1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
It has been a very difficult journey through the wilderness. After God led the Hebrew People out of slavery in Egypt, across the Sea, and into freedom, they wandered for forty years without finding their way to the promised land.
God provided for their basic needs along the way – food to eat, water to drink, simple shelter from the elements – but it was obviously a pretty discouraging time. The people complained bitterly about their circumstances, and at times they even longed to go back to the security and predictability of their oppressed life in Egypt.
Last Sunday, we read the story about the time they built a golden calf to worship, just one of the times that they turned away from God and did wrong things. And we were reminded that although God was disappointed, and although God was angry, God’s love and grace eventually prevailed, and God gave them another chance.
It is in today’s reading (a chapter later) that Moses begs God to give them that second chance, to keep them as God’s own people, and to stay with them on their journey and lead them all the way into the promised land.
In the midst of that desperate conversation with God, Moses worries that God might simply abandon him and the Hebrews, and he asks for the special blessing of being able to see God – to see God’s face, and know for sure that God is present.
Let me share an imaginative telling of the story in Exodus 33, written by Ralph Milton:
Moses sometimes got very mixed up.
Moses wanted to understand God. He also wanted to understand the people of Israel. Sometimes he would just hold his head with his hands and feel very sad. “There are so many things I don’t understand.”
So Moses went to talk with God. “Please help me, God,” said Moses. “I want to understand you.”
“What would you like me to explain?” asked God.
“Well, I’ve seen the wonderful things you’ve done. I’ve seen how you got the people of Israel out of Egypt. I’ve seen how you brought us food when we were hungry. I’ve seen how you got water from a rock when we were thirsty. But…”
Moses just stood there and shook his head.
“But what?” God’s voice was soft and kind.
“I haven’t seen YOU. I want to know what you look like. I want to see your face.”
“That’s a hard thing, Moses,” said God. “It’s very hard for people to see me. You can see what I do. You can feel my love in your heart. I am all around you just like the air is all around you. But you can’t see me.”
“But I want to see you,” Moses was crying a little. “I want to see you, so I know who you are.”
“Moses,” said God. “You have worked very hard to help me. You have worked hard to help the people of Israel. So I am going to do something special for you.
“I can’t let you see my face because, you see, I am not a human like you are. I don’t have a head or legs or arms like you have. I’m not a man or a woman. I’m not old or young. I’m different than anything you know. But maybe I can show you something that will help you understand.
“Go to the big rock that you can see right in front of you. There’s a crack right through the centre of it. Look through that crack. I’ll show you something of who I am.”
So Moses went to the big rock. He looked through the crack. For a while, it felt as if a kind, warm hand was covering his eyes.
Then the hand went away and Moses saw… He wasn’t sure what he saw.
Moses tried to tell his sister, Miriam, about it. “It was like a flash of lightning, except it wasn’t loud. It wasn’t hard. It was as if my whole body was filled with light. It was as if I was filled with something good and strong.”
“But what you saw was a light?” asked Miriam.
“What I saw was bright and beautiful. But that was only a small part of it, Miriam. Now I feel as if I really know God. And I know for sure that God will always be with me, and with all the people of Israel.”
I wonder if you’ve experienced some times when you felt like Moses did… when you wondered if God was really with you, when you longed to have a clear assurance of God’s presence and love, when you just wanted a glimpse of God’s face.
Perhaps when your congregation has been struggling, you’ve wondered whether God has abandoned you. Perhaps when you have gone through rough times in your personal or family life, you’ve started to doubt whether God still cares about you.
Perhaps when you’ve made mistakes like the Hebrew people did, when you’ve turned away and worshipped other gods, when you’ve done wrong things and you know it… I wonder if in those times you’ve started to doubt whether God would stick by you. You haven’t earned that kind of faithfulness, and so it’s hard to believe that God might actually forgive you.
Perhaps you have prayed, as Moses did, “Please show me your glory, God. Show me yourself so that I can see you, and love you, and follow you. Show me yourself so that I can be sure that you are still with me.”
I’m thinking about the early Christian community in Thessalonica, and I’m wondering if they also might have been looking for that assurance. Paul mentions that these brand-new Christians have been undergoing persecution, even as they were just getting started in figuring out what it would mean to live as followers of Jesus.
Imagine… if there was the threat of violence in their community when they admitted that they were followers of “the Way.” Imagine… if they had to be careful who they talked to about their faith, if there was a risk of getting in trouble with the authorities, if worshipping and praying together was something that had to be done quietly and secretly so as not to arouse suspicion…
These early Christians, who had never seen Jesus in person, may well have been praying (like Moses) for just a glimpse of God’s face, for an assurance of God’s presence and love for them.
And Paul gives it to them… not with a bright light shining through a cleft in a rock, but they get a glimpse of God through the words of encouragement and hope that Paul writes to them.
You see, Paul tells them exactly where to look so that they also can see God. And they don’t have to look far, God is as close to them as their own Christian community. God is visible in the people of their church through their work of faith, their labour of love, and their steadfastness of hope. God is visible in the people as they use their lives to imitate the apostles and Jesus himself. God is not so much visible as audible as the “word of the Lord sounds forth” from them through their words and deeds as God’s people.
When Paul writes his letter of encouragement to the Thessalonian Christians, he fills it to overflowing with thanksgiving for the many and various ways that he sees God at work among them. The Holy Spirit is present and active in and through them, and perhaps his letter helps them to see God too.
This morning, let me be the one to encourage you. Because I’m the newcomer still, looking at this church community with fresh eyes and a different perspective, and trust me, God is at work among you. The Holy Spirit is present and active!
When I arrive at church on Sunday mornings, and George greets me at the door, I see God in that loving welcome.
When pastoral caregivers in this church go above and beyond to reach out in love to people who are struggling, when they offer prayer, help, and concern in Jesus’ name, I see God.
I see God in the enthusiastic sharing of gifts in this church, especially the many people who share their gifts of music. And when I witness the appreciation and encouragement that follows such sharing, I see God at work as well.
When residents of the Riverbend Home arrive on Thursdays to walk in our gymnasium, I see God in the volunteers who take the time and care to provide them hospitality.
When leaders in our church spend massive amounts of time and effort to serve in the higher courts of our church, like the Synod that met this weekend… when they give of themselves for the purpose of equipping and supporting the wider church’s missions and ministries, I see God.
I see God in the research and writing that Doug has done in telling the history of the Regina Indian Industrial School. And when we read it, and share it, and let ourselves be transformed by the record of our church’s involvement in the school, I trust that I will see God as work some more, working healing and reconciliation in our relationships with our Indigenous neighbours.
When I think about the work that Donna has been doing this year, working as the Administrator for Camp Christopher, I see God at work through her and the summer staff to share God’s love with hundreds of children and youth.
And I see God in the children too… in the ones I’ve met at camp, and the ones who are a part of our family here at First Church… very often teaching us by their love, and their trust, and their joy, what it looks like to be children of God.
Just like Moses could barely explain what he saw or how it changed his heart and filled him with hope and faith… I can’t prove that what I see is God at work, but I believe it to be true. I am grateful for the glimpses of God that I have already witnessed here, and I am looking forward to seeing more.
May we know, in the depths of our hearts, that God is with us and God will never leave us. And may God’s Spirit continue to work powerfully in and through us so that the word of God sounds forth into all the world.