It is perhaps a bit of a jolt to jump from Paul’s Letter to the Philippians all the way back to Exodus, but the pressing on theme resonates loudly in this wilderness wandering story. If you are observing Laity Sunday this week, then Exodus is a perfect text to explore a few important and lay intensive themes. So, it seemed a good jump to make; forgive the textual whiplash!
Let’s start with the obvious. In Exodus, we have a leader on the edge. This is not to say that your church is dealing with a leader who is questioning her or his call. But it happens, maybe more than we realize, certainly more than we will admit —even to ourselves, let alone to the larger community. Leadership is difficult. Trying to press on while keeping everyone content enough to go along is a near impossible task. Even the leaders who are wise enough to realize that their job is not to keep everyone happy still wrestle with dissention. No matter how well trained we might be, there is, as with Moses, a creeping suspicion that we weren’t given enough information to do this monumental pilgrimage; that we weren’t given enough help – wisdom, insight, grace, whatever – to be the leader that is needed.
Yet. Such an important word. For some reason the NIV skips it. But most translations give us this word asking for a pause. A hesitation, a rethink, perhaps; “yet” is a word of reversal. On one side of the yet is hesitation, uncertainty, “I don’t know who is on my side” or “I don’t know who will support me.” But then the yet brings another truth, a deeper truth. “You – my God, my hope – have said you know me by name.”
It would be a poor leader who said that he or she didn’t care whether anyone else was willing to follow, to stand alongside. But a church leader knows that what comes first is a call from God. “The hand of the Lord is upon me,” that’s how Jesus began his ministry. And each of us who want to lead God’s people need to have that sense of affirmation from God in order to do the task set before us.
Presence, that is what we seek. God’s presence in particular. To know and be known can get us through a lot— through the difficult days ahead, through the complicated questions and the bone-crushing rejection and the weighty issues that overwhelm us on a regular basis. To walk in the confidence that we are known by God, that God walks with us as we go is the first step on our journey.
One of our first realizations is that we are always in the presence of God. It is the nature of God to be present.
We cannot attain the presence of God because we’re already in the presence of God. What’s absent is awareness. Little do we realize that God’s love is maintaining us in existence with every breath we take. As we take another, it means that God is choosing us now and now and now and now.” - Richard Rohr (https://cac.org/loving-the-presence-in-the-present-2015-12-29/)
Awareness of this presence grows from relationship. That’s what is behind this text. Back up a verse and read this:
“Thus the LORD used to speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend. Then he would return to the camp; but his young assistant, Joshua son of Nun, would not leave the tent” (Exod. 33:11).
Moses, and Joshua his protégé, knew that to become aware of the presence of God, you must spend time with God. The text says that God and Moses spent a lot of time in conversation, like friends. Like friends, meaning they enjoyed one another’s company, but argued as much as agreed. It was a contentious relationship from the beginning. There is no denying that. They complained to each other, dreamed together; they debated the meaning of life— all the usual stuff that friends do.
This time, Moses is saying he’s gotten the short end of the stick again. You gave me this job, he says, but you don’t say how I’m supposed to do it, or who is going to help me do it, or even for sure what it is we are supposed to do now. I’ve got no road map; I’ve got no itinerary; I’ve got no clue what’s next. All I’ve got is this vague sense of call and the fact that you seem to like me for some reason. And besides, this is your mess to fix and not mine anyway. God says, “I’m here, take it easy.” Moses says, “Well, duh. You’re here. You’d better be here since this is all your idea anyway. But I need more than that. Way more.” God says, “OK. Because I like you. Because I told you my name. OK.” Moses is a bit stunned by this turn in the conversation, and he whispers, “Show me your glory.”
So, what did he ask? For a light show? For thunder and lightning? Or something else? Glory. How do we give God glory? Or how do we acknowledge God’s glory? By how we live. Yeah, sometimes it is praise and worship, but mostly we glorify God by living as God would have us live. Moses wanted something tangible. He wanted to see God walking around, living the way Moses was supposed to live. In short, thousands of years before time, he was asking for Jesus. He wanted God to put on flesh and come and hang out with him, come and guide him, come and sustain him for the task he was feeling too inadequate to do. To lead the people, he was sure didn’t want to be led by the likes of him. He wanted a glimpse of how it was supposed to be, how he was supposed to be in God. He wanted Jesus.
“In the morning, when I rise, give me Jesus.” We are asking for glory when we sing that song, when we pray that prayer. Give me Jesus. Give me a glimpse of how I’m supposed to walk. Give me a hint of how I’m to do this task you’ve given me to do when I know it is beyond my ability to do. Parenting, pastoring, teaching, leading, living in love with neighbor and family, none of it is within my capabilities to do. None of it.
God says, “I know. So, here’s what I’ll do. I’ll make all my goodness pass before you.” Wait, what? “My goodness,” God says, “just what you need. Just what will equip you, just what will fill you. On your own, the tasks before you are beyond you. But filled with my goodness, then the impossible becomes possible. Filled with my goodness,” God says to Moses, “you can lead these people.” Goodness is not some ethical standard, some state of being. It is the empowering force that equips us to live as God’s people. It is blessing. God blessed Moses on that mountaintop, just as God blesses us anytime we let the Spirit fill us. Filled with my goodness, God says to us, you can be who I created you to be. Filled with my goodness... See, we are so used to thinking these are attributes that we generate ourselves. We think that if we work hard enough, then we will become good. But that isn’t how it works. It is a gift. It is the Spirit at work within us. And we let it work within us, because we know that without it, we fall short of who we want to be, let alone who God can equip us to be. And we invite the Spirit to bring us God’s goodness because we want it; we want to be there. We want to be that—that something more, that something new. We want to love like that.
In the goodness of God, the God who knows us by name, we can press on. We can press on as a community of faith, press on as the body of Christ who seeks to transform the world by making disciples of Jesus Christ. We press on.
If you’re observing Laity Sunday, then this can be a time of dedication to the cause, the vision of the church. This could be a time of an expression of support for the one sent to lead, a way of saying we’re on board, and we will follow you as you follow Christ. We will commit to pressing on as one body of faith in this place, in this unusual time. Whether we are face to socially distant face or still virtual, we are one community, pressing on.