From Exodus 33
The people of Israel are camped out in the desert wilderness on their way to the Promised Land. Last week we read in Ch. 32, that Moses climbed up Mt Sinai to commune with God and returned with the 1o Commandments. In the absence of their human leader, the ancient Israelites grew restless and asked Aaron to make a golden calf because they wanted a god they could touch and see.
God begins to rethink God’s involvement. It’s a mess. God brought these people out of Egypt and into the desert, having promised them a land of their own, but God is not really sure God even likes these people anymore. The Israelites don’t seem that satisfied with God either. God is kind of scary and distant. Not nearly as fun as the golden calf party. In ch. 33, God decides that God will not be going with them on the rest of the journey; God will send an angel instead.
“I’ve had it with you. If you want a god you can see & hold & melt down & fashion into anything you want, then I will send an angel instead. If I went with you, I would consume you, for you are stiff-necked people.
Moses pleads with God, desperately wanting answers, some sense of certainty.
“Who is going with us? You claim to know my name; you say I have found favor in your sight, but I’m feeling all alone out here. This wandering in the wilderness was your idea. These people are your people. Reassure me that you’re going to take care of this. You have to promise to be with us every step of the way. An angel isn’t the same; the people want your Presence. I want your Presence. If I have really found favor in your eyes, then show me your ways. Reveal to me what it is you actually do. That way I can know you, understand who you are, and then be convinced that I have in fact found favor with you.”
God relents, My presence will go with you. I will give you rest.
For some reason, Moses either does not or chooses not to hear God clearly.
“If your presence won’t go with us, then do not carry us up from this place. I need to know that your arms are around us, your heart is with us. I need some reassurance and confidence.
God responds:‘This thing you have asked I will do, because you have found favor in my eyes. I do know you by name! Do not miss what I have now said twice: you are favored and known by your God.
Moses pushes back: Reveal to me your glory! Let me see your face before I take one more step toward Promised Land. You are asking a lot of me, of the people. Can’t you just show me yourself?
Given what we have just been told that God regularly meets with Moses “face to face” in the Tent of Meeting, this seems odd, incongruous. Perhaps Moses wants to look into the very heart of God.
But it is one step too far. You may know my name, says God, as mysterious as that is, and that I am free to act with favor and mercy with anyone I choose, including you; but MY face, MY glory, MY essence, is hidden, even from you, Moses, my great friend. No human being shall see my face and live.”
After this cryptic response, God places Moses in the cleft of the rock on the mountain. He is protected by God’s hand from direct contact with God’s “face” as God’s glory passes by. God removes God’s hand JUST in time for Moses to catch a glimpse of God’s backside. Hebrew word for one’s physical back is GAV, but that is not the word used here. Instead it is the Hebrew word ACHOWR – meaning behind; what has happened in the past. Some Jewish scholars argue that in the original Hebrew, this verse is understood as “where I just was.”
“The most you are capable of, is seeing where I just was.”
Rabbi Pesach Wolicki, an Orthodox rabbi in Israel wrote this year quoting Is 55:8 My thoughts are not your thoughts. Your ways are not My ways, says the Lord.
This verse tells us to be humble, and careful before declaring that we have God all figured out. One of the fundamental stances of faith is humble submission to the fact that we do not know what God is doing until the dust settles. While events are taking place in our world, we are blind. We have no way of knowing what God is doing or why. Our understanding of God begins after the event has passed. We see only God’s back. To claim knowledge of what God is doing is arrogance, not faith. Faith does not demand or encourage trying to figure God out. Jewish tradition teaches that when tragedies befall the community, we are required to look inward and seek ways to improve our behavior. Uncertain times call for humility and introspection. The assumption is that we do not know why tragedies happen and therefore must use unsettling circumstances as an impetus towards greater piety.
We have certainly experienced unsettling circumstances in the Year of our Lord 2020 with the pandemic and our numbers across the nation and our state sadly increasing; there is ongoing racial injustice; we have a struggling economy; virtual learning, virtual church, virtual everything; finding our masks when we go out, and dealing with anti-masker; and political tensions with the upcoming election exactly one month away. It feels like an endless tunnel in the wilderness. Our lives seem uncertain and unpredictable with so many things and we long for a few certainties. This is where someone in the choir would quip – the only certainties in life are death & taxes. Well, taxes for some.
This lack of certainty in difficult times, and struggling with faith is a common occurrence for most major characters in Scripture. Moses is one of them. And then they found faith in God.
Hebrews 11:1 Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. The translation of The Message says it like this: The fundamental fact of existence is that this trust in God, this faith, is the firm foundation under everything that makes life worth living. It’s our handle on what we can’t see. The act of faith is what distinguished our ancestors. By faith, we see the world called into existence by God’s word, what we see was created by what we don’t see.
While we long for something tangible, it appears that uncertainty is a necessity of faith. It would be nice to have an unambiguous, clear sign from God. But the reality is for us as it was for Moses, that while God is passing by, our eyes are covered. But wait and look for where God has been.
So in essence, If you want to see what God is doing, look back. That is what the Ignatian Examen prayer is about – looking back over the course of your day, or week, and seeing where God’s presence has been in your life – God’s grace, God’s joy, God’s consolation – or where God felt absent to you.
It is also the prayer of Dayenu, the song our Jewish friends sing at Passover, “It would have been enough” – giving thanks for God’s providence in the past, leading to faith and trust in the future.
If the most we are capable of is seeing God where God just was, perhaps it is important to take time to reflect on times in our life when we experienced God’s grace with us, giving us the assurance God gave Moses,
“My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest. I know you by name”.
There is an African American hymn:
“We’ve come this far by faith, trusting in the Lord,
Trusting in God’s holy name. God’s never failed me yet.
Oh oh oh can’t turn around we’ve come this far by faith.
What we’ve been through is really tough. We don’t know when this pandemic ends… when justice and peace will overflow. We may face other difficult times in our lives, struggling with faith or health or grief or fear. In such times, what remains, what causes us to continue our journey is FAITH.
Gerald May said, “God’s grace is not only with us but in us… The question, in any moment, is, Can I trust God here and now? Whether we feel God’s presence or not, we can choose to act in accordance with it. And because God is never absent from us, trusting is always possible—the option is present everywhere, all the time. All we need to do is consciously choose to trust as much as possible in God’s loving presence, and in this trust, open our hearts to God.”
We can learn what Moses learned—that God had his back and that Moses was to glimpse and follow God’s backside, where God just was. And to trust that God will allow us to see where God just was as well. God will help us to remember and remind us of God’s faithfulness and presence with us all along the way. What is important in the end, is not our ability to ‘see’ or know God, but to recognize that we are already known by God who journeys with us. So, whatever happens in our journey, let us not give up, let us not look the other way. Our God will show us where God just was.