Ordinary 29A — October 19, 2014

God With Skin On

Exodus 33:12-23                 

Moses said to the Lord, “See, you have said to me, ‘Bring up this people’; but you have not let me know whom you will send with me. Yet you have said, ‘I know you by name, and you have also found favor in my sight.’ Now if I have found favor in your sight, show me your ways, so that I may know you and find favor in your sight. Consider too that this nation is your people.” He said, “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.”
And he said to him, “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? In this way, we shall be distinct, I and your people, from every people on the face of the earth.”
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.” Moses said, “Show me your glory, I pray.” And he said, “I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you the name, ‘The Lord’; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. But,” he said, “you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.”
And the Lord continued, “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.”
In today’s text, we are stepping into the middle of an argument.  In fact, we find ourselves in the middle of a really heated argument between Moses and God.  At the heart of this conflict is the question of how much more God is willing to take of the stubborn, stiff-necked people of Israel.  And as arguments go, this one is a doozy.  Hang onto your hat folks.  I think it’s safe to say that things are becoming seriously unraveled on this trip to the Promised Land.
To be clear, we are entering into an argument in chapter 33 of Exodus that began in chapter 32.  As you may recall, Moses was significantly delayed in coming down from Mt. Sinai where he is studying the covenant with God, and after a good while – 40 days to be exact — the people begin to panic.  With Moses nowhere to be seen, the people are pretty sure that God has also abandoned them, so they turn to Aaron, the guy Moses left in charge.  And with Aaron’s blessing, they all decide to melt down all their jewelry and make a substitute god to make themselves feel better.  Which of course, you know, is exactly what God just got done telling them NOT TO DO.  In the Ten Commandments.  Remember that part about not making idols?  Well, the people of Israel, in their fear and panic, throw out the rules.
So they make themselves a bright and shiny idol.  While a golden calf seem like an odd choice to you and me, for people in that day, a calf was the perfect choice for a deeply frightened people.  In the ancient world, a calf or young bull represented everything good — strength, fertility and endurance.  Best of all, a golden calf is the sort of god that the people of Israel could see and touch and hold in their hands and depend upon.  Unlike Moses who had probably ditched them or been eaten by a bear up there on Mt. Sinai.   And it’s probably just as well because things with Moses hadn’t been going so swimmingly.  And a golden calf seemed better than YHWH who had also turned out to be a huge disappointment.  What kind of God was this – so demanding on the one hand, and completely unreliable on the other?  Since neither Moses nor God seemed to be coming back anytime soon, Aaron and the people took matters into their own hands.
You know the rest of the story.  The Israelites are really whooping it up at the altar they’ve built for their shiny new god. It’s all fun and games and revelry until Moses shows up.  Moses is furious, mostly because he had just finished using every negotiating tool in the book to change God’s mind about frying up all the people like so many sausages as punishment for their idol worshipping ways.
God had told Moses up on the mountain about what was going on with the people.  But when Moses finally comes down off the mountain and sees for himself the people yucking it up, Moses loses it.   Moses is so sick of the constant second-guessing and complaints and whining that he shatters the stone tablets he just finished hauling down the mountain into a million pieces.  He grabs the golden calf, throws it into the fire, tosses the charred ashes into the people’s drinking water, and then literally forces them to choke on their false god. And then he calls out the Sons of Levi – the priestly order – and tells them to go kill all the unfaithful  people, and that’s just what they do.  The Levites kill 3,000 people including many of their own relatives. 
It’s not a pleasant scene.  It’s a horrible scene.  It’s a terrible, bloody day.  All because the people just couldn’t hold it together long enough for Moses to come back. 
When God seems completely absent, it creates a choice for all human beings.  When God gets quiet, we can choose to stay faithful, hang in there, and wait to see what God is up to.  Or we can become so anxious that we begin to look for something else to fill the space that belongs to God.  And all of us have felt abandoned by God at one time or another, and all of us have filled that empty space with anything – everything – but God.  We turn to an idol that we can design and, most of all, an idol we can control, instead of trusting an uncontrollable God.  Human beings do it all the time. 
Anyone who has ever suffered great loss can understand what one scholar calls the “crisis of presence” experienced by the Israelites.  Most of us have had those dark nights of the soul in which we wonder where God has gone and if God is ever coming back.  Like the Israelites, all we want is for God to show up and save us.  It doesn’t seem too much to ask, does it?
This violent, vindictive Moses is not one I like very much, to tell you the truth.  This is not a God I like either.  For while I understand the anger, I also understand what life must have felt like for the Israelites without the steadying presence of Moses. 
I don’t think I ever noticed before that 3,000 people die in this story.  And I can’t think of a way to pretty up that particularly awful scene up except to say what is painfully obvious.  The people messed up.  Sin in scripture, sin in our lives – sin always has consequences.  Sometimes the consequences are small ones that we barely even notice.  But sometimes, our sins create terrible suffering for innocent people.  The Ebola epidemic in West Africa is a pretty good example of how poor countries suffer due to a lack of basic political and medical infrastructure – infrastructure that is within the power of the rest of the world to help provide.  It isn’t until those of us in more developed countries feel personally threatened by a life-threatening disease that we move to act decisively to rescue our neighbors.
But God is merciful to the Israelites.  God decides that God will not destroy them, but God has also decided that God won’t go with them.  God is done being so personally involved with these feckless people. God’s hurt is as deep as their sinfulness. Instead, God will send an angel to lead them.  God will keep God’s part of the deal – the people will get to the land God has promised them.  But God tells Moses that God has had enough of the stiff-necked Israelites. 
I read a story about a little boy who was asked by his mother one night to go out into the yard and to put his toys away. He started to go outside, but once out there he quickly turned about and came back inside. He told his mother “I’m afraid of the dark, won’t you come out with me?” His mother reminded him that he wasn’t really by himself, that Jesus was always with him and would never abandon him. With that the boy went out again. But no sooner had he gone out than he returned, saying he was still afraid of the dark. When his mother reminded him that Jesus was with him and that he wasn’t by himself, he replied that he knew that, but that “sometime I need somebody with skin on.”
That’s what Moses is looking for in our text today.  He needs more than just God’s promise of presence.  Moses wants more than just an angel.  Moses wants the real deal, somebody that Moses can see and touch and know is with him. Moses had never been exactly thrilled with this job of leading the unruly Israelites to begin with, and to travel on with only a proxy standing in for God is a deal breaker.  So we hear Moses’ audacious argument with God in our text today.  Listen to the first part of the exchange as Eugene Peterson renders it in The Message:
Moses said to God, “Look, you tell me, ‘Lead this people,’ but you don’t let me know whom you’re going to send with me. You tell me, ‘I know you well and you are special to me.’ If I am so special to you, let me in on your plans. That way, I will continue being special to you. Don’t forget, this is your people, your responsibility. God said, “My presence will go with you. I’ll see the journey to the end.” Moses said, “If your presence doesn’t take the lead here, call this trip off right now. How else will it be known that you’re with me in this, with me and your people? Are you traveling with us or not? How else will we know that we’re special, I and your people, among all other people on this planet Earth?”
Moses wants what we all want.  Moses wants certainty.  He wants God in the skin.  Moses knows that without God’s presence, the Israelites are no more special than any other people on the earth.  The only thing that makes God’s people distinct from all other people is God’s presence.  Without God, Moses and the people have no identity at all. Without God, they are just another dusty, nomadic people, scratching out an existence and depending upon whatever idol they can muster up to make it through another day. 
And perhaps it is Moses’ straight up confession of deep neediness that causes God to give in.  God says, “All right. Just as you say; this also I will do, for I know you well and you are special to me. I know you by name.”
It’s the craziest thing, isn’t it?  After everything that’s happened – the unfaithful people, Aaron’s blunder, the calf, the dancing, the broken tablets, the broken promises – despite all of it, God is what God always is.  Merciful.  Gracious.  Steadfast in love. 
But while there are no limits to God’s love, there are limits to how much God will reveal.  God will go with the people and Moses will see God, but Moses will not see God’s face.  Moses asks to see God in all God’s glory, but all he will see is God’s back as God moves into the future.  It is as if Moses is experiencing what Paul describes in I Corinthian 13:12, “…now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.” 
We are known.  We are loved.  God chooses to be in relationship with us, which means that God accepts being vulnerable to the pain that happens when we mess up our relationship with God and with other people.  God is distraught when we get distracted by idols and depend on something other than God to know who we are.  Yet this story, and indeed the whole story of scripture shows how God chooses again and again to abide with us through all of our wilderness wanderings. 
It is enough.  A glimpse of God is enough for Moses and the people to begin again.   In the first verse of the next chapter of Exodus, God will hit the restart button and say to Moses – go get two more tablets of stone, and we will try this again.  Forget about the tablets you smashed to bits in anger, forget about the calf and the chaos. Let’s take another 40 days and 40 nights up on Mt. Sinai, just you and me.  We are gonna make this work.  It is enough for God and it is enough for Moses to know that they need one another, and the people need Moses if they’re going to be what God has always intended for them to be.  A blessing to the whole world. 
Sometimes it feels as if we are all stuck in the cleft of a rock trying to see God’s face. I think the whole church is living in a what feels like a “Rock of Ages” moment, seeking the presence of God, waiting to catch a glimpse of God’s glory so we can know in which direction to go.  We are all longing to see God with skin on.  Sometimes the promise of God’s presence doesn’t quite cut it.  We want more. 
We want the real deal when we’re scared out of our wits by what tomorrow will bring or what we see on our televisions or what we fear about our churches.
We want the real deal when we’re lonely.
We want the real deal when we’re sick or in pain.
We want the real deal when the bad news arrives and we don’t know what to do.
We want the real deal when we’ve lost the one person we can’t do without.
We want God’s presence.  And if Moses could trust that brief glimpse of God’s back, how much more can we who have received the incarnation of God in Jesus trust that God is with us right now?  Through the power of Holy Spirit, we can see and touch and know God through the glorious skin of our fellow human beings. 
We are the real deal for one another.
The real deal glory that is the reassuring voice.
The real deal glory that is the unexpected visit or phone call.
The real deal glory that is seeing Christ in the form of the person standing in front of you.  Or sitting next to you.  Holding your hand, rubbing your back, cracking a terrible joke at just the right moment, saying absolutely the wrong thing but saying it so kindly and lovingly that it sounds like prayer.  Stumbling and bumbling with you just like we all stumble and bumble through the wilderness of human existence. 
That is the real deal, so much better than any idol we can imagine.  God with us, as clearly as we’ll see God in this life.
God promises to stick with Moses, but not in the way Moses wanted God to stick with him.  God stuck with him anyway.
Jesus told his disciples that he would be with them always, but it took them a long time to understand what that promise meant.  Jesus stuck with them anyway and sticks with us always.
God promises to always be with us, but hardly ever in the way we would choose it if we were designing the God we want.  Our golden calf sure does sparkle and it surely does shine.  But every winsome idol in the world can never, ever be as real a deal to us as the Holy Spirit in all its messiness and disruption and comfort and grace. 
May we hold out for what is real.  The love of God, the peace of Christ and the constant presence of the Holy Spirit.  One God.  For us.  With us.  Though us.  Now and forever.
Thanks be to God.  Amen.