Seeing the Face of God
The Second Sunday after the Epiphany – 1/14/2024
Rev. Christopher W. Brademeyer
That portion from God’s holy Word for consideration this morning is our Old Testament lesson from the book of Exodus in the thirty-third chapter, with special emphasis on verses twenty through twenty-three which reads as follows:
“But,” he said, “you cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live.” 21 And the Lord said, “Behold, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock, 22 and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by. 23 Then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back, but my face shall not be seen.””
Thus far the Scriptures.
In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
“The Lord bless you and keep you. The Lord make His face shine upon you and be gracious unto you. The Lord lift up His countenance upon you and give you peace.”
These words, from the sixth chapter of the book of Numbers, conclude our Divine Service every week. And they likely sound strange to our ears. We do not often talk about faces in the way the book of Numbers. The meaning of “face” here is what the grammar people would call idiomatic, that is, face serves as a saying or expression describing the presence and attention of someone or something. To say that God makes His face shine on us is to say that we have God’s attention and that His attention is for our blessing and benefit, indeed even our salvation.
But in this we have a problem, one raised by our reading from the book of Exodus this week. This episode takes place right after that famous episode of the golden calf. To summarize: after Israel was freed from slavery in Egypt by God sending plagues, they were led by Moses to the Red Sea. After crossing through on dry ground by God miraculously parting the Red Sea. Once on the other side, the people of Israel went to the mountain that God directed them to go to, Mt. Sinai. Once there, they pitched camp at the base and Moses went up the mountain to talk to God. There God gave Moses the Ten Commandments and the other rules of His Law that are recorded in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. After getting these commands, Moses came down from the mountain carrying the tablets of the Law. And what did he find when he came to the camp of the Israelites? They had made an idol, a golden calf, and were celebrating it as if it was the God who had delivered them from slavery in Egypt!
Moses lost his temper and smashed the tablets of the Covenant, burned the idol, ground its ashes into powder, mixed them with water, and made the people drink it. Earlier in chapter 33, Moses pleads with God to stay with the people of Israel and to not turn His face away from them. God agrees, but Moses has to pitch a tent outside of the camp where the Lord speak to him and where Israel could come and inquire of the Lord. Moses again pleaded with the Lord that He keep His presence there with His people. Moses’s request was heard by God and God did not withdraw from His people.
The reason that He did not leave them was not because of their goodness, but because of His. His grace, His favorable disposition toward them was not the result of them being faithful or keeping their end of God’s covenant, that is agreement, with them. Instead, it was by His grace, that is, His unmerited, unearned, favorable disposition to them rooted in His love and mercy for His people, Israel.
Which brings us up a core issue in our Old Testament reading today: that of God’s face, that is, being directly in His presence. As I mentioned earlier, being before the face of someone is a way in the Hebrew language of describing being in someone’s presence and having their attention and favor on you. But there is a problem with this: according to the Lord Himself, no human being can see God’s face and live to tell the tale. Such is the state of humanity that being directly in the presence of God would lead to a human person’s destruction. That is to say, God does not tolerate sin in His presence and us sinners would be destroyed if we entered it without God either veiling Himself or us for our protection.
There are two things about this that trouble us and cause us some amount of grief. Firstly, it has become fashionable among people to argue that God does not have wrath. Others, who spend more time reading their scriptures, will grant that God has anger against sin, but refuse to admit that the Almighty ever gets upset with those who commit sins. The old saying that often gets tossed around in church, “love the sinner, hate the sin” is often taken to be the view of God Himself.
And while it is the case that often the wrath and anger of God are realized in Him simply letting us reap the fruits of our sins, that is to say, that He lets us experience the effects of sin by His withdrawing of His protecting hand from our lives and situations, the Scriptures also mention that God has an active wrath that, despite His great patience toward us, will be given against us.
Too often today, we hear an unbiblical picture of God painted into our ears, a God who is impotent, cowardly even, who refuses to enforce His laws or punish those who go against them. Against all such sniveling and cowardly teaching stands the Scriptures, which teach that God Himself will cast people into the outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth and where the fire is never quenched, and the worm never dies.
During the time of the Reformation, that is, during the early 1500s, Martin Luther understood God to be angry, vengeful, and full of wrath. This fear was not only with him, rather it was held commonly among people. At that time, the great problem in Christendom was that people were afraid of God and did not see any hope or solution to the problem. Hence Luther’s insistence on the Gospel being proclaimed purely and correctly, so that these troubled consciences would be quieted through the comfort of the truth of God’s pure Gospel.
On the other hand, it seems we have something of an opposite problem today. God is not seen as someone we should be afraid of; to the contrary, His love and taken for granted and His wrath is ignored. If you were to talk to someone who does not go to church and ask them to describe God, you would get a picture of a generally kind, but distant, God who just wants us all to be happy, whatever that means for us. The idea that God would get mad at us is as foreign to us, generally speaking, as the idea of a loving God was to people at the time of Luther.
The face of God being directed towards us is nothing other than the Gospel, that is to say, to have God look upon us is to say that He directs His love and mercy and grace and forgiveness and life and salvation to us and upon us for the sake of His Son, Jesus Christ. But this lavish gift is misunderstood and reduced to the twisted view that this means that God simply wants us to have a nice life. Dear friends, the hard lesson in this text is that we are, by nature, sinful and unclean and that we rightly deserve punishments both now and in eternity. That is to say, this passage teaches us that God is right to be angry with sin and us sinners and if He so desired to visit His wrath on us, He would absolutely be right to do so. Man cannot look on the face of God and live.
Fortunately for us, this is not the full story of God and His interaction with us. The great scandal of the Gospel is that it is completely unfair and unreasonable, for the Gospel, the Good News, is that God gives us what we do not and cannot deserve. Through His Son, He has granted to us forgiveness, life, and salvation through the death of our Lord Jesus. And in that death, the justice and wrath of God were satisfied so that, even though we deserve every bit of punishment and hell that could be mustered, God does not visit any of it on us. Luther called this the blessed exchange: Christ took what we deserved and gave us what He possessed by right, that is, holiness and blessedness and righteousness. And now, because of Christ, God looks on us with favor and grace and every blessing.
And more than this, we are no longer dealing with a God who cannot show His face. We have been veiled, covered, by the righteousness of Christ so that we can now see God face to face in paradise without fear or worry that we might meet our end. For God the Son has ensured this.
“The Lord bless you and keep you. The Lord make His face shine upon you and be gracious unto you. The Lord lift up His countenance upon you and give you peace.” Amen.
The peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.
 Numbers 6:24-26
 Matthew 25:41-46