Presence, and absence.
I’m sure many people here know the deep, deep ache that comes with the absence of a loved one.
One summer when I was about 10 we had a visit from a family from Europe visit my family for a little while, and they had a 14-year-old daughter named Merika. Merika and I became friends despite our age difference, and when she left I experienced an ache that I had never felt before in my young life. I remember realising that this must be what it meant to “miss someone” – something I had read about, but never really understood until then.
My friendship with Merika wasn’t actually that deep, but I still remember my reflections on missing someone for the first time in my life, and the sweetness of physical presence compared to the bitterness of absence.
One can’t live very long without getting to know this feeling very well – it is a part of living and loving, opening oneself up to relationship and the sweetness of being in the presence of a loved one, and therefore to the possibility of absence and loss. And probably many or all of you have experienced the ongoing ache of living without loved ones.
That’s exactly what our passage in Exodus is talking about this morning – presence, and absence.
Moses, the Israelites’ leader, has been absent for a very long time. He’s been up on the mountain meeting with God, but the Israelites are starting to think he’s gone for good. Fed up with his lengthy absence and the idea of following a God they can’t see, they make a golden calf to worship instead. This is devastating for the relationship between God and the Israelites. They’ve decided to substitute a physical idol for God’s presence, and in doing so, they give up any understanding of their identity as God’s chosen people: the very thing that sets them apart and makes them unique.
And God tells them that from then on, he will no longer go with them. His literal words are “I will not go up among you, or I would consume you on the way, for you are a stiff-necked people.”
“When the people heard these harsh words, they mourned.” But Moses did more. He fought for this relationship. He told God outright that if the Lord was going to leave them, there was no point in going anywhere, because it was only because of his presence that they were a people. And he pleaded with God to hold fast to this nation who had been faithless, despite their stiff-neckedness.
And God agreed.
But what does this mean, God’s presence? God has agreed to go with the Israelites to the Promised Land, but what does that mean? That’s what Moses sets out to explore next in this dialogue, with what is I think the boldest request in the whole of Scripture.
You know the old saying, “be careful what you wish for”? ’ve learned over the years that it really should be, “Be careful what you pray for,” because God has a way of actually answering prayers that can be really disconcerting. So a prayer like, “God, give me patience” is very dangerous – God will answer that prayer, but it will most likely be by putting someone exasperating in your life to teach you patience the hard way! And praying for humility, love, courage – all of these are all equally dangerous. Trust me, I know.
(I’m not saying don’t pray for patience. Just expect your prayer to be answered.)
And Moses, trying to figure out what God’s presence actually means, prays this: “Show me your glory.”
I’m not sure what Moses expected. But he can’t have known what he was asking for, because if God had taken his prayer at face value and answered it, Moses would have died instantly.
Show me your glory.
I think this is one of the most beautiful stories in the whole of Scripture. It’s one of the meeting points – a place where heaven and earth touch, where the immensity of who God is comes face to face with the tininess of humans, and the deep, deep love that God has for us. God doesn’t do one of two possible responses: he doesn’t say, “You asked for it, puny human,” and allow Moses to simply evaporate in the face of his glory. And God doesn’t say, “Why would I do that?” and refuse Moses completely. Instead, he manifests his love for Moses, and gives Moses exactly as much as he can handle. Listen to this:
“I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you the name, “The Lord”; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. But,” he said, “you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.” And the Lord continued, “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.” (Ex 33:19-23)
Isn’t that lovely? God answers Moses’ prayer, and allows him to see his glory, and it’s God’s own hand that protects Moses so that he’s not burned in the process.
And isn’t that how we so often experience God? We don’t know how to ask what is good for us, but if what we are asking, however naïve, is to know God better, he never fails to meet us in that. Often we don’t recognise God in the moment – it is only as his back disappears from sight that we realise he has answered our prayer, that he has been present.
So Moses sees something of God’s presence, and learns something of his character – the God of grace and mercy, who answers prayer and longs to reveal himself to us. And God continues to be known as the God of Israel, and the Israelites to be known as the Chosen People of God.
It’s a happy ending.
But of course it’s not the ending of the story, and not even the ending of this little story, because there came a day, many, many years in the future, when Moses would have his prayer answered completely, on a very special mountaintop where Christ Jesus was revealed in all his glory to Peter, James, and John – and to Moses and Elijah – and he was finally able to behold God face to face, in all his glory. There’s an answer to prayer!
This privilege of knowing God in this intimate way, of having our prayers answered abundantly, is not only for Moses. In Christ, God came in the flesh to all of humanity, and each of us is invited to learn to know God’s presence in our midst. We know him in the breaking of the bread and the sharing of the wine, in the preaching and in the fellowship we share. But the call to each of us is to know God’s presence in our lives more and more fully – not only here, in church on Sundays, but in every single part of our lives.
This may be old and familiar good news for some of you, or a brand-new thought for others – that we can know God personally and intimately as Moses did – experiencing God as actually present in our lives, whose presence gives us our own identity and uniqueness.
Last week our student David made a rather ‘epic’ announcement about something coming up on Tuesdays, and told you to stay tuned. I’m really glad to be able to tell you that in a few weeks we are going to be beginning something called Alpha here at the church. Alpha is a series of Tuesday evening dinners and discussions, and is one way of exploring how we can know God better. It looks at some of the core questions that come with the Christian faith – what is this all about? Why did Jesus have to die? What does it really mean to pray? Who exactly is the Holy Spirit?
Maybe some of you sitting here have been wondering about some of these questions for a long time, and haven’t had an opportunity to ask. Or maybe you have a friend who has been wondering how to connect to God in a more personal way, but doesn’t feel ready to come to church, and just needs a safe space to explore faith questions. Alpha is a great place for this, and is one way to be open to God’s presence in a new way. Father Murray will be telling you a bit more right after the service.
I want to leave you with two challenges this morning. The first is to really listen to what Father Murray has to say, and to really take some time to consider who in your life might be interested in learning more about the Christian faith. It’s going to be a wonderful, low-stress environment that will be easy for newcomers to enter, and giving them the opportunity to recognise God’s presence in their life might be the best gift you could ever give them.
The second challenge is to look this week for a new understanding of God’s presence in your life outside of this building – and even more, to dare to ask God for an awareness of his presence. Dare to ask to see his glory! Remember: this can be a dangerous prayer! But it might also just take you on a journey to where you are able to catch a new glimpse of the beauty, the majesty, and the deep, deep love that God has for you.
My prayer for you this week is that you will walk out of this building and see God’s presence in new ways in your life and in your world.