Exodus 33: 12-23 (NIV): Moses said to the Lord, “You have been telling me, ‘Lead these people,’ but you have not let me know whom you will send with me. You have said, ‘I know you by name and you have found favor with me.’ If you are pleased with me, teach me your ways so I may know you and continue to find favor with you. Remember that this nation is your people.”
The Lord replied, “My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.”
Then Moses said to him, “If your Presence does not go with us, do not send us up from here. How will anyone know that you are pleased with me and with your people unless you go with us? What else will distinguish me and your people from all the other people on the face of the earth?”
And the Lord said to Moses, “I will do the very thing you have asked, because I am pleased with you and I know you by name.”
Then Moses said, “Now show me your glory.”
And the Lord said, “I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the Lord, in your presence. I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. But,” he said, “you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.”
Then the Lord said, “There is a place near me where you may stand on a rock. When my glory passes by, I will put you in a cleft in the rock and cover you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I will remove my hand and you will see my back; but my face must not be seen.”
From April to October every year, I was a pretty ungrateful kid. All my friends would ask what I was doing over the weekend, and I always had the same answer: (glumly) “Going to the lake.” My parents were (and still are) boat people. Maybe Dad spent too much time under the water on a submarine and needed to make up for it with time on the water. I don’t know. But from age 8 on, we always had a boat.
I was a blessed kid. We spent so much quality time together as a family, just the four of us away from phones and TVs, away from the busyness of life. When we had a little boat, we camped. When we had a bigger boat, we slept on it. We learned all kinds of things — how to ski, how to fish, how to play cards, how to problem-solve (because if you have a boat, you always have a problem). But even though I was a blessed kid, I didn’t appreciate it at the time. I wanted to take family vacations. We did, my parents insisted, every weekend at the lake!
Look at me! People like me are not allowed in the sun. I don’t tan; my freckles just multiply. I sometimes suffer from motion sickness. And I don’t like being in murky water, so even though I know how to ski, I don’t because I have to be in the water to do it. The same goes for swimming. Every weekend, I sat in the boat in the shade ungratefully and read books.
I experienced the wonders of Thomas Hill Lake, Mark Twain Lake, and The Lake of the Ozarks with a book in front of my face. My parents were always trying to get me to engage.
“Don’t you wanna ski?” Nope.
“Wouldn’t a dip in the water cool you off?” I’m fine.
“Did you see that boat go by, Kim?” Felt it.
Because you can’t help but feel a big boat go by when you’re on the water. What is it you feel? The wake. When a power boat goes by, the water displacement creates a wake that fans out behind it. The bigger the boat, the bigger the wake. I didn’t have to have sea legs. I had to have sea hands, holding on to my book no matter how big the wakes that rocked our boat.
But in all those moments when I felt the wake but didn’t see the boat that caused it, I never doubted that the boat existed. I didn’t see it because I had my nose in a book, but I felt the evidence of it. That was enough.
In Bible study this week, we were talking about moments when people encountered God in person and the ways in which God showed up to those people. The technical term for that is “theophany,” or “epiphany” which we usually reserve for the holiday right after Christmas when Jesus is revealed to Gentiles for the first time by being seen by the Three Wise Men. The holiday of Epiphany celebrates a theophany, a moment when God shows up. So when someone tells you they’ve had an epiphany, you can ask them if it was an actual theophany or just a really good idea or if the three wise men were involved. Hmmm… the more you know.
In the stories of the Old Testament, how God appears during theophanies generally depends on how old the story is and where it was written. So we were discussing who saw God face to face and who didn’t, and it came up that Moses didn’t. God showed up to Moses in a variety of ways, including through a burning bush, but not really face to face. In fact, Moses saw only God’s back side. He saw the glory that trails behind God but not God’s self.
In today’s scriptures, Moses is having this very real, very human crisis of faith in his own leadership. To say things with the Israelites are not going well is like the understatement of the millennium. He’s in this difficult position where he’s not just following God, but he’s leading people while following God. Moses doesn’t really have the best background for this. He has a big job but doesn’t have all the tools he thinks he needs. Remember the story of the baby in the basket? Moses was that baby who was then raised as an Egyptian even though he’s an Israelite. Then he went and spent time with his wife’s family who were not Israelites, but Midianites, or descendants of Abraham and his seldom-discussed third wife, Keturah. So it’s not like Moses was raised to be a rabbi or to be in this position of leadership of all the Jewish people. He was not trained for this stuff, but God made it clear that God’s choice for leadership was Moses.
Moses sounds a little scared in this passage. He should be. He doesn’t really know the ways of God, he doesn’t understand how they’re going to get to the promised land, and he’s a little worried about all these people behind him, those who followed him out of Egypt and into the desert. When God comforts him and confirms God’s choice of Moses, Moses makes a demand. “Now show me your glory.”
We have been there. We may not have parted the red sea with a gaggle of Israelites behind us, but we have been in Moses’ shoes. We have had moments when we realized we didn’t know enough of the ways of God, we’ve had moments when we didn’t know how God was gonna get us from here to there, we’ve had moments when we worried about all the people behind us. But we’ve also had moments when we have demanded of God, “Now show me your glory.”
Isn’t that, after all, kinda what we’re saying when we have our deepest prayer requests? We want God to show up for us, for our loved ones. And we want that now. And we want it visible. And thorough. We want a theophany. We want God. Here. Now. Big. Change. Unmissable. In our face. Jesus. At the hospital. With a clipboard. And a medical degree. Miracle. Now. That’s how we pray. That’s how I pray. That’s not what we get.
And that’s not what Moses got. Moses! Played by Charlton Heston in my head. Moses was a BIG DOG with God, and Moses only got to see God’s back side because Moses couldn’t survive seeing God’s face. God stuck him in the cleft of a rock, God covered him up until it was safe for him to look, and then Moses saw the glory trailing behind God. When Moses saw that, it was enough.
And that’s what we get, too. When we pray fervently for something, we don’t usually get the face-to-face, Jesus with a clipboard, immediate response. But if we keep our eyes open for awhile, we’ll see the trail of the glory of God moving through our lives. We’ll feel the wake even if we don’t see the boat that made it.
These last few weeks, man… I can’t even tell you. I feel like I’m being tossed in God’s wake. That’s a good thing. Things I have prayed for for months, years. Things I had forgotten to keep praying about. Things I’d given up praying about because I was frustrated that there was no answer. Boom came the wake from the right. God moved, and things changed. Boom came the wake from the left. God moved, and things changed. Boom came another one. And another one, until all I could see was this glory trailing in front of me. That’s right: in front of me. Not behind me. None of it is my glory. It’s God passing by. And I felt the movement. In front of me. God moved, and it moved me. None of these prayers were answered face-to-face in the moment. But I felt the movement, saw the back side of God walking through my life and the lives of those I love. I feel the wake God is throwing out, and it’s so strong — how can I doubt the existence of the boat?
I can look back now on my time on boats as a kid and feel grateful for what I got, except maybe the sunburns, from being on the boat with my parents and brother every weekend. A boat wasn’t what I wanted at the time for my family, but it was probably one of the best things for us. So now I feel blessed by what I was once ungrateful for.
The difference between feeling blessed for what happened in our lives and being ungrateful because we didn’t get it when and how we wanted is a matter of perspective. And time. To be more grateful to God, we need to remember what the wake we feel means. Something just moved me. Thanks be to God!
I don’t know if we have to change the way we pray, but I do know that we might have to change our expectation of what we’ll get. We serve a God who is moving. And sometimes God keeps us safe from seeing him face-to-face. He hides us in the cleft of a rock. He covers us until we’re safe. And then God’s glory passes by. Feel the wake. Know what it means. Amen.