Face to Face

A sermon preached October 16, 2011 at Southminster Presbyterian Church, Boise, Idaho

Exodus 33:12-23

Moses had a different relationship with God than just about anyone in the Scriptural record, other than Jesus.  Certainly different encounters with God than I have had.
Before the passage you heard this morning, God had told Moses, “your people are stiff necked people. So I won’t go with them. But I will send a pillar of cloud with you to guide you on your journey.” God says that if the Divine presence were to travel with such stiff necked people, the Divine anger would consume them. It is the equivalent of those families who love each other but do better with 500 miles between them.

Yes, God loves the people. But boy do they drive God nuts.

Also, this is after the whole incident of the golden calf, when the people melt down their bracelets and start worshipping something other than God.

We are also told that as the Hebrew people traveled, Moses would set up the Tent of Meeting, and God’s presence would settle on the Tent and the people would stand outside and watch as God and Moses spoke.
“Thus the LORD used to speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend.” (33:11)

We can have great prayer lives, but it is not the same as God coming over to your tent and having a chai latte and muffins while you talk about things.

The Lord spoke to Moses, face to face, as one speaks to a friend.

And later in the text, as we just heard, God tells Moses that nobody can see God’s face and live, so this shouldn’t be imagined literally. Ancient Hebrew leaves room for contradictions like this. It is a poetic language, with the roots of the words heading off in different directions as needed.

The Hebrew word for “face”, panim,  is the same word for “presence”.

And from the perspective of the Hebrew people, watching the cloud settle over the tent, it must have seemed as if Moses was having a face to face with God. At least Moses was interacting with God differently than they were doing. The Lord spoke to Moses, presence to presence, if not literally face to face.

This isn’t a casual conversation where one person is checking for emails on their phone while the other person describes what their dog did last weekend. This is a conversation where both parties bring their attention, their focus, and their very presence, turning to each other face to face.

And when you have that kind of relationship, you can say things to people. You can tell them when you think they’ve done something that is good and important. You can also tell them when they have hurt you or when you think they have made a mistake.

These kinds of conversations are important.

They are also difficult.

But they need to happen.

Face to face.

So often in our culture, we don’t have conversations face to face. We have them side to side. Where we tell everyone except the person we’re upset with what they have done wrong or how they have hurt us.

But side to side conversations don’t move toward a solution. They don’t cause us to really bring our presence into a potentially difficult or awkward moment, to say something important that needs to be said.
Luckily, God and Moses talk face to face. Presence to presence.

And Moses tells God to reconsider his plan to not travel with the people. “Yes, God. We’re stiff necked people. But we’re YOUR stiff necked people. You created us. You have blessed us. You can’t just abandon us out here in the wilderness. Because we can’t do this without you.

And there’s the truth.

We can’t do this journey through the wilderness alone.

God probably knew that already.

But I suspect that perhaps Moses didn’t know it was true until he’d uttered the words.

“If you aren’t with us, God, we’re finished. Don’t leave us now.

Because Moses could talk with God, presence to presence, he was able to make an important claim and learn something about himself in the process.

And it is an important and difficult lesson to learn that we can’t do it alone.

It is one of those lessons, that I, at least, have to learn again and again.

Last weekend, after I finished reading the ordination exams, I went to my college reunion. It was such a gift to be with those friends, many of whom I hadn’t seen in 20 years. But it was with them, while I was in college, when I learned for the first time that I couldn’t make it through the wilderness alone. I am so thankful for that community who taught me that lesson.

And Moses has his moment of truth, as he is presence to presence with God, all pretense of self reliance stripped away, and he gets God to agree to his request.

The LORD said to Moses, “I will do the very thing that you have asked; for you have found favor in my sight, and I know you by name.”

And then Moses goes further.

Moses said, “Show me your glory, I pray.

This is another spot where the Hebrew is tricky. Glory, Honor, Weightiness, and Divine Presence are all translations from that word in Hebrew, kabod.

What is Moses asking for?

God has already agreed that God will travel with the people in the wilderness. Is it that agreement that leads Moses to ask for more the way my kids ask for 3 cookies once I’ve told them they can have one?
Or does he need more from God? Is Moses at a place where not only does he realize they can’t make it through the wilderness without God but also that he can’t make it outside of the tent without some additional reminder of why he’s doing this in the first place?

I think there are days when we want to see some glory. When we need reminders that this crazy world is not randomness and chaos. When we need to see how weighty God’s presence can be.

Whatever that request means, God is willing to grant part of it. Not because Moses is worthy. Not because his leadership of the Hebrew people has earned him anything. But God says, “and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy”.

So this display of God’s glory is because God will allow it. Not because Moses has earned it.

Also, God tells Moses that he doesn’t really want what he is asking for. If Moses were to see God’s glory, God’s true nature and God’s Divine Presence, he would die. God’s true self is beyond what Moses could comprehend. So God offers to show Moses God’s goodness.

He asks for Glory but receives Goodness.

And there are days when we need that reminder too, I suspect. Days where we ask God for glory, for clear signs, and instead someone gives us a hug and tells us they’ve been thinking about us. Or someone sends you a note, letting you know you aren’t alone. We ask for Glory and power and control and instead, we receive goodness.

But even God’s goodness is beyond human understanding. Even God’s goodness is beyond what we experience in human goodness. So God directs Moses to a cleft in the rock and shields him with a Divine Hand or Wing, so that as God’s presence passes by, Moses can get a glimpse of God’s goodness.

And while there are jokes to be made about Moses seeing God’s backside—Moon Over the Sinai—there is also great truth in it. Because we don’t see God’s goodness when it is walking toward us. We only see it in hindsight. As it is walking away and we realize what just happened.

It is with hindsight that we see where God showed up and offered us goodness.

Because of my college reunion, I’ve been thinking about the past a lot lately. I’ve been looking back and seeing how blessed I have been—that God put those extraordinary people in my life at the time I would need them the most. Did I know that at the time? Maybe. Maybe I had glimpses of it. But after it has passed by, and God’s hands have unshielded my eyes, it is clear.

That is the tricky part of faith, isn’t it. I can’t promise that if you join the church you will see great manifestations of God’s Glory. Perhaps you will. God will be gracious to whom God will be gracious, after all. But I can promise you that you will see glimpses of God’s goodness in hindsight, after it has passed by.

And so we need to become people who move forward by looking back.

Moses and the Hebrew people didn’t stay in that one place in the wilderness, waiting for another glimpse of goodness. They kept on their journey.

And God is also calling us forward on our journey.

So we are called to proclaim where we have just seen God’s goodness, as we invite people to join us on the journey.

I know that for many people, talking about money is not the way you want to think about God’s goodness, but consider this. As the Stewardship and Finance Committee is putting together our budget in the coming months, they are asking you to pledge the budget, to say, “we don’t know exactly how God’s goodness will look as we move towards it in this coming year, but because of the glimpses of goodness we’ve had in the past, we will pledge the budget so that people in this building, people in this community, and people around the world will also get a chance to know of God’s goodness.

Stewardship is an act of faith, moving forward on the journey based on the experiences of Divine Goodness that we have seen in the past.

In the past few years, as the economy has stalled out, your Session has been careful stewards of our resources, bringing expenses down as much as possible. But they have also maintained our commitment to supporting Mission and outreach both here and abroad. They have also maintained our commitment to education, to worship, and to the upkeep of our facilities. Pledge cards and stewardship campaign information is in the narthex and you’ll be hearing more about it in the weeks to come. But I invite you to prayerfully consider how financial giving to the church allows other people to get a glimpse of God’s goodness.

Stewardship is about more than money. It is about how we give of our time as well. And I am humbled by how much time many of you give in this place to work for God’s kingdom. But for some of you, perhaps you are being called to join in with your time. I am sure that the people who volunteer at Grace Jordan could share with us how they have seen God’s goodness in their time volunteering at the school. I’m sure the Deacons and the Presbyterian Women who go out and visit homebound members could share stories of how they experienced God’s goodness in visitation.

However we live into Stewardship, we are called to be on the lookout for these glimpses of God’s goodness. And these glimpses then call us to move forward, into the future that we trust will be loving.

So, where is God’s goodness in our lives today?

How attuned are you to be watching for glimpses of it?

I invite you this week to pay attention to those moments where something unexpected passed by, where you caught glimpses of goodness. We are called on the journey together, because we can’t do it alone, and called to help people see the goodness of God when it has passed by. What a gift we’ve been given. Thanks be to God. Amen

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