Promised Land: Are You with Us?
By the time we reach today’s text in Exodus 33, the Israelites have been through most of the worst and bulk of wandering through the desert, seeking after a new homeland. As we’ve talked about, we’ve seen God meet need after need expressed by the hesitant, scared Israelites. And then they started to transition, to think more about where they were headed to instead of what they were running from, and God started to help them shape an identity as a people, carving out a law that would guide them as they entered a new place and a new way of being together with each other and with God. And finally, they’re on the brink of reaching their destination.
And so it seems strange to me, after all they’ve been through, that now Moses would be so plaintively asking if God will be with them, go with them, when they enter into the Promised Land. He’s pleading, practically begging, whining, beseeching God to go with them into the Promised Land. Moses is talking with God, and he says to God, “So, you haven’t said who you’re going to send with us into the Promised Land. I mean, you’ve said you know me by name, and I’ve found favor in your sight. If that’s true, show me your ways, so that I can know you better and continue finding favor in your sight. Oh, and also, consider that all these people are yours.”
God responds, “My presences will go with you, and I will give you rest.” But that’s not convincing enough for Moses apparently. He says, “if you aren’t really going with us, don’t send us out of here to that unknown land. Nobody will believe we’ve found favor in your sight if you won’t even go with us. If we are really your people, you have to be with us.” And God says, “I’ll do just what you’ve asked, because I know you by name, and you’ve found favor with me.”
So Moses boldly asks to see God’s glory. And God says, I’m still in charge of my own mercy and grace, but yes, “I will make all my goodness pass before you.” The Israelites believed no one could look at the face of God, and so Moses stands on a cleft in the rock, and God covers Moses until God has passed by, when Moses is then able to see God’s back. Actually, the Hebrew here is a bit ambiguous. It’s like: Moses can see the residue glory of the place where God just was. Moses can see: wow, God was just right there.
So what’s with all the need for affirmations, for proofs, on Moses’ part all of a sudden? Well, last week, a select group of us talked about what was happening down on the ground while Moses was receiving the Ten Commandments that we talked about two weeks ago. While Moses was up there, the people were down on the ground, out-of-sight-out-of-mind convinced that God had abandoned them, begging Moses’ brother Aaron to make a replacement God for them. Aaron complies, and they fashion a golden calf, which the people then worship. When Moses sees it, he smashes the tablets with the commandments, and God is mad. Really, really, mad. So the people are full of guilt and regret. And they wonder, as even Moses does, if they can possibly have the same relationship with God going forward now that they’ve screwed up so badly. Indeed, God tells them to head to the Promised Land – they’re still going to the land of milk and honey. But God says, “I’m sending my angel to guide you, because right now, I’m so mad at you I can’t even look at you.” (That’s a Pastor Beth paraphrase.) That’s why Moses seems so unsure if God will go with them – he is unsure! Have they crossed the line at last? Is God done with them? Have the screwed up too badly? Does God still love them? Are they still God’s people?
I think we have to learn about what unconditional love is. I don’t think we’re born knowing it innately. It’s something so good we have to experience it, glimpse it at least, before we start believing in the possibility. Or maybe we start to believe that others might love us unconditionally when we realize we love them unconditionally. I’m not sure of the order. But I do think it is something we grow into. I think especially of my 7 year old nephew Sam. My mom, Sam’s grandma, loves Sam with the unmitigated love that grandparents have for grandchildren. I saw this cartoon on facebook recently and it captured the essence of unconditional grandparent love. My mother has in particular a problem with not giving Sam absolutely everything, and this cartoon is only a slight exaggeration of times she wants to give Sam “a small gift.” But Sam is a 7 year old boy, and sometimes he’s mischievous. Perhaps even naughty. Occasionally, while at Grandma’s, Sam will get into trouble, and need to cool down in his room. Sometimes she needs to let him know that his behavior is unacceptable, and she doesn’t want to be around him if he’s going to be hurtful, or if he won’t listen, or if he has to be told for the 1000th time that he can’t jump on the couches. Since Grandma is pretty easy on him, Sam can be pretty surprised if she tells him “no” and sets a firm limit. In fact, sometimes, knowing that his Grandma is upset with him will cause Sam to burst into tears. Or he’ll approach her hesitantly, after a timeout, not sure how he’ll be received. As if he’s wondering, “Have I been so bad that you really don’t want me around anymore? Do you still like me?” Indeed, for an elementary school kid, in that tumultuous world were kids are best friends one day and worst enemies the next, it’s easy to believe someone might stop liking you. And so I think part of the way Sam responds is because he has to learn over time about saying sorry and getting forgiveness and the astonishing truth that there is absolutely nothing that he could do – nothing – that would make my mother love him any less. And no wonder it’s hard to take in, because that’s pretty amazing stuff. To be loved no matter how much you’ve screwed up, even when you’ve hurt the very person who loves you so much. I think Sam is slowly learning though, because recently, he said to my Mom, “Grandma, you love me way too much!” Unconditional love is powerful.
Thinking about Sam and my mom helps me understand Moses’s chat with God a little better. In the aftermath of the Israelites making idols, worshiping something other than the very God who rescued them from Egypt, promised to prosper them, and guided them carefully through the wilderness, providing for their every need, God is not thrilled with the Israelites. In fact, God says: right now, I’m mad enough that maybe I better not be around you. Let me send a messenger with you to guide you into the Promised Land. Not: I’m going back on the promise I made. Not: I’m leaving you with no help. But: I need a little space. But the people mourn, hearing, “I don’t love you anymore.” And that’s what I think Moses is asking, really: “Do you still love us? And if you still love us, will you please come with us? Because I want to know you even better than I have before.”
Of course God says yes. Of course God loves them still. Always. Because there is nothing they can do that will separate them from God’s love. Nothing. Even when God doesn’t really want to be around them for a bit, God loves them. In the very next scene, we find that the tablets of the law, broken in the aftermath of the golden calf, are made new. A symbol of healing.
I think we can say: God loves us unconditionally. But knowing it, deep in our hearts, is a bit harder. Because we, too, live in a tumultuous world where our brokenness makes it hard to believe in unconditional love some days. And we wonder, perhaps, if we even deserve it. Thankfully, love operate in an entirely different system than what we deserve or not. And thankfully, we catch glimpses of unconditional love, even in our faulty, human version of it. Enough to be learning, over time, as we mature in faith, that God loves us even when we’ve made a big mess of things. God loves so much a bystander might observe that God in fact gets a little extravagant in loving us so much. And there’s nothing we can do that will change it. So let’s keep journeying. We’re almost to the Promised Land. And God will go with us. Thanks be to God. Amen.