We access this ever-flowing stream of God’s wisdom by finding our own places of retreat. For Moses, it was up a mountain and in a place set off to the side from daily life. For us, it could be a place in nature, a meditation nook we have set up in our house, or simply an inner place of retreat that we can access at any time or place. It is there in our place of retreat, as we quiet our spirits, that we can sense, and maybe even see, God as Holy Mystery with our third eye of inner vision.

These have been tough times lately to find ourselves, let alone find God—although I think they go together. It is more important than ever for us to protect our time in these places of retreat because we are needed in this world. And we won’t be much use if we cannot quiet our own souls before God and bring to others our best self.

Some of us are tempted to give more of ourselves than we are able. We sacrifice our own time to keep meeting the needs of others. It’s a delicate balance. When we’re under stress, as we all are right now, we need to give ourselves more time, not less, to find that quiet centre.

Others of us are tempted to withdraw, waiting for God’s presence and wisdom to be revealed. Yes, we need to wait on God, but we can’t stay in that place of retreat forever. Again, it’s a delicate balance. I have found God in both the waiting and the doing.

Thomas Merton suggests that if we wait until we can be assured of God’s presence before following God, we may never begin. But if we try to follow the commandments and teachings of Jesus, we will find ourselves becoming more like God. Then, we will see God everywhere—in the face of a stranger, in the shimmer of a golden leaf, in the gentle words of a friend.

Thomas Merton asks God, “How shall we begin to know who You are if we do not begin ourselves to be something of what You are?” He then writes, “We receive enlightenment only in proportion as we give ourselves more and more completely to God by humble submission and love. We do not first see, then act: we act, then see. . . . And that is why the [one] who waits to see clearly, before [believing], never starts on the journey.”

More than ever, this is the time when Christ needs our hands and feet. We need to be aware of who is hurting around us and offer them what we can. As a church, we can bring together our individual offers of support and strengthen them in a united ministry. Your pledges of donations for next year will help us determine what kinds of ministry we can offer. Your pledges of time and talent are also crucial in determining the shape of our ministry. How can we, as a congregants, creatively continue to serve God in this unusual time by helping to meet the needs of those within our community and beyond?

As Thomas Merton has observed, it is when we put our faith into action that we are most likely to meet God. No matter our situation, no matter our abilities, there is always something that each one of us can offer as Christ’s hands and feet. These past few weeks, as I have struggled with computer woes and Nancy & I have tried to support friends in difficulty, we have been the recipients of cookies, home-made bread and lentil soup. Those little gifts mean so much. They tell me that we are not alone. I have seen God in these generous hands held out.

We depend upon God, but God also depends upon us. Albert Einstein believed that every person has an obligation to put back into the world at least the equivalent of what they take out of it. How are you doing with your balance of giving and receiving? United Methodist Bishop William Willimon writes that each one of us will be asked, at some point in our lives, “What have you done with what you have been given?”