A reflection based on Exodus 33: 1-3.12-23 and Matthew 22: 15-22
Does God have a face?… According to the Bible, can you see God face to face and live? …If you say Yes, you are right and wrong. If you say No, you are right and wrong. We’ll get to that a bit later! Where we pick up the reading in Exodus 33 today, we find that God has about `had it’ with these whiny, disobedient and ungrateful people trekking through the Sinai desert toward something called the Promise Land. God says to Moses, `Look, I promised you the land of Canaan, so go ahead, move in. But I’m not going. I’ve had enough of these people already. ..’ Moses says, Not these people, but your people. And I’m not going, if you’re not going… there is no purpose. What’s the purpose of having a land flowing with milk and honey, if we are not in a covenant relationship with you, God? I’m not going on without you so show me that you are with me.
God seems to soften at this request. `You have found favour with me Moses, I know you; I know you by name.’ Naming and the way we name things is so important. One of my favourite quotes comes anonymously from a child. “When someone loves you the way they say your name is different. You know that your name is safe in their mouth.”
Moses wants further assurance. `Not only do I want you to go with us, but I want to see your face.’ God says, according to Exodus 33:20, `I’ll hide you in a rock, and protect you with my hand but…you cannot see my face; for no one shall see my face and live.’
Now here’s where it gets kind of strange. Notice we jumped from Ex. 33: 1- 3, skipped a few verses and carried on at verse 12. However, dear friends, listen to this verse from Exodus 33:11 – just before the reading for today starts. `God and Moses used to speak face to face as friends speak to one another.
I’m not making this up! If anyone complaints to you that the Bible is inconsistent and contradictory, just acknowledge that they are right. It makes trying to discern the character and the will of God somewhat of a challenge, and may in part explain the bewildering array of religions, denominations, beliefs, traditions and practices.
It’s helpful to know, if you didn’t already, that there are various streams of authorship intermingled in these stories. The priestly stream of writers, portray God as organized, sequential and somewhat remote and mysterious. It is a priestly account has God saying, “You cannot see my face; for no one shall see my face and live.” Then God goes on to say – but here’s what I’ll do for you, I will hide you in the crevice of a rock and you can see my glory pass by.’
I would say the authors of this account are hungering for a God of transcendence; a God who is holy, orderly and mysterious, but one who could use some priestly help to keep the people in a state of awe and reverence. You find this image of God in Genesis chapter 1 working in a very orderly fashion for six days, and resting on the seventh.
Those verses from Exodus 33: 4 to 11, say that God spoke with Moses face-to-face, as neighbours speak to one another. This way of describing of God comes from what biblical scholars call the `J’ tradition (Yahwist) where God is much more anthropomorphic and doesn’t mind digging in the dirt or, as I like to say, makes mud-pie babies. This is where we get the image in Genesis chapter two of God forming the human creature from the dust of the earth, and getting into conversation with Adam and Eve.
The authorship of this tradition is hungry not for transcendence and mystery, but hungry for intimacy with the Divine.
Can you identify for yourself, what way of knowing God you hunger for? Are there different ways that you experience God at different times in your life, or ways you would like to?
Whatever else may be true for us, can we agree with Moses that we really don’t want to go on a spiritual journey without God’s presence and blessing? Can we agree that a relationship with God, not just following the rules, is what is at the heart of communities of faith?
How does our hungering for connection to God, however you understand God, get fed in a world where so much else vies for our loyalty?
In the gospel of Matthew, two groups that don’t get along with each other, the Pharisees and Herod’s henchmen team up to bring Jesus down. They ask a question about paying taxes. If Jesus says, `Don’t pay them’, they can say he’s telling people to break the law. If he says, `Pay them’, then the Pharisees will say he’s worshiping Caesar, not God.
It’s wonderful what he does with this question. He asks to see a coin. ‘Whose image is on this coin’, he asks, as if he didn’t know. Oh, this is Caesar’s image? Well then give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and give to God what is God’s.
So… what do we owe to God? Jesus doesn’t spell that out. He lets that question rattle around in our hearts and minds.
In the last few days of our trip to Ireland this summer at Corymella, a retreat centre for reconciliation in Northern Ireland, some of our group gathered with the local young people who were our volunteer hosts during our stay. One young woman, a Lutheran from Boston, Mass. led the worship that night and invited us to light a candle to symbolize the intention of our prayer. I heard my spirit praying at some deep level, “Free me to serve you. Free me to serve you.” I don’t even know exactly what that means, I just know it to be true, and I know it was directed to God, not to Caesar.
As individuals and as a community of faith, may we hunger for spiritual discernment and the courage to follow where it leads.
And may we be grateful for being fed – by the gathering of community, by the wisdom of our spiritual teachers, by the gifts of the earth that nourishes our bodies, by the grace of God, who really does want to travel the journey of life with us. Amen.