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Knowing and Being Known

by Debie Thomas

For Sunday October 19, 2014

Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year A)

Exodus 33:12-23 or Isaiah 45:1-7

Psalm 99

1 Thessalonians 1: 1-10

Matthew 22: 15-22

For the past week, I've been buried in boxes and bubble wrap — the detritus of a recent move. I know where the bath towels and spare lightbulbs are now. But the rice cooker? The crockpot? My son's favorite hoodie? I have no clue. I should be an expert — we've moved a lot over the past ten years — but I still overstuff boxes, forget my address, and superstitiously scan my new neighborhood for "signs." Was that a smile from the woman next door? Does the pink bicycle across the street mean the neighbors have a daughter, too? Oh good, we were meant to move here! Oh no, wait, there's a huge spider in the laundry room, I just broke another wine glass, and the post office isn't forwarding our mail — maybe this move was a mistake! There's nothing like a transition to make me feel unsettled, vulnerable, and hungry for certainty.

This week's Old Testament readings are all about transitions and their attendant anxieties. In the Exodus passage, God has just instructed Moses to leave his encampment at Mt. Sinai and lead the Israelites into the Promised Land. Still smarting from the golden calf debacle, though, Moses isn't ready to budge. "Show me your ways," he pleads with God. "Show me your glory."

Fresco of Moses and the Exodus.
Fresco of Moses and the Exodus..

What Moses wants is certainty — specific knowledge about God's plans. What Moses gets, though, is something very different. "I know you by name," God responds enigmatically, refusing to answer Moses' plea.

In the Isaiah passage, God is speaking to Cyrus, the Persian king he has chosen to deliver the Israelites out of Babylonian captivity. "I arm you," God declares to the annointed monarch, "though you do not know me." "I will give you the treasures of darkness and riches hidden in secret places." Why? "So that you may know that it is I, the Lord, the God of Israel, who calls you by your name."

Although Cyrus is a foreigner, ignorant of Yahweh and unversed in the religion of God's people, God assures him that he is both known and chosen. He has a role to play in Israel's salvific history, whether he comprehends that history or not.

Between the two readings, the words "know" and "known" appear nine times. The phrase, "I know you by name," appears four times. Clearly, knowing and naming matter to God. As I read these ancient passages in light of the uncertainties I face in my own life, I'm challenged to consider where my security lies. Am I safe because I know God? Or because God knows me?

In the Exodus story, the Israelites' disastrous attempt to "know" God, to render him in a form they can see, smell, touch, and control, has almost destroyed them. Of course Moses is disgusted by the golden calf, but he, too, finds himself hungry for more concrete knowledge of God: "If I have found favor in your sight," he prays, "Show me your ways, so that I may know you."

Reveal your plan, he begs God. Your blueprint, your big picture. Hand over your GPS; I'd like to know where I'll end up if I follow you.

Worship of the Golden Calf.
Worship of the Golden Calf.

I sympathize; I've prayed Moses' prayer many times. I've wanted God to show me his ways in the new cities I've moved to, the new friendships I've initiated. I've asked for certainty during periods of illness, loss, and grief. "No more mystery," I've prayed. "Show me your ways."

But God dodges Moses' request, refusing to give him the specific knowledge he craves. "My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest," he promises instead.

Is Moses satisfied? No. "Show me your glory," he ventures next, with a cheeky boldness I love. If you're not going to satisfy me intellectually, then dazzle me emotionally. Overwhelm my senses with your fullness, your essence, your radiant, unmediated self. Then I will know you're with me. Then I'll be ready to journey.

I've prayed this reckless prayer of Moses', too. "Show up!" I've dared God in times of fear and confusion. "Stop being so mysterious and elusive. I want to see you, no matter what the cost!"

Moses' prayers (and mine) aren't exactly wrong; I think we please God when we desire to know him more deeply. What's wrong is the fear-based assumption that our well-being depends on how well we know God. "I know you by name," God tells both Moses and Cyrus. The bottom line is, we can't bear to know God in his fullness, and that's okay. Our security lies in God's perfect and total knowledge of us — not in our patchy comprehension of him.

Like most parents, my husband and I put a lot of thought into naming our children. We chose names that would reflect our heritage, and convey our hopes for each child. In some cultures, the task of naming babies goes not to the expectant parents, but to older generations who better understand the family's history and legacy. If God knows me by name, then he knows my story, my heritage, my beginning, and my end. If God knows me by name, he knows the very core of me.

Fresco of baby Moses' rescue from the bullrushes in Egypt.
Fresco of baby Moses' rescue from the bullrushes in Egypt.

I love the tenderness with which God responds to Moses' zealous desire to see his glory. "You cannot see my face, for no one can see me and live," God explains gently. "But 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."

Theologians have puzzled over God's "backside" for decades. I don't have any answers to the anthropomorphic mystery, but in a more symbolic sense, I think Moses' experience rings true to life. We have no ability to grasp the fullness of God, and so we live, however uneasily, with the necessity of mystery. "I form light and create darkness, I make weal and create woe," God tells Cyrus. "I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy," he reminds Moses. However much we might try to pin God down, he will elude us because he is God, sovereign and Other. He will elude us because he knows what kind of damage we'd wreak with certitude. And he eludes us for our own protection.

But he doesn't leave us bereft. He covers us with his hand, and allows us bearable glimpses of his glory. Hints, intimations, traces. Like the wake of a ship on the sea, like the gorgeous afterglow of the setting sun, God reveals his glory in retrospect. Often it's when we look back that we see his hand, the sure pattern of his movements across the years, the circumstances, the arrivals, and departures of our lives.

Having faced transitions over and over again in my life, I know how natural it is to crave certainty. Like Moses, we want to know. But this week's readings suggest that God understands something much more elemental about our hearts: we want to be known. As the old theme song from the sitcom, Cheers, would have it, "You want to go where everybody knows your name."

"Everybody" probably won't know our names in this lifetime. But God will. God does. He knows each of us by name, and his perfect knowledge — not ours — is enough.

Image credits: (1–3) Idle Speculations: The Synagogue at Dura Europos (Syria, c. 250 AD).

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