What Backyard Tigers and Chuck-e-Cheese Bears Reveal About Our Hunger for God and the Ironic Way in which God Turns it Around

Backyard Tigers

Why we Hunger and Fear Glory

Why are there more tigers in American back yards than in the wild?

The practice of keeping exotic and dangerous animals is highly controversial. An illuminating question might be “why do we want them so badly even at great cost?”

To look at a tiger is to see glory. We are fascinated by its beauty, its power, its intelligence its wildness, and so in our desire to possess it we often rob the tigers of all these things. We lock them in a back yard behind a chain link fence and then, in the best of circumstances, try to make contact by making ourselves a toy and making it a plaything. Even in Western zoos with the most resources, the best science and the strictest oversight when we look through the glass we know that the glory is diminished.

The Glory of God

Isaiah 6:2–3 (NIV)

2 Above him were seraphim, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. 3 And they were calling to one another: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.”

If tigers have the kind of glory that does this to us, imagine what Isaiah must have experienced first in the seraphim. Imagine the power, beauty and glory of a tiger but now not simply smart like a tiger is, but brilliant, with personhood, self-knowledge, intelligence and wisdom that make us look like dumb animals before it. Again and again in the Bible when an angel shows up in its glory before a person that person falls on the floor and both imagines it is doomed and in a strange way finds death, the hoped for cessation of the presence of this glorious being to be a better escape than to remain in its presence. Remember, we are still just talking about an angel here.

Now imagine that the source of all of this glory, the one who is more beautiful than a tiger, infinitely more powerful, one who unlike a tiger sees right through us and our stories and our thoughts and what we will do, one who makes the seraphim look dim, becomes present before us. If angels make people quell in fear and wish to escape their power, beauty and glory, how much more God himself would crush us.

In the book of Revelation the Bible itself struggles to communicate what this must be through the most dramatic, evocative images.

Revelation 6:12–17 (NIV)

12 I watched as he opened the sixth seal. There was a great earthquake. The sun turned black like sackcloth made of goat hair, the whole moon turned blood red, 13 and the stars in the sky fell to earth, as figs drop from a fig tree when shaken by a strong wind. 14 The heavens receded like a scroll being rolled up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place. 15 Then the kings of the earth, the princes, the generals, the rich, the mighty, and everyone else, both slave and free, hid in caves and among the rocks of the mountains. 16 They called to the mountains and the rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb! 17 For the great day of their wrath has come, and who can withstand it?”

Common Glory

When we see the glory of a tiger, the glory of Yosemite valley, the glory of a sunset, the glory of the stars, black holes, galaxies, the intricacies of the human body, the complexities of the human psyche and the relationships we develop. These things are common to us, yet perpetually bring us wonder.

Fallen Glory

There was a wonderful piece in the NY Times magazine today as a young father reflects on fatherhood and what it requires. The whole piece is well worth reading.  He remembers back on a nursing home visit he made with is father when he was a boy.

In a bed next to the woman my father and I were visiting was another woman, a woman who struck me as impossibly ancient and decrepit, and who kept trying to requisition my father’s attention away from her neighbor. She was deranged with senescence and loneliness and other unknowable sorrows remote from my childish understanding. The woman we were visiting kept telling us to pay her no mind; she never got any visitors and was merely starved for attention.

At one point, driven by frustration at my father’s insistence on returning his attention to the woman we were visiting, the neighbor grabbed him by the wrist with one hand and, with the other, pushed aside her bedsheet and pulled her nightdress high over her waist; for a brief moment, before my father drew his free arm around me and pulled my face into the shelter of his chest, I glimpsed the wispy vision of her ancient vagina. I remember very clearly the tone in which she then said the words: “Look at what’s happened to me.” I can hear it now, that high and beseeching voice, thin and penetrating as a blade. If my father later spoke to me about what happened, I don’t remember it. I was in shock, I think, as much from the fleeting revelation of the old woman’s private misery as of her private anatomy. I think of the experience now as a strange intrusion into my happy innocence, a weird emissary of the suffering and senselessness of an adult world, a world of aging and grief, that lay beyond the little shelter of my childhood.

We are in a truly strange place. So full of glory ourselves in a world brimming with glory that can be seen without any warning, but also mixed with such crushing horror and loss as to shock us out of our fantasies of control.

Why do I talk about the Age of Decay?

On one hand the whole earth is full of his glory, on the other this age is one of unspeakable, complete and total loss. 

Allow me to make an observation about time and human existence. The only difference between the 20th century genocides we rightly abhor and what we have all come to call “normal” is speed and to a certain degree observable, intentional, direct human agency.

  • 100% of people die.
  • 100% of human relationships will either fall apart in time or be destroyed by death.
  • 100% of human culture will be lost to death and destruction: all of the music, all of the art, all of the literature, all of the creative/imaginative/beautiful thinking and expressions.

Glory seen, glory achieved, glory lost. This is our story.

God’s Rescue Mission

As Isaiah showed in his parable of the vineyard in chapter 5:1-7, God made the world for glory, but what we’ve done to it is rob it of his glory and rob ourselves of its enjoyment. How can God undo this crime without simply destroying his project? We must be changed.

The story of Israel is the story of God’s working at this project. He rescues Israel with acts of power that are both glorious and terrible. What he wants is to live with them, but living with God is a far greater, more glorious, and more terrible thing than trying to keep a tiger in your back yard. God cannot be “kept”. God keeps and it is this keeping that terrifies us because before God we are the dumb animal, powerful, glorious, yet potentially caged and kept. God does not keep his tigers in pens, he makes jungles for them.

The mission grinds to a halt and is fundamentally endangered again by the golden calf incident. 

The golden calf incident is essentially Israel’s imagining that it can cage Yhwh like someone tries to cage a tiger in the back yard. Yhwh is no mere tiger.

After the golden calf incident there is a pause in the progress of the mission. Will God pull back, abandon Israel, try again with another? Are people disposable in his mission?

In Exodus 34 God, Moses and Israel take steps to once again try the relationship, but it is wounded and the wounds are not fully overcome. Moses will once again go to meet God, there will be tablets of stone, the agreement will be cut, but the golden calf episode will stalk the relationship from then on.

God and Moses

There is in the text an interplay between God and Moses and Moses and the Golden Calf. The Golden Calf was in some ways a substitute for the role Moses would play in the relationship as much as it was a substitute for God. This becomes evident as the relationship between God and Moses deepens and Moses is changed.

Exodus 34:4–10 (NET)

4 So Moses cut out two tablets of stone like the first; early in the morning he went up to Mount Sinai, just as the Lord had commanded him, and he took in his hand the two tablets of stone. 5 The Lord descended in the cloud and stood with him there and proclaimed the Lord by name.6 The Lord passed by before him and proclaimed: “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, and abounding in loyal love and faithfulness,7 keeping loyal love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin. But he by no means leaves the guilty unpunished, responding to the transgression of fathers by dealing with children and children’s children, to the third and fourth generation.” 8 Moses quickly bowed to the ground and worshiped 9 and said, “If now I have found favor in your sight, O Lord, let my Lord go among us, for we are a stiff-necked people; pardon our iniquity and our sin, and take us for your inheritance.” 10 He said, “See, I am going to make a covenant before all your people. I will do wonders such as have not been done in all the earth, nor in any nation. All the people among whom you live will see the work of the Lord, for it is a fearful thing that I am doing with you.

Fantasy Spirituality

It is a fantasy of glory, not the real thing but a sad, cheap, imitation that leads people to keep tigers in chain link cages in their back yards. It is the fantasy of the glory of the tiger in the jungle exhibiting its brilliance, its power, its ruthlessness, its cunning. The sad and cruel mockery in the back yard reveals our folly, our selfishness, and how completely deluded we are. The back yard tiger is the golden calf.

We try to do to God what we do to the tiger. People imagine “spirituality” to be this safe, fulfilling, entertaining experience that through music, symbols, rituals, readings, and a world of objects we can control can be predictably reproduced, packaged, copyrighted, and promoted for predictable mass consumption. Much contemporary spirituality is an attempt at making a zoo for God. Any God you find in a zoo is really no God at all, but something more like the animatronics at Chuck e Cheese.

When we do this with and to each other we know we are violating something. When we have women dance naked on stage or spread themselves before the camera we know we are violating glory.

But yet we, sometimes in church, sometimes in “spiritual” things, attempt to package God into an experience. Once it is packaged we attempt to sell it as a product.

Most people who leave a church usually leave because of the people or a person. They wanted a packaged product, but what they found were people and people are not packaged product. If people are not able to be packaged, how much more ridiculous is it to package God! It is insanity and an insanely offensive thing to do even simply with people.

How Moses is Changed

Exodus 34:29–35 (NET)

29 Now when Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the two tablets of the testimony in his hand—when he came down from the mountain, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone while he talked with him. 30 When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, the skin of his face shone; and they were afraid to approach him. 31 But Moses called to them, so Aaron and all the leaders of the community came back to him, and Moses spoke to them. 32 After this all the Israelites approached, and he commanded them all that the Lord had spoken to him on Mount Sinai. 33 When Moses finished speaking with them, he would put a veil on his face. 34 But when Moses went in before the Lord to speak with him, he would remove the veil until he came out. Then he would come out and tell the Israelites what he had been commanded.35 When the Israelites would see the face of Moses, that the skin of Moses’ face shone, Moses would put the veil on his face again, until he went in to speak with the Lord.

Beneath the packaged English text in your Bible there is a debate over exactly how Moses was changed. If you look at old statues of Moses you’ll discover that some of them have him with horns. Some ancient texts have horns, some have him with glowing skin, some try to split the difference by having horns of light. In any case Moses was permanently changed by his experience even with the glory of LORD’s back.

Even the residual reflection of this glory on Moses’ person was sufficient to scare the people so Moses resorted to wearing a veil.

This reality that even Moses needed to be veiled with the people demonstrates why holy places are dark places.  We want God in a Chuck e Cheese package. We want a tiger in the backyard, and in doing so we disclose how we are and why we are this way.

Apostle Paul on Moses’ Face

When I was studying this passage I ran into a problem. I had always assumed that Moses’ glowy face diminished as time went on from the mountain. I had this assumption because of a passage in 1 Corinthians 3. This assumption had some problems.

  • The Jewish tradition maintained that Moses’ radiant face continued through the rest of his life.
  • If Moses unveiled himself before God why didn’t his glow “recharge” if we imagine it “works” this way, which is admittedly a rather baseless assumption.

Why would the Apostle Paul assert the glory faded.

A scholar has done some work on the Pauline passage and come up with what I think is a better understanding of what Paul was trying to say, and that is reflected in the NET translation.

2 Corinthians 3:7–18 (NET)

7 But if the ministry that produced death—carved in letters on stone tablets—came with glory, so that the Israelites could not keep their eyes fixed on the face of Moses because of the glory of his face (a glory which was made ineffective),8 how much more glorious will the ministry of the Spirit be?9 For if there was glory in the ministry that produced condemnation, how much more does the ministry that produces righteousness excel in glory! 10 For indeed, what had been glorious now has no glory because of the tremendously greater glory of what replaced it.11 For if what was made ineffective came with glory, how much more has what remains come in glory! 12 Therefore, since we have such a hope, we behave with great boldness,13 and not like Moses who used to put a veil over his face to keep the Israelites from staring at the result of the glory that was made ineffective.14 But their minds were closed. For to this very day, the same veil remains when they hear the old covenant read. It has not been removed because only in Christ is it taken away.15 But until this very day whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over their minds,16 but when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed.17 Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is present, there is freedom. 18 And we all, with unveiled faces reflecting the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another, which is from the Lord, who is the Spirit.

What Paul is saying here is that the work of Jesus and the coming of the Holy Spirit change the relationship by changing us. The approach that God had to use with Israel proved ultimately ineffective on its own and that in Christ a new transformation happens with us. Somehow, in Christ, our unveiled faces reflect the glory of the LORD in our midst together.

Shouldn’t We Glow Then Too?

We might ask that if this were true should we glow like Moses?

Paul’s argument is actually more subtle and more communal.

The revelation of the power of the Spirit comes not necessarily in the manifestation of visible light, but in the revelation of visible community. The heart of Israel’s problem was relational. Israel, like all of humanity, can’t get along with itself never mind anyone else.

We fight each other over the glory of caged tigers. 

Jesus came with a glory not of horns of light but with horns of love. He acted in a way that seemed opposite of how a new Moses was supposed to behave. While he did wonders it was exactly the kind of way that the creator God shares glory, in humility and with the relational polarity of “your well-being at my expense”. The gospel of John calls Jesus’ hour of “glorification” the time when he was hung naked on a cross.

Like the revelation of the woman’s private misery through her private anatomy Jesus revealed our barbarity and our inability to face glory without it destroying us through his public misery. If we couldn’t tame Jesus we must kill him, like we do with meager lions and tigers.

The community of Christ is identified by Paul with this suffering. By the Spirit the glory of the self-giving God is revealed in the community that begins to learn to love by giving to each other rather than perpetually attempting to possess each other like a tiger in a cage.

Misery

We are keepers of tigers who destroy them out of a cheap imitation of love. In our attempt to possess glory it is diminished and destroyed, turning beauty into misery.

Deliverance

Jesus comes not to dazzle us but to be our victim on our behalf. He lets us cage him as he is in the same moment suffering on our behalf. The product of this is the resurrection where a new more glorious, imperishable revelation is begun.

Gratitude

He then invites us to live into his story. To be the caged tiger for the world. To live “your well-being at my expense”. To trust the presence of the Spirit that looks as unlike a glowing faces as Jesus naked body did on a cross but through which greater glory is revealed.

About PaulVK

Husband, Father of 5, Pastor
This entry was posted in On the way to Sunday's sermon and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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