Exodus 33: 12-23
Click here to view the full sermon for October 18, 2020 entitle, Presence.
In this passage, we join Moses on the mountaintop interceding for the people who have just built and worshipped a golden calf… Listen for God’s word for you this morning
12 Moses said to the Lord, “See, you have said to me, ‘Bring up this people’; but you have not let me know whom you will send with me. Yet you have said, ‘I know you by name, and you have also found favor in my sight.’ 13 Now if I have found favor in your sight, show me your ways, so that I may know you and find favor in your sight. Consider too that this nation is your people.” 14 He said, “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.” 15 And he said to him, “If your presence will not go, do not carry us up from here. 16 For how shall it be known that I have found favor in your sight, I and your people, unless you go with us? In this way, we shall be distinct, I and your people, from every people on the face of the earth.”
17 The Lord said to Moses, “I will do the very thing that you have asked; for you have found favor in my sight, and I know you by name.” 18 Moses said, “Show me your glory, I pray.” 19 And he said, “I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you the name, ‘The Lord’;[a] and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. 20 But,” he said, “you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.” 21 And the Lord continued, “See, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock; 22 and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; 23 then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.
If you’ve ever set out with the goal of reading the Bible from start to finish, I’m sure you found that it’s pretty easy to get through Genesis. From the beauty of the creation narratives, the destruction of Noah’s flood, the adventures of Abraham and Sarah, and the drama of Jacob and all his sons. And then Exodus starts out pretty exciting too – baby Moses escaping the murderous edict of the Pharaoh in a tiny basket on the river, Moses at the burning bush, the ten plagues, the Passover, the parting of the sea on the way to liberation and the perils of life in the wilderness. But if you’re like me, around Exodus chapter 20 is when your attention starts to wane. The final 20 chapters of Exodus cover in exhaustive detail, the instructions for the building of the tabernacle and the organization of Israel’s worship life – everything from the color of the thread that should be used, to the height of each wall, what priests must wear and how sacrifices should be offered.
It’s definitely not the most engaging 20 chapters of Scripture to read – there’s a reason it doesn’t really turn up in the lectionary – BUT, considering that Exodus dedicates 20 chapters to these Tabernacle instructions, tells us that it is of central importance to the people of God in this story.
The tabernacle was a promise that God intended to travel with the people. Instead of a stationary temple, this glorified tent would be on the move just as the people were on the move – always among them and in their midst. It was a promise of continued presence, protection, and guidance. The detailed instructions given by God echoed the act of creation itself – speaking order out of their wilderness chaos.
But what does all of this have to do with our text this morning? I’m glad you asked!
In this morning’s passage we find Moses in dialogue with God, interceding for the people who have just made the terrible golden calf mistake, and asking to see God’s glory. This whole three chapter episode of sin, intercession, and covenant renewal is very oddly placed, an interruption right in the middle of God’s tabernacle instructions.
And so, I think a fruitful question for us to ask this morning is: why? Why did this story get placed here? Why such an odd interruption?
In Godly Play each week with the children, after we tell the story for the morning, one of the questions we usually ask is: Is there any part of this story we could take away and still have all the story we need? And maybe that’s a helpful way for us to wonder about our passage this morning. What would be missing if God’s tabernacle instructions weren’t interrupted by this story of the people’s sin, Moses’ intercession, and God’s covenant renewal?
It’s an interruption much like the fall narrative in Genesis which interrupts the story of Creation. …Perfect communion between God and humans is broken and out of God’s steadfast love, the relationship yet moves forward even if in a new way.
It’s an interruption much like exile interrupted Israel’s story. Expelled from the promised land after years of unfaithful choices, God yet keeps covenant with God’s people, once again bending towards grace and mercy.
It’s an interruption that I’m sure resonates in our own human lives always mixed with both faithfulness and unfaithfulness
There’s a timeless truth to this interruption. In the middle of a story about the tabernacle, which is all about God’s promise to be present with the people - right in the middle of this story about God’s faithfulness to us, we find a story about our unfaithfulness to God. While God is gifting the people instructions for the tabernacle, instead they choose the golden calf. And yet… God continues to extend forgiveness, grace, and second chances.
When we focus in on the passage for this morning and join Moses in his conversation with God, we also notice that this interruption, while it is about sin and forgiveness, is also an exploration of the problem of God’s presence, or lack thereof. At the heart of this story folded into the Tabernacle narrative, we encounter the question: Is God really with us? Can God be trusted?
After the golden calf episode, God reveals to Moses that while God will yet send the people on to the promised land, God will no longer go with them – the tabernacle will not need to be built. It’s a response from God that Moses is unwilling to accept. Boldly choosing to wrestle with God, Moses intercedes for the people, saying that unless God goes with them, they cannot go. Their very survival depends on God’s presence with them! And because Moses had found favor with God, God relents and once again commits to going with the people.
But now, perhaps with more boldness than before and pushing his limits, Moses asks for a sign to seal this promise. ….Are you really with us, God? Can you be trusted?.... Moses asks God to show him God’s glory, and this leads to the strange moment when God passes by Moses, showing his back but not his face.
People have had a lot of fun with this odd image of Moses seeing God’s backside. But of course, in the Hebrew imagination God did not have a human body. Referring to God’s face was a way of referring to the entire presence of God - the entirety of Godself. Seeing God’s face would be the same as fully seeing and understanding all of God. Seeing the back of God, was a way of seeing the effects of God - the afterglow of God’s presence.
Moses is kept from seeing God’s face - kept from seeing the fullness of God. And there’s a profound truth here that I think all of us know already – God cannot be fully known and understood, there will always be a mystery to faith. The feeling of God’s presence will always be peppered by experiences of absence – even for a people travelling with the tabernacle.
It makes me think of what the writer Ann Lamott said when she wrote: “The opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty. Certainty is missing the point of faith entirely.”
Moses is left with a promise, and with an experience of God’s presence, but not with certainty – While Moses was fully known by God, God cannot be fully known by Moses, or by any one of us. This truth invites us to humility, it invites us to always pay attention, to always be open to learning and changing our minds, it demands that we continue to walk through the world with our eyes open and to have patience with all that we do not know and cannot know.
In a moment like the one we’re living through, where the stakes feel high and the world so full of unknowns, I’m sure many of us feel like Moses on that mountain demanding a sign, asking if God is really with us and if God can really be trusted. And like Moses, God answers us not necessarily by answering our questions, but by inviting us to pay attention to God’s goodness that passes by us, by noticing God’s grace and mercy in our life and in the lives of others.
These are the things we can see and know about God – while we cannot see God’s face, we can see God at work in the world around us. And while we cannot see God fully, we can look to Jesus Christ who showed us what God looks like, the one who we call Immanuel – reminding us that indeed, God is with us, even during those seasons when it is hard to see.