the unseen and the too much seen

Exodus 33:12-23; Matthew 22:15-22

From the Old Testament, we have another familiar story
abstracted from the larger exodus story.
It’s the story of Moses hidden in the cleft of the rock
while the glory of God passes by.
“Rock of ages, cleft for me.”
And it’s another one of those stories
largely known for just one part of it.
For that image of Moses hidden
comprises just one scene—one image—one snapshot
from the story
with much of the larger context so much less familiar.

So three things of note to note:
first, the larger context of the story
that leads to this familiar image—this one snapshot.
This story follows the stories of the making of the golden calf—
of God’s and Moses’ response to the golden calf.
And the last word we heard from God before our text
was that Israel was to proceed—
“Y’all go on up to the promised land
but I’m not going with you!
Because if I spent any more time with you than I already have,
y’all wouldn’t make it!
I would surely destroy you!” (Exodus 33:1-3)

Our story starts with Moses in conversation with God—in prayer,
trying to figure out what Israel,
having forfeited their right of covenant expectations,
can now legitimately expect from God.

And Moses asks God, “You’ve told me to bring up this people.
(You can almost hear disdain dripping from God’s “this”—”this” people)
“But you have not let me know,” Moses goes on, “who’s going with us—
with us.
Moses remains committed to the people.
“What messenger will accompany us? Guide us? Provide for us?
What sign of your presence will be with us?
You have said you know me and that I have found favor in your sight.
If that’s the case, then show me your ways
so that I can know you and find favor in your sight.”

God responds, “My presence (literally, my face) will go with you
and give you rest.
Now God’s promise here is made to you singular—to Moses specifically.
You, I’ll go with you.
In spite of what God had just said (“I’m not going with you”)
when Moses asks, God will go.

But Moses isn’t, apparently, totally convinced, because he goes on,
“If your presence will not go ….”
What did God just say? “I’ll go.”
“But if you don’t, do not carry us (us) up from here.
For how shall it be known that I have found favor in your sight?
I and your people, unless you go with us (us).
In this is our distinction, mine and that of your people.”
In face of God’s rejection of this people,
Moses affirms, over and over again,
not just that he remains committed to this people,
but that this people remains God’s people.

And note this: it is precisely the consistent affirmation
of the presence of God
that comprises the distinctive sign of the people of God.
Do we know that?
The consistent affirmation of the presence of God.
Do you do that?
How do we do that?

And God said, “I will—
I will do it okay?
I will do the very thing you have asked
for you have found favor in my sight, and I know you by name.
How many times do I have to tell you this?”
You see, the prayers of one righteous person,
redeem even the great sin of the people’s idolatry!

What we have here is a model for daring, insistent prayer
(Walter Brueggemann, The Book of Exodus: Introduction,
Commentary, and Reflections
in The New Interpreter’s Bible
[Nashville: Abingdon, 1994] 942).
Moses keeps pushing!
Moses refuses to let God determine the limits of asking
(Brueggemann, 942).

And then Moses says, “Show me your glory, I pray.”
And God responds, “I will make all my goodness pass by
and will proclaim before you the name, the Lord—Yahweh,
and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious
and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy,
but—but you cannot see my face;
for no one shall see me and live.”

Now did Moses hear that dangerous combination of affirmation and warning
we’ve noted so often before in Scripture?
Did you hear it?
When God said “I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious
and I will show mercy to whom I will show mercy,”
is that a hopeful word for Israel? Is that affirmation?
Or a subtle reminder that God is not always gracious?
Does not always show mercy?

If Moses picks up on that, he doesn’t push that!
He asks rather to see God’s glory.
And God says Moses can’t see God’s face—God’s self.
For God’s glory is God’s face is God’s self.
So for the first time, while God offers assurance,
God does not give Moses what Moses asked for—
still gives so very much.
“Yahweh responds to three different pleas from Moses,
each carrying the interaction one step farther”—a little deeper
(Terence E. Fretheim, Exodus in Interpretation
[Louisville: John Knox Press, 1991] 296).

It’s not true for everything, but maybe when it comes to knowing God,
the more we ask, the more we experience—
the more there is to ask—
the more there is to experience.
I love that verse from the Gospel of Thomas:
“Know what is in front of your face,
and what is hidden from you will be disclosed to you”
The perfectly insistent prayer keeps asking more—
keeps wanting to know more,
and if God is, in truth, God,
anyone in their relationship with God can always go deeper—
even if it’s not always exactly what you wanted.

Finally, we get to Moses standing on the rock by God,
and God says, “When my glory passes by, I’ll put you in this cleft,
and cover you with my hand until I’ve passed by;
then I’ll take my hand away and you shall see my back;
but my face shall not be seen.”

So the second thing of note to note is that Moses,
contrary to what’s so familiar to us,
was not hidden in the cleft of the rock.
Read it carefully.
Moses was placed in the cleft and hidden by the hand of God.
Which is to say:
the presence of God protected Moses from the presence of God!

And it’s a very strange image to try and picture.
Almost as if God is watching a God parade with Moses.
“Here stand by me and we’ll watch my goodness go by,
and then we’ll listen to me proclaim the name the Lord,
and you can watch my graciousness and my mercy,
but when my glory comes, I’ll cover you with my hand
until I have passed by. Okay?”

Third and finally, we’re left with how to understand
this whole business of seeing God in the larger context of the wider story.
At the burning bush—in Moses’ initial encounter with God,
Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God (Exodus 3:6)—
nothing said about it being dangerous to see God.
Moses was afraid.

There has been affirmation of the hiddenness of God—
God hidden in the cloud, God hidden in the fire,
God hidden in the darkness (Exodus 13:21; 20:21).
There’s even an explicit warning about the danger of seeing God:
“Go down and warn the people not to try and break through to the Lord
to look; otherwise many of them will perish” (Exodus 19:21).
And yet (it’s what makes Scripture so much fun!),
we read that Moses and Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu,
and seventy of the elders of Israel went up,
and guess what they did?
They saw the God of Israel (Exodus 24:9).
In the verses directly preceding our story, we read:
“When Moses entered the tent, the pillar of cloud would descend
and stand at the entrance of of the tent, and the Lord
would speak with Moses … Thus the lord used to speak to Moses
ready? face to face, as one speaks to a friend” (Exodus 33:9, 11).

So what’s going on?
Can you see God’s face or not?
The easy answer is probably that whole JEPD thing—
you know that there were different writers and/or editors
with different theological and religious agendas
responsible for different parts of the Pentateuch, the first five books.
But I’m not sure the easy answer is the best one.

Terence Fretheim, an Old Testament scholar I appreciate,
observes it “does not say that God cannot be seen.
Rather, it assumes that God can be seen,
but one cannot live if this happens”
(Fretheim, 300).
But Moses did.
Aaron did. Nadab, and Abihu,
and seventy of the elders of Israel did.
So actually what I think it assumes is that
to see the face of God is to risk death.
It is to encounter death.
There is always dying involved.
But that maybe it’s some kind of dying to the self—
that whole “our dross to consume” we sing about
in “How Firm a Foundation.”
There are parts of us/there are dimensions to us/there are aspects of us
that cannot survive the presence of God.
Are you going to risk that?
It is a dangerous thing to risk yourself in the presence of God.
But God protects us from God …

which is such a good transition to Jesus!
But before we go … wow!

When it comes to our gospel text, once again,
religious leaders are trying to trap Jesus.
It’s their favorite game.
This time an unusual alliance of the disciples of the Pharisees
and the Herodians.
This clearly falls into the logic of the enemy of my enemy is my friend.

They try and butter Jesus up with oily compliments
(You can read that whole section. It’s very greasy.)
before asking him about paying Caesar this tax.
They were referring to “a particular tax, the ‘census,’
the Roman head-tax instituted in 6 CE,
when Judea became a Roman province.
This census triggered the nationalism
that finally became the Zealot movement,
which fomented the disastrous war of 66-70”
(Brueggemann, 420).

“Show me the coin,” says Jesus.
Now they had one.
They shouldn’t have. Theoretically.
Whose image was, after all, on the coin?
Caesar’s—a man claiming to be a god—
which made of each coin a what? A portable little idol.
They shouldn’t have had one.
They don’t get it.
“Yes, we have one!” All excited.
It’s the teacher with the oblivious student.
“Okay, well that was supposed to be the end of this.
You shouldn’t have one and you do … oh, never mind.
Whose image is on it?”
“Caesar’s!” Enthusiastic. They know this.
They’re clueless!

“Well give to Caesar what is Caesar’s.”
It’s a subtle devaluation of money, by the way.
But pay God what is God’s.
And we, by the way, are not Caesar’s.
We do not owe Caesar ourselves.
We owe God ourselves.
It’s a devaluation of Caesar, isn’t it?
Indirectly, but indubitably!

It’s ironic, by the way.
What is inscribed on our money?
“In God we trust.”
The irony, of course, is that it’s money we trust, right?
And the irony is sharpened because (you know this, right?),
the only reason the phrase “in God we trust” can be on money
is because it doesn’t mean anything!

These instances of what’s called “ceremonial deism”—
“in God we trust” on our money, “under God” in our pledge—
these things that people get so wound up over,
are legally appropriate because they have “lost through rote repetition any significant religious content
God’s on our money and in our pledge precisely and only
because it doesn’t mean anything.
It’s a devaluation of God in the language of God.

Roman coins name a man God who wasn’t;
American coins name God God,
but with the underlying assumption that it doesn’t matter.
Which is more blasphemous?

Listen carefully.
What Jesus is doing here is so much more
than advising people to be fine upstanding, law-abiding citizens,
and within their obedience of the law of the land to follow God.
No, Jesus is breathtakingly juxtaposing two completely different realities
both of which make claims on us,
and asking which one will we sink ourselves into?
Each one makes some claims on what we will do,
but which one will we allow to claim who we are?
Such that our being—
the story of who we are—
becomes a retelling of that particular story?
Are we the story of Caesar or the story of God?

You give of yourself to gods.
It’s inevitable.
Whether that’s a golden calf,
or Caesar, or money, or Yahweh.
And to the extent you choose idols,
mystery and grace and love are all cheapened—
made shallow,
and so are you.

To the extent you’re in the realm of Caesar—
under the dominion of Caesar,
the world is subordinated to power,
and so are you.

To the extent you invest in money,
the world is commodified—
it’s objectified,
and so are you.

I’m going to take a side step now
into an apparent digression.
I think it’s an apparent digression.
I think this all fits together,
but it may just fit together in my head!

Jim Somerville, pastor of Richmond’s First Baptist Church
was asking yesterday,
about a connection between authenticity and vulgarity.
He had just seen a movie and wanted to know why what’s vulgar
is granted an authority and an authenticity in our culture
that is, by in large, denied the church.
If you say it foully, people listen.

And there is much that is so very vulgar in our culture.
I would add that there is much that’s so terribly violent.
There is much that is obscene.
And in each case—you’ve noticed this, I’m sure,
the vulgar, the violent and the obscene are
at least in part defined—no, they are actually to great extent defined—
by pushing the boundaries—
the boundaries of what’s acceptable,
of what’s deemed appropriate,
of what’s permitted and allowed,
of what’s condoned.

Now when those boundaries are pushed,
where do they go?
Well, the point is they’re pushed—
they’re extended, right?
They’re moved further out,
and the next comedian, the next movie, the next advertisement
has to go further.
You’ve seen this before, in those movie series.
In the first movie something bad happens, to start things off.
Well, in the second movie, something worse has to happen—
to be edgy—
to be perceived (and this is important)—
to be perceived as outside the establishment—
to be outside what’s inside the boundaries—
outside what’s accepted, deemed appropriate,
permitted, allowed, condoned.
Because it’s what’s outside that is given an authority—an authenticity—
because there’s apparently insight granted from the outside.

And once you’ve pushed those borders, I might add—
once you’ve extended them,
you don’t get them back.
Not as the norm.
Not as what society will expect anymore.
Only as chosen by the individual—the group.

In our Gospel story,
the context of the story Matthew relates
is how when you push Caesar,
Caesar pushes back.
That tax led to the Great Revolt.
Well the Great Revolt led to the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem.
When you push culture, when you push status quo,
they push back.
They do not protect you from themselves.

In our Exodus story, Moses was pushing the boundaries—
pushing the boundaries of God—
pushing the boundaries of love,
and what we find out,
is that when you push God’s boundaries—when you push love—
God and love give ever more of themselves.
And when it gets dangerous,
God protects you from God.

I think you then find yourself with the authority—
the authenticity
of that outside perspective.
Not because you’ve pushed the borders
of what’s appropriate and acceptable so far out and you’re looking in,
but because you’ve pushed love so far—so deep—so wide,
it’s received you into a whole
that’s hard to fathom.

We, as followers of God,
have too often doubled down on precisely what culture pushes against./
And however important that may be, I tell you,
we are less perceived as against what’s vulgar—
against what’s violent—against what’s obscene,
as we are stodgy, rigid, and judgmental.
We’ve doubled down on what’s being pushed
instead of sinking ever deeper into love,
and that, I believe, has made all the difference.

Here’s the thing: love isn’t edgy.
Not like culture’s options.
Not like vulgar and violent and obscene—
which defines too much of our policy and our politics
and our cultural life.

Love isn’t edgy—
love isn’t edgy until you reach so deep down into it
that you find yourself loving those others don’t.
Love isn’t edgy until you reach so deep down into it
that you find yourself loving those no one else does.

As we move forward—if we move forward—if we move forward,
that will make all the difference.
Are we going to double down against what people are pushing against?
Or are we going to sink ourselves into love?

So go from here to push deeper into love—
deeper into God—
to make a whole our culture cannot comprehend.

What a possibility.


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