We sometimes use religious language like "glory" and "presence," "goodness" and "compassion" without opening ourselves fully to God's life with us and in us. We sometimes hide and sometimes God is hidden from us. When we are open to God's grace, it shows in our lives (and faces).
We are in the time between Moses' successive trips up and down the mountain into the presence of God to retrieve the "two tablets of the covenant, tablets of stone, written with the finger of God, ...the work of God, ...the writing of God, engraved on the tablets" (Exodus 31:18; 32:15-16). That first set of tablets has been broken in the heat of an angry fit (32:19) and the people have suffered a plague for their unfaithfulness (32:35). Moses has not yet been instructed to retrieve a second set of tablets, so Moses is in between visits to see God and is in something of a quandary as our reading begins. Perhaps Moses senses that God is telling him and the people to continue their journey but he is not at all sure that God intends to continue the journey with them. (In fact, God had told Moses, "Y'all go ahead; I'm staying here!" 33:3) Perhaps Moses is a little put out because his assistant, Joshua son of Nun, will not leave the "tent of meeting" (where one can only presume he is enjoying the presence of God from which Moses feels estranged) to return to camp (33:11). Joshua seems to be taking his time, as Moses did on top of the mountain. (32:1) Whatever the case, Moses begins a wrestling match with God about God's availability.
Moses wants to know:
- Whom will you send with me? (33:12)
- Have I (really) found favor (grace) in your sight? (33:13)
- May I (really) know you? (33:13)
- May I (really) know your ways? (33:13)
- May I (really) trust you to go with us? (33:15-16)
- May I (really) trust that we are special to you? (33:16)
- May I (really) see your glory? (33:18)
- May I (really) share this grace, faith and hope with your people? (33:13, 16)
God is faithful in his relationship with Moses, assuring Moses of the reliability of his presence, without allowing Moses to control God. God assures Moses:
- I know you by name. (33:12, 17)
- You have found favor (grace) in my sight. (33:12, 17)
- My presence will go with you. (33:14)
- I will give you rest. (33:14)
- I will do what you have asked. (33:17)
- I will make all my goodness pass before you. (33:19)
- I will proclaim before you the name, the LORD. (33:19)
- I will be gracious [to whom I will be gracious]; I will show mercy [to whom I will show mercy] (33:19)
- You cannot see my face. (No one shall see me and live; 33:20; see 32:11)
- You shall stand on the rock, near me, covered by my hand until I have passed by (33:21-22)
- You shall see my back. (33:23)
What are we to make of all this back and forth between Moses and God? If we pay attention to the details, it appears that God makes us most clearly and fully aware of God's presence in retrospect and prospect--and through the observation of others (e.g., 33:10)--and less clearly or directly in the moment. We may long like Moses for a directness that will remain elusive, except as it is mediated through a remembrance of those times when God has already been present with us (all God's goodness, faithfulness, grace, and mercy in the past...even some times when God spoke to us "face to face") and a vision of that future when God has promised to be with us again. Sometimes our situation is such that our awareness of God's presence is attenuated and obscured--times when we have experienced failure, doubt, fear, sin and disillusionment. [We are, as Calvin says in the Institutes [Prefatory Address], "perfectly conscious how poor and abject we are: in the presence of God we are miserable sinners, and in the sight of men most despised."] At those times, God sometimes answers our pleas with memory and hope, faith and reflection, promise and reminder. Moses will not see God today except as he reviews God's promises, God's goodness, God's identity (name), God's graciousness, God's mercy, and memories of God's glory--and as he catches a glimpse of God's "back," which is a sure sign that Moses had better break camp and start the journey. The question is not whether God will go with his people when they leave, but whether God's people will break camp and follow when God renews the journey. For now, there's rest in the cleft of the rock for Moses.
In the next chapter, God will again pass in front of Moses and when Moses leaves the presence of God, he is marked and changed, even if temporarily. His face shines because he has been in the presence of God (has seen God's "glory"), but still he does not know it. (34:29-35)
1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
Though Paul's letter to the Thessalonians opens with a prayer of thanksgiving rather than a prayer of intercession, Paul is also cultivating an awareness of God's presence for himself and for the church to whom he writes. Paul is sure that this God whom they serve is a "living and true God" (1:9). Paul is also aware that cultivating a complete awareness of God's presence requires the deployment of faith, a fundamental trust in God demonstrated in Jesus' faithfulness and obedience; hope, an orientation toward the future with a sense of certainty and anticipation that what God has promised God will do; and love, an orientation of service toward God and our neighbor. Paul is aware of the power of prayer to work with memory (1:3) and the Word through the Holy Spirit to make the presence of God come alive even (or especially) in times of persecution. (1:6) Practicing the presence of God requires a cultivation of "remembering" and "waiting"--as we said about Moses, it is retrospect and prospect--recalling how God raised Jesus from the dead while we wait for him to return to rescue us from the wrath to come.
Renewing Awareness of the Presence of the LORD
There are a few things to remember when we sense a need for renewed assurance that the LORD is present with us.
Pray! | Thanksgiving and Intercession
Moses and Paul demonstrate an active life of prayer as the key component for a living relationship with God. Nothing renews an awareness of God's presence like the practice of prayer. Moses carries on an in-depth conversation with God, laying out his need for knowledge, grace, guidance along the path, and assurance (especially that God will go with the people when they leave their present location). Moses is even so bold as to ask to see God's "glory" as an indisputable sign of God's presence with him (33:18). Paul uses an extended thanksgiving for the church in Thessalonica to renew his own sense of God's living presence--past, present, and future.
Read Scripture! | Listen to the Spirit Breathe
God manifests himself to our awareness in the Scriptures, when, as Paul says, the gospel comes to us not in "word only," but in power and with full conviction, with joy and inspiration. (1 Thessalonians 1:5-6) Again, such an awareness is one that requires faith, engenders hope, and works itself out in love. I may not experience the immediacy of God's presence while I am reading, as I so often long to do. No, it may be only long after the fact that I see the way the Spirit was using Scripture to bring me into God's presence--or it may only be in anticipation of the day when the veil will be lifted from my eyes and I will know as I am known. Either way, practicing an awareness of God's presence requires listening to God speak, being able to say as Moses did, "I know you have said 'Bring up this people'...and 'I know you by name' and 'You have found favor in my sight.'" Reading Scripture enables a conversation with God in which we hear and listen, becoming aware of God's presence in the process.
Marjorie Thompson uses the contrasting images of a "handwritten letter from a dear friend" and a "newspaper" to talk about the difference between reading for information and reading for relationship. There is functional reading and relational reading. Spiritual reading, says Thompson, is "concerned not with speed or volume but with depth and receptivity, ...because the purpose of spiritual reading is to open ourselves to how God may be speaking to us." (Soul Feast: An Invitation to the Christian Spiritual Life, p. 19). "It is not that the words magically or mechanically contain God's presence, but that as we allow the same Spirit through which the scriptures were written to inform our listening, the presence of God in and beyond those words becomes alive for us once more."(p. 22)
Discern! | Listen to the People
We have noted that Moses seems unaware of what others see. He and we need the help of the community to notice that whenever we enter the "tent of meeting" the presence of God, a pillar of cloud, descends on the tent. Or we need folks to tell us when our faces are shining with God's glory, when our own presence is reflecting time spent in the presence of God. Marjorie Thompson reminds us that when we enter the Shekinah (glory), the light and warmth of God's presence, we never do so alone: "We are there with all God's children held in the divine embrace." (Soul Feast, p. 45) Moses, feeling quite alone at the moment, is nevertheless involved in intercession on behalf of the people, God's people, God's children. It is as if he is lifting each of them into the light of God's glory when he prays for them to know the continuing presence of God. Is it any wonder then that the people of God are the first to notice when Moses has been in God's presence?
Rest! | Play and Take Sabbath
In our busy world, this is possibly the hardest word of admonition to follow. For that reason it is good to remember that Sabbath rest is a grace, a free gift of God to us, as it was to Moses. (33:14)
Stay Awake! | Awe & Wow
Being aware of God's presence means staying alive to what brings us wonder and awe--and staying conscious of the contrast between God's majesty and our own insignificance. As Calvin reminds, "holy men [and women] were struck and overwhelmed whenever they beheld the presence of God." The glory of God reminds us that we are mere dust and ash. God's wisdom, judgment, mercy, and love remind us of what humbler stuff we are made. Even the moon is embarrassed and the sun ashamed in the light of God's glory (Isaiah 24:23). So, when we ask to "see God's glory" as Moses did, we should be prepared to be wowed and humbled. Awareness of God's presence is "bound together with a mutual tie" to knowledge of ourselves (Calvin), and so awareness of God's presence is a state of constant astonishment and embarrassment. Moses' discomfort is a fairly good sign that he is already in God's presence even as he asks to see God's glory.
The irony is that there is nowhere to hide from God's presence. Though we may not be always fully aware, we are always fully known (by name) to the same God who knew Moses; we have received favor (grace) from the same one who gifted Moses. There is literally no place to run; nowhere to hide from the face of God. At the very same time that we fear God's absence, we are the objects of God's interest and gaze. Psalm 139 says it best, ringing the changes on God's presence:
Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast. ...I come to the end--I am still with you.NRSV (139:7-10, 18)
Like Moses, we may be afraid of God's absence because we are attempting (or are tempted) to hide, ashamed of what we have done and the tablets of the covenant we have fractured. As John says, we may prefer darkness to the light of God's glory because our deeds are evil. Still we know that we are in desperate need of the very One from whom we hide and so we pray, "show us your glory."
As Marjorie Thompson says in Soul Feast, "It would be nice if we could simply 'practice the presence of God' in all of life, without expending energy on particular exercises." "But the capacity ot remember and abide in God's presence comes only through steady training." (p. 12)