Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

One of the many things I miss during this season of pandemic protocol is how infrequent have become my unexpected conversations with non-parishioners who pop into the office for one reason or another–often, though not always, seeking some financial help. Having to keep the doors locked and folks enter by appointment has really cut down on a lot of these serendipitous meetings. I know some of my colleagues don’t like this part of the job, and have set their secretaries as kinds of gatekeepers to keep this from happening. I think that’s a real shame. I’ve said to some of you before that even if I can’t give somebody money for whatever reason, I can still have a conversation and a prayer with all sorts and conditions of people, and I’ve always been grateful that my office is the first one one comes to when entering, the building so it doesn’t feel like there is “gatekeeping” going on.

Anyway, I did have an encounter last week with somebody who caught me in the few steps between the office and the rectory. He didn’t ask for money, and he didn’t come to me with a particular prayer request, though he was grateful when I told him that I wanted to pray for him. Rather he had a theological question. It became clear early in the conversation that the fellow was not “neurotypical” to use the psychiatric term, and the conversation veered into things he had gathered from watching television shows like Ghosthunters and Ancient Aliens, so it wasn’t going to be a matter of my providing a real cerebral theological disquisition. Even so, the fellow’s primary question, perhaps providentially, made me think about something which we encountered both in this week’s Old Testament lesson and the Old Testament Lesson from evening prayer last Wednesday. His question was “why couldn’t Moses look at God without dying?” His confusion had to do with Moses’ presumed age and maturity; if anybody could look God in the eyes, my interlocutor figured, couldn’t have Moses? It was, for the strangeness of much of the conversation, a pretty good question!

An unmediated experience of the divine by one who has not been perfected this side of heaven (which, you’ve heard me say before, is to my mind an impossibility) would, no doubt, destroy a person. Moses, the greatest of all who had been born between Adam and John Baptist, got the closest, but even he–you may remember–needed to have his eyes shielded lest he be consumed by the divine majesty.

What’s more, even a mediated experience of the Lord can be dangerous, it seems, for those unprepared. As Moses reports in this morning’s lesson, the children of Israel feared for their lives even being in proximity to the mountain on which the Lord gave them the Law: “Let me not hear again the voice of the Lord my God, or see this great fire anymore, lest I die.” God’s response to this cry is not to get all warm and fuzzy and say, “ah, don’t be worried, I won’t hurt you.” Rather, he says, “They have rightly said all that they have spoken.”

At evensong on Wednesday, the Old Testament lesson, from the sixteenth chapter of Genesis, provided a similar reaction. Hagar has fled from Sarah, her harsh mistress whose plot to acquire an heir had led to understandable enmity and jealousy. In her desert sojourn with the infant Ishmael, an angel appears to Hagar to provide both solace and instruction. After this encounter, we read “So she called the name of the Lord who spoke to her, ‘Thou art a God of seeing,’ for she said, ‘Have I really seen God and remained alive after seeing him?’” Of course, it was not God himself whom she saw, but God’s messenger, but even that is enough to prove an uncomfortable brush with divine glory.

You see, holiness is not something to be taken lightly. There is, even in Holy Things, an element of danger. Consider St. Paul’s warning about consuming the Holy Eucharist without discerning Christ’s Body and Blood is an eating to one’s own damnation in 1 Corinthians 11. I think many of my colleagues find my opposition to communion of the unbaptized quaint at best and inhospitable at worst, but it’s because I take Blessed Paul’s warning seriously (and for that matter, because I take church law seriously). Holy Things are not trifles, but are set apart for care, reverence, and appropriate use.

As Christians, though, we do have a transformed relationship with God’s terrible holiness. That new relationship is defined in the prologue of John’s Gospel:

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father…No one has ever seen God; the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known.

That which once had to be hidden has been revealed, but we mustn’t take this lightly. We mustn’t approach the throne of glory as if it is our due, as if God ought to wait upon us and not the other way round.

While we may behold God the only Son, full of Grace and Truth, it is still a dangerous prospect, not least because in the light of that glory our imperfections are laid bare and our need for repentance and amendment of life may lead to not a little discomfort. Yet this is the only way to salvation, and so we must balance both our godly trepidation and the boldness given us by Grace that we may by approaching the altar of God be made a new creation.

I may be alone in longing for the old pre-lenten season, in which we were given three Sundays to prepare for the hard work of performing this balancing act. In the old calendar today would have been the first of those Sundays, Septuagesima, and while it is no longer our current practice, I for one will begin that process of preparing to once again approach the throne of grace for the assurance of pardon and the hard work which follows it on Ash Wednesday and the forty days which follow. I’d encourage you to consider the same. What is it in my life, in my heart, in my mind, in my intentions which stands in the way of approaching the throne of God and beholding the Redeemer as he is? What dark corner of my conscience do I need the Holy Spirit’s help in searching that the truth may be known to myself as it already is to God? How might I best embark, two-and-half weeks from now, on a holy Lent which will permit God to do his work in my soul and through my life for the sake of his glory? Let us embark on this work with honesty and courage, knowing that the Lord will turn its discomfort into new life for us and for the world.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.