Exodus 33:12-23 October 22, 2023
Moses says to God, “Let me see your glory.” There was a moment when you sought a greater awareness of God’s reality. You faced a difficult decision and needed wisdom. Feeling discouraged, you desired a hopeful sign. Amid grief or loneliness, you longed for a sense of meaning. After failure, you wanted the relief of forgiveness. You wondered if there is a loving heart to the universe or is God far off in cold, dark space?
“I really want to see you, Lord,” to quote George Harrison’s song, “My Sweet Lord.” (George was my favorite Beatle. He had a quiet spiritual side in songs like “Here Comes the Sun” and “All Things Must Pass.”). He wrote these lyrics in 1970 while experimenting with Gospel music and Hare Krishna chants. By alternating “Hallelujahs” with Krishna chants, he wanted to show the oneness among spiritual traditions. This synthesis didn’t age well since the Hari Krishnas had rampant sex scandals and racketeering charges. But now, doesn’t everyone have racketeering and sex scandals? “My Sweet Lord” was the number-one song in America for the four weeks leading up to Christmas in 1970. That was the year of the Kent State student shooting. In the Spring, students from 900 schools walked out in protest of the Vietnam War. Racial tensions led to fires and shootings in Daytona Beach, Florida. The troubles deepened in Northern Ireland as car bombings became a tactic. As Harrison topped the charts, a powerful cyclone killed 300,000 people in Bangladesh. When “My Sweet Lord” was number one, the United States and the Soviet Union conducted two nuclear tests each in Nevada and Siberia. Workers went on strike in the Gdansk shipyard in Poland, and soldiers killed 26 workers in two separate incidents. Unemployment rose to 5.8 percent. No wonder Harrison sang, “I really want to see you, Lord.”
Moses had reasons for his desire to see God. After a long spiritual retreat, he carried two clay tablets with the Ten Commandments freshly dried. He heard a riot; a companion thought it was a battle, but people were celebrating around the Golden Calf. Moses was so angry he smashed the tablets, ground them into dust, and dissolved them in water. Golden-Calf-Gate led to a violent split, and 2,000 people were killed in the fighting. At the beginning of chapter 33, God tells Moses it is time for the people to leave Sinai and go to the Promised Land, but God will not go with them. Verse 5 reads,
“Say to the Israelites, ‘You are a stiff-necked people; if for a single moment I should go up among you, I would consume you. So now take off your ornaments, and I will decide what to do to you.’
Moses goes into a tent to mediate for the people as they wait in a vigil for the outcome. Moses reminds God (as if God needs reminding) that divine intention brought these people out of Egypt. Moses says to God, “You say you know my name, and I have found favor with you. If so, show me your ways, and if I have found favor, consider this nation to be your people.” God answers, “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.”
Moses wanted to make sure because God sounded finished with Israel. “Don’t send us anywhere if you aren’t coming.” God answers again, “I will also do this thing that you have asked, for you have found favor in my sight, and I know you by name.”
I would think it is enough to know I have found favor with God. Imagine the experience of being known and blessed by God. When Jesus was baptized, God said, “You are my beloved Son, and in you I am well pleased.” If that is enough for the Messiah, what more could Moses want? Is he pushing it when he says, “Lord, show me your glory?” Does Moses have any idea what he is asking?
What is glory? The first meaning in English is renown and honor. Glory can also mean magnificence or great beauty. The Hebrew word from this scripture, kavod, can refer to God’s radiant and magnificent presence or the positive attributes of God’s character. Many of the references to glory include metaphors from creation.
Psalm 19:1: “The heavens declare the glory (kavod) of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.”
Ezekiel 1:28: “Like the appearance of the bow that is in the cloud on the day of rain, so was the appearance of the brightness all around. Such was the appearance of the likeness of the glory (kavod) of the Lord.”
Moses wants to see the complete divine wonder, God’s full living presence and radiance. He wants a vision of everything.
Remember, Moses had many conversations with God, starting with the burning bush. Chat GPT estimates that Exodus contains 275 to 300 verses of divine conversation. Moses and God talk about strategies to deal with Pharoah, leadership guidance, and their frustrations with how stiff-necked people can be. They talk about rituals, laws, and sacred objects. Moses asks for signs that God is with him and receives assurance. He argues with God and defends the people; other times, he wants to give up, and God gives Moses a pep talk. Some experiences are mystical and mysterious, and other times, they chat about whatever is happening at the moment. Moses is no stranger to divine conversation. But now he wants something more. “Show me your glory. I really, really want to see you, Lord.”
Something in Moses’s request implies all these experiences are incomplete. He has reached the point that all mystics discover. No matter how many visions of wonder they see, there is always part of the divine out of reach. It’s like the lyrics of U2, “I have climbed the highest mountain, and I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.”
We mortals have difficulty holding on to wonder and mystery. We are leaky buckets for containing the glory of God. One moment, we are swept up in a glorious sunset, and the beauty makes us feel we are a part of everything. But soon, we feel cranky and out of sync. After a moment of prayer, we felt an assurance of God’s grace and acceptance, but in an hour, we reverted to our self-doubt and felt inadequate. After a choir anthem, we felt love for the whole world, and it just takes one bad driver to curse another human being. Moses had seen the burning bush, watched his hand become leprose, and then healed in a moment; God continually arrived at just the right moment with a word of hope. Yet Moses still longed for the complete divine radiant intimacy. Show me your glory. I understand the request, leaky bucket that I am.
God responds, “I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name.” God doesn’t offer glory but goodness. Think of the end of Psalm 23, “Surely, goodness and mercy shall follow me.” God will proclaim the divine name, which God does not give at the burning bush. Moses asked for God’s name, and God said, “I am.” God’s response is generous, even if incomplete, but there is a reason.
But,” God said, “you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.” It is for Moses’s own good to not see all. Then God says, “When my glory passes by, I will put you in a cleft in the rock and cover you with my hand until I have passed by. 23 Then I will remove my hand, and you will see my back, but my face must not be seen.” Moses gets a peak at God’s backside. It’s like a movie scene where the star is wrapped in a towel, and they drop it for a second while entering the shower, and there is a tantalizing moment when you see their backside. That is all you get!
Paul writes in I Corinthians that our partial glimpses of God are enough to give us faith, hope, and love. He wrote,
12 For now, we see only a reflection, as in a mirror, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. I Cor. 13:12
In the KJV, the translation says we see through a glass darkly.” To understand Paul’s metaphor, it’s essential to know that glass mirrors were not yet invented. Mirrors were made of polished brass, gold, or silver. The viewer only got a distorted, wavy view of their face. And the face seen in the mirror is our face. That face contains the image of God, but we only see reflections. Paul cautions that we never truly see God with clarity. Therefore, all talk about God must be humble. All theology or declaring of God’s will is but a distorted reflection. But we are not left with radical doubt. God’s goodness still passes by. This presence is enough to help us grow in faith, hope, and love.