The United States Army Air Corp entered into World War II with the belief that long range bombers could penetrate enemy airspace and carry out their bombing mission without fighter escort. Bombers like the B-17 bristled with .50 caliber machine guns and had armor. Flying in formations where the bombers could provide interlocking fields of fire for one another, the U.S. officers believed that the bombers could protect themselves.
When the U.S. Eighth Air Force began bombing missions over Germany in 1943 the theory ran into an ugly reality. The bombers were not able to protect themselves against fighters and suffered massive losses. The presence of fighter escort was clearly needed. The problem was that the main U.S. fighter, the P-47 Thunderbolt did not have the range to fly all the way into Germany and back. They would be present for part of the mission, but then would have to turn back. There is a scene in the movie “Memphis Belle” showing the moment when this happened, and the dread that set in on the crew because they knew that now they were alone. There was no fighter escort present, and they would be subject to fierce attacks by German fighters.
What changed everything was the development of the P-51 Mustang fighter plane. Not only was this probably the best fighter of the war in aerial combat, but it had the range to fly all the way into Germany and back. The presence of the P-51 fighter escort made it possible for the bombing campaign to continue.
In our Old Testament lesson this morning, the issue is whether the presence of Yahweh will be with Israel as they go forth to conquer the promised land. God has just said that he won’t go with them, and the people are distraught. Without Yahweh in their midst it does not seem possible to take the promised land. Moses intercedes, and God then agrees that he will go with them – he will be present. Yet, then Moses makes a request of Yahweh, and in the events that follow, we receive insight into how God deals with us.
Our text is in the chapter just after Israel had worshipped the golden calf. While Moses delayed atop Mt. Sinai, the people of Israel said to Aaron, “Up, make us gods who shall go before us. As for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.” Note how they said these gods would go before them.
When Moses came down from Mt. Sinai he found the people worshipping the golden calf that Aaron had made. Yahweh was ready to wipe out Israel, and begin anew with Moses. But Moses interceded for the people. In particular, he held up God’s own word before him and said, “Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, to whom you swore by your own self, and said to them, ‘I will multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your offspring, and they shall inherit it forever.’” And in response, Yahweh relented.
Yahweh had just entered into the covenant with Israel, yet then they immediately turned away to worship false gods. And of course, this wasn’t the first time they had failed to trust God. So just before our text Yahweh told Moses and the people to depart to the promised land. He promised to send an angel before them to drive out the peoples living in Canaan. But then he added: “Go up to a land flowing with milk and honey; but I will not go up among you, lest I consume you on the way, for you are a stiff-necked people.”
We learn that when the people heard this disastrous word, they mourned. How could they go forward without the presence of God, the Creator of heaven and earth – the One who had rescued them in the exodus? In our text, Moses intercedes. He again calls God back to his own word as he says, “See, you say 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 therefore, if I have found favor in your sight, please show me now your ways, that I may know you in order to find favor in your sight. Consider too that this nation is your people.”
Yahweh again relented. He says in our text, “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.” The presence of God with Israel made all the difference in the world. After all, as Moses points out in our text: “For how shall it be known that I have found favor in your sight, I and your people? Is it not in your going with us, so that we are distinct, I and your people, from every other people on the face of the earth?”
Just before our text, Exodus has described how “the Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend.” Moses held a unique position before God, and he interacted with him in a way that no one else did. Yet it seems that this averted prospect of being without God’s presence made him seek something more. In our text he says to Yahweh, “Please show me your glory.” Apparently, this was some kind of direct encounter with God that went beyond what Moses had experienced, because God said it was not possible. He explained, “you cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live.”
There is always the danger that that we will “domesticate” God. After all, we talk about God all the time in Church. We speak about God’s love, and mercy, and grace. But we cannot understand what these really mean if we don’t retain a sense of the fearful otherness of God. God is the holy God. He describes Israel as “stiff necked,” but are we really all that different in our trust of God and the ways we do God’s will? We must recognize that our own sinfulness evokes the same destructive wrath about which Israel is warned. We want God’s presence, and yet we are oblivious to what it would really mean if we had a direct encounter with the holy God.
Yahweh said Moses could not see his glory. But then he added “while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back, but my face shall not be seen.” God expresses how he will allow Moses an indirect view, since a direct one is not possible.
In our text we see the sin that cuts us off from God and threatens judgment. We also see that a direct encounter with God is not possible. These two facts come together as we consider our Lord Jesus Christ. We have just celebrated Christmas as we focused on how God sent his Son into the world in the incarnation. During the season of Epiphany we focus on how the saving glory of Christ was revealed in the world.
But when we consider Jesus, we find that though the Son of God, he is not the direct revelation of God’s glory. Instead he is a helpless baby in a manger. He is God, but he is God in the flesh – true God and true man. Like Moses, our vision of God is indirect. We see his back.
During Epiphany we will consider a number of texts in which Jesus performs miracles. We see this in the Gospel lesson as Jesus turns water in wine at the wedding at Cana. John tells us, “This, the first of his signs, Jesus did at Cana in Galilee, and manifested his glory. And his disciples believed in him.” The miracle does reveal Jesus’ glory. Our Lord will go on to perform more miracles – most of them far more impressive than turning water into wine. He will heal the sick. He will cast out demons. He will still the storm on the Sea of Galilee. He will even raise the dead.
Do these miracles reveal Christ’s glory as the Son of God sent to be bring salvation the world? Yes. Does everyone believe in Jesus Christ when they see them? No. Even the miracles themselves reveal the glory indirectly because they must be received with faith in Jesus.
No place is the indirect nature of God’s revelation more apparent that in Jesus Christ’s greatest saving work. Through his suffering and death on the cross, our Lord received God’s judgment against our sin. Because he offered himself as the sacrifice, we now have forgiveness. The blood of Jesus cleanses us from all sin, so that now when God looks at us he see saints – he sees holy ones. The helpless man dying in agony is the revelation of God’s saving glory. This is seeing God indirectly. This is what it means to see God’s “back.”
In the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, the revelation of God’s glory is so hidden, so indirect, that we would miss it altogether. In fact, it appeared that there was nothing to see as Jesus’ body was buried in a tomb before sun down on Friday and rested there during Holy Saturday. But on Easter, God raised Jesus from the dead. In the resurrection, God vindicated Jesus and declared that he had been at work in the cross to give us forgiveness and salvation. In fact, death had been turned against itself, because by passing through death the risen Lord has defeated it forever. He has risen with a body that can never die again, and he will transform our bodies to be this as well when he returns in glory on the Last Day.
In Jesus Christ, God has acted to give us forgiveness, salvation, and resurrection. And when it comes to delivering what Jesus has won, God has not changed his ways. Like Moses, we want to see God’s glory directly. But instead, God continues to work in ways that that are indirect – he works in way by which we see his “back.”
That is true of the Gospel and preaching itself. It is something that can be easily rejected and ignored. This true of Holy Baptism, for what we see is water being poured in the triune Name, yet it is in fact the means by which a person shares in Jesus’s saving death and is born again through the work of the Spirit. And of course, in the Sacrament of the Altar we see only bread and wine over which Christ’s word is spoken. But the One who worked the miracle at Cana, continues to reveal his glory as he gives us his true body and blood.
All of these support a life that is equally hidden and indirect. The world says look out for yourself and get what you can. But those who believe in the crucified and risen Lord now seek to live according to Jesus’ words: “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.” We seek to live according to his apostle’s word: “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” By the leading of Christ’s Spirit we seek to live in our vocations by doing things that look absolutely ordinary – and yet in these roles we are as Martin Luther put it “the masks of God.” God is working through us to care for the needs of our family and community.
We do this in the knowledge that because Jesus Christ has risen from the dead and ascended into heaven, things will not always be indirect. We will not always see the “back” of God. Instead, when the Lord Jesus returns in glory, we will see God directly. In the last chapter of Revelation – the last chapter in the Bible – St. John describes the New Jerusalem that has come down to earth. He sees paradise restored and reports that the “throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him.” Then he adds about us, his servant who believe in Christ, “They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.”