Epiphany 4 (B)
A sermon preached by Pastor Robert Schaefer
First & Spring Creek Lutheran Churches
Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany – January 29, 2006
Text: Deuteronomy 18:15-20
Friends in Christ, grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
“Don’t let God speak to us anymore,” the people of Israel pleaded. “If we hear the voice of the Lord our God any more, or ever again see his great fire, we will die!”
What a sad request. God’s people, the ones he had rescued from Pharaoh’s cruel slavery, the ones he had led through the wilderness with wonders and power, could not bear to hear his voice, when it came right down to it.
I remember once during my childhood an eclipse of the sun. It was October 1986 – I was in fifth grade. The newspapers had been abuzz with the story for several days, and I was anxiously awaiting the big moment. Observable solar eclipses are rare things – although eclipses sometimes happen up to a couple times in a year, the full effect can be seen only from a very small strip along the earth’s surface. Much of the time that strip is in the middle of the ocean somewhere, so that only scientists and well-funded photographers can glimpse the event. Other times that strip does indeed cross dry land, but a layer of cloud is all it takes to ruin the eclipse for those of us without our own planes. Still other times, that strip crosses over into the nighttime side of the planet, and nothing is visible of the eclipse at all, because the sun will have set.
So October 3 was a big day. My hometown, Hutchinson, would not be in the zone of totality – the privilege of seeing the sun completely disappear that day fell to a bit of sea east of Greenland – but Minnesota was far enough north that about half the sun would be blacked out when the eclipse was at its zenith. 1:45 that afternoon, the papers said, all eyes should be on the skies.
Except, of course, no one should ever look at an eclipse – not with your bare eyes – except for the few brief moments when the sun is completely blocked by the moon. That’s the only time it’s safe to lift up your eyes and look at one of the wonders of nature. Any other time, and it’s possible to sustain real injury. Our sun is just too powerful a source of light to let it fill our eyes. Even when just a sliver of it is visible, scientists tell us, the sun’s rays are still capable of damaging the retina at the back of our eyes, resulting in blindness. Even a passing glance can steal our sight for a moment or two – a good, long stare into the face of an eclipse, however, can actually cook the retina, burning it with the sun’s intensity.
No, we didn’t dare look at the eclipse straight on. But there are ways to safely view an eclipse. The cheapest and easiest method (and therefore the preferred approach on the schoolyard) was the old trick of poking a tiny hole in a square of cardboard. By holding this up to the sun, it was possible to focus a small but clear image of the eclipse onto a second piece of cardboard held behind it, like a miniature screen and projector. Like all of my classmates that afternoon, I watched the eclipse unfold in the palm of my hand, courtesy of my pinhole viewer.
But let me tell you, I really, really wanted to steal a glimpse of the sun’s dimming with my own two eyes.
The experience of watching an eclipse, I think, is not so different from what the people of Israel felt while standing in God’s presence, listening to his voice boom from the heavens. It was exhilarating; it was powerful…and it was more than a frail human creature could bear. The Israelites could no more hear God’s voice than I could have fixed my eyes on the sun that day. To do so would have been the end of them just as surely as it would have been the end of my vision. God himself recognizes that the people are right – they cannot stand in his presence this way. They need a way to know God and his will that will not endanger their very lives!
It’s the curse of our fallen nature, I suppose. We were made to bask in the brightness of God’s glory, but in our sin that light has become our mortal enemy. We were made to listen to God’s voice in our ear, whispering like a tender lover, but our sin has made his voice terrifyingly loud to us. We are painfully separated from God – and don’t think for a minute that the pain doesn’t cut both ways.
But our God is gracious to us. Much the same as our teachers passed out viewing cards on the playground to help us experience that marvelous event in the sky, God has provided a way for us to know him and his glory, fallen as we are.
It began with the prophets. Moses was the first of them, the model for all who would come to stand between God and the people. Over the course of history, a whole string of men and women would stand in God’s presence and bring what they learned safely to the people. Isaiah. Ezekiel. Joel. Micah. Their names are familiar to all of us who have seen God through their witness. Throughout the Old Testament times, God sent his people prophets because he knew they could not bear to experience him directly, to know him as he is.
But the prophets were merely men and women like us. Though graced by God for their ministry, they could not reveal him to us as truly as God desires to be known. And so, Paul tells us, God chose another course of action. “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets,” he tells us, “but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son.” He is the one God promised to raise up for the people, a prophet like Moses – no, even greater!
If the prophets are akin to my eclipse viewing cards, to what can we compare Jesus Christ?
I think C.S. Lewis comes closest in his story The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. In his tale, a band of adventurers sails ever further east, in hopes of finding the utter end of the earth. There, it is said, they will find a magical place, the home of Aslan, the creator and ruler of their world. You and I might call Aslan’s Country “paradise” or “heaven.”
As they sail into the rising sun, a strange thing happens – the world around them gets brighter and brighter. The sun burns with more and more intensity, and if it were not for the sweet water of those seas which they drank, it would have blinded them. Instead, with great draughts of the cool liquid, the travelers are able to bear the light, and come at last to their goal.
Jesus Christ, friends, is like the precious water beneath the Dawn Treader. Not only is he the way for us to God’s country, but he helps us to stand in God’s presence. He fills us with himself, in the bread and wine of communion and in the gift of his Spirit, and we find that we are able to endure a little more of God’s glory now than we were before. You and I are still frail and fallen, unable to stand in God’s presence just yet. But it will not always be this way. God has given us his Son, and by taking on Jesus, by letting him fill us up with nothing but himself, we will on the last day stand – without protection or prophet – in the presence of God, as we were always meant to.
God help you to hear clearly the words of his prophets, and God help you to put on Jesus Christ ever more fully, so that you will one day see his true glory. Amen