GOD’s Backside Passes By Our COVID Regulated Wilderness – Exodus 33

Yesterday, I while on my way to preside at a wedding, my mind kept wandering away from the imminent nuptials toward the vivid autumn colours and all that they foretell. I love autumn. I’m fond of saying that autumn is my favorite colour. But as I drew closer to my destination, thoughts of the passing of autumn into winter saddened me as I thought about how this wedding would unfold. Here in this region we are about to go back into lockdown, so this wedding was a wedding like no other wedding, I have ever been part of. As we hastily drew up plans for the event, we joked about our new reality and the challenges which have become all too real during this pandemic. Only a handful of guests would gather outside, in the back yard of the parents of the bride. Masks would be mandatory, and we would be required to keep our distance. The realization that this couple was just one of many couples whose weddings have been postponed or curtailed or carried out under strict social distancing regulations began to lower my mood. So, returned my focus to the vivid autumn vistas which lined my route. As my mind soaked up the beauty, it also began to wander toward the reality that these bursts of colour mean that the leaves are about to die. Soon they will all fall, just as the snow will begin to fall. Winter is coming.

Winter is coming and it shall be a winter like no other we have ever experienced. For in addition to the hardships which winter inevitably brings to this part of the world, the increased presence of the coronavirus will force us into the kind of hibernation which this past spring’s lockdown only hinted at. As my mood began to spiral down into the deeps of the wilderness into which we will soon find ourselves, I couldn’t help wondering, in the words of the psalmist in the old King James version, “from whence cometh our help?” I know the psalmist provides the answer, “My help comes from the LORD, the Maker of heaven and earth.” But I have long since given up the notion that the DIVINE MYSTERY which the interpreters of the King James Version of the Bible called, “LORD” was waiting around to magically solve all our problems.

During these intense days filled with the challenges of living and dying during a pandemic, those of us who spend our lives wrestling with questions about the mystery and meaning of life, find ourselves, like most people in a new kind of wilderness. In my line of work, talk of mystery, meaning, and wilderness often sends us scurrying back to the sacred stories which weave their way in and out, over and under, the meaning we try to make about the deepest MYSTERY of life. The Bible is full of stories which touch the deepest MYSTERY of life. The ancients knew that eternal truths are best communicated through story, and so we plumb the depths of the scriptures’ parables, myths, and similes to discover our reality.  

Memories, stories, imaginings, myths, wonderings, and glimpses, these are the stuff of truth.  We human creatures, we just can’t help wondering. How did we get here?  Who made us? Why were we made? Why are we here? Where are we going? We humans can’t seem to help wondering, what’s it all about? From days of old, we’ve been sitting around campfires weaving tales about how we came to be, and what it’s all about; speculating on the nature of our CREATOR. Story after story has been told; stories which weave in and out between our experience and our wonderings; what’s real, what’s not, what’s true and what are we imagining? The best stories, the ones which capture our imagination and stimulate our wonderings, those stories were told over and over again. Handed down from one generation to the next. Some stories were so profound that they just had to be written down.

They were elevated to the realm of the sacred and these stories, these wonderings, took on the quality of myth. Sacred truth, so precious that over the years some of us have sought to defend these stories with our very lives. Others have built their world around these sacred truths, found their identities between the lines of their imaginings. Still others have feared the very wonderings which birthed these sacred myths. So afraid have they become, that they have tried to insist that these sacred truths aren’t even ours, but rather the DIVINE ramblings of our GOD, who whispered into the ears of scribes who jotted them down word for word, in the Kings English no less, holding between their lines not only sacred truths, but perfectly preserved history. So treasured are these sacred truths that some of us even claim that between their line lie the for-telling of our future. So treasured are these sacred truths that the questioning of even the slightest detail has the power to set one tribe or nation against another tribe or nation.

From the storytellers of old to the recesses of our imaginations the character Moses has cast a spell on generations of wanderers and wonderers. Let me remind you of once such story handed down from one generation to another, which is embedded in our psyche and contributes to our identity?

It’s a story of Moses, Moses who wanted to see GOD in all GOD’s glory. Moses who’d been talking with GOD for years, who’d staked his whole life, and the lives of his kinfolk, the lives of his people on the conversations he had had with this god of his. Moses wanted to actually see GOD, in all GOD’s glory.

Who could blame Moses? Wandering out there in the wilderness, trying to juggle the needs of a people lost and wandering, hoping against hope that there was a land of milk and honey out there somewhere, anywhere. Moses had the stone tablets, yes. GOD’s law written in stone a gift for this people who’d followed him out into the wilderness. Imagine: they followed Moses out into the wilderness all because Moses had heard GOD speak to him. Right there from out of the flames of a burning bush GOD called out to Moses. The god of Moses’ ancestors spoke, and a promise was born, the promise of liberation from slavery, of deliverance from oppression. The promise of a land; a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey. Such a promise required more than just the ramblings of a burning bush; such a promise required a name. Who was this god?

Moses said to Moses’ god, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is God’s name?’ what shall I say to them?”

From that burning bush came the sacred name GOD said to Moses, “YAHWEH. I AM WHO I AM. YAHWEH. I SHALL BE WHO I SHALL BE.” YAHWEH the sacred name of GOD, so sacred that Moses and his people would never utter it. So sacred that even after they’d told their stories for generations, they’d proclaim the name of GOD with only a silence; a long pause where people could breathe the name within themselves. So sacred that when it came time to write down the sacred stories, they didn’t write the whole name of GOD. Just the consonants were enough to evoke the sacred name. Over the generations, the people forgot how to breathe the name of GOD, and so the scribes, hinted at the vowels so that the breath of GOD continued to emanate from GOD’s people. But as the tribes fought over the details of the story, the sacred code of silence failed to evoke the breath of God. Even though, from the burning bush GOD was said to have declared, “This is my name forever, and this my title for all generations,” the peoples of God forgot the sacred name. So, the scribes replaced the sacred code with bold capital letters which included vowels and once again the name YAHWEH was heard when the sacred stories were told. YAHWEH, I AM WHO, I AM or I WILL BE WHO I WILL BE.

That says it all, our GOD IS. GOD WILL BE. NOW and FOREVER. This ought to be enough. But wouldn’t you like more? Is it any wonder that Moses asked for just a little more? And so, one day, Moses gave it a whirl: come on, just once show me. “Show me your glory, I pray.”  And the MIGHTY ONE said, “I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you the HOLY NAME, and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and I will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. “But,” said the MIGHTY ONE, “you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.”  

And the MIGHTY ONE continued, “See there is a place by me where you shall 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; then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not see.”

And so, Moses caught but a glimpse of YAWEH’s backside. Just a glimpse mind you. But isn’t that how it always is. Just a glimpse, a glimpse of God here and there. For our GOD WILL BE, WHO GOD WILL BE. And we must let the glimpse be enough, but oh those glimpses.

When I arrived at the backyard location, I was greeted by masked faces laughing and joking their way through last minute preparations. My own somber contemplations were dispersed by the task at hand. Proud parents and delighted siblings opened me to their sense of expectation, while beaming sunshine, stirred hope in this happy gathering in ways that only LOVE can. Once the bride and groom took their place in the midst of the LOVE which lives and breathes in every one of us who was gathered to bear witness to their promises, all our worries about the future slipped away as we celebrated LOVE’s triumph. Later, as we raised a glass to the happy couple, the wind rustled, and leaves fell, and I caught a glimpse of the DIVINE MYSTERY.

Even though I’m not so sure I’d live to tell the tale, I’d still love to see the face of GOD. But for now, I’ll settle for a glimpse of GOD’s backside. For now, all we’ll see is a glimpse of God’s glory. But oh, those glimpses. Once you catch a glimpse, you’ll never forget it. Remember the glimpses.

There, look can you see a glimpse of the DIVINE ONE? There, in the eyes of your beloved. The first time you knew you were in love and there in your beloved eyes, you saw but a glimpse of the DIVINE. Or standing there holding that beautiful child for the very first time, gazing into the wonder which you held in your arms, there was but a glimpse of the DIVINE. Look down onto the page, between the lines of that poem which told your whole life in just a few lines, there’s the hand of GOD.

Look, look there she goes, she just learned to ride it all by herself, she’s growing up so quickly, do you see right there behind her, there in the shadows watching her, if you look closely you see the arms of GOD in your own arms, waiting to catch her. Look at him he thinks he knows it all, there he goes with the keys to your car, in the screech of tires can you hear it, it’s the sound of GOD trying to catch up with him, trying with all your might to keep him safe; for you are the arms of GOD.

Look carefully as you watch the news, see the researchers, the doctors, nurses, and caregivers in all their efforts is the wisdom and the compassion of the LOVE which IS GOD, working in, with, through and beyond the many hands which will see us through.

Listen carefully can you hear it? It’s ever so faint, the rattle of her last breaths makes it hard to hear but if you listen carefully, you’ll hear the breath of the ONE breathing alongside her as you breathe with her, as she breathes her last breath; for you are the breath of YAHWEH. And as you struggle to comprehend, wondering how you can ever find a way to say good-bye; good-bye Grandma, good-bye Grandpa, good-bye Mom, good-bye Dad, good-bye my love, if you lean back you will feel them, there, there they the arms of the MYSTERY holding you both in the LOVE which is GOD.

Look there, GOD is in that smile, the smile that says I’ve known you so long and yes I still love you even if you drive me nuts, there in the gleam in your lover’s eyes, you will see the DIVINE MYSTERY which IS LOVE? Gaze out into the vivid autumn colours, there dashing by, through the trees, trudging up into the hills, hiking over the mountains, if you look closely, you’ll see GOD’s backside passing by even now in this very wilderness of this pandemic.

There’s truth in our stories, sacred truth; truth in our myths, in our wonderings, our musings and our longings. Between the lines, beyond the page, in, with, through and under the words, there’s truth in questions and questions in truth, and through it all dances the DIVINE MYSERY, the LOVE which we call GOD. Even in the midst of these challenging times, if you open your eyes and look around, you’ll catch a glimpse of the LOVE which is YAHWEH; whose backside is more beautiful than words can say. Words may fail us, but we will keep trying to describe this wonder, this beauty, this magnificence of YAHWEH’s glory. That’s just the kind of creatures we are.

So, proclaim GOD’s glory! Delight in the knowledge that all our wonderings pale in comparison to YAHWEH’s splendor. Trust the MYSTERY of the LOVE which we call GOD, who even now passes in, with, through, and amongst us giving us a glimpse of YAHWEH’s ever so beautiful backside. Amen. Alleluia! Amen!

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