The Rear View Mirror

The Rear View Mirror

Our October 2023 sermon series is called The Path of Freedom.

Exodus 33:12-23

12Moses 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.’ 13Now 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.” 14He said, “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.” 15And he said to him, “If your presence will not go, do not carry us up from here. 16For 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.”

17The 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.” 18Moses said, “Show me your glory, I pray.” 19And 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. 20But,” he said, “you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.” 21And the LORD continued, “See, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock; 22and 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; 23then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.”

Let us pray. Lord, be with us in times of knowing and times of not knowing. Give in shelter in times when to see clearly would be too much. And in my words may people hear your word. Amen.

“You know you’re at home in a church if you have hidden in it.” I said this as the youth began to spread out in an epic game of Sardines, where one person hides and everyone else seeks and if you find the hidden person you don’t yell, “Aha! I have found you, lying like Lazarus in the benches in the meditation room! Come out” No, everyone who finds the person hides with the person until all are crushed into the shadows like Sardines, hence the name. I realized that ever since I came to BPC, two years ago Tuesday, I have been making mental notes of hiding spots here. That is one of the long lasting side effects of growing up an active member of a Presbyterian Youth group.

But as I come to today’s text, I realize how hiding uncomfortably in a church building somehow made me very comfortable with God. I felt at home both in the sunshine Sunday mornings and in the dark clutter of a Sunday night, where I would wait stock praying someone would walk by. The life of faith is some grand mix of both.

By the time we get to our story today, this is Moses’ fourth time on the mountain with God. I don’t know if he felt comfortable in God’s dark presence or not. But everyone runs out of patience at some point and Moses in chapter 33 prays, “Show me your glory!” I imagine Moses was in between a rock and a hard place with his people dreaming of going back to Egypt and his future looking like never-ending wilderness. Long ago were the days when his call was on fire. Long ago were the days he stared down a Pharoah. Long ago the daring footsteps he took toward the Red Sea to see it part before him. Fresh on his mind the bottomless disappointment in humanity. Fresh on his mind the years that have passed. Fresh on his mind the bleak questions. What now? Who can be trusted? What was it all for?

It’s tempting to think if we just had more knowledge, we could avoid this cleft of insecurity. To think maybe a pledge of support or a selfie from God could drive away the shadow of hard times to come or soften the cold rock of loss. It’s tempting to believe that if we just had the answer key to all intractable problems, if we just knew the script for the future then we could rid our minds of the second-guessing and the loneliness that comes with leadership and frankly being a human.

 But today’s story is God saying, it doesn’t work that way. Today’s story is God saying, there are some truths that are too big for us. There are some situations too beautiful for us to comprehend, like ultraviolet light, beyond what we can register. Some miracles are so wonderful that we would doubt them instantly if we stared at them head on. And, indeed, there are some circumstances so painful that we cannot face the enormity of them and remain vertical. So, in today’s story, God hid Moses in the cleft of the rock and God showed Moses his back because Moses would never survive a face-to-face encounter.

I talked about this story with a pastor friend this week, who said, “Remember making those pinhole projector boxes in school in order to safely watch a solar eclipse.  You stand with your back to the sun and let it shine into your box and project on the opposite side. It felt pretty lame even for kids. It was even lame in the 80s when cardboard boxes were cool.  When you want to see the sun, sticking your head in a box seems like a good way to NOT see the sun.  It is exactly what God did to Moses.”

The Scriptures are full of humanity wanting to stare straight into God’s sun. Adam and Eve desired to know all good and evil. Job desired to know the reason for all suffering. The disciples desired to know the way to God, the plans, the program, somehow beyond the person of Jesus. The Apostle Paul finalized realized this was impossible for people. He wrote, “now we see through a glass dimly but then we will see face to face.” Because we are humans we want to know fully, but because we are only human, we can’t know, not fully. So, we often we find ourselves in the cleft of the rock, and there we get glimpses.

As a seminary student, I remember the hunger to know fully. I thought that finally, in the gothic stones of Princeton, there would be an unveiling of God’s truth, unshadowed by the humanity of teachers and shady hearers like me. But it didn’t work that way. There were however two things professors there taught me that gave me a better vantage point.

The first came from Professor LaRue. A fabulous preacher. In one of his sermons, he said, “It is a merciful angel that hides the future from our eyes.”

The second came from one of the theology professors, I can’t recall who, but picture someone in a tweed jacket. He said, “there are some things in life that can be better understood through the rearview mirror than the windshield.”

Those phrases reminded me that my view is often blocked, sometimes by where I happen to be seated and sometimes by the mercy of God. That was very comforting to me, beyond any of the standard Christian phrases that people stitch onto pillows or paint on coffee mugs. It felt like I could take refuge there, my rock.

Now don’t get me wrong, there have also been times when I have felt completely blasted by the goodness of God. Hiding in room off the sanctuary with bridesmaids and then walking down the aisle to marry Dave. The birth of my children where I felt like some portal of miracle had opened and turned me inside out so that my heart was now on the outside. The death of my mother and many days since when I have felt God’s goodness, in blinding color, removing all separation between me and every living creature on this earth with a mother or a loss of any kind. And most recently at funerals like the one we had on Monday, where it felt like God’s glory passed through this place full stride as we huddled in the cleft of these stones.

But far more often, I get glimpses. We get glimpses. Glimpses and that is enough. Emily Dickinson said it this way: By a departing light we see acuter quite, than by a wick that stays. There’s something in the flight that clarifies the sight and decks the rays.

And it is when we move forward in faith, not when we camp out, that more glimpses come. The beloved Catholic contemplative Thomas Merton said, “How shall we begin to know who You are if we do not begin ourselves to be something of what You are? We receive enlightenment only in proportion as we give ourselves more and more completely to God by humble submission and love. We do not first see, then act: we act, then see. . . . And that is why the man who waits to see clearly, before he will believe, never starts on the journey.”

The journey leads toward Jesus where we are able to see the face of God. There we glimpse God’s willingness to go to the end of the earth for us at the cross. There we glimpse the world turned inside out through his grace and crammed full, packed to the gills, with the grandeur of God. When we follow Jesus, his back ever before us, there we experience glory.

I’ll close with this blessing from Jan Richardson.

Believe me,
I know how
this blessing looks:
like it is
leaving you,
like it is
walking away
while you stand there,
feeling the press
of every sharp edge,
every jagged corner
in this fearsome hollow
that holds you.

I know how hard it is
to abide this blessing
when some part of it
remains always hidden
from view
even as it sees you
from every angle,
inhabits your
entire being,
calls you
by your name.

I know the anguish
of vision that comes
in such fragments,
the terrible wonder
of glory that arrives
only in glimpses.

So I am not here
to make excuses
for this blessing,
for how it turns
its face from us
when we need
to see it most.

But I want to believe
it will always
find its way to us
when we are in the place
made by cleaving—
the space left
by what is torn apart
even as it is joined
in the fierce union
that comes only
in the fissure.

I want to be unafraid
to turn toward
this blessing
that binds itself to us
even in the rending;
this blessing
that unhinges us
even as it
makes us whole.