It isn’t until recently that I have been able to shake the image of Moses as Charlton Hesston. Cecile B. DeMille made an epic movie in 1956 called “The Ten Commandments.” It was nominated for seven academy awards. For years every time I heard Moses’ name I thought of Charlton Hesston stomping his foot and saying to Yul Brynner, “Let my people go!”
In the last couple years I have been able to lose that image and in doing so I have become more and more aware of just how fierce Moses was. He led a successful civil rights movement right past the oppressors and out of the country. Now every time I read about Moses I am reminded that religious leadership is a weird occupation.
At the end of each day, Moses had to come back down off the mountain and try to convince the people that what he was telling them was real and worth following. It was his word against theirs. This can be a problem. People want answers. They want proof. People turn to religion when their lives are in disarray and they want evidence. But good religion won’t give you answers. If you didn’t already know this I am sorry to break that news to you. Good religion doesn’t give you answers but it will help you live more fully into the questions as you and the divine explore the answers.
When we enter our Moses story today, Moses and God are in the middle of an argument about the shape of God’s relationship with Israel. This is a conversation that Moses and God have been having for a long time. When God first appears to Moses in a burning bush and tells him that it is time for the Israelites to leave the oppression of Egypt, Moses says, “Okay. So when I tell your people its time for a mass exodus who shall I tell them is the mastermind behind this operation?” You have to admire Moses. He had chutzpah. God says, “I am who I am.” Actually, the better translation is “I will be who I will be.” In other words, watch what I do in order to know who I am.
Later when Moses presses God again with this same question about God’s name, God expands the name, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt and the house of slavery.” God wants to be known by the fruit of God’s labor. “If you want to know who I am notice what I have done.” Later the name expands to: “I am the Lord their God, who brought them out of the land of Egypt in order that I might live with them.” God is still naming by works but is now naming a desire…the desire to live among the people God saved from oppression.
It all sounds kind of beautiful…this budding definition of relationship with the sacred….and then disaster strikes. Moses takes some time up on the mountain with God and when he gets back home he finds out that these people God wants to be with so badly have taken this opportunity to build a golden calf and worship it in a drunken orgy. Moses is distraught and God is furious. And that is the moment when we enter the scene today.
Moses is on Mt. Sinai arguing with God and he is demanding answers and taking names. Moses is thinking to himself, “How did I get here? O yeah, I remember, God called me to lead the Israelites out of slavery. I was minding my own business when God came and called me into set-apart ministry. I said, ‘Are you sure you want me? Yup, God said.” But Moses isn’t done. He turns his dismay on God. “It is hard work, you know, leading your people out of slavery and I’ve had hardly had a day off since. Now you’re mad and you have started referring to the Israelites as Moses’ people.”
Moses isn’t going to let God off the hook. “You called us out here into the middle of the desert. You have consistently given me really high marks on all job performance reviews and now you want to hand this whole mess to me and walk away? No thank you!”
“I’m not walking away,” God says. “I will send you an avatar to lead you. Listen Moses, you need to understand, I’m just too angry to be here. I might hurt someone. I’ll just meet you in Canaan.”
“No way, Yahweh. You owe me this one. You have to come with us or no one will know that you are our God. You started this whole thing and you can’t walk away when it gets tough.” Don’t you just love Moses speaking truth to power? He is so hardcore.
Now notice that this is an Old Testament story and God doesn’t chose to smite Moses. Instead God says, “Okay. I’ll do what you ask because I really do like you and you make a convincing argument.”
While Moses has God in a more agreeable mood he says, “One more thing…..could you please let me see you, face to face?” He wants God to come out of hiding and stop being so coy. He wants what is hidden to come out into the light of day; for the veiled to become unveiled. Sometimes Moses felt so close to God. He had so many mountaintop experiences. But other times he felt misled and spiritually dried up and so cut off from God.
It happens to all of us. C.S. Lewis, a British novelist and lay theologian, who spent his life writing books and novels of Christian faith, married his true love in his late 50s. She was an American novelist named Joy. She died just four years after their wedding day, following an excruciating battle with cancer. Lewis was devastated and he filled four journals with his anguish. These were later published, under a pseudonym, in a book called “A Grief Observed.” I read that book after my husband died. In his rage and anguish I felt like Lewis had entered my brain and spoken my thoughts aloud. He writes things like:
- “I see people, as they approach me, trying to make up their minds whether they’ll ‘say something about it or not. I hate if they do, and if they don’t.”
- “The death of a beloved is an amputation.”
- “Was God, after all, a cosmic sadist?”
Eventually, as he scribbles his questions and rage down in his journals Lewis begins to find his answers. They aren’t my answers but he helped me name my questions. When we walk into the painful wildernesses of life we want God to explain and to be present with us in a visible and powerful way. Moses wants the same thing. “Let me see you in all your glory,” he says to God. Moses knows that this whole liberation movement rests on who God is. Not on who the people are…who God is. Moses wants God to be present….to live in the midst of the people…to be Immanuel…God with us.
God says, “Listen. This is what I will do. I will pass before you in all my goodness and glory. As I do I will tell you my latest expanded name. Here it is: I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious and I will show mercy to whom I show mercy. There you go. That is the latest version of my name. But the face to face request is more than I can grant. I cannot let you see my face for it would be too much for you. You couldn’t possible experience me in all my power and glory and live to tell about it. But here is what I will do. See that cleft in the rock. I will hide you in that cleft and when I pass by I will shield your eyes with my hand. When I am moving away I will remove my hand and you will see the backside of me.” So basically God offers to moon Moses.
I did some looking at the word “cleft” this week. It comes from the word cleave which has two exact opposite meanings. One means to cling. “The two cleaved to each other in the storm.” It also means to sever. You know what a cleaver is. God puts Moses into the cleft of the rock, a v-shaped space formed by a fracture, in order to safeguard him.
Following the unexpected death of her husband, Jan Richardson, an author and artist, wrote a book called, The Cure for Sorrow: A Book of Blessings for Times of Grief. In this book she has writes about the confusing role of the cleft of the rock.
In the Cleaving
I know how
this blessing looks:
like it is
like it is
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
even as it sees you
from every angle,
by your name.
I know the ache
of vision that comes
in such fragments,
the terrible wonder
of glory that arrives
but 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
that binds itself to us
even in the rending;
that unhinges us
even as it
makes us whole.
Moses, in a time of great disappointment and anger, has an unprecedented encounter with God.
He sees God but only as God walks away from Moses…
only from the backside…
only once the glory has passed by already.
Moses doesn’t see God.
Moses sees where God has been.
And in the passing God says, “I am the one who shows graciousness. I am the one who shows mercy.” The full glory remains unseen but Moses makes the whole journey knowing only the backside of God…the God of mercy and graciousness. Somehow the part of God he has now seen gives him enough strength to continue the journey.
Moses comes down from the mountain this time, as he had so many times before but this time he is ready to leave for Canaan…for the Promised Land. And this time his face is glowing from his encounter with God. In fact, if you read further you read that from then on Moses kept his face veiled because it continued to glow.
It is in the places of rending that we come to God wounded and vulnerable and completely honest, wearing our rage and anguish for all to see. In those places we encounter God in unprecedented ways. God calls us by name. God hides us in the cleft of the rock….in the midst of the fractured space. We catch glimpses…fragments of the sacred, even in the midst of our broken hearts. We see where God has been and blessed us in the past. It is in looking from the backside that we see how often God has been with us.
Look backwards my friends. See where God has been. Be unafraid. Witness the God of mercy and graciousness from your cleft in the rock. Amen.