Exodus 33:12-23; Psalm 99; 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10; Matthew 22:15-22
Preached by Rev. Jason Haddox
The goal of the life of faith is Union with God.
That’s what we’re after here, at St. Augustine’s Church.
It’s not about being nice to one another—although we do that.
It’s not about having programs and activities and services to give people stuff to do—
we’ve all got plenty of things we could be doing at any given time.
It’s not even about serving those in our community and town and world who need help—
as important as that is.
The goal of the life of faith is union with God. That’s what we’re seeking, as people of faith.
That sounds very ambitious, doesn’t it? Union with God—like something that only the professional religious people, monks and nuns and hermits and the very truly pious could even hope for. Moses, for instance, in our first reading this morning, is someone we might think of who got close to such union.
Moses had heard the voice of God in that burning bush, out in the desert, calling his name, telling him “Take off your shoes, you are on holy ground.” All the children of Israel had heard the voice of God on Mount Sinai, in the cloud and fire and trumpet blast, giving them the Teaching, the Torah of God. Moses had come down from that mountain, out of the cloud and fire, to discover that the people were running amok—they had decided that Moses was not coming back, that they needed to make another God to worship, the golden calf. And Moses, who had been with them for so long as they wandered in the wilderness, was MAD. So mad he took those stone tablets with the commandments inscribed on them, and threw them on the ground, where they shattered. And then, eventually, he—and the people he was leading—both realized they had done wrong. And said so, to each other and to God.
So now Moses asks God: “Show me yourself.” He has heard the voice, the words, many times over. Now he asks to see God’s own presence.
This is a very strange passage of scripture. “To see God” is not just about visual perception; it’s about intimate understanding. It is a metaphoric request—Moses does not merely want to “get a look at the Almighty”; he wants to know God in the deepest and fullest way possible. “Who are you that you will go with us? Do not send us away if you do not go with us, for then we shall surely be cut off from you.”
And God answers him, in a wonderful and poetic way. “You cannot see me fully face-to-face (that is, you cannot know me completely, for you would be exploded by my fullness.) But I will cover you and protect you when I come near, and afterward you will see my back. In other words, at the time of the close encounter you will be in darkness—only later, afterward when you think over what happened, you will see how I was there, as it were, from the back.
Is this not, indeed, how we see God? Or experience God’s presence? Sometimes we might be able to see God acting, in the moment, as it happens. But most of the time in my own life—maybe in yours too—it’s afterward. Looking back, thinking over “I was here, and this happened, and then I met this person, and then that other thing happened…and surely God must have been in there somewhere. I could never have manipulated it that way by myself.”
I know you by name, God says to Moses and the children of Israel. I KNOW you, inside and out. Top to bottom; beginning to end.
What do we say, every Sunday, as the liturgy begins? “Almighty God, unto whom/to you all hearts are open, all desires are known, and from whom/you no secrets are hid…” All hearts; all desires; no secrets. God knows it all, before we even know it ourselves, or can say it out loud. All the ugly and mean and cruel stuff; and all the weak and frightened and crazy stuff. And knowing us so completely, God loves us, each and all. Just as we are. No explanations needed; no excuses required.
That is the reality of who we are, as the sons of Adam and the daughters of Eve, made in the image and likeness of God. Whether we know it, and welcome it, and live in that reality or not, it is still the reality of who we are, and whose we are.
The goal of the life of faith is union with God. Not just the faith of monks and nuns and hermits; not just the faith of Moses and St. Paul and the early Christians. But all of us are on that journey of faith too. As Christians, we look to Jesus as “the pioneer” of our faith. The one who goes before us and leads the way.
When we say that Jesus was “without sin” we don’t mean that he never got angry, or never asked questions of God, or never back-talked his Mama. He did all those things. When we say that Jesus was without sin, we mean that he was never OUT of union with God. He was never seperated from being fully aware of God’s embrace and presence with him. Even when he was standing in front of his accusers and detractors, like this morning in the temple.
The religious and social leaders of Jerusalem are looking for a reason to get him into trouble—because he has been troubling them. He has come into the temple—the religious, civic and commercial center of the capitol city, and thrown a major tantrum. He has kicked out the vendors and merchants—the sellers of sacrificial animals, and those who took people’s money, the currency of the civil society, and exchanged it (at rates suited to their own profit) into unmarked coins for use in the temple. He has made it impossible for “business as usual” to continue as usual, and the leaders are scared, and angry. They are afraid of what will happen if the Roman occupying forces get wind of all this; they are afraid of what will happen to THEM if the system they have lived with all this time is destroyed or changed in some way. So they are looking for a reason, and a way, to get rid of the trouble by removing the troublemaker.
One group comes asking him a loaded question: Is it lawful to pay taxes to the Emperor?
Please understand—this is not a question about paying taxes as such. This verse has been jerked out of context many, many times and used as a proof text to argue both for, and against, political economic policy. That’s not the point here.
The issue is not paying taxes as such; the issue is idolatry. The children of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were quite clear in their faith that no depiction of God, in stone or wood, or gold or silver, or paint or any other medium, was a true picture of God’s whole being. If even Moses could not look upon God directly, but only see God “from behind” as it were, then it was impossible—even sacrilegious—to attempt to create an image of God in any artistic medium. NO IMAGES of the Divine Being were acceptable.
The Roman Empire, on the other hand, thrived on images. It was full of images. Everywhere the Roman Army went, they took their library of images with them. The imperial eagle; the military uniforms, the swords and spears and all the other paraphernalia. And above all: the image of the Emperor. On coins, and painted in colors on boards, and in a thousand subtle—and not-so-subtle ways—reinforcing the subjugation of the conquered peoples under this siege of carved, and painted, and metallic images.
To be required to deal with these images—which competed with the imageless, unseen face of God Almighty—was a sore spot among the people in Jesus’ time. Do we simply give up and go with the flow? (If Jesus said “It is lawful” it would be understood as an admission of acquiescence.) Or do we resist and refuse, even to the point of death? (If Jesus said “it is not lawful” then the leaders could turn him in as a political threat.)
But Jesus outwits them all, and asks them a deeper question still. He asks for one of the Roman coins, and holds it up before them all. “Whose image is this, on the coin?”
The word translated “Image” is the Greek word Icon. You know Icons…those little graphics on the computer screen that you click on, and they open up a new program or feature or package—some reality much bigger than the little picture on the screen.
That’s what an icon does—now and in Jesus’ time. An Icon, an image of any kind, carries associations with it. It participates in some reality larger than itself, and is an opening (a window, a door, a passage) into that larger reality. The sacred icons of Eastern Orthodox Christianity are just such openings—“windows into heaven” they are sometimes called.
Jesus is telling his hearers “Look y’all…this icon on this coin, this image of the emperor, is connected to the emperor’s reality. That version of reality is based on fear, and military power, and propaganda. Let him have it…it’s not the real thing anyway. Let the false Gods have their false images; Give to the true God all that belongs to God—which is everything that is real. It is God who made it all, in the first place. And calls each creature, each being, by name. In particular, yourselves.
What are the false images, that we could give back to the false gods, of our own time? Where do we see fear, and power, and propaganda, making demands on our lives—individually and as a people?
How can we claim the true image of God, the maker of heaven and earth, of all things seen and unseen? And of ourselves, children of God and beloved, always and for ever?
The goal of the life of faith is Union with God. The false images, and false gods, do all in their power to distract, and to entice, and to turn aside all those who seek that union. But they shall not have the victory. In Christ, the Icon of God—the true image and likeness, who opens the door to God’s own presence and self—we have an entry to that goal, that union. All our images and visions and depictions are but pale tracings of God’s fullness, and yet even in looking backward, even in “seeing God’s backside”, we see enough to urge us to go forward on our journey together.