Yet again, our government has shown itself to be anti-Biblical: for mooning has been made explicitly illegal in the State of Victoria. From the first of July, anyone who pulls down their dacks and bares their bum in public risks two months in jail; if they do it again, they risk six months. And so a great Judaeo-Christian tradition has been outlawed. For, as we just heard, when Moses begs to see God’s face, God refuses. Instead, God announces that God will tuck Moses into a gap in the rock and cover him while God’s glory passes by. Then, when it is safe, God will remove the holy hand and Moses will see the marvellous moon, the beautiful backside of God. Most translations gloss over this glorious glimpse: but mooning is precisely what God does. And yet it has now been made illegal. So much for freedom of religious expression.
But why does God moon Moses? Perhaps it’s for the same reason that lawmakers seek to rule the possibility out. Earlier this year, hundreds of people mooned the Trump Tower to protest the President’s refusal to release his tax returns. Many others noticed, and most of them laughed. When mooning is used as social comment and political protest, it uncovers much more than just bums: it reveals that the powerful are ordinary people, and can be laughed at—and this truth scares the pants off the powerful. As jailed comedians from Turkey to Thailand, Egypt to Burma, will tell you, there is nothing more perilous to puffed up politicians than the puncturing prick of people’s laughter.
In the same way, there is nothing more deflating to our own pretensions. So why does God moon Moses? Well, Moses is getting all anxious. He’s saying, “God, you’ve told me you know me, you’ve said that I please you—now show me your ways, Lord!” And God says, “Calm down, calm down: I’ll go with you.” But Moses is finding it hard to trust. So he tells God: “If you won’t do what you promise, just leave us here! Otherwise, we’ll be like everyone else.” And God says again, “Keep your hair on. I like you, I’ll go with you.” But that’s still not enough for old Moses: “Show me your glory!” Moses begs.
How many times have you asked God to reveal Godself and God’s ways? How many times have you asked for a sign? How many times have you received one, and it has not been enough? Our doubts and our fears are powerful; we are anxious people; we seek certainty; and we want more, always more.
But who are we to demand things from God? So God pops our sense of self-importance, our bubble of hyper-holiness. As we strive to be mindful, the baby does a poonami, the toddler throws a tantrum, we step in doggie-do. We sit down to pray, and there’s a hairbrush on the chair. We come to church, and everyone’s distracted and the singing’s awful and the kids go ballistic. Or, as happened once somewhere else, we reflect in silence during the highest, holiest service of the year, and somebody accidentally lets off an enormous, echoing fart.
In solemn silence and self-righteousness, we seek the holy as if it is something we can achieve by our own efforts, as if it is to be had on demand: and God loves us so much that God interrupts. Whether by mooning Moses, or whether through children, mess, chaos, or farts, God punctures our self-importance and reminds us who we are. For we are material beings, ordinary people, and our God is made known to us not through spiritual truths, but in humble human flesh. But too often we forget. Instead of seeking God incarnate, God in flesh, we seek transcendence, we seek escape from our messy reality, we seek ideas and abstractions and the sanctity of silence. But God interrupts. “You really want to see me?” says God, “Well, cop an eyeful of this!”—and the cat vomits, the toddler shrieks, and the stranger in the street gives us the finger.
Seeing God on the mountaintop is easy; mouthing spiritual laws is a doddle. But our faith insists that God is in vulnerable people, in the rude interruptions, in the relationship between you and me: ordinary people who piss and shit and fart and swear and laugh and stumble and weep and sing—and so we are to know one another, and love one another, in our humanity, bums and all. Moses saw the back side of God’s glory; and we too must seek and serve God in flesh: scarred, rough, and rude flesh; wounded and abused flesh; young flesh; old flesh; flesh that is going to die.
Our faith is not abstract; it’s not dignified. It’s low status and messy; it’s sleeves rolled up and often humiliating; it punctures our pretensions; it dismantles our facades. The more we are inclined to abstract thought, the higher our social status, the wealthier we are, the harder it gets. For we must be stripped of all pretensions in order to truly serve. Maybe this is why Jesus says, “Happy are those with no sense of entitlement, for theirs is the culture of heaven … Happy are the grounded, for they will inherit the earth” (Matthew 5:3,5). And happy are those who admit they are human: good-humoured people, formed from humus: people of dust who know both their frailty and their need of others, and who enjoy a good belly laugh with God. Amen. Ω
A reflection on Exodus 33:12-23 by Alison Sampson, Sanctuary, 22 October 2017 (AP24).