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Faceless Portraits

Faceless Portraits


Series: The Season After Pentecost

Category: 2020 Sermons

Passage: Exodus 33:12-23

Speaker: Nicole Trotter

In hearing Michael read the scripture I realized that this translation is a bit confusing because it’s not always clear who is speaking, so let me break this down best as I can.

Moses says: Show me God that I have found favor in your sight…and be with me and your people.

God says: I will go with you. 

Moses says, as though he didn’t even hear that: Because if you don’t, forget it, deal off.

God says: I will do it, you have found favor and, just in case you forgot let me say again, I know you by name.

But Moses isn’t satisfied and says: Show me your glory.

And God says:Okay, I'll show you my goodness, but not my face. I’ll put you in the cleft of a rock, cover you with my hand until I’ve passed, and you will only see my back.

This is a very anthropomorphic image of God, a hand and a back, and with a face we aren’t allowed to see. 

But if we widen our understanding, we begin to understand the metaphors. This God, whose face we are not allowed to see, is the God we cannot fully comprehend, beyond our grasp, because we are so very limited as human beings.  The enormity of this miracle-performing God with whom we entrust our lives appears to us in forms we can perceive like the beauty of the earth and the beauty of love between God's creatures. But just when we think we understand God, or have what Carlene described one day as having God on speed dial, God changes the way in which we encounter God’s faceless portrait.

In this scripture, God does allow Moses to see God's back. Again metaphorically, this is much like the way we understand our lives in hindsight – looking back, we begin to realize in the toughest of moments, while we may have not been able to make sense of God in the wilderness moments of our lives, when looking back – we see God wasthere all along, every step of the way, we were held, carried by the hands, the arms, the everlasting arms of God who never abandons.

But Moses isn’t there yet. Moses in this scripture, is still in it, and is pleading with God for assurance.

“Show me God,” Moses says, not “Speak to me” not “Send me a sign,” but show me where you are in this mess, show me and your people that you find favor with us, that you love us, that you know us, all of your children by name.

In times of fear, our prayers often take on that quality: show me, prove to me. Be with us, make your presence known, show us you're here, give us more than words to pray, more than scripture to memorize, more than promises and trust. Show us. That’s what Moses is asking for, that’s what we so often need, to be shown and to feel intimately, that we are not alone in it, especially these days of the virus, political discord, division, fires, unemployment. And then this week, your pastor adds to the uncertainty of your church-community’s future.

That is a lot to carry, and like Moses you’re looking for assurance of God’s glory, God’s presence, God’s care.

Moses was, and we are given, God's hand, we’re given God’s back, we’re given portraits, and while the portraits are faceless, that too is a blessing, because that empty space within the portrait, within the landscape, becomes a space we are called upon to fill, best we can as a community of God’s people, with the brush strokes of building a place, a kingdom, a village, a sanctuary where God’s glory can dwell.

The glory of God, while passing over Moses in this chapter, is fully revealed in chapter 40, at the end of the book of Exodus, like a grand finale.

Where? Inside the tabernacle. For five full chapters of this book, we read in great detail the building of the tabernacle, the dwelling place for God, the house for God, what we call a sanctuary, and here’s just a taste of what happens in these five chapters of building this dwelling place: 

every skilled person to whom the Lord had given ability and who was willing to come and do the work.

They made upright frames of acacia wood for the tabernacle.
Forty silver bases to go under them.
They overlaid the frames with gold.

They built an ark, a table and a lamp stand, an altar and basin for washing, and a courtyard, and priestly garments, and on and on. And each one of these things is described in detail, fine linens of every color, descriptions of architecture, for five chapters – all building up to the end – where God’s glory fills the tent in Chapter 40:

Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. Moses could not enter the tent of meeting because the cloud had settled on it, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle.

In all the travels of the Israelites, whenever the cloud lifted from above the tabernacle, they would set out; but if the cloud did not lift, they did not set out—until the day it lifted. So the cloud of the Lord was over the tabernacle by day, and fire was in the cloud by night, in the sight of all the Israelites during all their travels.

For five chapters the people build a sanctuary for one purpose, that purpose is all for the glory of God. The faceless portrait of God is complete because of the people of God who through their dedication build together a dwelling place for the glory of God to shine.

You’ve built that dwelling place for God through the care you’ve expressed for one another long before me, and the glory of God fills this place even when on Zoom, and even more so will you feel that fullness when you return to the sanctuary.

In the meantime, the building of this community is not done, as you continue to desire assurance, as we all continue to say to God, “Show me,” we are reminded of our place, which is to continue to show up for another: in worship, with cards, reaching out, making phone calls, offering help, invitations to one another's backyards, bringing meals, serving the greater community, all of which creates a dwelling place for God, wherein God’s glory shines, reassuring us, that we are never alone.