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Glimpsing God’s back… – The Reverend Canon Michael Smith (Pastor)

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The Reverend Canon Michael Smith (Pastor)
Sunday 3 March 2019 Matins
Exodus 33.17-end & 1 John 3.1-3

One of the things we pray for most often here at York Minster is that all the people who come will encounter God in some way. Every day at Morning Prayer we pray for the day ahead and for all who will come to the Minster, and our prayer is that they will encounter God in some way. We often introduce Choral Evensong, at which there are often a lot of visitors, by saying that our prayer is that all who are gathered will encounter God by sharing in our worship together. In addition, whenever I am welcoming a congregation to a wedding I often tell them that this is a place where, over many, many centuries, people have encountered God, so I invite the wedding congregation to be prepared for the unexpected! It is interesting to see people start looking just a little nervous, many thought they had come to a ‘venue’ to watch a ceremony, this introduction warns them that this is not just a ‘venue’ and lots of extraordinary things and encounters have happened here over many hundreds of years, so something might happen to them!

So we pray and talk about people encountering God here a lot – but what do we mean? What does encountering God look like and feel like? What am I suggesting the poor, unsuspecting congregations at weddings might experience?

The first reading this morning tells us of an interesting encounter between Moses and God. They are in conversation and Moses says to God, ‘show me your glory’. God tells Moses that he will pass by him but that Moses must stand in the cleft of a rock as God passes by, Moses will not be permitted to see the face of God but he will see God’s back. So his encounter with God will only be partial.

As Christians we believe that Jesus is God incarnate, but most people who encountered Jesus were confused and bemused by their encounter. Certainly, those who heard Jesus’ teaching and parables were nearly always confused and bemused – they recognised that something important and significant was being revealed but most people, at the time, and many people since, have found God’s revelation in Jesus confusing and bemusing.

It is for these reasons that I am always a little bit nervous of people who claim that their encounter with God is absolutely clear, certain and beyond question. Some act as though God has spoken to them with absolute clarity in ways that cannot be doubted or contradicted. It is as if some people claim that, unlike Moses, they have seen God face to face, they have seen God’s glory. This goes against the experience of virtually everything we read in scripture about people encountering God – encountering God is always partial.

Life is not just about ‘being’, it is about ‘becoming’, becoming the people God created us to be – in a sense, nothing is complete, everything we experience is about growing and changing, which is why our encounter with God, like that of Moses, is always partial, is always a glimpse or a moving shadow. In his book about poetry, ‘The Splash of Words’, Mark Oakley says, ‘ … the bible is a collage of writings that remind us that God is not the easy object of our knowledge but the deepest cause of our wonder.’ p. xxii

So, back to all the people who come to the Minster including the poor unsuspecting congregations at our weddings – what does encountering God mean, what does encountering God feel like? It is about sensing something, feeling something beyond us, something bigger than us. As Mark Oakley would say, it is not about ‘knowledge’ but about ‘wonder’.

It is important that we continue to pray that everyone who comes here, for whatever reason, has their hearts touched, their presuppositions challenged. Creation is not just about the individual, it is not just about what we can touch, what we can see, what we can buy, what we can prove – it is about much more, it is about a God who created us and holds us in love. That is not something we can touch, see, buy or prove, but it is something we can sense and even encounter in a place like this.

In conclusion, instead of a traditional prayer I want to read a short poem as a prayerful offering. It is called ‘Muse’ by Malcolm Guite. Among other things I think it is about encountering God


I stop and sense a subtle presence here,

An opalescent shimmer in the light,

And catch, just at the corner of my eye,

A shifting shape that no one else can see;

Just on the edge, the very edge of sight

Just where the air is brightening, and where

The sky is coloured underneath a cloud.

And so she comes to keep her tryst with me.

She comes with music, music faintly heard,

A trace, a grace-note, floating in clear air,

As over hidden springs the hazels stir.

Time quivers and then she is at my side;

A quickened breath, a feather touch on skin,

A sudden swift connection, deep within.

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