On Knowing God Personally
Charles W. Allen
Christian Theological Seminary, Indianapolis
Almost twenty years before Woody Allen got embroiled in his current family troubles, he starred in a movie about a man who had himself frozen in the 1970s to be revived some time in the distant future. When the time finally arrived, the people who thawed him out had endless lists of questions to ask him. It seems that most of the records from our time had been destroyed in some catastrophe, and among the few surviving artifacts were photographs of famous people-only they didn't have any captions to explain who these people were. So they asked Allen to sit through a slide show and identify people to fill in some of the gaps in their past. He was kind enough to supply the right names, but he took his revenge on the likes of Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew by telling half-truths about their role in history that made them look ridiculous. I'm afraid I don't remember how he described most of these people, but I do remember what he said when a famous evangelist's picture flashed up on the screen. He said, "That's Billy Graham. He knows God personally."
Audiences laughed, of course; even the Billy Graham fans laughed, if only half-heartedly. You may object that speaking of God in the language of personal relationship has a distinguised pedigree. And, of course, it does. I insist on it myself. But be honest. When you think, not just of Graham, but of the millions of people today who talk about God as if the source and end of all things were as commonplace as their next-door neighbor, how can you not laugh? Do they stop to think how ludicrous it sounds? You hear people say things like, "I know there's a God; I spoke with him this morning." And then they look at you smugly as if they expected skeptics like Bertrand Russell to fall back and say, "Oh, gee, how could I have overlooked that?"
How can you not laugh? Sometimes, in fact, you laugh so hard you end up crying. I know people who've tried prayer, or sometimes meditation, every day for years, only to give up in frustration because it seems that nobody's there to respond. You've known these people too, and maybe some of you are these people. And if you're not, if you've never been one of these people, don't you dare say that they're lacking in faith. It could just as easily turn out that you're lacking in honesty. We've known people, too, who've spent years working at realizing a calling they thought came from God. Then the hospital tests come back, and they learn it may all be over before it's even begun. And all this time that divine next-door neighbor they'd thought they were chatting with never even hinted that something like this might be in the making. It's a cruel joke. How can you not laugh-laugh until the tears come?
Now, with this somber beginning, try if you can to picture Moses standing on the mountain, his life nearly finished-Moses "whom God knew face to face." Can you picture him laughing-laughing, maybe, with at least a hint of one who's seen too much? "You want to talk about knowing God personally?," he says. "Well I've been on speaking terms with God for years. And I can tell you this much: God's not easy to be around."
Isn't that the truth? God is not easy to be around. And who would know this better than Moses-Moses, that is, and every follower of Moses since then? That message comes through loud and clear when you reflect on it in today's lesson. The writers and later the editors of Torah seem undecided about just how to bring this most important of stories to a fitting conclusion. They try to end on a triumphant note: They tell us that Moses was a very young 120 when he died: "His sight was unimpaired and his vigor had not abated." They tell us that he was unequaled as a wonder worker, and they imply that nobody's ever known God better than he did. But for all that, they still can't cover up the fact that Moses' and God's relationship was anything but harmonious. In this, the final, scene God shows Moses the land of promise-the goal for which Moses sacrificed nearly everything-and then tells him he can't enter it. It's a bitter pill to swallow. And so Moses dies outside the promised land, "at the Lord's command." We can conclude from this, I think, that you'd never have caught Moses singing "Every day with YHWH is sweeter than the day before." God's not easy to be around.
As far as Moses is concerned, to know God personally is to know one who can be frustratingly elusive. It's to know one who may know you face to face, but who never lets you see more than a glimpse of the divine tush (Exodus 33:17-23). It's to know one who it seems can can make as if to desert you just when your need is most urgent (Exodus 5:22-23). It's to know one who can show you a future filled with promise, only for you to learn eventually that the promise won't be fulfilled in your time or on your terms. It's to know one, in other words, who never runs out of ways to remind you that, while dwelling nearer than you can imagine, God remains God, and you remain human.
And to that I as a Christian, a "guest in the house of Israel," can only say, "Thank God!" The God who knows me personally gives me permission to be no more than a human being. My reliance upon God doesn't mean that God and I have to become fishing buddies. I don't need to feel spiritually inferior if my heart long ago stopped being strangely warmed every time we held hands and sang "Pass It On." (Sorry, Wesleyans.) And perhaps most importantly, my life and my calling don't have to make that much sense anymore. In fact, part of what inclined me to pick this lectionary reading over the others was a particularly apt remark to this effect by the philosopher Paul Ricoeur. He said that making sense of life was philosophy's promised land, and then added that, like Moses, we can only glimpse this land before dying.
Maybe this still doesn't sound much like the gospel to some of you. Well it's not all of the gospel. George Buttrick used to say that you can't preach all the gospel in one sermon. But here at least is some good news. True, like Moses, all we can count on are brief glimpses of our promised land before dying. But we are assured that these occasional, fleeting glimpses are more than enough for the likes of us, as long as we're honest about them. And if that still sounds too agnostic, let me call to my defense none other than Karl Barth. There are, after all, members of this faculty who sound sometimes as if they might say of Barth, "Never since has there arisen a theologian like Barth, whom the Lord knew face to face." I do fear sometimes that I might become a Barthian myself, but I pray daily to be delivered from that fate. In any case, it was Barth who said that being content with no more than such occasional, fleeting glimpses is precisely what distinguishes genuine faith from unbelief and superstition. So there.
According to rabbinic legend, Moses didn't consent to die without first trying to talk God out of it. We know he was good at that sort of thing. But finally he agreed that his place was with the rest of his generation. When he reached the top of the mountain, he lay down. "And God said: Close your eyes. And Moses closed his eyes. And God said: Fold your arms across your chest. And Moses folded his arms across his chest. Then, silently, God kissed his lips. And the soul of Moses found shelter in God's breath and was swept away into eternity.
"At the foot of the mountain ... the children of Israel wept. And all of creation wept ...
"But up above ... the events that had filled his life on earth were glorified. Heaven glorified him seven times. And the waters glorified him seven times. And the fire glorified him seven times. And all of human history continues to glorify his name."
And for that life, its witness, and its fitting conclusion, we too can only say, "Thanks be to God."
Paul Ricoeur, The Conflict of Interpretations (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1974), p. 24.
Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, vol. 2, part 2, trans. G. W. Bromily, etal, ed. G. W. Bromily and T. F. Torrance (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1957), p. 17.
Elie Wiesel, Messengers of God (New York: Pocket Books, 1977), p. 216.