Etiquette for Dining with God, Exodus 24:8-18, The Transfiguration of Our Lord, February 23, 2020
At first I was a little skeptical when the seminary offered a free etiquette class. Yet upon further reflection and discovering that a free meal was included, I reconsidered. Ellen and I put on our best duds, uh I mean, we donned our best attire, and joined one of St. Louis’ finest social etiquette columnists for an evening of fine wining and dining and instruction.
To be honest, I’m not sure I’ve always used what I learned, but I did enjoy a nice meal and I did come away with some essential dining etiquette tips that I try to follow, for example.
- You should turn off your cell phone before sitting down to eat. (It’s rude to talk on your phone or text while in the company of others.)
- You should never talk when you have food in your mouth. (I know this is something that our mommas taught us, but many consider it just plain gross. Even if someone asks you a question, you should wait until you swallow before answering.)
- Taste your food before you add salt, pepper, or other seasoning. (Doing otherwise may be insulting to the host or hostess. A person could perceive you as someone who acts without knowing all the facts.)
- Don’t cut all your food before you begin eating. Cut one or two bites at a time.
- Never blow on your food. If it is hot, wait a few minutes for it to cool off.
- (This is a hard one) You should scoop your soup away from you.
- Some foods are meant to be eaten with your fingers. Follow the lead of the host or hostess.
- If you are drinking from a stemmed glass, hold it by the stem.
- Try at least one or two bites of everything on your plate, (unless you are allergic to it.)
- Use your utensils for eating, not gesturing or pointing. (I mean, who knew.)
- Keep your elbows off the table. Rest the hand you are not using in your lap.
- Eat slowly and pace yourself to finish at the same approximate time as the host or hostess.
- Never use a toothpick or dental floss at the table.
- (And for you ladies) You may reapply your lipstick, but don’t freshen the rest of your makeup at the table.
These were presented as proper etiquette tips when a new pastor might dine with the District President. But, what if you had the opportunity to dine with God Himself? But Pastor, “No one can dine with God, or even see God, and live.” In Exodus thirty-three, the Lord said, “Man shall not see me and live” (33:20).
But they didn’t die! The men in our Old Testament reading saw God on Mount Sinai and they didn’t die. How could that be? How can the seeming contradiction of the Lord’s own words and actions be resolved? How can it be that they didn’t die upon seeing the face of God?
Well let’s just face the fact about this reading, it is a bit bizarre. As I mentioned, it seems to contradict a basic tenet of the Bible, that to see God is to die. Isaiah, in a vision, believed he would die for beholding God. Moses asks to see God a few chapters later in Exodus but is only given to see His “back-side.” To be in the presence of God is dangerous and we could die.
And yet, here Moses, Joshua and scores of others sit down to dinner with God on a pavement of blue sapphire and apparently the food was even pretty good. I hope they used proper etiquette!
Well it’s time for me to own up to something. The bible is not always nicely neat or obviously consistent for us. We would like it to be, but it is not. God forbids child sacrifice, and yet orders Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac. You might note that God stops that sacrifice, but why ask for it in the first place? And what about Jephthah in Judges, he sacrifices his daughter and the bible doesn’t seem to have any beef about it. Solomon has a vision of God, while worshiping at a Baal shrine, despite the explicit prohibition against visiting such places. The Bible is just not all neat and tidy like we would like it to be.
But even if the apparently contradiction is dispensed with here, what are we supposed to make of this morning’s text? I doubt it is about our etiquette habits when dining. I think the point here is more about Moses’, and the elders of Israel, ascent up the mountain to commune with God.
And we also commune with God on this mountain top, along with Peter, James, and John in the New Testament; we kneel and partake of a meal which transcends time and place.
They beheld God, they ate, and they drank, and they did not die. And so do we. We are given to eat and drink not only with God, but Christ is both host and entrée. Sinful human beings should not be able to tolerate the presence of a holy God. Yet, in the presence of holiness, sin is destroyed. Maybe this is a text about our worship, as much as it is a text about Moses and the guys dining with God.
We gather here on Sunday morning and it is so easy to become relaxed and casual in the presence of God that we imagine that He should like us because we are pretty good people. It is a terrible and foolish conclusion to reach. We need to be reminded that God is dangerous. He is not safe. The holiness of God is not something that goes down well. It is easy to be rather happy with a God who could smite people in the past, but not someone who might smite us dead today.
We think that if God is here, He surely would show up in some fantastic, supernatural miracle, not in a tasteless piece of bread that a pastor puts into our hand, or a Bible study which could be talking about something we are not interested in, or a worship service which does not quite hit our taste.
However, God is right here today, now, and I’m here to tell you that He is dangerous. And we need a Lamb to interpose His blood between us and God, or we will perish. God, the real God, is terrifying. The world tries to domesticate God, turning Him into a giant teddy bear, a grandfatherly old man who would never actually do anything to hurt us. The problem is that when we think we have God on a leash, He has a tendency to knock us down and force us to realize that the god on the end of our leash is not really God. It is an idol of our own creation which cannot save us.
The Chronicles of Narnia were written by C.S. Lewis to help people better understand the meaning of Jesus Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. Even though he was a university professor, Lewis wrote this delightful story in the simplicity of a children’s story. Lewis’ life had been transformed by Jesus and he wanted others to share in that experience. He writes of the Lion Aslan, who sacrifices his life so that the White Witch will spare Edmund. The next morning when he is resurrected, having overpowered death, he defeats the White Witch once and for all. The image of Jesus as a lion is helpful. Lewis says God is good but he is not safe to be around.
Please don’t misunderstand; we need to keep two things very clear. God is love, and God is Holy. We can say that God is love, but in order for that love to have its full effect, we also need to contrast that with the fact that God is holy, and He cannot tolerate our sin. He must destroy sin and the sinner too. This is why Paul and Luther use drowning and death as the imagery of Baptism.
Once we realize how dangerous God is, then the blood of this Lamb which interjects Himself between us and this dangerous God makes a lot of sense.
Moses and the men who ate with God in our Old Testament reading were able to do so because the blood of a sacrifice was sprinkled on them. Likewise, we have the audacity to consume this sacrament which claims to be the very presence of God.
We can do so, not because God is not dangerous, but because we too have been sprinkled with that sacrificial blood, with a baptismal washing. God remains dangerous and He purges us, sometimes through trials, but we know and believe that He always works for our good.
The dinner on Mt. Sinai sounds like it must have been quite the event. I think I would have enjoyed that one too. Thank God that my invitation to His table doesn’t depend on my ability for proper etiquette.
God’s presence is an occasion of fear, for us sinners. The Holy God does not tolerate sin. He is not the sort who smiles and winks at us. The fear of the Lord is indeed the beginning of wisdom. He is not safe to be around.
Yet, God has had our salvation planned out for a very long time. God established the credentials of Jesus to go to the cross and bear our sins. This Jesus of Nazareth really is someone special. His death upon a cross will make all the difference in the world.
The Lenten season which is soon upon us should remind us of our failures and our sins, but it does so, so that the blood of Christ may be more fully applied to our lives. We walk with Christ to Jerusalem and His death, in our place. As we look ahead this Lent, God gives us a glimpse of the end of the story. Easter joy awaits us, resurrection and glory. But we must also struggle through the valley.
In our worship experiences, between the Invocation of God’s name and the Benediction, there is a holy hour, a moment when we simply are in the presence of God. God does not wait for us to see Him before He shows up. This is not about our doing, but God’s doing. God is here, whether we believe it, or emotionally grasp it. Jesus has come despite our misunderstanding and failures of faith.
Jesus, you see, really is God and we are enfolded in the arms of the One who holds the very power of the universe in His hands. Rise and fear not He says to you today. With perforated hands He blesses you today, glorious and beautiful to behold. Look no further than this, your mountain top experience!
Moses and the men of Israel were invited to a feast and to see God. So are you, the very feast of this altar. When you extend your hand and hear, “the very body of Christ given for you” you partake of a feast better than those elders of long ago. I don’t know what they ate, but you eat the very flesh of God. He comes inside you, changes you, and forgives you. That is a mountain top experience. God is here. God is present. Amen.