Exodus | God’s answer is presence

To every question and demand, God’s answer is simply presence. (Listen.)

Who among us hasn’t said something like: God, show me your plan. Tell me what I’m supposed to be doing here. I need clear guidance, a proper sign. Not some mimsy-wimsy spiritual hint, but something solid, something real. Otherwise, how will I know that you’re even with me? And how will anyone else know?

Once upon a time, Moses and God have this exact conversation. Moses is insistent, demanding; and God keeps on giving. And as Moses insists and God gives, a lesson in prayer is revealed.

Moses kicks things off by wanting information. He demands insight into God’s ways: but God doesn’t give a straight answer. Instead, God promises to be present.

Well, this doesn’t feel like enough for old Moses. It seems that despite a burning bush and a pillar of cloud; roiling smoke and blasting trumpets; manna, quail and water from a rock, Moses isn’t really sure he can count on God to stick around. So he points out that if God’s presence doesn’t lead Israel, they might as well call the whole thing off; because unless God’s presence leads them, no one will know that they are God’s people.

‘Okay,’ says God, ‘As you wish.’ In other words, God promises, again, to be present.

‘Please,’ says Moses, pushing it further, ‘please: let me see your dazzling presence.’

‘Alright already,’ says God. And God promises to make goodness pass in front of Moses and to call out the holy name, and then God arranges for Moses to be sheltered in a cleft in the rock, and to glimpse God’s presence after it has passed by.

‘Show me your ways,’ says Moses: and God promises presence.

‘You better go with us,’ says Moses: and God promises presence.

‘Show me your dazzling presence,’ says Moses: and God does.

This story is a model for all of us. It shows we can be pushy, insistent, demanding in our prayer: Let me in on your plans, God. Remember your people: they’re your responsibility. You better go with us! Show us you’re here!

This story shows that we can ask questions: What am I supposed to do here, God? Are you with us, or not? How will I know?

And this story shows we can ask things not only for ourselves, but for all God’s people, and we can remind God of God’s commitment to everyone.

So we can ask all sorts of questions and make all kinds of demands, but how will God respond? Well, if the story is any guide, we see that, whatever Moses asks, and whatever he demands, God’s presence is the answer.

God does not so much answer our questions or meet our demands as address our basic need: which is to be in the loving, healing, liberating presence of God. God has one thing to say and one gift to give, and that is Godself. When we receive God’s Word, letting it dwell in us and letting ourselves dwell in God, everything else follows. Urgent questions might be answered; strong demands might be met; or, in that gracious and merciful presence, our perspective might change and things which were once so pressing might simply fall away.

This is best illustrated with another story. The one which follows was written by a member of our congregation about a wilderness experience, when life had felt very hard for her for a very long time. But then she experienced the one gift God has to give. She has given permission for me to share it here: and the story goes like this:

A few years ago, I was on a silent retreat. My spiritual companion and I were sitting together in a pleasant room. It was a warm day and the curtained window was open.

There had been several years that were hard for me to the deepest core of my being. My spiritual companion knew me well. She knew about the cumulating difficulties and my struggle with God through it all. On the outside life had gone on, and in many ways the routine demands of work-life had been sustaining. At this time of sharing together, though, I said that I could name exactly how I felt. I said that having never abandoned God, I felt abandoned.

There were tears and we sat together for some time. The wind was blowing and the curtain moved gently. I still don’t know exactly what happened next, but we both remember that day as meaningful for both of us. It was as if a gentle presence bathed the room with love. And from that time onwards, my particular burdens were different. It was as if they had been carried away that day. My outward circumstances had not tangibly changed but I no longer felt the ache in the same way. Words are not adequate to explain this experience, but that day our hearts felt the presence of God.

My friends, when have you sensed God’s presence? When have you glimpsed God’s goodness? And how did it give you rest? Ω

PRAYER: May you know God’s goodness beyond imagining, God’s grace beyond measure, God’s mercy beyond compare. And may these gifts shine light into the darkest places of your heart, and of our blessed, troubled world. In the name of Christ: Amen.

This reflection on Exodus 33:12-23 was given to Sanctuary on 18 October 2020 (Year A Proper 24) © Alison Sampson, 2020. Image credit: Jochen Gabrisch on Unsplash.


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