a sermon for the 29th Sunday of Ordinary Time on Exodus 33:12-23
preached on October 16, 2011, at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone
If someone asked you to draw a picture of God, what would it look like? Would you draw some sort of human form? Would you make a picture of your favorite natural scene? Or would it be something else entirely, something more abstract, something more obscure, something more personal?
Humans have been trying to depict divine beings of all sorts for centuries. The Greeks and Romans of the ancient world built dramatic statues to show off their deities’ very human bodies. The Israelites got in big trouble with God for making a golden calf while Moses was receiving the Ten Commandment on Mount Sinai. And even in Christendom, artists have made countless depictions of Jesus, some hailed as beautiful additions to the history of art and our understanding of faith and others attacked and destroyed for attempting to paint what should not be painted. Nowadays we keep up our attempts to depict God. More than one blond-haired and blue-eyed man has been cast as Jesus on the big screen. James Earl Jones and Morgan Freeman, two black men with deep, resonant voices, have been cast to speak as God. And the recent unexpectedly bestselling novel The Shack depicted the Trinity as an African American woman, a Middle Eastern carpenter, and an Asian woman.
So it’s quite natural for us to want to know more about what God looks or sounds like, to catch a glimpse of God in human form, to have a God sighting every now and then. These God sightings have been a part of our world for longer than we can know, and even the great man of faith Moses wanted to catch a glimpse of the great glory of God. In our reading from the book of Exodus this morning, we hear about this moment when Moses asked to see God’s glory and ended up with his own God sighting. While he was up on the mountain with God to receive the Ten Commandments a second time, Moses had an incredible heart-to-heart conversation with God. The exchange was incredibly human, sounding much like inquisitive banter between old friends, with Moses recognizing God’s considerable steps in guiding him and the Israelites to this point in their journey while also stating his very human desire to have a greater sense of God’s presence with him along the way ahead. Upon hearing Moses’ request for God’s continued presence, God responded with grace and mercy, promising, “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.”
But Moses kept up the conversation, noting that he and the people of Israel could not get to the promised land on their own – they needed a very present and real God to go with them. They needed to know God’s favor and see how God made them distinct from others, and without this assurance, Moses felt it was silly for them to go at all. His concerns were well-founded – the Israelites had done little more than complain about the food and the water all along the way so far, and he was on the mountain again with God because the people had been worshiping an idol under the guidance of his own brother Aaron and had already broken the covenant that God made with them. But even so, God again assured Moses of God’s continued presence with them along their journey to the promised land: “I will do the very thing that you have asked; for you have found favor in my sight, and I know you by name.”
All this conversation, though, seemed to be a prelude to Moses’ real question, his desire for a God sighting: “Show me your glory, I pray.” God didn’t walk away but instead offered one final promise to Moses: “I will make all my goodness pass before you… But you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live… You shall see my back, but my face shall not be seen.” So Moses followed God’s instruction and made his way out onto a rock, where he stood in a cleft of the rock. God covered Moses with God’s hand while God passed by, but then after God had passed, God’s hand was removed so that Moses could see God’s back.
This is truly such a great story – it’s not only great to know that at least one human being has had a real, honest-to-goodness God sighting, it’s also pretty incredible that Moses only saw God’s back side! Still, I can’t quite imagine a world where we see God in this very direct and human way. Sure, we say that we have seen God in Jesus Christ, but that was a one-time glimpse, and we only have the biblical witness to that God sighting and no eyewitnesses among us. The images of God that we do have leave so much to be desired – the old paintings of Jesus rarely speak to the contemporary world, and many people just don’t identify with any of the images and words of faith and belief at all. So the leap of faith involved in seeing God these days is pretty significant, and God doesn’t seem to show up quite so directly or often anymore anyway. But we are here in the church, either because we have experienced the presence of God before and want to experience it again or because we figure this is as good a place as any to have our first God sighting along the way.
I believe that we can reasonably expect to have that kind of encounter with God in our journey together in this place, but there is more to what we must do than just that. We need to be on the lookout for where God is present and at work in our world, for the places where God is already stepping in to change things and make things different, for the comfortable and uncomfortable places where God is embracing us or challenging us, for the dramatic and real presence of God not so much where we would most expect it but maybe where we would least expect it, maybe most in the longings of those in need, in cries of the poor, in the prophetic words calling out for justice. We also need to be ready to tell others about our experiences of God, to describe our God sightings in whatever form they take, to speak about how we have seen God at work in our lives and in our world, even to honestly speak about the times when we have doubted God’s presence in our midst. And most of all we need to be about showing God’s face to others, joining in those times and places where God’s presence is already visible and making it clearer, acting to embody the presence of God among those in greatest need, and living life in such a way that others might have a God sighting of their own in and through us. This is our greatest challenge but also our greatest hope – to keep our eyes open for God each and every day even as we embody God’s presence in our world so that others might also know the fullness of life that we have found along our journey.
So may God inspire us in our hearing and seeing and speaking and doing, that we might hear God’s voice directing us into the way ahead, we might see God’s presence in whatever way we need, we might speak of God’s presence so that others can hear, and we might join in doing and being and living in all the places where God is already present and at work to make all things new until he comes again.
Lord, come quickly! Amen.