Sermon by Todd Grant Yonkman at Beneficent Church on October 16, 2011

Text: Exodus 33:12-23

Talking with God

Today’s Scripture is an account of a theophany—a story of God’s appearance. It is puzzling and strange on many levels—as theophanies tend to be—but the image that intrigues me the most is when God says to Moses,

I will place you in the cleft of the rock and screen you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I will remove my hand; you shall see my back, but my face shall not be seen.

In other words, Moses is not allowed to see God directly. Moses is only allowed to see where God has been. The reason, of course, that Moses cannot gaze directly into God’s face is that, in God’s words, “No human can see me and live.” Why?

In order to answer that question, we need to look more closely at what, exactly, Moses had asked for. Moses had asked to see God’s “glory.” He wants to see God face-to-face. Moses wants to know who—exactly—he is dealing with. A person’s face tells you who they are. It’s a person’s most distinct and recognizable feature. It seems reasonable that Moses would want God to “take off the mask,” so to speak. But according to the theology of this Scripture, when you see God’s face, you see God’s glory.

The Hebrew word for “glory” is cavod, which has connotations of weightiness, dignity, might, abundance, richness, fullness. For instance, Isaiah chapter 40 says,

Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill made low, the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together.

In Isaiah, God’s glory comes with earthshaking apocalypse. Mountains collapse. Valleys disappear. Moses is saying, “Show me that. Give me everything you’ve got, God.” It’s a gutsy request. It makes me think that maybe Moses didn’t fully realize what he was asking for. Why can’t humans see God’s face and live? It was a common belief in ancient cultures. My guess is that it was understood to be the natural consequence when finite human beings come into direct contact with the infinite power of God. It just overloads the circuits, blows the fuse, and scorches the wires. That’s the power of God’s glory.

Gazing directly into God’s face—encountering the fullness of God’s glory—is just not an option for Moses. God has to come up with another plan. God says,

I will place you in the cleft of the rock and screen you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I will remove my hand; you shall see my back, but my face shall not be seen.

One of the commentators I read on this passage said it used “extreme anthropomorphism” in portraying God. That is, it creates an image of God in your mind that looks very much like a human being. When I read this Scripture to my children, Olivia scrunched up her forehead and asked, “Was God wearing any clothes?” She was wondering if when Moses saw God’s back God’s bum was showing. It’s just weird. It doesn’t fit—on the one hand God’s “glory,” which is infinitely beyond human beings, and on the other hand, this very earthy image of God picking up Moses with “his” hand and putting him in the cleft of a rock and then shielding him—again, with his “hand”—while “he” passes by. Perhaps the lesson is that the closer we get to actually describing God, the stranger our talk becomes. Which leads me back to my original point: Moses is not allowed to look directly at God; Moses can only see where God has been.

God says, “You shall see my back.” The Hebrew word ‘akhar means “after,” “behind,” “wake,” “trace.” It’s as if God has passed by and there is a broken twig on the ground or some smell in the air or a ripple on the water. I apologize for yet another very earthy image, but I can’t help thinking about the time this summer when my family and I were hiking through a wilderness area near Cobscook Bay in downeast Maine. We were walking alone the trail when we saw signs that a moose had been that way recently—the sign was droppings, mostly. But when I saw the moose sign, I called to my family and they came over and admired it. We looked up and squinted through the trees in case the animal was somewhere nearby. It was an exciting moment on a relatively uneventful walk. Moose are huge, amazing animals that are rarely seen. To see a moose in the wild—that would be something! We didn’t get see an actual moose, but we saw where it had been, and we knew it was out there—somewhere close by.

That’s how I think about God and about the Christian life. Something big is out there, and it is close by. A lot of it is training our eyes to see the clues. God is by definition beyond anything we could even begin to imagine. This should keep us humble. This should keep our eyes on the ground looking for signs—God has been here!

This week was a full week for me and my family. The only way I can keep it all straight in my mind, the only way I can keep from getting swept away by it all is to keep asking, “Where are you God? Where have you been?” And then there are these holy moments—these moments of real connection—and I know in my heart—God has been this way. And I’m excited because I know I’m on track. For instance, this week I talked with a decorated Navy veteran who many years ago experienced discrimination because of his race. He shared with me how that experience had made him wary of going places he wasn’t invited to—one of those places being Beneficent Church. He had lived in Rhode Island all his life, but until this week, had never been invited here. I was so sorry the invitation had been so long in coming, but I was so glad it finally came. For me, it was a holy moment. It reminded how far we have yet to go to heal our country’s wounds, but it gave me hope that we might one day get there.

This week I encourage you to open your eyes and hearts to the signs of God all around you. Listen deeply. Look steadily. Remain open. Stay curious. Don’t give up. Look for signs that you are on the right track—those holy moments when you get that uncanny feeling: God has been this way.