On March 11, 2011 a 9.0 magnitude earthquake took place 231 miles northeast of Tokyo, Japan. It caused a tsunami to hit Japan with a thirty foot wave that caused incredible damage. Almost sixteen thousand Japanese were killed in this terrible natural disaster.
As Japan searched for survivors and sought to provide relief to those who had lost the place where they had lived, it soon became clear that the tsunami had produced a new crisis. The disaster damaged nuclear reactors at the Fukushima power plant and officials began desperate measures to prevent a meltdown as they pumped in sea water. The worst case scenario was averted, but to this day the situation at Fukushima continues to be an issue as the Japanese seek to provide a permanent solution.
The Fukushima disaster was almost three years ago, however concerns about its impact have been in the news recently. Some seventy former U.S. Navy sailors who were on the board the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Ronald Reagan are suing the government because they say the radiation from Fukushima has made them ill. When tsunami occurred, the Reagan was diverted to assist with relief efforts. It was near the Fukushima plant when the plant released a huge steam plume as they were trying to cool the reactor with sea water. The plume rose and when it hit the cold Pacific air, it turned in o snow that fell on the Reagan. Navy crews worked clearing the snow. The snow was radioactive and they believe that it is the cause of the many cancers, thyroid issues and other physical problems that have now appeared.
The Fukushima plant did release radiation. There has been concern about the impact this may have on the United States as it crosses the Pacific Ocean, carried by currents. Many experts have claimed that it poses no threat. However, not all are convinced and it certainly didn’t cause speculation to cease when the Department of Health and Human Services recently posted a solicitation to businesses for fourteen million potassium iodide pills – the drug used to help prevent radiation sickness.
Radiation is frightening. It’s frightening because we don’t really understand it. It’s frightening because you can come into contact with it and not even know it – you can be exposed by the water you drink or the food you eat. And it’s frightening because it will kill you. Get enough exposure and you will die a horrible death from radiation sickness. Get some exposure and it can kill you later through cancer. That is why we are fearful about coming into its presence, and why such stringent measures are taken to limit exposure and keep us safe.
In our Old Testament lesson today we learn that things are very much the same when it comes to the holy God. Moses wants a full exposure to God – he wants to see God’s face. However, God says that no person can experience this and live. Instead, he reveals himself in a measured and restrained way – he allows Moses to seek his back. Yet by this revelation, Moses receives the assurance that God’s presence will go with Israel and with him during their journey.
In our Old Testament lesson this morning we hear an exchange between Yahweh and Moses. God had called Moses to lead his people Israel out of Egyptian slavery in the Exodus. God had rescued the nation and brought them to Mt. Sinai, where he had entered into a covenant with Israel. Now, they were about to set out from Mt. Sinai for the promised land.
God tells Moses that his presence - literally “his face” – will go with Israel and the he will give the people rest. For Moses this fact is critical. He says to God, “If your presence will not go with me, do not bring us up from here. For how shall it be known that I have found favor in your sight, I and your people? Is it not in your going with us, so that we are distinct, I and your people, from every other people on the face of the earth?”
Moses knew that it was only the presence of Yahweh that made Israel unique and distinct from every other people on the earth. In and of themselves, they were nothing. They had no land. They had no home. They had no real military might. They had no great city filled with magnificent buildings. The only thing that made them special, was the fact that Yahweh had made them his choice possession and was with them.
Yahweh responded by saying, “This very thing that you have spoken I will do, for you have found favor in my sight, and I know you by name.” And then Moses made an additional request. He said, “Please show me your glory.” Moses asked for a direct revelation of God.
Yahweh responded that he would make his goodness pass before Moses. However he added, “But you cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live.” God told Moses that a direct encounter with him was impossible because it would be fatal. Instead, God would hid Moses in a cleft in the rock and shield him as God passed by. Then he would allow Moses to see him indirectly – he would allow Moses to see his back.
Our text this morning teaches us a profound truth about how God deals with us. God reveals himself to us. He is present with us in ways that set us apart as his people. Yet because of who he is as God, and what we are as fallen creatures our God does so in indirect ways. He does it in ways that reveal and hide himself at the same time.
We think about this especially during this season of Epiphany. At Christmas we celebrated the fact in the fullness of time God sent forth his Son into the world. John tells us in the first chapter of his Gospel, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only begotten Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” God grants that his glory is seen in the incarnate Son of God, Jesus Christ. And as Jesus begins his ministry, this glory is revealed. In our Gospel lesson this morning we hear of how Jesus turns water in to wine. At the end of the account John writes, “This, the first of his signs, Jesus did at Cana in Galilee, and manifested his glory. And his disciples believed in him.”
In our Old Testament lesson, God reveals himself to Moses. Yet he does this in a way that is restrained and hidden. He allows Moses to see his back. And we find that the same thing is true in Jesus Christ. God doesn’t reveal his glory directly because sinful man can’t bear this. Instead, in a miraculous action, God reveals his glory through Jesus Christ. Just as Moses asked for God to be present with Israel, so Jesus is Immanuel – God with us. Yet just like Moses’ experience, this is not some kind of head on and direct encounter with the glory of God. Instead, it is a hidden glory – a glory revealed to faith.
This fact becomes undeniable at the moment when Jesus Christ’s ministry reaches its goal on Good Friday. God’s saving glory is revealed as Jesus dies on the cross for us. It is revealed in a way that appears to be the opposite of glory. It is revealed in blood, and humiliation, and suffering, and death. It is glory revealed in hiddenness.
That’s what he continues to do. He reveals his saving glory. Yet he does so in ways that are not forceful and overpowering. He does it in ways where the glory is hidden. He does it through the Gospel, as it is proclaimed and shared with others. He does it through water in a font, as he gives forgiveness and new spiritual life in Holy Baptism. And he does it in a way that is the summit of the Divine Service each week. He does it through bread and wine in the Sacrament of the Altar.
Now frankly there are many times when, like Moses, we want to ask for more. We know how we want God to do things. We don’t want a Gospel that others can reject. We don’t want the gifts of the sacraments that are received in faith – gifts that even many Christians around us reject. We want force and power. We want God to deal with us directly. We want his glory – straight up and in our face.
Peter, James and John had that experience once. We will hear about it in three weeks. At the transfiguration of Jesus, our Lord’s face shone like the sun and his clothes were white as light. A bright cloud overshadowed them and God the Father’s voice was heard. And you know how they reacted? They fell on their faces on the ground and were terrified.
No, God doesn’t reveal himself directly in unfettered glory because we can’t handle it. Like silly little children we have no idea what we really need and what is really good for us. And so God hides himself in order to reveal himself. We saw this on Christmas Eve as we beheld the creator of the cosmos as a baby in a manger. We will see this on Good Friday, as the Son of God hangs on a cross and dies for our sins.
But then, on Easter, we will see Jesus Christ rise from the dead. We will see him defeat death and begin the resurrection of the Last Day. In the resurrection of Jesus we find the assurance that though it is indirect; though it is now hidden, the word and sacraments of Jesus Christ are indeed the powerful revelation of God’s saving glory.
Why is it that every Sunday the Divine Service reaches its summit in the celebration of the Sacrament of the Altar? It is because that bread and wine is not just bread and wine. Instead, as Christ takes it and adds his word, it becomes the means by which he gives us his true body and blood to eat and to drink. It is the presence of the risen One – the One who continues to come bodily into our midst to give us forgiveness and to strengthen us in the faith. Now it is hidden. One can choose to reject his words about it. But that does not change what it is – the very thing his Church has always confessed it to be.
In our text today God promises Moses and Israel, “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.” Our Lord continues to go with us as he comes into our midst through his Means of Grace. And in a particularly unique way he is present with us in the Sacrament of the Altar as he gives us rest in the forgiveness of his body and blood.
He comes as the risen Lord in a hidden way – like the baby in the manger; like the man on the cross. But because it is the risen and ascended Lord who comes to us in the Sacrament, each celebration points to the day when there will be nothing hidden about his presence. It points to the Last Day when he will return in glory and we will see him as he is. It points to the day when we will no longer see God in a hidden and indirect way – when we will no longer see God’s back, but instead we will see him face to face.