|Rev: 12-16 (ESV)|
DoctorDave gave a lovely talk in church yesterday, starting by looking at Numbers 22-26 - especially 22-24 (Aaron's blessing) which, he says, could be read as "The Lord Bless you and keep you, the Lord be gracious to you, the Lord be gracious to you, the Lord be gracious to you, and give you peace". I found that really encouraging. I think that he has a valid point. You see the verses in Numbers 24-26 go like this:
24 The LORD bless you and keep you;
25 the LORD make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you;
26 the LORD lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.
God 'making his face to shine shine upon us' is an act of his graciousness; God 'lifting his countenance (face) upon us' is also an act of his graciousness. In Exodus God says that any man that looks upon his (God's) face will "surely die", and then goes on to say to Moses that he would show his face to all Israel, but Israel were terrified and said they wanted none of that. So Moses beetled up the mountain and God made Moses's face shine instead - but even a puny human shining out just a titchy bit of God's glory made them wince and Moses had to wear a veil...
Another time, God hid Moses in a cleft in a rock and covered Moses's face with His hand as he passed by so that Moses would not die...
And yet here is God saying all this stuff about showing his (lethal) face to His people, Israel. What does it mean - what did it mean for them, and what does any of it have to say to us today, and what the bobbins have I pasted Revelation 1:12-16 up top for?
Well, bear with me. I was really struck in the service on Sunday by God's abundant Grace. (This was even before DoctorDave whipped out his scribbled scrap of paper and essentially confirmed all that I had been pondering. Jesus, you are well sneaky!) So yes, I was sat there holding my mug of tea and feeling eternally, deeply grateful for each person in the room with me, for those of the Church that were not there with us, and for all the prayers that these people have prayed for each other over the years, and of course for me too. I was humbled by the grace with which people have managed to handle some of my insane moments over the last few months, where I have gone completely off the rails, and I was just aware of a mere jot of the Grace that is just one part of God's esse.
For the people of Israel in the centuries before Jesus' birth who were hearing Aaron's words of blessing from YHWH for the first time, they must have thought Aaron was mad. (As most prophets might appear to be, to be honest... Ahem!) They would know that seeing God's face would kill them, yet here was Aaron saying that The Lord was going to make his face to shine upon them, he was going to lift his countenance upon them (face to face encounter) and give them his peace. No death, no burning in the bright sun, just his peace. Shalom. God choosing to reveal himself in a face to face encounter reveals his Grace and that Grace flows from the burning Love that he has for each of us. "The Lord be gracious to you" means "I have grace enough for you to be able to see me and still live". God chose to bless his people with the offer of a face to face encounter. Why?
I think that God just really loves being involved in our lives. Not in a control-freak kind of a way; he has no need to be a control freak because he is the beginning and the End, no other power can wrest control from him. God is content and able to just' be' with us. God wants closer encounters, face to face moments with us. That is most likely why he became flesh and walked among us in the person of Jesus. See Jesus: See God. Clearly the messages were not really getting through our thick skulls, so God thought he'd come and really get up close and personal. Not content with manifesting himself in pillars of smoke or fire, burning bushes or being squished into the Ark or left at the top of the mounTains, he thought "bugger this for a game of stratiotes, I'm going to show them that they need to be more involved with each other and get their mitts really grubby and while I'm there I'll bash a few of their heads together." (Well, the bashing together of heads is metaphorical, not literal...) and He came into the world in humble circumstances and really experienced the fullness of life in the post-Fall world of Mankind. Not a pleasant thing. Kind of the ultimate "Back To The Floor" or "Undercover Boss", you could say...
Anyway, back to the face-to face-thing. Most of us find it better to work things out with the help of another, whether that is talking to a friend, a counsellor, a doctor, an MP or even a real person in a branch of our bank or building society... We are not meant to walk through this life on our own, irrespective of whether we are an 'independent spirit' or not - there comes a point when every single one of us will need to lean on another. It is a fact, and we need to wise up to it.
So God's desire for us to see his face means that actually we get a massive blessing, because we are able to approach him with boldness, because he says that we can, and we get to experience this Grace at first hand in several ways, starting with not dying when we look upon him. :D Isaiah says that when he found himself in the presence of God he fell to the ground - "as if dead" - and then a couple of sentences later points towards the point of salvation - when God has forgiven us everything - as being the time in which we can look upon God's face and live.
The verses from Revelation at the beginning of the this blog post describe what John saw when he first encounters the risen Christ. DoctorDave read the verses out as we sat in silence with our eyes closed, asking God to show us more. What happened during this time was wonderful. The picture that most of us had already undoubtedly fixed in our minds of the white hair, gold sash, two-edged sword and bronze feet started to come to life in our collective meditation upon the words. It was like looking at a work by Dalí, and we all began to see more things in this picture: broken people, faces smeared with tears and dust, outcast, sick and dying were revealed as hiding in the folds of the garments; indentations in the garments that made it look like a cat had just got up, but also where people can go for comfort; worker's hands that had dirt under the fingernails, yet were outstretched to gather people in, and to heal; the bronze feet were stable and firmly planted upon the earth, sure and solid, marking journeys and stamping about on the earth; darkness fleeing in the presence of such radiant light and glory; people felt the warmth from the face shining as bright as the sun; people saw Goodness; others were overwhelmed by his power; and so on.
All of the things that were revealed were just still more of God's grace in allowing us to see him a little more closely. I loved noticing the dirt under God's workman's fingernails and knowing more fully how much he is involved in all the mess of our lives - not by creating the mess, but fixing us (not via Disneyesque 'magical' clicks of the fingers) but by joining in our toil and our crawling, stumbling, walking and dancing through the Valley. I was looking at the hands that created and hold the world so lightly yet firmly, the hands that pushed mud into the eyes of a blind man and gave him sight, the hands that were wrung in grief at the death of Lazarus, the hands that were nailed to a tree. It seems easy to write out, but really, just one aspect of such a face-to-face encounter is breathtaking.
All that said, however, I think that we are to be very careful in how we picture Jesus or God and how we represent that. I respect Islam's notion of not reproducing or creating an image for Allah because the argument goes that we cannot know what God looks like, so anything we come up with is never going to be wholly accurate and a very, very poor guesstimate, almost an insult, one could say. Although of course, in the book of Revelation we do get glimpses of what the Risen Lord 'looks' like in Glory (see the verses above). Of course, we also get the pictures of Jesus as a lamb, a lamp, a tattooed horseman...
For me, the revelation of Christ to John is more about God wanting to let us seek all that he is, in this brilliantly vivid technicolour piece of theatre, than it is about giving us a signed photograph labelled "I AM, heaven, year dot, Love ya, YHWH."... . Essentially the main thing is that John is transported to heaven to see and thence to reveal to us the total 'Other'-ness of God and the heavenly realms. It makes no sense to us most of the time. It makes no sense because we do not have the mind of God, but we DO have these glimpses of Christ there in sheer resplendent glory. And by looking closely at those snapshots we see more of God's character revealed. We will always learn something more, something deeper if we just open our hearts and our eyes and not allow ourselves get too freaked out by its total randomness, or remain in a state of fear at approaching the throne.
What Revelation says is that we are able to approach the throne boldly, we are invited into the throne room and to hear the angels singing and to see the face of God and not die. Revelation just confirms what DoctorDave was talking about regarding Numbers 22-26 - that God is gracious unto us and that he wants us to know that loud and clear.
So because we can see that the Lord does allow us in, and yearns for us to enter his gates with praise and to look upon his face, it does seem that this face of infintite lux is not so much deadly as just full of light, life and Love. It might seem fantastical, weird or just plain rubbish, but the truth is God, whilst all mighty and all knowing and all 'those other things' he really is also all loving and consumed by his infintite love for each and every one of us. He flung the gates of heaven open and ripped down the veil when Jesus was nailed to the cross and tore the temple curtain in two in the hour of Christ's death.
There is no separation in the throne room, because of his Grace.
The LORD bless you and keep you;
make his face to shine upon you be gracious to you and be [yes, still more] gracious to you;
lift up his countenance upon you be gracious to you and give you peace.