The following sermon was preached at saint benedict’s table on Sunday October 18, 2020.  The service was live-streamed from our empty church building because of COVID-19. You can read or listen to it here and you can also find it anywhere you listen to podcasts. During these unusual times, you can join us Monday-Friday for Evening Prayer at 5pm and at 7pm on Sundays for live-streamed liturgies on our church’s FB page.  The links to help you connect with me directly on social media can also be found on this website.



May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable and pleasing in your sight O God, for you are our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

Last week we talked about the people of Israel’s decision to create and worship a golden calf. Today, we see some of the consequences of their choice.

After the events we covered last week, Moses descended the mountain, saw the people’s ill advised behaviour for himself and he reacts in anger, destroying the tablets containing the covenant. The NRSV translation says that, “As soon as he came near the camp, and saw the calf and the dancing, Moses’ anger burned hot, and he threw the tablets from his hands and broke them at the foot of the mountain. He took the calf that they have made, burned it with fire, ground it to powder, scattered it on the water, and made the Israelites drink it. (32: 19-20)

And if you think that sounds bad, it gets worse. But I’ll let you read the rest of chapter 32 on your own.

God’s relationship with the people changes after this incident with the golden calf. In particular, the way God is present to the Israelites changes. God doesn’t abandon them, but gone are the days filled with stories of people walking with God in the garden of Eden, sitting down to eat with God and wrestling with God in a form they can see and touch. It is going to take some getting used to.

God commands the people to leave Sinai and continue their journey to the land they have been promised but on this next stretch of the journey God also says, “I will not go up among you.” (33:1-5)

God will not destroy the people, as they threatened in last week’s story, and God will not abandon them either, but God will not be with the people in the same way that they have been with them before.

If you’ve ever done something that deeply disappointed someone you love you probably can imagine how Moses and the Israelites are feeling right now. Guilty perhaps. Ashamed. But also shaky, tentative, unsure of what to do next. Fearful that they may have lost something, someone, who is very important to them. Their foolish choices have damaged the most important relationship they have, will the Israelites ever be able to repair that damage?

In today’s reading, Moses once again approaches God to advocate for the people. Basically, he says, “Hey God, you’ve told me to lead this people to the land you’ve promised which is fine, but we can’t do this alone. We need you to be with us just as you have been so far. These are not my people, they’re yours, you can’t leave us.”

In the translation we read tonight, God’s response is, “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.” (13). Numerous biblical scholars I consulted this week agree that this is a poor translation – there is no “with you” in the original Hebrew, it’s been added. A more accurate translation is simply, “My presence will go and I will give you rest.”

That’s pretty vague, where exactly will God’s presence go? Away? In front of the people? With the people as the NRSV assumes? It’s not clear and Moses wants a clear answer, so he continues to argue with God saying, “If your presence will not go, do not carry us up from here. 16 For how shall it be known that I have found favor in your sight, I and your people, unless you go with us? In this way, we shall be distinct, I and your people, from every people on the face of the earth.” (16)

Moses pleads with God to provide a tangible sign to the people of Israel and to the people they will encounter on this journey. A tangible sign that the Israelites are God’s people, that God is with them.

Let’s pause for a moment to reflect on Moses’ first encounter with God. In that first story, when God appeared in a burning bush, Moses wasn’t even sure who God is. Now he seems to be reminding God of God’s identity. “Hey God, these are your people, you chose us, don’t abandon us now.”

Being argumentative is a core part of Moses’ identity. When Moses first encounters God in the burning bush and God tells him to go free the Israelites Moses doesn’t say, “Sure, whatever you want God.” Moses argues with God, certain that someone else, anyone else, could do a much better job.

Moses regularly argues with God but the nature of their arguments change as their relationship deepens over time. Last week, God offered Moses an out – he would no longer have to lead the Israelites and could become a powerful patriarch – but Moses refuses. That’s a big change for a man who once begged God to give him an out.

Now, rather than begging God to give the job of leader to someone else, Moses acts the way I want my own leaders to act: Moses advocates for the people, demanding God treat them well and give them what they need.

I wonder if this is part of what fuels Moses’s anger when he sees for himself how the people are behaving around the golden calf. Does he perhaps think, “These are the people I was defending before God? What was I thinking?”

But if Moses did think that, it was a thought that didn’t last, because in today’s story he continues to advocate for his people; demanding that God remain with them.

That’s tremendous growth, and I think God notices, but I wonder if Moses does? Last week I said that God was baiting Moses into an argument and I suspect God was delighted to see Moses acting like a true leader by defending the people. Was Moses equally delighted at just how far he’d come since he tried to refuse this job? It’s anyone’s guess, the text doesn’t tell us.

It’s very likely that you also have grown over time in ways you haven’t noticed. It can be a very good practice to look back and see just how far you’ve come.

Moses boldly argues with God, and God agrees to do what Moses asks. God says, “I will do the very thing that you have asked; for you have found favour in my sight, and I know you by name.” (17)

And maybe Moses should have stopped there, at least long enough to say thank you, but he doesn’t, he keeps pushing saying, “Show me your glory, I pray.” (18)

And God says, “I will make all my goodness pass before you… but, [] you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.” (19)

Which is confusing because up until this point that does not seem to be true. People have seen God before. Is this a new thing? Part of the changing relationship between God and the people? A consequence of the choice to worship a golden calf?

Adam and Eve saw God and lived. Hagar, who I preached about earlier in this Old Testament series, saw God and lived. After she first encounters God in the wilderness, the encounter where she also gives God the name, “The God who sees,” Hagar says, “Have I really seen God and remained alive…?” (Genesis16:13) Yes, Hagar, yes you have.

But now, God says Moses can see God, but not God’s face. I wonder if part of what God is saying is, “Moses, you can argue with me, you can make requests of me, but you cannot control me. You are not God, I am.”

God says, “See, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock; 22 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; 23 then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.” (21-23)

Since March a group of us have been praying together everyday day at 5pm on FB live. You’re all welcome to join us whether you can come every day or from time to time. Additionally, the videos stay on our FB page so you can pray “with” us even if you can’t make it at 5pm.

As part of those prayers, we read the readings for the upcoming Sunday. This week I told people I was working hard to get all my giggles out before Sunday so I could preach about God’s backside with a straight face. One family who was participating gave me permission to share this story:

One of our youngest prayers asked their Mom what was so funny about God’s backside? Does God have a funny butt? After some conversation they concluded that God’s backside was probably pretty cute actually.

Kids are awesome.

But is that really what this passage is about? Is this really a story where God says, you can’t see my face but you can see my butt?

Maybe, God does say you’re not going to see my face, you can see my back afterall. And I think that God doesn’t have any of the same sort of shame about bodies and bodily functions that so many of us do – God is more like a kid in that way – so maybe this is really a story where God chooses to show their backside to Moses.

But I also read a really interesting interpretation this week by Rick Morley that I hadn’t thought of before.

Morley explains that “Our English texts usually say that Moses could “see [God’s] back,” but that’s an inaccurate translation. Moses caught no sight of the “body” of God. He saw the place where God just was.”

Think about how the scene is described. God says to Moses, “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 my hand away, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.” (21-23)

So God places Moses safely in the cleft of the rock, covers Moses with their hand, passes by Moses, and then removes their hand.

So the first thing Moses would see when God removes their hand is indeed the place where God just was.

Morley argues that this is not only more textually accurate, but it also makes more sense to him because it matches with how he experiences God’s presence. He rarely notices it in the moment but, Morley explains:

“I’ve used the practice of a nightly examen for quite some time now. Examen is a prayer, usually prayed at the end of a day, where you intentionally recall your own failures, but also God’s little gifts of grace through the day. Sometimes I forget to pray it. Sometimes I fall asleep in the middle of it.

But, never have I prayed the examen and not seen God’s Hand, God’s Presence, or the place where God just was in my day.

Here’s the thing, though: if I don’t take the time to look, I almost always miss it. Find that little crack in a rock, and sit in it. Open your eyes, and see the place in your life where God just was.”

That’s true for me as well. Although I have had moments in my life where I have felt God’s presence so strongly it almost took my breath away, those moments have been rare. Most of the time, if you ask me to identify where God is in the moment, I won’t be able to answer. But when I look back, I can often see where God has been present. In the peace I felt about a tough decision, in the kind words from a friend at just the right moment, in an unexpected offer of help.

Knowing that God has been present in the past helps me to trust that God is with me in the present moment, even when I can’t see it, or feel it.

This might be a good week for you to take some time to reflect on your life and, like Moses, see where you have grown. It may also be a great week to “Find that little crack in a rock, and sit in it. Open your eyes, and see the place in your life where God just was.”

And may those memories help you and comfort on the days when life if hard and God seems absent.

In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.


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