Exodus 33:7-11a, 18-23
The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
March 22, 2020
Calm people of faith can say: “I don’t know what the future holds; I just know who holds the future.”
Knowing God leads to knowing peace even in uncertain and dangerous times.
Moses had experienced many uncertain and dangerous times. He had challenged Pharaoh, the leader of the superpower of his day, and courted death. He had led his people into a desert wilderness, and almost got himself executed by stoning. Now, after severely punishing the people for betraying their God for a golden calf, he had to feel at risk and nervous about what would happen next – and certainly about whether he could trust his people, even though they had repented and for the present improved.
In that uncertain and dangerous situation, I can’t imagine how Moses could have any peace except by trusting God. And I don’t how he could trust God except by knowing God. And I don’t know how he could truly know God except by keeping close to God.
Now Moses, Exodus 33 says, used to take the tent and pitch it outside the camp, far off from the camp. To renew his connection with God and develop their relationship, Moses regularly got away from everyone else just to be with God alone, one-on-one. He called it the tent of meeting, for there the two of them would meet and their friendship would deepen.
For us to know peace in hard times, we have to do what Moses did. We have to, if only for a few minutes a day, spend time with God and no one else – to hear Him out and to invite Him into our fears and our hopes.
Because he developed a deep relationship with God, Moses drew to himself others who yearned to have even something of his kind of relationship with God. Exodus says, Everyone who sought the Lord would go out to the tent of meeting. While I doubt any of them dared to hope that the cloud of God’s presence would descend upon them as it did with Moses or that God would speak with them as He did with Moses, people longing to connect with God went to Moses’ tent to receive some of the godly wisdom and inner strength he gained there.
I would love it if we would in these days of social distancing employ the ways still available to us – perhaps the old-fashioned ones such as phone calls and handwritten notes, or perhaps the newer ones such as text messaging and Facebook posting– to connect with those who, while far from being 2020 versions of Moses, can help us connect more with God.
Moses of course had a uniquely deep and vivid connection with God. Exodus says: The Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend.
Since God does not have a physical face, we must interpret this as a poetic way of describing the intimacy, openness and freedom of communication between God and Moses. I would guess that from Moses’s side it meant that Moses did not pose or pretend before God, that Moses was completely honest with God, that he brought out with God even what made Moses ashamed or hurt God’s heart. I would guess that from God’s side it meant that God was also intimate, open and free with Moses – that God brought up with Moses what might cause his prophet shame or hurt his heart, that God gave Moses the unvarnished truth, and that God shared with Moses many of His plans and dreams.
I think that, if we kept up our relationship with God, God would, though maybe not at the same level, share with us like that, and we would be the better for it: able to believe that He is working in all things for good, that He is using these present troubles to improve us, and that He is by them clarifying for us what really matters.
At any rate, Moses knew God really well. Yet Moses wanted to know God still better. Moses knew God well enough to know that there was always more of God’s wonderfulness yet to know. So Moses asked God, Exodus tells us, Show me your glory, I pray.
God answered, I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you the name, “The Lord”. Note the Lord did not promise to grant Moses exactly what He requested. Though Moses asked to see God’s glory, God said He would show him His goodness. While His goodness – that is, His kindness and generosity – is part of His glory, God’s glory encompasses a lot more than His goodness.
God also responded by promising to do something Moses hadn’t exactly asked for: God would proclaim to Moses the name “the Lord”, the name Moses had been introduced to years before at the burning bush.
Now, for us today, a name has a shallow connection to a person. My parents called me Robert, but they could have slapped any name on me and it wouldn’t have mattered much. In Moses’ day, a name served as a sacred, irreplaceable reference to someone’s inner core and deepest identity. The name “the Lord” here is not a synonym for “the master” or “the ruler”, but the unique word for God that was so holy a pious Jew would not say it out loud, a word that spoke of the reality Moses first encountered years before, now cherished more than any other, and yet still was trying to get his head around. Moses, who in his day knew God better than anyone else, realized that, while he knew God truly, He still did not know completely. Moses saw that there was no end to how great and good this God is.
God meant for Moses to know Him better and better, but God also meant for Moses to bear in mind that He would not know God better because he was a better person than others. He would know God better on a surer and more promising foundation than that: as a gift of undeserved favor that God on His own decided to give entirely of His own initiative, just for the fun of it, just for the love of Moses. God said to Moses, I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. God’s blessings come as a product of His sovereign, unearned choice, in a generosity totally out of proportion to anyone’s merit – and that gives everyone more reason to hope than ever could their own virtue or record of ethical or spiritual achievement.
But out of His goodness, God has to limit His gift. God is still more than even Moses could have handled. For God to let Moses see His glory as much as he wanted would be as cruel as our letting a goldfish have all the fish food it has a hunger for. It would have overloaded Moses’ system and caused the prophet to explode. Moses, like any mortal, could never advance in his knowledge of God in one giant leap.
So God restricted the revelation. God told him, You cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live…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 a 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.
Here again is the language of poetry. “Face” here does not mean what it did before. The face to face conversation between God and Moses, spoken of earlier, indicates their closeness and openness with each other. Here the “face” of God indicates an open-ended display of God’s essence – unmediated, unmoderated and mortally dangerous. The full fire of God’s holiness would blow Moses up; the full light of God’s truth would blind him; the full majesty of God’s splendor would kill him.
So, in an expression of God’s goodness, of God’s loving protectiveness over Moses, God kept Moses from seeing His face and only let him see His back – but that is what one most needs to see of a Guide one is following, like Moses, through the valley of the shadow of death.
We are travelling through such a valley now. But God is still good, and God is still great, and God is still in control, and God is still going to be gracious and merciful to whom He will be will be gracious and merciful, and God is still going to do such wonderful things in the valley that one day we will find gratitude for this hard and horrible road. Let us pray.