Hawaiian Shirt Pastors And The Casual God?


Text: Exodus 33:12-23

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

Many years ago, when I first joined the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, I was in Fort Wayne, Indiana, finishing up some doctoral classes.  Since I did not have a car on campus, I hitched a ride with some first-year seminarians to a local LCMS Church on a Sunday morning.  

When I arrived at the local church, the people were very friendly and kind.   The sanctuary had pews, a pulpit, a lectern, and an older altar.  I thought to myself, “So far, so good.” However, I was soon disappointed.  A man dressed in khakis and a Hawaiian shirt walked to the front of the sanctuary and welcomed us.  Frankly, he looked like an employee of Traders Joe’s or as if he were on his way to a happy hour after the church service.  Turns out he was the pastor of the church.  But why was I so offended and put off by this pastor wearing a Hawaiian shirt in the Divine Service?  Am I some sort of stern legalist – some curmudgeon pastor who is a stick in the mud?  

Dear friends, consider a moment. What does a Hawaiian shirt communicate?  The whole look of a Hawaiian shirt with loose khakis communicates the vibe of: I’m totally on vacation, so get me a pina colada.  It communicates: don’t worry – be happy!  Let’s get to that limbo contest and have some fun.  Now, please don’t misunderstand me.  There is nothing wrong with wearing a Hawaiian shirt if you are lying around the pool, on vacation, or in a setting that is laid back and relaxed.  But for a church service?  

For the sake of having a little fun, let’s consider our reading from the book of Exodus.  In the book of Exodus, we read about Moses leading the people out of bondage in Egypt.  Now, for the sake of having a little fun, can you imagine Moses wearing a Don Ho Hawaiian shirt and some loose khakis before Pharoah and the Hebrews?  It is kind of funny to think about.  But why?  The reason being: Moses was not worshipping a god who was saying to Pharaoh and the Hebrews, 

"Don’t worry – be happy!  Let’s get to that limbo contest by the Nile and have some fun."   

Instead, the God that Moses worshipped and pointed to – He turned water to blood, sent a plague of frogs, sent a plague of lice and flies, killed the Egyptian livestock, brought about boils and sores, rained fire hall, sent locusts, brought darkness on the land, and killed every firstborn.  The God that Moses worshipped was not the vacationing type who sipped on pina coladas while wearing a Hawaiian shirt and singing, 

“Tiny bubbles, in the wine, make me happy, make me feel fine.” 

Instead, the God of Moses was holy.  He was so holy that He could not come into the midst of the Israelites for even a moment, for His holiness would destroy and consume them.   

You see, that was one of the main problems that Moses had to deal with.  On the one hand, He wanted the presence of God to be with him and the Israelites because it was God who ultimately brought them out of Egypt. However, at the same time, God’s presence was also problematic because God was holy, and the people were often stiff-necked, which led to the possibility that God would consume the people with one swift judgment of wrath. God’s presence was equally comforting and terrifying at the same time.

Today, in the twenty-first century, people will often say that the God of the Old Testament is different than the God of the New Testament.  Apart from this being obviously very Biblically na├»ve, by doing this, they are essentially creating two gods.  Secondly, without even realizing it, they are trying to diminish the holiness of God.  They are trying to eliminate reverence.  You see, one of the biggest problems in American Christianity right now is that our view of God is too tame, too soft, and too tiny.  We want a Hawaiian shirt, God; we want Hawaiian shirt theology.  In fact, I have a theory that the reason why so many people are opposed to things such as reverence, the liturgy, ancient hymns, and the Old Testament – to name a few - is because they want to keep God tame, casual, fun, contemporary, and approachable.  It is just easier that way to have an emasculated God.  

Consider this for a moment; it is actually quite amazing to see how far the pendulum has swung since the time of Martin Luther.  In other words, during the time of Martin Luther in the 1500s, there were many paintings of Jesus on the cross; however, what was just as common, if not more, was Jesus as the righteous judge.  In other words, they had a robust view of Jesus as the almighty judge.  For the people of the 1500s, the Lord was not tame, soft, or tiny but quite the opposite.  Again, they were on the opposite side of the spectrum from us.    

So, what do we make of all of this?  

We hear it quite clearly in our reading from Exodus 33, where we are told that we cannot see God’s face, for mankind shall not see God and live.  In other words, no mortal, sinful man can survive a glance into the face of the holy God.  Just as you cannot stare with your eyes into the bright sun, you cannot gaze upon the face of God – His presence is too holy for you and me.  

Dear friends, this is why we bow our heads in silence when we confess our sins in this church service.  Right here in this sanctuary, we come before God almighty, and we confess our sins in thought, word, and deed.  And then we shut our mouths in silence with our heads bowed before God almighty.  If we could summarize our confession of sins at the beginning of the Divine Service, we are essentially saying that God would be morally just if He were to consume us by His holiness and destroy us for our unrighteousness.  No wonder why Hawaiian Shirt Pastors always seem to eliminate the confession of sin from their church services!  

Indeed, you and I are so sin-sick that God would be morally just to consume us by His holiness and put an end to every one of us. Indeed, you and I cannot withstand the full revelation of God’s presence without being destroyed. Dear friends, if you cannot agree with this and if you cannot confess this, then you are worshipping a false god.  

This is why our Small Catechism says that we are to fear God.  In other words, there is God, and there is His creation, and there is nothing in between.  And so, we fear Him, take Him seriously, and show Him reverence.  He cannot be tamed; He is not soft; He is not tiny.  

And yet, in the Book of Exodus, we read that God gives an extraordinary gift – He speaks to Moses face-to-face as a friend.  When the pillar of cloud descended before Moses, this majestic, holy, and righteous God would speak to Moses, not through a dream or vision, but directly, just like a conversation with a friend.  This is truly profound!  And for you and me, we receive the same gift as Moses from the same God.  Jesus Christ calls you and me friends and says, 

“I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from My Father, I have made known to you.” (John 15:15)

Just as this majestic, holy, and righteous God chose to speak to Moses, that very voice put on human flesh and spoke forth from the manger to the tomb in the person of Jesus Christ.  That is right, just as Moses was given a glimpse of God’s presence, the Apostle John tells you and me that we see God when Christ covered Himself in our flesh and lived among us.   

But it does not just stop there.  The very voice that spoke to Moses and to the disciples also speaks to you and me in a manner that we can grasp Him: He gives us baptism, the Lord’s Supper, Holy Absolution, and the Ministry of the Word.  

And so, the very fact that the Lord turns to you and me with truth and grace does not diminish His holiness.  He is and always will be holy, which is why we show Him reverence, respect, and fear.  And yet, we can also love and trust Him, for He has chosen not to smite us but to forgive us through His perfect life, sacrificial death, and hopeful resurrection.     

Indeed, the Lord God deserves our reverence for His holiness.  But how much more shall we revere Him for His kindness, mercy, and graciousness?  He had every reason to destroy us and every reason not to redeem us; yet, here we are – forgiven and marked as His in baptism, sprinkled with a clean conscience through His Word, and now invited as His guest and friends to His table for the strengthening of faith.  

God be praised; God be praised indeed.

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

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