Pentecost 19A:  “GDSNWHR"

This morning I am going to give you a basic Hebrew lesson in order to illustrate a theological concept that plagued the people of Israel and still plagues us today.  The third take away from all of this will be an insight into the difficult task of translating the Bible from its original language into a totally different tongue. Let’s begin with the basic Hebrew lesson.

One of the first things students have to understand about Hebrew is that it is a language of consonants.  Vowels exist, but to the novice, it isn’t always apparent where to place them when reading or speaking the language.  In fact, one can learn the vowels but they are rarely written down.  In the Israel of today, there are no vowels written on road signs or instructions or packaging so it really confused me on my trip there.  And I thought I was going to get to practice my knowledge of Hebrew but all I could do was give it my best guess.  

OK.  Now I will show you what I mean.  There is a series of letters on the cover of your bulletin.  Not coincidentally, this strange configuration of letters is also the title of this sermon.  Who thinks they can say the word?  Yeah, without vowels, it’s too tough to pronounce.

So, think for a moment with me.  If this is what English characters look like without vowels, then you can imagine what Hebrew looks like… just a string of Hebrew consonants.  It’s up to you to know how to place the vowels to form words and sentences that create a context.  Let’s see what we can do with our English version.

I invite you to study the letters for a minute.  Think of this as a word puzzle.  If you could add vowels in between some of these letters, you could probably form a phrase or a sentence.  In fact, if you try, you could probably come up with twenty or thirty possible sentences or phrases.  The rule is this:  you may not change the order of the consonants, however you can use vowels as you choose.  You may use one vowel in between letters, or you may use double vowels and you can choose where to stop and start your words.  You can try this at home if you enjoy word play.

I am going to give you some vowels to place in and among the string of consonants.  If you have access to a pencil or pen, now is the time to get it ready.

OK?  Put an ‘O’ in between the G and D.  Put an ‘I” in between the D and S.  Put an ‘O’ between the N and the W.  Put an ‘E’ before and after the R.  What’s it spell?

God Is Now Here

God Is Nowhere

Do you see the conundrum that we are faced with?  God is now here is a complete contradiction to God is nowhere.  In the words of the Israelites a few weeks ago, “Is God among us, or not?”  In fact that is the question they are asking all through their journey.  In fact, that is the question we all ask time and again.

The theological discussion centering around this issue is defined as the immanence and transcendence of God.  The immanent God is the “with-us God”, the one we connect with when we ask for help or comfort and feel like we received it.  This is the God we sense walking with us when we are afraid or doing a happy dance with us when something wonderful happens.  This is the God who is as close as our very breath.  It is no coincidence that we sing O Come O Come Immanuel during Advent to express our longing for a with-us God .  The spelling of the word Emmanuel has been Latinized and that’s why we are used to it beginning with the letter “E”.  Actually, going back to the original Hebrew, Immanuel is a compound word meaning, literally, the “with-us God.”  If we break it down, the Hebrew word ‘im’ means ‘with’, the ‘anu’ means ‘us’ and ‘el’ means God and it is spelled  “I-m-m-a-n-u-el”.  See the similarity between Immanuel and immanent?  A little mnemonic device to help you remember.

The transcendent God is the far-away God; the out-there-somewhere God.  At times, when we perceive God’s absence, we lament that God is nowhere.  We may feel that God doesn’t care for us or pay attention to us or listen to us.  While that may seem to be the case, we must keep in mind that the transcendent God has a big job to do.  This is the God who keeps the stars aligned and planets in their orbits and the sun hot and the seasons turning.  This is the awesome God who takes care of all the goings on in the universe that we can’t even begin to comprehend.  We may recognize the transcendent God when we see something majestic in nature like a mountain peak with the northern lights dancing around it, or a sensational sunrise over the vast expanse of the sea… anything that takes our breath away and makes us feel tiny and insignificant in the face of such glory.

So, which is it?  Is God here now or is God nowhere?  Perhaps how you are feeling will determine how you answer that question or maybe the particular set of life circumstances you are experiencing will point to one over the other.  However, in all honesty, you have to understand that God is both immanent and transcendent.  

We’ve had our Hebrew lesson.  We have learned the theological concepts of immanence and transcendence.  We have touched on the problem of translating texts from one language to another.  Let’s look at God’s presence as experienced by Moses and the people of Israel in today’s text.

We know the Israelites wanted an immanent God… one whose presence they could see and feel.  When Moses didn’t come down from the mountain for such a long time and the people got impatient, they took matters into their own hands and demanded that Aaron make an idol for them.  Picture the scene.  The people are having an orgy around this golden calf… sacrificing and worshiping and who knows what else.  Moses comes down from the mountain with the stone tablets… a real symbol of the presence of God with the people.  He can’t believe what he sees and in his anger he throws down the stone tablets and they break into a thousand little pebbles.

After Moses dealt with the calf (he burned it, ground it into powder, mixed it with water and made the people drink it!), expressed his disgust with his brother’s leadership during Moses’ absence, and had the loyal sons of Levi slaughter 3000 disobedient Israelites.  As if this wasn’t enough, God sent a plague on the Israelites as punishment for their sin. 

This may sound harsh, but the alternative was worse.  God was mad enough to kill these people and begin again, but instead, God did a little punishing and said the people would continue their journey with an angel instead of with God.  God wasn’t going with the people from now on because every time the people sinned, God would want to destroy them.  And as a final act of contrition, God asked for the people to remove all their ornamentation which they did.

God and Moses still met regularly in the Tent of Meeting outside the camp but no one else was allowed to go in.  The people saw the pillar of cloud descend on the tent when Moses and God had their talks but that was as close as they got to God.

The people of Israel were in an ambiguous position.  Just because God decided not to destroy them did not mean that everything was back to normal.  There was still the matter of renewing the covenant that had been broken.  There was also the problem of God’s absence on the journey.  In Moses’ mind, the angel was no substitute for God’s presence.  Without God’s merciful presence, Israel is not a nation.  So, Moses decided to ask God what the deal was.

He says, “Come clean with me, God.  Explain yourself.  If you will not go with the people, then just leave us here.  After all, You put Israel in the land of Egypt where they learned all about idolatry in the first place.”  God answered, “I will go with you and I will give you rest.”  God recognized the truth in Moses’ words.  Israel was indeed nothing special without God.  In order to seal the deal with Moses, God offers another theophany when Moses asks to see God’s glory.

Nowhere in the text does it say that this theophany occurred, but if it did it was supposed to happen like this:  God told Moses that he had found favor in God’s sight.  God knew Moses by name.  God was going to let Moses get a glimpse of God’s glory…only a glimpse, because no one who looked God in the face could live and God wanted Moses to be safe.

God put Moses in the cleft of a rock.  As God’s glory passed over Moses, he heard once more the Divine Name.  Moses was shielded by God’s hand as the glory passed by.  Moses snuck a peek, but all he saw was God’s backside.  Now, before you go and make Moses the butt of God’s joke, consider this.  When you are doing your best to follow the leader and you’re trying with all your might to keep up, all you ever see is the leader’s back, right?  If the leader was not out in front, they wouldn’t be the leader, would they?  

Admittedly, this is a linear example of Follow the Leader, but if you remember the kids’ game, that’s how it works.  You have to be a follower first.  Following leads to all kinds of skills necessary to become an effective leader.  Following the leader  when the leader is God, means you imitate the leader’s physical movements but also their actions, their examples, their words, and their vision.

In order to follow God, it is necessary to long for God’s presence and also to stand back and admire and appreciate God’s handiwork.  Like Moses, we need to have regular meetings with God so we can discern the vision and direction God has for us.  We don’t have to leave the camp and go outside to the Tent of Meeting to speak with God, we can do that whenever and wherever we choose.  We can also gather in community with one another as the church to worship, confess, pray, study, commune, and fellowship together. These activities and practices and rituals can strike a balance for us between experiencing the immanent God and the transcendent God.  Whichever aspect of God we feel in the moment, these are the times when we will know without a doubt that God Is Now Here.

Even with all of these opportunities we have for staying connected to God and one another there will likely be days when we grow impatient like the Israelites and say to ourselves God Is No Where.  Usually this will happen during the times when things aren’t going well…when we have setbacks, experience loss, are grieving, are angry, are afraid, or feel hopeless.  

During those difficult and stressful times we may have a conversation with God that goes something like this:

Me: God, can I ask You a question?

God: Sure

Me: Promise You won't get mad

God: I promise

Me: Why did You let so much stuff happen to me today?

God: What do u mean?

Me: Well, I woke up late.  My car took forever to start.  at lunch they made my sandwich wrong & I had to wait. On the way home, my phone went DEAD, just as I picked up a call, And on top of it all, when I got home ~I just wanted to soak my feet in my new foot massager & relax. BUT it wouldn't work!!! Nothing went right today! Why did You do that?

God: Let me see, the death angel was at your bed this morning & I had to send one of My Angels to battle him for your life. I let you sleep through that

Me (humbled): OH

GOD: I didn't let your car start because there was a drunk driver on your route that would have hit you if you were on the road.  The first person who made your sandwich today was sick & I didn't want you to catch what they have, I knew you couldn't afford to miss work. Your phone went dead because the person that was calling was going to give false witness about what you said on that call, I didn't even let you talk to them so you would be covered.

Me (softly): I see God

God: Oh and that foot massager, it had a short that was going to throw out all of the power in your house tonight. I didn't think you wanted to be in the dark.

Me: I'm Sorry God

God: Don't be sorry, just learn to Trust Me.... in All things , the Good & the bad.  And don't doubt that My plan for your day is Always Better than your plan.

Me:  Thank you God, for everything.

God: You're welcome child. It was just another day being your God and I Love looking after My Children…  (adapted from Facebook cartoon)

And all the people said…  Amen.

 © Victoria Moss 2020