You can imagine the scene in your minds, a trail of lolly wrappers leading to a little boy behind the sofa in the living room in the Rectory who didn’t own those lollies and shouldn’t have been eating them: and there he sits with the realisation that he has been found out, covering both of his eyes with his hands hoping that if he can’t see me I won’t be there and the whole thing will go away.
Writ large, this is of course the human condition. Most of us spend at least some of our lives covering our eyes in one way or another, hoping that if we don’t see things they will not really be there.
The massive inequalities between those who have and those who do not have in our world, the progressive and seemingly unstoppable destruction of our planet, the lack of peace and of justice, the inconsistencies in our own lives between what we say that we do and what we actually do: we cover our eyes and hope these things will go away. Of course there are times when we cannot look, because sometimes it is simply too much to bear, but just because we cover our eyes to these things doesn’t mean that they are not there.
The testimony of our Christian tradition says, that even if we look away from what is going on around us and in us, God does not. There is nowhere that we can hide from his presence, nothing that he does not see or comprehend. He knows the inner secrets of our hearts, and through the incarnation of his Son who lived among us on earth, he knows the reality of our human living. Our readings at this Mass today can be heard and understood within this great, and confronting theme.
In our Old Testament reading the time has finally come for God’s people to be freed from the oppression that they have suffered under the hands of Pharaoh. God has seen what is going on, and now he will act with terrifying judgement on the Egyptians. We have moved on at some pace in the story from where we left things last weekend, when Moses was called by God, at the burning bush at Midian, to stop running away and to return to his people to lead them to the life that God had in store for them, in what seemed to Moses like an impossible task.
Between last week’s calling of Moses, and the climax of this part of the story that we heard today, as the people are instructed about how to prepare themselves for their last night in Egypt, Moses and Aaron have been locked in a bitter dispute with Pharaoh.
Nine great plagues have fallen upon the Egyptian people as Pharaoh has resisted the attempts of Moses and Aaron to secure freedom for the Israelites, we can probably recite them from our days in Sunday School: water turning to blood, a militia of frogs, and then gnats and then flies, the death of Egyptian livestock, boils, thunder and hail and locusts, have all fallen upon the Egyptian people in apocalyptic proportions as Moses has sought to be the mouth piece of God to execute the freedom that God desires for his people. And now, as the final calamity is about to fall upon the Egyptians, the one that will lead to Pharaoh at last to give in and let these people who have acted as enforced free slave labour for him, finally depart, we heard the detailed plans that were to be made in preparation in each of the Israelite households.
They are to prepare a special ritual meal, they are to mark their homes with a symbol that shows that they are part of God’s family, and they are to be ready to leave in haste, so that no one has any doubt that what is to take place is God’s work and not their own. It is this meal that the Israelites celebrate on their last night in Egypt – a meal that will be re-enacted in the future as a remembrance that the People of God were saved from death, that will come to be a central pillar of their identity in the future, and will be transformed by Jesus into a meal that speaks of God’s presence within his Church and God’s victory through the Cross. It is the same meal that we have come to celebrate here at this Eucharist.
As they eat together, the angel of death, what is in some translations called ‘the destroyer’ will pass over the land and kill the first born son in every Egyptian home. This is the total reversal of what took place at the start of the story of Moses, when he, as a baby, was saved from death by being hidden in the bull-rushes and was found and brought up within Pharaoh’s household, whilst Pharaoh sought to kill the first born sons in every Israelite family. Now it is God’s angel of death that will inflict the same genocide on the People of Egypt.
It is a terrifying image, difficult for us to comprehend, especially on this Fathers’ Day weekend when we give thanks for our own biological fathers and those fatherly figures who have helped to form us into the people we are today. We must at least be troubled by the death of those innocent Egyptian first born children, even if it is part of God’s punishment on a ruthless regime, responding to the slavery of the People of Israel, if we are also to believe in the loving fatherhood of God which is also part of our Fathers’ Day weekend celebrations. I don’t have an answer to this conundrum, but that does not mean that the question is not one that we should wrestle with.
It reminds us of the great distance between the time of the Old Testament writings and our own context today, when it was part of normal living for children to die, and in some religions for children to be sacrificed. Somehow we have to hold that story of God, by his angel of death, bringing death upon the Egyptian first born so that his people might be free, in tension with the loving fatherhood of God that is revealed to us through Jesus; because in our Gospel reading Jesus says, “take care that you do not despise these littles ones; for I tell you, in heaven their angels see the face of my Father.” Here we are confronted by another, a different image of children and of angels. Not the angel of death this time, but angels who literally dwell in the presence of God, interceding for the little ones of this world.
When we think of angels we almost always have in our minds the two-winged variety that populate our Christmas nativity plays, but that isn’t how they were presented in Jewish art in the time of Jesus. Angels were normally depicted as having six wings not two. A couple to fly with, a couple to cover their feet as a kind of extension into the heavenly realm of Jewish social customs, and a couple to cover their faces. But unlike my son behind the sofa, or like us sometimes, when the reality of the world is too much for us to bear, the idea of angels having their faces covered was not because they were hiding from all that was wrong, but because the glory of God, in whose presence they resided, was so awesome that they could not dare to look at him.
The angels cover their faces to be shielded from the radiance of God, as a continuation of the understanding throughout the Old Testament that no one can see the greatness of God and live. And yet Jesus says, and this would have been totally new to those who heard it, that the angels who intercede for the little ones in our world are allowed, welcomed even, to look on God directly.
It seems like a strange idea to us, and it doesn’t really clinch the argument in our culture, but Jesus is saying that all that he has taught about how important those who are on the margins of society are to God: children, the poor, those who have been rejected for a whole variety of reasons in society, are not just central to how God sees things here on earth, despite what the rest of us might think; they are also central within the glory of eternity.
The idea of God watching us: knowing all, seeing all, has been used down through the centuries to instil fear into the hearts of those who follow him. And we should not be unfearful, because there will one day be a judgement. But the message of the story of the People of Israel, and of the teachings of Jesus as we have heard them today say something else.
God did not hide his face from the suffering of his people in Egypt, he did bring them the freedom that they longed for.
God does not hide his face from those who suffer now, the little ones around us as Jesus puts it, and perhaps some of us here today are having those experiences ourselves. Others may look away, but God does not.
Jesus says, it is like a shepherd who has one hundred sheep, but one of them goes missing. He could simply look at the ninety-nine that he still has and be satisfied with them, and turn his face away from the one who has gone astray. But God is not like that, it is the one who is missing, the one who is lost, the one who has not found a place of safety and hope who becomes the entire focus for him. He leaves the ninety-nine and goes in search of the one who is missing, and when he finds that one, he brings it back rejoicing.
This, dear brothers and sisters, is what we mean when we say that God does not turn away. This is the loving fatherhood of God.