Matthew T. Phillips

Seek His Face! (Psalm 27:7-14)

The Third Sunday After the Epiphany (A)
Union Grove United Methodist Church
Hillsborough, North Carolina

7 Hear, O Lord, when I cry aloud,
be gracious to me and answer me!
8 “Come,” my heart says, “seek his face!”
Your face, Lord, do I seek.
9 Do not hide your face from me.
Do not turn your servant away in anger,
you who have been my help.
Do not cast me off, do not forsake me,
O God of my salvation!
10 If my father and mother forsake me,
the Lord will take me up.
11 Teach me your way, O Lord,
and lead me on a level path
because of my enemies.
12 Do not give me up to the will of my adversaries,
for false witnesses have risen against me,
and they are breathing out violence.
13 I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord
in the land of the living.
14 Wait for the Lord;
be strong, and let your heart take courage;
wait for the Lord!

Psalm 27:7-14 NRSV

West Wing

When I was moving into the apartment where Heather and I now live, we talked some about whether we wanted to get cable TV or maybe even one of those tiny satellite dishes. We explored the options and decided that since neither one of us watched a whole lot of TV, we could get by with a plain old antenna. This fall we have realized the most significant cost: it’s harder to watch ACC basketball when you don’t have cable. Although TV isn’t very important to us, I at least have one terribly powerful vice. I must watch West Wing, the show about President Martin Sheen and his cast of quick-witted senior staff in the White House. Some of you share my vice: Jamie tried to end a meeting we were both at recently because he wanted to get home in time to see it. He gave me a knowing glance, but I wasn’t concerned at all; I have my VCR set to tape it every week just in case. I realized I might have a problem a couple of weeks ago when a professor tried to use an illustration from the show. He’s talking along about Methodism at the end of the 19th century and says that people with a certain view point were “like that press secretary on West Wing, what’s her name?” and he looked at the class for the answer. I said “C.J.,” but not very loudly. I was the only one who spoke, though, so he looked toward me: “what’s that?” “C.J. Craig,” I said, and then, intending to help him understand the initials I said, “Claudia Jean,” and was about to say that she’s played by Allison Janey, but I could tell people were looking at me funny for knowing her character’s whole name, so I dropped my voice without finishing my sentence.

A friend of mine helped me this week to put in perspective part of why I love West Wing so much: it portrays lives that are exciting and fast-paced; not the kind of life I would want to live, but the kind of life that’s fun to watch as fuel for dreams and as an image to hold in our heads as we trust the government to face its many difficult tasks in this age.

“Follow me…”

I have a fear that this is the way we treat the Bible sometimes. I need to explain that. It’s great to love the Bible and to have time set aside for reading and study that you try to protect in your schedule. It’s certainly OK to know character’s names and to follow the plot closely. It’s also easy, though, to feel pretty removed from the stories it tells.

That happens for me when I read this week’s gospel lesson. Jesus walks along the water and spots two brothers fishing. He calls to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” Today that’s where the commercial would come, or worse yet, the words “to be continued…”: the moment of suspense, waiting for the fishermen’s response to this seemingly crazy man. Rather than a protracted consideration of the benefits of following Jesus, the Bible tells us “immediately they left their nets and followed him.” What a wonderful plot twist! Who would’ve guessed those fishermen would up and leave their net and whatever fish had been unlucky enough to get caught in that last casting and go follow this Jesus who just passed by? Exciting stuff: lives that are fun to watch, but we wouldn’t want to live like that.

Warming of the Heart

When I watch that story, or rather read it, I think I’m supposed to feel a connection with those disciples on a couple of levels. First, they were called to be Christians, as am I. It’s hard to see myself in their story, though, because there was no moment when I decided to be a Christian. I was baptized into the community of faith under a covenant my parents made on my behalf. I grew up and participated increasingly on my own in the life of the church, and one day, when I thought about it, I realized that I was a Christian. My family and the church had formed me, and the Christian faith in me was inseparable from who I am at the core of my being. There was never a time when Jesus was a stranger to me, as he was to Simon, Andrew, James, and John before that day at the lakeshore.

There’s another way I’m supposed to feel connected, I think. Traditionally, the apostles are associated with the elders of the church: the ordained ministry. I’m not an elder yet, but it is the order to which I am called and which I’m seeking by my education and candidacy in the church. My calling to the ministry didn’t come quite like that of those first four apostles, though.

Luckily, I know it doesn’t have to. You’ve probably heard the story of John Wesley’s reviving spiritual experience before: he was at a bible study on Aldersgate Street in London when he felt his heart strangely warmed. It didn’t happen for me in London, but rather on Fifth Street in Winston-Salem. At a worship service during a particularly moving sermon:

“Come,” my heart says, “seek his face!”

Psalm 27:8a NRSV

And then the part that amazes me more sometimes, my response:

Your face, Lord, do I seek.

Psalm 27:8b NRSV

I didn’t know the 27th psalm of the top of my head, so I didn’t know to put those words to what I heard within, and I didn’t know to use its words to respond either, but the sentiment matches perfectly.

Reality Bible

You see, if the stories of the gospel can seem a little removed and impractical sometimes, sort of like a drama on TV, then the psalms can serve to connect us intimately with someone knows God but also knows the kinds of pressures and doubts we do. There are times when the psalms express anger, even anger at God. There are times when they express deep sadness, regret, faith, loneliness, hope, and joy. And the reason I think they can be so powerful for us is that they often incorporate many of those feelings at once. Thanksgiving with regret, loneliness with faith, sadness with hope; the combinations of feelings that make life difficult to navigate.

The psalms give us a sense that people have shared our lot in life; that others have had the same emotions we experience. But they challenge us too. There were not all that many people who had the opportunity to see Jesus standing in front of them in the flesh and to hear an invitation from him, but before he came, as we hear from the psalmist, and long after, as you heard from me and as you’ve experienced yourself, God still speaks. From deep inside, our hearts tell us that we are to seek the face of God, and we know the little voice is right, so we respond: “Your face, Lord, do I seek.”

So where’s the challenge? Seeking God’s face is no big deal. Certainly a lot easier than giving up your livelihood: leaving behind all those fish you caught, your family, and everything you know and following Jesus across Judea.

Actually, though, danger is even more eminent for someone who seeks God’s face. Do you remember the story of Moses on Mount Horeb?

18Moses said, “Show me your glory, I pray.” 19And the Lord said, “I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you the name, ‘The Lord’; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. 20But,” he said, “you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.” 21And the Lord continued, “See, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock; 22and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; 23then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.”

Exodus 33:18-23 NRSV

Moses has just received the promise that God will be with him and the people of Israel—strong evidence of God’s care for them—and he asks one final favor of God. “Show me your glory,” he prays. God reaffirms his commitment to Moses, but then says that no one can see his face—the essence of his glory and power—and live.

To seek the face of God is dangerous stuff, and yet the psalmist frames it for us so that we can see: it is our calling too. When we seek the face of God, we seek his glory and his powerful presence.

The Land of the Living

Does seeking the fact of God sound like a bit much to you? It can, especially when you know what happens to you if you find it. And, come on, let’s be serious. Are we really going to see the face of God anytime soon?

The psalmist thinks so. He closes his prayer:

13 I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord
in the land of the living.
14 Wait for the Lord;
be strong, and let your heart take courage;
wait for the Lord!

Psalm 27:12-14 NRSV

We’re probably not going to see the glory of god on a mountaintop like Moses, but we as a church believe that we shall see the face of God in the land of the living. We find our assurance in our Old Testament lesson and echoed in the gospel lesson for today:

2 The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness—
on them light has shined.

Isaiah 9:2 NRSV

This belief of ours takes great faith, especially when it is uttered just after the realization that there is violence all around. We must pray, then, for that faith, and for God to open the eyes of our hearts, so that we might see his glory in the world around us.

And what of that penalty for seeing the face of God? We are not excluded from it. When our eyes are opened, we may lose the life we know. Jesus explained as those disciples he called began to figure out the difficulty of their path:

25For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their
life for my sake will find it.

Matthew 16:25 NRSV

So seek the face of God, in prayer and in the land of the living. It is a long path, but one on which we have the guidance of God’s son and all the saints.

…Be strong, and let your heart take courage;
wait for the Lord!

Psalm 27: 14b-c NRSV

Pastoral Prayer

Let us pray.

Almighty and everlasting God, your glory shows over all your works, and though it overwhelms us, it lights our path.

When violence rises up against us, our hearts shall not fear. There is much that is wrong in the world, and much that shakes our confidence, but in you, the source of our faithfulness, we will continue to trust.

We ask one thing of you: that we might live in your house all the days of our lives to behold your beauty and seek your truth. Hide us in your shelter and lift us up over everything that would weaken our spirit and destroy us. From the security of your care, allow us to worship you: to sing and make melody to you, O Lord.

Help us to hear your Spirit within us as it says, “Come, seek God’s face.” Do not hide your face from us; do not turn away and do not forsake us, for you are the God of our salvation.

Teach us your ways so that we might follow you, and open the eyes of our hearts, so that we might see your goodness in the land of the living.

We pray in the name of your son Jesus Christ, who calls us from the lakeshore to follow him, and who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.