Sermon given at Matins on Sunday 10th February 2013
10 February 2013 at 10:00 am
The Reverend Andrew Tremlett, Canon in Residence
The tabloid newspaper headline screamed: 'Ladies, forget your figure or your face, it's your TEETH men really take note of'.
This was the extraordinary revelation during the week that 5,000 unattached singles – both men and women – had been surveyed over the past three years by a dating internet site.
The headlines results were fascinating, most interesting of all was the fact that yes, indeed, 58% of men, and 71% of women judge a future prospect, if I may use that term, on the basis of their teeth.
Interesting as an aside, that the said tabloid ran the headline about what women should do, when the actual numbers showed that females placed more importance on male oral hygiene. Perhaps it says something about who actually reads the papers.
Now this may or may not have come as a surprise to you. If you are looking for the love of your life, gazing on their teeth is not a bad place to begin. They will say a great deal about early childhood care, how well a person has been nurtured in early life will be reflected, and of course it tells you more than you want to know about how they look after themselves now.
But that was not the end. USA Today, in its coverage, reported that for both men and women the second most important thing to look for was … well, I’ll come back to that later!
Over the past month, as we have moved through the season of Epiphany and now into the preparation for Lent, I have been speaking on a mixture of themes connected with the revelation of God. The revelation of God in the call to repentance by John the Baptist; the revelation of Jesus in his Baptism in the River Jordan; the revelation of man’s inhumanity to man at the Holocaust.
We might say in each case that we have been talking about the Human Face, the personalisation of an abstract, its embodiment for good or ill. In St John the Baptist, we can see the Human Face of Repentance: that searing, excoriating, uncompromising desire to see humanity return to rightness with God. In the Holocaust, we see the Human Face of Suffering, the Human Face of Evil personified in the actions of those who sought to dehumanise an entire people.
But today we move on to contemplate the Human Face of God, shown in the life of Jesus Christ, and what this means to us as we dare to be called ‘children of God’.
My colleague, Canon Robert Reiss, the Sub-Dean, began a sermon series last week about one of the most famous and popular books of Theology in English in the second half of the twentieth century – Honest to God - written in 1962 by Bishop John Robinson.
Canon Reiss, as a rather younger clergyman, had the good fortune a decade after that publication to work Bishop Robinson, just as he had published a second major work: ‘The Human Face of God’.
Today’s readings give us starkly contrasting perspectives on revealing the face of God, his nature and his will for humanity.
In the Old Testament lesson from Exodus 33, Moses asks God to reveal his glory, the שׁכּיּנּהּ. This was a moment of pure epiphany, theophany, to be able to look into and onto the holiness of God. To see into the depths of the separateness, the קּדּשׁ, the apart-ness of God, was something no human had ever done. If any man living were to do so, then it would have been Moses, the friend of God.
But it was not to be. This request is not rebuffed but neither is it acceded to. Moses stands on the rock:
'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; then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.'
This image emphasises both the majesty of God, whose holiness cannot be looked on, and also the beautiful insertion of an anthropomorphic element, his hand stretching out to protect the mortal Moses.
By contrast, the whole story of the revelation of God in Jesus is about his presence as a human being, his incarnation, his birth, his baptism; his eating, travelling, teaching among the disciples; his engagement in human conflict with political and religious leaders; his betrayal, his trial, his crucifixion, his death; and in his wond’rous resurrection and ascension becomes for us the Human Face of God, the defining way in which his followers on the Way, little Christs, Christians, know and can enter the very heart of the Almighty.
But after these weeks in which I have been talking about the Human Face of Repentance, the Human Face of Suffering, and now the Human Face of God, 1 St John 3 challenges us to become the Human Face of Christ.
The love of God is revealed through creation; the love of God is revealed supremely through Christ Jesus; but the love of God continues to be revealed through our adoption as children of God. ‘And that is what we are’. In fact, the original text is even starker: ‘και εσμεν’, ‘we are!’
We may think that the figure of John the Baptist is a great and holy person – but we could never be. We may think that the lessons of the Holocaust have been learnt – and it could never happen in our time. We may like Moses desire to look upon the face of God, but our vision is occluded by the frailty of our humanity. We may even acknowledge that the divine nature of God has been revealed once and for all in the face of Jesus Christ.
But all this will have been for nothing, as nothing, meaning nothing unless we accept the corollary: that, if we have become children of God, it makes a difference.
What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.
And in the meantime, until that full and final revelation for which we long, we become the Human Face of God among our friends, our families, our colleagues, our neighbours. An awesome responsibility, for which we are poorly fitted, save for the grace of God.
And in case you were still wondering what came second for both men and women – after the health revealing teeth? ‘Grammar’. 69% of women and 55% of men reported it as the second most important quality. If we truly want to be children of God, we must learn to give an account of the hope that is within us.