The Mask of God
The sermon today has multiple texts. Isaiah 45:15: "Truly, Thou art a God who hides Himself." Proverbs 25:2: "It is the glory of God to conceal a matter." Psalm 10:1, "Why do You stand afar off, O Lord? Why do You hide Yourself in times of trouble?" And Lamentations 3:44, "Thou has covered Thyself with a cloud." This sermon is for all of you perplexed, troubled, angered, saddened, or frightened by how God seems to be working in your life. This sermon is for anyone who has ever looked at a situation and asked, "Why?"
Our God wears masks. You know what a mask is. It's a face put on over your real face. When a person wears a mask, you don't see his or hers real face. You see the mask that they want you to see. God too puts on masks as He deals with His children, and some of them are downright frightening.
Our God has always put on masks to deal with His people. Look at the Old Testament reading. There God puts on the mask of a child-sacrificing deity. God nowhere commanded child sacrifice, did He? Although the pagans all around Abraham worshiped and believed in gods who demanded the sacrificing of children to them, the true God did not. In fact, He told Abraham that he was to separate himself from the child-sacrificing pagans. But one day God comes to Abraham and says, "Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering."
What a horrible thing to command! And did you note that God makes His mask all the more terrible by the words He uses? "Your son, your only son, whom you love." That would be like me saying, "Take your puppy, your only puppy, the puppy you love, and put him to sleep." What a weird, frightening masks God puts on! All of God's commands thus far were against child-sacrifice, and all of God's promises concerning forgiveness, salvation and eternal life were tied to Abraham's son Isaac. And now God orders Abraham to destroy him! The God of love, grace and mercy tells him to kill his beloved son!
What a disturbing mask for God to put on. No less disturbing is the one He puts on in the Gospel: the Son-abandoning Father mask. God sends His only-beloved Son into the world, and what does He do with Him? Throw Him - that's what the Greek literally says - God throws Jesus into the desert. And though God fed the children of Israel for 40 years in the wilderness, He won't feed His Son for 40 days in the desert. During this fast, God allows His Son to be tempted literally under Satan. For 40 days and 40 longer nights, Satan tempted, attacked, and tormented Jesus while lions prowled around Him by day and snakes slithered by His head at night. What kind of a father would allow his son, his favorite son, his only son to suffer so much? If the Father will do that to Him, what will He do to you?
The epistle lesson tells you. "For God's sake we face death all day long; we are counted as sheep to be slaughtered. Yes, God puts on a sheep-slaughtering mask sometimes. He allows to come into our lives hardship, persecution, money problems, marriage problems, sickness, injury, disease and death. They attack us; they corner us; they scare us. So we turn to the Good Shepherd, but He appears to be at the door allowing these wolves in and even directing them to us!
All of you have experienced these times when God hides Himself behind a mask of suffering, affliction, fear, or death. You've all experienced these times when God looks like anything but the kind and gentle lover of children. These times when God looks like the last One in the world we would trust. These times when He looks like the slaughtering Shepherd rather than the Good Shepherd.
What happens at Halloween when your child sees a particularly scary mask? What do you tell him or her? "It's only a mask. That's not the real person." Then if we can, we'll get the person wearing the mask to lift it, so the child can see that underneath the terrible mask there is really a smiling face.
It would be foolish to focus on the masks that people put on at Halloween, wouldn't it? Masks are only meant to be worn for a time. People put them on for a particular reason, to produce certain effects in others. If we would go around relating to people based on the masks they wore, we would be out of touch with reality and as scared as a child. We would be living in a world with scary or weird people, wouldn't we? Well, it's much worse to live in a world with a scary or weird God.
Friend, if you deal with God based on the masks He wears, you'll destroy your faith; you'll find it impossible to trust in Him. The masks God puts on are so horrible that God actually looks like the devil. You've heard people say something to that effect when faced with a terrible tragedy, haven't you? They say, "How could a loving God do that, or allow this, or let this happen?" Such people are dealing with a masked God. They're judging God by His mask. They're like a little child who is hysterical over a particularly gruesome mask. They're forgetting; it's only a mask.
Will a child trust in, rely on, or love a masked person who has driven them into hysterics? Surely not. Neither can you and I make ourselves believe, love, or trust a masked God, and we shouldn't try to. That is a foolish as trying to make a hysterical child hug the masked person they are so afraid of. If we focus on the masks that God wears, we can only be repelled by them.
And God wants it that way. God doesn't want us to approach Him based on the masks He wears. God doesn't want to be known or believed in as the child-sacrificing Deity, the Son-abandoning Father, or the sheep-slaughtering Shepherd. Neither does God want to be known or believed in as the earthquake-causing Lord, the accident-allowing God, or the disease-making Deity. Luther said, "God must...be left to Himself, in His own majesty, for in this regard we have nothing to do with Him, nor has He willed that we have anything to do with Him."
Friends, God in His supreme majesty wills to deal with us from behind certain masks of His choosing. Don't try to speculate, reason, or figure out why God chooses a particular mask at a particular time. Such efforts are useless, and they actually work against faith. God plainly tells us in Romans 11 that His judgements are unsearchable and His ways unfathomable. You never will be able to say why this or that happened; you never will be able to explain why God put on this or that mask. So don't focus on the mask of God when you're confronted by a particularly frightening or weird one. Focus on the Person behind the mask. We see the Person behind the mask only in two places: in the written Word of God, the Bible, and in the incarnate Word of God, Jesus Christ.
If you want to know the real God, don't read what men think about God; read what God says about Himself. If a person came to you wearing a mask, what is the only way you could get to know them? If they told you about themselves. If they used words to describe what they were really like. If you want to know what God is really like, read what He says about Himself in the Bible. Don't go by the mask He puts on to deal with you and your loved ones.
Aside from words, what's the only other way a masked person could make themselves known to you? By removing their mask and showing you their real face. Where do you see the real face of God? Not in auto accidents or X-rays, not in natural disasters or family tragedies, but in Jesus. That's what Paul tells us in 2 Corinthians 4: "God's glory...shines from Christ's face." When the mask of God frightens you, look to the face of Christ.
Let's see how these two things, the Bible and Christ, can comfort us when we're confronted by a masked God. When like Abraham we're confronted with a God who allows or even seems to cause terrible things to happen to children, turn to the Word and what do you see? The only child God ever allowed or caused to be sacrificed for sins was His own dear Son. So while difficult and dreadful things may happen to our kids, none of them happen to pay for sin or as a punishment for our sins or our children's. The Word is very clear on this. It says the punishment for all sins was borne by God's own Son. It's not borne by our sons and daughters. Jesus came proclaiming forgiveness not wrath, grace not judgement.
So when God wears the mask of child-sacrificing Deity, know that it is only a mask. This mask of God doesn't reflect the heart of God towards you or your kids anymore than God's command to sacrifice Isaac reflected His true feelings for either Isaac or Abraham. Hide this truth in your heart friends, so that when the mask of God frightens you, you don't turn away from the true God.
What about when God comes wearing the abandoning-Father mask? You feel alone, like your prayers go heavenward only to bounce back to earth. You feel that God doesn't care, know or remember you. Turn away from such a horribly masked God, and turn towards the face of God in Christ. Where do you see the face of Christ? In Baptism, Absolution, and Holy Communion. You see in Baptism a God who far from abandoning sinners joins Himself to them. In Absolution, you see a God who doesn't send sinners away but sends their sins away from them. In Holy Communion, you see a God who wills to be with sinners so much He places His body and blood in their very bodies.
Know the God behind the mask folks. Know that when He comes to you wearing the mask of trouble, hardship, persecution, or danger, He never intends to separate you from Himself by these things. He means to drive us ever deeper into His love for us in Christ. God always and forever wants us to understand, believe, and trust that while we might see no love for us or anyone else in God apart from Christ, He has infinite, unquenchable love for us and for all sinners in Christ. Therefore, our focus is always on Christ not on what God allows or causes in nature, in hospitals, or in homes. No matter what mask our eyes see or what feelings our hearts have, we hold on to the truth that we not only conqueror in these hardships, but we're more than conquerors through Christ Jesus who loves us.
Friends, what I'm telling you about God is what the ancient historian Tacitus said about earthly rulers. He said, "[To] research into the emperor's thoughts and secret designs is forbidden, hazardous, and not necessarily informative." So stop looking at the masks God's puts on in disasters, tragedies, and disease. Look at what He says and does in Jesus. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Lent 1 (3-12-00) Gen.22:1-18, Rom.8:31-39, Mark 1:12-15