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Where God has Been

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Exodus 33:12-23

Before AnnElissa and I tell the story, I want to set the scene.  When Moses went up on the mountain to talk with God and get the Ten Commandments, the people didn’t realize how long he would be gone.  They went to Aaron and said, “Come, make gods for us, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.”  So Aaron took all their gold jewelry and melted it down and made a calf out of it, and they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!”

Well, God was in the meeting with Moses at the time but apparently looked down and saw, and God was furious.  God said to Moses, “Get down there right now! Your people, whom you brought out of Egypt, are acting perversely. They are worshiping an idol and sacrificing to it, and saying it brought them out of Egypt.  I’m sick of these people.  They are stiff-necked and stubborn so leave me alone that my wrath can burn hot against them!”  Well, Moses says, “My people? Who I brought out of Egypt?  Huh-uh, these are your people, who you brought out of Egypt.”  And Moses goes on to convince God not to destroy the people.

Then Moses goes down from the mountain, and even though God told him what he would find, he still goes ballistic when he sees the golden calf.  He smashes the stone tablets and he punishes the people.  The next day he says “You have sinned greatly, but I’m going to go talk to God to see if I can atone for your sins.”  So Moses goes back to the mountain and again asks God not to abandon the people.  God agrees and tells Moses to go on and lead the people to the Promised Land.  But God won’t go along this time.  God says the people are so sinful and stiff-necked that God can’t go with them.  Instead God will send an angel ahead of them.  But go ahead, Moses; go lead the people.  Moses doesn’t like this answer.  This is where our passage begins.  We are reading from a paraphrase called “The Message.”

Moses said to God, “Look, you tell me, ‘Lead this people,’ but you don’t let me know whom you’re going to send with me.  You tell me, ‘I know you well and you are special to me.’  If I am so special to you, let me in on your plans.  That way, I will continue being special to you.  Don’t forget, this is your people, your responsibility.”

God said, “My presence will go.  I’ll see the journey to the end.”

Moses said, “If your presence doesn’t take the lead here, call this trip off right now.  How else will it be known that you’re with me in this, with me and your people?  Are you traveling with us or not?  How else will we know that we’re special, I and your people, among all other people on this planet Earth?”

God said to Moses: “All right.  Just as you say; this also I will do, for I know you well and you are special to me.  I know you by name.”

Moses said, “Please. Let me see your Glory.”

God said, “I will make my Goodness pass right in front of you; I’ll call out the name, God, right before you.  I’ll treat well whomever I want to treat well and I’ll be kind to whomever I want to be kind.  But you may not see my face.  No one can see me and live.  Look, here is a place right beside me.  Put yourself on this rock.  When my Glory passes by, I’ll put you in the cleft of the rock and cover you with my hand until I’ve passed by.  Then I’ll take my hand away and you’ll see my back.  But you won’t see my face.”

I love this paraphrase because it makes it so clear that Moses has chutzpah, shameless audacity.  You’ve got to have quite a relationship with the Divine to be that blatant in your attitude . . . especially if you believe in a God who wants to burn hot wrath against those who make God angry!  What gives Moses the strength to do this?  I think it’s because of the relationship that has been built over time, because Moses is learning more and more who God is.

Dr. Dennis Olson of Princeton Theological Seminary says that the book of Exodus provides a series of revelations of God’s identity, nature, and names.  When God speaks to Moses in the burning bush, “God begins by revealing a name that points to the past: ‘I am the God of your ancestors.’  Next is a name that points to the present and the future: ‘I Am Who I Am’ or ‘I Will Be Who I Will Be.’”  There’s a marked shift after the people are freed from slavery.  “I am the God of your ancestors” gives way to “I am the Lord your God.”  It’s personal.  “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt.”  God is revealing God’s own nature as a personal relationship that leads to liberation.  Then we get the name with the reason for the liberation, which I mentioned last week: “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt so that I might bring you to myself,” or in another place, “in order that I might live among them.”[1]  Now we learn that God’s very nature is one of drawing us to God’s self.  This is what it means to be God: to draw people toward the heart of God; and what it means to be human is to be drawn.

That’s why the golden calf incident was such a huge deal—because God had slowly been revealing God’s self as being with the people, and then the people had to go and blow it.  So God said to Moses, “OK, I won’t go with you.  I’ll send an angel instead.  I’ll send some presence instead.  But me personally?  I’m not getting involved.”

But part of Moses’ audacity isn’t just that he reminds God that these are God’s people, not his.  Moses is also audacious in asking, “God, show me your glory.  Show me your presence.  Let me see you.  Let me know you more.”

I know this feeling.  Sometimes.  Sometimes it feels like I have spent my life either saying, “God, come here,” or “God, go away”; “God, I want to know you,” or “You scare me; I don’t want to know you at all.”  Another preacher put it this way: “We are unbelieving believers–or believing unbelievers.  We are mixtures of faith and doubt, trust and skepticism, confidence and suspicion, enchantment and disillusionment.  Sometimes our beliefs seem childish.  And sometimes our cynicism seems foolish.  Most of us are more comfortable talking about the ways we believe than about the uncertainty that we feel, but there’s a bit of agnostic in us all.”[2]

Maybe Moses’ request is because he is tired of the back and forth.  “Sometimes [Moses feels] close to God, sure of God, filled to the brim….At other times, however, Moses feels uncertain, misled and spiritually ‘dried up.’  He’s been to the mountaintop with God.  However, Moses has also trudged with the Lord through some dark valleys….[Now] Moses seems to tire of those spiritual peaks and valleys.  He wants God to answer all of his questions and end all of his uncertainties.  Moses wants God to come, as it were, out of hiding.  He wants the veiled God to unveil….He wants the full-strength dose of God. “[3]

Many of us know this feeling.  God, let me see your face.  Let me see your plan.  Let me know beyond a shadow of a doubt that you are real and here and with me.  And God agrees, but only in part.  Seeing the fullness of the divine might be more than we can handle.  Seeing God face to face might be too much.

Of course, we are anthropomorphizing God here.  We don’t know how to envision a divine source, so we give this God human characteristics.  Therefore it’s natural for God’s response to be translated as “You’ll see my back, but you won’t see my face.”  But God’s back is not really part of this story.  Moses doesn’t see any part of God’s “body” because God is beyond human form.  Instead Moses sees the glory that God left behind.  Moses sees where God just was, where God has been.

Oh, now that I can relate to!  How often have I not seen God at work, but then look back and say, “Oh wow! How did I miss that?”

I was once in a small group where our assignment was to paint a picture of an event in our lives–how we saw it at that time.  Then we were to paint another picture of the same event, seen in retrospect. I chose to paint the most difficult time of my life.  I drew myself as a small, solitary individual standing alone in the dark.  In the picture there was no sun, no light, no warmth–except coming from the fiery darts which were raining down on me.

In my second picture, the fiery darts were still there, but they didn’t take up the whole picture.  People were all around me, reaching toward me, some with shields, protecting me from many of the fiery darts, some even catching or deflecting the darts themselves.  A soft rain was falling from heaven like tears, and above that, the sun was breaking through the clouds.  In retrospect, I saw where God had been.  I saw God’s back.  And it was enough.

Let’s take one last look at the scripture.  Moses says, “God, please, let me see your glory, your presence,” and God says, “OK, I will make my Goodness, my glory, my presence, pass before you.  I’ll even call out my name right in front of you.  “I’ll treat well whomever I want to treat well and I’ll be kind to whomever I want to be kind.”  It’s a strange sentence, seemingly out of place in the paragraph.  But perhaps it is the final revelation of God’s name and character:

It started with: I am the God of your ancestors, then I am your God, who brought you out of Egypt.  I am the God of liberation.  I am the God who freed you so that I could draw you to myself.  And finally: I am the God of unexplainable compassion, unfathomable kindness, unlimited grace.  That’s why you can come to God with audacity, with chutzpah, for God is a God of kindness.

But what if you’re in the middle of the storm?  What if you can’t see God at work in the situation?  What if you can’t wait for God’s back?  Yesterday I heard a story—it’s one of those that may not be factual, but it’s true.  A man was lost in the woods, and he kept following a path, thinking it would lead him out, but it got dark and he couldn’t see where he was going.  He finally stumbled upon a little hut where a hermit lived.  So he stopped and explained the situation to the hermit.  “I am lost in the woods and I can’t find my way out.  Can you help me?  The hermit said, “I have exactly what you need” and rushes inside and brings back a lantern.  The traveler doesn’t want to be rude, but he says, “Um, thanks? I mean, that’s great and all, and I really appreciate it, but I don’t know where I’m going.  I need a map or a guide.”  The hermit said, “Oh, I should have explained. See, you hold the lantern up high, like this.”  The traveler said, “I know, but how does that help me? I’m lost!”  The hermit replied, “You hold the lantern up high, like this.  And then you walk to the edge of the light. And then you do it again.  You keep walking to the edge of what you can see.  That’s how you find your way out.”

We can do that.  We can follow the light to the edge of what we can see, and then keep going…because we have a God who says, “I know you well and you are special to me.  I know you by name.  When you get to the end, you’ll see where I have been.”

[1] This concept is from “Commentary on Exodus 33:12-23” by Dennis Olson on workingpreacher.org.

[2] Rev. Dr. Brett Younger, “Longing to See God,” day1.org.

[3] Hoezee, Scott. Exodus 33:12-23. Center for Excellence in Preaching.

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