[Photo: Libby Hedrick]
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.
I have never preached on this passage of Exodus. I remember reading this incident and being somewhat perplexed by this passage since just a few verses before this, Moses is sitting and talking face to face with God. It is most likely a different strain of the Mosaic tradition but that isn’t the purpose of this story.
The purpose of this story is to remind God of his covenant with the Hebrew people and for God to remind Moses that he is God.
Quibbling seems to be part of the Hebrew character: The snake quibbles with Adam and Eve, Abraham quibbles with God re. Sodom and Gomorrah. It is a wonderful literary device to show that God interacts with humanity. In this passage it is Moses who reminds God of God’s promise to be with them in the desert. And Moses goes on and wants God to show him his glory—[Heb.] Kabowd. It can also mean God’s face. And God responds with being willing to show all God’s goodness but the face of God is too much for Moses to see and live. So he hides Moses in the cleft of a rock and ‘walks past’ and only his back parts are seen.
I have known the presence of God in my life but I have never seen God’s ‘face’ either. I could never know the entirety of God—it is beyond my comprehension. But most of the times when I have experienced God in my life, it has nearly always been in hindsight. Sometimes I have known ‘a presence, or something motivating me to do the right thing, say the good thing, be the just person when in sticky situations, but generally I am only aware of God’s presence in the aftermath of a particular situation.
And now those moments, those experiences of Divine Presence have an iconic place in my life. They become the ‘Stones of Witness’ in my life that remind me of God’s holy presence that are downright palpable today.
I can remember quite clearly the evening when I finally surrendered to the love of God although it did not feel so overwhelming at the time. But I can look at that moment in my memory and claim that as God’s addressing me face-to-face. I did not hear any voice from heaven. I did not see any vision. But afterward, I knew something had happened. I did not go weeping out of the church. I did not go home utterly changed. But I was changed over time. Part of that change was by my own hard work. But the desire to change was rooted in that evening’s prayer. I no longer wanted to be angry at the world. I no longer wanted to blame the world for whatever was wrong in my life. And I began to see my life as much more blessed just as it was. It was the change from being half-empty to being half-full.
Hindsight is the way that we know the presence of God in our lives. We like Moses, may quibble with the Lord; we may even be able to see the goodness of the Holy in our lives. But we seldom really know the power of God in our lives until we look back.
Like the disciples after the Resurrection we say “were our hearts not burning as we open scriptures and broke the bread?” We often see someone helping us and not realize it was Christ until many years later. I can claim a lot of those ‘christs’ in my life over the years, some of them sitting next to me and some of them writing emails to me across thousands of miles.
I always laugh when people call me liberal—I am one both politically and theologically, but all people of faith are at heart conservatives because we look back. We stand in history because it is the past that confirms our future. It is in hindsight that we know the power of God in our lives. And contrary to being stick-in-the-mudds, we are people of vision because God has been allowed to be a part of that past-present-future walk.
Moses saw the glory of God and saw the back of the Lord. And so it is with us all. It might pay to just look back upon our lives and find those places where God has walked with us in our deserts and give thanks. AMEN