Text: Exodus 32:1, 7-14
The Rev. Dr. D. William Faupel
September 11, 2016
Do you remember what you were doing fifteen years ago this morning when you got the news? I’m confident that as long as I live I will never forget. My Bishop had asked me to bring him some library books from Asbury for a paper he was writing. When I got to the Diocesan office I found the door open but the activity that normally would be taking place that time of the morning was absent. In fact, the place seemed totally deserted. For a moment, I wondered if my conservative Christian friends were right. Had the Second Coming taken place and I was left behind?
I was about ready to leave when I heard a sound coming from the end of a long hallway. I walked down the hall and opened the door to a large closet from where the sound was coming. Huddled around an old black & white TV set were the Bishop and all his staff. I walked in just as the plane flew into the second tower.
Looking back it is clear that 9/11, not YK2 marked the beginning of the 21st century. Our world was forever changed that day. We are living in a new era. The Great Depression and World War which defined my parent’s generation is a distant memory. The cold war and Viet Nam which shaped the thinking of the generation of which most of us are a part, is no longer relevant. We have only to listen to the current presidential campaign to realize the issues that concern us today flow in large part from 9/11.
In contrast to the complexity of today’s problems, it is easy to look back to the 1950’s and early 1960’s with nostalgia. Why, we wonder, cannot life be simple like it was back then and to pray, “Oh God, are there no easy answers?”
We are not the first generation to feel that way of course. Today, we are confronted by a strange story from the book of Exodus. God has miraculously delivered the Children of Israel from slavery in Egypt. For over 400 years they had endured unbelievable hardships. But in today’s reading they are in the midst of a 40-year journey in the dessert and they don’t like it very much. Enough time has elapsed that they remember their time in Egypt with fondness. “At least back then, we had enough to eat, and a place to sleep,” they complained to Moses their leader.
I can just image what Moses was feeling just about then. It probably wasn’t all that different than what W. or Barak experienced after they had to make a tough call in face of a crisis for which there were no easy answers.
We have only the tail end of the story in today’s Old Testament lesson. They are camped at the foot of Mt. Sinai. Moses had about all the “back talk” he could take. So he went up to the top of the mountain to tell God what he thought about the whole thing. Put in today’s language it would go something like this. “Those ungrateful, lowdown so and so’s that you call your people. Why didn’t let them drown in the Red Sea. Why did you take me away from the backside of the desert where I was perfectly happy tending my father-in-law’s sheep and ask me to lead this rabble?
Like you and me, Moses couldn’t see God, but he could feel his presence, and whether audible or in his inner ear, he could, he heard God’s voice. “Remind my people that I brought them out of Egypt on eagle’s wings, so that I might be with you and teach you what you need to know – and then he gave Moses the tablets of stone with the ten commandments.
Moses is gone a long time and his people get restless. It is not enough that God doesn’t seem to care about them, Moses, their earthly leader also seemed to have deserted them. Has he brought them out into the wildness to die? A group of dissenters decided it was time for them to take matters into their own hands. They needed a leader who was present, they demanded a God that they could see. So these self-appointed leaders of this rebellious coup issued a call though-out the camp: “Ladies we want all your gold jewelry and men we want all the gold coins you have tucked away.” When everything was collected, they made a mold in the image of a calf, melted the gold down and poured it into the mold. A cry of elation went through the camp as they placed the Golden Calf on a High Altar. They had their answer, everything now would be all right.
At that point we reach today’s reading. Moses came down the Mountain. He is no longer angry. He has been in God’s presence. God has given him the law to rule His people. What an exhilarating experience that must have been to be with God on the top of that mountain. I can only compare it with are our Lord’s experience on the Mount of Transfiguration when he was able to talk not only with this same Moses but also with Elijah.
However, just as Jesus had to come down from the mountain to face Jerusalem and his pending death, so too, in today’s reading, Moses has come down from the mountain to find God’s people are in open rebellion.
Now it’s Gods turn to be angry. “Get out of my way,” he tells Moses, “I’m going to zap this stiff necked people! I will start all over and make a great nation of your seed.” But Moses intercedes. He implores the Lord. “What will the Egyptian think? They will say you brought us out of Egypt only to destroys us in the desert. You will be a mockery among the nations. And by the way what about your promise to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob that you would make of them a great nation?” In short, Moses is telling God, if you are going to take them out, you got to go through me and take me too.
God’s anger cools, Israel is spared. Today’s reading ends, but the story does not. Moses left troubled by God’s anger. Its ok for him to get upset, after all he is only human, but God? Would he really have wiped his people out? Moses faith is shaken and he asked God for reassurance. “How shall it be known that I have found favor in your sight, I and all your people? “Is it not in your going with us, so that we are distinct, I and your people, from all other people that are upon the face of the earth?”
God assures Moses that this is so. But Moses still is not satisfied. Indeed, he must have been born in Missouri. “Show me You Glory,” he says. Moses wants absolute certainty. “Show me!” “Prove it!” “Explain it!” Convince me! Settle it once and for all!” No doubts. No questions. Nothing left to the imagination.
But God does not always respond to our every whim. In this case he drew the line. “You cannot see My face and live,” he said. But He relents a little bit. “I will put My hand over you and when I have passed by you can see my backside.” Strange, isn’t it? No glory, just a name and the backside of God! This look from behind is not full-blown. The full picture of God is still up for grabs. Moses gets only partial view, a quick glance at God’s backside.
Would we be satisfied with this? Do we not want to see God’s glory, to know the full answer; to have a complete explanation? In difficult circumstances we struggle, we demand. And so often there is but silence. We discover as Elijah discovered that God was not in the wind or in the fire. We have to learn as Job came to know that God is not always in the voices of our fiends. And so we pray and God is still sometimes silent.
We do not always hear an answer.
How long it takes for us to learn that true prayer is learning to let go, learning to entrust ourselves completely into God’s care, learning to wait for God’s timing to make things plain. God does not show us His face, just His hinderparts. We cannot see His face and live. He is not to be proven or deduced, but rather is to be trusted.
So often we seek to substitute certainty for faith. But God can only be seen from behind. He wears a mask as at Mardi Gras. In our human frailty we can not yet either see or know God. We see through a class darkly, as St. Paul’s put its. For He is hidden in suffering—His Son’s and ours. God clothes His power in the weakness of suffering and the cross. Martin Luther was so overwhelmed when this reality dawned upon him. He blurted out: “God in diapers, God at the breast of Mary, God at the carpenter’s bench, God on a cross. Who would look for Him there?”
God reveals Himself to us as He chooses, strange as that may seem to us. The majesty of God’s love is hidden. Sometimes, from our vantage point all seems lost and dark. In those times we hit bottom. Emotions flare. We struggle with God. Those are the times of true intercessory prayer. Finally, falling on the ground exhausted we come to peace, recognizing afresh the meaning of God’s love for human kind revealed to us through the suffering and death of His son.
“No one has ever seen God,” writes the apostle Paul, “only the Son who is in the bosom of the Father, He has made Him known.” But even then, it is still a backside view—cross and suffering.
I have just finished listening to The Auschwitz Escape, an historical novel based on the life of Jacob Weiss. Jacob was one of the few Jews which successfully escaped to alert the Allies of the Nazi death camps. Like many of the survivors, the genocide the Jews experienced caused him to lose his faith. After the war he married Abby, a survivor he met in the camp. He couldn’t understand how she could still believe in God after what they had gone through. Her response was this was not the first time the Jewish race had faced extinction. She reminded him of when they were slaves in Egypt, that they captured by Assyria, Babylon and Persia. They had lost their country at the hands of Rome. They had been persecuted by Islam and the Inquisition. They had been without a homeland for nearly 2000 years. “After all that,” she said, “we are still here.”
“That is why I still believe in God.” Two years ago, seventy years after his successful escape, Poland honored Jacob as a national hero. At the ceremony, and now in their mid-nineties, both Jacob and Abby gave testimony to their faith in God who triumphs through suffering. As we remember 9/11 today, may we too do the same. Amen.