Foundry United Methodist Church

Rev. Dean Snyder, Senior Minister




Divine Freedom and Human Faith

Sunday, February 19, 2006



Exodus 33: 12-23

Rev. Dean Snyder


Anxiety is the human condition.  Paul Tillich said that anxiety is ontological.  It is an aspect of being.  To exist is to be anxious.  It is part of our finitude, part of the limited nature of our lives. 


Yesterday, after Ann Tonjes’ memorial service, someone was chatting with me during the fellowship time.  He shared with me the exact day, hour, and moment of his father’s death.  Then he shared with me the exact day, hour, and moment of his mother’s death.  He said ever since he experienced the death of his parents, he was realizing there was an as yet unknown day, hour, and moment when he himself would breathe his last breath.  Anxiety is part of knowing that all of us will have a last moment when we will breathe our last breath.


However, anxiety is about more than the limits of our existence.  It is about the risk that all of life is.  Everything in life is risky.  Relationships are risky.  Our vocations are risky.  Nature, as we have seen so much in the last couple of years, is risky.  The stock market is risky.  World politics are risky.  All of life is risky. 


Anxiety is always with us.  It dwells inside of us, and it dwells among us because not only individuals but groups, and congregations, and nations, and an entire world can become anxious.  There are times in our life when our anxiety particularly surfaces, times of high anxiety.  It is always with us, but there are circumstances in life that make us particularly aware of our anxiety.  Health concerns can bring on anxiety, or financial concerns, or changes at our workplace, or our partner seems to be changing, or our national politics can begin to move in an uncomfortable direction.  Maybe it happens when we turn thirty, or forty, or fifty, or sixty.  Sometimes it seems as though something inside of us just becomes uneasy, and troubled, and anxious, and we’re not sure why.


We have been reading and trying to study this Epiphany season the book of Exodus, chapters 32, 33, and 34, which is sometimes called the golden calf sequence within the story.  It is the time when the Israelites in the wilderness are experiencing particularly high anxiety.  Their future is unsure.  They are at a place in life that they have never been before.  They have experienced nothing like this before. 


Moses, their leader, has seemed to disappear.  God, the God that Moses had taught them to call Yahweh, seems distant.  They responded to their anxiety by making a golden calf like the gods the Egyptians had worshipped back in Egypt, a god they can touch and hold, and they know will be there when they need a god.  A god who is tangible, and concrete, and durable, and, most of all, present when you need one.  Moses returns from Mount Sinai and smashes the Israelites’ golden calf.


But in the lesson this morning, Moses himself begins to become anxious.  If he is going to lead the Israelites through the wilderness to the Promised Land, he really wants to know that God is going to be with him.  So he asks for God’s promise, and God promises that God’s presence will go with him through the wilderness, but that’s still not enough for Moses.  He wants to see God’s glory.  He wants to see God’s face.  He wants such an experience of God’s majesty, and power, and presence that he will never doubt again.  Moses, if he’s going to lead these troublesome people through the anxiety of the wilderness, wants absolute certainty. 


This is what we all want after all, isn’t it, when we become anxious in our lives?  Some absolutes to hang on to, certainty about something that will provide a foundation for our lives.  In times of high anxiety, we all have a tendency to become more conservative.  We want sureties to hang on to, clear and definite answers, less ambiguity in our life, more of a sure thing.  We want to invest in the most dependable stock, or maybe even in bonds, or maybe even in gold that we will bury in our back yards.


During the time of the most threatening changes in our lives and in our world, we all have within us a longing to be fundamentalists.  We want clear, sure answers.  Whether it is the fundamentalism of religion of the right or the left, or whether it is a fundamentalism of politics, or whether it is a fundamentalism of science, we all have a longing for absolute answers.  We all want a god that we can know and depend on beyond a shadow of a doubt, who will lead us through the anxiety of the wildernesses of our life in this world.


However, in the Exodus story, God refuses to show Moses God’s face, God’s glory.  For God says to Moses that no one can see the face of God and live.  To see the face of God is to stop living.  To suppose that we know the absolute of God is to end our growth and our life.  Instead, God has Moses stand in the cleft of a rock, and God passes by in all the divine glory and allows Moses to see God’s back, but not God’s face.  In other words, we may not be able to see God in the midst of the anxious situations in which we find ourselves in life, but we can see where God has been. 


The reason for this is because in the anxious places of life is where we have the greatest capacity to grow.  Really meaningful, significant change in our individual life, or in our congregations, or in our societies, or in our nation, or in the world change that is significant, and profound, and meaningful does not happen without anxiety.  If we react to anxiety by supposing that we have found the answers, the absolutes, the sureties, we close off our capacity to grow in the direction that God wants to lead us and to take us.


We cannot know the face of God.  We cannot see the face of God.  We cannot see the depths of God’s glory.  Theologically, this is called the Doctrine of the Freedom of God.  God remains free from all of our attempts to define God, to put God into a cage, to nail God down, to be able to suppose that we can control God.  It is part of the reason that God denied Israel a temple until they reached the place of maturity when they understood that a temple was the place where a community came together to learn and to discern.  It was not a place where God lived and where we could come to access God.  Instead, it was a place where the community came to gather and to learn and open its hearts, so that it might go out from the temple and find God where God is, which is in the midst of the struggles in the world around us. 


We come into the temple, into the house of God, to learn and to worship so that we might find God in the midst of the world.  The Church is not a cage where we keep God so we can find God when we need God.  The Church is a place that prepares us to find God in the world in the midst of a struggle.


These past months I’ve been rereading the writings of a theologian who is mostly forgotten, sadly.  He’s a Methodist theologian who lived in the last century.  His name was Carl Michaelson.  He taught at Drew Seminary in New Jersey.  He wrote in a way that was profound, but he is mostly forgotten because, just as he was doing his most mature theological work, he died in a plane crash in Kentucky in 1965.  Carl Michaelson’s writings move me because he was writing during a period of time when the mainline churches thought we had it all together.  Our congregations were growing and thriving.  We were at the peak of our success in terms of numbers and our influence within society.  The churches were full and they were successful.  We thought that we had the answers to life and knew how to live. 


Carl Michaelson kept trying to call the Church to a different understanding, to call us from what he thought was our arrogance at the time, and call us back to a life of faith.  “The presence of God,” he wrote, “is never a matter of certainty but always a matter of faith.  The highest truths,” he wrote, “are the truths which are spiritually discerned, and spiritual discernment, as the Bible says, always takes place in freedom.  Christian authority is always consistent with assurance, never with certainty.” 


Then he wrote this: “A quest for certainty in the Christian life is an expression of bad faith.  A quest for absolutes and certainty within the Christian life is to desert the life of faith.”  Here is the response that God asks of us in the midst of the anxiety of life.  We want answers, but God asks us for confidence.  We want answers, but God asks us for trust as we go into the anxious and confusing places of life.


Several years ago, a member of this congregation who knew she was dying asked me if I would preach a series of sermons on what happens to us after we die.  That question plagued me because there’s not much that I know about what happens to us after we die, and there are days when I don’t even know the little bit I think I might know. 


So I called an old retired preacher back in Philadelphia, someone who I particularly respected, who now has lost his eyesight and is living in a wheelchair.  I called him up and I said, “If you were to preach about what happens to us after we die, what would you say?” 


He said, “I would tell this story.  Back when I was a young person in ministry, often doctors and physicians would have their offices attached to their homes, and you would go to their offices, which were part of their homes.  There was a patient who went to one of these doctors, who was told that he didn’t have long to live.  So he asked the doctor, ‘What happens to us after we die?’ and the doctor said: ‘Well, let me explain it this way.  If you go two rooms over in back of the door that connects this office and this lab to the back of my home, you will find my German shepherd lying there right next to the door.  My German shepherd has never been allowed in my office or my laboratory.  He’s never been here.  He’s never been allowed into these rooms.  But I am confident that if I were to open the doors and to call my German shepherd, my German shepherd would come bouncing right in here even though he has no idea what these rooms are like, and he would come because I am his master and he trusts me and has confidence in me.’”


In the high anxiety places in our life, one of two things happens to us.  Either we go back to Egypt to golden calves, and to the old absolutes, and to the stock certainties that we repeat, to the fundamentalisms of all sorts in our lives.  Or else we go through the anxiety confident of the One who is on the other side of whatever door we are passing through.  What we proclaim as followers of Jesus Christ is that we have very few absolute answers, very few certainties.  But we affirm that we have One that goes before us in whom we can have ultimate confidence.