| Exodus 33:12-23
||Sun, October 20, 2002
Rev. Ed Searcy
|This ancient text is eerily contemporary. It tells of the first crisis of existence in the life of the people who Yahweh has called out of Egypt. Having given up waiting for Moses to come down from mountain top, the people have crafted a glorious golden calf. They have placed their trust in gold, in their own ability to create, in a small ‘g’ god that they can get their hands on. And, as a result, their existence as the people of God is at risk. We have trouble imagining such idolatry. We seem so far beyond the ‘golden calf’ syndrome. We know better than that, we think. Or do we? Idolatry is all about attributing divine power and status to people and forces and ideas that cannot deliver on their promise to save. We are tempted to idolize the wealthy, imagining that having unlimited resources will save from trouble. We are tempted to idolize celebrity, imagining that fame saves from loneliness and despair. We are tempted to idolize education, imagining that knowledge on its own can redeem the world from violence and greed. Idolatry is not merely a problem of the ancient world. It continues to tempt the church to give up on the promises of God. The current crisis of existence facing the United Church of Canada (and many other denominations in North America and Europe.) is largely the result of a long season of serving the small ‘g’ gods of modern culture. We have been tempted to take the ways of God into our own hands and to shape the church in our own, contemporary image. But, of course, the church is not of our making or shaping or calling. The church, like Israel in the wilderness of Sinai, is God’s odd and distinctive people in the world.
Which is what makes this ancient text in Exodus such rich ground for us. It follows on an amazing moment. Ancient Israel’s existence - like our own now - is at high risk. It has wandered from its purpose. It has forgotten its identity as a people in intimate relationship with Yahweh. Yet Yahweh chooses not to wander or forget. The LORD continues to call and to send, saying to Moses: “Go, leave this place, you and the people whom you have brought up out of the land of Egypt, and go to the land of which I swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” (Ex. 33:1). Even after they have given up on Yahweh, the people are promised a future. They will not cease. The promise lies ahead. That is one thing that this congregation has discovered over the past two decades. If there is anything that you can testify to it is that the crisis of existence that faces the contemporary church can give way to a surprising rediscovery of God’s call. It seems hard to imagine now that fifteen years ago a report could come to Vancouver - Burrard Presbytery recommending that this congregation cease to exist. That was a crisis of existence! Somehow you were already hearing the call of Yahweh to ‘go’, to move on, to trust in the promised future off a different kind of life far from the status quo. That is the heart of the testimony that we will have to offer our sisters and brothers in the presbytery when we host them at dinner on Tuesday.
But there is more to Moses’ story ... and to ours. The crisis of continued existence becomes a crisis of God’s presence. The people of Israel is assured a future, but a future absent the presence of God. “I will not go up among you”, says Yahweh, “or I would consume you on the way, for you are a stiff-necked people.” We have imagined God to be gentle, mild-mannered, safe. But Israel’s God promises to keep Israel safe by staying away so as not to be enraged by the haughty arrogance of this stiff-necked people. This leaves Moses, Israel and us with a problem, for the distinctiveness of the people of God in the world has largely to do with the actual presence of God in the life of the community. As Moses says to the LORD: “how shall it be known that I have found favour 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.” (Ex 33:16). Notice that Moses knows that distinctiveness of the congregation has to do with the presence of Yahweh in its midst. We, like many before us, can be tempted to locate the distinctive identity of the church in our striving after a different way of life. We begin to imagine that by living purer lives, by a higher morality, that we become different in kind from others. No. The distinctiveness of Yahweh’s congregations - be they in the synagogue or the church - derives from the presence of the holiness of God in their midst. We may have an exciting agenda for the way ahead ... but without the presence of the LORD there will be little reason for others to take notice.
So Moses prays in daring, insistent ways to God. Being sent into new territory alone will not do. Moses insists that God take responsibility for the people: “Show me your ways ... Consider too that this is your people.” Yahweh answers with a promised ‘yes’. But Moses won’t take yes for an answer. He continues to press: “If your presence will not go, do not carry us up from here.”Again the LORD promises to be present. Again Moses insists on evidence: “Show me your glory, I pray.” This is prayer with hutzpah. Moses refuses to let God determine the limits of asking. This is the kind of prayer that much Christian piety has forgotten. We imagine that the relationship with God is appropriately deferential and that it cannot take such honesty. Moses, though, is insistent in his determination to pursue the question of God’s promised presence with the community. This, it seems to me, is to be our consistent prayer now and in the seasons that lie ahead of us. We have discovered that the crisis of existence for the church has centrally to do with the crisis of God’s presence - or absence. And this is not simply a matter for the church or the synagogue. For we see, too, that the crisis of existence for the world and its creatures is essentially a crisis that centres on the absence of the working of God’s Spirit in the ways of humankind. This crisis of existence and of absence is both political and pastoral. The crisis is evident in politics when entire cities and states forget that the homeless poor are first in line in the Kingdom of God. The crisis is the pastoral reality of a household confronted by haunting, wrenching grief. The prayer of Moses is our prayer, here. We long for the glory of God to be revealed in our life together. This same prayer catches up the ‘Woodsquatters’ and all who long for our city’s broken and forgotten to be remembered and made whole. It is the prayer of the grief-stricken who wonder how to go in the face of gaping absence. “Show me” prays Moses. So do we.
Moses’ prayer is answered, but not as he had hoped. Yahweh says ‘yes’ and ‘no’. Four times the LORD says yes: “I will make all my goodness pass before you; I will proclaim before you, my name, Yahweh; I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious; I will show mercy upon whom I will show mercy.” I will. I will. I will. I will. This is an astonishingly generous promise. This is a self-giving God who responds to the cries of Moses and the needs and yearnings of the people of God. The insistent prayers call forth an answer. We have been so well schooled by the certitudes of modernity that we can hardly believe in such prayer any longer. The church mouths its prayers but lives as if it expects no reply, no answer, no presence. Instead we get on with life in the absence of the LORD. But God promises to be present with Moses, with the people who journey to the promise, with the distinctive community of God who leave their slavery to the system and ‘the way things are’ behind in Egypt.
The promise is fulfilled in a vision. Moses asks to see the glory of God. He longs to glimpse the real presence of Yahweh, to see God in all God’s glory. Yahweh grants his request, but with limits. “You cannot see my face”, says the LORD, “for no one can see me and live.” The glory of God is too huge for human comprehension. It is too potent, too heated, too brilliant for human senses. It is dangerously high voltage that overpowers any who draw too near. In our generation we have so domesticated God that we forget the immense power of the awesome Maker of all that is! Nonetheless, Moses is offered a glimpse of Yahweh. Like someone watching an eclipse of the sun through a welder’s mask, he is protected by the hand of God until there is a moment to catch a fleeting glance of God’s back as the LORD passes by. Moses is offered this glimpse of Yahweh, but the text never actually describes the event. It leaves the actual moment unspoken, unrecorded, always in the future. This is how it is with the Bible. Hans Urs von Balthazar concludes that “the Biblical experience of God is always proleptic.” That is, in the world of the Bible God is always out ahead, never back behind, always being anticipated rather than remembered.
Which makes our experience here and now very biblical indeed. We come here anticipating - longing for - the presence of the glory of God. Gathered beneath the cross we are reminded of the location of that glory in the world. Remember? “At three o-clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ ... Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.” (Mk. 15:34,37,38). The temple curtain was ripped apart at the ultimate moment of God’s absence revealing ... revealing the Ark of the Covenant, the home of God’s glory on earth. See? In the moment of God’s ultimate absence we glimpse the location of Holy presence in the world. In this scene that is so hard to watch we see the place where the glory of God is to be discovered. To our amazement we glimpse the Eastering glory of God at work in the cruciform places of the world. This one with power to raise from death is now bringing a family haunted by grief to life. This one who leads to the land of promise is already changing the mind of our abundant province that has convinced itself that there is not enough for everyone. This one who calls out distinctive communities is present and calling this congregation to life in the kingdom that comes, here and now. This is the wondrous and amazing good news that we can hardly believe. But I swear on the Bible, it is the truth.