The Face of God
Of all the places in the Bible this is one of those passages that is most intriguing. Moses ask to see the very person of God with his own mortal senses, and God grants his request. Moses is hid in the cleft of a rock; perhaps a cave. God passes by and covers the opening, until Moses is allowed to see the back of God moving away from him. The reason for this is because no mortal being is able to look upon the face of God and live.
There are some places in the scriptures that I wish would include more detail and this is one of them. The Bible doesn’t tell us what Moses saw. The nature and content of God’s glory is left completely to our imagination, but from Moses we do learn that it is possible to encounter the single glory of God. To Moses God was not just an ethereal theology lurking in the wind and leaves of nature, but God was a whole person reality trampling upon the mountainside in the wilderness. Exactly how did God reveal himself to Moses, I am not sure, but to Moses with all his daily senses God was tangible and personally interactive. God chose to be present with Moses in this manner.
Sometimes I think we all would like to be able to know God in that way. In the midst of the questions and difficulties in life wouldn’t you like to know God in such a tangible way? How would your life change if you were able to witness the very glory of God?
It was this human desire to know God and this human need to have certainty about one’s knowledge that, to a large part, was the very reason Moses asked to see God.
If you read a bit before our text you pick up on the significance of today’s conversation. This is taking place after Moses had spent a long time on Mount Sinai, amidst the dark clouds and God’s veiled presence, talking with God. Moses brought back the Ten Commandments only to find the people worshipping a calf of gold that Arron had made. They were eating and drinking, and worshiping this idol and saying, “Here O Israel is our god who brought us up out of the land of Egypt.” No sooner did Moses turn his back and God gave them a moment to make their own choices than they all went the wrong direction. When Moses saw what they were doing in anger he smashed the tablets with the 10 commandments written upon them. I guess maybe he thought them not worthy to even receive them.
The story goes on to tell that because of their sin the people died by the sword and a plaque, and now Moses is back in dialog with God. God is telling Moses that he will send an angel before them as they go to take over the land from the inhabitants, but God indicates that He isn’t going to go with them. God tells Moses in Exodus 33:3 “Go up to a land flowing with milk and honey; but I will not go up among you, or I would consume you on the way, for you are a stiff-necked people.” Because of the sin and hard-hearted attitude none of them are likely to make it if God goes up among them, because the holiness of God will not be able to abide next to the sinfulness of the people.
It is here that Moses pleads their case. He intercedes again for the Israelites and argues that there is simply no sense in even trying if God is not going to be with them. Moses leans upon the words of God’s promise to him and God’s declaration of God’s favor upon him. Moses brings to remembrance the promises God had made that these people would be his people. Like an attorney Moses argues the point.
Now what is truly telling about this whole story is that God quickly agrees with Moses. God renews his promise to do as Moses desires, and basically says I will go with you, and you don’t have to worry. Be at ease Moses.
But do you remember how this story goes? Ultimately, these exact people do not make it into the land that God had promised them. They doubted that God would give them victory. When they saw the land and the people in it they became fearful and did not believe. As a result, the children of Israel were sent back into the desert until that entire generation had passed away. God’s warning proved true, but God kept taking the long road because Moses kept interceding for the people’s lives. It was in the midst of this dynamic that Moses sought reassurance that he had found favor with God and that the covenant relationship with God was strong.
Moses asked to see God. Moses heard God’s voice in the burning bush. He had seen God’s might in the miracles of the Exodus. He had been speaking directly to God amidst the dense clouds, with God’s presence veil from him. Now, Moses wanted to know God without being separated by a veil of cloud and smoke. He wanted to see what glory surrounded this voice that speaks and the hand that moves the earth, water, and the stars of the sky. Moses wanted to know for sure that his relationship with God was solid. To be granted such an audience with God was to be certain of having gained a high level of intimacy and connection with God.
Should we say that Moses request was audacious? I think so. Should we think that it was dangerous? Without a doubt. 1 Timothy 6:16 describes God in this manner, “It is he alone who has immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see; to him be honor and eternal dominion.”
This past summer our nation went a bit crazy because we were in the direct path of a solar eclipse. The great American eclipse they called it. My brother traveled from Florida to Tennessee to see totality, but he had this eclipse on his calendar since he was about 10 years old when he saw his first eclipse. It was a big event. People talked about this celestial darkening of the skies like it was a religious experience. However, one thing we were told about the eclipse was to not look up at the sun without having your eyes protected from the intensity of the light. A person can go blind looking at the sun. If this is true for a celestial glory, how much might we be wise to fear a heavenly glory.
Moses would dare to trod upon dangerous holy and heavenly ground, but again God in his mercy and love, said yes to Moses request. Every time God was quickly willing to do for Moses as Moses requested. God was willing to spare the Israelites even though he knew that they would not obey. God was willing to move among them even though the outcome was going to be less than perfect. God was willing to reveal his very own person to Moses eyes, as much as Moses mortal frame could handle, just because Moses asked. God was willing and even desired to keep his promise and relationship with Moses through thick and thin. There is the righteousness of God and there is God’s love and mercy that continues to abound within this story.
Now what I think we should learn from all of this is that God hasn’t changed. God wants a relationship with you. God will and does go the extra mile even when we are dumb and hard hearted and sometimes working to make a good deal fail. If we prevail upon God, God will answer in the affirmative when it comes to having a relationship with him. We may not be perfect but God is. Not only that but if we ask God for revelation with regard to His nature and plan, God will reveal truths to us. There are still moments of divine glory that break through into our lives.
Now obviously, all of these truths have been summed up and given to us in and through the life of Jesus Christ. If you want to know God’s word to you and nature of God within our world than the first place to look and pray is toward Christ. For through him has come the forgiveness of sin, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, and the manifestation of the glory of God within life today.
As I think about this, I believe that in many ways God’s glory and presence is closer to us now than ever before. Maybe sometimes we miss it not because we are not looking for it, but because it is within us and in the lives of all who have called upon the name of Christ. Do you want to see the glory and nature of God? Sometimes all you have to do is pay attention.
One preacher Robert S. Crilley tells a story of volunteering at a clothing locker in downtown Detroit. He writes every Wednesday, I made my way over to the small Episcopal Church which ran the clothing locker — always hoping that I would see the Lord’s glory, but never being quite sure where to look.
There was one morning, though, that I will never forget. It was a bone-chilling day in February, and when I pulled into the parking lot, there was already a line of people at the door. I had barely gotten myself organized, when down the stairs came an elderly gentleman carrying an armload of clothes. “These are all donated from my church,” he said, “Where do you want them?”
“Just put them over there for now,” I replied, pointing to a table against the wall.
“I’ve got a whole van load!”
“Well, I’d offer to help,” I said, “but you see the line at the door.”
“Don’t worry about it. I can manage.” He smiled and trotted back up the stairs.
I let the first fellow in. “How can I help you?”
“I need a pair of shoes,” he whispered in a low, gravelly voice.
I peered over the counter, and my goodness, did he ever. I mean, the shoes he was wearing weren’t fit to play fetch with a dog. They were cracked and worn. In fact, he had taken a piece of twine and wrapped it around them just to keep the shoes intact. “What size do you wear?” I asked.
I went back to the shelf and rummaged through a few boxes. “It doesn’t look like we have any right now,” I said, returning to the counter. “But people bring in clothes all the time. You see this man unloading his van. It happens almost every morning. I’m sure if you come back tomorrow …”
“But I need shoes today,” he insisted.
“I know you do, but I can’t give you what I don’t have.”
“Mister, it’s awfully cold outside,” he pleaded.
“I realize that, but I’m not a cobbler. I mean, I can’t make shoes for you.”
Well, about this time, the elderly gentleman came over. I hadn’t been paying much attention to him, but evidently, he had been paying attention to us. “Did I overhear that you wear size ten shoes?” he asked.
Startled by the interruption, the man nodded meekly.
“Well, I wear size ten,” the older gentleman said. “Here, I’ll trade you.” He slipped off his shoes and set them on the counter. “You may have to break them in a bit,” he explained, “they’re new!” Having finished unloading the van, he wished us both a nice day, and walked out onto the cold, bitter pavement of that February morning, wearing those old, cracked shoes — gift-wrapped with twine.
Looking back, I now realize that something of God’s glory passed before me that day — veiled in the love which is constantly walking in our midst, seeking always to find us.
If you look around just a bit, you will see the glory of God that has been poured out upon our world and the reassurance of God’s presence and power abiding with us still.
Take a look and then ask yourself, how should this change your life? Where are you called to reveal the person and glory of God to another? Amen.