by Ellen Sims
text: Exodus 33:18-23
We might be perplexed or put off by the way God is portrayed in this strange story of Moses’ encounter with Yahweh. We might be amused that God tells Moses he’s only permitted to see God’s backside. We might feel appalled when God reserves the right to be merciful to whom God pleases. We might be frightened when God explains that humans can’t look upon God’s face and live. This God is more dangerous than the one we’ve domesticated in our imaginations.
Our rightful emphasis on God’s love can cause us to create for ourselves an overly friendly God. We sometimes make God into our BFF. But God’s love is greater than that—more powerful and more consequential. In C. S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Mr. Beaver explains to the four children who’ve traveled to Narnia that Aslan, the king of Narnia, is a lion. As the story develops, readers easily recognize Aslan as a Christ figure. So when Susan, the oldest of the four children, asks Mr. Beaver this question, we hear her asking it about Christ:
“’Is he–quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.’
‘Safe?’ said Mr. Beaver. ‘Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.’”
Progressive Christians resist the idea of an angry and punishing God to the point that we can over-correct, leaving us with an ineffectual, insignificant, inactive God. And in doing so we are deprived of awe and devalue the full power of love, which Paul said is “the greatest” thing of all. The God we know through Moses and through Jesus Christ is loving but not safe. After all, love can never be safe, never without risk.
To love—and even to live with serious engagement—-is to risk. Think about what you risk by letting the God of Love guide you and live through you. Think of the danger you expose yourself to when you give your heart away to another person. Think how new parents suddenly recognize that their baby means they are forevermore vulnerable to the possibility of an irrecoverable anguish for which they’d not previously been at risk. To love that fragile human being means their whole world can come apart—with a diagnosis, with an accident, with a bad decision. Love is powerful. No wonder some choose to limit their risk.
If the God Moses encounters here seems dangerous and unpredictable, that’s not a bad corrective to our tendency to think we are in control. When we believe that God is the celestial version of Amazon.com, we misunderstand prayer as a process of typing in the right words so something we want will be delivered to us just as we ordered. Instead, prayer is a means of listening to God, being shaped by and united with God, growing in agreement with the ways of God. God may seem to be telling Moses, in a fickle tone, “I’ll be gracious to you if and when I want to, thank you very much.” But the tone of that conversation is rightly emphasizing that God is God. Today’s Hebrew Bible story guards against a limited theology that will only disappoint us in the end. People sometimes say “God is in control” and mean “So everything will work out for me.” But when things don’t work out, they lose their God.
God’s power of love doesn’t work that way. It’s not transactional, like a vending machine in which I put the right amount of coins and out comes the soft drink I wanted. I pray in just the right way and out pops the cure for cancer. Instead, God’s love gives us the capacity to see a bigger picture and purpose, to draw strength for the work that lies ahead for us, to know that our limited lives are connected to something bigger and more ultimate, to be reassured that our infinitesimal contributions matter and that we are loved dearly, to fathom the paradox that our lives are fleeting and yet eternal.
Richard Rohr’s devotionals this past week have reminded us, through writer Cynthia Bourgeault, that we glimpse God only partially. The Moses story describes that limitation in anthropomorphic terms: God permits Moses to see just God’s backside—because humans cannot take in the entire glory of God. But this image can also be understood in terms of evolutionary theology: from our limited view of the universe’s history and properties and dimensions, we can glimpse only a sliver of the glorious work of God from our vantage. God is moving on. God cannot be pinned down. We cannot see reality before it reaches us, but after Love moves through, we can see its glorious wake. Sometimes patterns of love can be seen over long periods of time. But not the entirety of Love.
Bourgeault describes it this way: You and I can see only the “small snapshots represented in our short lifetimes,” but “evolution’s span is measured in eons, not decades. When we lose sight of the cosmic scale, the result is anguish and impatience. If we measure human progress only by our usual historical benchmarks—the span of a presidential administration, the not-yet 250 years of the American democratic experiment, or the ‘mere’ 2,500 years of Western civilization—we are still only catching the smallest snippet of the inevitable process of . . . trial and error, part of the necessary play of freedom on its way to new combinations and creativity.”
She continues: “Teilhard [de Chardin]affirmed that even the emergence of human consciousness itself . . . followed a 10,000-year ice age, in which it appeared that all that had been gained prior to that point was irreversibly lost. It wasn’t. Paleontological discoveries reveal that humans kept and refined their skills of using fire and making tools—providing unmistakable evidence that even when hidden by ice and apparent desolation, the evolutionary journey was still unperturbedly marching forward.” (1)
This bigger picture of Love’s work may not seem very hopeful to us in the midst of the disappointments in our personal lives. We want our tiny lives to be perfect. And we want the perfect to arrive instantly. But Christian perspective realizes that our identity is bound up not just in this one MOMENT but in the MOVEMENT toward the goal of Love that brings meaning and hope. We are part of the Body of Christ. We are united for a greater union.
In faith, we believe there is more and we trust that Love is what ultimately matters. What a prescient if primitive story is the Moses story of God revealing God’s self to us! As God sheltered Moses, so God shelters us in the cleft of a rocky planet called Earth and covers us with God’s hand, an image we see only from the vantage of time passed and love recognized with hindsight.
SUNG RESPONSE (refrain of a 19th century hymn by Fanny Crosby)
He hideth my soul in the cleft of the rock
That shadows a dry thirsty land.
He hideth my life in the depths of his love,
And covers me there with his hand. And covers me there with his hand.