Sermon from October 19th, 2014. The text for this week was Exodus 33:12-23.
The Present Mystery
At the beginning of chapter 33 of the Book of Exodus, God makes a change in the plan of how the people will enter in to the land of Canaan. “Go up to a land flowing with milk and honey,” God says, “but I will not go up among you, or I would consume you on the way, for you are a stiff-necked people.” Up until this point, God has been present among the people in the wilderness. There had been a tent, and when Moses wanted to speak with God, he would go to the tent of meeting, and the pillar of cloud would descend upon the tent, and Moses would speak with God face to face. God and Moses had even been planning a more permanent installation, the tabernacle, through which God would always be present with the people. But following the Golden Calf incident, something had broken in the relationship between God and the people.
The Golden Calf had exposed the difficult reality of the relationship between humanity and God. It is the reality of any relationship, which is that if it is a real, meaningful, deep relationship, we have the power to hurt each other. It is no secret, of course, that God can hurt the people. It was not that long before that God Godself passed through the land of Egypt, killing every firstborn. Only the blood of the Passover lamb, spread across the doorframe, established the Hebrew people as distinct from the Egyptians, and God spared them. But it becomes clear with the Golden Calf that we are not the only ones who can be hurt. God feels the sting of the people’s betrayal so strongly that God withdraws, separates Godself from the people lest God’s righteousness consume them. And thus God decides to send an angel to guide them into the Promised Land. The tent of meeting will be left empty.
For Moses and the people, this felt like a significant downgrade. This was especially true for Moses, who wouldn’t have even begun this crazy adventure if not for the promise at the burning bush: “I will be with you” And so Moses goes out to argue with God. Arguing with God is a great biblical tradition. Abraham does it, and David, and Elijah and Jeremiah, all of them argue with God. They say what they think and what they feel and they don’t tone it down or pretend everything is okay when it is not. It’s a shame, in my opinion, that we have largely lost this tradition. Nowadays we’re more likely to be told that we should be happy with what we have from God and not ask for more. But not asking for more in this case would have left the people with an empty tent. They would no longer be distinct and blessed above all other peoples.
So Moses goes to argue with God. And Moses is a good negotiator. There’s a story in the Muslim tradition, that Muhammad went up to see God, and passed Moses on his way back down. He told Moses that God had told him and his followers to pray 50 times a day. Moses tells him that’s never going to work, you’re people won’t pray 50 times a day, it’s too much (Moses had some experience working with stiff-necked people). So Muhammad goes back up, and comes down and says, “Well I got it down to forty.” Still not good enough, says Moses. And so it goes that the number of prayers goes down to thirty, then twenty, and then ten, and finally five times a day. And Moses still says it’s too much. But Muhammad, perhaps feeling bad about asking for so much leniency, says, “No, five will be fine, I’ve haggled enough,” and that’s the story of why Muslims pray five times a day. But the implication of the story is that if Moses had been negotiating, he would have had it down to three, or maybe even one. The point is that even a thousand years after our story was written, Moses was still famous for being a great negotiator.
And Moses is a great negotiator. He argues with God like a husband or wife. He brings up the past. He throws all of God’s words back at God. You said “Bring up these people,” but you won’t go with me? You said “I know you by name and you have found favor in my sight.” But if I have “found favor in your sight” then show me your ways, so that I can find “favor in your sight.” And by the way, don’t forget, God, that this nation is your people. You brought them out from Egypt. They’re your responsibility.
And God relents. “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.” But Moses keeps pushing. “If your presence won’t go with us, don’t take us up from here. For how will anyone know that we are your people unless you go with us? Your presence is what makes us unique above all other people.”
And God says, “I’ll do exactly as you asked.” But Moses still keeps pushing. “Show me, your glory,” he says. And here is where God draws the line. “I will make my goodness pass before you,” God says. “But I will be gracious when I want to be gracious, and I will show mercy when I want to show mercy. But you cannot see my face” It’s here where we see that God is still God. God is still the ultimate, ineffable mystery, not tame by any means, but holy and mighty and great.
When God sets this boundary with Moses and says, “I will go with you, but you cannot see my face,” it becomes clear that the nature of the relationship has not changed. God is still God, as holy and righteous and powerful as ever. And we are still us, stubborn and stiff-necked as we’ll ever be. The dynamic between the people and God that existed at the beginning of the story, where the people and God are vulnerable to each other, is still there. God’s righteousness still cannot abide our stubborn sinfulness.
But God has chosen to be present with us knowing that God will be hurt by us. We are still vulnerable to God, and God is still vulnerable to us. To be in this relationship is a risk. But we learn in this story that God is willing to run that risk, the risk of suffering on our account. And the rest of the Bible accounts the many ways in which that has happened, all the way up to Calgary. The question is, are we?
Are we willing to run the risk of a real relationship with God? Are we willing to be open and honest with God, bare our hearts and ask the real questions on our heart? Are we willing to argue with God, to demand, to cajole, to use live ammo with our living God, instead of old platitudes towards a dead one?
Because if we aren’t, we don’t have a living, covenant relationship. We have something else. Richard Feynman talks about these groups they called cargo cults in the Pacific. Groups of islanders with little contact with the outside world that suddenly saw some of the world’s biggest battles fought on their shore:
During the war they saw airplanes with lots of good materials, and they want the same thing to happen now. So they’ve arranged to make things like runways, to put fires along the sides of the runways, to make a wooden hut for a man to sit in, with two wooden pieces on his head to [be] headphones and bars of bamboo sticking out like antennas–he’s the controller–and they wait for the airplanes to land. They’re doing everything right. The form is perfect. It looks exactly the way it looked before. But it doesn’t work. No airplanes land.
If we stick to platitudes and a question and challenge-free existence where God asks little of us and we offer little in return, that’s what we have. A runway with no planes. We have form, but no substance.
In essence, we have exactly what Moses rejected. An uninhabited building. An empty tent.
I want to challenge you, this week, to have a heart to heart conversation with God. This may be something you do already, and if so see if you can dig deeper in that relationship. But if for you it has been too long, like it has for so many of us, I want to challenge you to find a time to have an open and honest conversation with your God. Don’t worry that by not using the right language you might offend God. Worry that by not speaking your truth you might offend God. Speak with God face to face, as Moses once did, and not be afraid to say what you really think, what you really feel, and what you really need. Because when we do that, when we pour out our hearts and open ourselves to God, is when we are able to experience God’s glory, and be filled with God’s presence, who will go with us, and lead us to the Promised Land.
 Feynman, R. (1974, May). Cargo Cult Science. Commencement Speech at California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, CA.