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The Cleft of the Rock

October 22, 2017

“The Cleft of the Rock” Exodus 33:12-23 © 10.22.17 Ordinary 29A by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

Earlier this month, Susan and I marked the ninth anniversary of her dad’s passing. Neal exemplified the values of the WWII generation. He was honest, hard-working, reliable, courageous, honorable, and authentic. Such strong character made him a highly respected employee of Thompson Tractor in Birmingham, a man depended on by the CEO of the company, Hall Thompson.

Hall was rich and powerful. Neal was neither, but the qualities I mentioned drew the CEO to him as someone who would tell him the truth when everyone else fawned and flattered. Neal would look Hall in the eye and tell him a project was stupid and to remember he told him so when it went wrong. He pushed farther than anyone else would or could.

Increase the risk of such talk exponentially, beyond losing a job to losing a life in the white-hot heat of holiness, and you have the relationship of Moses and Yahweh. I doubt if any of us have ever spoken to God the way the great Hebrew leader did. He prayed the Jewish way, with chutzpah, bold assurance, shameless audacity, and not in the timid, deferential manner of the typical Christian. We could learn something from that. Our relationship with God is a covenant, and a covenant takes two partners, both of whom are accountable to the other and responsible for keeping their promises. We rightly insist that God not suddenly back out, then blame us for not obeying when he calls us to some task or has expectations of us.

Listen to Moses in plain language, from Eugene Peterson’s The Message: “Moses said to God, ‘Look, you tell me, “Lead this people,’” but you don’t let me know whom you’re going to send with me. You tell me, “I know you well and you are special to me.” If I am so special to you, let me in on your plans. That way, I will continue being special to you. Don’t forget, this is your people, your responsibility.’”

The background of this speech is the crisis created by the worship of the golden calf. Yahweh feels betrayed and hurt by such idolatry, and rightly so. Post-calf—PC for short—the relationship with Israel has changed. God himself will not go with the people, because his anger is so hot that it would consume them if he were with them but a moment. Instead, he will send a functionary, an angel, to guide them on the journey to the Promised Land. Later, the angel is identified with Yahweh himself, but not here. At this point, there’s considerable distance as a result of the breach of trust, too much danger of divine words or actions that would be irreparable. The Israelites have something, but not the full presence of God. It’s enough, adequate, but they used to have so much more. Now the relationship only goes so far and no farther.

We might compare what’s going on to human bonds that get broken one way or another, maybe by infidelity or failure to deliver on promises made. Marriage partners who were once in love and intimate may divorce because of irreconcilable differences. But then after a time they may become sort-of friends again or at least be able to speak to each other without anger or tears. A business or a restaurant that has not provided a product or meal to your or my satisfaction may get our patronage now and again, but not a recommendation to anyone. A teen or young adult might keep her former best friend’s number in her phone, but not share secrets and selfies as she once did. The thrill is gone, as the old song put it; the enthusiasm, the confidence, the closeness are no more.

Moses was particularly arguing with God about how to proceed PC. The people were dejected, their mood somber. They had put off their jewelry, representing a rejection of the seduction of possessions and images that was so strong it led to the making of the calf. If God himself did not go with them, if they didn’t have his presence, who were they? How would they make the journey? They may as well quit now.

If God does not go with us, we need not undertake our journey, either. Without his presence, we are “no people,” as Hosea and later, the author of 1 Peter said. What makes us any different than anyone else? Walter Brueggemann observes that the church’s only claim is its “close solidarity with the God who invites camaraderie” (The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. 1: 942). So the people of God are not identified by their doctrines, however distinctive; or a form of government, no matter how historic or efficient. They’re not defined by their stance on social issues, whether conservative or progressive or the tax status of their institution as a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit. The crucial mark is not even a way of worship or a set of expectations of those who are baptized. Yes, all those are important, but not in any ultimate way. What sets the church apart from a corporation, a club or a charity is the presence of God who goes with us as covenant partner and travel companion.

The presence of Yahweh was the essential resource Moses needed to fulfill his call and that of the people. God had commissioned him to lead Israel, but now Yahweh wanted to back out or at least not give full, wholehearted support to the mission. Moses would have none of it. Either give him what he and the people needed or call it a day!

Moses gets what he wants, but he’s not done. He keeps inching closer to what could be his doom. Emboldened by answers to his audacious prayers, he now asks to see God’s glory. Moses wants more! At the Tent of Meeting, Yahweh came in a pillar of cloud, and spoke face to face in the sense of not having a mediator, a go-between, but still Moses didn’t actually see God. They may have been friends, but there were some things neither Moses nor any human could know, secrets Yahweh kept locked away.

Still, despite the danger, Moses wants to be drawn nearer, to grow, to experience. He pushes and pushes, and Yahweh grants a great deal, including his goodness, perhaps shown in the gifts of the creation; his name; and the assurance of his grace and mercy, though that last is couched in terms of his complete sovereign choice. Moses wants all this not just for himself, but for the people, too. A good leader is not satisfied until those whom he or she cares for are included and understand what’s happening, grasp the vision, see the beauty, experience the wonder. Being in a position of authority can never be just about oneself, whether relationships, possessions or knowledge. Real leaders don’t rest until those they are responsible for live better and more fruitful and abundant lives.

But there is a limit beyond which God will not go, for Moses’ sake. Moses may only get a glimpse of God. The glory will pass by, and the leader will see God’s back. There will be double protection. God will put Moses in the cleft of a rock and will cover him with God’s hand.

When Fanny Crosby used this incident in her classic gospel hymn, she thought of such covering as the gift of Christ to keep us from harm, provide for us, and give us assurance in the change and flux of life. She wrote: “A wonderful Saviour is Jesus my Lord, He taketh my burden away; He holdeth me up, and I shall not be moved, He giveth me strength as my day. 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” (“He Hideth My Soul”).

Beautiful sentiments, but she has misunderstood this text. It’s not the burdens of life or its changes from which Moses needed protection. The cleft and the hand were to keep him from being consumed by a dangerous, deadly God. No human being can see the face of God and live. No one can endure gazing at that glorious visage. It would be like trying to survive in the core of a star. Or better, diving to the bottom of the ocean without being crushed or trying to escape the gravity well of a black hole. The Hebrew word for “glory” is actually “kavod,” “heaviness.” In other words, the gravitas of the divine is overwhelming; the cosmic weight too much to bear. The face of God is too beautiful to look upon, too mysterious to comprehend, too amazing to behold without being consumed with wonder. The multi-dimensional complexity of the divine; the depth and the height and the width; and past, present, and future all presented at the same time would drive us insane. God must hide his complete self from us because we can’t bear such fullness. Letting Moses see only God’s back was an act of grace.

Much later, the prophet Isaiah would be called by God. In the story of that encounter, he speaks only of a “train,” “the hem” of a robe that fills the Temple along with smoke that obscures everything. The great theologian Paul Tillich once said in a sermon on that text that “the revelation of God is at the same time the veiling of God. God can reveal himself only by remaining veiled…. The facing of God, even if it be a mere approaching to His sphere, even if God Himself remain hidden, means the annihilation of man” (“The Experience of the Holy,” The Shaking of the Foundations: 89).

Annie Dillard, a 20th century poet, famously wrote: “On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, making up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning…. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return” (Teaching a Stone to Talk).

As John Calvin had it: “…let us…acknowledge that, if our mental capacity be compared with the height of [God’s] mystery, we still remain at the very lowest roots. In this matter, therefore, we must all the more, then, keep sobriety, lest forgetful of our limitations we should soar aloft with the greater boldness and be overcome by the brightness of the heavenly glory” (source unknown).

It’s frustrating to see only God’s back, hints at what he’s doing in the world, glimpses of his presence, the wake of his actions. We wish we could have everything made clear, right now, and we could know what God is up to. But if we could know our future, if we could see everything unfold before us in a flash of insight, would we really want to? Would we not then be distracted from the beauty and wonder of living every day in our quest to avoid whatever unpleasantness awaited us and rush to the good times? Or if the universe were explained to us in a single moment, from the Big Bang to the End of Days, would we not begin to think of ourselves as gods and become insufferably arrogant? Isn’t revealing to us what we know to live, but not what is too wonderful for us to bear, an act of grace by God?

We live in what scholars call the time of the not yet. We are better off than Moses in that God has come among us, his glory squeezed somehow into the form of a man from Nazareth. And he told us that the one who has seen him has seen the Father. We also hear from that same gospel that we have seen his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of God. Paul wrote that God has given us the light of the knowledge of his glory in the face of Jesus Christ. And a later writer in the Pauline tradition was sure that in Christ the fullness of deity dwells in bodily form.

But in tension with that revelation is Paul’s famous saying in 1 Corinthians that now we see as in a poor mirror in low light. And the author of 1 John tells us that it doesn’t yet appear what we shall be. God is still mysterious. His presence, still dangerous. Right now we live hidden in the cleft of the rock. We must await the day when all will be made clear, when joined with Christ, we bask in the light of his glory. We might sing the old Sunday school tune: “Heaven is a wonderful place, filled with glory and grace. I’m gonna see my Savior’s face; heaven is a wonderful place.” But in the meantime, we long for clearer sight, as we pray: “Open the eyes of my heart, Lord. Open the eyes of my heart. I want to see You, I want to see You. To see You high and lifted up, shinin’ in the light of Your glory” (Michael W. Smith, “Open the Eyes of My Heart,”

And also for now, we remember how C.S. Lewis once had someone ask about his character Aslan, the lion who is a Christ-figure: “Is he safe?” “’Course he isn’t safe,” came the answer. “But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you” (The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe).

Indeed he is. And one day we will see not just his back, but his glorious face.


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