Reverend John Flack
Our Saviour's Atonement Lutheran Church
1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
Think of a clean plate. I love clean dishes. Of all chores, doing the dishes is my favorite—you take a dish, dirty and covered in food and grease and bits of lettuce, you stick it in hot soapy water, you scrub, and it comes out shining. Your dinner may be over, but a clean plate promises another dinner, another dirty plate, and then again another clean plate, and another good meal. And in the meal are friends and family and food. Who knows who will use this plate next? And then you take the next plate, and you wash it, and all the same possibilities exist. It’s amazing to think about a clean plate, and all the things you can put on it, all the people who might use it. Can you find God in a clean plate?
I come from the midwest, where there is lots of seemingly empty space. This isn’t true anymore. In Iowa, where I come from, much of the plains, once extending a like ruffled blanket into the horizon, has its horizon broken by giant windmills, in some places as far as the eye can see. They’re standing everywhere, churning away,powering homes and farms, making the farmers money. It’s a reminder, I guess, that the plains don’t exist any more really, not as they did when the American Indians still ruled. Instead the midwest is a long stretch of fields, sown mostly with corn and soybeans, mostly harvested to feed animals, most of which go into our stomachs. Could you find God in the midwest, in the transformation of an ecosystem? Can you find God here, in the paved city streets? Where is God to be found, to be seen, to be revealed?Where do we find God? Where can we see God?
Biblically, if you see God, you’ll die. God does not appear in an unmediated form,except, possibly to Moses. God appears in visions, God appears in dreams, angels visit bearing messages from God, and God speaks to the prophets. But to see God without mediation is to die. This means to look for God in order to behold God, is a fruitless search. Just before this passage in Exodus, there’s a marvelous scene, in which the whole encampment of Israel rises to watch Moses pass as he enters the tent of meeting, where he will converse with God, converse and come out unscathed. Indeed,after he sees God’s glory pass, he turns to speak with the Israelites, and the glory of God shines from his face such that the people plead with him to cover his face—God’s holiness is so terrifying, that even the history of seeing it causes people to weep and plead. You’re better off looking for the glory of God in a plate, or in the farms of the midwest, or somehow in the streets of New York. You will be in far less danger.
Today, Moses pleads with God—don’t forsake your people. You have to know that after the Golden Calf, God tells the Israelites to go take possession of the promised land and that he will send an angel ahead of them to prepare the way. Here Moses pleads with God and says, “That’s not enough. Who is this angel that you have promised to send? Is he the one who rescued us from Egypt? You said that you know me and that I have found favor in your sight, and that you have called this encamped mob to be your people.” God promises to be with Moses, because of the love he bears for the stiff-necked people he elected and their courageous leader, who dared to ask him if he could see his glory.
I’d like you to notice what happened here. The curse of God’s presence, which the people feared would consume them, which, indeed, they had been told would consume them, instead became a blessing for them. The terrifying holiness, the scourge of Egypt and threat to Israel, instead becomes their strength. God again proclaims his independence—he will show mercy on whom he will show mercy, and he will be gracious to whom he will be gracious, but he chooses to show mercy to his people. And yet, despite this promise, and despite acquiescing to Moses’ request to see his glory, God still says, “my face shall not be seen.” God will be present, but not fully revealed. We will feel for God, grasp for God, but, as the prophet Isaiah said, “Truly, you are a God who hides himself.” The Israelites could see God by God’s works and by God’s wonders. The could see God’s presence by signs, the pillar of cloud and their first steps into the promised land. But they could not understand the fullness of God and the glory of God in his own essence. That they had to take on faith. They had to believe.
And so do we. In a clean plate, in the marvelous complexity of this city, in the changing landscape of our nation, we may be able to suspect that God’s presence from certain signs and wonders, but to know that God is with us, to know God’s glory, well—I think we need faith to see it clearly, to even have a glimpse of God’s glory. But having aith opens us up to God’s presence in all things, God’s work through all challenges.
When the Pharisees confronted Jesus, it’s interesting that they decided to confront him on the basis of an image. One of the commandments Moses will inscribe as he basks in the glory of God is the commandment not to make any images, and yet in the pockets of people are coins, stamped with image of Caesar. Scholars are divided on the legality of this, if it is clean or not. Whether or not, Jesus must answer the question: should the people of God pay taxes or not? And Jesus asks a question about what they see—whose image is this, whose title? And yet before them, standing among them is the miracle of God’s blessing. Before them stands the image of God, the incarnation of the holy presence that terrified and allured the tribes of Israel. Whose image is this, whose title? It is Holy God’s, that’s who. Caesar’s reign reached from Britain to Egypt, and far to the East and South. Caesar’s image was a sign of wealth and power throughout that realm, and Caesar had to power to imprint his image, just as the dollar today, with the face of George Washington and the seal of the United States guarantees power and wealth wherever it goes. Yet the image on the coin is an approximation of a living man. The man before the Pharisees is a living man, and indeed, the living God. In Jesus, God hides in plain sight. The face of Jesus is the face of God, and those who looked upon it and rejected it were dead and didn’t even know it.To them the image of Caesar was more of a threat than the presence of God, which could consume and destroy.
Give to Caesar’s what is Caesar’s, give to God what is God’s. If God should take his presence from us, where would we be? We would be bereft of hope. All this existence we breath, from the mundane to the glorious, would lose its foundation. We would be left on our own, grappling with one another as we flash to oblivion. But the Lord of hosts is with us: his presence sanctifies even dirty dishes. That’s why the law of Moses extends even to pots and pans—for the people of God are so aware of the reality of things they cannot see, they know them to be much more valuable than all the coins in Caesar’s realm. Our lives, when we look at them this way, are completely inflected by holiness, a gift to us from God that will never lose its value, that will never crash or be displayed in a museum some future day, but brings us into eternity. Amen.