Saturday, February 20, 2010

Pay Attention to the Man Behind the Curtain (Exodus 34:29-35)

Oh those wacky Israelites!

They're free after 400 years of slavery, on their own instead of sweating in the Egyptian brick pits, high and dry while the chariots of the land's mightiest king rot at the bottom of the Red Sea. They're led around by a pillar of cloud by day, and watched over by a pillar of fire by night. They're at the base of Mt. Sinai, which is topped by a permanent crown of cloud, thunder, lightning and fire.

And they're so scared of an 80-year-old man they make him cover his face.

We're told that the reason they're scared is that after Moses talked with God, his face shined. This tells me two things: One, that we human beings are indeed made in God's image and that encounters with the God who made us will be visible. Maybe not the same way Moses' was, but in some way people can see.

The second is that people will go to any lengths, sometimes absurd lengths, to keep up an illusion that God's not present. OK, Israelites, Moses has covered his face so you can't see it shine. Now you just see a veil and you don't have to see the reflected presence of God in him. You just see a veil. And why is that veil there again? To cover up what? And what does that shining face tell us?

What were they going to do? Look at the ground the whole time so they wouldn't have to look at the thunder and fire atop Sinai, or the pillar of cloud and fire that marked their way? No wonder they wandered in the wilderness; they spent forty years staring at their feet!

We can see the same thing today in different places. There are people won't capitalize the word "God" when it refers to the God that Christians and Jews worship. That God, they say, is no more real than any other god so there's no reason to single it out with a capital letter. What's the fuss over that word? Well, it's the same as any other imaginary supernatural being so it shouldn't be treated any differently when it's written. No special treatment -- other than insisting on no special treatment, that is.

Or you might have seen years written with the letters "C.E." instead of "A.D." after them. A.D. is an abbreviation for the Latin Anno Domini, which is "Year of the Lord" in English. C.E. stands for Common Era, and that way people who might not be Christians don't have to use a phrase that acknowledges the Christian messiah when they write dates. The old "B.C.," which meant Before Christ, is now "B.C.E.," which means "Before Common Era." That way is less likely to offend people because all of the religious symbolism is removed.

I'm definitely in favor of not offending people. But lest we forget, we start the count of years the way we do because of when early Christians said Jesus was born. So even without the letters, the numbers themselves are connected to the birth of the Christian messiah.

OK, those are folks who may or may not be Christians so we can understand why they wouldn't care about acknowledging God's presence. But what about us believers? Do we do the same? If you think it's impossible look at the Israelites here. God is present with them every day, even manifest in a kind of physical form, and they're trying to shut those signs away. Our ways may be different, but if I can generalize from my own experience, they're real enough. We can and do avoid signs of God's presence, sometimes actively.

I don't know if I understand all of the "why's" involved with that, but I think some of them may have to do with the fact that God's presence requires us to respond somehow, and we don't get to make "maybe" our response. We have to commit to the idea that God's real and decide whether or not that will matter in our lives. If it does, we will live one way, and if it doesn't, we will live a different way.

Committing to a changed life is scary -- it may divide us from friends, or even family members. We may be called to set aside things we now like doing for things we might not like to do so much. When we acknowledge Christ as Lord, we submit our will to another's will. And we don't much like that either.

But our attempts to cover up or veil the reality of God's existence and of the decision that existence requires won't succeed. They can't. We can pretend there's no gravity, but we will fall down if we trip just the same. We can pretend there are no speed limits, but the polite men and women driving the cars with all the flashy things will still write us tickets.

And we can pretend there is no God. In the Wizard of Oz scene the title refers to, Dorothy and her friends find out the Wizard is a fake, and the huge floating head that's terrified them so is some kind of projection, run by a harmless little man. The man, once discovered, tries to bluff his way though, ordering them through his giant projected head to "Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain." They should just keep pretending that the illusion is real.

But the man behind the veil at the foot of Mt. Sinai was talking with God. And all around us are signs that the same God wants to talk with us. At some point, we too have to decide to set aside our illusion and deal with the reality of our creator.

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