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Knoxville, TN, United States
Interim Pastor of Evergreen Presbyterian Church (USA), Dothan, AL.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Rear-View Mirror God

2014-10-29 Exodus 33 12-23 Rear-View Mirror God


It’s good to be back. If you weren’t here the last two weeks, neither was I. We were on Family Fall Break and it was glorious. I read four books. One of them was on the history of God in America. (I get a little wild when I’m out of town.) It told about the time one of the more prominent preachers in 20th century America went on vacation and came back to find the church had hired a new preacher. Thank you for your restraint. I did see that you changed the locks on ONE of the doors. I know other ways to get in.

Moses went away for 40 days. And when he came back, the people hadn’t just changed locks and preachers, they had taken up a whole new religion. They were worshiping the god of all their jewelry and silverware that they had melted down and turned into a golden calf in the fastest church construction project ever.

Now, in the movie, “The Ten Commandments,” with Charlton Heston, God is nice. Moses sees the debauchery and dancing and smashes the tablets. God makes the earth crack open and all the calf-einnated people fall in and are incinerated. The book is SO much better. In the Bible, God has Moses melt the calf, grind it to dust, mix it with water, and make the people drink it. Then, he divides the camp into two sides, those who are “with me,” and those who are “against me,” and commands all the “with me” people to slaughter all the “against me,” people, even their own family or friends. Which is kind of violating one of those Commandments they just received, “Thou shalt not murder.” Sometimes it’s best not to take the Bible too literally.

So, there they were. The congregation has cut in half. All the societal rules, which in the Bible, are WAY more than ten commandments, are scattered to pieces because God is SO ANGRY. But this is where something remarkable happens, something that I think’s different from how some of us view God. And I think it’s something we’ve forgotten about God, but might gain from looking in our Biblical rear-view mirror, back to the Old, really Old Testament, to remember.


Moses got away from his people a lot. It wasn’t just those 40 days on the mountain, and then the 40 more when God gave him updated tablets. Moses had a tent. It was his own, private God-tent. And he pitched his tent way outside the camp, far away from the people. And, the Bible says, in Moses’s God-tent, God and Moses would talk. It says, “Thus the Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend.” (Exodus 33:11)

And this is where we pick up today’s Scripture reading. Moses is off in his God-tent. Moses and God are talking, face to face, as one speaks to a friend.” And in this tent, Moses does what a friend might have once done for you when you were really, really ANGRY. Moses talks God down. Moses calms God down. I just don’t think of people being able to do that. Am I weird? I’m a preacher, so, yeah, but isn’t it strange to think of talking to God like a friend… who needs help? Who’s gonna hurt someone with that old shot-gun if he doesn’t take a breather? Isn’t it weird to think of God as someone you can sit down and have a come-to-Jesus with? Like you’re doing an intervention? I find that odd.

I think most people have a sense that God’s Son is the one you want to talk to. Sweet Jesus, meek and mild. What a Friend We Have in Jesus. If you’re going to talk to the heavenly God-head, Jesus is like the middleman, the go-between, the mediator, the intercessor, the human ear and kindly hand on your shoulder. Your friend. Jesus likes you.

I think, also, though, that a lot of people see God as the bearded Caucasian man in a cloud who’s far, far too busy to be bothered… by YOU. God’s a Grumpy Cat. Jesus is your friend, but God is the vengeful Father Almighty who sees everything you do, knows everything you think, and is, well, disappointed. Probably even angry. Sometimes REALLY angry. And who is God angry at? At YOU. Why? For all your SINS. God’s ready to melt you down and grind you up and make you drink your own poison.

Talk to God? Ha. If you even dare LOOK at God, you’re toast. No one can see the face of God and live. God even says so in today’s passage. God’s like human Kryptonite. Or a blinding atom bomb. A billion times brighter than the sun. So for your own safety, no one can see God coming at them. Even if God isn’t angry, even if God doesn’t want to hurt you, it’s just his nature.

But Moses, who in his God-tent talks to God as would a friend, face to face, isn’t buying it. He knows that if the people are going to follow God, God’s going to have to do better than that. No more of that, “Hey, I’m sorry, that’s just the way I am” junk. God’s going to have to meet the people halfway. God needs to calm down, set aside the Angry God, and show the people who’s really up there.

So, God, gives in. Sort of. God says, “OK. Here’s the deal. You can’t see me in my full glory, front-view. You just can’t. It’s not me, it’s you. Design flaw. So here’s what I’ll do. See that cleft between the rocks over there? I’ll put you there and then I’ll move by. You can’t look when I’m coming at you. But when you know I’m past, you can open your eyes, and see me moving away.”

Now, if you think too hard about this, you’ll get a headache. Again, there are parts of the Bible that aren’t meant to be taken literally, and I think this is one. I think this story gets its meaning when we look in that rear-view mirror of faith, and take what’s old and past, and use it to see God in the present. Sort-of.


Now, I don’t have a God-tent, but I’m starting to think it’s a really cool idea. We could put one in the courtyard. And anyone who wanted to just go away and sit and talk to God could go out to the tent for a stay-cation. We could put a flip-sign by it that says either, “Occupied” or “Open.” Just like on airplanes.

I don’t have a God-tent, and I don’t hear God speaking to me like you and I would talk. Some of you may find that alarming; some may find it relieving. These days, if you say God speaks to you personally, you get medicated, or put out by yourself, sometimes both. None of us can see God coming at us, because we can’t see the future. We can’t see God coming toward us; we can’t even see the next minute.

But Moses worked out this deal for us, this gift. That even though we can’t see God coming, we have the gift of seeing God in the rear-view mirror. We have this gift that we can take some quiet moments in a safe place and reflect. We can think about the past. We can think about those people that we DID talk to face to face. We can think about those events that at the time we COULDN’T understand, but in hindsight have changed our lives, have turned out to be miracles, have maybe, maybe even been God. God not speaking face to face, but God moving away. God seen in reflection, in glory, after the fact.

But not only that. We have this amazing capacity to remember patterns, to take the evidence of God in the past and project it onto the face to face conversations and events of today. We can remember how talking to a friend so long ago, how this changed our life, and we can start to recognize maybe, maybe this is a moment when that’s happening again. Maybe you’re the one bringing that gift to someone else. Maybe God’s working through you to help somebody, but right now it’s impossible to know. Maybe you’re going to be somebody else’s evidence of God when they look back on this moment.

But not only that. We have this even more amazing gift that we can take the evidence of the past, mix it into the possible of today, and look toward the future we can’t yet see (because we aren’t made that way), and imagine that yes, yes, the glory of God will be there, too. And we’ll maybe GLIMPSE it as it’s happening, but we’ll KNOW it as soon as it’s past because that’s the gift Moses talked God into giving us. That’s the deal. That’s the good deal we see from the safety of the shadowy cleft.

Things happen. Sometimes really awful things. Things that make us think God is so ANGRY. But in retrospect, given time for the storms to pass by, maybe it’s not that God’s so angry, but just that we’re so weak, we’re so limited, we’re so unsafe, we’re so fragile. We don’t see everything. We just can’t. We don’t understand everything. We just can’t. At least, not when it’s heading for us, or even when it’s upon us. But we have this gift, this gift that we CAN look back. We do get to open our eyes and see God -- in the rear-view mirror.


The story about the hymn we’re about to sing, “Rock of Ages,” which by the way is from the new PURPLE Hymnals we’re going to be getting come Advent, sort of like an early Christmas present to the church. The choir’s going, “Ding Dong the Blue Hymnal’s Dead.” It’s not quite dead. We’ve got a few more weeks to sing all your favorite Korean hymns one last time.

The story about “Rock of Ages,” is that in 1763, in England, the Reverend Augustus Montague Toplady, was traveling along a gorge when a terrible, frightening, angry storm came up. He found shelter in a rock cleft. And when the storm had passed, the lyrics came to him, upon reflection.

Today, the place where the Right Reverend hid is kind of a religious tourist destination, and there’s even the Rock of Ages tea shop nearby. It’s a quiet place where you can sit, and read a book, or just ponder how you got to where you are, and how many times you’ve caught sight of God in past.[1]

You don’t have to go to England to find God. You don’t have to drive a thousand miles away. You only have to adjust your mirror so it’s not always on you while you’re applying lipstick, or fixing your comb-over, or focusing on your face while you’re doing three other things. You CAN see God when you adjust the mirror so you can clearly see what’s BEHIND you.

But don’t look too long, because that’s dangerous, too. Keep moving ahead; that’s what you’re made to do. But if you need to, pull over and find a safe rest stop, a God-stop, a cleft for you, and think on all you’ve seen, think about all you’ve done, think about all the unexplainably generous things given you, and imagine where God might have been, even as he was moving away.


[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rock_of_Ages_(Christian_hymn)