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Tuesday, October 11, 2011
Lectionary Scriptures: Exodus 33:12-23 AND Psalm 99:1-9 OR Isaiah 45:1-7 AND Psalm 96:1-13, I Thessalonians 1:1-10, Matthew 22:15-22

One dictionary definition of “gasp” is to “catch one’s breath with an open mouth, from pain, breathlessness, or astonishment.” Today I’m most interesting in the “astonishment” part. What makes us gasp with astonishment?

Gasping in astonishment can be one aspect of worship. When’s the last time we did such “gasping” in worship. Last Sunday at Kairos-Milwaukie United Church of Christ came close to be a gasping experience.

The Bible sometimes uses the words “glory” and “holy” to describe things that might make us gasp in astonishment. Both words appear in lectionary readings for this Sunday.

In a story which seems a bit humorous, Moses wants to see God’s “glory.” (Exodus 33:18) Moses has been given a big assignment by God, to lead the children of Israel “to a land flowing with milk and honey . . .” (Exodus 33:3) All along, Moses has been less than fully confident about his role as leader. Now he wants to know if God is going to back him up or not. God promises, “My presence will go with you . . .” (vs. 14) Moses wants to know a little bit more about that presence. He wants to see what resources God has to offer. He wants to see God’s “glory,” i.e., in this case, literally how “well-armed” God is. There are other places in the Bible where “glory” is a kind of brightness, a blinding light—in the New Testament “doxa,” the Greek word from which we get “doxology.” Here it is a military word. How will God protect Moses and the people as they find their way to this new land? It’s interesting that God reframes things in his answer. His first response to Moses’ request is “I will make my goodness pass before you,” my “goodness,” not my military might. (vs. 19)

The word “holy,” appears three times in Psalm 99. It is a great Psalm of gasping astonishment in the presence of God, “mighty king, lover of justice . . .” (Psalm 99:4) It is a call to “praise” his “great and awesome name . . . Extol the Lord our God; worship at his footstool.” (vss. 3 & 5—See also vs. 9) In each call there is the declaration, “Holy is he! . . . for the Lord our God is holy” To call something holy is to declare that it is special, set apart of a special purpose, “boundaries” drawn around it. It is as if there are boundaries beyond which we are not able to go in knowing all that God is. There is an “unknowable” aspect to God, beyond which we cannot see. We can only gasp in astonishment!

But Moses wants to see beyond those boundaries. Don’t we all. Many want to see God so clearly that there is no longer any mystery. We have God packaged and ready to sell.

But God says, “No, there are limits.” In the Exodus story it gets expressed in an almost crude way. “Stand over there by the rock, Moses, and I’ll let you see my back side,” God says. (Exodus 33:22-23) Perhaps the story for the people of Israel, as these stories were shared and recorded many years later, meant they had broken through to a new understanding. While the people around them worshiped carved and sculpted and molded images, the God of Moses, the God who led them through the wilderness, was much bigger than that.

Whatever the story meant to those early Israelites, it is a reminder to us that some days we need to spend more time gasping and less time trying to get a photograph of God. If we have such a photograph, we can proudly take it along as a talisman to protect us on the journey, or place it in an album to show people exactly what God looks like. I’m reminded of the girl who was drawing a picture. Her mother asked what she was drawing. The response: “A picture of God.” Mom quickly reminded her that no one knows what God looks like. “They will when I get done,” the girl said. We’re sometimes so busy trying to draw the perfect picture that we forget to gasp at the mystery just beyond our vision.

Psalm 96 continues to gasp in God’s presence. “Declare his glory among the nations . . . for great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised . . . For all the gods of the peoples are idols . . . Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name . . . Worship the Lord in holy splendor . . .” (Psalm 96: 3-5 & 8-9) The reading from Isaiah depicts a God who calls us by our name (Isaiah 45:3), but is so holy and glorious that we do not know all of the divine fullness. “I call you by your name but you do not know me. I am the Lord, and there is no other; besides me there is no god.” (vss. 4-5)

The Gospel lesson also calls us to ask what “god” we serve. As is so often the case, there are those who are out to trick Jesus into making a treasonous statement. (Matthew 22:15) This time the question has to do with paying taxes. It could be used as a timely text relevant to today’s tax rebellions. (vss. 16-17) Jesus’ answer, though, pushes the discussion to a whole different level. He asks for a coin and asks whose image is on it. (vss. 19-20) When they acknowledge that it is the emperor’s head, Jesus says, “Give . . . to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” (vs. 21) There is no definition of what is God’s and what is the emperor’s. We could make it a story about not being drawn into the pursuit of money, or about looking to the emperor to provide answers and solutions. Taxes, riches, political power—all these things are in the story—but at its core, it simply asks, “Whom do you worship?” What causes you to gasp in astonishment? Are you like the crowd that screams when a celebrity passes by or are you more inspired when you see the self-giving spirit of Love at work? Those who heard Jesus on this day “were amazed.” (vs. 22) Sometimes it is a masterful comment that makes us “gasp” because it challenges, and perhaps even changes, the way we see reality.

If the Exodus passage, however, has Moses trying to get a glimpse of God, Paul, in I Thessalonians, suggests another place to look. He describes people who are engaged in a “work of love and labor of love” (I Thessalonians 1:3) They are “imitators” of Paul and “of the Lord.” (vs. 6) Because of that they are “an example” to others. “ . . . in every place your faith in God has become known, so we have no need to speak about it.” (vs. 8) Although we can never see the fulness of God’s glory, we can sometimes see it in loving deeds undertaken by people of faith. In fact, Jesus once said, “ . . . let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” There’s that word “glory” again, now perhaps shining forth from us. Part of our “gasping” when we gather to worship may occur when we look around at the people around us and hear about all the good works that are being undertaken through the many ministries of our congregation.

It may be that we ourselves are the back side God exposes to the world. Gasp!


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Kairos-Milwaukie UCC Blog

Reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary by Rev. Rick Skidmore and Rev. Jim Ogden.

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