“Normal Never Was, God Always Is: Hindsight 20/20”
October 3, 2021
No reading ahead, folks
This week we conclude our sermon series “Normal Never Was, God Always Is.” We began the series with Moses and a burning bush. Last week we considered Paul and Silas and the songs that kept them steady in the darkest of nights. This week we go back to Moses, but how we find him on the other side of the Exodus.
They have successfully escaped from Egypt and the threat of Pharaoh’s army, but now they must survive the threats from within – and all of that in an unforgiving wilderness.
When you’re in the wilderness – it is tempting to believe that there is simply not enough – that God is not enough. Our reading today rests on that question: is God enough when everything is all wrong?
The background for this exchange between Moses and God is that it comes immediately after the “Golden Calf” episode that may be familiar to you.
A quick recap: while Moses was up on Mount Sinai receiving the Ten Commandments, the people down below got restless.
They wanted a god that they could see.
So they pooled all their gold together, melted it down and made a statue of a calf. They lifted this golden calf up and said “LOOK and SEE – these are your Gods, Israel.”
And at that precise moment Moses comes down carrying two Tablets bearing the Ten Commandments – the second of which is:
“You shall not make for yourself an idol…You shall not bow down to them or worship them.”
Yeah – receiving that law at that particular moment is the very definition of bad timing. Moses gets angry – vein pulsing in forehead angry – so angry that he smashes the ten commandments on the ground, takes their golden calf, burns it, grinds it to powder, throws it on the water and then he makes the people drink it. So next time a child thinks you’re mean for making her eat the solitary green bean on her dinner plate you just read her that part of the Bible to put it all in perspective. That was not auto-biographical at all
So yes, Moses is angry…but so is God – and now Moses is terrified that the Lord is going to leave them high and dry in the middle of the wilderness.
As we read the Scripture, I want you invite you to try something. If you have a pen and paper or perhaps your cell phone – make a note and at the top write the word See and the word Know. Every time you hear a variation of the word “SEE” put a mark under that column and the same for every time you hear a variation of the word Know. You’ll be surprised how many times those two words show up in this passage. Let’s listen:
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.”
The Lord 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 [the Lord] 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,” [God] 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.”
The thing about life in the wilderness is that you’re always looking ahead to the day when you can at long last leave it behind. It’s probably why the desert offers mirages of a watery oasis.
In these bonus COVID days we’re living through I am certainly prone to that kind of tunnel vision.
Every Monday I participate in a call with area clergy. Dr. Wes Wallace joins us each week and offers his latest assessment of all things COVID. This past Monday, for the first time in a long time, he had a very hopeful word for us – the models they’re running show a steep decline of the infection rate, especially once we get authorization to vaccinate children, 5 to 11 years old.
You could practically taste the anticipation of all these religious leaders salivating over the possibility of returning our communities “back to normal.” And yet Dr. Wallace was quick to rein us back in. “These are merely projections,” he said, “and as we all know, a lot can change awfully quickly.” But it was almost too late – hope was out of the bag and we were already imagining a future without masks or contact tracing. I dare say that, for a moment, we were already living there in our minds.
But alas, Dr. Wallace is right – if the Back to the Future film series has taught us nothing, it is dangerous to speculate about what the future might look like. Michael J Fox took us all the way into the distant future of…2015 …where we would doubtlessly have hoverboards and flying cars. Six years later and I’m still waiting for these marvelous inventions.
Or if you’ve ever managed to sit through it, Stanley Kubrick “2001: Space Odyssey” in 1968. There’s one scene where a man on an intergalactic business trip stops to make a phone call back home to his daughter. He dials her up AND lo and behold he can see her on the screen – amazing, right? It was when Lyndon Johnson was President.
Even back then they could foresee a future in which there was something like Zoom or Facetime, technology that would enable you to actually see your loved ones and not just hear their voice. What’s funny though, is that the man still steps into a phone booth to make that call. They could imagine Facetime, but they couldn’t imagine all that technology fitting in your pocket.
Speculating about the future is dangerous stuff. We often get it wrong.
And yet it does not diminish our desire to see it clearly.
The Hebrews wanted a god they could see – and so they made that golden calf.
Now, Moses knows that an idol made of gold is no god at all, but even he wants to see God, too – to know that God would be with him. Seeing words show up ten times in this text; Knowing words five times. Seeing and knowing God are definitely the going concern in this text.
Throughout the conversation Moses is hounding God – he is determined to extract a promise of continued presence out of the Lord.
God offer plenty of verbal assurances. God says things like:
“My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.”
“you have found favor in my sight, and I know you by name.”
But for Moses, that’s not enough. “Show me your glory” he asks.
I began my pastoral career in Kansas City. I don’t know if you’ve ever been to Missouri or spent any time staring at their license plates. If you have, you’ll know that Missouri is “The Show Me State.”
What a weird slogan.
North Carolina is the Old North State.
California is the Golden State – that makes sense.
New Jersey is the Garden State – that makes…less sense.
But still – The Show-Me State???
The legend is that Congressman William Vandiver attended a naval banquet in 1899 where he delivered a speech. He said: “I come from a state that raises corn, cotton and cockleburs, so frothy eloquence neither convinces nor satisfies me. I am from Missouri. You have got to show me.”
Moses would have made an excellent Missourian.
“Show me your glory.”
Don’t talk about it God, show me.
God can give Moses ten commandments written on stone.
God can make manna rain from heaven.
There’s a lot God can do, but God cannot give Moses what he asks.
“You cannot see my face,” God says.
And then in perhaps what is one of the more anthropomorphic stories about God, Moses is told to stand in the cleft of a rock so that when God passes by, he will be able to see God’s…well, God’s backside.
Throughout the centuries – Jewish Rabbis have had a field day interpreting this one – what does it mean that Moses can’t see God’s face? What does it mean that he can see God’s backside.
That’s even more bizarre than the Show Me State!
One interpretation stands out to me, however. The 13th century Rabbi Gersonides (Gare-so-nides) wondered if, when God says you will see my back, could it mean “you will see the events that I leave in my wake.”
You cannot get ahead of me.
You cannot see me coming.
You cannot know the future.
But after I have passed by, you will see and know that I was there.
I don’t know about you, but that rings true for me.
It’s hard for me to see God in the present with all my tunnel vision on the problems of the present. But with a little time and perspective – I can look over my shoulder and see goodness and mercy following me – even through dark valleys. I see how God made a way where there seemed to be no way. Hindsight is always 20/20.
I think one of the hardest things I’ve done in my life was to live in Haiti.
That gave me a whole new appreciation for folks who really commit to something like the Peace Corp. For me it was much less time – 107 days living at Wings of Hope in Haiti among a community of disabled children and young adults.
I treasure that time, I really do, but it was difficult.
One of the young men at Wings, Pepe, died while I was there.
And then somebody failed to lock the door at night and so the generator was stolen and so we rarely had power at night.
I got some kind of parasite or something and lost a lot of weight in the worst way possible. I shudder when I see pictures from that time – I look so hollowed out.
There were days when I just wanted to be home.
I was in the wilderness and I just wanted it to be over.
But now – 20 years on the other side of that experience – I do remember that it was hard…physically and emotionally…but what stands out are the moments of gift and grace.
I remember ________ (got to ask Bill for his name) stopping me in the hallway and saying to me “I know this is hard and you don’t feel well, but it means so much to me and to the children that you are here,” and he gave me a hug. In hindsight that moment feels like a glimpse of God’s face.
I remember Celeste – who had cerebral palsy and was wheelchair bound, but was so incredibly joyful and how she greeted me daily with the one and only word that she knew: “Yeah!” I remember how she was as excited to greet me on that 107th morning as she had been on the first. In hindsight that moment feels like a glimpse of God’s face.
Do you know what else I remember? I remember Sam and Kay Leaman coming from UPC…with Sandy Alexander and his dear mother Elinor. It was a small group but they invited me to accompany them from place to place across the Haitian countryside. At the time I thought it a nice change of pace – I remember really liking them and hoping they had a good experience.
What I never could have imagined was that Kay and Sam would go home full of the Spirit and galvanize a whole host of people here in Chapel Hill to go with them the next time.
I couldn’t have imagined the teacher workshop that team developed and led year after year and the incredible network of relationships they’ve maintained for the better part of two decades.
I couldn’t have imagined Sandy bringing a men’s group from UPC to Haiti where they helped build a road for the Reforestation project so that farmers might have easier access to markets.
That emaciated 23 year-old couldn’t have predicted any of that.
So now – this thankfully more healthy 43 year old can look back on all of that and say “In hindsight, that, too, feels like a glimpse of God’s face.
Remember with me from two weeks ago when Meg talked about the name of God – Yahweh. Do you remember what it means. “I am” – II am who I am” or “I will be who I will be.”
You cannot see Yahweh’s face, you cannot see the future, because the future is not set – but it is in God’s hands, and God will be who God will be – good and merciful to the very end.
Wherever we are – wherever we might find ourselves – I encourage us to check our blind spots. Even in darkest valleys, see if that goodness and mercy aren’t following behind you. Hindsight is 20/20. Amen.