The Hidden Face of God

by Elaine Maust
Psalm 80: 1-7, 17-19 and Isaiah 64: 1-8
Advent 1
November 30, 2008

“Oh God, we wish you would tear open heaven and come down here to the earth! We want you to come down to earth with such a blast that the mountains tremble” (from Isaiah 64:1)

At least we think we do. Isaiah 64 begins this cry of a prayer. Does this prayer sound familiar? Does God seem far away sometimes? Ever wish that God would show up in your living room or kitchen for once so that you could have a real face to face conversation?

Turn with me to two passages for today’s sermon. Isaiah 64 and Psalm 80. Can you keep your finger in each as we turn back and forth and I pour these two passages together into one sermon? Psalm 80 is a lament, a sad poem or song. Psalms like this remind me we can say anything to God. He’s already heard every possible human emotion. In fact they are recorded right here in the Bible.

It was written by Asaph and to be sung to the tune of “The Lilies of the Covenant.” Theresa, do you know that tune?

Isaiah 64 is a combination of hope and despair. Join me as we explore these beautiful passages and listen for God.

Like I said, Isaiah 64 begins with… (Is. 64:1) So, why does God seem so distant and mysterious sometimes? Well, in the first place, because God is distant and mysterious. You’ve probably heard me say that anyone who attempts a relationship with a divine spirit better have a taste for a mystery.

God is the one beyond knowing. Ps. 80:1b invites us to picture God as the great king sitting on a throne between the cherubim. Repeatedly Psalm 80:3,7,19 calls God, The Lord God Almighty. God is the Lord of the universe, the creator, in charge of all the angles and the planets. God is perfectly capable, for that matter, of tearing open the heavens as Isaiah 64 says.

But Ps. 80:1 describes God as a shepherd. As I’ve said before, I grew up on a farm with sheep. Sheep require great patience. Maybe that’s why the Bible keeps using the idea of God being a shepherd and us the sheep.

And God is our Father, who created humanity in an intimate and tender way. Is. 64:8. This verse reminds me of God’s Trombones and the line about God bending over the clay like a mammy bent over her child and forming a man out of the good black dirt.

Okay, so compared to God, we are like a play dough project. No wonder God seems far away. This God is no human person. No indeed.

But there’s something else that makes us feel far away from God. You know what it is, don’t you? It’s sin. Some of you have told me the line, “If God seems far away, guess who moved.”

Is. 64:5b-7. The refrain, found three times in Ps. 80 is, “Restore us, O Lord God Almighty: make your face shine upon us, that we may be saved.” Sin separates us from God.

But there are other times in our lives when God’s face seems to slip behind a cloud. When the God who feels intimate seems to go missing. “Make your face shine upon us” is a fair response. Sometimes it is grief, sometimes pain, sometimes there seems no explanation. I had a time like this after Katrina. Ps. 80:4-6

In those times we share the sentiments of Asaph’s. Ps. 80:2b-3. Come on, God! We know you can do something! Shine your face on us and save us.

“Strike the thick cloud of unknowing with the sharp dart of longing love, and on no account think of giving up.” (The Cloud of Unknowing, c. 1370)

But here’s the thing, we humans also have a tendency to avoid contact with God. Even though we say we want God come blasting down or to shine his face on us, when we do have those unmistakable experiences with God, sometimes it’s a bit of a shock to the system. Maybe a little bit like unexpectedly hooking up to 220. Just a little bit too much power.

Isaiah felt like that in Is. 6:5 when he had his vision of God. Repentance is a good platform from which to prepare to meet God. Is. 64:9

Throughout history, God’s been out looking for his lost sheep of humanity. You remember the stories. Adam and Eve sin and God goes walking through the garden calling for them. The Israelites are lost in the misery of Egyptian slavery and God sends Moses to find them and lead them out. The Old Testament is one story after another of the shepherd God, the potter God, tenderly reaching out to people. Is. 64:4-5a

But it was never enough. The people still wanted to know God, most of the time. But instead of responding to what they knew about God, lived like blind people. Reaching. Almost knowing, but never understanding. Never getting the picture.

And God wanted to express love and deliverance all the time. So what was God to do? How could people get to know what God was like?

This is a story from my childhood. I know the storyteller was the president of the Southern Baptist convention at that time, but I don’t know his name.

There was once a man who didn’t believe in God. His family went to church and that was okay with him. But the whole God business just didn’t make sense to him. Especially the part about God becoming a human, a baby… “Well, believe what you want to, just don’t expect me to believe,” that was his approach.

It was Christmas Eve and his wife and kids left for church and he settled down to quiet evening at home. The TV, the paper, his chair. The house to himself. It was snowing.

After a while he heard a thump on the window. What was that? Pretty soon. Thump again. Curious. He got up from the chair and walked over to the window to see what was going on. A little flock of birds appeared to be trying to fly through the big front window into his house. “Stupid birds,” he thought and went back to his chair.

Thump. Thump. Okay, that was enough. He got up, put on his coat and went outside. He turned on the light in the shed and opened both doors wide. Then he went around to the front of the house and tried to chase the birds toward the shed. No luck. He tried and tried. No progress.

Without meaning to, he realized he was talking to the birds. “You birds, why don’t you trust me? I’m trying to help you! Stop flying around like crazy and go into the shed. You’re just going to hurt yourselves flying into the window. Listen to me.”

He stopped. This was ridiculous. Here he was out in the snow exhausting himself over some stupid birds. He knew that the only way he could ever win their trust, the only way they would really understand that he cared about them was to become a bird himself and show them the way into the shed.

And then, just at that moment, the church bells rang celebrating the God who became a human to show people the way.

God sent Jesus, his son to a world full of humans who wanted to know God face to face. God came to us with skin and blood, bones and a grin, his hair in his eyes. God with a human scent. Who ate and walked and worked like any person. And get this, Jesus said, “Anyone who has seen me, has seen the father.” (John 14:9) Through Jesus humanity discovered first hand that God can heal and forgive and that God has power over the elements, the storms and the wind.

That’s why Advent is such a big deal. During advent we anticipate the coming of God all over again. We join all the prophets who wondered what God will look like and how God would behave. We join those who begged for God to come. Those who cried out for centuries (Ps. 80:3b) Get ready. Repent. Jesus is coming. Ps. 80:17-19.

But wait. Jesus has come and gone. It has been 2000 years since the human face of God walked around on the earth. There is no visible face of God in our time. We find ourselves waiting all over again. We are waiting for the day when Jesus will return and we will see his face shining on us and we will be once and for all and forever saved.

“Make your face shine upon us, that we may be saved.” Ps. 80:19

In the meantime, we get glimpses of the face of God. I will see a snapshot of God’s face when I see our grandbaby. But I also see the face of God when I look into your eyes. I see God in creation. I get to know God as I read the Bible. I can see God in the transformation that is happening in all of our lives. Matthew 25 reminds us that the face of God is also the face of the prisoner, the needy and the sick.

Ah, God is all around us. Are we watching? Paying attentions? Will we notice? Here are the words of the poet Elizabeth Browning…

“Earth is crammed with heaven. Every bush is aflame with the fire of God, but only those who see take off their shoes. The rest just pick the berries.”

And here is something else that amazes me. We can see the face of God in the mirror. That scares me a little bit. Does that scare you? When I look in the mirror, frankly I see an old white woman with graying hair and crooked teeth. I don’t see God. But Advent invites us to look again. To open our eyes as we look around and discover the face of God. To be on the watch for God’s face in the most unlikely place. Even in the mirror.

“Restore us, O Lord God Almighty;
Make your face shine upon us,
That we may be saved” Ps. 80:19

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