Last week I spoke with how God wants to be in relationship with us. That
there is open dialogue, give and take, forgiveness and love. That Moses even
changes God’s mind. One of the mistakes that we might make after hearing that
sermon is to think then that God is just like us as humans. That there is
nothing particularly awe-inspiring about God.
Today’s passage in Exodus remedies that situation. Moses continues to be in
relationship in God – they continue to be in dialogue, the give and take is
still there, as are the forgiveness and love; but it is clear that this is by
no means a relationship of two equals. Moses is still very much human, and God
is still very much a power beyond understanding.
You see, Moses craves to see God. In other words he wants to know God more
fully and more personally. He wants God to reveal all that God is, but God
knows that Moses can’t handle that. For him to experience God that completely
would destroy him. So God consents to let Moses catch a glimpse of him as he
Many of us also crave what Moses craves – we want to see God more fully. We
want to experience God’s presence.
In an article Making It Personal Rabbi
Adam Morris captures this really well! “The “evidence” of divinity may be all
around us, but we human beings are wired to want to know God “personally.” We
want God to speak to us as we speak to one another. We want to calculate God’s
effect in our world the way we calculate the balance of our bank accounts. We
want to be able to invoke God’s presence in the same manner that we can access
the piece of news, information, podcast, at a moment’s notice. The story of
Moses seeking to see God’s glory (Exodus 33) is part of the Jewish sacred story
because it captures the inherent challenge in establishing a personal
relationship with God.”
What it shows us is that although we desire to see God, God is bigger than
we can handle. We want to know God like we know another person, but that simply
is not possible. God is not another person, God is the creator of all that is.
That kind of power is truly beyond our comprehension. And yet even though God
is so powerful, even though God is so far beyond us, God still wants to be
close to us, to know us, and for us to know God. It is a great dilemma of faith
– how can we be close to one so beyond us?
There are a couple of theological words that can be helpful for us in this:
immanence and transcendence. Immanence is the idea that God is immanent –
the official definition is that the Divine presence permeates the material
world, that God is here, that God is within us, close to us, in fact, that God
is always with us. It is the idea that there are many ways that God is like us.
God is like a father, God is like a friend, God is like a neighbor, a
counselor, a mother holding us when we are afraid. We need to know the
immanence of God. That’s what Moses is asking for here today. “Let me see your
But God’s answer is that although God is willing to be there, God is also
Transcendent. The official definition is that there are aspects of the Divine
that are beyond the material universe,
beyond physical laws, separate from our physical universe. Transcendence is
the idea that God is beyond us, is greater than us. It is a reminder that God
is unlike us, not only outside of our experience, but outside of the entire
universe’s experience. There is nothing in nature that is quite like God.
So although Moses wants to see God. That simply isn’t completely possible.
Not only can we not handle seeing God, the universe itself cannot contain God.
I know that this is very philosophical. But it is vital for us to understand,
even if we don’t completely get it, that God is like us, within us, and close
to us in some ways. But at the same time God is far beyond anything we
can understand, unlike anything we have ever experienced, mysterious and
Perhaps it is like our experience of the sun. We know and experience the
sun through the light and the heat that it gives us. We know that it is
absolutely vital to our lives and everything depends upon it.
We sometimes crave sitting in its light, absorbing its warmth, feeling it
upon our skin. We even want to know more about it, and are curious when things
like eclipses take place. Yet, despite our desire to look directly at it, we
cannot without harming our eyes. Because as much as we know that the sun is
part of all that happens in our world, we also know that we could not stand
next to it without being consumed in its fire. It is much more than a heat
Of course, God is not the sun. My comparison is just a weak attempt to
explain how something can be close to us, part of us, and yet beyond us at the
same time. So that is the dilemma of faith. How can we get closer to the one
who made us? How can we see God more clearly and completely?
St. Anselm in his great treatise on God, in the very first chapter writes
this: “Be it mine to look up to your light, even from afar, even from the
depths. Teach me to seek you, and reveal yourself to me, when I seek you, for I
cannot seek you, except you teach me, nor find you, except you reveal yourself.
Let me seek you in longing, let me long for you in seeking; let me find you in
love, and love you in finding. Lord, I acknowledge and I thank you that you
have created me in this your image, in order that I may be mindful of you, may
conceive of you, and love you; but that image has been so consumed and wasted
away by vices, and obscured by the smoke of wrong‑doing, that it cannot achieve that
for which it was made, except you renew it, and create it anew. I do not
endeavor, O Lord, to penetrate your sublimity, for in no wise do I compare my
understanding with that; but I long to understand in some degree your truth,
which my heart believes and loves.”
Anselm captures strongly the difficulty of wanting to see God, and yet
knowing that as humans, partly because we are sinful, partly because we simply
are not wise enough to handle it, we are limited in our ability to see God. We
are in the image of God, but we are not God. He also reminds us that, although
we cannot find God, although we cannot see God, God can find us, teach us, God
can reveal Godself to us.
So here is the amazing thing that happens in this scripture. Although God
is so beyond us, God wants to grant Moses his wish. God wants to satisfy his
desire to see God’s glorious presence. In fact, God wants all of us to be able
to encounter God and draw close to God. This is part of the grace of God.
song captured that well for me. You can sing along if you like, or just read
and meditate on the words and pictures.
And so God often grants us fleeting glimpses of Godself. We may catch a
glimpse of God in nature, or in the compassionate actions of another person, in
a spiritual moment while we are in prayer, or in a dream while we are asleep. Even
Jesus is just a glimpse of God, the embodiment of God in a human form, as much
as God can be contained by such.
Each of these glimpses is meant to help satisfy what we crave, that meeting
with God, while also reminding us that God is far beyond us and bigger than we
can ever capture with our smart-phone camera.
What this means in our personal spiritual lives is that God is willing to
bless us with glimpses of God. But it also means that those glimpses may never
quite satisfy us. There will always be mystery in God. It means that while we
want a personal relationship with God, and God in some ways grants it, that
relationship is one between the Creator of all that is, and one of the
creations. It is not a relationship of equals, but despite that, it is a
relationship of love. Love that wants dialogue, give and take, obedience and
forgiveness. And that is complex, hard to explain, and yet wonderful to be part
of every day!
As Rabbi Adam Morris says, “The Divine Being, regardless of its power and
presence in your personal world, is still as mysterious and elusive as the
Israelites found it.” And quite honestly, that is exactly what I would expect
from God: to be like me, and yet to be beyond me, and that makes me love and
awe God even more.