(Sermon for October 19, 2008 || Proper 24, Year A RCL || Exodus 33:12-23)
Moses is a bit of a rambler. I know, because I am a bit of a rambler, as well. If Dr. House were performing a differential diagnosis on “anxiety,” rambling would be the first symptom written on the dry-erase board. In my case, anxiety-induced rambling usually happens when I am attempting to converse with a woman I find attractive. In especially acute attacks, my rambling begins to sound like the dialogue in a Jane Austen novel. Much to my own chagrin, I tend to use phrases like “would that you were amenable to my ardent affection” and “how diverting it must be to tarry in the presence of such loquacious interlocutors.”
Now, Moses is already married to the lovely Zipporah (whom he met at the well) so he doesn’t have to worry about accidently quoting Pride and Prejudice in conversation. Rather than rambling in the presence of women, Moses’ anxiety leads him to ramble in the presence of God. No one could fault him for being anxious. After all, the people of Israel have been grumbling about the good old days in Egypt ever since they stepped on the far bank of the Red Sea. The daily delivery of manna and quail and the water gushing from the rock don’t seem to have curbed their discontent. And just last week, they melted down all their jewelry to make a nice, little pet god, which, of course, broke one of those pesky commandments. Needless to say, Moses has his hands full. Add to all this the anxiety caused by a heart to heart with the LORD, and Moses breaks down into an acute rambling attack.
The way the book of Exodus structures the conversation we heard this morning makes this rambling difficult to notice. This is one of those instances where the Bible overuses the third-person singular pronoun “he” so that you’re never quite sure who’s talking. Here’s Moses’ first ramble:* “See, you have said to me, `Bring up this people’; but you have not let me know whom you will send with me. Yet you have said, `I know you by name, and you have also found favor in my sight.’ Now if I have found favor in your sight, show me your ways, so that I may know you and find favor in your sight. Consider too that this nation is your people.”
And the LORD says to Moses: “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.”
But Moses apparently doesn’t hear this, because he is already halfway into his next ramble:* “If your presence will not go, do not carry us up from here. For how shall it be known that I have found favor in your sight, I and your people, unless you go with us? In this way, we shall be distinct, I and your people, from every people on the face of the earth.”
The LORD responds: “You have found favor in my sight, and I know you by name.”
I imagine Moses hearing this and slumping to the ground, allowing the full weight of his calling and all of his anxieties to wash over him. He lets the LORD’s words sink in. He shudders at their impact. He looks up, and his next frenetic ramble dies on his lips. Instead, he says, “Show me your glory, I pray.”
And the LORD says, “I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you the name, ‘The LORD.’”
So, after the LORD takes the necessary precautions to keep Moses from overexposure, the glory of the LORD passes Moses by. Moses, safe in the palm of God’s hands, feels the presence of the LORD. Moses’ anxious rambling ceases. Secure in the knowledge that he is in the LORD’s presence, Moses begins his work anew.
These are anxiety-ridden days. The presidential election is heading into the ninth inning. Unemployment is up and home-ownership down. The stock market graph looks like a heart monitor in the ICU. Add to all this the anxieties of work, school, and family, and rambling is going to be the least of our symptoms.
Thankfully, Moses is not the only person with whom God has the kind of conversation we’ve been discussing this morning. Oftentimes, when we come to God in prayer, our minds are already starting the sixtieth lap at Talladega. We just can’t slow down, can’t shift into a lower gear. We get frustrated because our prayer time becomes just another opportunity to review the grocery list and dwell on the need to get the oil changed and wonder how big a hit the investment portfolio took today.
But in our frustration, we fail to realize something. The grocery list, the oil change, the portfolio—these are just as good a place to start as any. Rather than seeing these things as intruding on our prayers, we can see them as entrances into authentic conversations with God. I don’t think God expects us to shut off our anxiety when we enter into prayer. Quite the opposite. God expects us to offer our anxieties as prayer.
Moses rambles about the people and finding favor in God’s sight and the nation of Israel. Rather than addressing any one manifestation of anxiety directly, the LORD speaks to the very core of Moses being: “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.” In other words, God says, “Moses, you are still going to lead the people. I’m not going to let you off the hook. But, remember, please remember that I am with you, and you can find rest in me.”
When we offer our anxieties to God in prayer, we acknowledge that the sources of those anxieties have power over us and keep us from being the people God calls us to be. But God whispers to the very core of our beings: “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.”
Moses continues to ramble. So God reminds Moses of the relationship they share. The LORD knows Moses’ name and Moses hears God speak that special, holy, intimate divine name that the Israelites wrote down but never spoke aloud. In revealing this special name to Moses, God invites Moses into a deeper relationship.
When we offer our anxieties to God in prayer, God gives us the opportunity to notice that God has heard what our hearts have been divulging. Through all our rambling, God is speaking God’s name to us, inviting us to that deeper relationship, in which trust begins to mitigate anxiety.
Finally, Moses stops rambling. He realizes that God is with him, bearing him up as the waves of anxiety crash over him. Moses asks to see God’s glory. All the goodness and the glory of the LORD pass him by. When we acknowledge the anxieties weighing on our hearts, we can begin to hear God speaking peace to us in the midst of those anxieties. And we, too, can settle into the cleft of the rock, rest in the palm of God’s hand, and feel the presence of the LORD pass us by.
* This is one of those times when reading a sermon doesn’t give you the effect of the delivered message. To get said effect, read Moses’ bits like Dr. Cox from Scrubs. He is a rambler, also.