Grace Presbyterian Church
October 22, 2017, Pentecost 20A
Uncertainty, Glory, Goodness
In the movie When Harry Met Sally, there are over the course of the film a number of scenes, separate from the plot, in which couples, mostly couples who have apparently been married for some time, tell the stories of how they came together and fell in love. One of the stories stands out from the others because this couple, unlike the others, was brought together in an arranged marriage.
In telling their story, he (she never spoke) described how he had never seen his future bride at the time their marriage was arranged. He did not complain about a marriage being forced upon him (it was part of his culture), but he was distressed at not knowing what his bride looked like. Finally he describes how he snuck out one evening and made his way to her village to see her; once he had, he was very happy to go through the wedding. But his earnest insistence – “I had to know;” “I had to see her” – stood out among those happy couples.
Silly as it might seem, that movie clip is a pretty good summation of how we human beings react in the face of uncertainty, the stressful and unpleasant business of not knowing. It’s the unknowability and unpredictability that gives a sporting event its particular tension; can my team score one more run, sink one more basket? In other situations it’s not such a benefit to our enjoyment of life.
It’s one thing in a movie. In real life, I have to admit I’d have been pretty stressed if I had never met Julia before our wedding day. There are situations, though, in which our human urgency to know, to be sure, leads us astray. We feel compelled – we feel entitled, even – to know exactly how things are, what they mean, or what comes next.
In today’s lesson from Exodus we see one example of how that urge for certainty works, and sometimes causes us humans to ask things of God that simply are not ours to have. The story at this point follows one of the lowest points of the whole Exodus narrative: when Moses took longer than expected to come down from the mountain, the people prevailed upon Aaron to gather up all the gold from among the Israelites and fashion a golden calf, a tangible image to stand in for the God who always remained just out of sight. You might remember that one of those commandments God had given to Moses forbade exactly that kind of thing – no graven images, remember?
The fearfulness of the people – their uncertainty in the absence of Moses and the unknowability of God – led them to demand an image they could see and touch – and control, to be honest. No longer able or willing to maintain faith in God, they resort to the kind of idols and statues they had no doubt seen many times back in Egypt.
Fear is a powerful force against faith. In fact, fear and faith, some say, don’t really coexist; the former tends to drive out the latter when it is left unchecked. In the case of the Israelites it certainly seems to have overcome their trust in God and Moses too.
Given the horrific sin of the golden calf, God (who does talk like this in Exodus) is ready to be done with the Israelites once and for all, to wipe them away and start over, making a new nation from Moses as God had done with Abraham many generations before. It is left to Moses to intercede for the Israelites, and he does so forcefully. First he demands to know that God will go with the Israelites, not only not wiping them out but continuing to be with them directly as God has done so far. Moses and God engage in some hair-splitting as to whether it is sufficient for God to be with Moses, or if God must be with all the Israelites. Even when God seems to acquiesce in Moses’s demands, Moses keeps pressing for more, and God keeps consenting more.
To be fair, Moses is in a difficult position. He can no longer trust the people. Not only have they committed the grave sin of idolatry, they have shown themselves to be profoundly unreliable and willing to turn against Moses at the drop of a hat. However, he also knows that if God disposes of the Israelites, or if God abandons them on their journey, they don’t stand a chance. Moses pleads with God, not just for his own sake, but also for the sake of the people. But again, there is fear involved. Moses fears for the people, but Moses also fears for himself and even for God.
And again, fear provokes Moses to go too far.
Earlier in Exodus Moses is described as speaking to God face-to-face, but this seems not to line up properly with how other parts of the book describe their encounters. In most cases, such as in the delivery of the Ten Commandments, God is described as speaking to Moses directly, but not visibly—God is usually obscured in clouds or otherwise somehow concealed from Moses. For Moses to ask God directly to “show me your glory” as in verse 18 is to ask for the obscuring to be wiped away, and to see God literally face-to-face.
God’s response to Moses is instructive, in a way that Christians of all times have tended to forget or ignore. Think of how one sees God portrayed in, say, paintings or movies. Dazzling, even blinding light, and all in white, of course, perhaps with a halo or aura of some sort. And in a movie, God is given a deep, commanding voice, like Morgan Freeman’s for example.
Now think of visual portrayals of Jesus. Paintings of Jesus’s earthly time tend to “glorify” him in some way. A halo again, or impossibly white robes despite being out on a dusty Judean highway. The oh-so-perfect face, dazzling hair, the bluest possible eyes (despite the fact that a citizen of that region of the Mediterranean is pretty severely unlikely to have blue eyes!); everything about the image is “glorified,” if not whitened.
Despite it being a basic tenet of our theology, we aren’t always comfortable with the idea of a human Jesus, doing human things. It’s as if we have this subconscious notion that a human Jesus is not a holy Jesus. A Jesus who eats or spits or scratches his head or any number of other peculiar human things somehow seems irreconcilable with the Son of God. We tend to want to keep Jesus obviously holy, even distantly holy, in our visualizations.
Moses is pushing for something similar here. By asking to see God’s glory (the word for “glory” is excruciatingly similar to the word for “face” in Hebrew, by the way), Moses is asking for the privilege of seeing God in the most God-like way possible. Dazzling, glorious, unmistakably God is what Moses wants, and God says no.
God will not show Moses glory; God will show Moses goodness; God will show Moses what it is to be merciful and gracious; but God will not show that elusive glory.
You would think we would have gotten the message somewhere along the way. What God wants us to see, what God wants to know of God, is goodness, mercy, grace. These are the things God wanted Moses to see; these are the traits Jesus showed in his ministry on earth; these are the traits we are meant to live out in following Christ.
And yet we keep asking for glory.
How best to put this? It is not our calling to bask in the glory of God, direct or reflected or any other way, and we certainly don’t get to hide from the world in seeking God’s glory. Our calling is to live out God’s goodness towards one another and to God’s good world. Our calling is to extend God’s mercy to those who – like us – fall short, who keep ending up in sin no matter how much we claim God’s redemption. Our calling is to abide in God’s grace, and to extend that grace to the people and the world around us.
And yet we keep asking for glory. While putting up roadblocks to God’s grace, and being as unmerciful as we can to those we dislike, while living as far away from God’s goodness as we can, we dare presume upon God’s glory.
At least the Israelites had the decency to be afraid after they built their golden calf. We prop up all manner of images and idols for our adoration and don’t even bat an eye about it. Wealth, fame, power, youth, for sure – but that just scratches the surface of the ways we practice forms of idolatry in routine, everyday ways.
Take what’s going to happen about an hour after this service ends, in six or seven or eight football stadiums across the country, just before the players go on the field and literally beat each other senseless, that flag over here will be presented, the anthem will be played, and those players will be expected to pay their obeisance to that flag, and if they don’t do so properly according to “the authorities,” they will be condemned. Folks, that’s idolatry, whether we like it or not.
Or take what happened here in our own town just this week. If you don’t think Richard Spencer has made an idol of whiteness, you’re not paying attention.
And even amidst our adoration of these graven images, we dare presume upon God’s glory.
What God wants from God’s people, primarily, has been framed many different ways. “Do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with God,” says the prophet Micah. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself,” says Jesus himself in the gospels. “Be transformed by the renewing of your minds,” says Paul, “so that you may know the will of God.”
This is what God wants fearful, angry Moses to see. This is what God wants the mistrustful, weak Israelites to see. This is what God wants us to see: what it looks like to live in God, what it is to live in the way that God calls us to live. While we keep demanding glorious dazzling light and constant stroking of our fearful egos, God wants us out there living grace and mercy to one another and to the world.
For a God who shows us goodness when we ask for glory, Thanks be to God. Amen.
“God Blessing the Seventh Day,” watercolor, William Blake. Honestly, the more depictions of God one sees, the more that whole “no graven images” commandment sounds wholly intelligent and sane.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #12, Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise; #81, Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken; #438, Rock of Ages, Cleft for Me; #582, Glory to God, Whose Goodness Shines on Me