I have to tell you, I love the story from Deuteronomy that we hear this morning as Moses instructs the people about how they are to live in the land that the Lord God is about to give them. The 40 long years in the wilderness are almost over, and he urgently wants them to be prepared for this great transition in their lives. So he assures them that the Lord their God will raise up from among them a prophet like him, and he tells them that they must pay attention to this person. He reminds them that God will do this in response to their request made at Mount Horeb on the day of the great assembly. And this is the part I like so much: Moses recalls that they said, “If I hear the voice of the Lord my God any more, or ever again see the great fire, I will die.” It’s clear that their initial experience of being in the presence of the holy nearly scared them to death, so they want a go-between.
My impression is that most of us have probably never experienced the presence of God in ways that are terrifying. Our encounters with the holy seem to be more benign than frightening. When we’re able to open ourselves to the ever-present Lord . . . because he’s always here . . . we tend to find it empowering and sustaining rather than scary. What actually tends to debilitate and sometimes make you and me afraid is when praying feels like talking into the wind, and we feel utterly alone. It’s in times like these that we desire a go-between, someone to interface between us and the holy. We want someone we can feel confident has that connection with God which we’re finding so elusive at the moment.
The point is that whether we’re standing terrified in the presence of the might and majesty of God like the ancient Hebrews, or quaking with fear because God seems nowhere to be found, there is embedded somewhere deep in the human psyche an ambivalence about being in the unmediated presence of the divine. The people of Israel wanted a prophet to pass on to them God’s directives. We want a mentor or a spiritual guide or a priest to lead us into the presence of God. But mostly we all feel better when we know that we’re not in this alone. That’s why we come together in this place week after week.
So into the synagogue at Capernaum walks Jesus, disciples in tow, disciples he’s just finished calling away from all they’ve ever known with a simple, “Follow me”. And when he opens his mouth and begins to teach, the worshipers in that synagogue are astounded, but not because he is telling them anything new. It isn’t the content that captures their attention and imagination so much as it is the delivery. Mark describes the quality of Jesus’ teaching as “having authority.” He describes it as “not like the scribes.”
You know, those scribes were actually very learned in the scriptures and they were probably men of considerable faith. Yet Jesus, as we well know, was a poor peasant who had probably received only the most rudimentary education. So what was the difference? What made the words of Jesus ring with authority, and made the teaching of the scribes ring hollow in contrast? I wonder if it was the fact that the worshipers in that synagogue at Capernaum were hearing the word of God proclaimed for the first time by the true go-between, the utterly authentic interface between the holy and the human.
What does Jesus bring to the role of go-between that not even a Moses can offer? Maybe it’s the fact that in him the need for a go-between evaporates, it simply melts away. In Jesus, the first and only fully human being is also the one true and holy God of all that is. There is no interface; there is no man stops here, God starts there. In Jesus who you and I are as human beings is inextricably interwoven with who God is. In Jesus we discover that God is not out there somewhere in a terrifying presence or here as a dread-filled absence. In Jesus we discover that God is part of the very fiber of our being, and the proof of this is that we are alive.
All this reminds me of a story I once read about a royal garment woven for the rulers of England in the 19th century. In the garment there was a thread which was woven in such a way that if it was removed, the garment would fall apart, it would disintegrate. In the same way, no matter how distant God may seem from time to time for some of us and maybe even most of the time for others of us, the very fact that we exist bears witness to the thread of the divine that knits us together into the marvelous creature each of us is.
Because you and I are not yet fully human as Jesus was, we’re not yet able to experience the fullness of God that is so abundantly present in us. Because you and I are not yet fully human as Jesus was, we will continue to search for God out there, and we’ll continue to yearn for a go-between to help us bridge the distance. Because you and I are not yet fully human as Jesus was, that same Jesus will continue waiting patiently to show us that we need look no further than the mirror to see the face of God.