Sermon given at Matins on Sunday 27 December 2009
27 December 2009 at 10:00 am
The Reverend Dr Nicholas Sagovsky, Canon in Residence
Readings: Exod 33: 12-end; 1 John 2: 1-11
Today is the Feast day of St John, one of the disciples closest to Jesus. That is why our second reading came from the first letter attributed to St John, which may have been written by John himself or by someone close to him: the Johannine tradition includes the Fourth Gospel, the three letters of John, and the Book of Revelation.
Our first reading, specially selected for today, came from the Book of Exodus, and was about Moses. What, then, have Moses and John got in common? Moses was a great leader of the people. It was Moses who challenged Pharaoh to ‘Let my people go’. He led the people of Israel out of Egypt, through the parted waters of the Red Sea, into the wilderness. He was guided by God as he led them towards the land that had been promised to them, the land which at that time was populated by the people of Canaan. On the way through the Arabian wilderness, the Israelites halted at Mount Sinai. There Moses climbed the mountain and received the two tablets on which the law was written. The Book of Exodus tells us about all these things, and especially about the close relationship between Moses and God. In the verse just before the reading we heard, we are told, ‘The Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend.’ (Ex 33:11) This is an astonishing idea since it was widely believed – as we heard in our reading - that no human being could look at God’s face and live. It would be like looking directly at the sun. It would be something that is just too much for human beings to bear.
The passage we heard seems to come from an earlier part of the story: the text here may very well be out of order. If the Lord used to talk with Moses ‘face to face’, that must have given Moses a lot of confidence. He could bring his troubles, his fears and uncertainties to God, and God would talk to him, friend to friend. God was more trustworthy than any of the Israelites who had come with Moses: even his brother Aaron could not be trusted to stay loyal to God, and, once the going in the wilderness got tough, lots of the people joined in the grumbling. But, as far as Moses was concerned, God had brought the Israelites this far, and God wasn’t going to let them down now.
This may have been what Moses thought in his better moments. In other moments, he was likely to wobble, and to seek reassurance. Our reading seems to come from an earlier period when Moses has been given his task – he is to bring the people out of Egypt – but he still needs reassurance that God will go with them. Moses wants some extra sign that God won’t abandon them on their great journey, and God promises that sign. He will let Moses glimpse his glory, but not see his face. Seeing his face would at this stage be too much. Moses will be hidden in a place where the rock is split: he will see something of God, but he will not see his face:
Moses said, ‘Show me your glory, I pray.’ And [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.’ 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.’
The parallel between Moses and John is not particularly well brought out by the reading we heard this morning. The beginning of the whole letter makes it clearer:
We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us— we declare to you what we have seen and heard.
The Johannine writer is telling us – and there’s nothing quite like this in the rest of the New Testament - that he really did see and touch the person in whom God’s ‘word of life’ was revealed. He really had seen him ‘face to face’ and spoken with him as one speaks to a friend. In this, he was like Moses, but, unlike Moses, he had indeed, in a totally unexpected way, seen the glory of God. The first verses of John’s Gospel, which we heard on Christmas Day, speak of the way God’s Word, or God’s message, ‘became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth’ (cf. Jn 1:14). The thing that had not been permitted to Moses – to see the full glory of God – had been permitted to John, and to all those who saw Jesus ‘face to face’. God had so veiled his glory in Jesus that sinful human beings could look on his face and live.
What Moses and John have in common is that they are witnesses to the glory of God, but in very different ways. In the passage we heard, Moses does not see the full glory of God. Later, he sees more of the glory of God, and when he does his own face begins to shine with reflected glory. The last of the Johannine writings, the Book of Revelation, bears witness to a different vision of the glory of God – one centred on Jesus. This is the vision we are told was given to the John when he was on the island of Patmos, the vision of God’s glory at the end of time. The Book of Revelation opens with a magnificent description of Christ in all his glory:
I saw one like the Son of Man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash across his chest. His head and his hair were white as white wool, white as snow; his eyes were like a flame of fire, his feet were like burnished bronze, refined as in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of many waters. In his right hand he held seven stars, and from his mouth came a sharp, two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining with full force. (Rev 1:13-16)
John sees the vision of God, which has been denied to Moses. But it is not the Father he sees: it is the Son, who is’ the image of the invisible God’. He sees not the face of the Man of Sorrows but the face of the Son of Man, of the Risen Christ in his heavenly glory. This is the vision that reassures him of God’s continuing presence with his people. To borrow words from our first reading: through this vision, John came to believe God’s promise that ‘My presence will go with you and I will give you rest’. Both Moses and John testify in their own way that human beings can see the glory of God, and live. It is John’s witness, though, that Christians particularly think of at Christmas. It is John who says of Jesus Christ: ‘We have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth’; it is he who assures us that because of Christ’s incarnation, we too can share the vision of God’s glory, and talk with him ‘face to face as a man talks with his friend’.