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Between a Rock and a Hard Place
October 19, 2014
A Reading from Exodus:
Moses said to the LORD, “See, thou sayest to me, ‘Bring up this people’; but thou hast not let me know whom thou wilt send with me. Yet thou hast said, ‘I know you by name, and you have also found favor in my sight.’ Now therefore, I pray thee, if I have found favor in thy sight, show me now thy ways, that I may know thee and find favor in thy sight. Consider too that this nation is thy people.” And he said, “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.” And he said to him, “If thy presence will not go with me, do not carry us up from here. For how shall it be known that I have found favor in thy sight, I and thy people? Is it not in thy going with us, so that we are distinct, I and thy people, from all other people that are upon the face of the earth?” And the LORD said to Moses, “This very thing that you have spoken I will do; for you have found favor in my sight, and I know you by name.” Moses said, “I pray thee, show me thy glory.” And he said, “I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you my 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 man shall not see me and live.” And the LORD said, “Behold, there is a place by me where you shall stand upon the rock; nd 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.”
There are times in the life of congregations when events precipitate a period of uncertainty. Just as an example, say a long-serving senior pastor announces his retirement. Some people will be shocked, some will be sad, some upset, some may think: It’s about time. Whatever the reaction, it signals a significant change, and that change inevitably creates misgivings and apprehension.
Well, periods of uncertainty are familiar to people of faith. Time and again, scripture describes people caught up in some kind of transition. Surely, one of the most interesting examples is the passage we read this morning. Moses and the Israelites are in a state of panic. They are not only uncertain about their future, but more importantly they fear that God has abandoned them. The image of Moses hidden in the cleft of a rock is a metaphor for the plight of the Israelites. As you can imagine, from the cleft of a rock visibility is severely limited. Not much can be seen or known either about God or what lies ahead. Wedged in the crevasse of a rock is not a comfortable place to be, but it’s a place people of faith know well.
To understand the passage we read this morning, we have to back up to the events that precipitated the crisis Israel now faces. The book of Exodus tells the story of how God led the people out of Egypt. God had initiated a special relationship with them, calling them to be God’s “treasured possession,” a “priestly kingdom” and “a holy nation.” But then there was the fiasco with the golden calf. This disobedience threatened God’s covenantal relationship with Israel. In his commentary, Walter Brueggemann claims that what Israel is really experiencing is a “crisis of presence.” They were asking: Is God still with us? Are we still God’s special people, and can we count on God’s presence as we journey through this wilderness?” In the midst of such uncertainty, the text says that “the people were plunged into gloom and wore long faces.”
Now there may be some long faces in the congregation this morning. Of course, our situation is a far cry from that of Moses and the Israelites. We have not been caught dancing around a golden calf, or even—as far as I know—worshipping the orange cow in the Bevo lot next door. Nor are we facing forty years of wandering in the Sinai wilderness. Yet my announcement to retire next May does usher the congregation into a period of uncertainty. The coming change is unsettling for the congregation as well as for Jan and me. Thus, the question Moses and the Israelites were asking is the most important question we can ask: Can we count on God to lead us? Will God’s presence accompany us?
Clearly for Moses the question of God’s presence was absolutely critical. Accordingly, Moses made his prayer known to God. Our prayers to God tend to be deferential, submissive and polite. Not so with Moses. His approach to God is confrontational, insistent, and demanding. He demands that God be all that God has promised to be. For Moses, God’s presence is an all or nothing matter. Moses raises his voice praying: “Lord, you said that I am your special servant and we are your special people, so if we are so special, don’t you dare leave us. Either you go with, or let’s call off the whole journey right now.”
And apparently Moses gets God’s attention. God agrees to do everything Moses asked. “Okay, okay,” says God. “My presence will go with you. You are special to me. I know you by name.” Yet Moses isn’t satisfied. He presses God for more. He asks to see God’s glory. Moses wanted a full disclosure of God’s plans, and his wanted to know the very inner core of God’s being. He clamored for certainty. Sure, he had seen God in the burning bush, but now he wanted to know God in all God’s transcendent splendor. To use biblical shorthand: He wanted to see God face to face.
Surely that’s a desire that we may share, especially in times of crisis or uncertainty. Wouldn’t it ease our anxiety if we could know without question the plans that God has for us. Many people today yearn for a more intimate experience of God, one that could remove all ambiguity and uncertainty. Think how reassured we would be if we could just see God face to face. For that reason, we’re tempted to add our voice to Moses’ bold prayer to God: “Show me see your glory.”
But that’s the one request that God refuses grant. God doesn’t’ allow even Moses to peer into the hidden core of God’s own life. God is such an overpowering light that no human can gaze upon it and survive, any more than a person can stare at the sun without going blind. The Hebrew poet knew the limits of human perception when he declared: “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain it.” Not even Moses could penetrate the protective cover around the inscrutable mystery of God. “My face,” declares God to Moses, “you may not see.”
Yet what God does offer is a revelation of God’s character. God is merciful and kind, his goodness passes over everything that God has made. God instructs Moses to climb into the cleft of a rock. There, God says, my goodness will pass by. From that crevasse Moses will not be able to see the full glory of God, but he will see enough to know that God is good, and that God’s mercy and kindness will accompany the people to their journey’s end.
And that’s the reassurance that we have today. We don’t know all there is to know about God or about where God is leading us. But we do know that God’s goodness passes over us, passes through us and dwells within us. Therefore, this community will continue to do justice, love kindness, practice hospitality, and offer forgiveness; because God’s holy presence is in our midst.
Listen to these wise words by the contemplative Thomas Merton. He prayed: “God, how shall we begin to know who You are if we do not begin ourselves to be something of what You are?” Merton continued, “We receive enlightenment only in proportion as we give ourselves more and more completely to God by humble submission and love. We do not first see, then act: we act, then see…And that is why the person who waits to see clearly, before he will believe, never starts on the journey.”
Friends, like Moses wedged in the cleft of a rock, we find ourselves in a place of uncertainty. From where we stand today, we cannot see every plan that God has for us, and we cannot comprehend the full splendor of God’s being. But like the Israelites in the wilderness, we journey into the future in the assurance that God’s presence goes with us.