A sermon preached at Southminster Presbyterian Church in Boise, Idaho
October 19, 2014
It’s been a few weeks since we’ve checked in with the Israelites wandering in the wilderness. Those of you who are reading through the Year of the Bible know what kind of trouble they’ve been up to.
After God fed them manna in the wilderness, they’ve received the 10 commandments, plus a few other rules to live by. They’ve broken a good many of those commandments already, most notably, ‘thou shall have no other gods before me’. While Moses was on the mountain, writing down all the rules, the people convinced Aaron to build them a god they could trust, one they could see, touch, and believe in.
Aaron built the golden calf out of their earrings and fine jewelry and they worshiped it and made sacrifices to it.
And the Lord was ticked off. Really mad. Told Moses, “conversation’s over. Get down the mountain because YOUR people are in trouble now.” God started polishing his lightning bolts, getting ready to obliterate the stiff necked people who couldn’t behave long enough for God to have a minute’s peace.
Moses convinces God to be merciful, to not let his anger burn hot against HIS people. And the Lord changes the divine mind and does not bring about “the disaster God had planned to bring on his people.”
It’s not a great moment for any of them, really. It made me remember the times I put my very young children in “time out” so I could have a time out. I knew I would regret what would happen. My smart boys, not wanting to watch mom’s head spin, would go to time out so I could have a time out, and we would all reset, repenting of the bad behavior, the anger, and the escalation.
I’m not sure if it is God or the Israelites who is put in time out, but clearly they need a little space. God tells the people, “just go. I’ll set up the Promised Land for you, but I am not going with you because I just can’t handle you right now.”
God also tells them, “oh, and don’t wear any of your jewelry for the rest of the trip. Clearly you can’t be trusted with it. This is why we can’t have nice things—because you melt it down and make false idols!”
And this is where our text picks up this morning. The people are still heading to the Promised Land, but now they aren’t sure if God is going with them.
And let’s face it— it’s been a hard enough journey WITH God on their side. Are they really going to make it on their own?
Moses goes into his Tent of Meeting, the pillar of cloud descended on the tent, and God and Moses have a heart to heart.
“Remember God, remember all of those times you told me we had found favor in your sight? Remember all of those times you told me that your presence would go with us on the journey? REMEMBER?!?”
When I first read through this text, I thought it was MOSES who was needing to remember God’s promise and God’s presence.
The more I sat with it, though, the more I wonder if it was God who needed to remember.
I certainly don’t blame God for wanting to wash the divine hands of the Israelites at this stage of the journey. I certainly wouldn’t blame God for wanting to give up on me at various stages of my journey either, for that matter.
God’s repeated criticism of the Israelites is that they are stiff necked people.
Modern usage of the word suggests stubbornness. Some people who commented on this text think it hearkens to the image of an ox, who manages to pull the plow in a straight line but won’t turn his head and follow a different path. Someone else suggested if you are stiff necked, you are not likely to bow your head in prayer.
Maybe all of those images give depth to the phrase.
At the risk of glorifying and justifying my own stiff necked tendencies, let me suggest that maybe it is not such a bad thing, being stiff necked.
Because Moses does not relent. Like an oxen, yoked to the people and dragging them straight to the Promised Land, he will not turn away. He will not let God turn away either. “If your presence will not go, do not carry us up from here. For how shall it be known that I have found favor in your sight, I and your people, unless you go with us?”
I wonder if this is where God–watching Moses be the person he created him to be when he knit him together in his mother’s womb—is this where God says, “he’s just the way I made him in my very image— stiff necked, tenacious, and courageous!”
I wonder if this is where God sits back, looks at the poorly behaving Israelites and thinks, “yep, they are just the way I made them too— desperate for love, wanting to follow me, but afraid where the road may go. They may be insecure, needy, and annoyingly stiff necked, but they are my stiff necked people, made in my own image”.
Because God then tells Moses:
‘My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest. I will do the very thing that you have asked; for you have found favor in my sight, and I know you by name.’
Moses doesn’t stop there. Moses says, “show me your glory, I pray”. This isn’t our language. This is not, likely, the question we might ask God.
The word translated as “glory” is the Hebrew word “kabod”. It means “heavy, weighty” and is not something humans can apparently experience and survive.
And I think about the golden calf the Israelites had just made. I wonder if Moses is wanting to get something tangible from God, something solid, like a golden calf you can carry around with you. Something with weight and heaviness.
I think it reveals the inherent tension in our faith life.
We don’t want to be alone on this journey.
God’s presence with us is often elusive and hard to know because we can’t always see, touch, and feel it.
The heaviness, the glory, of God is beyond our comprehension or our control. You cannot see the face of the Lord and live, God tells Moses.
God agrees to not only travel with the Israelites as they continue their journey but also to pass by Moses and call out his name, letting him have a glimpse of God.
And they continue on the journey to the Promised Land, receiving another version of the covenant, confirming for the people that God is still with them and they are still God’s people.
If you read through the entire Exodus narrative, you see lots of illustrations of God’s presence with them. And you see their continued disbelief that God’s presence would possibly continue on with them.
I want to grab them by the collar and scream, “GOD loves you! How can you not see that?”
But then I look around at my own life, at the lives around me, and I realize we are still stuck in that disbelief that we could possibly be worthy to be God’s beloved children. I see us continue to disbelieve that God would choose to care for us, no matter how many times God provides for us.
If you look around at the brokenness of our world and our relationships, or look through the Exodus narrative, you see people who deny their own giftedness, leading them to deny the giftedness of others, leading them to deny God could care for them, leading them to build their own idols, leading God to scream, ‘they are a stiff necked people!”.
A bitter cycle of pain.
And Moses talks God out of the cycle and gets a glimpse of God.
God also tells Moses: and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy.
Some people hear that phrase and think, “wow, God’s being a little arbitrary and capricious, isn’t he?”
And you can read it that way.
I saw this picture of a bus this week.
And the comment with the picture on Twitter was, “I can’t decide if this bus is being supportive or threatening me”.
He’s right. It makes a difference how you say it.
Back to the comment from God. I will be gracious on whom I will be gracious and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy.
God is not being capricious. God is reassuring us that, yes, even to us, God will be gracious, and yes, even to us, God will show mercy.
Show me your glory, I pray, Moses asks.
Tell me, one more time, that we aren’t alone on this journey, Moses pleads.
And God says, “okay. I will be gracious to even you. I will show mercy to you. I will shelter you in the rock and pass by, almost close enough to touch.”
I heard the song from the meditation video this week. It’s called “Ever Walk With Me Lord” by Peter Mayer.
A million voices surround me
How can I hear when You call?
When at last grace has found me
Will I recognize it at all?
Lift this song of sadness into gladness at Your feast
To hear Your voice is calling, come walk with me
Ever walk with me Lord
Each night and day a rejoicing
With kindness the harmony, justice the beat
You’ve turned my footsteps to dancing
Oh Ever walk with me Lord
That’s what we get in this text. God’s promise to ever walk with us, to turn our footsteps to dancing, to accompany us all along the journey, to be our God and embrace us as God’s people.
We’ve been trying to live into that truth and that promise since way before the Exodus. And it remains a challenge. I pray this week we will remain stiff necked enough, willing to push God to reassure us of God’s presence, firmly headed to the promised land, and open to having our footsteps turn into dancing.