Grace Lindvall
(Exodus 33: 12-21)

This morning our scripture reading comes from the Old Testament, following the lectionary for this week. We find ourselves at the end of the book of Exodus where we meet Moses and God in the midst of a conversation in the wilderness after the exodus from Egypt. Listen now for God’ s word to us this morning, from Exodus 33:12-23.

Exodus 33:12-21

The Word of the Lord:
Thanks be to God!

 Will you pray with me? Holy God you are here with us, we cannot see you with our eyes or hear you with our ears, but we know you are present. We ask then that you would move our hardened hearts to hear your word, to recognize your presence, to stir in us greater discipleship. Holy, God be with us, and may the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be pleasing to you, O Lord our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.

There is a bit of faith and doubt in each of us. A constant tug of belief and doubt, questioning and believing. Each of us, your Pastor included, live faithful lives that are sprinkled, sometimes drenched, in questions and wonderings and doubt. The skeptic lives inside any of our lives of faith. How could it not, we serve a God we do not see. We worship a God we cannot prove.

The chapter preceding this passage is the famous “golden calf” passage where the Israelites melt their gold to create a golden calf while Moses is atop the mountain receiving the ten commandments. While he is gone, the people get mad, mad because they cannot see God, so they melt their gold and create a new God, one they can see and dance around, and look at. But not a God who can do anything for them, not a god who shows goodness and mercy and love. But a God they could see with their eyes.

The text we just read from Exodus follows God’s command for the Israelites to leave the place where they have been staying, Sinai, and go to the place that has been promised to them, the Promised Land. Moses begins his conversation with God about what is about to happen, the huge task which he is about to take on, leading the people from the wilderness to the Promised land. And in his conversation he expresses his deep need for God to go with him and with his people, Israel. They exchange with one another and ultimately God promises to go but God will not be seen, not by Moses and not by the people. Moses will be permitted only to see the backside of God as God walks past him.

This text begs one of, what I think may be, 1 of the 2 greatest questions of faith and doubt. One of the questions of God that makes it hardest to believe, hardest to live in faith, hardest to trust God. Why can’t we see God?

Why why why can we not just see God? To see and know, and be certain? Why can we just not know?

We live in a world where we doubt most everything until we see it, touch it, know it, see proof. Proof is all around us. If we don’t know the answer to something, we pull out a smartphone and in under a minute a Wikipedia page gives us the certain answer. If we haven’t seen a place in the world, we can google an image of it. If we don’t believe something we can find proof in books or pictures.  

What a challenge it is then for us a people who love certainty and live in a world where certainty is possible, where proof is something attainable. We are a people who live in a certain world but serve a God we cannot see. A people longing for assurance, wishing for certainty, loving a God we cannot see.

We want to see God, but that is not what or who God is. God is more than seeing, to see God would be to minimize who God is in our lives. To see God would be to limit God. Instead, we get to know God, we get to know God’s goodness and know God’s mercy. In a world where we want proof and certainty, what a challenge it is to serve and worship a God whom we cannot see.

As people of faith, we make this really bold and incredibly challenging statement that we believe not because we see, not because we are certain. But somehow we are people of faith because we believe, because we have seen the places where God has been, because we sense that God has been where we are, because we live in wonder and awe of a God who does, not a God who we can see. A God who does goodness and mercy, who shows love and peace, who gives graciously, not a God who we can see.

And as people of faith, we struggle. We struggle with the challenge of not seeing and not knowing, but of believing.

So what then is the good news of this struggle – this insistent challenge of serving a God we cannot see face to face, of loving God whom we do not have the privilege of proving? Where is the good news in the struggle of this life of faith?

As we struggle with this life of faith, not seeing and yet believing, doubting and yet being faithful – we must be reminded that while we cannot see God, God is present, God is here, God is active in the world and in our lives. And that, that is sufficient, in fact, that is more than sufficient, it is amazing. 

Old testament scholar Terrence Fretheim writes about this passage, particularly about God’s reminder that we will not see God but God will nonetheless show goodness and show mercy. Fretheim reminds us, “It is more important to know what kind of God {God} is than to see that kind of God.”

It is far better to know God’s character, to know that we have a God filled with goodness and mercy and joy and love, than a God whom we can see. Challenging as it may be to live in certainty, how good it is to know who God is.

A former Seminary Professor of mine, Dennis Olson, says “Dimensions of God’s ways in the world will remain mysterious, elusive, and incomprehensible. What we do know of God’s supreme love and mercy, however, is sufficient for the journey to continue.”

It is sufficient for the journey. God may not be visible, God’s ways and God’s figure are mysterious but we live nonetheless in hope and in faith that God is present, that God is loving, that God is merciful, and that is sufficient.

We carry the reminder of who God is, not what God looks like with us. The tugs of faith and doubt in our life, the lived experiences of God’s presence, the reminder of God’s love, those, those are the things of God we need for the journey.

Artist and poet Jan Richardson’s poem “Show me your Glory” captures the beauty and the challenge of living in faith of a God we cannot see. Here is a fragmented bit of her poem:

I know the ache
of vision that comes
in such fragments,
the terrible wonder
of glory that arrives
but in glimpses.

So I am not here
to make excuses
for this blessing,
for how it turns
its face from us
when we need
to see it most.

But I want to believe
it will always
find its way to us

I want to be unafraid
to turn toward
this blessing
that binds itself to us
even in the rending;
this blessing
that unhinges us
even as it
makes us whole.

Finally, in remembering God’s sufficient but invisible presence, let us remember the ways that we do see God’s presence, the ways we are assured of God’s action in our world.

We may struggle with the reality and truth that we will not ever get the facetime with God we may long for, but we do get to see where God is and where God has been.

We see traces of lives changed, we see bits of joy shared in inexplicable ways, we see extraordinary landscapes and beauty across our world. We see love winning over hate. And as we see these glimpses of joy and love in the world, we remember always that these are God’s actions in the world, that these are the places where God has swept through the chaos and the ashes and brought hope and love instead. We see these places and must be reminded that this is the shadow of God’s presence in our lives and in our world.

Two years ago, before I came to Charlotte to serve as your Associate Pastor I spent the first part of the summer with my family in Northern Michigan on the Lake. My Dad passed on to me years ago a love of sailing so we spent many days sailing together before I moved to North Carolina later that summer. Towards the end of our days of sailing we signed up for a national sailing race on “the big lake” – Lake Michigan. The race was several days and filled with professional sailors and dozens of boats, of which we were the amateur brand.

The sailboat races take place with several buoys put out in the lake to mark the points of turn for the race. In the midst of one of our afternoon races with these dozens of boats, a deep fog set upon the lake. It came in slowly but soon became quite strong and debilitating. Boats were inching towards the buoys unable to see five feet in front of them. We kept sailing towards where we believed the buoy to be. From time to time the wake of a boat would lap against our boat and we’d see the path it had just struck, we’d feel its presence, but never see the boat. We never saw the boats, we never saw their skippers or crew but we saw the wake of where they’d been, and we knew that these boats had passed us by.

So it is with God, we may not see God, but we see the wake of God’s presence, we know that God has indeed been in our midst, God has indeed been in this place. We do not need to see to believe, we do not need to be certain to worship, we do not need a God we can see, we have a God who we know is present.

The mystery of our faith is a baffling and beautiful thing. A thing of wonder and a source of frustration, a thing of beauty and a maddening ambivalence. The mystery of our faith wonderful and amazing,

Though we doubt, I too doubt, somehow my very being knows, I question, I wonder, I get frustrated with the lack of certainty. But there is nothing about our faith that has ever required certainty, our faith simply requires belief. And while I doubt, and question, and wonder, my belief wins over and over again. Belief that God is where I cannot see God, belief that the God who is present with me is sufficient for the journey, belief that the mystery of faith is greater than the shadows of doubt.

In the name of God our creator, our sustainer, and our redeemer. Amen.