'If only God would do x', 'if only God would do y'. Sometimes we think like this, and sometimes we hear people speaking like this: 'If only God would reveal Himself in some unambiguous, undeniable, powerful way', 'if only God would act in some great deed that would establish His presence and His concern so that all who saw it, or heard of it, would be convinced, freed forever from the distractions of doubt and questioning'.
Of course, human beings are awkward, and the first reading today reminds us of their prayer not to hear the Lord's voice and not to see the great fire! Humankind cannot bear very much reality, as T.S.Eliot put it, in particular, it seems, the reality of God ('no one can see God and live', we are told).
Of course there is excitement wherever a new prophet appears, a teacher or spiritual guru or wonder worker, who seems to have an authority and power beyond the ordinary. These are people we want - and at the same time don't want. In any case, most of them turn out to have feet of clay. As soon as they begin to be venerated by some, they begin to be pulled down by others. Even the work of Teresa of Calcutta, for example, which seems like straightforward (unambiguous, undeniable) love for the poor, has been criticised and attacked: what was her motivation? did she help the poor to break free of their poverty?
An old philosophical axiom says 'things are received according to the condition of the receiver'. God might well be shouting at us in creation and in the history of salvation, but that is no guarantee that He will be heard by us, or, if heard, that He will be understood by us and win our obedience.
So God answers the prayer of His people, raising up a prophet like Moses who will stand, on their behalf, before the great fire and who will hear, on their behalf, the Lord's voice. This prophet, Jesus of Nazareth, is powerful and authoritative enough to win people's attention, at least at the beginning of his mission. 'He brings something new', they say. (Human beings like new things.) They are right and wrong in thinking it is new. He does teach with authority, unlike the scribes, and His authority is seen in His power over the forces of evil. The demonic side of human experience is more tuned in to His significance; those places where we are mad, disturbed, and vulnerable, recognise Him more quickly. The saner part of ourselves is, for the moment impressed, but (rightly) apprehensive. The demons recognise His holiness and His power to destroy them. They obey Him, the people say, and it raises the question of their own obedience: will they go on listening? will they remain impressed? will they be able to turn from their distractions to be united with Him? will they be able, finally, to see the great fire and hear the Lord's voice or will they continue to hold back, to keep options open, to struggle with what faith requires?
God has revealed Himself unambiguously, undeniably, powerfully. God has acted in a great deed that confirms His presence and His concern. This revelation of God and this great deed of God, are one and the same, Jesus of Nazareth. This is the authority He has, that Word and Deed are one in Him. But humankind cannot bear very much reality and there are many interesting, or at least stimulating, distractions that keep us from hearing His voice and seeing His fire. We will be impressed with Him from time to time, this prophet like Moses, but at other times we will prefer to shut out that voice and turn away from that fire. We will fear that He has come to destroy us, to take away our possibilities for living. In fact He has come to dwell in our minds by His teaching and to abide in our hearts in the fire of His Spirit. He has come, in the words of St John's gospel, that we might have life, life in all its fulness. What is it that carries us beyond occasional admiration at Him, to sharing His life, the life of the Holy One of God?
You can listen here to this homily being preached.