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The Reverend Matt Gaventa
October 22, 2017
Exodus 33:1-3, 11-23
A Reading from Exodus:
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.”
…Thus the Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend. Then he would return to the camp; but his young assistant, Joshua son of Nun, would not leave the tent.
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.”
You are on a bus. Not a city bus. Not a school bus. You are on a tour bus, one of those nice tour buses with the high leather seats and the pull-down trays and maybe there’s even an entertainment system built into the seat-back. You’ve dropped your suitcase in the storage bin underneath, you’ve climbed up the narrow stairs into the main cabin, past the driver behind the wheel as wide as your house, and you’ve excitedly found your way to a seat with a big window view of the world outside. After all, let’s say this is a big deal. You are with friends and family and you all have chartered this bus and you all have traveled someplace new for the very first time. Let’s say you are going to see New York City for the very first time, you and your closest family and friends, and so you’ve landed at Newark Airport in the industrial suburbs of New Jersey, and you could see the Manhattan skyline as the plane made its final turn before the approach, and you all came through the airport, and you all got on the bus, and you all are bursting with excitement.
And the best part is, this is a guided tour. Because you didn’t just hire a bus driver, you hired the best New York City tour guide that money could buy. She’s been working with you all from the very beginning, and she’s got the itinerary all set. As she navigates the bus through the airport loading zone, she tells you about the elevator to the top of the Empire State Building, where you can see the whole world below you. As she makes her way onto the New Jersey Turnpike, she describes the sights and sounds of Times Square, the Broadway marquees stretching off into the distance. As she turns into the Lincoln Tunnel, she promises you dinner on the steps of the Metropolitan Museum, a street vendor hot dog while you watch the world go by. You don’t even have to worry about a thing — not even the logistics of getting that big bus up and down the New York Avenues. You can just sit back and relax. Until the unexpected happens. About halfway through the tunnel, the bus driver just pulls over to the side of the road, which is frowned upon, but here we are, and the driver stands up and turns to you all and says, “Well, that about wraps it up for me. New York is just out the other side of the tunnel. Y’all enjoy your visit.” at which point she walks out of the door, hails a cab, and rides away.
And now you are still on a bus. But you are in a tunnel. In the dark. And nobody knows how to get the thing out of first gear. And nobody knows where you would take it even if you could get it out of first gear. And for sure nobody knows how to navigate that big bus through the streets of Manhattan even if you knew where you were trying to go and even if you could get the thing out of first gear, which you can’t. And I submit to you that however you feel about this bus driver in this moment of your hypothetical life is just about how Moses feels about God in this bit of the story from the later chapters of Exodus. It has been going so well. It has all been going according to plan. They’ve been traveling together for so long. I mean, sure, there have been a few bumps along the way, but all in all, God has had this trip well in hand; God knows the way; God’s brought snacks; God has got them all set up with the land of milk and honey. God and Moses have gotten pretty close; the text says that God “used to speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend.” And then one day, just as they’re getting close to the end, one day God just walks out. “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 granted, God’s not wrong. If we’re honest, Israel has been a bit stiff-necked. For a month now we’ve been preaching through story after story of Israel being a bit stiff-necked: God brings them out of slavery and they complain. God gives them food and water and they complain. God and Moses go away for half a minute and they totally lose their minds. It’s been a little bumpy. But still, there was an understanding. We had a deal: we complain; you bring us to the Promised Land. And we call it the Promised Land because you promised it to us. We kinda assumed that when you promised it to us you meant that you were going to come with us and, you know, show us around, give us the tour, make sure there’s enough room for the kids. There’s an expectation of basic hospitality embedded in this being the Promised Land which you promised and now instead we’re stuck in a bus on the side of the Lincoln Tunnel and nobody knows how to drive it and nobody knows where to go and it’s dark.
And so Moses is unhappy. Moses gets on the phone with the driver. “Look, I thought we had something special. You said I had found favor in your sight. I thought I meant something to you. I thought we all meant something to you. And moreover, I mean, doesn’t this look bad for you, too?” Moses gets a little conniving when he gets anxious. He starts playing to God’s own sense of pride. “How shall it be known that I have found favor in your sight, I and your people, unless you go with us?” You don’t want us to look bad in front of all the other nations, do you? I mean, someone’s gonna come along and find this bus hanging out on the shoulder and someone’s gonna start asking questions and do you really want them to start asking questions I mean no one’s gonna want you for a bus driver ever again. And so God relents. God agrees. “I will I will do the very thing that you have asked; I will make all my goodness pass before you.” But there’s a price. Moses pays a price for his insistence. “But,” God says, “You cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.” No more face-time for God and Moses. “You shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.”
And so God becomes invisible. This is one of those turning points in the Exodus story; after this moment, there’s no more pillar of cloud, there’s no more pillar of smoke, no more chummy meetings with Moses, no more weekend getaways up the mountain. From here on out, Israel will have to do the hard work, from here on out, Israel will have to go on faith; from here on out, they’ll have to believe in a God that they can’t see. They’ll have to stay on this journey, they’ll have to seek out this promised land, they’ll have to follow this covenant, they’ll have to keep going no matter the darkness, they’ll have to do all of this without God there for them to literally look up to, without God there for a quick check-in, without God there to light the way and show the path. Stop me when that sounds familiar. Stop me when you start rolling your eyes, like “Yeah, big deal. That’s just the way this works.” We pray to a God we can’t see. We listen for the words of a God we can’t see. We try to follow the rules of a God we can’t see. We worship a God we can’t see, we love a God we can’t see, we put our hopes a God we’ve never seen face-to-face. The truth is we’ve grown quite used to this particular state of affairs. The truth we are a strange audience for this story — because we’ve been sitting in this bus, in the dark, for longer than any of us can remember.
But of course we’re not the first ones to read this story in the dark. In fact the most important audience for any of these Exodus stories are the generations of Israelites who learned them in Exile, who learned them in Babylon, who learned them centuries later after Jerusalem had fallen and after the kingdom had fallen and during a time when God had so visibly left them stranded. Imagine, for a moment, hearing these Exodus stories in Babylon. Hearing of a God who brought the people out of a strange land with signs and wonders, but there are no signs and wonders in Babylon. No manna in the wilderness. No pillars of smoke and cloud. No evidence. If those stories are going to have any kind of credibility, any kind of traction, then they have to account for the difference between the God of those stories and the God of this darkness. And so we have this text, one of those stories that sets out to explain how the world got to be the way it is. How the leopard got its spots. How the turtle got its shell. How God become invisible. The story of why God became invisible. And as jarring as it may have felt to Moses and his tribe, for a later generation in exile this story is profoundly good news, because it says: just because you can’t see God, doesn’t mean God’s not there.
Just because you can’t see God, doesn’t mean God’s not there. For a generation in exile, huddling in the shadow of Babylon, reading this story together, the Gospel is, just because we can’t see God, doesn’t mean God’s not there; just because we can’t see God, doesn’t mean God’s not here. For a generation lost in exile, the way they remind themselves of God’s presence is: they come together, and they read this story. And of course as Christians we read this story our own distinctive stories of God coming and going and coming again, of God who showed up in the person of Jesus Christ and then departed once again and then on that Epiphany morning sent the Holy Spirit to rest on each every one of us. But at the end of the day the Gospel is much the same: just because you can’t see God, doesn’t mean God’s not there; and, more to the point, if need to remember, if you need to feel God, if you need to sense God, if you need some hint of the faint outline of God just at the far edge of your peripheral vision, if you need some reminder of what God looks like, of what God sounds like, of what the pillar of smoke smells like, of what the wilderness air feels like, of what the manna tastes like, come join in the great congregation of people who read this story. Come join in the great family of people who share this story. Where two or three gather to hear this story. There, here, you may find some faint outline of the invisible God.
This is a different kind of bus altogether. It is not luxurious. There’s no plush leather, no seat-back entertainment system. It’s a lot scrappier. It’s a lot creakier. This bus has been in this tunnel for a long time. It’s not as young as it once was, and the engine heaves and haws, and the thing hisses and moans and sighs like a great beast, and we’ve been on this bus a long time. We’re a lot scrappier than used to be. We’re a lot creakier than we used to be. We’ve been in this tunnel for a long time, we’ve been used to the dark for a long time, and sometimes it feels like we’ve just stopped moving altogether. But still. These people. This congregation. These passengers. All of us, each of us, each for the other, here in the dark, we are for each other the presence of the living God. We are for each other the communion of all the saints; we are for each other the promise of the kingdom yet to come; we are for each other the story of the faithfulness of God that begins in the dark and lives here in the dark and waits in the dark with urgent impatience for the breaking-in of the light that comes not quickly enough but it will come. It will break forth like the dawn. It will be the whole city of God, its gates flung open.
For now, we wait. I wait with you, and you wait with me, and we all wait with anxious certainty, and we all wait alongside the faithfulness of God, who waits with us, and who waits for us, and who has been waiting for us, even from the beginning. Amen.