A sermon delivered by David Hughes, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Winston-Salem, Nc., on October 16, 2011.
I know of nothing in this world that is more important, and more mysterious than God’s presence. Consider the case of Mother Teresa.
For many years now, if you wanted to refer to the top Christian of our day, you would speak either of Mother Teresa, or Billy Graham, or both. And when it came to selfless service among the poor, Mother Teresa, who founded the Sisters of Charity in Calcutta, India, was the icon of all icons until her death in 1997. A winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, nobody seemed closer to God, or more clearly embodied the Spirit of Christ than Mother Teresa. Teresa has not been declared a saint in the Catholic Church…yet. But everybody assumes it’s just a matter of time.
That’s why the 2007 release of the book, Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light caused such a stir. The book is a compilation of correspondence between Teresa and her confessors and superiors over 66 years. And what it reveals about Teresa’s sense of God’s absence in her life shocked the world.
Notice, for example, the passage from the book printed in today’s worship folder…
“I am told God loves me—and yet the reality of the darkness
and coldness and emptiness is so great that
nothing touches my soul…What tortures of loneliness…
I wonder how long will my heart suffer like this?”
In her early years, Teresa enjoyed a close, even intimate relationship with God in Jesus Christ. It was Christ, in a vivid vision, who called her at age 36 to stop her teaching and start ministry to the poorest of the poor in the slums of Calcutta. Later she had another visitation with Jesus as he hung on the cross. So close was Teresa to Jesus that she called him her “spouse”.
But then began in 1946 an extended period of God’s absence, or what St. John of the Cross called the “Dark Night of the Soul.” Except for a five week period in 1959 when Teresa felt reconnected with God, she experienced dryness in her soul driven by the remoteness of her Christ for the best part of 50 years. And amazingly, over that half-century of God’s perceived absence, she ministered to others so completely and profoundly that she is still considered a paragon of the Christian faith.
Teresa’s private letters reveal her belief that to be without the presence in Christ is to be without everything. Nothing else mattered to Teresa, including her fame. She finally came to make sense of her experience of God-forsakenness as the answer to her prayer to suffer fully with Jesus on the Cross. Just as Jesus had felt forsaken by God on the cross, so would she in her heart for a half-century. And just as Jesus had profoundly impacted the world, so would she.
Mother Teresa’s experience of God’s presence and absence reminds me of the story of Moses. Nobody experienced God’s presence more intimately in Old Testament days than Moses. And yet nobody dreaded more the potential absence of God than this founding leader of the nation of Israel.
If you’ve been with us in recent weeks, you know we’ve been following the exploits of Moses and the Israelites as they escaped Egyptian bondage and began the long journey to the Promised Land. Last Sunday we reviewed how Moses prayed a scandalous prayer of intercession for the wayfaring Israelites after they fashioned a golden calf to worship while God and Moses were away for their summit conference on Mount Sinai recording the Ten Commandments. God was boiling over with rage that the very people he had rescued and resourced were so quick to forsake him for a mere idol. Not once but twice Moses had to stand in the breach between God and his people to save them from being burned to a crisp on the spot.
In Exodus 33, the drama continues. God commands Moses to lead the Israelites away from the foot of Mt. Sinai to the Promised Land. God will send an angel, he says, to protect the Israelites from enemies along the way. And then God adds, “But I will not go with you, or I would consume you along the way, for you are a stiff-necked people.”
When the people heard these harsh words, they mourned (vv.3-4a). Did the ever! The Israelites may have been a foolish and disobedient people, but they were not dumb. They realized without the presence of God they were in a very precarious position with little or no future. Instantly, they began to surrender their remaining jewelry to Moses, the same kind of jewelry they used to construct the first golden idol. God had apparently commanded them to do so, and they complied, aware that in order to get back into the good graces of God they would need to put aside all that competed with their affection for God.
By the way, this might be a word of wisdom for those of us who feel far from God. Could it be that our difficulty with feeling God’s presence arises from the tight grip we maintain on those things (idols) that compete for our loyalty to God?
While the Israelites struggled to reestablish their ruptured relationship with God, Moses met God on a regular basis in a “tent of meeting.” Moses would periodically enter this tent located outside the camps and God would join Moses in a “pillar of cloud” where he would speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend (v.11). This meeting between God and Moses was so monumental and profound that the Israelites would stop what they were doing, and bow down and worship at the entrance of their own tents.
In is during one of these meetings in the tent that Moses begins praying another of his bold, shameless, even scandalous prayers of intercession to God. Moses reminds God that he has no idea how to get the Israelites to the Promised Land, and there is no one identified to guide them. “If I have found favor in your sight,” Moses says to God, “show me your ways, so that I may know you and find favor in your sight. Consider too that this nation is your people.”
God answers without hesitation. “My presence (literally, my “face”) will go with you, and I will give you rest.” And we are reminded of what the future Son of God will later say to Jewish people who know the burden of keeping the Law far better than the Giver of the Law. “Come to me,” Jesus said, “all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me…and you will find rest for your souls” (Matthew 11:28-29).
You would think God’s answer would put Moses’ concerns to rest, but Moses is far from satisfied. Yes, God has promised his presence to Moses. But it’s still unclear that God will be present with the Israelites.
So Moses presses his case further. “If your presence will not go, do not carry us 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.”
Now Moses is getting to the heart of the matter. He understands that it’s not just a successful journey to the Promised Land that’s in jeopardy apart from God’s presence. The very existence of Israel is at stake. The only thing that makes Israel distinct, and coincidentally, that makes Israel viable is the presence of God among his people. Without God’s presence, Israel is nothing. Without God’s presence, Israel has no chance of surviving, much less thriving.
I can only hope that as you hear this word about Israel some light bulbs are going off in your head about our church, and the Church of Jesus Christ. From the very beginning, the Church was designed to be the embodiment of the presence of Christ. We are called to be Christ’s presence in a world of darkness and pain, the same chaotic world that existed in more primitive fashion in Moses’ day.
The perennial temptation faced by every church is its tendency to believe that what really keeps it going is not God’s presence but human resources and plans. We are smart people with clever programs and costly, state-of-the-art facilities. We may even have a mission statement and a strategic plan to guide us forward. Somehow in our pride and folly we forget that unless the Lord goes with us in all that do, we don’t have a chance of surviving, much less thriving as Christ’s church! Yes, we can go on our own steam for a while, maybe quite a while. But sooner or later the human energy runs dry, and the clever plans go awry, and the church flounders and eventually fails.
Friends, if we are going to be a faithful witness of Christ, we must always be asking questions like, “Have we run ahead of Christ? Have we run away from God in our own stubborn pride?” Because unless God goes with us, we will ultimately go nowhere.
This explains, by the way, why it is so important that we spend the necessary time and effort to discern the will of God for our lives and for our church. What you and I want to do always, always needs to be secondary to what God is already doing, and wants to do in our midst. My wisdom, my preferences may sound good, but they cannot be counted on to sustain a church. Neither can yours. Only God’s Spirit, harnessed to do God’s will, can make a church thrive in this world.
Again, God relents rather quickly to Moses’ request for God’s presence with his people, and now surely Moses is satisfied. But Moses apparently always wants more of God than he already has. And while Moses’ hutzpah with God seems foolish, who can condemn someone who wants more of God?
Moses said, “Show me your glory, I pray.”
In his first meeting with God, Moses asked God to tell him his name. Just moments earlier Moses asked God to show him his ways. Now, Moses is “swinging for the fences” with his request that God show him his glory. The glory of God is not only the outward might and majesty of God, represented by the matter of cloud and the column of fire. The glory of God is the inner core of God, what makes God God.
In essence, Moses is asking to become privy to all the intricacies of God. It would be as if I came up to you and asked you to tell me everything—and I do mean everything—about you so that no stone in your life is left unturned. In other words, the audacity of Moses’ request for God to show and tell all is so over the top that words like “breathtaking” don’t begin to do it justice.
God’s response is so revealing…and concealing at the same time. God promises to show Moses his goodness, and graciousness, and mercy. And this may be what Moses unconsciously wants to know most of all. Because it’s not enough to know that God exists, or even that God is present. What we all want to know in our heart of hearts is that despite our many failings and foibles God still loves us and cherishes us as his own. Until or unless we have that assurance, our very existence is in jeopardy.
Then God makes it clear that while he’s given Moses lots of latitude up until now, Moses is not God. God is God. And being the sovereign God that he is, the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Moses will do what he wants to do. Consequently, God will not show Moses his face at close quarters. For one thing, the inner core of God is a mystery, and will remain a mystery even to the likes of Moses. For another thing, Moses couldn’t see God’s face and live to talk about it, any more than he could gaze at the sun and not be blinded. So God shows Moses his back-side as he shelters Moses in the cleft of a rock. And that’s as close as any human being has gotten to God, except of course, Jesus.
The truth is, while God is always present with us in some way, few of us are perfectly aware of that presence moment to moment. The truth is, the presence of God is so mysterious that it’s helpful to know someone like Mother Teresa, and even Moses struggled to hold on to a sense of God’s presence.
The truth is I don’t always feel the presence of God, or the promised rest of Jesus. But the truth also is, just my unmitigated longing for God is one proof he is here. And my desire to stay in his presence is evidence that he is with me.
Even so, we see through a glass darkly and like Mother Teresa we stumble about in darkness more than we care to admit. We may find ourselves wishing God would show even his back side to us as he did to Moses.
The truth is, those who’ve seen Jesus have seen God’s face. The Spirit of Christ is with us even in the darkness. And if we’ll stay close to him, he will get us to the Promised Land.