Called to the Desert: Facing God
A Dead God
In September of the year 14 AD, the Roman Senate declared that Caesar Augustus was a god (he had ironically died a month earlier). Twenty-three years later, the Empire built a temple for the worship of their freshly-minted deity. Though Augustus and many subsequent emperors proclaimed themselves lord and savior, they still died. No matter how loudly their divinity was proclaimed or how polished their temples, the bodies of the Caesars met the cremation fires, and their ashes eventually scattered to the indiscriminate winds.
Thou Art Mortal
While Rome’s rulers groped after immortality, their generals embraced a markedly different approach to death. According to Tertullian, a 2nd century Christian writer, when these military leaders returned from a victorious campaign, they were paraded down Rome’s main thoroughfare. Surrounded by throngs of cheering crowds, the general could easily feel immortal in the roar of the citizens’ adulations. Crouched behind the triumphant man’s ear, however, a humble slave would whisper softly, “Remember, thou art mortal.”
Each passing day intones the same message to us, reminding us of our mortality. The Preacher of Ecclesiastes teaches,
“All share a common destiny, the righteous and the wicked, the good and the bad, the clean and the unclean, those who offer sacrifices and those who do not. As it is with the good, so with the sinful; as it is with those who take oaths, so with those who are afraid to take them” (Ecclesiastes 9:2).
The Curse of Death
Though we daily inch closer to death, our primeval parents were crafted for immortality. When God shaped them from the dust, he intended that they would walk with him through eternity. Shortly after his breath animated their bodies, however, Adam and Eve bit the forbidden fruit. That newly given breath, uttering rebellion, was doomed to return to the one who first exhaled it. Because of our disobedience, we were sentenced to return to the dust.
God’s love, however, is too good leave us on our current trajectory. Though we are stumbling toward death, he has never turned his face away from us. When Jewish worshippers went up to Jerusalem’s Temple, the priest would remind his audience of God’s unflinching gaze:
“The Lord bless you
and keep you;
the Lord make his face shine on you
and be gracious to you;
the Lord turn his face toward you
and give you peace” (Numbers 6:24-26).
When we return God’s gaze, we become aware of the sin murdering our souls, and it is painful. Job reflects on this when he cries out,
“You said, ‘Listen now, and I will speak;
I will question you,
and you shall answer me.’
My ears had heard of you
but now my eyes have seen you.
Therefore I despise myself
and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:4-6).
In response, we can shut our eyes, pretending like a child that God can’t see us because we can’t see him. Or we can defiantly look in a different direction, staring instead at lifeless idols.
Aware of our averted gaze, however, God clothed himself in our dust. When the Lord became human like us, he went to the places where our terrified eyes lurked. Jesus met the powerful, the unclean, the broken, and the sick. When he captured their attention, he showed them the face of God anew, a face full of forgiveness and mercy.
The Deliverance of Death
As we gaze upon this familiar, yet distinct visage, we see the God who died for us. He owned our curse that we might once again walk with him through eternity. The One who was immortal chose death. And in Christ’s sacrifice, death was consumed by life. In his offering, our condemning sin is forgiven and our resurrection guaranteed. The One who sank into our dust will raise us eternally from those ashes. When we face God in repentance, we will find our life.