What does God look like?
I have 3 little grandchildren and one of them asks theological questions. I don’t know why, but it is just this one child and his questions range from the personal concerns of a young child to bigger questions that have been debated by many minds for many years. He can ask his questions at Sunday School and at his scripture class at school, but quite often he saves them up until I visit. I think that I am like the doctor that you go to for a second opinion. My daughter tries to let me know these questions in advance if she can, so that I have time to consider.
The latest one for my next visit is What does God look like? This is one of those half-child and half-adult questions. As adults, we are more inclined to ask What is God like? Or we may mean something a bit different when we ask what God looks like. In the scriptures there are any number of accounts of God appearing to people or refusing to appear to people for their own good. Visions of God are often partial or symbolic or puzzling in some way.
Moses was probably the most privileged person in the Bible for personal encounters with God. Today we hear of his first encounter in the form of the blazing fiery bush that was not consumed but from which a voice spoke to him, charging him with an entirely new challenge and direction for his life.
The Lord first got Moses’ attention, calling him by name, then told Moses who it was that spoke to him and what was required of Moses. Like many of those called to God’s service, Moses had very human, understandable questions, reservations, worries. We may well ask these questions ourselves.
The first question was, Why me? Surely there is someone else better suited. The answer? It’s not just you. I will be with you We are doing this together.
The second question was, What if they ask me who you are? What should I say about you? And God gives him a package of information, a full CV: name, title, and history with Abraham and his descendants, the very people Moses is being sent to.
Our reading finishes there, but I think it is worth pursuing the conversation to its end.
The third question came in 2 parts. What if they don’t believe me? What if they don’t listen to me? The Lord God equipped Moses with miracles to convince the incredulous and with the assurance of God’s help with the speaking. Surely with God’s help; they will believe what they see and what they hear.
So, what did Moses say in reply to these answers and promises?
Oh my Lord, please send someone else.
Then God got a bit cross and said, take your staff for the miracles and take your brother for the talking and I will be with both of you.
Finally, Moses did go and the rest of his life was devoted to this task. Partway through the journey from Egypt to the Promised Land, the people were not happy and were being difficult. Moses was not happy. God was not happy. It seemed they would lose God’s favour, but the Lord responded to Moses’ pleas to continue to favour them and go with them. As an encouragement, Moses asked for a glimpse of God.
The LORD said to Moses, I will do the very thing that you have asked; for you have found favour in my sight, and I know you by name.
This knowing by name is important. When we hear name, we should also hear nature. Name reflects nature. One of the reasons God’s people did not speak God’s name was that they knew that their knowledge of God would always be incomplete and so their knowledge and use of God’s name was also intentionally limited. Moses was very aware of his limitations. He said, Show me your glory, I pray.
The glory of God is that which makes the presence of God known. Jesus often did things for the glory of God. They were not to show Jesus’ glory, but to show the power of God, to make God known to the people.
Moses will know God by his glory. What was that like? The Lord said, I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you the name, ‘The LORD’ and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. But, he said, you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.
This is what God is like. The Lord is not to be seen except by all goodness, and grace and mercy. The Lord is known by these things and by his relationship with his people.
The warning that to see the face of God was to die was not to be taken too literally. After all, God is Spirit, not body, even though we speak of the face of God and the hand of God, both in the Bible and in our own devotions. Shortly before this passage, we can read that the LORD used to speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend.
In Exodus 29:46, God’s self-declaration of the name expands another step, revealing the core of God’s nature as a desire to be present with God’s people: I am the LORD their God who brought them out of the land of Egypt that I might dwell with them.
If we move from the Old Testament to the Gospel, something has changed. It is possible to see the face of God in Jesus, God incarnate, made visible and approachable and accessible. In Jesus we see the glory, the goodness and mercy, the grace and compassion and faithfulness of the Father. His physical features were of lesser importance and not one of the Gospel writers described them.
We also see the way to the Father. It is to follow the Son in all that he commands and teaches, and in emulating the life that he lived, including the path of the cross. Peter could not bear the thought that Jesus should suffer and die, but Jesus rebuked him in the strongest possible terms. To follow Jesus was to put a lower priority even on our own lives. The disciples were to set aside the conventional wisdom of what was worth pursuing, and what price was worth paying. That is the way of the world. To follow Jesus was to have no greater priority and to be willing to pay the highest price.
If we see the face of God in Jesus, we should indeed die to the selves formed by this world and live as members of Christ, the one who shows us the face of God, the heart of God, the will of God, the kingdom of God.
If Christ dwells with us and we dwell with Christ, this is what the love of God looks like. If you run your eye over our Romans reading, Paul gives a vivid picture of what the love of God, the teaching of Jesus, the life of the disciple, looks like. It is the embodiment of God in thoughts and words and actions. If this is not what our lives look like, then we are not loving God and following Jesus. Love is not only the fulfillment of the law as Jesus said (Romans 13.10), it is the embodiment of faith, made incarnate in us as the body of Christ.
Are we prepared to lose our lives, to forfeit the easy approval of living in the way of the world, and to walk the tougher walk to the cross of self-denial and to ever seek the will of God for our lives? And what would that look like? It would look like divine love, like goodness and mercy and forgiveness and grace, that love which reaches out to the deserving and the undeserving alike, to neighbour and enemy, poured out generously in an open invitation to be a part of God’s Kingdom, a part of the body of Christ animated by the power of the Spirit.
Clayton Schmidt (a gifted theologian and musician) said: God’s power is revealed not in walks through the porticos of power, but through the dusty alleys of weakness and misery. That is where Jesus walked. That is where he leads us to walk. That is where he strengthens us to bear the burdens of discipleship. It is his burden we take upon our shoulders. It is his strength that bears the weight. We do nothing on our own, but he can do much through us. Without him, Peter was no rock, but a stumbling block. With him, Peter was the church. With him, we are not powerless to deny ourselves but able to bear all he may give us. Lloyd Ogilvie (a previous chaplain of the US Senate) once put it this way [and I think you will hear a little Moses in this]: “We say, ‘But, Lord, I cannot.’ And God says, ‘I’m glad to hear you say that. Through you, I can.'”
What does God look like for you and in you? And how would the world see that?
May we die to the world and find new life in Christ. Amen.