Seeing God’s Face

October 18, 2020                 Proper 29

Exodus 33:12-23

Let us begin with the Old Testament reading – what a strange and bizarre story that seems to us – a God who shows his backside to Moses – what’s that about?

The setting is Mt Sinai – the people of Israel have been set free from slavery in Egypt, and now their identity is being formed. A group of runaway slaves is being forged into a nation, a holy nation that is characterized by its unique relationship to God. That is what they are doing here camped at the foot of the mountain: this is a holy place, a place where, in this rough and savage desert landscape, the boundary between this world and the spiritual realm is thin, a place where God can be encountered. They are camped at the foot of the mountain, and Moses has ascended to the top where in a set of mystical visions he encounters God.

And the people camped at the base of the mountain do what people did in those days in order to worship God : they made themselves an image of God. Today we might build a church, then they made an image, and I think we can give them the benefit of the doubt that their intentions were good. They took the finest thing they had, gold, and made it into a symbol of the finest things they could imagine: power and vigour and plenty. A young bull made of gold. No doubt it seemed like the right thing to do

But apparently it was wrong. Because the thing is, God is calling this people to a new and deeper stage of faith. Rather than worshipping whatever they think is good and admirable, projecting their longings onto an image and worshipping that, they are being challenged to something much more difficult. They are being asked to worship not their own ideas of what a God should be, but the real God: that is to say, the spiritual ground and presence beneath all reality. That is a God they cannot fully understand or grasp, because that God is bigger than their imagination. Without an image to hold onto, they are called to meet, in blind trust and humble listening, a living presence they will never grasp or control.

That challenge is still with us. Strip away the Biblical costumes, and we face the same choice today, because that choice and challenge is built into the shape of the faith we have inherited from Moses. Do we worship an image we have set up, or do we come humbly to meet the real God, who demands only our love and trust? The alternative is still there for us to see plainly. Sure, people don’t worship golden calves anymore: but look at the way religion is used in politics and in the culture wars in our society. People everywhere, on the right and the left, set up images of God, projections of what they consider the most important values, and they worship that as God. Those gods then tell them how right they are, how black and white the world is. We do it too, of course, which is why we need to keep cultivating the spiritual disciple of humble listening and openness, approaching God as a living God who may just show us something new.

All this is the background of Moses confusion and questions in today’s reading. Because already the time they have spent wandering in the wilderness has showed them how hard it is to follow the living God. It is so much easier to relate to a God you can see clearly and grasp fully, a predictable God who will be available for you all the time, like a golden statue you can unpack whenever you need it. This business of following the living and real God is for the birds. It means having to let go of your preconceived ideas. Sometimes it means feeling your way in the dark, not always sure of the way forward. It involves a lot of listening – listening to others and how they see the world, listening for an inner voice from the murky depths of your own soul. It involves an awful lot of blind trust. And sometimes you can feel very alone.

Moses asks for two things. He asks that God go with the people, when they resume their journey, when they set off and leave this holy place, as they must. Mt Sinai may be a good place to encounter the holy, but it is not a place anyone can live for very long. They need to find a place to thrive as a people, a place to plant crops and raise a family. And Moses is asking God to go with them on their journey, to be a God whose presence they can access not just on the mountain, but also in their daily lives. We cannot live without your presence, Moses says – if you are not going with us, don’t send us at all. And God, wonderfully, grants this request and goes with this people. And God is with us still.

That is the first promise, which we can rely on. As mysterious and mighty and incomprehensible and real as God may be, God is also the one who has agreed to be with us. God’s presence in our lives is not one we can always see, it is certainly not something we can control – but we can rely on it, we can trust it. And so whatever we face in life, whatever we are going through, wherever we find ourselves, we can know that God’s presence is with us, and begin to look for that presence.

Moses other request, which God seems to guess, is also granted, in a way. Moses seems to be asking to see God’s face. Because it is difficult having a God you can’t see: without having seen God, our trust falters, we can feel alone and abandoned, or we can begin to imagine who knows what nonsense about who God is. That’s why we make images, so we can have something to hold onto, because seeing is believing.

Here is God’s dilemma: having agreed to go with this people, to enter into this special relationship, God seems willing to give them what they need. But if we see God face to face, one of two things happen. Either God, if you will pardon the expression, blows our minds – because the real, living God is so far beyond our capacity to comprehend or imagine. Spend some time looking at pictures of distant galaxies and trying to understand the vastness of the universe, and you will start to get vertigo – this is the merest taste of what it would be like to be face to face with the fullness of God. “No one shall see me and live”. Or, more likely, what will happen is that we will see only what we can see, we will take a limited snapshot and make an image for ourselves, and reduce the glory of God to something we can comprehend and control.

And so follows this bizarre story of God covering the rock with his hand, and letting Moses see his backside. It sounds like a picture a seven year old might draw, its hard to take seriously. But maybe we are not supposed to take it seriously; there is much more humour in the Bible than we generally imagine, and it may well be that this story is about poking fun at Moses and his – and our – need to see God face to face.

Of course the story of our relationship with God does not end there. As Christians, we believe that we have been given the chance to see God face to face, when God came among us in Jesus of Nazareth. And the face that we see there is the very opposite of our projections: in place of the power and aggression of the golden calf, God shows godself to us as gentleness and humility and vulnerability. It is a face we can hold onto and cherish, a face we can see in our mind;s eye to help us when blind trust wavers. It is a face we can trust, a reliable icon of the Father’s heart. But it is also not the totality of God – Jesus himself refers us back again and again to the one he calls Father, reminds us that the living God, the reality that underlies all reality, is always greater and more wonderful than we could ever imagine.