Exodus 33:12-23 (CEB)
You know, the Bible is full of some really fascinating stories. This one, about Moses, is one of my favorites. We are most familiar with Moses of course because he led the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt. They gained their freedom, crossed the Red Sea, wandered in the desert for awhile and eventually found their way to Mount Sinai. Whereupon, Moses leaves the company at the base of the mountain and goes up alone to talk with God, leaving his brother Aaron in charge. But Moses is away longer than they expect him to be, and the people begin to think they have been abandoned in the wilderness. So they go to Aaron and ask him to make them a new god to follow, one shaped after the gods they had known in their slavery. Aaron obliges by gathering all their earrings and melting them down to create a golden calf. When Moses returns he is furious that they have so casually turned away from Yahweh, who brought them out of Egypt. Aaron acts like he had nothing to do with it “I threw [the gold] into the fire and out came this calf,” he says. Meanwhile God decides that the Israelites are “a stiff-necked people,” and he is no longer going to go forth with them in the wilderness. Sayonara. You’re on your own.
But Moses isn’t about to let it go at that. When we arrive at the part of the story Linda just read to you, we find Moses arguing with God, and not for the first time. “You told me to bring this people up out of slavery. You said, ‘I know you by name, and you have found favor in my sight.’ But now you say you won’t go with us. If you won’t go with us, how is anyone going to know that I have found your favor? We’ll just be another godless people, wandering around in the wilderness. But if you do go with us, we shall be distinct from every other people on the face of the earth.” At which point God says “O.k. O.k. I get it. I will do the very thing that you have asked. I will go with you.” Is Moses satisfied? Not quite. He reminds me of a little child. There’s always one more thing. Moses decides to press his advantage while he has God in an agreeable mood, and the story takes off in a new direction. “God,” he says, “I pray you show me your glory.”
Show me your glory? I have to confess. Within the context of the stories about Moses I find this line a little hard to understand. Moses saw more glory than almost anyone else in the Bible. As the stories are told, he heard God’s voice in a burning bush. He watched the whole production of the Israelites being freed from slavery. He walked through the parted waters on dry ground. He was led by a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. He met and spoke with God on Mount Sinai and received the Ten Commandments carved by God’s own hand, among other things. After all this he wants to see the glory of God? For most of us, any one of these experiences would be enough to make a believer out of us for the rest of our lives.
What is it that Moses is asking? Obviously, it’s not that he hasn’t experienced the mystery of God. But apparently he wants more. He wants to be able to take in the entire vastness of God’s glory. He wants to see it all. But, God knows, it’s not possible. It would be like trying to blow all the oxygen of the entire world into one little balloon. So God says to Moses, “I’ll tell you what I’ll do. I’ll set you up in this crevice over here and cover your eyes with my hand until all my goodness passes by. Then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.” And after God’s hand is taken away, we’re left with this strange image of Moses staring at the hindsight of God.
It’s a funny image if you think about it. I remember seeing a cartoon once that showed a high mountain range. And sticking out of the mountains were the back ends of four giant, headless bodies kneeling into the slopes. In the foreground there was car parked in one of those “scenic overlook” type turnouts. At the edge of the overlook was a sign which read, “The Backside of Mount Rushmore.” But I didn’t want to use that as a sermon title. Somehow the idea that God might have a backside feels a little sacrilegious. Clearly, this is not one of the stories in the Bible which was meant to be taken literally.
But what do we do with it? Well first of all, we can recognize that it expresses a very important truth about the nature of human life. Like Moses, there is something deep inside all of us that longs to see the fullness of God. Something in us that knows God is our home, our refuge and strength, not only in times of trouble but all the time, eternally, everlastingly. God is the mystery out of which all of creation has come. And yet our most common experience in life is to feel isolated, alone, cut off from the reality of our deepest nature. Something in us knows that the fullness of God is our true and essential reality and yet we live in longing to be reunited and made whole, in a desire to see the fullness of God’s glory. That’s what some call our human existential dilemma, that we are both finite and infinite.
Beyond this, not only do we want to see and experience the fullness of God, we also want to know what God knows, not just the hindsight but the foresight. We want to have the knowledge and wisdom that would allow us to always make the right choices, and solve all the great problems. What would you give to understand how to cure AIDS or Cancer or Alzheimer’s? Wouldn’t we use the wisdom of God to end the suffering of disease, or to stop the spread of violence? Wouldn’t we end hunger and poverty and school shootings? Wouldn’t we clean up the earth and rebalance the climate? Wouldn’t we want to know what the point spread will be … at the end of today’s Super Bowl Game? We have so much uncertainty about the decisions we make and the future we are anxious about. I pray every day that our leaders will be guided by the wisdom of God and not their own ego needs; that the nations of the world will join together to stop injustice and terrorism. There’s no question about it. Most of us would love to know all that God knows. We don’t like having our eyes covered.
But, for reasons we do not and, I believe, can not completely understand, God does cover our eyes. Partly it is just because in our humanity we can’t take in the fullness of God. I once heard a story about a man named Roger Crawford. He was born with a rare eye defect and lived the first 24 years of his life in total blindness. But at age 24, a team of highly skilled specialists performed a series of operations that allowed him to see with the help of special glasses. When Roger arrived home from the hospital he immediately set out to fulfill a lifelong dream: to stroll alone through the neighborhood he had grown up in, but had known only by touch and by sound.
After his first walk, he rushed back into the house, threw himself on his bed and buried his head in a pillow. His parents were extremely concerned. They wanted to know what had gone wrong. For a long time Roger was silent. Then with tears streaming down his face he said: “I just couldn’t take any more. The light hurt my eyes, but that wasn’t it so much as all of that beauty. There was just so much beauty all around me: I saw people, I looked into children’s faces, into old people’s faces. I saw trees and flowers and clouds and birds. There was just so much, and I couldn’t absorb anymore.”
So partly, God covers our eyes because we can only take in so much. Not knowing, not having all the wisdom of God, is part and parcel of what it means to be human. St. Paul hit the nail right on the head. “Now we see as in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now we know in part. Then we shall understand fully, even as we have been fully understood.” That’s the way it is. We may not always like it, but would you really change it if you could? Wouldn’t life would be pretty boring and pointless if we knew all the answers ahead of time? I can’t even imagine what that might be like, but we don’t’ have to worry because it isn’t like that. Our challenge is to live our lives in the best possible way using the knowledge that we do have. We don’t have all the foresight of God, but we do have hindsight. If we tune ourselves in to the Spirit—through prayer, worship, fellowship and bible study—we are sometimes granted insights of wisdom to help us with our immediate needs; we are given comfort by the promises of a blessed future; and, like Moses, we are sometimes granted powerful visions of God’s glory.
Dr. Ken Kaisch had a vision like that. In a book called “Finding God,” he talked about it this way.
“In my sophomore year of college, a fraternity brother spun out on a patch of black ice and wrapped his car around a tree. He died as the volunteer fire department tried to cut him free. For the first time in my life, a close friend had died, and the tragedy of it overwhelmed me. “What’s the use of trying, if you can be cut down, just like that, for no reason?” I wondered. For the first time, I felt my own vulnerability. I walked the cold streets that night asking over and over, “Why?” “Why Bert? He had so much to offer, and he was such a warm and gentle soul. Why, God, why?” I blamed the stupidity of it on God – who else was there to blame? I walked aimlessly raging, pointlessly questioning, grieving deeply.
“And in the middle of the night, on empty streets, what I took to be reality – everything in front of me, everything ordinary that I saw, the street, the quiet still trees, the sky – was peeled back as though it had been painted on a cloth and the cloth swept open like a theater curtain. I saw two angels holding the corners, with a vast space beyond. In this space, Bert appeared to me and said in his own voice and with his own words, “It’s okay, Ken, you don’t have to grieve so hard. I’m in a good place and I’m glad to be here. I don’t want to go back. I’m okay.” And with that, the angelic beings loosed their hands, the curtain fell back into place, and my conventional “reality” reappeared in front of me.
“I was stunned! I stood there for minutes, or maybe it was hours. When I recovered, I slowly made my way home, no longer feeling anger or grief. In place of those emotions I felt a deep sense of peacefulness. I knew that Bert was okay. There was no point in holding on to my own sorrow.
Now, I don’t know what you do with a story like that. If you’re open to it, it can be beautiful and inspiring. If you’re not, it might seem like Kaisch just made it all up. Personally, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it happened pretty much like he said it did. There are thousands of stories out there of people who have had mystical encounters, near death experiences, visions of God’s glory. I’ve had some myself. Just glimpses, I would say; but enough for me to know that God is real, that God truly was “in Christ,” and that God’s plan for us to embrace and carry on his mission of love to the world is not something that Saint Paul just made up out of whole cloth. The glory of God really is revealed in the life of Christ, and in the lives of those who pick up their own crosses and follow him.
I was talking last week about church growth and our concerns for the church’s future. Well, let me tell you; our concern should not be simply to keep the church running, simply to keep the doors open and the lights on. Our concern should be to keep the Spirit of God alive, in ourselves, in our church, and in all of the ministries of love and compassion that have been given into our hands. We are called to witness, through our words and deeds, to one another and to the world, that we believe in a God who cares about truth, about love, justice and peace among people; we believe that Jesus came to reveal the true nature of God’s grace and forgiveness and we believe that we have been given a part to play in making that grace visible to a world that suffers for the lack of it.
We have been entrusted with a ministry of grace. And in order to carry out that ministry faithfully, we need to remember. We need to remember what the glory of God is all about. Even though we can’t take it all in, like Moses, we can allow God’s glory to capture our hearts, and inspire our actions. We can remember those times in our lives when we have had our own glimpses of God, our own visions, our own experiences of God’s light shining in our darkness. And we can remember that it was a passion for God’s glory—for caring, loving, giving and trusting in God— that moved our forefathers and mothers to build this church in the first place. If we are concerned about saving our church, we should remember who we are. We are people who have been called according to God’s glory. Apart from the glory of God, there is no church to be saved.
Much as we sometimes might wish it were otherwise, we do not have access to all the fullness of God’s wisdom. God’s hand covers our eyes, as it were. Out of love and for the sake of our finite humanity, God has placed limits on what we are able to take in. But there are times in all of our lives when the glory of God passes by, and we are left with a sense of awe, beauty, wonder, harmony and peace even in the midst of our chaos and uncertainty. Like John Wesley, we too have had our hearts “strangely warmed.” We, too, have been touched by the glory of God. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be here.