Perhaps I wimped out, but I decided that some people might get so upset by the 'God's backside' phrase, That I've dropped it!
God turns his back
Sometimes a sermon starts with a text that is a struggle to understand. Sometimes life throws up such hard questions that the sermon needs to start there. And sometimes the two things come together. This week I have been wrestling with the reading from Exodus (33:12-23) but also wondering what we do in those times in life when it feels that God is far from us and doesn’t really care. And I hope the reading actually gives us some help with our questioning.
So what is the Exodus story all about? Moses is having a wobble - and you can't really blame him. After much pleading with Pharoah, and many miraculous interventions from God, God’s people have been released from Egypt. Then the people wander in the wilderness, complaining about the lack of food and water – and again are miraculously provided for by God.
Finally the people have arrived at Mount Sinai, and Moses goes up the mountain to receive God’s law. This is no quick task – there’s far more to this law than just the 10 commandments - and the people grow tired of waiting and set up the Golden Calf to worship. God is furious and sends Moses back down the mountain: Moses is furious and smashes the tablets bearing the 10 commandments. Then God orders the people to travel away from Mount Sinai towards the promised Land.
But it seems that God, too is having a sulk and is ready to give up on his people altogether. He tells Moses that although he will send an angel to show God’s people the way, God himself will not accompany them. So Moses, in the passage we heard, is trying to convince God to come with the people, to stay close to them all the way to the Promised Land.
At one level this may feel very removed from our experience of God - we don't chat with God & insist that he acts like we want & then demand, as Moses does 'show me your face'.
But we do know what it is to go through times when we are not sure whether God is with us or not. And perhaps, like Moses & the people of Israel, we know how it is to forget the good stuff that has gone before -the times when we know God has been with us - when we are faced with a difficult time in life and a sense of God's absence.
So, like Moses, we may call out in dostress for God to show us his face.
And what do we feel we get when we most need to know God with us?
God turns his back on us. Well, thanks, God.
But to Moses, God makes it clear that he is not refused the sight of God's face because God does not care enough to bother - God in fact goes to a lot of trouble to show himself, but to spare Moses too much. It is not good for us to see too much of God with us. What would life be like if we knew always, exactly what God thought of what we do - if we lived face-to-face with God?
What if we could feel every disappointment we cause God? What if we knew exactly what God wants of us and if we knew exactly where we would fail God, even before it happened. What if we could see each step of our life before we lived it? Life would be almost unimaginably different. Somehow life is only life if we are allowed by God to find our own way - to know something of God with us, but not to be so stifled or so controlled that we cannot really live at all.
Perhaps instead of thinking that God turns his back on us, we can see that God spares us his face. He gives us room to discover his will, rather than forcing us to live in the full glare of God’s presence.
But this doesn't mean that God doesn't care - he knows Moses by name, he allows Moses to plead for God's help & presence, and he shows him his back - not because he has turned his back on Moses, but so that Moses can freely follow.
Moses discovers that God will lead his people to the promised Land.
God will give his people glimpses of his glory, but never subject them to the full realization of his will, leaving no room for their own free wills.
God will never abandon his people.
And this same God will never desert us, however far he may feel from us.
God deals with us as he deals with Moses.
God knows us by name,
God gives us glimpses of his presence,
God leads us home.
Thanks be to God. Amen.