Sunday, 19 October 2014

Between a rock and a hard place: exploring Exodus 33

This week's Rural Reverend blog is brought to you courtesy of the male half of the rural reverend duo.

It is said that the eyes are a window to the soul. If you look a person in the eyes, and look carefully into their eyes, you will see deeply into their soul.

Look into the eyes of the young, newly-engaged couple, and you will see them sparkling, dancing with the excitement of unchartered waters and the promise of fulfilment yet to come.

Look into the eyes of the parent with a growing family and increasing work responsibilities, with a mortgage to meet and with hopes drifting away, and you will see weariness, anxiety about the present, perhaps even fear about the future.

Look into the eyes of the grieving partner, mourning the loss of the one who had been the soulmate, the lifelong partner, and you will see the satisfaction of a shared life, overlaid with the grief of the separation, tinged with a yearning for just a little more time together.

Look into the eyes of the calm, contented elder, eyes surrounded by wrinkles that chart the years of experience, eyes that exude a wisdom crafted through the decades and the perception shaped by a lifetime of experiences.

For the eyes are a window to the soul. If you look a person in the eyes, and look carefully into their eyes, you will see deeply into their soul.

In the ancient world, there was a flip-side to this belief, expressed through the notion of the “evil eye”. The evil eye, it was believed, was the capacity to cause misfortune, or even inflict harm, simply by looking at another person. It was not everyone who possessed this ability; rather, it was something that magicians, holy men and women, were able to exercise.

In some Mediterranean cultures, where the vast majority of eyes were dark in colour, those people who had green eyes, or blue eyes (like me), were regarded as the possessors of the “evil eye” capacity.
In this custom, the mere act of looking, through the eye, was believed able to convey some force, some power, which would affect the person who was being observed.

So the power of the eye is embedded into our human consciousness. The eyes can convey a force for the worse. Or the eyes can open a window into the soul. If you look a person in the eyes, and look carefully into their eyes, you will see deeply into their soul.

It is no wonder, then, that we learn that Moses, honed by the experiences of the years, has made this request of God. “Show me your glory”, he says – a very Hebraic way of asking, “let us go face-to-face ... let me look you in the face ... let me see into your eyes.”

And why not, we might think? Did not Moses have every right to request this most direct, most honest, way of relating to God?

For central to the religion of the people of Israel, was the recollection that it was Moses who was the one who had climbed to the top of the mountain, where God had entrusted him with the Law, to guide the lives of the people of Israel. The tablets of stone, on which God had written the ten great words, were God’s gift, mediated through the prophet Moses, to guide and shape the life of the people.

And it was also Moses, as the story goes, who was the supreme general of his people. Over generations, the story had been told and retold about Moses, about how he had led the Israelites out of their slavery in Egypt, escaping the pursuing army, and leading his people through the wilderness as they moved towards the promised land.

And as time went on, the story of Moses had been expanded and developed even further, to include the miraculous origins of the baby Moses– in the manner of all ancient stories, the birth of this child was a moment of divine intervention into the pattern of human affairs, as the basket containing the baby who would grow up as Moses, was miraculously hidden, discovered, and treasured.

So it is clear, throughout the book of Exodus, that Moses was no ordinary person; as leader, general, prophet, and miracle-baby, he has every right to front up to God, and place his request. “Show me your glory”, he says to the Lord God.

And this request, in chapter 33 of the book of Exodus, comes after all of these earlier events have been recounted. The request from Moses stands at the climactic moment, as the pinnacle of the life experience of Moses.

Now, at the end of his lengthy and profound encounter with God on the top of the mountain, Moses has returned to his people. He has found them engaged in the sinful act of worship an idol which they had made. He has called them to account, and they have repented, removed the offending ornaments, destroyed the idol, and returned to honour and worship the Lord.

Now they are able to venture forth, into the land that has been held out to them. Now they will enter the promised land.

So Moses stands before the Lord, advocating for his repentant and contrite people, pleading with God to forgive them and to equip them for their future. And he asks God to give him the assurance that God will support and sustain the people; that God will forgive the people and go with the people.

And as he asks, he pleads with God to give him the deep-down assurance of God’s ongoing presence. Because he wants this to work – and he needs to know that God will ensure it is going to work. “Show me your glory”, says Moses, to the Lord God. “Don’t muck around with me”, we might paraphrase it. “Be fair dinkum; tell it to me like it is.”

When Moses asks God to “show his glory”, to look him fair-and-square in the eyes, Moses asks what so many human beings desire: to look into the window that takes us into the very heart of God. Despite his superior qualities, Moses stands and speaks on our behalf – asking to look into the eyes of God, yearning to see into the depths of the very soul of God.

Is not this what we would all desire? To know God, to really know God, to be confident that we have access, direct and unmediated, into the very being of God? Here, in this ancient story, Moses functions as a spokesperson on our behalf, making the very request of God that we, each one of us, would dearly love to have come true.

“Show me your glory” ... “help me to really know you, my God”.

So the reply that God offers to Moses comes as something of a surprise: “I will make all my goodness pass before you ... I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy ... but you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.”

This most heartfelt, and understandable, request, from Moses, is dismissed by God; the nature of God is such that it is just not possible for a human being to look directly, face-to-face, into the eyes of God.
We should note that this response from God is quite curious, because of what is said earlier in this chapter. The verses in question recounts what took place when Moses goes into “the tent of meeting”, pitched outside the camp. This was the place, when he was meeting with God, where Moses received the guidance and support that he needed, in order to be an effective leader of the people. In that tent, he met with God, and he spoke with God.

And in those same verses, we also read the clear declaration, that while they were together in the tent of the meeting, “the LORD used to speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend”! How curious, that in the tent, Moses looks without any hindrance, directly into the face of God; and yet, outside of the tent, Moses has to hide his face from God, for as God declares, “no one shall see me and live.”
And the divine voice goes on, we are told, to offer these instructions: “See, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock; and 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; then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.”

It seems that God is looking for a way to make it happen, despite all that he has said about not being able to look directly at him and live. So God offers Moses a plan. Yet it is going to require commitment, determination, and patience, from Moses.

“I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by”, says God. What do we make of these words? God is seeking to find a way for Moses to encounter him, after all.
These words point to a simple truth, that is, at the same time, both discomforting, and yet quite comforting. The discomfort, of course, is powerfully conveyed in the imagery of the words: Moses is placed in the cleft of the rocks; or, we might say, Moses is between a rock and a hard place. It is there, that he will have some form of encounter with God.

But that, of course, is a most uncomfortable place to be; that is the place where our familiar comforts, the things that we most often appreciate and enjoy, are not to be found. Perhaps that is a powerful image for the walk of Christian discipleship, that all too often is the experience of faithful human beings.
In the cleft of the rock, between the rock and the hard place, is where faithful, trusting followers of Jesus, will often find themselves – taking a risk, stepping out in faith, trying something new and different. That is what faith calls us to undertake.

In the cleft of the rock, between the rock and the hard place, is where discomfort reigns supreme, where we are always on edge. It is where we find ourselves in unfamiliar circumstances, where we are called to undertake unsettling and disturbing actions, where we encounter people who are troubled or distressed, where our Christian discipleship is put to the test in many and varied ways.

When do we find ourselves in such situations? You may recall that I spoke, some weeks ago, of the three congregations that meet most weeks in the Wauchope Uniting Church building. I think it would be fair to say that the Sunday morning worship congregation is not, in the normal run of things, the place where we people of faith find ourselves in unfamiliar circumstances, pressed by discomfort or distress. After all, this is where we come because of the familiarity and comfort, of the place, the people, and the experience of worship.

Perhaps more often, the possibility could present itself, in the Friday lunchtime community meals congregation, for an encounter which makes us feel uncertain, uncomfortable, out of our familiar surroundings, immersed in a different and unsettling world? The people who come to this weekly meal can be people who present us with challenges; the possibility of discomfort, for us, is real in this gathering.
Certainly, I know that for myself, and perhaps for others who attend the Friday night youth club congregation, there are occasions each week, when I have the feeling of being “in the cleft of the rock”, between a rock and a hard place, uncomfortable and unsettled. Yet, it is very clear that such a situation is precisely where I am called, and others are called to be, as we seek to share the grace and mercy of God with others.

The unfamiliar and the uncomfortable are situations that we may not encounter each and every day; but if we risk our faith to follow the way of Jesus, it is certain that on a regular basis, we will encounter this very unease, this discomfort, this disturbance. Any one of us could find ourselves in such a situation on any day of the week. Indeed, if we follow our call to faithful living, we should expect to find ourselves in such situations!

So the story contains sharp edges of discomfort. Yet the imagery that is used also conveys a sense of comfort from the story: it is, quite literally, in the very hardships and struggles of life that the grace and mercy of God is best known to us.

Indeed, the end result of the story is an assurance that, right in the very midst of faithful, committed discipleship, the very qualities of God that we most desire to know, are with us. Right at those very times when what we are doing seems so difficult, when what we are yearning for seems so unattainable, God is with us. We are called to seek out such uncomfortable places, precisely because of the faith we hold.

And when we find ourselves in the cleft of the rock, between a rock and a hard place, we will not be looking directly into the eyes of God, staring into the very soul of God. And yet, as we stand between a rock and a hard place, we will have the assurance of God’s presence, and the knowledge of God’s goodness, to sustain us in our walk of faith.

And that is surely a powerful, and comforting, message for us to take from this story that we have heard today.

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