Sunday 22 October 2017
The Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost. Lectionary 29A
This morning we are continuing to follow the story of Moses and the Hebrew people in the wilderness, having left slavery in Egypt, but still without a home. For some time, the Israelites have been encamped at the base of Mt. Sinai. Up on the mountain, God’s presence can be seen in fire and smoke and flashes of lightning. Moses has gone up on the mountain, on more than one occasion, to speak directly with God. He has brought down the tablets of the law, only to find the people down on the plain breaking the commandments by worshipping a golden statue of a calf. In his anger, he has broken the stone tablets. He has argued with God, intervening on behalf of the people. He has renewed the covenant. He has received new instructions from God, to move the people on, led by an angel that God will send. He has led the people through a ritual of confession and forgiveness, and convinced them to give up their jewelry, so they won’t be tempted to make another golden idol. He has set up a special tent, outside of the Israelite camp, where he can communicate with God in private. Each time he does, the pillar of cloud and fire holds its station above the tent.
And that is where we begin with our passage from today. Moses is about to start another argument with God. But that isn’t a new thing for Moses. He argues and negotiates and bargains with God all the time. God tells him to go to Egypt, and he says, No, I’m not a good public speaker.” God sends Aaron with him to do the talking, and he says, “No I need some kind of sign.” The people get angry with Moses, and he takes it out on God. God gets angry with the people, and Moses talks God down.
So here again, Moses is about to negotiate with God. “You’ve been telling me to lead the people away from here, but you haven’t followed through on your promise to send an angel with us,” Moses begins. “How can you say that you know me by name and that I am your favorite if you don’t follow through on your promises to help me?”
That one little phrase that God speaks, “I know you by name,” struck me as interesting. I think that’s probably something that we take for granted. It’s part of our doctrine that God knows the name of every human being, that God pays attention to every single life. But I don’t think that’s how the ancients understood things. I think the idea that a god would know the name of a human being would have seemed quite shocking to them. After all, gods have incomprehensible power. They have much bigger things to attend to than the minuscule lives of puny humans. The fact that God knows Moses by name means that God really does favor Moses. And Moses reminds God of this favor when he complains that God has not sent the promised angel that Moses has been waiting for.
So patiently God responds, “Stop going on about the angel. I’ll go with you myself. I will help you.” Which is really quite shocking again. God may have led the people out of Egypt and given the law, but how long is God going to keep sticking around in order to help the Israelites in person? Surely God has other things to attend to. Surely the other tasks on God’s checklist are piling up by now.
And yet Moses is not quite happy even with this new promise from God. He seems to be a incredulous that God will actually follow through. God has just promised, “I will go with you myself,” and Moses retorts, “If you’re not going to go with us yourself, then don’t make us leave here.” I don’t want to pack up everything and head out into the wilderness again and find that you aren’t around anymore. What if we run into a hostile tribe and you’ve gone off to do something. If you really want me to follow your instructions, then you had better make good on your end of the bargain.
After all, Moses says, you are the only thing that sets us apart from every other people. Without you, we are just a bunch of crazy people in the desert. Without you, we are weak, lost, wandering. It is only when you travel with us that we have purpose. We only know where we are going when you lead the way. You are our strength, our direction, our reason for being.
And God responds again, “Yes Moses, I, I myself will go with you. You have my special approval. I know your name.”
God could not be any more explicit. “I will do exactly as you say. I myself will go with you. You have my special favor. I know you by name.” It is hard to imagine a way in which God could possibly be more affirming, more supportive, more encouraging to Moses. Moses gets to speak directly with God, just like one person to another. Moses receives stone tablets that are carved by God’s own hand. And when God does speak with Moses, it is to tell him how much God approves of him, how much he is loved, how much he is supported.
And yet, when Moses hears this, he is still unsure. He still has doubts. He still wants more proof. Moses says, “Please, God, show me your glorious presence. Please, show me your presence.”
Moses has had just about the closest relationship with God of any person in the Bible. And yet, even in the midst of that, Moses has doubts. Moses feels the absence of God.
And of course, he isn’t the first person to feel distant from God. Martin Luther, in his early career as an Augustinian monk, spent years in despair, meditating over and over on his sins, feeling alienated from God. He had trouble sensing the presence of Christ, and when he did, it was only as a judge and disciplinarian. He was devoting his whole life to prayer and the service of God, and yet he could not sense God’s goodness.
John Wesley records in his journal a time when he felt distant from God. He felt that he had no faith. He says that he was “convinced of unbelief, of the want of that faith whereby alone we are saved.” Wesley was so distraught by this, that he decided he should stop preaching. After all, how could he preach to others if he himself didn’t have faith in God? He happened to be with a friend, Peter Boehler, a Moravian missionary. So he asked Boehler what he thought, should Wesley stop preaching until he found faith? “By no means,” Boehler replied. “But what can I preach?” Wesley asked. Boehler responded with these words: “Preach faith till you have it; and then, because you have it, you will preach faith.”
I think this happens to Christians far more often than we care to admit. We find ourselves in moments of faithlessness. I don’t necessarily mean times that we are particularly sinful or times that we are trying to run away from God. I mean times when we are trying to find God, trying to feel God’s presence, trying to believe, and yet, we can’t seem to do it. God seems far away. God seems absent altogether. We look around for signs of God, and we don’t see anything. It’s not that we don’t want to see. We look and we see only the world. There is no sense of the presence of God, no sense even of the existence of God.
One of the greatest saints of the twentieth century is Mother Teresa of Calcutta. Her name is often used as a synonym for absolute devotion to God. And yet, after her death, letters were released revealing that for about forty years, she struggled with feelings of unbelief. “Jesus has a very special love for you,” she wrote to a spiritual advisor. “As for me, the silence and emptiness is so great that I look and do not see, listen and do not hear. The tongue moves but does not speak.” Elsewhere she wrote, “The smile is a mask or a cloak that covers everything. I spoke as if my very heart was in love with God, a tender personal love. If you were there you would have said, ‘What hypocrisy’.” And again, she wrote, “Lord, my God, you have thrown me away as unwanted—unloved. I call, I cling, I want, and there is no one to answer, no, no one. Alone. Where is my faith? Even deep down right in there is nothing. I have no faith. I dare not utter the words and thoughts that crowd in my heart.” Even for someone as seemingly close to God as Mother Teresa, there were still times of deep doubt, still times of feeling alone or as if God does not exist.
I admit that for me there have also been such times. I used to describe the world as sticky with God’s fingerprints, that there was evidence of God’s hand of creation in every part of the natural world. And I remember distinctly the first time that I looked out at an incredibly beautiful scene of God’s creation, and instead of feeling inspired and close to God, I felt empty. I felt as if there was no God, the world being just a random collection of atoms and molecules. It was shocking, not anything I had ever expected to feel, not anything that I had ever worried about before. And yet, there I was, faithless and not knowing what to do.
I prayed for God to give me a sign, to give me some sense of God’s presence, but I felt nothing. I reviewed in my mind those times in the past when I had felt closest to God, and yet they now seemed strangely empty. I felt like a hypocrite. I had focused my life on service to God, and yet I couldn’t feel the God I was entrusted to preach and teach. Occasionally there would be a tiny spark of something, and then it would dissipate just as quickly as it had come. Even now, I still sometimes have those times of feeling God’s absence. Not always, but sometimes.
It’s not something we often talk about, is it? But I imagine many of you have had similar feelings at one time or another. Perhaps even today you are sitting there unsure of why or whether you should be here, uncertain about whether God exists, or if there is a God, if God could possibly be spared a moment for you, if God could possibly love you.
If you are feeling that today. I want to say this first: you are not alone. We all have times of doubt. We all have times of unbelief. We all have times of faithlessness. Even people who have been in the church their whole lives. Even pastors. Even religious luminaries like Teresa and Wesley and Luther. Even Moses, in the midst of conversing with God, could doubt and plead, “Please show me your presence.” Even Jesus hanging on the cross could cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” You are not alone.
And second, I want to say this: we are in this together. When one of us is weak, we hold each other up. When my faith is weak, I know that the others here are praying my part as well. When your faith is weak, we will pray your part for you. Christ calls us together into a community, into family in which we all have responsibility for each other. When you are down, we will hold you up, knowing well that it time you will return the favor. We are in this together.
And third, let me say: there is every reason for hope. If you are feeling distant from God today, know that there are others who have been where you are now and have moved through doubt into faith and grace. You do not need to will yourself to have faith. You do not need to fix yourself. Faith is not an accomplishment; faith is a gift of God. It will come. It may not be today or tomorrow, but it will come. And in the meantime, follow the advice of Peter Boehler. Preach faith till you have it; and then, because you have it, you will preach faith. Or might we say, live faith till you have it; and then, because you have it, you will live faith.
Will you pray with me…