The Backside of God
by Rev. Kevin J. McLemore
Exodus 33:12-23Children's Sermon Moses said to the Lord, â€˜See, you have said to me, â€œBring up this peopleâ€; but you have not let me know whom you will send with me. Yet you have said, â€œI know you by name, and you have also found favour in my sight.â€ Now if I have found favour in your sight, show me your ways, so that I may know you and find favour in your sight. Consider too that this nation is your people.â€™ He said, â€˜My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.â€™ And he said to him, â€˜If your presence will not go, do not carry us up from here. For how shall it be known that I have found favour 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.â€™The Lord said to Moses, â€˜I will do the very thing that you have asked; for you have found favour in my sight, and I know you by name.â€™ Moses said, â€˜Show me your glory, I pray.â€™ And he said, â€˜I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you the name, â€œThe Lordâ€; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. Butâ€™, he said, â€˜you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.â€™ And the Lord continued, â€˜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 away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.â€™
Iâ€™ve often wondered at how God moves in this world and why things happen the way they do in this life, and that wonderment has not ceased in the least bit over the past six months or so, as the process has unfolded that brings me here to be with you. I am very, very thankful for your willingness to call me as your pastor, and to the search committee that so generously spent so many hours with me, seeing if this might be a good fit for the both of us. but I am also really thankful for the ways that God seems to move in this world, and even this process that brought me here today, the coincidences that seem to defy explanation, though my rational mind wants to find one, because I like to live in the world of rationality, and too much of religion nowadays seem to needlessly traffic in the world of irrationality, even when authentic faith does not necessarily require it.
Still, I am still in amazement at how things work out in the life, and how God seems to be working in this world. As I was putting together my profile in the fall of 2010, which is essentially a long form resume for UCC ministers, you as a congregation found yourself without a pastor, doing the work of putting together your own church profile, which is essentially your churchâ€™s resume. One of the things we have to do as ministers for our profile is solicit seven letters of recommendation that are included in the profile itself, and, amazingly enough two of my seven letters of recommendation were from former members of this congregation, though now one lives in Spokane, Washington, and the other in Michigan. And no, I didnâ€™t set it up that way, because I had never heard of this place, and those people didnâ€™t know that you were about to embark on another pastoral search. Even the search committee did not know that two of my recommendations came from former members when they initially read my profile, because they are anonymous letters. It was weird set of coincidences, the small connections to this place that I didnâ€™t even know I had through other people, and looking back, Iâ€™d like to think that maybe God was moving in the midst of this process, both mine and yours, and for that, I am thankful.
But on that very point, on the coincidences that seem to make sense when you look back on them from a distance, there needs to be some hesitation, some difficult questions asked. Ultimately, weâ€™re talking about a bigger question, a question that is much bigger than the circumstances of my presence here with you that I just shared with you. That question of course, is how does God work in this world? Did God bring me directly here, as God brought me to Coloma, Michigan five years ago? What about your lifeâ€”is your job, or for those of us who are without work in the worst economy ever, is that somehow Godâ€™s plan, Godâ€™s will? What about your spouse, or lack of a spouse at this momentâ€”is that too Godâ€™s will, Godâ€™s plan, so to speak? I cringe when I speak these questions aloud, because I donâ€™t think that is how God works in this world, as some sort of puppet master, always pulling the strings to make this or that happen in the world.
And yet, on the other hand, I absolutely believe that God is present in this world, in the lives of each and every person in this world, that God is in the process, in the muck and wonder of this world and our lives, though, frankly, that real presence, well, it is something hard to fathom, hard to see in the lived moment, in the dailyness of everyday living. That very mystery is exactly what our text before us today is trying to deal with, in this confusing passage in which God and Moses are having a delicate conversation about just how God was going to be present with the people from that point onward. But you see, you have to know the rest of the storyâ€”this conversation takes place right after the Golden Calf incidentâ€”you remember that story, right? The one about the peopleâ€™s anxiety being so great when Moses was up on Mount Sinai to get the Ten Commandments that they, the people, decided ease their anxiety by building an idol made of their own jewelry?
And so the scene before us is one in which God has promised, despite the peopleâ€™s deep betrayal with that Golden Calf, to continue to be with them, though you can sense some deep pain, some deep hesitation on Godâ€™s part. It really is amazing, folksâ€”in our tradition, God actually has a real personality, God can seemingly get hurt by us, and by our actions. Now, of course, everything is highly anthropomorphic here, in the storyworld we are given here, I get that, but this particular text and itâ€™s unusual humanization of God in has sent Jewish and Christian commentators into a tizzy for centuries. But, of course, we are stuck with human words and human attributes to explain what is more than human, what is divine, and that seems to be the way of it, this compromise we have to make with language if we are to speak of God in a meaningful way. So, here we have Moses confronting God, despite Godâ€™s hurt feelings, confronting God with the reality that these people are still Godâ€™s people, still Godâ€™s own people, and that they need to have some sign of Godâ€™s presence if they are going to be able to make it to Promised Land. Earlier, God had been visually present with them through the use of a tent, an actual tent that Moses went to be with God, and a pillar of cloud would park itself right outside the entrance of the tentâ€”it was something they could see with their own eyes: God was there, God was with Moses, and so God was with them.
But now the guarantee of Godâ€™s presence with them has been shattered to some degree, because God, in an earlier verse (33:3) has said that the people of Israel will go forward into that land full of milk and honey, but that God was not going to be with them, because, ironically enough, if God were to truly and fully be God with them, God might actually consume, destroy them on the way in frustration, because they were such a stubborn peopleâ€”God â€˜s frustration with them might end up destroying them on the journey. So God wants out of the deal, to some degree, out of the covenant in which they were to be Godâ€™s people and Yahweh was to be their God. You can really sense the pain and betrayal thereâ€”â€œyou go on, though Iâ€™m not sure I can go with you, at least not in the same way as I was before.â€ But Moses wonâ€™t stand for itâ€”â€œfine, but who are you going to send with us? If not you, who? Some angel, some spirit, some something? Itâ€™s almost as if Moses is counseling God to get beyond the hurt feelings and the sense of betrayal, and there is a moment too where Moses reminds God that these people, these willful, disobedient people are still Godâ€™s own people, not someoneâ€™s else people. Finally, God gives in, and says, â€œIâ€™ll be there, Iâ€™ll be there, and Iâ€™ll give you rest along the way,â€ and yet, Moses wonâ€™t relent, almost as if to make sure that God is going to follow throughâ€”â€œif you donâ€™t mean it God, donâ€™t send us back out there, towards the promised Land. The only way people will know that you have sent us there is if you go with us on the journey.â€
And then, eventually, God says â€œyes, I will go with you,â€ and God even responds to Mosesâ€™ request to see Godâ€™s glory, what the Biblical Scholar Walter Bruegeman calls â€œGodâ€™s awesome, shrouded, magisterial presence, like an overpowering light.â€ (NIB, Brueggeman 940) But according to our text, God will only allow Moses to see God partially, because the glory would be too much, Godâ€™s face would overwhelm himâ€”and to see God face to face, to see another human face even, is to know them, putting a name to a face, so to speak, and the reality is that God can never be full be known and no name and face can ever truly be put together, not really know, not in this caseâ€”God still remains a mystery always, despite our often lame attempts to define and box God up. In order to protect Moses, God promises to put him in the cleft of a rock, and to put a divine hand over him until God passes by, withdrawing that divine hand only at that moment when God is walking away, revealing, in an ironic twist, only the backside of God. And of course, this has always been a theme in Jewish thought, that we humans can never really see God face to face, because that intimacy is too much for us, too much for us mere humansâ€”to see someone face to face is to allow for the possibly of complete intimacy and complete knowledge of that person, something that in this case, of God, is something we certainly will never experience on this side of eternity.
Now, I want to go back for a second to picture we have before us, this moment when God lifts that divine hand from Moses and God, in all of that divine glory, is just about to move out of the room, out of the picture. There is something powerful about that moment that just rings true, or at least it rings true for me. Iâ€™ll tell you why it rings true for me: in my experience of how God works in my life, Iâ€™ve often found traces of Godâ€™s past presence in my life more often than I have been able to recognize Godâ€™s presence at the moment I am going through something. In another words, in looking back over my life and though experiences when I was in my own desert times, like the Israelites were here in this text, I have found God most often in those moments when I was sifting through the wreckage of the past, those painful moments of hurt and betrayal, those moments of disappointment and pain. In those moments of looking backwards, it was at those times that I caught a glimpse of God, almost at the moment when God was walking out of the room, almost as if I was seeing God out of the corner of my eye as God was exiting. The text says that Moses was only allowed to see the backside of Godâ€”yes, the rear end of God, laugh if you will, because it is funny, and I think the writer of the text means it to be that way. Moses ask for the face, and God offers the divine rear end. Martin Luther actually translated it as the posterior of God, and he argued that all we ever got in this life is the back end of God, so to speakâ€”all we get is the God we see through the cracks and crevices of this life. Something about that idea just amuses me, OK, but more seriously, the idea that God is usually seen in those moments when we are moving out of a particular part of our lives, when what has been done has been done, and now we have time to think about what happened and could have happened. Usually, most of us are so caught up in our moments and years in the desert that itâ€™s impossible to see the hand and glory of God during those times. Itâ€™s only when life rolls on to another place that we can look back and see Godâ€™s presence in this or that part of our livesâ€”its only when we see God walking out of the room, when we see the backside of God, sometimes out of the corner of our eyes, that we are reminded that we were never alone in that deep and long desert, in that time of great pain.
And maybe the reason why most of us never actually see God working in our lives in those very moments we are experiencing our difficult times, in the actual moments when we are in our own deserts, is because it would be too much for us to be witnesses to itâ€”it would be the same thing that Moses is being protected from when the glory of God passes by himâ€”it would consume us, overwhelm us, stop us in our tracks just in that moment when we need to keep going on, keep on going, so we can get through that personal desert we are in. Maybe thatâ€™s just as wellâ€”if we were always aware of the ways God was continually present with us, we wouldnâ€™t and couldnâ€™t do the things that we needed to do to get to our Promised Landâ€”there are some things we humans must do ourselves in order to get from point A to point B in our lives. Even the Israelites werenâ€™t going to be magically whisked away to Canaan and plopped down in the land of milk and honeyâ€”they still had to get up and get going out of Egypt, like we all have to do in this life, when we have to get out of those times of our personal captivities.
So, I did not answer the question that came out of my experience of the last six months or really my whole life, actually, and maybe your life as well, I suspect. I donâ€™t know exactly how God always works in this world, and in our lives, and in my life and what brought me to you, and you to me, and the best I think we can do is to look backward, backward into my past, and simply recognize the times when God was there, when I was not at all aware that the Divine was present. We spend our lives relying on those memories, that ability and gift be able to look back and piece together traces of the divine working in our lives, watching God slip out of the room of those memories, posterior in full view for a brief second,
startling us with its glory, so to speak. The best we get in this life is a glimpse of God, out of the corner of our eyeâ€”itâ€™s all we can really take, actuallyâ€”that is certainly what out text is partially trying to tell us todayâ€”and what weâ€™re asked to do is go forward, to go through that desert, going forward, but also looking backwards, looking over our shoulders, so that we can how God was there, even there, when it seemed so unlikely. We can often see what God did in our lives, in the past, better than we can see what God is actually doing, right now, right here, in our lives at this very moment. Itâ€™s not perfect, this backside of God, what we are given, this fleeting glimpse of God as we ruminate about the past, but itâ€™s what weâ€™ve got from God. And yet, itâ€™s still so good to know that God was in the room, back then, and has been there in our lives, in your life and in my life, in the life of this congregation, in every moment, good times and bad times, in some form, in some beautifully mysterious way. That knowledge will be what keeps us going forward toward the Promise Land, in the here and now. Amen.