Toorak Uniting Church

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Awe Mystery Presence

Exodus 33: 12 – 23     1 Thessalonians 1: 1 – 10
Rev. Ian Brown
16 October 2005

Moses has had a tough time as reluctant leader of his people. Egypt was awful, dealing with Pharaoh worse!
They came through an Exodus of tragedy, loss, disaster and grief – into the experience of the desert – wilderness
wanderings to test the hardiest soul.

His people grumbled and complained, they wanted to go back, they doubted Moses and God, they were unfaithful, worshipped gods of their own making and they had to be disciplined. God’s description of these people Moses was made responsible for, a few verses earlier is of "a stiff – necked people."

I’ve recently spent a few days painting window frames – I know what it’s like to have a stiff neck!
But I don’t think that’s what God was talking about.
They didn’t all need neck massages!
Moses has had the wearying frustration of leading a people who were unbending, unresponsive, – for whom turning to a new way was not welcome.

So we join the story today with Moses seeking assurance of God’s presence.
Moses needs to know that the God responsible for all this, is with him, will be with him on the journey ahead still!

At the same time, Moses seems to doubt his standing before the Lord. His anxiety extends to doubting the statement of the Lord, and to only finding certainty in his own experience of the God who has been in relationship with him all the way so far, and not in the Lord’s knowledge of him.

This raises the interesting question of where our security comes from? Does it lie in our knowledge and control of life around us, or in Gods knowledge and claim on us?
Moses then tries to shift responsibility saying to the Lord: "Consider too that this nation is your people." The Lord responds with a promise that sounds very much like that made to Jacob as he left the promised land, "My presence will go with you." The conversation is finally getting to a point Moses has been skirting around so far, now he states bluntly that if that is not to be the case, if the Lord will not be with them, then let them not go on with a farce.

The Lord relents in this discussion, God might seem a push over, but I wonder is pushing a necessary part of the relating? He accedes to Moses request, which to this stage has been to see the Lords ways. But Moses now wants to see the Lords glory. It’s diplomacy or bargaining at its best!

In an extraordinary statement the Lord then says all my goodness will pass before him and he will proclaim before Moses the name Yahweh. At the same time he declares his grace and mercy to whomever he will. But Moses will not be permitted to see the Lords face. To see that is dangerous. An elaborate protection plan is then put in place so that Moses might be both satisfied and safe. In the end Moses gets to see the back of God passing. The fullness of the Lords presence, what Moses in his fear and uncertainty perhaps thinks will help, is in and of itself too much for human comprehension. As one writer says, such presence would be coercive; faith would be turned into sight, and humankind could not but believe. There is always some uncertainty with regard to the Lord’s presence, some mystery associated with God. Otherwise, there would be no room for faith and trust.

Awe, mystery and presence; felt realities for Moses and for us in regard to God. But they are never constants, they are only as controllable as God is – which is to say of course, not under our control at all. Yet these intangibles are important.

Moses and these Hebrews have had many tangible signs of God’s presence with them as we follow the Exodus story; from the burning bush to plagues and deliverance, from sea crossing and manna to water from the rock, miraculous healing, pillars of fire and cloud – after all these amongst the stresses and strains of community life, Moses and his people need to feel God’s presence, need to glimpse something of the glory and goodness of God, need to be in touch with something of the mystery that is the reality of God because the tangible is never enough.

The mere tangible is never enough.

Of course this is not the end of the story with Moses, he does get the second copy of the law set in stone – tangible guidelines for going with God, to go with them on their journey too. There are many rules and paraphernalia there as well to represent God’s presence with them in tabernacle and robes and rituals, but we miss so much if all our focus goes on those and misses the central experience of the mysterious presence of the God whose very nature this story tells us, is glory and goodness.

And Moses shows us some wonderfully human characteristics as well.

A great leader, but still he is insecure. A man with a reputation for close dealings with God – a truly holy-man, but still he doubts. Moses has spoken with God, has experience of God and still he yearns for more.

In this story the element of divine transcendence is maintained. God is accessible, God is there speaking with Moses, but God is not reduced to a common explainable reality. God remains the ultimate Mystery. Even as he bargains with God, Moses wants more of God. There is more to God than speaking to God and being spoken to by God. There is the sense of knowing and being known, there is the indefinable stuff of relationship.

There is awe and mystery and presence.
Like Moses, we need to seek these experiences of God, we ought, like Moses to ask and push, reason and seek.

We need to address the uncertainty that is a necessary part of faith, we need to keep on exploring the ways in which our worship and discipleship are themselves acknowledgements of the presence of God with us.
And we should recognize that what is important in the first place, is not our ability to see or know God, but to find that we are indeed already known by God who travels with us.
And we remember Paul’s assurance to the Thessalonian Christians, "For we know, brothers and sisters beloved by God, that he has chosen you."
Chosen, we are, and around this table of divine fellowship we are invited to the awe and mystery and presence of the living God.

© Rev. Ian Brown, 2005

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