Pastor Rick Danielson
Can you really know a person without seeing their face? Helen Keller routinely asked new acquaintances if she could feel the contour of their faces. The uniqueness of each nose and eyebrow and chin helped her to connect in a meaningful way to the persons she wished to know. There is a wonderful photograph of Helen Keller dressed in a mink stole, running her hands over the face of President Dwight D. Eisenhower in the White House.
Does God have a face? I guess the answer is yes if you happen to be reading Exodus. Moses was increasingly frustrated by God’s demands on him and the fact that he had never even seen God’s face. How could he keep following a being who he didn’t really, fully know? And how could he know or trust anyone who hadn’t even shown their face.
Faces can reveal the character of a person, or at least at times we imagine that is so. We talk of those who have an honest face. And we notice persons with “shifty eyes” who we suspect are less than honest. I wonder what it is about God’s character that Moses hoped to understand if he were to behold the face of the divine?
This story from the desert immediately follows some challenging days for the children of Israel. Their impatience led them to craft a lovely golden statue in the hopes of wooing an alternate deity. It didn’t work out well, and both Moses and God were angry. The phrase “stiff-necked” enter human vocabulary as God complained about the peoples’ fickleness. God still nudged them, though, on their way to the Promised Land, but announced that an angel would accompany them from that point forward. In other words, they lost the privilege of having God as their personal tour guide. Angels might be nice to have around, but they were a definite downgrade in this situation.
As Moses contemplated all that had happened and all that was still coming, he made a request of God. He wanted God’s self to be revealed to him. He wanted more information. More understanding. More enlightenment. Essentially, he wanted to know the unknowable. And he had to guts to ask for it.
Today’s reading titled “The Going Forth” is an excerpt from the life of the Buddha. In seeking enlightenment, he repudiated his life of privilege and lived on the kindness of others. His spiritual qualities were noted by others, and he was directed to a mountain where he would he would continue his quest. He is described as a tiger or a lion perched in a mountain cleft. Those words struck me this week, as I was also reflecting on the story in Exodus. We read there that Moses, like the Buddha, finds himself in the cleft of a mountain.
Each time we have focused on the Hebrew Scriptures and the saga in Sinai this fall, I’ve shared a bit about my relatively recent visit with Leroy to Mt. Sinai. I guess this will be the last time to do that, since the Israelites are ready to depart for points south. During our visit, we stayed in a Bedouin camp at the base of the mountain. Our tour guide, Mohammed, took us to the top of the mountain in time to view the sunset and the amazing array of orange and purple that spread toward the horizon. The problem with viewing the sunset from the top of a mountain is that you have to find your way back down to the base in the dark. That was not a problem for Mohammed who knew the mountain better than the back of his hand and who used his cell phone to light his way and text his girlfriend at the same time. Leroy and I, on the other hand, were totally out of our element and were spooked by a herd of camels who glared and spit at us as we passed by. The eyes of the camels were eerily illuminated by the moon. We had flashlights on our heads that made us look like coal miners but allowed us to grab onto rocks with both hands as we descended the narrow path. At one point, we reached a large rock and Mohammed stopped and directed us to turn off our beams. All around us, the universe flashed its bright lights through the black sky. I was completely in awe as we stood in the cleft of the mountain.
Moses wanted to know the unknowable as he waited for God in the cleft. And the truth is that God did not grant his request. Or maybe we could say that it was only partially granted. Moses wanted to see God, and God informed him that the power and glory emanating from God’s face would do him in. “No one can see God and live,” God said. So God covered Moses with a divine hand (oh – apparently God has a hand as well as a face) and protected him from the unbearable sight. And this is where the story gets really fascinating. As God passed by, Moses was able to see his back. Bible commentators have made much of this scene. One way to translate back is “back side,” causing some to suggest that Moses was mooned by God in retaliation for asking too much!
There is another way to understand what Moses did or did not see. The Hebrew words for seeing God’s back can also, and perhaps better, be translated to say that Moses saw “where God had been.”
Have you ever seen the place where God has been?
As much as I would like a front view of God, I realize that what we most often have is hindsight.
What Moses was looking for was certainty. For a clearer sense of direction and some verification that what he was taking by faith was in fact reasonable. It was all just too murky for him, so he did what humans are prone to do; he asked to know the unknowable.
If I was giving a title to my sermon right now instead of earlier in the week when it wasn’t quite fleshed out, I might choose to call it “The Uncertainty of Our Convictions.” During one of the Monday night sessions of our current adult education series called “Painting the Stars,” we reflected on the desire in many persons to have clear, black and white answers to perplexing questions about life and about God. As a result, some people carry around simplistic answers that don’t really hold up under scrutiny.
I know that for many years I felt a need to defend God. For example, to protect God from uncomfortable questions about the reliability of parts of the Bible. Or to defend traditional Christian dogma that didn’t make sense, such as the belief that good people from other religious traditions will spend a miserable eternity in hell. Questioning is not encouraged in an environment where people fear that their church of cards will collapse if one part is dismantled. One of the greatest gifts of grace I have received in my life has been the gift of overcoming fear, letting go of certainty, and embracing mystery and all of the beauty that comes with it.
Moses wanted more than God was willing to grant him. But he was given the privilege of seeing where God had been. It’s often in the aftermath that we reflect and understand how the great, holy mystery has been present.
Does God have a face and a hand and a back? We call words like this anthropomorphic: human physical aspects assigned to God because we, or the ancient writers, can’t help but perceive or make God in our own image. I guess that’s OK as long as we realize what we’re doing and that God can’t be contained and won’t be limited by our descriptions.
There are clefts all over the place. “Cleft” is an interesting word, I think. Certain chins have clefts. The Buddha climbed to a cleft. Moses was placed in a cleft. We have a cleft, too. It’s the place we climb to metaphorically – or even physically – in order to experience God or to ponder the mysteries of life.
As much as I would like to be up front with a clear view of God, I think maybe it’s better to settle into a cleft: the place of waiting, wondering, hoping, learning, and watching for the evidence of where God has been. It’s a place of questions where we learn to live with ambiguity and to embrace larger possibilities than our certainties would allow.
When I served an urban congregation I asked folks during a sermon once if they had ever climbed a mountain. Only one person said yes, and on questioning it turned out to be more like a medium-sized hill. I’m guessing that many if not most of you have climbed some serious mountains. One of my earliest and most vivid childhood memories is of climbing Mt. Katahdin, the tallest mountain on the eastern seaboard, in Maine when I was four years old. Or trying to. My older brothers and sisters scrambled up the trail with my Dad, but my little legs couldn’t keep up and I ended up sitting on a huge, lichen-covered rock with my mother, waiting for the others to return. There was a yellow plastic cup with a small amount of water shared from a canteen. The cup balanced precariously on the rock, and I knocked it over. I watched as the water ran down into a crack and disappeared. I’m sure my mother was mad about the water, and probably disappointed not to climb further. What I remember, though, is feeling safe on that rock on the mountain, beside the cleft, surrounded by forest, with my Mom. I didn’t have all that I wanted; I wanted to climb further; but what I had was enough for that day.
Has God revealed enough to you? Have you seen God’s back; the places where God has been; the evidence of grace even when you didn’t see it coming? Or do you still need to climb onto the rock and watch and wait and wonder? Regardless of how you understand God, I believe there is always more mystery to ponder from the perspective of the cleft. Amen.