Evensong for Pentecost: (Exodus 33.7-20 and 2 Corinthians 3.4-end)
My brother always tries to find me birthday cards which are both funny and religious. I suppose it tells me something about how he sees me! Last year’s was particularly funny: it showed a woman answering her front door to 2 well dressed young men. There is a figure hiding behind long curtains in her sitting room, with just 2 sandalled feet, and a suspicion of a long white robe and a beard, visible. The man at the door is asking ‘have you found Jesus?’.
Of course it works better as a cartoon: but it serves as a useful introduction to our thinking about the readings we’ve heard this evening. We might wonder what the relevance is to us of a story of the people of Israel living in tents in the desert and some slightly convoluted teaching from Paul – but I think they help us to think about the quest for the presence of God, the search for meaning in our lives, and the struggles we have with a sense of God’s absence or silence.
The passage from Exodus gives us a snapshot of life in the wilderness for the people of Israel. They were slaves in Egypt, led by Moses to defy Pharoah and escape through the Red Sea. Then, 3 months into their journey to the Promised Land, they camped at Mount Sinai, where Moses has had a series of – sometimes very long – encounters with God. Moses receives the law, including stone tablets bearing the 10 commandments, and also gets very detailed instructions from God about how to build the tabernacle – an elaborate tent structure which will eventually house the ark of the covenant. During one of Moses’ longer trips up the mountain – 40 days and 40 nights – the people get restless and persuade Aaron to let them build a golden calf as something tangible to worship. Moses is furious and smashes the first version of the stone tablets; God is furious and declares that although it is now time for the people to leave Mount Sinai, he won’t travel amongst the people for fear of destroying them. So Moses meets with God in a tent outside the camp – the ‘tent of meeting’.
The tradition of the Exodus contains episodes of saving activity by God, times of God speaking to his people, and then periods of silence or distance, when faith is required to continue to walk in God’s way. The question for the people and for Moses is ‘if God is keeping his distance from us, how will we know that God is with us?’. This might seem an extraordinary question from Moses – the man who has regular conversations with God, and whose face glows as a result. But it is a very human impulse: no matter what experience there has been in the past, the impact of that fades, and Moses is left wondering how he can be sure of God.
This may be a familiar question for us to wonder about: perhaps at some point of our lives we have had an experience of God’s presence. But that certainty about the reality of God with us cannot last… and we might be left wondering if God is really with us – have we really found Jesus? Is God really present and active in our world?
We might decide that we should look for evidence of God around us, try to find signs that God is there. Mathematicians have long identified the Fibonacci sequences of numbers: 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13. The next number of the sequence is formed by adding the two previous numbers together. It seems at first just like one of those logic puzzles you find in IQ tests.
But the sequence is found repeatedly in nature: in the growth of seashells, and seed heads, and population numbers. Once you know the Fibonacci sequence, you can find it in many places in the world around us. Some people use the same argument to search for God - if we know what God’s activity looks like, perhaps we can spot signs of it around us. Such people are sometimes termed ‘seekers’ – people who are trying to find God in their lives.
But seeking patterns in life is not the advice Paul gives in his letter to the Corinthians, if they want to know God. He writes about the activity of the people of God in the desert as if they were people trying to create the conditions in which God would appear – in elaborate ritual and precisely built tents and a series of barriers to be overcome. Then Paul speaks of a God who relates to people – who removes every veil. The coming of Jesus Christ shows us God with us in flesh and blood and without ritual or ceremony. We can have confidence in a God who doesn’t need to be hunted down, but who seeks us out.
At the risk of this sounding more like Christmas than Pentecost – a God who comes to us and abides with us, Immanuel – God with us. So at Pentecost we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit and we see that the Spirit brings God’s power – but not in an act of vengeance or anger, to destroy unbelievers - but as the one who shows us God in action and convinces us of the truth of God’s presence.
So in the end our meeting with God does not happen because we look in the right place (behind the curtains, perhaps), or because we create the right conditions (by performing the right rituals). We meet with God because it is God’s will that we should, because the Spirit is sent to show us the truth, and because in Jesus Christ we meet God made flesh.
Thanks be to the God who wishes to know us and love us and meet with us. Amen.