Our scripture passage for today was actually the lectionary selection for last week, when we were still examining the Ten Commandments story. Ordinarily I’d just move on to whatever passages are on the calendar for this week. But, the story of Moses’ meeting with God that we read a minute ago just kept lingering in my thoughts.
A lot has happened in the time between God’s announcing of the Ten Commandments and this conversation between God and Moses. God had given Moses lots more instructions to pass along to the Israelites, expanding on the commandments (especially on the sabbath). God had spelled out details on things like interpersonal relations, property rights, restitution and justice, religious practice—just about everything a group of people would need to become a cohesive community. God also made a promise to send an angel to lead Israel in its conquests and drive out the occupants of the land Israel had been promised.
Moses had relayed all these instructions to the people and, just as they had the first time, they promised their obedience: “Everything the Lord has spoken we will do.” Then Moses baptized them in the blood of oxen and read all God’s words to them again. Again, they pledged their obedience: “All the words that the Lord has spoken we will do.” Shortly after that, God summoned Moses again and, in a forty-day-long meeting, God gave Moses the building specs for the tabernacle, the design of the priests’ garments, the rules for offerings, and yet another reminder of how the sabbath was to be observed. The meeting ended with God giving Moses the commandments written on two tablets of stone.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, the Israelites were getting restless. Moses was nowhere to be found, and he’d been gone a long time. They hadn’t heard any more from God, either. The people figure both are missing in action, and they pretty quickly forget those commandments they had so enthusiastically agreed to, especially the one about having no other gods. They confront Moses’ brother Aaron, who’d been left in charge. “Make us some gods to go before us, since we haven’t seen hide nor hair of Moses or God.” Aaron complied. He told the Israelites to give him all their gold. He melted it down and made the infamous golden calf. The people began celebrating wildly and noisily.
On the mountain, God observes what is happening and tells Moses he’d better get down there and straighten those people out. God is really mad and tells Moses that the people are toast. But Moses challenges God on this, reminding God that it was God’s idea to make these people a holy nation. God reconsiders, and Moses goes down the mountain to deal with the situation.
Now it’s Moses’ turn to be mad. He sees for himself what the people are doing and, in that famous fit of anger, he throws the tablets down and they break. Moses imposes some harsh consequences and then returns to the Lord. Moses begs God to forgive the people. But, in the manner of a true leader, he doesn’t try to preserve his own interests if God won’t forgive them. Instead, he’s willing to be punished right along with them.
God makes it clear that God will keep up God’s end of the covenant, giving the people the land that had been promised and an angel to lead them. But, the people will be punished for their unfaithfulness. And, God will no longer accompany them in person. This news causes great mourning among the now-repentant people.
Moses again talks with God. But, this time, the meeting’s not on a mountaintop concealed by smoke. It’s in the tent that Moses would erect outside each campsite. It’s where Moses would regularly go to talk with God, where a pillar of cloud stood at the doorway to indicate that God was present. The writer of Exodus tells us that, in the tent, the Lord would “speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend.” It’s there that we hear the conversation that we read today.
Scholars have had lots to say about this conversation. They describe it as something like a courtroom, where Moses challenges and debates and negotiates with God. But that’s not what’s kept this passage on my mind and heart this week. What touches my heart is the emotion I hear in Moses’ words. It’s the aching need to have some evidence that God is, and has been, and will be present in this undertaking that has consumed Moses’ life. It’s the fear that God will give up on the whole enterprise, and Moses knows that he and the people are doomed without God’s guidance and protection. It’s not Moses’ extraordinary boldness or leadership or negotiating skills that draws me to this story. It’s the naked cry to God of an ordinary man in the midst of really hard times.
Moses says to God, “You’re the one who told me to bring these people out of Egypt. You said I’ve found favor in your sight and you know my name, but you aren’t telling me who will go with me if you don’t. These are your people, and the only thing that marks them as your people is your presence. So please, God, don’t send us out without you. And please, please, PLEASE God, “show me your ways, so that I may know you and find favor in your sight.”
Oh, the heart-ache of this plea—the plea of a man who has a huge challenge before him and knows that he can’t meet it without God’s presence and guidance. The plea of a man who feels the weight of responsibility for the wellbeing of others. I imagine that all of Moses’ insecurities about his ability to do this job come flooding back—how he had told God in the first place that he didn’t have the skills or the credibility to lead these people. But, he had said yes to God, trusting that God doesn’t call the equipped, but equips the called. Now he needs to know and to see that God is still with him and his people, and his need pours out of his aching and anxious heart.
I’ve been thinking about the times in my life when I’ve felt the same way—the times when I’ve had a big challenge before me and didn’t know how I could get through it or even if I could get through it. I remember a particularly difficult time during my mother’s descent into Alzheimer’s when I wondered how or if I could continue to meet her ever-increasing and impossible-to-satisfy needs—when each day seemed darker and harder than the last with no end in sight. I felt completely unequipped to help her through the growing fog of dementia that grew thicker every day. I was exhausted by every encounter and each new obstacle.
I never believed that God had saddled us with that situation on purpose, as God had specifically called Moses to his. But, I did sometimes feel a fearful about what would happen if I couldn’t count on God to be there with us. I believed that God knew my name, but like Moses, I needed some recognizable assurance that that was true.
I’m guessing that you’ve had some of those moments, too. When you’ve faced the fact that someone you love will soon be claimed by death. When you’ve spent your days in the thankless and exhausting tasks of caring for a loved one who no longer can respond to your care. When you’ve gotten the diagnosis that begins the battle for your very life. When you’ve had to keep going in the midst of a crisis, knowing that others depend on you—whether it’s your employees, or your students, your family or your friends, or all those who need what you provide in your business or from your land or your home. The job seems too big, and your resources and abilities seem so small, and all you can do is pray to God, “If I’ve found favor in your sight, show me your ways.”
In response to Moses’ prayer, God assures Moses that he has found favor in God’s sight. God does know his name. God will do what Moses has asked: God will be present with Moses and his people. But, Moses finds that even that isn’t enough to satisfy the longing in his heart. He needs what we all need sometimes—something tangible, something visible, a landmark we can look to when we feel like we’re losing our way. Moses makes one more plea to God: “Show me your glory, I pray.” He prays as the psalmist does in Psalm 27: “Your face, Lord, do I seek. Do not hide your face from me.”
God grants Moses almost all that he asks for. All of God’s goodness will pass before Moses. God will speak God’s own name, affirming that it is indeed God who is passing. God promises grace and mercy, given with justice. But seeing God’s face is not a safe option for human beings. Seeing the full glory of God face-to-face will have to wait until that day when we no longer see in a mirror dimly. So, God will protect Moses by placing Moses in a safe place and covering Moses with God’s own hand. Then, after God has passed, God will take the hand away, and Moses will be able to see God’s back.
We, like Moses, often see only God’s back. When we’re in the thick of hard times, we may not be able to see where God is. But, later, we can see where God was. We look back at the note from a friend that assured us we weren’t alone. We remember the nursing home aide or the hospice nurse or the neighbor who offered an arm, an ear, or a shoulder when we needed to cry. We recall the stranger who extended an unexpected kindness that restored our faith in others. We reflect on words we heard or read that spoke directly into our circumstances and gave us the courage to go on. God is always present, passing right in front of us, often on the form or word or touch of others. But we may only recognize it after God has passed by.
God keeps us in a safe place, even when that place seems to conceal more than it reveals. That safe place is constructed of hope and grace and the peace that passes all understanding. It’s constructed of God’s steadfast love in Jesus Christ, from which St. Paul reminds us “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation” can separate us. Our longing to see God’s glory is a longing we share with all those who have gone before us, and God continues to answer that longing. All we need to do is wait patiently as God passes by and then look to see where God has been. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young