CMC Worship in Place | September 27 | Exodus Series

Sermon | The backside of God

Scripture | Exodus 33:12-23

Sermon: Joel Miller

If there’s one thing that’s consistent about our experience of God, it is God’s absence.  We talk about God, read stories in the Bible about God, we sing about God.  We pray, we meditate.  Sometimes we sing or talk or journal directly to God.  But God is not a person in the way we are people.  God is not an object in the field of our experience.  Or even an idea.  We can’t quite point and say – There is God.

There is, in fact a word for treating something as if it were God: idolatry.  Money is a preferred idol because of its power to get us what we want.  The nation state is one of the most dangerous idols.  We look to it to keep us secure and give us identity.  But its tools of lordship are violence and walls, metaphorical and real.  Every nation and empire seeks eternal life but ends up being mortal.  Even Pharaoh’s Egypt.  Even these United States in which we live will not last forever.  It would be blasphemy against God to say that they will. 

Commercials can be a seductive invitation into a sort of mini-idolatry.  The theology of an advertisement is that this product offers a slice of salvation, for a small price.  Salvation from not having enough.  Or, more powerfully, form not being enough.  Salvation from aging or boredom or from a need you didn’t realize you even had.  We need some of these products for life’s practicalities, and some for fun, but they too are mortal and can create a larger appetite than they satisfy.

God is not money or the nation state or salvation in a box that will show up on your doorstep in two days.

It seems that it’s easier to say what God is not than what God is. 

Like that story in 1 Kings when Elijah has fled to Mt. Horeb in fear of his life.  In his own words, he has been “very zealous for the Lord” thus making some enemies.  So where now is this Lord whom he has been very zealous for?  The Lord says to Elijah, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.”  As Elijah does this, there is a great wind that splits rocks open, but, it says, the Lord was not in the wind.  Then an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake.  Then a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire.  Three things in which God is not.  Then as if to illustrate the closest thing to absence that Divine presence is, a fourth and final manifestation.  In the memorable Kings James translation: And after the fire, a still, small voice.  The NRSV goes even a bit further: “a sound of sheer silence.”  Elijah knows this is the real deal, and covers his face.  Did Elijah realize before that point that he had been very zealous for the sound of sheer silence?

The Bible goes back and forth with Divine presence and absence, telling a story here about presence, another there about absence.  In Moses’ encounter with the burning bush the Lord is present in the fire.  In the upper room at Pentecost the Spirit is present in the wind.  In Job God is remarkably absent to Job’s cries and his friends’ theologizing.  Until God shows up in the whirlwind, talking about the foundations of the earth, the sea, leviathan, mountain goats and deer, and other creatures only distantly related to Job and his sufferings.  In the garden of Gethsemane Jesus receives no response to his agonizing prayer to let this cup be taken from him, finally conceding “yet not my will, but yours be done.”  On the cross outside Jerusalem he cries out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me,” words sampled from Psalm 22, a human cry captured in the liturgy of ancient Israel, re-echoed in the parched throat of Jesus.  In Revelation, the New Jerusalem has no temple because God’s very being is the temple into which people enter.  An absence met with an all pervasive presence.

This story from Exodus 33 is the final one in our Exodus series.  It forms a nice bookend on the other side of the burning bush story from Exodus.  Like that story, this one is concerned about Moses’ leadership, the Divine name and Divine presence.  In the first story the Israelites are still in bondage.  Now they’re on the other side of Egypt.  They are free. 

But one of the threads that runs through Exodus is this idea that freedom has its own perils.  When Pharaoh is god, your day – and your life – has already been arranged.  His plans will be executed, and his will shall be done.  But when that god is no more, there’s a void in the category labeled “Clear guidance for what we’ll be doing next.”  This is the burden of freedom that Moses feels so heavily.  This is why we listen for the seemingly absent God.  Because we don’t know what we’re doing or where we’re going.  

A couple weeks ago I watched a movie called “The Master” on Netflix.  It’s kind of a grind so I don’t necessarily recommend it, but it might be your type.  There was a scene toward the end that especially caught my attention.  Joaquin Phoenix’s character is a World War II Navy vet who meets up with Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s character – the leader of a philosophy called “The Cause.” Phoenix becomes a loyal follower and “The Cause” starts looking more and more like a cult with Hoffman as its self-proclaimed master.  When Phoenix’s character eventually parts ways with Hoffman, sitting down with him one on one, Hoffman has this to say to him:  “You are free to go where you please…Once you find a way to live without serving a master, any master, then let the rest of us know, will you? For you’d be the first person in the history of the world.”

The reality often referred to as “God” is that master which lifts us above the idolatry of cult, and materialism, and nationalism, and the not-almighty dollar.  And unlike other masters, this is a master especially interested in our liberation.  Including our liberation from any sense of certainty about God.

This is the stuff of Exodus 33.

Moses has done his part in bringing the people up out of Egypt, but he doesn’t know what’s next.  He can’t see the road ahead.  He begs the Lord, “Now if I have found favor in your sight, show me your ways, so that I may know you.”  The Lord does promise presence, that verse that Julie read: “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.” 

And this is where the playfulness of the Hebrew language gets lost in translation.  In the verse just before this story it mentions how Moses would meet with the Lord face to face, as one speaks to a friend.  Now this idea of seeing the face of God gets played with.  A quick back and forth about Divine presence and absence.  That Hebrew word for face shows up seven times in this passage.    Here is a more literal translation: Moses says: “Show me your ways.”  The Lord says: “My face will go with you, and I will give you rest.”  Moses says: “If your face will not go, do not carry us up from here.”  Moses continues: “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 says: “I will make all my goodness pass before your face, and will proclaim before your face the name Yahweh.  But you cannot see my face.” 

So here’s the plan for how Divine presence will show up.  Moses is going to stand on the rock, just like Elijah will centuries later.  And Yahweh is going to pass over him, and as this is happening Yahweh is going to reach down and cover Moses.  So Moses can’t see anything until after Yahweh has passed over.  And then, as it says in Exodus 33:23: “Then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.”

In other words, you’re not really going to see me Moses.  You’ll only know I’ve been there after I’m already gone. 

Along with seeing only the back of God, the name Yahweh itself, revealed at the burning bush and proclaimed again here, is ambiguous.  It could be a play on “I am who I am” or “I will be who I will be.”  Some have suggested Yahweh is the sound of breath itself, such that whenever anyone breaths they are saying the name of God.  How much closer could God be than breath?  Jews don’t even pronounce it and sometimes substitute “Ha-shem” which means, appropriately– The name. 

Since this passage is all about the name and face of God, I can’t help noticing that in the era of Zoom worship all we’ve got are names and faces.  I’m looking at a grid of 25 names and faces right now.  This is how we identify ourselves.  According to this passage if the Divine were to log onto a CMC Worship in Place Zoom she would have her back to the camera and her name label would say “I will be who I will be.” 

The sounds of sheer silence coming from that muted rectangle could be a message in itself of our freedom to make our own decisions, or a reminder that we already know what needs to be done.  No need to wait on an answer to know it’s right to show mercy, give hospitality, love ourselves and our neighbors – and enemies. 

The silence could also be an invitation to join the silence.  To be liberated even from the need for words to name and sort and categorize.  To find the still center where our small I am joins with the great I am.  This is our now, and our destination.

We are in the cleft of the rock, and everything above us and around us is pure presence.  Even if we can’t see it until it’s already gone.