You cannot see my face...
| Exodus 33:12-23
||Sun, October 17, 1999
Rev. Ed Searcy
|The young girl was hard at work drawing a picture with her crayons. "What are you drawing?" she was asked. "Oh", she replied, "it's a picture of God". "That's nice", the grown-up responded,
"but you know that no one has ever seen what God looks like". To which the young artist answered: "Well, they will when I am finished!".
Seeing the face of God. This seems such oddly anthropomorphic language. That is, it speaks of a
God in almost childlike terms ... as if the Creator of the Universe looks like you or I ... face and all. You would think that we might be beyond this by now. You might imagine that such ancient stories might be the stuff of anthropology museums ... not the living Word of life for us. But you would be wrong. This peculiar story of the search to see the face of God is our peculiar story and search.
And it is an odd story. The people of Israel, having given up Moses for dead on Mt. Sinai and
having given up on God to lead them out of this now God forsaken wilderness, melt down their
precious gold rings and bracelets and necklaces and create a glorious golden calf. They make a
substitute god. They no longer love God with all of their heart and mind and soul. Instead they
give all of their devotion to a gold statue. I told you that it was an odd story. Odd ... but not unfamiliar. The Israelites, after all, are not the only ones to have given up on God in the
wilderness. They are not alone in their worship of substitute gods. Idolatry, simply put, means
placing something else before or above God. It means organizing your life on some other basic
principle or premise than on God and God's call. In that case, there are 'golden calves'
everywhere we turn. Note the countless lives devoted to acquisition and consumption. See the
churches that place their trust in their buildings and endowment funds or that seem to worship their own 'common sense' and certain 'righteousness'. The truth be told, when you find yourself in the wilderness ... and when God's promised presence has instead become God's apparent absence ... it is sorely tempting to give up and give in to the desire for some god, any god ... even if it is a god whose power is limited to the line of credit on an American Express gold card.
But now what happens when Moses finally does show up ... Ten Commandments and all ... to find the people wildly dancing around the golden calf, gold cards in hand? This is the thick plot
that we enter into with this morning's text from Exodus. Moses is thrust into a lengthy bargaining
session with God ... because God can no longer stomach being in the company of such a
thankless, 'stiff-necked' crowd. God says to Moses "Get out of here ... head off to the Promised Land without me ... I'm too angry, too dangerous to your health ... I'll send an angel along in my place". But the people of Israel are grief-stricken at the news. The one thing that they have had ... the one thing that has set them apart ... the one thing that has made the wilderness bearable ...is the real presence of God. God has been with them ... in a pillar of cloud ... in conversation with Moses ... before them and behind them wherever they have travelled. They cannot imagine going forward without it.
On one level the story is so very, very strange. Yet on another level it is so very, very familiar. We, too, find ourselves in the church on a long wilderness wandering. The promised land of the future seems far, far off ... and none of the maps that we have been given bear any resemblance to the actual terrain that we find ourselves crossing. Our grandmothers and grandfathers, so they tell us, knew the presence of God in a way that we no longer seem to experience. God's power and glory seem strangely absent to many in our time. We are the golden calf generations ... wondering how, and even if, God has a future in store for us.
So Moses is sent to negotiate ... to dicker ... to parry with God and to strike a better deal. Moses who now trades on his good name with God in order to convince the Holy One to have a change
of heart. "Look", says Moses, "you've told me to bring the people up to the Promised Land ... but
you haven't let me know who you'll send with me in your place. Yet you are on a first name basis
with me ... and you say that I have found favour in your sight. If this is all true ... show me your ways. Tell me what you plan to do." It is Moses' first negotiating tactic. Lo and behold, it works. God replies: "Alright. You've convinced me. I'll go with you myself ... and I'll give you some rest". Just like that Moses gets everything the people want. But it goes in one ear and out the other. Perhaps he is so prepared for hard bargaining that Moses just keeps on hammering: "If your presence will not go, do not carry us up from here ...". And God patiently says it again: "I will do the very thing that you have asked". Does Moses say "Thank-you m'Lord"?. Does he pull
out a contract to get it signed on the bottom line? He does not. He asks for more! "Show me
your glory, I pray". "Alright", replies God, "I will make my goodness go before you and I will say
my name out loud: 'YHWH' ... 'I am what I am'. But you cannot see my face; for no one shall see
me and live." Instead, God offers to give Moses a glimpse of the divine ... hidden in a crevice of
rock, covered by God's own hand, Moses will be protected from the glory of the Lord until it has
passed him by ... and then he will see God's back.
The story just gets more peculiar with each unfolding scene. The all-too-human Moses in a
negotiating session with God? God giving Moses everything (including the kitchen sink) before
the bargaining barely gets started. All except for one thing. Moses cannot see the ultimate
mystery ... the people must go forward to the Promised Land with everything but this one thing ... they cannot see what God looks like. Now you can see why such a story as this might not be considered worthy of debate in first year philosophy classes on the campus next door. It hardly seems worthy of the rigorous rationality of the philosophers of the world. Yet, in its own peculiar way, it does describe our experience of the God met in both the Old and the New Testaments.
Jump forward in time and in the pages of the Bible. See Jesus trapped in a horde of questioners. Remember Mike Harcourt in his last days as Premier ... if you can remember that far back in BC politics ... when he nicknamed the press that hounded him "the scrum of the earth". It is the scrum of the earth who try to trap Jesus with trick questions. With this one they know they will finally catch him: "Should we pay the tribute tax to Caesar or not?". There are Herodians in the crowd. They are supporters of that quisling and traitor Herod - the Jew who acts as Rome's puppet governor. For them the answer is obvious - pay the tax which is levied by the Empire on all subject peoples or else the Roman Legion will crush us all. But there are also Pharisees in the crowd. Pharisees who wish to lead faithful lives as the people of God no matter which government is in power. Pharisees who know that the people rightly hate the tribute tax and see it as the idolatry that it is. Right there on the coin it says "Caesar, son of the divine Augustus". Jesus' answer amazes and silences them all. Looking at a coin with Caesar's head on it he says: "Give unto Caesar what is Caesar's ... and unto God what is God's". In our day and age Jesus' phrase is so often thrown around as proof positive that Jesus condones the separation of religion from politics and economics and social policy and just about everything outside of the private life
of the individual believer that we've come to believe it. This is, of course, just what the Herodians would wish. But even they can see what Jesus has done to their trick question. He has replied with a trick answer. All of them, you see, Herodians and Pharisees have grown up singing
offering hymns like the one many of us sang as we grew up: "We give thee but thine own,
whate'er the gift may be; all that we have is thine alone; a trust, O Lord, from thee.". Everyone in that circle of Jews knows that even the coin with Caesar's face on it does not belong to Caesar but to God. Everyone in that circle leaves amazed because they realize that Jesus has just thrown the question back in their faces. They will be forced to decide what is Caesar's and what is God's.
Jesus answers ... yet he doesn't answer. God draws near ... yet remains distant. With the people of Israel we want to have God 'in our pocket'. With the philosophers in the philosophy
department we long to sort it all out so that everything makes sense. We want to be sure of God's presence at all times ... to be able to describe what God is like ... and to rest easy in that description. "Our God", say some, "is a God of love". Others chime in "Our God is a God of
justice". Still more say "Our God is not the angry, judgmental God of the Old Testament". It's
like that with Jesus, too. We want to figure him out, solve the parables he tells and sort out just
exactly what a Christian should say and do in every circumstance. We are not very happy with
things left up in the air ... with ambiguities and inconsistencies ... especially when it comes to God! And this is certainly never more so than when we find ourselves in a time of upheaval and
transition ... when being one of the people who find themselves called together by God means
wondering what in heaven's name we are doing here ... not to mention wondering who knows
how we are supposed to get to where we are supposed to be going!
Now here's the rub. While it is not possible for human flesh to look directly at the Great Jehovah
and live to tell about it ... just as it is not safe to look directly into the sun and ever have sight again ... we can still see God's presence. God reminds Moses of the given name of God in
Hebrew: Yahweh ... Jehovah. Such an unusual name. Not a noun but a verb: "I am up to what I
am up to". In other words, watch me in the world. See me saving the lost ... healing the broken ... reconciling and making new. This is what Moses hears as God passes by on that windy
mountain ledge: "I am up to what I am up to ... I am a God who is merciful and gracious, slow to
anger ... abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness ... keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin" (Exodus 34:6-7) . This God of love and mercy ... is the God of Moses ... the God of the Old Testament. This is a God who is to be glimpsed in 'hesed' ... in 'steadfast love'. But Yahweh does not end there. It will not be quite so simple or straight forward as that. No, no. With mercy also comes judgment: "yet by no means clearing the guilty, but visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children ... to the third and fourth generation". It turns out that steadfast love that lasts to the thousandth generation
somehow also includes divine judgment which lasts for three or four generations. The love and
the judgment of God cannot be separated. The God of love and mercy is not to be trifled with ...
nor to be easily domesticated and put on a leash. God is, finally, never fully known by Israel or by Moses or by anyone else. But God is known as a mysterious, very real presence in the midst.
It is an odd story. There is a people who turn to idolatry when God seems distant. Intercessions
are made on their behalf - prayers of the people offered - asking God to once again guide them
and heal them. God jumps at the chance, saying: 'Yes...Yes ... just watch me'. Watch me feed them manna in the wilderness with manna. Watch me quench their thirst with water from the
rock. Watch me bring them through the Jordan and into the land of promise. Watch me, born an
infant in a manger to save them. Watch me bear their suffering on a cross. Watch me risen to
new life so that they, too, can live ... watch me, for I am the Way of Life for those with eyes to see and ears to hear.