How much of anything can we see? We only see what our eyes perceive. Our ability to see and understand is limited by our ability to see and our brain’s ability to comprehend what we see.
For example, let’s take the ocean. Let’s all go down to the beach, on a clear day like today, and look out across the waves toward the horizon. What do we see? There’s the ocean as far as the eye can take you. The clouds go into the sky. The sand stops at the water’s edge. As we gaze forward, there might be a boat, a bird, or a plane. More often than not, there’s nothing. The vast expanse of the sky blends into the ocean. From where we stand, this looks like, “this is all there is”. We know this isn’t true. Despite the fact it’s a beautiful day with unlimited visibility, our eyes work pretty good (some of us have glasses), we know that beyond the horizon there’s more water, more land, and even more people. Because we can’t see them doesn’t mean they’re not there. They are there. We only see a portion of the world around us.
Advance the clock by twelve hours. Sometimes what I’m talking about is a little easier to grasp in the dark. The clear morning at the beach has become a clear sky evening. Blessed as we are with little light pollution, on such evenings we can look up and see Milky Way. The galaxy looks immense. On a clear night, as I’m describing, you can see thousands, maybe even millions of stars. The few million stars we see are billions of miles away. In just a quick glance, we are seeing the tiniest of tiny slivers of the galaxy and the larger universe. From our vantage point on Earth, this is all we are able to see. We will never see any more. Sure, you can move to the southern hemisphere or the South Pole and you’ll see a different set of stars. But that set of starts you’re seeing at the South Pole or in Auckland, New Zealand is as small as the ones we see on Life Guard Beach. No matter where we look, we can only see the smallest fraction of the known universe. From where we are, minus the telescopes, billion dollar budgets, a friendship of Elon Musk, rocket engines, spacecraft, and high tech equipment (I’m talking just us): this is as much of the universe and space as we will ever encounter. And that’s ok. We still know space is there. We have a relationship with the world beyond Earth even though we’ve never been past the atmosphere. We understand a great deal about the universe solely from observing the tiny sliver of eternity hanging over our heads.
You go to the beach and you realize: you are not alone. You’re seeing a small portion of a much bigger ocean. At night, the stars above your head are but a fraction of an ancient reality older than the idea of keeping time. This is what happens to Moses in today’s scripture when he encounters God. It happens to us and sometimes we don’t even know it.
Moses is friends with God. God loves Moses. Moses is under tremendous pressure. He coming up with plans, ideas, and activities to keep his people interested as they journey from Egypt to the Promised Land. Sometimes they become distracted and don’t listen. Over the past couples of weeks, we’ve heard stories about Moses bringing the 10 Commandments down and while he was away meeting with God the people became impatient and started worshiping a Golden Cow. He frustrated. Moses wants God to help him. Long ago, well before they left Egypt, God promised to be by Moses side, to be his friend and partner on this journey from Egypt to the Promised Land. Right now, Moses feels like he’s doing most of the heavy lifting on his own.
God wants to remind Moses: you are not alone. I am with you and by your side. Often times, we don’t see the friends walking right beside us or realize that others are there to help. Look to your left and right, behind you and in front, what do you see? You see other people, don’t you? The other people looking at you see you! God has placed these people beside you, alongside your path, for your journey. Who knows where you’re headed? God does and God has sent people to walk with us. God is with and within the people all around us. But sometimes our perspective limits our ability to see God at work, God being present, of God helping us out right beside us. Sometimes the beach just looks like the beach. We forget we’re looking at the Atlantic Ocean and on the other side of that ocean are other continents and people. Our vision of what God can do is limited by where we stand and sit and by the habits we fall into. In this passage today, God is trying to change the way Moses’ sees reality.
Moses wants reassurance and God wants to give it Moses. Here’s how Moses puts it, “Because how will anyone know that we have your special approval, both I and you people unless you go with us? Only that distinguishes us, me and your people, from every other people on earth?” Moses is saying, “We want to know that you are with us. We need to know that this thing we’re doing is real.”
We’ve all had that conversation with God at one point or another. It might have been on the beach, under a nighttime sky, or even before a test at school. You’ve turned to God and said, “I’m with you and I need some sort of idea that you’re with me. Is this journey we’re on, this pilgrimage we’re walking, or this life we’re leading the real thing?” That’s a God 101 kind of question. This isn’t the type of question you ask over a cup of Earl Grey on your back porch. Moses isn’t treating God like a book he pulls out of the back of the pew once a week to read for comfort and good words. Moses is saying, I want to take this book with me everywhere I go.
How does God answer Moses’ question? What does he say that will confirm, “Yes, this is the real thing”? Interesting enough, it’s the same thing that happens to us when we go to the beach on a beautiful day or look up at the sky on a clear night.
First of all, God says that God’s outward actions through Moses will be based in kindness and compassion. As Moses is kind and compassionate, God will kind and compassionate. People will see a kind and compassionate God through our kindness and compassion. Doesn’t that sound like something Jesus might say? God’s goodness will be reflected through the way we treat other people. If you (or the world for that matter) want to see God, embody these qualities. Do these things and treat people with kindness and compassion. God is saying, “I can best be seen in my people by those people acting kindly and compassionately toward others.” No statues, cows, or idols. Try being nice, God says. It so simple, it’s hard to believe. That’s the first thing. That’s why I wanted you to look around. God is the kindness and compassion of those who surround you.
Secondly, God tells Moses that God will reveal God’s presence to Moses. Here’s the catch, God is so amazing it would be too much for one person to encounter. The rule is, according to God, you can’t look at God head on. Moses will only see God’s back. God will place Moses in a safe place, “a crevice”, protect him with his hand, and pass by. Moses will only see the tiniest, of tiny slivers of God’s presence. I ask you again, “Isn’t that all we see?” Whether it’s the ocean or the stars, all we ever see of creation is but a fraction of what we know actually exists. Aren’t we OK with that?
People talk about going out into the woods, on the water, or other places to encounter God. They say they don’t need the church. I’ll tell you the God’s honest truth. No one is encountering God in the woods, on a boat, or even in church. The most we’re ever getting is what Moses got: a glimpse of God’s back, a minuscule fraction of a whole that none of us can comprehend. Where we get into trouble is thinking that glimpse is all there is and all we need and our perspective ends at the horizon or the limits of the Milky Way. If for no other reason, we need this place, this church to remind us our perspectives are usually wrong and God’s is much wider than we ever imagined.
Richard Lowell Bryant