Proper 24 (29), Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A
18 October 2020
1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
There is a quote from the Talmud, an ancient text that comments and expands on the Rabbinic law, that says, “We do not see things as they are. We see things as we are.”
It speaks to the biases we all carry that let us see the things we expect to see, which is one reason why the observation of the same facts does not lead to the same conclusions. It also helps us understand why some societies and groups are so deeply divided and why simply making arguments will not convince the other party.
Seeing has something to do with today’s reading from the Book of Exodus. The Israelites could not wait for Moses to come down the mountain where God had made covenant with all the people through the giving of the Ten Commandments. This was an evolution of God’s covenant with the people. No longer did God make covenant only with Abraham and Sarah, with Matriarchs and Patriarchs, but with all the people. God identifies with Israel and on the Mountain God says to Moses, “I am the LORD their God, who brought them out of the land of Egypt in order that I might live among them.” (Exodus 29:46)
The people are not witness to God’s speech but have grown dependent on Moses who interpreted God’s plans and designs for them. With Moses on the Mountain they feel leaderless. And unable to wait for Moses they instruct his brother Aaron to make them an idol to worship, the golden calf.
Moses they can no longer see, but the calf they can see.
It turns out that the thing they can see does not give them what they need. Rather, their desire to have an idol created by their own hands displays a lack of imagination. Just as they longed to go back to the fleshpots of Egypt, they no longer have the vision of the Promised Land. Peculiarly, seeing appears to diminish their vision. They can no longer see the Promised Land because they have abandoned the One who provides the Promised Land and leads them there.
The people’s vision is limited to the moment. The future though, depends on being able to imagine a future different from the present.
The theologian Luke Timothy Johnson, in an essay entitled “How is the Bible True,” suggests that one way Bible is true in the way that it enables us to imagine a different reality, a different world. He says that “this requires us to push back against the Enlightenment’s epistemological reduction of all knowledge to the empirically verifiable.”1
Contrary to such impoverished imagination, the Holy Spirit makes possible to imagine a life that is unintelligible except through Jesus as our Lord. And so this imagination not only imagines a different future but also expects God to transform our lives, to make us new.
The people who demanded the golden calf lack vision, they have no imagination, and because they have no imagination, they almost get stuck in the wilderness.
In today’s passage Moses pleads for the people.
Moses succeeds in convincing God not to destroy the people. What follows is a negotiation about what kind of relationship Israel and YHWH are going to have.
The negotiations begin with God proposing to send an angel to be with the people (33:2-3), for Moses has already made clear that there is no point in them travelling to the Promised Land if God is not with them.
An angel would be nice but it is a far cry from God going with the people. If you have ever read the Book of Exodus you may have wondered why the book spends so much time on the instructions and the building of the tabernacle. The whole point of the tabernacle is the presence of God in the midst of the people and Moses points out in v 16 of our reading that the thing that sets Israel apart from other nations is that God is with Israel. So an angel won’t do.
God’s next offer is for God to go but it is unclear whether God will be with the people, and so Moses continues to press God until God relents, “I will do the very thing that you have asked.” (v.17)
While it seems that Moses’ negotiations brought Israel back to where it was before the golden calf episode, we actually learn more about God.
When Moses first encounters God in the burning bush, God identifies as the God of his ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. (3:6,15) A short while later God identifies by name, “I am who I am,” or “I will be who I will be.” (3:14)
When God gives the Ten Commandments, God identifies as the One who brought Israel out of Egypt and out of slavery. (20:2)
While giving the commandments God reveals Godself as, “I am the LORD their God, who brought them out of the land of Egypt in order that I might live among them” (Exodus 29:46)
And now finally, after the apostasy of the people and after Moses’ pleading God is revealed as, “I Will Be Gracious to Whom I Will Be Gracious, and I Will Show Mercy on Whom I Will Show Mercy.” (Exodus 33:19)
And while it seems that God’s mercy was not always guaranteed, it is precisely only by God’s mercy that God’s people made it this far. That God reveals Godself as merciful and gracious is made evident by God’s continued presence with the people.
A golden calf is unmovable. So is the reduction of reality to the empirically verifiable. No give, no imagination, no mercy.
But the God of Israel is movable. God gives in to Moses’ pleading, God remains in the midst of the people, and God adds grace and mercy, applied not only to Israel but also to be applied by Israel to the foreigner in their midst for they were once foreigners in Egypt.
Israel has received mercy, Israel is thus changed and able to imagine mercy and grace extended unto others. “We do not see things they way they are. We see things the way we are.”
Our passage ends with Moses’ request to see God. We can understand the request, we too long to see God. But it doesn’t unfold as Moses may have expected. Moses does not get to see God’s face but only God’s backside. God says, “you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.” (v.23)
Martin Luther spoke of Christ crucified as God’s backside, backside because it may not at first have been apparent that God is revealed in the cross.
And yet the cross is the extension of the God with us from Exodus, repeated in a different context in Isaiah as Immanuel (Isaiah 7:14) – God with us, and embodied in Jesus who came and took on our nature and our lot.
It is important for us to be able to see grace and mercy, to see God’s backside, to imagine a different world and our place in it.
1Luke Timothy Johnson, How is the Bible True? – Let Me Count the Ways, Commonweal, 18 May 2009, https://www.commonwealmagazine.org/how-bible-true