The Lord said 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, saying, ‘To your descendants I will give it.’ I will send an angel before you, and I will drive out the Canaanites, the Amorites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. 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.”
Now Moses used to take the tent and pitch it outside the camp, far off from the camp; he called it the tent of meeting. And everyone who sought the Lord would go out to the tent of meeting, which was outside the camp…. 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.’ 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.” He said, “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.” And he said to him, “If your presence will not go, do not carry us up from here. 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.” 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.” Moses said, “Show me your glory, I pray.” And he said, “I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you the name, ‘The Lord’; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. But,” he said, “you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.” And the Lord continued, “See, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock; 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; then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.” – Exodus 33:1-3, 7, 12-23
He was not having a good week. After an extended length of time up on the mountain, and having received the Ten Commandments from God, Moses had come back down to the valley below, where the people had been waiting – and waiting – and waiting for him to return. Moses had been gone for so long, in fact, without even so much as sending his family a quick, simple text message telling everyone he was OK, that the people had begun to think that maybe he’d abandoned them all out there in the wilderness, or that maybe he’d been the victim of foul play, and that he wasn’t ever coming back. So just to hedge their bets if that were the case, they’d had Aaron work up an idol, a god they could sacrifice to alongside of Yahweh, Moses’ God, to maybe help get them through their troubles. Of course, the idol, the golden calf, was hardly out of the mold when Moses came strolling back into the camp, and he’d gotten so angry at them that he’d thrown down the stone tablets, breaking them to bits.
No, this had not been a good week – and now there was this. The very next time Moses goes out to the Tent of Meeting, where God would speak with him, God told Moses that he was changing the rules. Up till then, God had been there with Moses and the people in person. From this point on, though, it was going to be an angel who would lead him and the Israelites forward. It was something like the President telling you that he was going to attend your event, but at the last minute he changed his plans and instead of coming himself, all you got in his place was the Secretary of the Interior, or maybe even worse, Joe Biden. The reason God flip-flopped was simple enough. God told Moses that the Israelites were such a pain in the neck at times that God worried that in a moment of anger he’d most likely snuff them all out, so it was probably best to just keep some distance between them.
And it’s right here in the story where Moses has had enough. All the events of the past week catch up with him, and in one of the great moments of Old Testament audacity, Moses throws down with God, and basically says, “Oh, no! You got us into this mess pal; now you get us out of it!” If God weren’t personally present with the Israelites, Moses tells God, then Moses’ authority with them, and with the nations they’d come up against on their journey, would be shot. In short, Moses tells God that without God’s presence being visible to them – and frankly, to Moses himself – how could Moses know, for sure, that he was doing the right thing? If he were going to continue on as their leader, Moses couldn’t have any doubts that God was with him, and so, as validation, Moses even asks to see God face-to-face, not even with God hiding in the pillar of cloud as had been the case up till then. Does that sound familiar? Isn’t Moses’ frustration with God something we’ve all experienced in one time or another? We’re in the middle of some big decision in our lives. We get an offer to become a partner in some startup venture that could be a huge career boost, but we look at our spouse and our kids and our mortgage and other obligations, and we know the potential disaster if this opportunity doesn’t pan out. What should we do? What would God want us to do? Or we have to make an important decision about our own healthcare, or our kids’, or our parents’, and we don’t know which way to go. Any number of times, we’re faced with uncertainty about how to move forward in our lives, and we’ve been told since we were little that that God is always with us and will guide us. So we turn to prayer and we ask for God’s guidance. We ask for God’s clear, unambiguous presence, showing us the way. But all too often, we don’t get that kind of clarity from God at all. We get God hiding in the pillar of cloud. We’re left wondering if we’re doing the right thing, if we’re heading in the right direction. We’re left wondering if God’s actually left us to ourselves – if God is present at all.
How do we hear God, see God, today? Does God ever still go in for the big, showy, Hollywood kind of revelations? I suppose it might still happen that way sometimes. I think it does. But for the most part, and for reasons known only to God, God seems to want to be revealed to us in the more ambiguous, indirect, unexpected ways. Just as Moses wasn’t allowed to see God directly, face to face, but could only see God from behind, we usually only recognize God’s presence and guidance in hindsight, after the fact, in ways most people would just call co0incidence. Like when we’re driving down the road, stressed out, doubting the path we thought God was leading us toward, and in the midst of a near panic attack we pull to the side of the road and start to pray, and we only recognize God in the car after it passes us and we see the vanity plate that just says TRUST. Or when we’re distressed, worried whether it’s time to move Mom to a nursing home, and we put in an afternoon volunteering at the food pantry to take our mind off of things, and halfway through the shift a total stranger says something to you just out of the blue that speaks directly to your problem, and makes the answer crystal clear.
I think that’s God showing himself to us. And if that’s true, then we have to stay connected, in community with each other, in order to see God the way we want to. Primarily seeing the face of God through the faces of others, we learn how important they are to us, and how important we are to them. If we all had the big, lightning-bolt kind of God-revelations all the time, I think it would go to our heads, and it would be so easy to miss seeing God in the face of that sullen teenager who’s trying so hard to look like he couldn’t care less about you or the rest of the world, when what he really aches for is to have just one person show that they actually give a damn about him. If God personally showed up in our kitchen for coffee every morning, it would be easy for us to avoid having to see the face of God through that person with the emotional disorder who knows just how to push our buttons. Or the busybody neighbor whose snarky comments can cut like a prison shank.
Is that really the way God works? Does God use the people we encounter in our daily lives to be present, in the moment to us? Is that why God chose to enter our existence in the person of a poor nobody in a remote backwater of the mighty Roman Empire? Is that why Jesus chose to teach so often by asking questions rather than by giving direct answers? Is this why Jesus made a point of hanging out with all kinds of people, from the most respectable to the least – to show us how and where we were likely to see God present in our own time and place? Maybe for some reason we can’t fully appreciate, all the ambiguous revelation, the seeing God through peripheral vision and sideways glances, is an essential and inescapable part of God’s good news for us. Maybe seeing God through the clouds, seeing God from the backside, after the fact, is all we can handle. But then again, maybe that’s all we really need.
Thanks be to God.