What a strange story we have in today’s reading from Exodus about Moses and God. God is still more than a little angry at the people of Israel, who you may remember from last week’s reading, have provoked God’s wrath by making a calf out of gold, and declaring it their god.
In doing so, they have broken the covenant with the God who brought them out of slavery in Egypt. God threatens to destroy them all, but Moses appeals to God’s better nature, imploring God to save the people.
God reluctantly agrees. God tells Moses that the people may live and continue to the Promised Land, but God will no longer accompany them on their journey.
“For you are a stiff-necked people, if for a single moment I shall go among you I would consume you,” God says.
Moses is not content with this answer.
In an act of courage, Moses stands up to God once again and demands that God change God’s mind.
“If your presence will not go, do not carry us up from here,” he says to God. “For how shall it be known that I have found favor in your sight, I and your people, unless you go with us?”
Moses is arguing that God cannot abandon the people of Israel, that they cannot go forward and become a great nation without their God.
Grudgingly, God agrees.
“I will do the very thing you ask,” God tells Moses.
Moses has now won two arguments with God. He has convinced God not to destroy the people, and not to abandon them, either.
Moses has one more demand. Having successfully received from God the promise of a continuing presence in the life of the people, Now he wants a personal confirmation that God is who God claims to be.
“Show me your glory,” Moses says. Moses is requesting to see God’s very self.
God is not going to allow Moses to see the divine face. But God will let Moses see who God is.
“You cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live,” God says. “But I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you the name the Lord.”
And God places Moses in a cleft in the rock and covers Moses’ face until God passes by, and then Moses can look and see God’s back.
Just that glimpse of God and God’s goodness is enough for Moses to continue.
Years ago the Indigo Girls wrote a song called, “Hey Jesus, It’s Me.” One line from it has stayed with me – “Why do I have to die to get a chance to talk to you face to face?”
How often do we long to truly see God, to have the chance to talk to Jesus face to face? To know that God is really present, to know that God’s essence is goodness and light when we so often seem to be immersed in evil and darkness?
Just as Moses is allowed to get a glimpse of God’s presence and goodness, I believe we are allowed to get those glimpses, too.
Maybe we don’t get to see God or Jesus face to face. But we are all made in the image of God, God’s goodness is in each and every one of us. Oftentimes we don’t notice it or see it. Often it is deeply buried.
But at unexpected times it shines brightly, showing us a glimpse of God, and giving us the hope and courage to go forward.
I was reminded of that in an essay I read this week by Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of a book that was popular a few years ago, Eat, Pray, Love.
Gilbert writes of a time she was stuck on a cross-town bus in New York City during rush hour.
“Traffic was barely moving,” she writes. “The bus was filled with cold, tired people who were deeply irritated – with one another; with the rainy, sleety weather; with the world itself.
“Two men barked at each other about a shove that might or might not have been intentional. A pregnant woman got on, and nobody offered her a seat.
“Rage was in the air; no mercy would be found here.”
But as the bus approached Seventh Avenue, the driver got on the intercom.
“Folks,” he said, “I know you’ve had a rough day and you’re frustrated. I can’t do anything about the weather or the traffic, but here’s what I can do.
“As each of you gets off the bus, I will reach out my hand to you. As you walk by, drop your troubles into the palm of my hand, okay? Don’t take your troubles home to your families tonight – just leave’em with me.
“My route goes right by the Hudson River, and when I drive by there later, I’ll open the window and throw your troubles in the water. Sound good?”
“It was as if a spell had lifted,” Gilbert writes. “Everyone burst out laughing. Faces gleamed with surprised delight. People who’d been pretending for the past hour not to notice each other’s existence were suddenly grinning at each other like, is this guy serious?
“Oh, he was serious.
“At the next stop – just as promised – the driver reached out his hand, pal m up, and waited. One by one, all the exiting commuters placed their hand just above his and mimed the gesture of dropping something into his palm.
“Some people laughed as they did this, some teared up – but everyone did it.
“The driver repeated the same lovely ritual at the next stop, too. And the next. All the way to the river.
“We live in a hard world, my friends,” Gilbert says. “Sometimes it’s extra difficult to be a human being. Sometimes you have a bad day. Sometimes you have a bad day that lasts for several years.
“You struggle and fail. You lose jobs, money, friends, faith, and love. You witness horrible events unfolding in the news, and you become fearful and withdrawn. There are times when everything seems cloaked in darkness. You long for the light, but don’t know where to find it.
“But what if you are the light?” Gilbert asks. “What if you are the very agent of illumination that a dark situation begs for?”
“That’s what this bus driver taught me,” she says. “That anyone can be the light, at any moment.
“This guy wasn’t some big power player. He wasn’t a spiritual leader. He wasn’t some media-savvy ‘influencer.’
“He was a bus driver – one of society’s most invisible workers. But he possessed real power, and he used it beautifully for our benefit.
“When life seems especially grim, or when I feel particularly powerless in the face of the world’s troubles, I think of this man and ask myself, What can I do, right now, to be the light?
“Of course , I can’t personally end all wars, or solve global warming, or transform vexing people into entirely different creatures. I definitely can’t control traffic.
“But I do have some influence on everyone I brush up against, even if we never speak or learn each other’s name. How we behave matters because within human society everything is contagious – sadness and anger, yes, but also patience and generosity. Which means we all have more influence than we realize.
“No matter who you are, or where you are, or how mundane or tough your situation may seem, I believe you can illuminate your world.
“In fact, I believe this is the only way the world will ever be illuminated – one bright act of grace at a time, all the way to the river.”