A Passing Glance
Our four-year-old Grayson has recently added a new bedtime tactic which has led me to wonder if he does not have a brilliant career ahead of him as an auctioneer. While Robert and I for the past four years or so have lived under the illusion that we have had our grip on the household, running it as our own little loving dictatorship which Grayson has tolerated with a modicum of respect and obedience, we are now starting to see the roots of revolution rise up. There is our own Arab Spring happening on Strathdon Drive, our own Occupy movement in the bathtub each night as the preschooler who loves to soak in bubbles stages his protest of “Heck no, I won’t go.” I have found negotiating in the role of management, while he acts as representative on behalf of his own little union. “Five more minutes!” I command. “Ten!” he counters. “Seven minutes, but only one book.” “Nine minutes, and two books,” he counters. “Seven minutes and two books, and that’s my final offer.” I grudgingly announce. And yet, even with the offer on the table I find myself reconsidering. For Grayson is a master negotiator and he puts all his skills into the task. He gives me puppy-eyes and demonstrates that his fingers are not yet prune-like. He shows me the wooden boat he likes to play with. He promises not to splash. I pause and find myself counter-offering again, “Okay, okay, I give up. What’s an extra minute going to hurt. You win. But no complaining when I brush your hair.” “Sold! Sold to the lady who adores her son beyond all reason, and who still wants to maintain a sense of authority and, well, mystery and power. Sold to the lady who desperately wants to be fair, but also wants to make sure her child gets to sleep at a reasonable hour.” I suspect if you are a parent you’ve had these sorts of conversations in your own home. Or at one point of your life or the other you may have been on the receiving ends of the negotiations with parents or authority figures of your own. The conversation around borrowing the car, or staying out past curfew, or getting that extra ear piercing. And in authentic relationships, those gives and takes, those banterings and barterings, really can lead us into understanding one another in a deeper way, even if they exhaust us in the process. For by asserting what we need, and by listening to the other, there are compromises which lead us down new roads of relating.
Which leads us this morning naturally into learning more about that little confab that Moses had with God on Mount Sinai in the thirty-third chapter of Exodus. But first a brief backstory, a little reader’s digest condensed version of what brought God and Moses to that talk that day. You see, Moses had been leading the Israelites on a long, long journey, an insanely long journey. And Moses had taken a little time away from his people, a little break to get the latest news from God, a break to get away from the backseat whining and wailings of “Are we there yet?” and “I have to go to the bathroom.” Moses had been away from the people, up on the mountain receiving the ten commandments. He hadn’t been gone that long, but things had gotten a little rowdy at ground level while he was away. If you wonder what that party was like you can watch Cecil B. Demille’s version of it--you’ll see lots of dancing girls and special effects as the people worshipped a golden calf which symbolized the pagan religion that the Israelites had left behind. Who knows why these forebears of ours in our Judeo-Christian heritage got so rambunctious that day. Perhaps they were bored down there waiting for Moses, perhaps they wanted some tangible thing to symbolize a god, perhaps the yearning for the familiar of their past religion became the panacea they needed on that long wait. Perhaps they just began to doubt who was calling them on their journey, and if this God was really present.
Regardless, God wasn’t happy about it--called them a few names, including stiff-necked, which I don’t know about you, but seems to be fighting words of a sort. And here is where we pick up the story…with Moses the negotiator, with Moses who stands in the gap between God and the people and speaks in defense of these people who he has led, and who he has grown to love, even in all their rebellion and whining.
In verse twelve Moses, the one who has always had God’s ear, the one who has trusted the vision which God has cast seems to have reached his breaking point as intermediary. In a move of utter chutzpah and gutsy nerve Moses minces no words as he speaks to God. In the contemporary words of Eugene Peterson’s The Message, a modern day version of scripture, Moses says frustratingly to his Lord, “Look, you tell me, ‘Lead this people,’ but don’t let me know whom you’re going to send with me. You tell me, ‘I know you well and you are special to me.’ If I am so special to you, let me in on your plans. That way, I will continue being special to you. Don’t forget, this is your people, your responsibility.” Whoooo…talk about speaking truth to power, talk about calling someone on the carpet, talk about venting feelings. Moses has moxie. He’s not afraid of telling it like it is. And he’s not afraid of reminding God, the creator of heaven and earth, what’s on his mind. He doesn’t like the threats to abandon the people. And he’s sick and tired of wondering what’s next on this journey of faith.
Has it every occurred to you that Moses was speaking to the one who created him, was speaking in essence to the divine parental figure? Moses was speaking to one who had the power to squash him like a bug to smite him or ignore him or abandon him? And yet, Moses spoke. And perhaps this is our first inkling of the power of this story. The relationship that Moses had with his God was so profound, was so intimate, was so interactive, that he was not afraid of speaking the truth. He wasn’t afraid of naming his frustration. He did not feel powerless in the face of a problem or conflict. The first lesson we learn is that we are free to speak, even angrily, with the God who has broad shoulders and can take our questions and feelings.
But the scripture deepens, for in verse fourteen, God reconsiders and acquiesces. God says in one simple sentence, in essence, “you’re right, Moses.” With these words God speaks, “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.” The Hebrew translation for “presence” is actually the word “face.” God’s face will be turned toward these people, God will see the journey through. And perhaps this is the second little nugget for us to grab hold of, God is not one who abandons us. Like any good parent, God may be frustrated, there may be days when God wouldn’t mind pretending like he doesn’t know his children when they have a screaming fit in the grocery store, for instance. And, let’s be honest, building those idols must have really, really ticked God off—I mean, that was sort of like his was children thumbing their nose at their father, but, ultimately, God proclaims that he would be faithful and God will forgive again and again. So lesson number two of the morning offered, God promises faithfulness.
But, this little encounter in Exodus offers our 21st century ears even one more thing. After the little bargaining session with Moses and God, there is this last perplexing exchange. Moses wants just one more thing from God, just one more little favor. Since the Israelites have been forgiven, and since Moses is doing this leading, than would it be too much, Moses, asks, too much at all if God wouldn’t mind turning a face so that Moses might see God face to face? This was a bold proposition. For it was believed in Jewish tradition that to see God face to face might lead to death. One could not stand the utter glory of God and continue to live. And, well, Moses had already seen God when he got those ten commandments on the mountain a little earlier. So, why ask now? Did Moses want to be equal to God? To show that he could stand eye to eye with the divine? Did Moses want some reassurance of who he was dealing with? Did Moses want to fully understand the mystery of this one who was at times unfathomable?
The dialogue closes with God denying Moses’s request. For, while God will relate to Moses, and while God will not abandon Moses or his people, there are ways in which God will still be God. And ways in which God must still be God, and ways in which part of our faith is to walk into the mystery of that relationship and trust the one who reaches out to lead us, and promises not to abandon us.
But like any good negotiator, there is one exception that God will make for Moses. One final offer God places on the table, a little incentive to thank Moses for all his hard work. In verses 21 through 23, God offers a counter-offer. God says, “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 my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.” And with that, God sweeps through in a way we cannot even imagine, perhaps with rushing wind, or silent majesty, all the while protecting Moses by shielding him safely with the palm of his hand. Hiding the sensitive eyes of his beloved child, allowing him to rest safely in the mystery of grace. And this, I believe is our third lesson. Not only does God invite us to share all of ourselves, not only does God forgive and faithfully accompany us, God also safely shields us and invites us to linger in the mystery, and that sense of mystery and wonder can be a beautiful place.
The Persian mystic, Rumi, once wrote, “Mysteries are not to be solved/ The eye goes blind when it only wants to see why.”
My prayer for each of us on this Sunday as we enter into a holiday of thankfulness and gratitude, is that we remember that the mystery of God’s presence is enough for us to rest in. The core of God’s grace is a safe place to tarry. And we can trust the faithfulness of the God who desires deep relationship with us. May our eyes focus not on trying to solve the mystery, but instead marvel at the shining glory that we glimpse only in passing. Thanks be to God.