‘I have seen God face to face, and yet I live.’ But only just! Jacob had wrestled with the angel all night, and managed to come out alive – but with his hip put out of joint. Yet God blessed him through the struggle, and let him see God face to face.
Throughout Scripture, when the Spirit of the Lord comes down upon a person, there is so often a struggle; the Spirit is experienced as something traumatic and shattering. Dealing with God is not for the faint hearted! Listen to the prophet Ezekiel: ‘A spirit entered me and lifted me up and bore me away. Before the glory of the Lord I fell on my face, but the spirit lifted me up’. Daniel, standing on the banks of the river Tigris see a vision of a man, shining in glory, sent from God. The man spoke, and David fell into a trance, and then fell to the ground. Shaking with fear, he lost his strength and could hardly breathe. The prophet Jeremiah tries to get away from the Lord’s presence, but the Spirit overwhelms him, and he cries out, ‘If I say I will not mention him or speak in his name, then within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones.’ Well might the writer of the letter to the Hebrews say, ‘It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God’!
Yet, through each one of these powerful and life changing experiences, God was at work, forming and molding these very different characters to become men of God; able to speak for God, but most crucially, to see for God. Through their profound and life changing encounters with the living God, they would now see as God sees. They would become God’s seers, and they would proclaim what they saw.
In our Gospel today, we have the last of God’s great seers, John the Baptist. But this extraordinary man who emerges from the wilderness is not just a seer, not just a prophet. No. For as Jesus tells us in Matthew chapter 11: 7, John ‘is more than a prophet. He is Elijah who is sent from God, to prepare the way.’. We don’t know how long he was in the wilderness before he emerged into the Jordan valley. The children of Israel had been in the wilderness for forty years; forty long years before they would be ready to be God’s holy people. Jesus himself was thrown violently into the wilderness by the Spirit of God, and for forty days he struggled as he was being prepared for his vocation and mission. However long John was in the wilderness, it must have been a time of intense wrestling, as he too was being molded and formed by the life-giving Spirit of God for his mission. And only then was he ready to emerge, when he had, like Moses, become a ‘friend of God’.
So, this man, who, as John’s Gospel puts it, ‘was sent by God’, comes to the Jordan to see with God’s eyes, and to prepare the way of the Lord. What did he see? He saw hundreds, thousands of people coming ‘out of Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region along the Jordan’, and they were all coming to him. Why? They didn’t come just to see a spectacle; a wild and unkept hermit, dressed in camel’s hair. No, this man, who had spent so long alone with God, had been changed by God. He must have radiated the very holiness of God. Just as the skin on the face of Moses shone after he had been with the Lord, so John, after all this time with the Lord, must have spoken with a divine authority which drew people magnetically to him. This man had clearly been with the Holy one, and before the holy, they fell down and confessed their sins, and clamored to be baptized by him in the river Jordan.
But John saw more. He had been with God, and he recognized God. And so, amidst all the hundreds of penitents, wading into the waters of baptism, John suddenly see the One. And John testifies: ‘I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.’ What an extraordinarily moving moment it must have been. John, who knew God intimately, turns his head and looks into the face of Jesus, and there, he recognizes the very face of God.
John the Baptist was the culmination of a long line of seers. These great figures, striding so majestically through the pages of Scripture – Jacob, Moses, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, all came to new sight through desert or wilderness experiences. They didn’t necessarily go into an actual desert, but the desert, as it were, found them. And I believe that this is still true today, and for us. The Benedictine scholars, Phillip Jebb and Maria Boulding have written, ‘God can call us into the desert at any time. The essential elements are, not being in control of one’s surroundings, of being called beyond one’s apparent capacities and defenses. The desert is only the real desert when it’s too big for you, when you do not know your way, and have no reliance except on God.’
I think I know what that’s like. I personally recognize these past months of pandemic as an experience of the wilderness such as they describe. Maybe you do too. I know what it is like to have familiar landmarks taken away; to lose one’s moorings. One day merging into the next, and for how long? It’s too much; how long can I keep on going? And yet, I too have seen new things. The Spirit I believe has opened my eyes in new ways. I have seen my family and friends in a new way. Although it has been on line, I have spent more time talking with them than ever before. I have got to know them more deeply, and to value and cherish them in a new way. I have seen each of them in a new way. I have also seen God in a new way. My Covid wilderness began in March when my mother died. Right after her funeral, an image came to mind and persisted. It is an image which I remember I had years and years ago when I was very young, perhaps five or six. We had all been to church, and I remember hearing these words spoken: ‘The eternal God is thy refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms.’ I was fascinated by the image and I remember coming home and drawing it. There was a circle which was the world, and then there were God’s arms underneath the world, and holding it up. I remember thinking, ‘Gosh, he must have very long arms, and it must be so heavy for him. He must get tired and need a rest!’ But that image, and those beautiful words, after all those years, suddenly came back to me, right after the funeral, and I prayed with them. And they renewed my vision of God. I saw again, that when all the landmarks, every earthly prop is taken away, there is this promise of strength for every day. That all through life, and even at death, we can never go down so far, we can never sink below those arms; we shall always be upheld by the everlasting arms of God.
So, for me, two gifts of this wilderness time have been, seeing family and friends in a new way, and seeing God in a new way. I wonder what gifts have emerged for you from this time? What have you come to see in a new way or come to value and cherish? And how has your vision of God changed, or your relationship with God grown?
I now know that it is OK to go into the wilderness, however scary; that God will be there with us, supporting and guiding us. And most importantly, I also know that it is in that place that we can learn to see. Each one of us, I believe, stands in that great line of ‘friends of God’, of seers, who stride across the page of Scripture. We stand in that line of seers, because we too have looked into the face of Jesus and seen the very face of God. When we struggle with God, God wants us to win. God wants to bless us. God wants us to proclaim with Jacob and Moses and Ezekiel and Daniel, and finally with John the Baptist, to proclaim those joyful and triumphant words, ‘I have seen God face to face, and I live.’
Year B Third Sunday of Advent
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