The Face of God
A Pastoral Message on God’s Presence based on Exodus 33
for St. John’s Baptist Church of Charlotte, NC, by The Rev. Dennis Foust, PhD, on October 3, 2021
YHWH, gathered as a community of your people, we are responding to your presence through our worship of you. Thank you for revealing yourself to us in so many ways in creation, throughout history, and especially in Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, the one we follow. Amen.
Every day you see your own face and a multitude of others in person or via media.
Each person has a face.
Some of you know people who have more than one.
This October, as we prepare to see Halloween masks, we are all covering our pandemic faces.
Each face is a compilation of 44 muscles, nerves, and blood vessels.
And most faces are capable of approximately 5,000 various expressions.
Through your face, you communicate concern, joy, laughter, tears, passion, anger, fear, sadness, disgust, surprise, embarrassment, confusion, thoughtfulness, sympathy, reverence, etc.
The most recognizable global expression is the smile. There are at least 19 versions of the smile.
Each face reflects biological, historical, geographical, cultural, and other evolutionary influences.
We are better at expressing our own facial expressions than we are reading those of others.
Of course, since the face can be like a picture window in a department store, we use grooming, makeup, dyes, jewelry, and surgery to help us offer the world our best face.
In this digital age, with Facetime and Facebook, we see thousands of faces.
Preparing for next year’s centennial, we are looking back at past church pictorial directories.
Some of you are sitting on your parent’s lap in those photos.
Several of you have the same face – but it’s different.
A few weeks ago, we looked at photos of those who were murdered on 9/11.
We have seen recent faces of refugees, faces of the poor, faces of the pandemic, etc.
We will return to look at life in this 21st century in a few minutes.
However, to better understand life today, we must look back into the days of ancient times.
As early as 3500 BCE, the ancients thought of the human face as a window into a person’s soul.
Every idol in the ancient world was made with a face
And every worshipper approached the face of the idol; never approaching from the side.
In the Old Testament alone, the word, ‘face,’ is used more than 2,000 times.
The face represented blessing. To turn away the face was to refuse a blessing.
To have an audience with the king was to ‘see his face’ and be ‘in his presence.’
If a person said, “I was in the presence of the king,” it meant the king’s face was turned to them.
To fall upon ones’ face or to bow one’s face represented humility and submission.
This was gradually woven into a tradition of bowing our faces in prayer.
Over time, the idea of God’s presence was symbolized by ‘seeing the face of God.’
Scripture teaches the idea of ‘Before-ness.’ We live every moment of our lives before God.
This Before-ness is about a relationship with God; not propositions about God.
Today’s scripture emphasizes the face of God.
We must see this story in its context.
We pick up the story in chapter 33 of Exodus. In chapter 32, Moses was on Mt. Sinai.
Because Moses was delayed in returning from Mt. Sinai, the Hebrews turned to lesser gods.
The Lord said to Moses, “Go down at once! YOUR people, whom YOU brought up out of Egypt have acted perversely. They have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them…I have seen these people, how stiff-necked they are. Now let me alone, so that my wrath may boil and burn hot against them, and I may consume them.” Moses had received the Ten Commandments. He returned to find an idolatrous mob, saw the golden calf and threw down the tablets. The story writer tells us that Moses melted the golden calf, ground it into powder, mixed it into the water and made the Israelites drink it. That sounds like a very bad mixed concoction.
The next day, Moses told the people that he would seek the Lord’s face and forgiveness.
Moses had established a tradition of entering the tent of meeting.
The storyteller describes this as a place of prayer; where Moses and others sought God’s face.
The storyteller wrote, “The Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend.”
The idea conveyed here describes a close relationship; being present to THE PRESENCE.
The Lord told Moses, “Go, leave this place, YOU and the people YOU have brought up out of Egypt and go the land of promise. But, I am not going with you.” Once again, the Lord calls the Hebrews ‘a stiff-necked people.’ This means they would not bow or submit to the Lord. They wanted to make the Lord in their own image. They wanted to manipulate God for their purposes.
This sight in Exodus 33 of Moses entering the tent of meeting to speak with the Lord while all the people stood outside their tents could be depicted by Stephen Spielberg showing a group of Hebrew adults standing outside their tents looking at Moses as he entered the tent of meeting. Their faces would show guilt and shame and fear and hope. They could barely look at one another due to their embarrassment. On that day, their heads were bowed low, very low – not because of humility but due to humiliation. Some people only reach humility via humiliation.
Moses plead with the Lord. His prayer included something like this:
“YHWH, this whole idea of us leaving Egypt was at your initiative.
This wasn’t my brainstorm.
Show me your ways so I can better explain you to the people.
And, Lord, these are YOUR people.
Please don’t call them only MY people.
You brought these people out of Egypt.
Don’t just send us into the future without you.
We will perish.
The only thing that distinguishes us from all other people is that we are your people; we are following you.”
The Lord responded, “Okay, you have found favor in my sight. My presence will go with you.
Then Moses asked one more favor, “Lord, show me your face so I can witness your full self.”
The Lord grinned but Moses couldn’t see it.
Then, the Lord said, “Moses, I will be gracious and merciful to you & those to whom I choose to be gracious and merciful. But you cannot see my face; for no one can see my face and live.
I will put you over there in that cleft of the rock and cover you with my hand as I pass by you. Then I will remove my hand and you shall see my backside.”
Okay, we turn back now to this 21st century.
We are on an exodus journey through this long and weary pandemic wilderness.
We have been sheltered in our tents; only recently being able to regather in this tent of meeting.
We have often wanted to see God’s face.
We have often wondered how God is at work through these past nineteen months.
Like Moses, we have desired to better understand the ways of God.
At times, we may have even been guilty of being stiff-necked, refusing to bow down in humility.
However, it is important that we remember what this story teaches.
We are part of God’s people in this world. We are living BEFORE God.
We are committed to obey God by learning how to live by the teachings of Jesus.
Jesus taught us that we are set apart to show the world how God wants all humans to live.
And Jesus taught that we would never have to go through anything without God’s presence.
Do you understand the ancient wisdom that still renews us all these centuries later?
We do not see the face of God because God goes ahead of us to prepare our way.
Just because you do not understand how God is working today or just because you cannot foresee how God will work things out tomorrow doesn’t mean God is not actively faithful.
Consider how God has been faithful to you in all of your yesterdays.
Now look on up ahead; yes, that is the same actively faithful God going ahead of you.
You understand God’s faithfulness on the backside of experience. God is leading us.
So, beloved, we continue in our journey toward our second century of ministry – singing:
God only wise,
In light inaccessible hid from our eyes,
Rock of Ages, cleft for me, Let me hide myself in Thee;
Let the water and the blood, From his wounded side which flowed,
Be of sin the double cure, Save from shame and make me pure.
Today, we approach this communion table for a feast remembering God’s redemptive love.
We were not eyewitness of Jesus’ ministry. We did not see his face.
Yet, in this bread and cup, we are blessed by God’s presence.
In these symbols, we are reminded that God’s face is forever and always turned upon us.
We remember God’s faithfulness and renew our commitment to Active Faith in God.
Amen and AMEN.
May The Lord bless you and keep you;
May The Lord’s gracious face shine upon you, and give you shalom!