Trinitarian Congregational Church 23rd Sunday after Pentecost
Anthony S. Kill November 12, 2017
Texts: Exodus 33:1-23
I am fascinated by some of the conversations that go on between Moses and God in the book of Exodus. They are amazing.
In Exodus, God is portrayed as the mighty, magnificent, awesome, all-powerful Divinity, the savior and protector of the Hebrew people.
You remember the story of the Burning Bush where God first calls Moses and charges him to go back to Egypt and lead the people out, and the ten plagues that God sends on Pharaoh and the Egyptians till they let the Hebrews go, and the parting of the Red Sea to let the Hebrew children pass, and destroy the armies of Egypt?
But God is also anthropomorphized in Exodus (that means God is described with very human characteristics and behaviors) and sometimes God is portrayed as hot-tempered, impulsive, over-sensitive, forgetful and even fickle.
Moses is God’s chosen leader and deliverer of the Hebrew people but sometimes Moses gets into arguments with God, in order to protect the people from God.
When the people got out of Egypt and into the wilderness, they started to grumble about the lack of food and water, and they whined that they’d been better off as slaves in Egypt, and they complained that God has led them out into this wilderness to die, and finally, while Moses was up on Mount Sinai getting the tablets of the covenant, they got Aaron to make them a Golden Calf as a god to lead them, and they had an orgy of food and drink and revel before the Golden Calf.
When God sees that the people are worshipping a golden calf, God tells Moses up on the mountain, “Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely; they have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them; they have cast for themselves an image of a calf, and have worshiped it and sacrificed to it.
I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are.
Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you (Moses) I will make a great nation.”
God wrath flares, and he wants to “consume the people.”
God’s gonna eat them for breakfast!
And then Moses stands up to God.
He won’t accept God’s offer to save him alone, but destroy the people.
Instead, he starts to argue and bargain with God: “O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against YOUR people, whom YOU brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand?
“They’re not just my people! They’re your people. It was your choice and power that saved them.”
And Moses goes on, and reminds God of the covenant promises God made to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people Moses would not let God disown God’s own chosen people, nor would Moses disown them or distance himself from them.
He would not let himself be triangulated, and he wouldn’t even let God triangulate between him and the people.
They were all in this together, or not at all.
And that’s the first lesson I take from today’s text.
We’re all in this together in God’s church.
We are God’s people on a pilgrimage..
Even in times of conflict or distress, there is no “us” versus “them”.
It’s never the pastor versus the people, or the Council versus the congregation, or the Mission budget versus the Trustee’s budget,
We in the churches are one people on this pilgrimage with God, seeking to know and follow the will of God.
Sometimes we may get sidetracked or weary or lose our way; sometimes we may be fearful that we don’t have enough resources to get where we want to go but we’re all in this together, and there’s no “either/or”, no ‘us’ versus ‘them’.
Back to the text: The bargaining goes on.
Moses continues to contend with God.
The Lord changed his mind that one time, but after the Golden Calf incident, God says 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.
Go up to a land flowing with milk and honey.
I will send an angel before you, and I will drive out (your enemies).
But I will not go up among you, or I would consume you on the way, for you are a stiff-necked people.”
Did you get that? God’s fierce wrath still smolders, and maybe God doesn’t trust his own impulses and God knows the people will sin and fail again, so God says, ‘I will send you to the promised land, but I won’t go with you, because if I go with you, I’ll have to kill you!
You’re better off without me.’
But then Moses says, in effect, “That’s not good enough.”
‘We don’t want no promised land without you, God.
Forget the milk and honey.
If you will not go with us, we’re not going anywhere.’
“If your presence will not go, do not carry us up from here.”
Moses insists that if God isn’t their leader, then they have no place to go.
No promised land would be good enough, if God wasn’t with them.
There wasn’t enough milk and honey in the world to make up for the absence of God’s presence.
I think there’s a huge message for us in that as well.
If we have difficulties, if we’re flailing and fearful about the future, if we’re looking desperately for solutions, our first guiding principle has to be, “Don’t go anywhere without God”.
You could develop the best financial business model or rescue plan in the world; you could launch an evangelism program that would bring all the unchurched of North Andover to your doors, but if these weren’t done under God’s guidance and with a prayerful ear for God’s presence, they would mean nothing.
Let’s not go anywhere without God.
Back to the text: Again the Lord relents, and says, “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.”
There is a Jewish commentary on the Torah (the Torah is the first five books of the Bible, also known as “The five books of Moses”.)
The title of the commentary is Etz Hayim, Hebrew for “The Tree of Life”
Anyway, I like the way the Jewish commentary translates that passage.
Instead of “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.” God says, “I will go in the lead, and I will lighten your burden.”
If we let God take the lead, and remember it’s not all up to us,it will indeed lighten our burden.
And then, the text says, Moses gets even more bold, and asks God for one more favor: “Show me your glory, I pray.”
He asks to see full-on the Radiant Presence of the awesome living God.
Of course, that’s more than any human could bear to see.
Who can see the face of God and live? So the Lord compromises.
God agrees to set Moses in the cleft of the rock, and cover Moses with God’s hand to protect him.
He can’t see the Glory of God face to face, but God will let Moses see God’s back.
Isn’t that a curious image!
Moses can’t see God’s face, but God will let him see God’s back.
Does God have a “face”? No. Not physically, no.
Does God have hands? Not literally, no.
Does God have a “backside”? I don’t think so!
So what does this mean? What is Moses supposed to see?
What Moses cannot see is the fullness of the Being of God.
What Moses can see is the after-effects of where God has been.
Etz Hayim, that Jewish commentary, calls it “the afterglow of God’s supernatural radiance.”
“The afterglow of God’s supernatural radiance.”
What might that be?
What are the signs of “the afterglow of God’s radiance?”
I think the text tells us.
God answered Moses’ request to see God’s glory by saying: “I will make all my goodness pass before you, and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy.”
God is telling Moses, “You will see the afterglow of that. You will see the effects of my goodness, and graciousness, and mercy. And you will know that I have been present, and I have passed by.”
We can’t see God directly, but we can recognize God’s presence by noticing the difference God has made in people’s lives.
There may be times when, like Moses in the cleft of that rock, we can’t see or feel God’s presence. We’re in the darkness, as though God’s hand is in front of our face, and we see nothing, we sense nothing of Divine presence.
But then, later, if we clear our eyes, we will see God’s trail in the afterglow, when we sense that somehow, sometime when we weren’t looking, God has passed by and touched our lives.
Can we tail God? Can we see the trail of where God has passed by?
Can you look through the story of your life, and see the evidence, see the trail-markers, see the after-glow of where God has touched your life?
Can you walk through the story of your congregation and see the evidence, see the trail-markers, see the afterglow of where God’s presence has been?
Where amazing grace has been? Where extravagant welcome has been?
Where love has been taught, and hearts have been healed, and sins have been forgiven, and lives have been transformed?
When we can see signs of those things, we can tell that God has just passed by, and we can still see and taste and smell the afterglow of God’s glory, like the clean, electric charge in the air after a summer rain.
And then we can be assured that God will surely continue to lead us, and lighten our load. Amen.