November 16, 2014 – Practicing the presence of God

Exodus 33:12-23

Moses said to the Lord, “See, you have said to me, ‘Bring up this people’; but you have not let me know whom you will send with me. Yet you have said, ‘I know you by name, and you have also found favor in my sight.’ Now if I have found favor in your sight, show me your ways, so that I may know you and find favor in your sight. Consider too that this nation is your people.” He said, “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.” And he said to him, “If your presence will not go, do not carry us up from here. For how shall it be known that I have found favor in your sight, I and your people, unless you go with us? In this way, we shall be distinct, I and your people, from every people on the face of the earth.” The Lord said to Moses, “I will do the very thing that you have asked; for you have found favor in my sight, and I know you by name.” Moses said, “Show me your glory, I pray.” And he 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.” And the Lord continued, “See, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock; and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.”

Exodus 40:34-38

Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. Moses was not able to enter the tent of meeting because the cloud settled upon it, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. Whenever the cloud was taken up from the tabernacle, the Israelites would set out on each stage of their journey; but if the cloud was not taken up, then they did not set out until the day that it was taken up. For the cloud of the Lord was on the tabernacle by day, and fire was in the cloud by night, before the eyes of all the house of Israel at each stage of their journey.

Colossians 1:3-6,9-14

In our prayers for you we always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, for we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that you have for all the saints, because of the hope laid up for you in heaven. You have heard of this hope before in the word of the truth, the gospel that has come to you. Just as it is bearing fruit and growing in the whole world, so it has been bearing fruit among yourselves from the day you heard it and truly comprehended the grace of God…. For this reason, since the day we heard it, we have not ceased praying for you and asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so that you may lead lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, as you bear fruit in every good work and as you grow in the knowledge of God. May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light. He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.

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Pentecost 23 November 16, 2014 Exodus 33:12-23, 40:34-38, Colossians 1:3-6, 9-14           Practicing the presence of God

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In days of old God spoke to people, and people spoke with God. God’s presence was communicated in conversation with friends of God, with whom God chooses to speak – especially Abraham in Genesis – especially Moses in the next four books of the bible – both of whom speak with God, friend to friend, face-to-face…

The problem is – God doesn’t always have many friends to speak with…

Just before where we began our reading today in Exodus, God talks to Moses, one of God’s most intimate conversation partners, about Israel, saying, ‘it’s time for you all to be moving on – and I’m not going with you.’ Up to now, God’s been appearing as a pillar of fire by night, a pillar of cloud by day – leading Israel out from slavery in Egypt, through the wilderness, to Mount Sinai, where the law is given.

But when Israel worships the golden calf while Moses is still receiving the law from God on the mountain (in last week’s episode), now all bets appear to be off. Now God says, “I’ll send an angel to go with you, but I won’t go. If I did, Israel would end up as toast.”

Moses intercedes, again, as he has before, reasoning and pleading with God for Israel…Saying ‘it’s only your presence, Lord, that makes us different from all other peoples. We need your personal presence, Lord, or we can’t even go…’ And God relents and agrees, it seems, mostly for the sake of his friendship with Moses.

Moses is God’s friend, and he wants to see God face-to-face. Wants to know God, more and more intimately. Which is exactly what God wants also. But ‘Nobody can see me and live,’ God says. (Talking with God face-to-face is encouraged – but seeing God’s pure essence would blow all our circuits, and we’d indeed go up in smoke… Which is not what God really wants….)

‘You’re my friend, Moses, I know you by name,’ God says. ‘I’ll give you a glimpse of my glory. I’ll speak my name that’s too holy for words. But sorry, that’s the best I can do.’

And the book of Exodus comes to a close with these vivid images of God’s holy presence – the pillar of cloud by day, the pillar of fire by night. God speaking with Moses in intimate conversation. God’s presence filling the tent of meeting – so intensely even Moses can’t go in…The last images in the book of Exodus are of God’s clear and over-flowing holy presence…

In the days of Exodus, practicing the presence of God appears relatively simple… Watch the pillar of cloud and fire…Follow where it leads. Watch Moses as he goes in and out from the tent of meeting, face aglow with God’s presence. We can’t see God face-to-face – but we can see the presence of God, vibrant and alive…

Even so – not everyone seems to notice God’s presence… Israel still often goes astray following other gods… (But thankfully – )

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Finally, Jesus is born in human flesh, and lives among us, full of grace and truth. For a brief moment in time, we can see God face-to-face, and live. Yet this moment is so quickly here and gone. And even while he’s among us, still Jesus often goes unrecognized… (Even when doing what only God can do.)

So, how then, are we to know the presence of God?

And the best answer I know…is still, as Brother Lawrence wrote 300 years ago in his book, The Practice of the Presence of God – which is to be in constant, intimate conversation with God… Checking our conversation frequently with God’s word in scripture, to be sure it’s really God we’re talking with…

Brother Lawrence said it took him a long time – ten years – to really learn to pray. But once he figured out it was all about staying in conversation with God, all the time – washing the dishes, doing his day job repairing shoes, walking, whatever – then it all became relatively simple. And, he would say, if I forget, now God will always remind me, if I’ve left a conversation dangling… (And in a similar mode–)

All scripture is designed to be read as conversation with God… All conversation with God is designed to connect us with God and with God’s holy story…

Exodus, the second book of the bible (which we’re now completing our sermon series in) is above all, the story of God’s presence made known among God’s people. The story of Israel’s journey of faith. The story of how God brought Israel out from slavery – and gave the Torah – meaning the law, commandments, ordinances, and teachings of God. The first installment of what’s now our bible – given for all generations, for instruction and training in freedom’s ways. A story, again, about the presence of God in the life of God’s people, in holy conversation.

Exodus is also a parable and paradigm. Israel is God’s prototype for all the nations. And St Paul tells us we too are part of Israel, now, co-inheritors of her promises – participants in the ongoing exodus journey and conversation with God.

In Christ, now, we’re in the ultimate New Exodus, promised by the prophets of Israel. The early church knew the exodus story was all about God rescuing Israel from slavery. “Redemption,” they also knew, was the common term for freeing slaves. So the church understood what’s said in Colossians – when we’re told – God “has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” The church in Colosse could understand Paul’s making heavy use of exodus imagery to explain the New Exodus, in which God is rescuing and redeeming us from sin and death into the light of Christ’s kingdom. And because Christ is making us to be his New Creation….

Reading on in Colossians, we see God inviting us, now, one and all, into the same kind of intimate conversation that once only Moses, Abraham, and a very few others enjoyed and shared in…

Colossians is written to encourage us to join in the intimate conversation with God – and grow deeper in our conversation with God. Written to help us grow in the love of God and neighbor…Bearing spiritual fruit in Christ…nurtured by the presence of God.

The apostle Paul is praising the church for it’s faith, hope, and love – and urging the church to keep seeking to know God’s will in every situation. So the church won’t be led astray, as Israel often was, into worship of idols… The temptation the Colossians were facing, we learn later in this letter, had to do with trusting in philosophies and theologies that conflict with or distort Christian faith.

Which is still an issue for us today… Since anything that claims more of our attention than God ends up being our god. And it’s a bit like computer viruses – 10,000 new ones are invented every day – and there’s no end to the things that can claim our attention away from God… Even good things can become idols easily…

Already in the early church, discerning the presence of God, the will of God, is no longer as simple… as keeping our eyes on the pillar of fire and cloud, night and day… Already even the words of Jesus have been mis-interpreted in ways that threaten to take us far from Jesus.

And with many voices speaking loudly, some saying one thing, others another, it’s seldom easy to discern the will of God in every situation – even when we’re really trying, as Colossians says to do…

Discerning the particulars of the will of God is not easy… I remember one of my house mates in seminary, John, a large,big-hearted guy – 300 pounds, six foot six. A gentle pastor with more than 20 years experience, who was finishing his doctoral thesis on John Wesley’s theology…Telling us a story one day, of how, once, he was really feeling he needed to know God’s will for himself much better than he did… And he asked his spiritual director, a small, older, Catholic nun who, he said, weighed about ninety pounds, ‘how can I know God’s will? How can I know exactly what I should be doing?’

And the nun, his spiritual director, he said, stood up close to his face, looked him in the eye, and said – “Who the hey do you think you are? … The angels in heaven don’t know that!”

“Of course,” she continued… after a pause – “you know what Jesus said. Of course you know to read your bible every day, and pray always. Of course you know to be faithful in the life of your church. Of course you know to feed the hungry, visit the sick, welcome the stranger… Of course you know to do all that without having to be told!”

And we laughed as John told the story. But not everyone knows what Jesus said. Not everyone knows what a gift the word of God is for us…(Not everyone knows… the story of God’s Good News, that Jesus tells us… to teach to all the world…)

When we know the bible we know God is love (1st John 4). And we know that’s not the same as saying ‘love is God.’ From the bible we know God is everywhere (Psalm 139, Acts 17 – ‘in him we live and move and have our being…’). And we know there are places we still ought not to go looking for God. As well as places we should go – places like right here in church – that help us draw closer to God.

We know “All scripture is inspired by God and useful for teaching, correction, reproof and training in righteousness, so that all God’s people may be thoroughly equipped for every good work,” as Second Timothy (3:16) tells us. We know the word of God is foundational. Our record of how God has made himself known in the past…Our book of holy precedents and heavenly previews…We know the bible tells us – we need the Holy Spirit to help us understand the bible. We need the Bible to help us understand the Holy Spirit. We know it’s both-and by God’s design.

And as in the beginning… God’s presence is made known most clearly…in intimate conversation with God – friend-to-friend, as in the beginning – but now with a huge difference – because now Jesus calls us his friends – if we do what he’s commanded… And his commandment is for us to love God and love one another… And we can all do that, with Christ’s help…

And now with hearts and minds open to God, in prayer, in worship, in study of God’s word, in fellowship, in service – listening well for what God says – We know the presence of God… We know…we’re on this journey, in this holy conversation, together, for the long-run, with our gracious and loving God…

Thanks be to God. Amen.