About Me

My photo
Knoxville, TN, United States
Interim Pastor of Evergreen Presbyterian Church (USA), Dothan, AL.

Friday, October 17, 2008

2008-10-19 Ex Not the Face of God

Exodus 33:12-23 “Not the Face of God”

James McTyre

Lake Hills Presbyterian Church (USA)

October 19, 2008

I love the earthy stories of the Old Testament and this is one of the earthiest. In the early stories of the Old Testament, especially the stories concerning Moses, God's not only earthy, God is earth-ly. In Exodus, God shows a lot of the same frustration, same anger, same joy – and even the same confusion – you and I go through on a daily basis. And a lot of this frustration, anger, joy and confusion revolves around God and the Israelites getting to know each other, getting to where they can work together, and be strong together.

In these early days of the Bible, there's a relationship being formed. The Israelites are getting to know God. God's getting to know the Israelites. It's kind of like they're on a date. What's your name? Where do you live? Can I call you, and if so, what's the best way to get in touch? In today's scripture they're specifically working on, How can I be sure I can trust you? And, What do you really look like?

As we celebrate our 51st anniversary as a church, it's kind of providential that this scripture came up in the lectionary of readings. I didn't pick it; it's the assigned reading for today. Coincidence? I think not. The good thing is, after 51 years together, we're still here, we're still together, and we're still getting to know God. The earthiness of God and Moses has a ton of light to shed on the earthliness of our own relationship as a church.

First Big Question: How can I be sure I can trust you?

Moses has a special relationship with God. Moses is always very deferential, but he's also unafraid to challenge God and to remind God of God's promises.

12 Moses said to the LORD, "You have been telling me, 'Lead these people,' but you have not let me know whom you will send with me.

“You have said, 'I know you by name and you have found favor with me.' 13 If you are pleased with me, teach me your ways so I may know you and continue to find favor with you.

“Remember that this nation is your people."

I think a lot of the time, in our minds, we place God on a throne so far up in heaven that we wouldn't dare speak to God this plainly. We think it's sinful to say, “Um, excuse me, your most Almighty-ness, but we have a problem here.” Moses, speaking on behalf of God's people, wasn't afraid to press God for answers.

Moses says, “Lord, you've told me to lead these people, but you haven't told me who you're going to send with me to help me get the job done.” Moses says, “And, also, you've said you know my name and you like me, but I need to know a little more about you, so I'll know what else you like.”

Listen to God's answer, because it's very instructive:

14 The LORD replied, "My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest."

First, “My Presence with go with you.” In the Bible, the word “Presence” is capitalized. And that's no accident. When God speaks to Moses about how God's Presence (with a capital P) with go with him, it's crucial to the relationship.

A lot of times God feels distant. We know God is with us – in Spirit, at least that's what we're told to believe. But “in Spirit's” kind of vague. We know we should believe God's present with us, but it would be nice to know exactly where and how. That's what Moses wants to know. God says, “My Presence (with a capital P) will go with you.”

It's one thing to tell your kid, “Good luck at the soccer game. I'll be thinking about you.” It's another thing to sit out in the rain, in the cold, in a bent-up lawn chair, cheering for them, even when they score a goal for the opposing team. “Good luck, I'll be thinking about you,” is being present – in spirit. Soaked to the skin and still screaming your lungs out is being Present with a capital P.

God's not going to just send the Israelites out and be wishing them the very best, promising to check in every once in a while. God's going to be capital P Present. When they trudge through the rain, God's going to trudge with them. When they dance at the riverside, God's going to dance with them. God's real, honest-to-goodness Presence will be there.

Over these past 51 years – at births and baptisms, in hospital rooms and at gravesides, at pot-luck dinners, and Family Camps, at committee meetings and in worship – God's capital P presence has been with us. If it hadn't, we wouldn't be here today. The Israelites would never have made it fourty years and Lake Hills Presbyterian Church would never have made it 51 without the Capital P presence of God.

First, God says, “My Presence will go with you,” and (second), “I will give you rest.”

“I will give you rest.”

That's kind of a strange thing to say. I'd expect something like, “My Presence will go with you, 'and you'll be #1.' You'll be the belle of the ball. You'll be popular. You'll be successful. You'll have three worship services and a tram system in the parking lot.

But no, that's not the benefit of God's capital P presence. God will be with the Israelites, and God will give them rest.

This is pretty practical good news. The Israelites are out there, schlepping through the wilderness. They need rest after 40 years of wondering. On a physical level, they're tired. Their feet hurt. Rest is a good thing.

But I also think God's promise of rest is spiritual. Spiritually, God'll give the people rest.

Do you ever wonder if your faith is good enough? Do you ever wonder if your faith is strong enough? Do you ever wonder if you shouldn't be studying the Bible more, or praying better prayers, or cooking more casseroles for people in crisis? On one hand, maybe that's your conscience nudging you. Maybe you should be working harder at your faith and giving away more casseroles. But maybe also you feel like you're already doing every single thing you know how to do. You're racing to remember where you're supposed to be next, you've got a to-do list as long as your arm, or your leg, and you think, “When am I going to possibly find the time to be a better person of faith?”

God's promise is, “My Presence will be with you... and I will give you rest.” Hmm. If God's willing to give you a break, maybe you should give yourself a break, too. Maybe your faith is only the size of a mustard seed, as Jesus will later say. At least you have faith, and at least you're willing to do something to help it grow. You're here. You're present. That counts.

Joel Hanisek, who grew up in our church, is now the Presbyterian Church's Representative to the United Nations. From time to time, I'll send him an email saying, “Um, excuse me. There's still war in the Middle East. Russia's invading it's neighbors. Might you need to be cutting back on those coffee breaks?” And Joel always answers back something like, “You know, you're right. I'll get Ahamedinejad on the phone right now and put a stop to all this.”

It may not be the point that a person of faith has to solve all the world's problems. Maybe it's enough for people of faith to be present, to presently bear witness to God's capital P presence in the world, and to remind the world that we're not in this all by ourselves.

I think a lot of times we have church envy. We look at churches that are ten times our size and worry, “What are we doing wrong?” And the answer may be, “Maybe that's not the kind of church God's calling us to be. Maybe God's calling us to be present right here, with each other, as best we can.” Now, I don't think that ever means being complacent. But maybe God is OK with us being who we are, where we are, and wants to let us rest assured.

The first big question of Moses to God is, “How can I be sure I trust you?” And the answer is, “Because my presence will be with you, and I will give you rest.”

Second big question: What do you really look like?

The scene that follows is unique in all the Bible. There's nothing else like it.

18 Then Moses said, "Now show me your glory."

19 And the LORD said, "I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the LORD, in your presence. I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. 20 But," he said, "you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live."

21 Then the LORD said, "There is a place near me where you may stand on a rock. 22 When my glory passes by, I will put you in a cleft in the rock and cover you with my hand until I have passed by. 23 Then I will remove my hand and you will see my back; but my face must not be seen."

Moses can't see God face on, because it would kill him. So God covers Moses' eyes with his hand, and when it's safe Moses will get to see God's back.

This is so incredible. How many times have you wanted to see God? How many times have you wanted God to show up and say, “Here I am. This is what you should do. This is how you should be. These are the choices you should make. And this is what I'm going to do.”?? That's all Moses wanted. And God said, “I'd be glad to do that, but it would kill you. You couldn't handle it.”

It's not that God wants to be secretive; it's that we're fragile. And so to protect us, God puts a hand over our eyes, until it's safe.

Have you ever had one of those bizarre coincidences when you think, “OK, God. That was creepy. You can come out now.”?? A friend shows up at just the right time. You have some chance encounter that seems way too planned to have been an accident. I used to have a wise, old minister who taught me the saying, “Coincidence is God's way of remaining anonymous.”

And then after the fact, minutes – days – years later – God removes the hand from our eyes and we think, no, we know, “That was God! God did that!” It's so much easier to see God's back. We're trying so hard to see God coming at us, when God's there all along, in the rear-view mirror.

We look at pictures – we saw some slides this morning and we're going to see a different presentation tonight at our pot-luck dinner – we look at these pictures of 51 years of church, and people always say, “Wow. We've done a lot.” And we have. But more than that, we look back at these pictures and we're reminded how God has been there, how God has been present with a capital P, even though we were doing whatever we were doing. So we care for each other. Sometimes we've fought with each other. We care for our world. We raise up and send out new generations of people to care, to fight, to love as the people of God, sometimes realizing what we're doing but more often just doing it because that's what we've always done. Every now and then, sometimes at a retrospective Birthday Dinner, God removes the holy hand from our eyes and we see, and we say, “Wow. You know what? That was God. That was God at work. It wasn't just us, and it wasn't just coincidence.

That's just the way God looks. And for our own protection, that's just the way we see God.

Of course, with Moses and the Israelites, God was getting the relationship started. Eventually, God would be seen in person, in Jesus Christ, and seeing him wouldn't kill anyone. Quite the opposite: Jesus would be the one who defeats our frailties, even our death, and brings life. Jesus would be the consummation of the answers to the questions, How can we trust God, and How does God look.

But the story doesn't end there. After Jesus, the capital P presence of God gets re-written in the Capital S Spirit of God, the Holy Spirit. And through the Holy Spirit, we can catch a passing glimpse of God right now. We can catch a passing glimpse of God in each other's eyes. We catch a passing glimpse of God in shared memories, and in the laughter of our children, and in the wisdom of aging saints. The Capital S Spirit of God keeps us going, 51 years, and into the future we're not strong enough to see. We trust, we hope, we know God. We see God in our rear-view mirrors, and we know we will see God, face to face. And in that our church, and you, and I, can rest assured.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Philippians 4:1-9

“Rejoice Always”

James McTyre

Lake Hills Presbyterian
Church (USA)

The Apostle Paul writes
to the Philippians: Rejoice. Rejoice always. I'll say it again:

Obviously, Paul hasn't
been reading the newspapers lately. There's not a heckofa lot to
rejoice about these days. The word “rejoice” means, “To
enjoy the possession of.” A lot of people are very worried
about what they thought they had possession of – education
funds, retirement savings plans, home equity. There's a lot of
anxiety in the world right now because we don't know what the
future's going to be.

Of course, we know we
never really know what the future's going to be. We know that. We
earn, we plan, we invest, we save – hoping that the future's on
some predictably smooth trajectory. We hope the future stretches out
before us like an Arizona highway. Unfortunately, the future often
looks more like Highway 129 around Lake Fontana (“The Dragon”).

“How Do You Get
There from Here?” or, “The Future as a Road”

We've actually driven
that road, The Dragon. We didn't know any better. We were coming back
from North Carolina and on the map Highway 129 looks straight. That's
because they can't draw lines that small. We thought it looked like a
straight shot, a shortcut. Someone, I think it was me, kept saying,
“It's gotta straighten out soon.” It never does. About 20
minutes into the 11 miles of 318 hairpin turns, with Ninja
motorcycles passing us at 60 miles per hour (we were going, I think,
5), we started laughing deliriously. We'd say, “It's gotta
straighten out soon,” or, “It looked straight on the
map,” and burst out in hysterics. Were we rejoicing? No, but
laughing kept us from getting car sick. Why else were we laughing? We
were laughing at the map. We were laughing at ourselves for being so
naïve, so hopelessly optimistic that what we originally thought,
or what we desperately hoped, would turn out to be true. And, in
time, things did turn out OK. About the time you pop up in Maryville,
whose highways look like Arizona's by comparison, the road does
straighten out, you release your grip on the steering wheel, and you
vow to never again drive anything less than a major Interstate.

It's easy to rejoice
when you can see miles in every direction. It's easy to rejoice when
you know what's coming your way. It's easy to rejoice when someone
hands you a roadmap, microscopically precise in every twist and turn.
But what happens to our rejoicing when we think we're on Easy Street
and it turns out we're riding the Tail of the Dragon? What happens
when our straight-line plans take a turn, and another turn, and
another? How do we rejoice then?


“But, it looked
straight on the map.” Or, “Arguing against the mapmaker.”

There are many times in
the church, usually during Children's Sermon (I know because I've
done a couple of these myself), where we compare the Bible to a
roadmap. We show the kids, “OK, you are HERE. And heaven...
well, it's not on this map... but it's probably somewhere way over
near the choir loft.” Already, we know we've got a problem. But
that's OK, because Children's Sermons are short, and they can ask
their parents the tough questions at home. And we go on, “So,
if you want to get from where you are to where heaven is, you can use
the Bible, follow its directions, and find your way. OK, let's pray.”

The Bible as a roadmap
isn't a bad analogy. If you're only going a very short way. If you've
only got one question and if you strategically pick one verse as THE
answer, then yes, the Bible as roadmap analogy works fine. You wake
up and wonder, “What should I do today?” And you turn to
Philippians 4:4, “Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say,
Rejoice,” and there, your day is all mapped out. But what if
your day takes a sharp downward turn, as many lately have?

It would be easy to get
frustrated with the mapmaker. Who hasn't wished that the Bible was
more direct and more precise? Someone make a note to tell God the
Bible would be so much better if it got down to the microscopic level
of every twist and turn. Like that Worst Case Scenario Handbook. The
Worst Case Scenario Handbook's got Step 1, Step 2, Step 3. And if
you're ever stuck in quicksand or jumping out of a burning airplane,
that's the book you want to have with you. We're told all the answers
are in the Bible. I saw a church sign that said so just last week.
But more often than not, the lines in the Bible from Point A to Point
B are drawn with thick brushstrokes. It takes a lot of work on our
part to figure out the details as the dragons of life whip us back
and forth. The deeper we get into the Bible, the deeper the Bible
goes. A path of answers that looks straight at first might lead us
off directions we never could anticipate. Rejoice – sounds like
a simple answer. Except that the questions around rejoicing are


“It's gotta
straighten out soon.” Or, “Arguing against the road.”

I'm a man. And I've
been unfairly stereotyped. All us men have been unfairly stereotyped
as people who'll never stop for directions. The theory has been
advanced – and in some places accepted as fact – that we
don't ask directions because we're obstinate. That's not true. We're
optimistic. Something in that Y chromosome makes us steadfastly
believe that if we just drive a little farther, we'll get where we're
supposed to be. If we just stay on track, the road will straighten
out. We're optimists.

The Bible tells us,
rejoice. “Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I say, Rejoice.”
And it's true: If you keep rejoicing long enough, eventually
something good will come up that's worth rejoicing over and then you
can say to all the people who called you obstinate, “See? I
told you so.”

The Bible says Rejoice.
But it also says – Jesus himself says – to laugh with
those who laugh and cry with those who cry. Again, when you go deep
into the Bible, it takes you deeper. How do you keep rejoicing when
the road throws you a horrible curve? Well, maybe you're not supposed
to rejoice when things are unrejoicable. It's not fair that
any of us should ever get stuck in the valleys, but maybe that's the
way it's supposed to be for a while. We'd like to take a short cut
over the mountaintops, we long to, but there isn't one. We can curse
the curves, but that won't straighten them. We can ignore the turns,
pretend they aren't there, but it won't take long before we run off
the road completely and end up in a ditch. Optimism to the extreme is
ignorance with a smile.

We can blame our
circumstances, we can argue with our circumstances, we can ignore our
circumstances. But if we do, our rejoicing is just a thin resurfacing
of our blame, our arguments and our ignorance. Rejoice,
rejoice always – sounds like a simple answer. Except that in
some circumstances, rejoicing isn't the appropriate answer. The road
is complicated, and so is the map.


Think We're Really Lost,” or, “Time to Make a Choice.”

Yes, It's easy to
rejoice when you can see miles in every direction. It's easy to
rejoice when you know what's coming your way. But what happens to our
rejoicing when our straight-line plans take a turn, and another turn,
and another? How do we rejoice then?

It's instructive to
step back and see where Paul is in his own journey of faith when he
wrote this very hopeful, very joyful letter to the Philippians. The
Ritz-Carlton? No. The beach condo? No. The country club? Still no.
Would it surprise you to know that Paul wrote this letter from
prison? He wrote this letter from prison. In a manner of speaking,
you could say he had been put in prison for rejoicing too much in
Christ. In prison for following his beliefs, and still he says,
“Rejoice.” How can he possibly say that? Paul has run
into a dead end, and yet he says, “Rejoice.” Why?

If Paul can rejoice
from his prison cell, it's not because of his own directional
ability. If Paul can rejoice at all, it's because he has come to the
conclusion that he has no sense of direction whatsoever. If Paul can
rejoice it's because he's no longer depending on his own optimism,
his own intelligence, his own plans, his own map. If Paul can rejoice
– and he can – it's because he believes God is more than
a mapmaker. Paul rejoices because there are choices, everyday
choices, there are choices in his roads. Paul rejoices because there
are choices between hope and hopelessness, between joy and
bitterness, between lost and found. Paul may not know where these
choices will take him, but he rejoices that there are choices. So he

beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just,
whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if
there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise,
think about these things.

This is not “Yippee!
We're on top of the world!” This is, “I know things are
hard. I know things look bad. I know how it feels to be stuck on a
dead-end. But you've gotta look for those things that are true.
You've gotta search for those things that are honorable. You've gotta
scrape for justice, for purity, for anything, anything
worthy of praise. And then you've got to set your mind on these
things and think about them, night and day.

This is not, “Cheer
up, things could be worse.” This is a letter from prison, from
the end of the road, saying this is how I get through each day, and
this is how you're going to get through each day, too. Paul is
saying, “I can't control anything. I can't control anything
around me, but I can control what I choose to think about. And I'm
going to set my mind on whatever
is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure,
whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable. If I can find anything
where there is any excellence and anything worthy of praise –
that's where I'm going to set my mind.” In other words, Paul
says, “I'm going to set my mind on Christ.” Christ who
was crucified. Christ who spent three days in the ground. Christ who
was raised and who sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty.
“That's where I'm setting my mind,” says Paul, and that's
where you should set yours, too.”

isn't bliss. Christ is bliss. Arguing with events isn't the answer.
Cursing the map or cursing the mapmaker isn't the answer. Christ is
the answer. But he's an answer drawn in very, very broad strokes. And
on your way from Point A to Point B, you may feel lost between the
lines. That's when you've got to go deep, deep within the word of
God, deep within your soul and choose to praise by finding anything
that's true, anything that's honorable, anything that's just, pure,
pleasing, commendable – anything worthy of praise... and then,
praise. Not because you feel like praising, but precisely because you
don't. When there is nothing else to do, it's time to make a choice.
Choose to praise. Not because praise is the logical thing to do, but
because it's the only thing left to do.


I guess I'll pull over and ask directions,” or, “The Road
as the Future.”

telling the Philippians to set their minds on anything worthy of
praise, Paul gives one final word of direction.

Keep on
doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and
seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.

Paul doesn't give any detailed explanation as to what the Philippians
saw or heard from him. He doesn't give an explanation as to why his
plan is going to work, or how soon it's going to bring relief. He
just says, “Keep doing what I taught you.” And then he
adds, “The God of peace will be with you.” Paul's
teaching to his church is, essentially, “Keep going. Keep
going. You may not know where the road will end, but the point is,
you're on the road. Stay there. Stay on the path you've learned and
remember, the God of peace is traveling with you.” The road is
the future. The road IS the future, for the foreseeable future, and
that's what? About the next 24 hours, if we're lucky?

personal future wasn't looking so bright, looking at it as he was,
through prison bars. By all indications, Paul's road wasn't running
toward fame, or prosperity, or comfort. Paul was trusting in some
directions, and he wants us all to trust in directions we don't fully
understand. Directions that aren't 100% clear 100% of the time. We
may not know exactly where we're going, but we're going. We may not
understand the directions, but we have direction. And one more thing,
we have the assurance, that wherever we're heading, the God of peace
will be with us. Even though we may feel hopelessly lost, the God of
peace will be with us. That, alone, is reason to rejoice.