Sermon from June 26, 2011

Moses: Face to Face

Deuteronomy 34:1-12

And ‘the Lord knew…’ Moses ‘…face to face.’

I was face to face with my doctor a few years ago and he was talking to me about high blood pressure and he talked about all the risk factors associated with it and all the things we could do to affect it, what I have control over and what I don’t but at one point he talked about simple heredity and said, unfortunately, nobody chooses their birth-parents.  We don’t choose our relatives.

Today we are looking at another spiritual relative of ours.  He is the third person depicted in the windows up front – Moses.  The Lord knew Moses face to face.  You see when we put faith in Jesus Christ, we automatically get adopted into this spiritual family that goes way back.  Moses is one of our guys.  Some years ago in his book, The Road Less Traveled, M Scott Peck coined the phrase, “Life is difficult, but God is good.”  I want to suggest this morning that in Moses and the Exodus we see something crucial about God, ourselves and what really matters in life.  And it could kind of be summed up, “Life is difficult, but God is good,” Moses style — with a Mosaic twist or slant to it.

One author [Michael Walzer, Exodus and Revolution (Basic Books, 1986), p. 149] shares three lessons we can all learn from Moses and the Exodus: first, wherever you live, it is probably Egypt; second, there is a better place, a world more attractive, a promised land; third, that the way to this land is through the wilderness.”  I think that is pretty good but I want to flesh that out a little more, by seeing what Moses has to teach us about God, ourselves, and what really matters in life – a Moses style understanding that life is difficult, but God is good.

God knew Moses face to face, but what does Moses teach us about God?  Well what we see from Moses’ experience as related in the books of Exodus and Deuteronomy is that God is both a God who is unseen and beyond this world on the one hand; but also very much an active in this world God – unseen, not bound by this world, yet active and involved in this world.  And what gets hammered home in Moses and the Exodus experience is this involved, active, compassionate, this-world aspect of who God is.  God is always coming to them in active, earthy, visceral ways.  The Hebrew people were active, earthy , visceral people and so was their God.  What would you expect from people who have words like hesed for the faithfulness of God.  Hesed i.e. God is faithful means God is active and involved right now right here in both compassionate and active, earthy, visceral ways.  Allow me to cite some examples and images.

First the God of Moses and the Exodus is hearing, heeding, caring God.  At the end of chapter 2 it says God heard the Israelites cry for help in the midst of their bondage and heeded and ‘took notice’ of them.  The other day I was at the hospital looking for a parking place and I thought to myself, Lord, it would be real nice if somebody just pulled out in a convenient place right about now.  Didn’t happen.  I eventually got a spot but I had to walk a long way.  What about the woman who prays for healing and the healing doesn’t come, or the soldier in Afghanistan who prays his fellow soldier won’t die and then watches him expire in his arms.  What would Moses say to that?  Moses would say, my experience was God doesn’t give what we want or think we need at the time we think we need it, all I know is, God is active and there and cares.  Is God the kind of God we can go to for parking places?  He may not provide what we want or expect, but he is involved and provides other things.

Like bread from heaven.   Exodus 16.  The Israelites had crossed the red sea and were fleeing in the desert, no longer slaves but not yet to the promised land.  And they grumbled and complained and Moses said woe is me, and God provided manna from heaven, not what they expected, not what they wanted, but exactly what they needed: actual nutritious bread.  God is a this-world involved, active, earthy, visceral God – bread from heaven.

Like water from the rock.  Exodus 17.  Again, now they grumbled and complained the didn’t have anything to drink and would perish from thirst.  So God provides water from the rock, not what they expected, maybe not what they wanted, but just what they needed, clean clear water, the elixir of life.  It is depicted in the bottom of the window.  McDonalds when they stared in the 1950s used to have a 7 oz drink as the largest beverage they offered.  Today they offer something called the Hugo.  If a diner consumes the entire Hugo drink they will have consumed 400 calories in the drink alone [“Dashboard,” TIME (08-06-2007)].  Mark it well, folks, the God of Moses and the Exodus does not provide his children Hugo’s whenever we think we want one; he does provide water from the rock, whenever and as much as we need.

Like the cloud or presence and pillar of fire.  All the time they were in this in between, rescued but not yet to the promised land – kind of like we are in this life – it says in Exodus 40 that this cloud, this sort of earthy mist, guided them through the wilderness during the day, and a pillar of fire appeared at night.  It is what this pascal candle represents – the guiding presence of God through the wildernesses of life.  The God of Moses and the Exodus didn’t always give them the guidance they wanted or thought they needed but this active, earthy, visceral, caring God was always there.

Finally, like words from the heart.  Moses of course brought down the ten commandments written on stone tablets as depicted in the window.  Words from the heart of God, words of protection and life and well being.  It is said that whenever Moses met with God to receive these words it was especially then that his face shone.  Words to live by from the heart of an active, earthy, visceral God who is right here with us.  But then of course this close earthy visceral involved aspect of God and this other not bound by this world aspect of God is brought together beautifully in that famous verse from Deuteronomy 8:3 where he reminds them that we humans do not live by bread alone, (though we do live by actual bread), but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.  God provides the actual bread and he is right here, yet he also provides along with it the eternal words and meaning of life from the heart of heaven.

But notice in all of this: no explanation for why their suffering begun in the first place, only a detailed account of a compassionate God’s active, earthy, visceral, this-world response.  Look at that window and think: life is difficult, but God is good – Moses style.

But this also teaches us something about ourselves and what really matters in life, our place in the universe.  When we know these things about God, that is, that God is both beyond this world and eternal, as well as active, earthy, visceral right with us; that he is all powerful and all caring but just not finished with us yet – when we know that about God it helps us avoid at least two extremes about ourselves.  The first extreme is what I call entitled self –esteem-ism.  It’s where everything revolves around us.  I am entitled and that says it all.  A woman was babysitting her 3 year old grandson Sean for the weekend, and the first night at dinner she said, ‘Lets thank God for our food.’ Sean apparently wasn’t used to this practice at home and he said, ‘no I don’t want to.’  The grandma remained calm and said, well at Grandma’s house we say thank you before we eat.  ‘You can’t make me replied’ replied the little guy.  Determined to win this battle, the grandmother said more emphatically, if we don’t pray, we don’t eat.’  Well, the youngster replied, if you’d made mashed potatoes I would say it [Lynette Kittle, Orange California, Christian Reader, “Kids of the Kingdom,” online:].  When we never get much beyond little Sean’s perspective God becomes to us at best a lucky charm or most likely irrelevant.

On the other hand knowing that life is difficult but God is good – Moses style, also helps us avoid another extreme about ourselves, that is, what I call awful wretch victim-ism.  It’s where we are so consumed with our own inadequacy and need to blame either ourselves or somebody else for all ills that we can’t see this active rescuing grace of God.  In the 1965 movie Shenandoah, the Jimmy Stewart character is a widower trying to teach his children manners and prays this famous prayer: “Lord, we cleared this land, we plowed it, sowed it, and harvested it.  We cooked the harvest.  We wouldn’t be here, we wouldn’t be eating it, if we hadn’t done it all ourselves.  We worked dog-boned hard for every crumb and morsel, but we thank you just the same anyway, Lord, for the food we’re about to eat. Amen.”  Problem is, he wasn’t trying to be funny.  Later in the movie after tragedy after tragedy strikes his family, we next see Mr. Anderson at the supper table.  But this time we hear his voice quiver and break as the awful realization that he is not in control, master of his own destiny grips him.  This time we hear his voice trail off as he finished the words, ‘if we hadn’t done it ourselves.’  He stops, gets up and walks away, broken and stripped of his pride, yet unwilling to actually fall on his knees and cry for help [Shenandoah, (Universal Pictures, 1965)].  When the primary filter through which we see ourselves and life is who’s to blame victim-ism, then the only way we’ll end up seeing God is as either just mean, or not there at all.

And yet in contrast, as Old Testament scholar used to say, if you were to ask an Israelite “who are you?” he or she would retell the story of the Exodus.  When we know that life is difficult but God is good – Moses style than we know something about God, ourselves and what really matters.  We know that it’s not all about us, and yet within the sovereign compassion of God, we play a crucial role.   Who are you?  We used to be in bondage to sin and all kinds of stuff, now we are free to love, and God is not finished with us yet.

So what does it all mean?   Life is difficult but God is good – Moses style.  What does that mean?  Well it means that God is both eternal and beyond this world but also earthy, active and visceral.  It means that God is both all powerful and compassionate but also not finished with us yet.  And it means we can avoid thinking it all revolves around us either as victims or entitled boors.  But what it really means is this: just love him.  Just love and share with others this God.  God knew Moses face to face.

A young pastor was talking with a friend, he asked her, what do you do when God doesn’t say yes – doesn’t give it, doesn’t make it happen?   Then he answered his own question: ‘Through agony I’ve gotten to know God better; I love him more. …’  He then showed her a piece of paper he keeps in his wallet.  It said, “Look to his face, not his hand” [Ann Ortlund, “My Heart Sings,” Christianity Today, Vol. 41, no 7].

And God knew Moses face to face.

How about us?

Rev. David B. Humphrey

Asbury United Methodist Church, Smyrna, Delaware

June 26, 2011

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