The Face of God

August 6, 2017

Series: August 2017

Category: Faith

Passage: Genesis 32:22-33:11

Speaker: Bethany Nelson

Author and blogger Rick Hamlin shares a story about going for a morning jog one day.  He writes, “As I jogged, I called to a neighbor. ‘Good morning! Keep it up.’ She used to be a walker and now was jogging. Pretty impressive. She deserved all the encouragement I could muster.  ‘You too,’ she called back to me.
I turned the corner and spotted a man with a dog picking mulberries off the tree and eating them. ‘Taste good?’ I asked as I huffed and puffed. He nodded and smiled.
Going up the hill, I caught the glorious scent of cut grass, the blades brushing against my shoes. ‘Morning,’ I said to the man I see every morning when I jog. Same spot, same time. Today he was wearing a T-shirt with Martin Luther King Jr.’s portrait on it. ‘Nice shirt,’ I said. He waved.
Out of the park, heading back home, I saw my neighbor Michael running toward me. His wife had a very scary cancer diagnosis three months ago. I’ve been praying for her and for him. What a roller coaster. I reversed my steps and ran with him for a block. ‘How’s she doing?’ I asked.
‘She got her first treatment this week,’ he said. ‘It’s just a pill, so she can go to work afterward. They’re going to try it for three weeks.’
‘I will keep hoping,’ I said. ‘And praying.’”
Hamlin concludes by reflecting, “Had I seen the Lord’s face while I jogged? Not exactly. But in seeking it, I had seen God’s presence in mulberries, joggers, T-shirts, cut grass, and the care of doctors treating a friend.”
Twice in the scripture passage we heard today, Jacob remarks about seeing God’s face.  The first time is after he spends the entire night wrestling with a man.  The story doesn’t say specifically who this man is.  I wonder if at first, Jacob thinks it might be his brother Esau.  The last time Jacob and Esau were together, Jacob had stolen Esau’s blessing from him … a blessing Esau was supposed to get because he was born first.  Esau was furious and had been planning to kill Jacob, so Jacob ran away.  Now, many years had passed since then, but for all Jacob knew, Esau was still furious.  Perhaps his rage had just been building and building since that time. 
In fact, as Jacob prepares to meet Esau, he first sends messengers ahead to greet him.  The messengers come back, telling Jacob that Esau is coming to meet him with four hundred men.  Jacob is pretty certain this means that Esau is still planning to kill him, even after all these years.  So then, Jacob sends his servants  ahead to meet Esau with all kinds of livestock … hoping that Esau will be appeased by this generous gift.  But still he is afraid.  He then sends his wife and children ahead of him, and now he is alone and afraid. 
And a man comes and wrestles with him.  At first Jacob could very likely have thought it was Esau.  Come to finish the brotherly battle that had begun so many years ago.  But, no, this figure doesn’t seem to be Esau.  In fact, Jacob didn’t know who the man was.  At the end of their struggle he asks, “What is your name?” but doesn’t get a straight answer.  Still, we aren’t sure who it is.  But, after Jacob receives a blessing from this mystery man, he declares, “I have seen God face to face” and he renames the place “Peniel,” which means, “face of God.”
So did Jacob wrestle with God that night?  Perhaps.  Or maybe with an angel – a messenger of God.  It is unclear.  Either way, it is doubtful that he literally saw God’s face.  But Jacob did have an up close and personal encounter with the divine.  Jacob had an experience that was so powerful, so profound, so filled with blessing that he did encounter God face to face.
Immediately following the wrestling match, Jacob and Esau meet.  Rather than greeting Jacob with anger or violence, Esau runs to meet him, embraces him, kisses him, and they both weep.  Jacob tells him, “to see your face is like seeing the face of God – since you have received me with such favor.”  Again, something about that encounter was so powerful, so profound, so filled with blessing that he again felt he had seen the face of God.
Two very different encounters.  One, a difficult, night-long struggle.  The other, a heart-felt reconciliation filled with love and forgiveness.  In both, Jacob sees God face to face.
Seeing God face to face, or seeing the face of God, is an interesting phrase.  One that seems to mean several different things.  For Rick Hamlin, it meant seeking to be aware of God’s presence around him as he went for a jog.  Rather than running right by the people he encountered, he made an effort to engage in their lives – if only for a brief moment.  He made sure to connect with each person in a specific way.  In doing so, says Hamlin, he may not have literally seen the face of God, but he certainly encountered God’s presence.
Of course, then we have Jacob, who wasn’t seeking God’s presence at all.  God came to him unannounced in the wrestling man and in the favor of his brother.  Yet both encounters were so meaningful for Jacob that even though he may not have been specifically seeking God, he immediately knew he had seen God face to face.  Through his brother, Jacob experienced God’s unconditional love and grace and forgiveness.  Through the wrestling, Jacob experienced God’s strength and persistence.  Both encounters revealed to him the face of God.
In Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, the main character, Jean Valjean, is imprisoned for 19 years for a rather minor crime.  He then breaks his parole and goes on the run, filled with hate from his years in prison.  As time goes by, however, he slowly learns to love and be loved, becoming the guardian of a young girl named Cosette and watching her grow.  At the end of his life, Valjean hands her a page, saying his has written his last confession.  “It’s the story of one who turned from hating.  A man who learned to love … remember the truth that once was spoken, to love another person is to see the face of God.”
Valjean, who after so many years in prison doubted if he could ever love or trust again, found himself so transformed by his love for Cosette, that he encountered the face of God.  A love so pure and true and unconditional, it could only be God.
I don’t know about you, but I appreciate that there are so many ways that we humans – we mere mortals – can meet God face to face.  Some times in our lives, we do decide to actively seek out God’s presence in our everyday encounters.  Other times, we have an unexpected encounter that affects us so profoundly it can’t help but be an encounter with God.  And we also experience more lengthy transformations, from hate to love, or from discord to peace, or from suspicion to trust, from brokenness to wholeness … transformation that could only come about by the grace of God.
This love and grace of God is always unconditionally given to each one of us.  However, we do have a role to play in our encounters with the divine.  Rick Hamlin very consciously engaged with the people he met on his jog and took the time to be in relationship with them, appreciating the divine in each of them.  Jacob, though he did not necessarily choose his encounters, he did actively engage.  He wrestled and struggled with that man all night long.  He did not run away when he heard that Esau was coming to meet him with an army of men.  These were difficult situations that he could have chosen to avoid.  But he engaged.  And there he encountered the divine.  Valjean gave his all to his relationship with Cosette even though he had been emotionally scarred in his past.  He opened himself to the possibility of love and trust.  
I think about that as we come to the Lord’s Table this morning.  For we also have a role to play in this meal.  For at this table is an invitation … an invitation to receive the unconditional love of God that is offered to each and every one of us.  And then to share that love with one another.  An invitation to receive the grace and forgiveness of God that is offered to each and every one of us.  And then to offer that forgiveness to one another.  An invitation to encounter God face to face.  And then to continue to seek and find God’s face long after this meal is over.  May it be so.