Exodus 33:12-23 (NRSV)
Charles Taylor begins his recent tome, A Secular Age (2007), by pointing to a huge cultural shift. Five hundred years ago, he writes, belief in God (or the transcendent), was the cultural default. Not believing in God, was something you would have had to explain or justify. Now, in contrast, there are many places in the West, unbelief is the norm, and you may have to defend belief.
As Taylor points out, secularism is not just one thing. There is a variety of secularism that is angry, but a more common variety of secularism is indifference to religion. Those who simply do not feel they need to take religious concerns into account.
This is like a climate change. It has been gradual, but it is real.
Carlyle Marney used the illustration from a story of two fellows who lived in a houseboat on the Mississippi. One night their boat came unmoored from the dock and all night they drifted downstream with the current. In the morning one of them looked out the window and shook his mate. “Clem, Clem! Wake up! We ain’t here anymore!”
We ain’t here anymore. Like those folks on the houseboat, Inside it may look the same, but look out the window.
The Pew researchers report the growth of “nones” as a portion of society. Not the Catholic sisters, but those folks who when asked about their religion choose “none of the above. – “none.” It is the fastest growing “faith” in America.
We don’t feel it perhaps as much in the South, here in our corner of the Bible belt. But like global warming, there is no escape from the influence anti-religious sentiment has on novels and movies and op eds.
The time is coming, and now is, when people of Biblical faith had better stand ready as, Peter says, “to give account for the hope you have in you.”
I don’t know if you have seen the film Philomena with the amazing Judi Dench in the role of Philomena. It tells the true story of an Irish woman who as a young girl became pregnant out of wedlock and, as the custom in those days, was whisked out of sight to a convent where young women in her situation worked to earn their keep during pregnancy and after their children were born, while nuns looked after their children, and eventually gave them to couples, usually rich couples from America, for adoption.
Philomena, now an older woman, wants to find her son and gets the help of a journalist, Martin Sixsmith, who later wrote a book about the experience. But here is something that I think is telling: the journalist has little use for the Catholic church, or for God. At one point he says, “ I don’t believe in God, and I think He knows.” But Philomena, despite the injustices she has endured, does believe and is devout, though sometimes she struggles with belief, as all faithful people do.
The pivotal scene is when Philomena confronts the nun most responsible for the injustices and forgives her, while the journalist confronts them with angry condemnation. Philomena says.”But I don’t wanna hate people. I don’t wanna be like you. Look at you.”
Martin Sixsmith: I’m angry.
Philomena: Must be exhausting.
Believing in God enables her to rise above the all too human nuns and forgive them, while Sixsmith, having no God to believe in, is left with anger at unrightable wrongness of all that has gone on.
But the film depicts the clash. Sixsmtih is as devoted to unbelief as Philomena is to belief.
Part of the atheist’s problem is a bad working definition of God to start with. Sometimes when I ask people who profess not to believe in God to describe the God whose existence they deny, I find myself agreeing with them. “Well, I don’t believe that such a God exists either.” It’s easy to dismiss a cartoon God.
The problem we have, then, is we concede to discuss God with popular pictures and images of God which are caricatures. J. B. Phillips whose paraphrase of the New Testament still is valuable, wrote a little volume Your God is Too Small, that catalogs some of those defective pictures people carry around in their heads of the Divine: God-in-a-box” ,”Resident Policeman,” “Grand Old Man,” “Meek-and-Mild,” and “Managing Director.” .
We need a book “Meeting God again for the first time.” It is time we go back to Scripture to retrieve better way of talking about God and God’s activity in the world. the allusive, elusive, very present, very holy God.
Now such a project is too big for one sermon or even a series, but perhaps we can note a few things. The difficulty in believing God is active in the world is is a part of holy history. And how you know that God is doing something is not straightforward.
That is where I think I read today’s text. Moses would like for God to let him see the whole of God, to have a glimpse of glory. Wouldn’t that be reassuring?
Exodus is the second of the first five books of the Bible, which we used to call the Law books in my Sunday School. Jews call those books the Torah. Granted there are instructions on do’s and don’t’s that give credence to calling this laws. But a better translation of Torah is “The Way.” The texts tell a story. And the people of Israel come to understand this story as a revelation, not only of the way we should live, but a description of the way we have trouble following, and the way God delivers and judges and pushes and prods and invites the patriarchs, Israel, even creation, toward their redemption and fulfillment.
And the proper way to read this section of scripture is not scanning it for the rules we like, but reflecting on how the whole story may apply to our own journey to the promised blessing.
We need to read it the way some people read business reports and see through the numbers to larger trends and possibilities. See with them and through them. Or a historian reads the past carefully and sees in it as Barbara Tuckman put it “A Distant Mirror.” The Bible of all books warrants a close and meditative read.
And this is the way I come to the text today, primed by my perceptions of our time I am ready to hear God speak to me from the ancient text a word for such a time as this.
And what I find is that Exodus is story of people who vacillate between doubting God and taking a chance on God, Between making promises to God and messing around with a do-it-yourself idol.
This people alternate between calling out for help and skepticism about God’s benevolence. Between celebrating God’s deliverance and doubting his presence.
Exodus keeps coming back to the desire for God to reveal God’s self.
Now God does make self revelations in Exodus. The burning bush, the parted Sea, the plagues, Mt Sinai in cloud and thunder, the miracle of manna, and water from a rock. But none of these make faith inevitable or permanent.
So think about the flow of the story.
It begins 450 years after Joseph, who saved not only his father Jacob’s family, but the entire empire through his food saving plan. But now the Hebrews have multiplied, and the Egyptians feel threatened by this immigrant population. The new pharaoh exploits them as slave labor, then start on the slippery slope to genocide.
Where is God? Not on center stage. But it seems that a purpose greater than them leads people who have no power to speak of to buck the authority of pharaoh. A boy is spared, by quick witted mother, truth bending midwives, brave big sister, and compassion of a princess. Moses makes it. And he too grows up with this defiant sense of justice which gets him into trouble with the law and he becomes a runaway.
Still where is God? The writer remains silent.
The runaway Moses settles down in the wilderness far from Egypt, gets married, becomes a shepherd for his father in law. And then one day, at the ripe old age of 75, he has a close encounter of a strange kind. A bush burning without being burned up. What keeps that fire going? He draws nearer and here, for the first time in the book God steps on stage, or at least his voice. Whether Moses hears the voice out loud or in his head, it is all the same an encounter with the Other.
After being told he is on holy ground, the voice reveals that God has known all along what was happening to the Hebrews. Those verbs pile up describing a God who is not far off but close at hand: “I know,… I see…, I hear…, and I am coming to deliver.”
But once again God chooses to deliver through the agency of another– Moses. Moses does not like the idea and offers a number of reasons why he is all wrong for the job. God persists with the promise that he will be with Moses. “Who are you?” Moses asked. And God answers “I am I am,” which scholars tell us means among other things “I am …here, present, with you right now.” and God promises not only his Divine presence, but he will send along Aaron to be Moses’ front man. God is going to be present but several layers obscure that.
Now when Moses arrives back in Egypt he has to convince both the Hebrews and pharaoh that God has sent him. Both are skeptical that there is anything to this movement. Maybe it is a scheme originating with Moses. And sure enough the first results of the effort was pharaoh increased their hardship. Where is God in that?
Moses and Aaron put on a demonstration involving rod into snake into rod; pharaoh’s priests match it. The proof of God is left ambiguous. The plagues get his attention, but don’t amount to reason enough for the king to neglect his economic investment in the slave arrangement.
Till that awful 9th plague brings death to every Egyptian household. And even then pharaoh changed his mind in the cold light of a new day and sends out his troops to get back the Hebrew he had too quickly told to leave.
Moses and the Hebrews see the dust cloud of the chariots coming and the muddy expanse of water blocking their escape, and, not for the last time, the people whine that this whole Exodus has been a terrible mistake. Where is God? God got us into this mess.
Of course you know the story of how things turned out with a miraculous deliverance, and Miriam led the cheer praising God. Forty days later they are at Sinai, and God descends upon the mountain with smoke and thunder and earthquakes. And for the first and last time God speaks directly, giving his ten concise commands. It terrifies the people, and they ask Moses to kindly ask God to speak through him not directly.
But ever afterward God spoke indirectly through Moses. This turned out to be a triangulation in communication that ending up with Moses in the middle of the tensions between God’s purpose and the people’s waffling faith.
The episode of the golden calf (Exodus 32) is the paradigm.
Ironically in addition to hand inscribed copy of the ten commands God made and gave Moses, God was also giving instructions for a tabernacle and an altar. Exodus 25: 8 And have them make me a sanctuary, so that I may dwell among them. But God cut it short. Something was amiss in the camp.
While Moses was out of their sigh, the people proceeded to break the first two commandments. They were impatient. They wanted a God that they could see. And Moses was off in a cloud of darkness. Goodness only knew when or if he would get back.
Not knowing that Moses was getting instructions about a place for worship, the Hebrews invent their own ritual, and make an image from gold they had brought from Egyptians. (The Egyptians had been eager to pay whatever to get them gone.) The Hebrews made an easier god that they could point to and talk about. A god that would let them do whatever they pleased. A fun god with an entertaining ritual.
And that was not the last time that people improvised their own version of god, convenient to their own purposes.
God had forbidden people substituting their own idea of God for God’s self revelation. In particular substituting a God that they could view for the God who asks to be heard. Or, put it this way, substituting a god you think about for the God you obey.
Where is God? Over there on the altar we built. A religious centerpiece to decorate our party. An “interest center.”
The first edition of the tablets of law are a casualty of this episode. God sends Moses scurrying back down the mountain and when he sees what is happening Moses breaks the tablets in disgust.
32:19 As soon as he came near the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, Moses’ anger burned hot, and he threw the tablets from his hands and broke them at the foot of the mountain. 20 He took the calf that they had made, burned it with fire, ground it to powder, scattered it on the water, and made the Israelites drink it.
After the hysterical events that follow, about which God tells Moses to go ahead and take them to the land he had promised their ancestor Abraham and his descendants. Lead the people you brought out of Egypt. I will clear the land to receive them and send a angel to show the way, but I won’t go along “lest I consume them”
32:31 So Moses returned to the Lord and said, “Alas, this people has sinned a great sin; they have made for themselves gods of gold. 32 But now, if you will only forgive their sin―but if not, blot me out of the book that you have written.” 33 But the Lord said to Moses, “Whoever has sinned against me I will blot out of my book.
33:3 Go up to a land flowing with milk and honey; but I will not go up among you, or I would consume you on the way, for you are a stiff-necked people.”
Moses builds a tent of meeting outside the camp (the tabernacle had been scheduled to be in the middle) and going to meet God there and the first conversation we hear about is Moses interceding asking that God not abandon them,
Well today’s text offers three prayers that Moses made to God. Three powerful requests.
I. First he asks that God will show him his ways. He prays for guidance.
“You have been telling me, `Lead these people,’ but you have not let me know whom you will send with me. You have said, `I know you by name and you have found favor with me.’ 13 If you are pleased with me, teach me your ways so I may know you and continue to find favor with you. Remember that this nation is your people.”
God you have given me responsibility; and you have said you will give me help. I don’t know who that is yet. You tell me that I am special to you. That You know me by name. Well, if it is true that I matter to you teach me your ways so that I can continue to please you. And by the way don’t forget these are your people that you have told me to lead.
God answers that prayer. “My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.” So God himself will go with Moses and guide him in the way he should go. And he promises that it will end up all right. With rest.
II. But Moses ups the ante. He doesn’t just want God’s guidance. He wants God’s presence and not just for himself but for all the people. “If your Presence does not go with us, do not send us up from here. 16 How will anyone know that you are pleased with me and with your people unless you go with us? What else will distinguish me and your people from all the other people on the face of the earth?”
And amazingly for Moses sake, God agrees to be present with all the people.
17 And the LORD said to Moses, “I will do the very thing you have asked, because I am pleased with you and I know you by name.”
III. Then Moses makes a third petition there in the tent of meeting. 18 Then Moses said, “Now show me your glory.”
Does it remind you of the scene in the movie Jerry Maguire, where Cuba Gooding, Jr.’s character demands of Tom Cruise’s character: “Show me the money.” Here it’s “show me your Glory.” Show me a physical or tangible manifestation of your presence. I need more.
What are we to make of this last request? We can understand his request to know God’s way. To have information that will help us steer our lives in the right path. For this we consult scripture, pray for discernment, use our reason to assemble all the clues we have. Show us your ways.
And we do also understand the request that God give us his presence. Thy rod and thy staff they comfort me – because they represent the abiding powerful presence of God who has his eye on us. You have known me. Now let me feel that watchful care in my heart.
What does it meant to ask to see God’s glory? It was as if Moses wanted to strip away all the veils and behold the Lord directly and clearly. For all that God grants makes Moses hungry for more. What he knows about God whets his appetite for more.
“Let me look at you.”
And that, God says, can not be. Not directly.
Yahweh tells Moses that his face will remain forever hidden, for anyone who sees the face of Yahweh will not live. This statement is often cited as a universal description of the holy otherness and imperceptibility of God, but anyone familiar with other texts will hear the soft whisper of a reply, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Matt. 5:8), or “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father!” (John 14:9). Our inability to see God or, even more, to know God is related to covenant infidelity and covenant betrayal. Yet we hope to live with a beatific vision of God and life even if we cannot see his blinding glory.
The reason why this request is out of order is that God cannot be examined like a fossil or a fern. God is never a thing, just one more thing in the catalog of things that exist. “Lets see: Goat, geese, germs, god…” Whenever God becomes an object to us, God will become a problem, a puzzle, something to prove or disprove, and discuss. But so far from God’s being something in our hands we can turn over and examine, “He’s got the whole world in his hand.” We can’t have God in our hand, because everything, including us, is in God’s hands.
Martin Buber, the Jewish philosopher, said God is an “I” that can never become an “it.” We can treat a lot of things and people as “its.” That is, we can treat them as if they were not persons, just unconscious objects. But God is always the one who beholds us. To the extent that you are thinking of God as an object, you are not thinking about God.
Moses seems to want to see God in a way in which he is not acted upon by God. His requests amounts to wanting for a moment to just be an observer outside the relationship.
The problem with idols is just that they are objects that you can shift around, change, paint, dress up , put words in their mouth– they don’t care. They are your creation, not your theirs. But neither can they hear you, or help you, pray to them as you will.
Anything you know about God objectively falls short of knowing God personally. That is why knowing more about God is no guarantee you will be a better, or more spiritual person.
Notice God does not offer to be seen, he asks to be heard.
Moses met with God in face to face conversation. God came to Moses and they talked together. God becomes real to us in prayer.
Job was a pious, religious, moral man when his life fell out from underneath him. He had a crisis of faith. His wife even told him to go ahead and curse God and die since God did not seem inclined to help him out of his misery any other way. Job could not put God out of his life. He had done what he thought he was suppose to, and things were not working. it was not fair and he wanted a Divine explanation. He wants justice.
The climax comes in the poem when God does encounter Job. God takes Job on a whirlwind tour of creation from the moment it sprang into being and the morning stars sang together, to the depths of the ocean where a crazy big Leviathan cavorted for no other reason than God enjoyed its freedom. God creates a riotous plethora of creatures.
Job sees a world a lot bigger than himself, a world full of things God releases to run free, within limits (e.g.,God says to the sea, “this far and no farther”). But what really turns him around is not just the sweep and scope of God’s complicated creation, in which there is never an answer to Job’s question in Job’s terms. What enables Job to humble faith is just the fact that God has encountered to him. “I’ve hear about God with the hearing of the ears, but now I have met God, and I am speechless.”
Moses and the Burning Bush by Edward Knippers
Moses can’t look at God’s glory face on. It would be more than he or anyone could take. Looking into the sun you go blind. But by the light of the sun you can see the world clearer.
All Isaiah could see of God was the Divine train filling the temple. Even the heavenly seraphim hid their bodies and faces while they sang “ HOLY HOLY, HOLY.” He just glimpsed the edge of the glory before which the seraphim cover themselves.
God tells Moses “You cannot see me “full on”– that is not permitted humans. But you shall see my goodness. You shall hear my name. I will hide you in a cleft in the rock while I pass by and then let you see the back of my glory. You will see the backside of my glory after it has passed by and is going away.”
I would like to submit that this is still the way it is. So much of what we see of God’s glory, we see afterward.
There is a trick astronomers know. If you look straight at a celestial object you will only get some of it, your eyes will get fatigued. But if you look at it slant. about 12 degrees to the side of center, you will be able to pick up more information. Sometimes we see more ‘slant.”
This is Jacob at Bethel, waking up from the vision of the stairway between heaven and earth, he exclaims, “Surely God was in this place and I did not know it.”
This is Joseph who no doubt had given up the youthful dreams of what his life would be. He had continued to do the most honorable thing he could whatever fix he was in. Sometimes doing his best had made things worse for him, but in the end he got to be the most important person in Egypt next to pharaoh.
by Marc Chagall
Then came the day that his brothers, who had sold him into slavery and, they assumed, to his death, come to beg to buy from Egypt’s storehouses. Joseph could have seen a chance to get back at them, but with amazing vision Joseph looks back and saw God in his twisty, messed up story. When he reveals himself to the brothers as the one whom they had sold into slavery, he tells them not to be alarmed. What they had meant for evil, God had used for salvation. Joseph had not seen God in the midst of his troubles, but looking back he could see where God had been. God had been in his whole life.
The story is not over till God ends it, my friends.
So Moses looks back in his farewell (Deuteronomy 33):
26 “There is none like God, O Jesh′urun,
who rides through the heavens to your help,
and in his majesty through the skies.
27 The eternal God is your dwelling place,
and underneath are the everlasting arms.
Moses looks back and, as it were, can sing, “all the way my savior leads me/”
And perhaps we are to understand it that way in our lives. We will only see what it all meant later. We don’t always see where God is coming to us, but if we are obedient to what we do know of God we discover later that God led us all the way and has become our dwelling place.
While God was saving the world on Good Friday it appeared that he was absent. “He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he wants to; for he said, ‘I am God’s Son.’” (Mt. 27:43) And even in dying Jesus experiences the absence of God. “My God, my God . Why hast thou forsaken me.”
It was only in the light of Easter that people could look back in wonder. “Our Lord began his reign on a cross.”
The providence of God we know more from retrospect than from prospect.
Heav’nly peace, divinest comfort, Here by faith in Him to dwell!
For I know, whate’er befall me, Jesus doeth all things well;
Frederick Buechner, the wonderful novelist, and preacher, tells his life’s story in two volumes so far. About losing his father to suicide, about growing up without church but being drawn to the preaching of George Buttrick and experiencing a conversion. About teaching and seminary and writing. And he says, “Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery it is. In the boredom and pain of it, no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it, because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.”―Now and Then: A Memoir of Vocation–—Frederick Buechner,
Even when we don’t see God and wish we could, the important thing is that God can see you. The psalmist said, “Where can I go from your presence? Where can I flee from your spirit? If I go to heaven you’re there. If I make my bed in hell, you’re there. If I take and go to outermost part of the sea, behold even there, your spirit will guide me. Even there your hand will direct me.”
We want to be sure. We might want to see God so plainly that we no longer could doubt. What God gives us instead are encounters with his goodness. Micky Anders writes, “Someone has said that faith is what you do between the last time you experienced God and the next time you experience God.’ Those who are honest about their faith admit that they are like Moses, seeing only the backside of God.
Surely the Lord is in this place—and in every place we go– whether we know it or not.
Even through the wilderness of secular times.
Even when the world asks “Where is their God?”
1 Not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to your name give glory,
for the sake of your steadfast love and your faithfulness.
2 Why should the nations say, “Where is their God?”
Thomas Merton, one of the most spiritually wise men of the 20th century,wrote, “How do we begin to know You are until we begin ourselves to be something of what you are? We receive enlightenment only in proportion as we give ourselves more and more completely to God in humble submission and love . We do not first see, then act; we act, then see…. And that is why the man who waits to see clearly before he will believe, never starts on the journey.”
gIn the last five years alone, the unaffiliated have increased from just over 15% to just under 20% of all U.S. Adults.” 10.9.2012. http://www.pewforum.org/2012/10/09/nones-on-the-rise/