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Do you want to see God?

Javed Sommers

Apr 7, 2024

Exodus 33:12-13,17-23, I Kings 19, John 20:19-20, 24-29

Today, the second Sunday of Easter, our lectionary includes the story of Thomas, often known now as “doubting” Thomas. His story of refusing to believe that Jesus is resurrected unless he can see and touch Jesus is famous. In fact, this is the only biblical story in which Thomas is a central character, and nowhere in the Bible other than the Gospel of John does Thomas even have a voice. Perhaps less well known, is that following this encounter with Jesus, Thomas is said to have traveled to India and taken the Gospel to that region. Churches in India and surrounding area remember Thomas as their founder and in fact there is one Christian community in India, numbering something like six million who call themselves “St Thomas Christians.” Thomas is said to have died a violent death, being stabbed with a spear by Hindus unhappy with his ministry.

As a child when I read the story of “doubting Thomas,” I remember having certain reactions that perhaps you can relate to. First, I remember thinking how special I was, because Jesus says “blessed are those who don’t have to see to believe,” and I figured that applied to me. Second, I remember a sense of superiority I felt, because Thomas was a doubter and I was not. But, third, I also remember wishing I, too, could see Jesus. And probably most Christians would say they want to see Jesus. We even sing hymns about wanting to see Jesus.

Today, as an adult, I am at least a little more humble than I was a child. First, I understand that it is highly unlikely Jesus actually said the words attributed to him in this story about “blessed are those who don’t have to see to believe.” To most scholars it is obvious that these are words important to John, the author of the book, who is writing for Christians who had never seen Jesus, not words Jesus would have actually said to Thomas. That does not mean we should not feel blessed in hearing them, but somehow that knowledge takes the childhood magic away.

Second, I no longer feel any sense of superiority to Thomas, quite the opposite. Evidently Thomas was someone who took the Gospel seriously, and lived his life in service to it. At this point in my life I can’t seem to even go a full day living in a way consistent with the Gospel, so far be it from me to feel superior to Thomas!

Third, I think much differently now than I did as a child about the idea of seeing Jesus. And this is in particular what I want to talk about today.

I added two Hebrew Bible stories to our readings this morning. Both of these stories involve divine encounters on Mt Horeb or Mt Sinai, the Bible uses both of these names for the same mountain. Like Thomas, Moses and Elijah encounter the divine in intimate and tangible ways, and in both cases they do so at times in their lives when, like Thomas, they are doubting God.

Before I go further into these stories, I want to take a second to emphasize that fact. Moses, Elijah, and Thomas, not to mention countless others, including even Jesus, are all characters in the Bible who struggle with feelings such as doubt, fear, and insecurity. I hope you take comfort in that, since if you’re like me you, too, experience these feelings. It is so easy to look at the totality of the lives of Moses or Elijah and assume they were always strong, always certain in their relationship with the divine, always full of moral conviction and clarity. But, of course, this isn’t true, and I assume that their times of doubt and fear and insecurity were even more frequent than the Bible tells us. Another way to think about this is that the great accomplishments of people like Moses and Elijah were not possible because they never doubted, but despite the fact they doubted, or, possibly, even because they doubted. I wonder if true, genuine, deep faith is possible if we don’t go through periods of significant doubt. In his Easter sermon last week, Harry suggested that doubt is not necessarily a bad thing. Are you sitting here today doubting? If Jesus is alive in this world, how is that Palestinian children are starving? If Jesus is alive in this city, how is that hundreds of people are living in tents, cold and sick and unsupported? If Jesus is alive in the church, how is it that the church is capable of perpetuating evil, such as discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation? And if Jesus is alive in me, how is it that over and over again I make the same stupid mistakes, hurting myself and those around me? We could go on and I am sure spend all day exploring our doubts.

For Moses, he and the Israelites have been at the foot of Mount Sinai for some time, and Moses has been shuttling up and down the mountain, trying to serve both his God and his people, and experiencing some serious tension in the process. Moses is doubting his purpose, doubting that success is possible, and doubting his God. Frustrated and questioning, Moses asks to see God. Remarkably, God agrees and one of the most interesting scenes in the Bible occurs, in which Moses, hidden in the “cleft of the rock” on top of Mt Sinai see God’s back as God passes him by.

The wonder of this story really captured me as a child. It was much easier to put myself in the shoes of Thomas seeing the physical Jesus than it was to think about being Moses and seeing Yahweh’s back. There was something truly awe inspiring about this scene.

In January Diana and I were able to climb Mt Sinai and we stood in that cleft of the rock where it is said Moses saw God’s back. It is incredible to stand on that mountain and look out over the desert and mountains below and watch the sun set. At the top of the mountain there is both a mosque and a chapel, and I took the photo on the front of the bulletin with my back to the mosque, looking north towards the chapel. The Christian monastery at the foot of Mt Sinai calls the mountain “God-Trodden,” referring of course to God’s encounter with Moses here. It was an incredible experience to visit Mount Sinai, a sacred experience, and it made me think about divine encounters in new ways.

Elijah, hundreds of years after Moses, also ends up on this mountain, referred to by its other name, Mt Horeb, in 1 Kings. When Elijah reaches the mountain he is in perhaps even worse shape spiritually than Moses was. Elijah has fled Israel, traveling for 40 days to reach the mountain. He is running from Queen Jezebel, who is trying to kill him. Elijah is doubting God and God’s calling, and he is terrified. Fearful for his life Elijah climbs the mountain and hides in a cave. Unlike Moses and Thomas, Elijah does not in fact ask to see God. Actually, he is so depressed and desperate that he asks to die. But, God comes to Elijah anyway and says “what are you doing here, Elijah?” First Kings says that God passes by Elijah, too, but unlike Moses’s encounter with the divine, Elijah’s is not visual but audible.

A wind so powerful that it splits mountains and breaks rocks passes by Elijah’s cave; then an earthquake; then a fire; and, finally, “sheer silence.” It is interesting to think about an experience of “sheer silence” as a divine encounter, isn’t it? How often do you experience sheer silence? It is rare, isn’t it? In fact, the top of a mountain may be one of the few places such an experience is even possible, although even then the sound of wind is often quite persistent. After this experience of the divine, Elijah receives empowering instructions, to go, leave the mountain, and continue his work.

So, this morning we have three stories in which men of faith see or, in Elijah’s case, hear, God in direct and tangible and powerful ways. For all three, their divine encounters come at pivotal points in their lives, and the experiences are life changing. Thomas heads off to India, spreading the Gospel and Jesus’s love, and dying because of it. Moses descends the mountain, delivers the law and leads the Israelites onwards for 40 years towards the Promised Land. Elijah also descends the mountain, anoints future kings, continues his prophetic ministry against the corrupt political leaders of his day, and recruits Elisha as his successor.

So, going back to my innocent childhood wish to see Jesus, I now realize that such a powerful, tangible encounter with the divine would change my life forever. Far from being a benign experience, seeing God would mean being pushed and challenged and called in a way that we may not even be able to imagine. As you think about this, are you rethinking how you sing “we want to see Jesus”? Do you, really, want to see God? Are you prepared for what that would mean? 

Of course, whether we actually see Jesus or God, we are, as Christians, nonetheless called to lives of radical love and compassion and ministry. We don’t need to see God to know this. We have our doubts, but we all know that God is calling us, don’t we? What responsibility are we taking for addressing our doubts and changing our world? If you aren’t already, why aren’t you doing something to end Palestinian suffering? How are you advocating to end houselessness in our city? What work are you undertaking to make the church a more loving, inclusive, Christlike space? And what will you do today to work on yourself, to explore, perhaps in “sheer silence,” what is preventing you from loving more like Jesus did?

I have a challenge for you today. Ask yourself, honestly; if you did see Jesus today, if Jesus joined you for lunch or met you for a coffee, what questions would he ask you? What task would Jesus call you to? Do you have the courage to even think about it? I’m not sure I do, to be honest, and so I am not so sure I want to see Jesus. Thomas has often been derided for doubting, but perhaps in asking to Jesus Thomas was expressing a courage few of us actually have.

There is another way, of course, to think about seeing God, one I also completely failed to appreciate as a child.

As I think about my experience climbing Mt Sinai, one of my favourite aspects to reflect on now is how I was climbing in the footsteps of thousands, probably hundreds of thousands, of other humans (and non-humans) throughout the centuries who have climbed the mountain and experienced God. The monastery calls the mountain “God trodden,” and I like to think about this as referring not just to the time Moses saw God on the mountain, but to the reality that God has trod the mountain countless times since in the lives and bodies of the mountain’s pilgrims. Because as Christians we believe Jesus is alive inside of all of us, and so in a way wherever we walk, God walks.

Please, literally, right now, turn to your left or to your right or behind you, find someone close by to make eye contact with and wave at. I am serious, let’s take ten seconds to do this . . .

Who did you see? A friend? Someone you’ve sat nearby at church for years? Your partner? Maybe they are a stranger to you because you’re new or a visitor, or simply because you have yet to meet them. But, did you see God? Do you ever look around this sanctuary on a Sunday morning and see Jesus sitting behind you? Do you see the divine in your partner sitting next to you? What about when you leave this place? When you walk by someone sleeping under a blanket on the sidewalk outside our church, do you see Jesus? How would your life change if you appreciated more often the divine in others around you? How much more would you love, how much more would you feel blessed?

Friends, many of us are mourning our friend Norm Marshall today. Many of us here had the privilege to experience Norm offering us a cup of tea, or laughing with us, or genuinely asking us how we are doing, or expressing joy at his football team’s victory, or giving us a wave, or even, occasionally, cracking an off-colour joke. Many of us observed Norm finding cookies or water to give to the church’s neighbours who were in need. For me, and I am sure many of you, when we saw Norm, we saw Jesus.

Let’s not wait until our friends have passed to reflect on how we see God in them and how that can inspire us and lead us to love more.

Some of you are with me so far. You get that Jesus was in Norm and that Jesus is in your partner and that Jesus is in the person suffering with mental illness and without a home.

But, let’s take this one step further. Probably all of us at some point this morning looked in the mirror as we woke up or readied ourselves for church. When you did this, who did you see? Maybe you saw someone tired? Maybe you saw someone who would rather have gone back to bed. Maybe you saw someone whose hair needed work, or whose makeup wasn’t right or who had less hair than they had yesterday, or whose wrinkles were looking deeper than usual. Maybe you saw someone smiling and eager for the day. Maybe you saw someone lonely and afraid, someone doubting God. But most of all what I wonder is, did you see Jesus? Have you ever looked in the mirror and seen Jesus? What if you did? What if you tried this experiment today, and looked in the mirror and said “hi Jesus, it is really nice to see you”? How would that outlook change how your thinking about yourself? How would seeing Jesus in the mirror change how you treated others? 

Friends, perhaps instead of asking to see God outside of us, say, in a locked room with our colleagues or on a mountaintop alone; this morning we should ask to see God inside of us and inside of others, and in seeing God, allow our lives to be changed by the resurrected Christ. Amen.

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