The Magnificat of Mary brings to our attention what it means to be face to face with God. Our primary text this morning is part of that remarkable story in Exodus of God coming to Moses on top of Mount Sinai to give him the covenant for Israel. One of the most remarkable contrasts in the story is, on the one hand, its extremely anthropomorphic depiction of God and, on the other, its declaration of the utter transcendence and transformative character of God.
The anthropomorphic elements are obvious. God and Moses have a conversation as if between two people. In an earlier passage that we read last week, God was depicted as flying into a fury because the Israelites had made the Golden Calf, and he was about to destroy them. Moses calmed him down and persuaded him to change his mind by saying that the Egyptians would laugh at God for going to the trouble of rescuing the Israelites from bondage in Egypt only to slaughter them in the desert. In our text for this morning, God, who is always audible, takes on visible form, first as a shimmering cloud of glory and then in the form of a rather large human who is still shimmery. When he passes by Moses, God puts his hand over Moses’ face and lets him see only his backside. Now at this point in their history, the Israelites were polytheists. The overall point of our passage and the surrounding ones in Exodus is that this God was establishing a special relation with Israel, like that which other gods had with other nations. God promised to attach himself to the Israelite people in their march toward the Promised Land if they would be loyal to him as their god and not suck up to the gods of those other people. Of course, they did get involved with those other gods, and God was jealous. This is the anthropomorphic extreme of the biblical story.
On the other hand, God is the Holy One of Israel who transcends all human depictions. God told Moses that no one could see God’s face and live. The symbols of God’s descent to Mt. Sinai in fire, smoke, 7.5 Richter-scale earthquakes, and sound that gets ever louder with no maximum, mean that no anthropomorphic ideas are ever adequate. After all, God is the creator of everything that has a determinate form. If anything is a thing, a “this” rather than “that,” God is its creator. If God has a determinate nature, an image, this is the result of creation, not something we can know God to be prior to creation: God’s creating determines God’s nature as creator. Our best science says that the cosmos we know began in a Big Bang, and if that’s so, then God created the conditions for the expanding universe with an intensity of energy we cannot imagine save through pallid mathematical formulas. The immensity of God’s creation drives our imagination beyond any anthropomorphism.
To note but a few points: that Big Bang Blast began motion as such, and therefore time. Before motion, there was no time. Nothing existed before creation. There was no “before” creation. The initial Blast defined space and time as characters of the expansion of energy. The early expansion of cosmic gasses was chaotic and idiosyncratic. Those particular configurations that found reinforcement in their cosmic environment steadied down to have the regularities of natural law, and the others dissipated in nanoseconds. Billions of years later that “let there be light” cosmic Blast steadied into galaxies, solar systems, and the Earth, third planet out from Sol, on the edge of the little Milky Way Galaxy. Finally, human societies evolved.
Over the last three thousand years we have come to see that the simple anthropomorphism of Exodus opens on to a much more complex picture of God the Creator of space, time, and everything definite. The Holy, Mysterious, Transcendent character of God as Creator of everything that has form, turns all anthropomorphism into symbolic speech, not literal description.
So then what are we to make of the encounter with God face to face, if God has no face? I know of no more important spiritual question than this if you are interested in anything deeper than the social aspects of religion. Two answers define the Christian faith.
The first is that we encounter the face of God in Jesus Christ. This was the answer given with the formation of Christianity in the first century when they already knew that God the Father transcends all imaginable description. Colossians says that Jesus Christ is the “image of the invisible God.” And what an image he is! God the Almighty Creator fits into a humble man, not a proud king who imagines God must be like himself only better. God the Almighty Creator fits into a charismatic person who welcomes everyone, the rich, the poor, the virtuous, the villains, the smart, the slow, the brave, the cowardly, the loyal, and the betrayers. God the Almighty Creator fits into a lover who can be intimate with anyone, even sinners, even us.
Because Jesus is the face of God he is God’s love that atones for our sins. Because Jesus is the face of God he is the Cosmic Christ who shows us how to be at home in the universe. Because Jesus is the face of God he is the revealer who brings us to God. Because Jesus is the face of God he is for us the Way to live before God, the Truth of what is important in human life before God, and the very Life in which we participate to find God’s life abundant. Because Jesus is the face of God whom we can come to know as we meditate on the scriptures, learn his teachings, and understand through his deeds and legacies, we can imagine him as our friend, our honest comrade in the peaks and valleys of life, our companion in daily life, our intimate beloved. The imagination is the Holy Spirit working in our subjective experience, and we can imaginatively come face to face with Jesus, and thus with God, as we focus our devotion on him. This part of the Christian tradition, this devotion to Jesus as the face of God, is not for everyone. But for those who enter into it, the devotion leads to an immense, profound, shattering, and healing love.
The second answer to how we can be face to face with God is more complicated, I fear. We should acknowledge, of course, the ancient point that no one can see God face to face and live. What this means, minimally, is that our old identity will be deconstructed. Nevertheless, in the Exodus passage assigned by the lectionary for next week, it is said that Moses did see God face to face and did live, forever changed. His skin glowed with such transfiguring light that he had to wear a veil when he was around people. How can we see God as Moses did, or even a little bit like Moses did? We need to learn God’s name. In our anthropomorphic story, God recited his name for Moses, spoke it for him out loud. The belief in those days was that knowing someone’s name gives you some magical control over them, and so God was allowing Moses to become intimate with him. God knows Moses’ name too, the text says.
For us to know God’s name is for us to have the ideas, the signs, the symbols, the concepts by which we can meditatively engage God in prayer. Meditative prayer is not the recitation of words, not the begging of petitions as we do in liturgy, or the voicing of praise. It is the opening of oneself to God’s transcendent ultimate reality and the engagement of it. Without the capacity to discriminate colors, we cannot see colors. Without the capacity to identify and discriminate God, we cannot see God. With what symbols can we see God? The anthropomorphic symbols of God as a large finite being participating in a human drama do not take us far, because we know immediately that they are too small. More than those story-symbols, we need the clear ideas of a thoughtful theology. Perhaps you do not want me to say that you have to be a thoughtful theologian in order to pray in a way that takes you to God, but I’m afraid it’s true. Theology provides ways to conceive the eternal and immense God as creating time and space and teaches the limitation of our symbols. But then we need to move on to live with the great symbols of the faith, God as Creator, Redeemer, Wild Spirit. We need to so live into these symbols so that we can see how this great creating God is present in the blast of the Big Bang, in the evolution of human life, in the glories of fall mornings and the horrors of earthquakes and typhoons. Then we need also to live into those even deeper symbols that break the best work of our imagination and push us out on the other side into God’s infinite depth. We need to love God names as the Abyss of Nothingness, God the Primal Fire of Creation, God the Deep River on whom we must launch ourselves to get home. The mystics know the mortal force of these deepest symbols. They pull us from our moorings and tumble us into God so that our mortal lives are of no consequence. The Awesome, Beautiful, Terrible, Lovely, Beloved Depths of God call us to meet the Almighty Creator face to face. Since God’s face is infinite, we die to any significance in the finite identity of our own face. We give ourselves without remainder to our Beloved.
Now I do not ask you to join me in growing into God. To live a life of justice and mercy is enough. To be a disciple of Jesus, carrying his ministry into our time and place is enough. To worship under the pretense that God is a big spiritual King who wants our praise and our confession, who deals out pardons and bestows blessings, who likes us to preach and sing about Him (or Her), who likes our offerings and sends us out to live in this glorious, difficult, and ambiguous world, is enough. This is the pattern of the Christian Way of life, and it is enough. But this is not to come to God face to face.
I welcome those of you who want also to come meet Jesus as the face of God. Stabilizing your life with justice and mercy, ministry and worship, come into a devotional journey in which you come to know Jesus personally. This is a dangerous journey, because to know Jesus close up you will have to discover and acknowledge unsavory things about yourself. To know Jesus is to expose yourself to such a penetrating, honest eye that you cannot hide. But you will accept yourself as loved by one who knows your worst and joins you in your best. If you come to know Jesus, you will become a true lover, the better lover the more Jesus lives in your heart as your best friend. Welcome if you want this journey with Jesus, the first, visible, face of God.
With trepidation I invite you to come farther and engage God in the depths of the divine mystery. This will require setting anthropomorphic religion at some distance by knowing it in its historical context. This farther journey will require thoughtful theology to develop sophisticated concepts and know their limitations. This journey becomes serious when you learn to live and pray through the great symbols of the faith. God is the glorious Creator, but in that creation God is also the Great Destroyer. God is the gracious Redeemer, but in that redemption is also the Terrifying Judge. God is the Holy Spirit by which the divine energy pervades absolutely every part of creation, but that Holy Spirit is wilder than the cosmic gasses and blows where it wills, not where we want. Those of you with the passion for it can learn to love this Creator and Destroyer, Redeemer and Judge, Bringer of Glory whose wildness knocks us about. It is hard, but you can do it. You have to learn to love your enemies first, which is the topic of next week’s sermon. Nevertheless this further journey does not rest here. It moves on into the mystical depths and I invite you with my whole heart to come. Let those grand positive symbols of the faith lead you to the river’s edge at which you can launch yourself over the infinite depths of God, leaving the known shore behind. Climb to the verge of your life’s struggles and throw yourself into the Abyss of the Divine Mystery. Plunge into God’s Holy Fire and let that raw creativity burn away the features of your finite face so that you can meet the Infinite face to face. This journey is not required. It is not for everyone. But it leads to the bliss God offers. Is ordinary life, then, like living behind a veil? No, it is like living in divine clarity and love for the world.