August 1, 2010
“The Backside of Glory”
Rev. Dr. David A. Davis
Everyone has witnessed it at one time or another. Parent, grandparent, aunt, uncle, babysitter, or someone just over for an evening visit. The time is about 8:00pm. A two or three year old lives in the house, rules the house, is in charge of the house. The toddler is now fast asleep after a successful ritual and the bedtime story teller, nighttime pray-er, good night kisser comes back into a room full of grown ups who still sit amid the chaos of toys strewn all around, this enormous wake left by the one now so still and quiet. There on the couch the adults look like ET in the closet surrounded by animals. Before another word is spoken it takes a good fifteen minutes with everyone chipping in to pick up there in the child’s aftermath.
When my mother would visit us here in Princeton, she would often leave for her home when the children were in school. So Grandma would always go in their room and leave a note with a few dollars taped to the note, or she would leave a snack on the counter with a little note, or a little something she brought along with her. Always something from Grandma left behind. One particular visit my mother had been cold the whole time. She blamed it on the timer on the thermostat that would drop several degrees while the rest of us were out during the day. I arrived home from the office, Grandma was gone, and there was twenty dollar bill taped to the thermostat with a note: “Couldn’t stand it anymore” and the heat was bumped up. Always something left behind from Grandma.
Years ago, Hannah was only three and we stood along a parade route. She was on my shoulders. The parade had all sorts of floats and lights and characters. One of her favorites passed by. It was Belle from Beauty and the Beast. Belle was up pretty high. The music was load. It must have all been overwhelming. Hannah was pulling my hair holding on so tight. But she wouldn’t wave, wouldn’t dare say a word, even when Belle looked right at us. Seconds later, maybe a minute, the parade worked its way down the street. Belle was now waving to others in the crowd. Then, only then, with Belle up there on the float almost gone, I heard Hannah’s voice: “Hi Belle” she said and she waved. It was all easier a bit easier from the backside of the parade.
The Lord said to Moses, “Stand on the rock; and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; and then I will take away my hand and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.” See my back.
My back parts, it says in the King James. Not the face but the back. The backside of God’s glory.
The encounter here described in Exodus 33 is strikingly anthropomorphic when it comes to the Lord. In the Book of Genesis when the Lord appeared to Abraham by the oak trees, when Sarah laughed at the thought of having a child, the Lord appeared in the form of three men, maybe three angels, three visitors. When Jacob was on that journey to reunite with Esau, he spent the night wrestling with an unknown man, maybe an angel. The next morning Jacob proclaimed “I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” Here, earlier in this chapter of Exodus, the tent of meeting is described where Moses would enter and the Lord would speak with Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend. The image used for the Lord’s presence is the pillar of cloud descending and standing at the entrance to the tent. Three men under the oak trees, a man by the stream of Jabbok, a pillar of cloud at the tent of meeting. But here it is Moses standing on the rock and the Lord taking him and placing him in the cleft of the rock, covering him with the Lord’s hand, until the Lord passes by. “I will take away my hand and you shall see my back, but my face shall not be seen.” Hand. Placing. Covering. Back. Face.
God right there. God’s hand. God’s face. With all that anthropomorphizing, the lesson is there for the taking: God is so vividly present, right next to you on the rock, yet there will be that part of God that remains hidden, off limits. A beauty beyond description one cannot see. A wisdom not to be understood, yet to be revealed. A mystery preserved now only to be unveiled later. To quote the Apostle Paul, “Now we see in a mirror dimly, but then we shall see face to face.” The heavenly reward, pearly gate, apocalyptic, throne room revelation of the very face of God. And until then, nothing but back.“You can see the back, but not the face.” With God being described in such human ways, it’s all expected to be easy. The interpretation ought to be simple.
But it is a bit confusing, really. In the tent Moses and the Lord, they chat as friends, face to face. But only a few verses later, “no one can see the Lord’s face and live”. Earlier in Exodus, Moses and Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and 70 elders, all of them, according to the text, “went up and saw the God of Israel.” You remember later in Exodus how Moses had to cover his face with a veil, not to keep from seeing God, but because his own face had such shine when he had been talking with God. When it comes to Moses and the Lord, when you stop and think about it, there’s not all that much hidden between the two of them. Moses confronting. Moses pleading. Moses demanding. God calling. God speaking. God promising. God repenting. God going with them. It’s a bit confusing….Moses and the backside of God’s glory. You shall see my back.
The Hebrew dictionaries are pretty clear here about “the back”, the back side, the hindquarters, the back parts. But forms of the same word also can carry more of a connotation of the aftermath, the backside of something that carries with it a sense of timing; behind, afterwards, coming after. All the adults in the room chipping in to pick up in the aftermath of the little child. On the backside of her day. Finding the treasures left by a grandmother, what came after her visit, enjoying grandma on the backend. Basking in the glow and rising to the occasion, finding a voice, only after the parade passes by, a shout out from the back. There on the rock, what if what Moses can see, what if all that surrounds Moses, is the aftermath, the wake, the leftovers, the crumbs of God’s glory.
There on the rock, what if Moses rises not to see the rear end of glory, but the vestige of glory. Yes, a part of God will always remain hidden, but what if the promise that comes with God’s protection is that Moses will see the bits and pieces of the very beauty of God are scattered all around. Yes, there is that divine notion of that which will be revealed “up yonder”, but what if the power and the honor and the glory forever and ever and ever, what if it always leaves a mark in the here and now. Between Mt Sinai, the Golden Calf, and that tablet smashing, between that and the second edition of the law coming in stone and the journey continuing toward the Promised Land, right then and there on the Rock, the Lord reminds Moses that the piercing, whirlwind, breathtaking, all consuming, burning bush holiness of God may indeed be “out of this world” and yet, Moses stands there on the Rock knee deep in the everyday promise and faithfulness and steadfast love of God. The bits and pieces of divine glory that can’t help but be left when the Lord passes by. The wake of divine glory that flows like of river of justice, a stream of righteousness. The aftermath of glory scattered around, a bounty of God’s promise, nibbles from the feast of a divine banquet. Living each day on the backside of God’s glory.
I don’t know if you ever noticed this Table after the meal. There are usually crumbs everywhere. The broken loaves are cobbled back on the plate looking a tad eaten, a bit worked over. Sometimes some juice spills from the tricky pitcher. It is not like one of those fancy places where the staff has the cool utensil picking up crumbs, and after every sip of water someone fills your glass, and if you leave the table, when you come back your napkin has been transformed into a beautiful swan sitting there on your chair. Fancy, schmancy; it’s nice once in a while, but its not every day. Yes, there’s silver here and fancy trays, there is tradition passed on to us, after all, it is a banquet. But if you stopped up here after worship, it looks like we’ve had a meal together. As it should, the crumbs, the spots, the bread broken, the trays empty. The aftermath of a meal. Every day, ordinary bread; before, after, during. Every day, ordinary fruit of the vine. (Sign + promise = sacrament) Bearing witness to, conveying, a means of the extraordinary grace of God, the eternal promise of God, the very real presence of God, the glory of God revealed in Jesus Christ.
It is always memorable to drive away from the church on Christmas Eve. It’s very late almost everyone is gone, those luminaries, those candles in the bag still burning along the sidewalk, up the steps. Tired and weary, all the echoes of the services still ringing in the ear. Turning down Nassau Street. Beautiful. One Christmas morning, our family was heading down to south jersey for the Christmas gathering. We drove through an empty Princeton. It was raining. We passed the church. The bags still out lining the steps. Not very pretty. Some of them burned down to a pile of sand. The morning was grey. Still bleary eyed and tired. Still echoes of Christmas Eve worship. The aftermath. Still beautiful. A day lived in honor to and in response to the Savior’s birth.
Every day we rise from the Rock of our existence in response to the Savior’s birth, the Savior’s life, the Savior’s death, the Savior’s resurrection. We rise to serve and to witness and to live knee deep in the everyday promise and faithfulness and steadfast love of God. With the bits and pieces of divine glory making sacred the brokenness of our own lives. With the wake of divine glory exhorting us to work for justice and yearn for righteousness. With the aftermath of glory scattered around illuminating our very ordinary lives with the extraordinary grace of God. We rise every day, and Table, it’s already a mess with the love and the grace and the promise of God. After Sinai. After Calvary. Rising every morning to live on the backside of God’s glory.
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