Sermon Commentary for Sunday, October 22, 2017
Exodus 33:12-23 Commentary
Have you ever been so eager for something that you’d put your life on the line for it? You may not think so. Yet Moses did. Sometimes he’s close to God, sure of God, “filled to the brim,” as Neal Plantinga writes, with God.
At other times, however, Moses feels uncertain, misled and spiritually “dried up.” He’s been to the mountaintop with God. However, Moses has also trudged with the Lord through some dark valleys.
One day, however, according to Exodus 33, Moses seems to tire of those spiritual peaks and valleys. He wants God to answer all of his questions and end all of his uncertainties.
Moses wants God to come, as it were, out of hiding. He wants the veiled God to unveil, the covered God to uncover himself. He wants the full-strength dose of God. “Now show me your glory,” he says to God in verse 18.
Once upon a time, of course, before they let sin crash God’s good creation’s party, Adam and Eve enjoyed intimate fellowship with God. We sense that they saw much of God’s glory. Our first parents, however, wanted to be even more like God than God had created them to be. So they tumbled into sin, both harming God’s good creation and alienating themselves from both God and each other. God then drove them from God’s glorious presence in the Garden.
God, however, didn’t give up. God promised to turn Abraham into a new nation through which God would bless all the nations on earth. God also graciously rescued Abraham’s descendants from slavery in Egypt and moved them toward a Promised Land.
Along the way, God gave those migrating Israelites glimpses of God’s great glory. According to Exodus 16:10, “the glory of the Lord” appeared in the cloud with which God led Israel. Later, after that glorious cloud led Israel to the foot of Mount Sinai, Exodus 24:16 reports that “the glory of the Lord settled on Mount Sinai.” That glory, Exodus 24:17, “looked like a consuming fire on top of the mountain.”
Much, however, has happened between Israel’s last glimpsed God’s glory in the cloud and on Sinai and Exodus 33. Though she several times promised to do everything the Lord said, Israel stubbornly sinned against God. In particular, she worshipped a golden calf Joshua made from her melted golden earrings. God’s punishment, while not as severe as God had contemplated, is swift and devastating.
The beginning of Exodus 33 reports that God’s commands Israel to leave Sinai and head for the land God had promised her ancestors. In verse 2 the Lord also promises to send an angel before her to chase her enemies out of that Promised Land. However, in verse 3 God also insists God won’t accompany the Israelites because they’re so stubborn that God might have to destroy them.
Moses, however, wonders how he can lead the Israelites toward the Promised Land if God doesn’t accompany them. Must he somehow lead these bull-headed Israelites all by himself? No, God answers in verse 14, Moses won’t have to go alone. Literally God tells him “My face will go with you.”
We believe that a person’s face tells us a lot about whether he or she is “with” us in a caring way. In a similar way, having God’s face with the Israelites means that God will bless them. It also guarantees that God will accompany and provide for them on their way to the Promised Land.
God’s promise in verse 14 makes it hard to understand why Moses seems to press God even further in verse 15. “If your presence does not go with us,” he pleads there, “do not send us up from here.” Some scholars suggest that God first primarily promises God’s “Presence” to Moses in verse 14. That would mean that in verse 15 Moses begs God to accompany the rest of the Israelites as well as himself. Twice, after all, Moses mentions “me and your people (italics added).”
Will God, then, accompany the Israelites in a way that makes them distinct from other people? Will the Lord’s Presence enable the other nations to clearly see that the Lord is with the Israelites? That, after all, is the heart of God’s original promise to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Israel’s other ancestors.
God’s answers in verse 17 that God will do graciously what Moses has requested. “I will do the very thing you have asked,” he promises there, “because I am pleased with you and I know you by name.” Yet Moses’ subsequent request for a glimpse of God’s glory suggests he doesn’t understand just how God’s “Presence” will go with Israel.
While Moses may at least suspect that he might fry if he were to really see God’s glory, he seems to believe that he needs more than just God’s “yes” to his prayers. Maxie Dunnam (Exodus: Word) suggests that “he needed to know more of what God was like if he was going to continue to lead a people who had ‘kept a golden calf up’ their sleeve.” So Moses essentially asks to see God as God’s really is, in all God’s holy splendor.
God, however, refuses to show Moses God’s full glory. God offers, instead, some alternatives. “I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you,” the Lord promises in verse 19. That “goodness,” may be a kind of downpayment on God’s promises to Israel. It will assure Moses that God will accompany the Israelites to the Promised Land, giving them good things along the way.
God, however, in verse 19, also promises to proclaim God’s “name, the Lord” in Moses’ presence. Now that may not seem like a particularly big deal until we remember that in biblical times, a name often expressed something about a person’s character. So God’s name describes God’s character, who God will be for God’s people.
God’s Old Testament name, Yahweh, reminds us of the Hebrew verb “to be” or “to happen.” God’s name, then, sounds to the Israelites like “the One who is and will be there,” or “the One who is and will be there with you.” So when God “proclaims” God’s name in Moses’ presence, it vividly reminds Israel’s leader that God will remain with God’s people to show them God’s compassion and mercy.
In response to Moses’ request to see his glory, Yahweh first promises that he’ll see Yahweh’s goodness and then that Moses will know Yahweh’s name. However, in verse 20,
God warns Moses that even a glimpse of God face would kill him. John Goldingay (The Lectionary Commentary: The Old Testament and Acts: Eerdmans) suggests that this means that Moses cannot see God’s face because its glory would be too intense for him to survive even just a glimpse of it. Yet God offers Moses a partial concession. Israel’s leader may, if he hides in a slit in the rock, shielded by God’s hand, see God’s back.
Exodus 33’s preachers, teachers and hearers may, as a colleague suggests, see this as an analogy of our own experiences with God. People often cannot, after all, see God’s face, God’s coming. We can, however, see God’s back, God’s going. You and I don’t yet see God face to face. But sometimes we see God’s back, as it were, disappearing around the corner and realize that God has just acted for us.
God graciously gives God’s people glimpses of God’s “back,” of what Exodus 34:6 and following call God’s compassion and grace. God repeatedly shows God’s adopted sons and daughters that God is, indeed, “slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness.” God shows us how God does maintain love to thousands and forgive wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet God also gives us glimpses of God’s absolute hatred of sin.
However, the NIV Study Bible suggests that in Christ, God eventually answered, “yes” to Moses’ prayer to see God’s glory. After all, at the Mount of Transfiguration, according to Luke 9, Moses catches a glimpse of that glory in Jesus Christ.
God, however, has also answered “yes” to all of God’s children’s prayers by showing us God’s glory. After all, in John 1:14 we read that we have seen God’s glory in Jesus Christ, who came from the glorious Father. In fact, Jesus prays that his glorious Father will show his disciples his glory, the glory God gave him because God has always loved him.
God wouldn’t let Moses even glimpse God’s glory because Israel’s leader could never survive such a sight. Yet God has graciously let you and me catch a glimpse of God’s glory in Jesus Christ. Seeing him, we haven’t died. Instead, we’ve lived, we’ve received life, by God’s grace.
When Moses just glimpsed God’s glory on Sinai, the Israelites were afraid of him because it had set his face aglow. Yet in giving God’s adopted sons and daughters a glimpse of God’s glory in Jesus Christ, God has made our faces “radiant” as well. After all, that’s precisely what Paul suggests in II Corinthians 3:18: “We, who with unveiled faces, reflect the Lord’s glory.”
So Exodus 33’s preachers and teachers might ask both their hearers and themselves whether people see that we’ve glimpsed a bit of God’s glory. Do our own faces radiate something of God’s glory after we’ve met God in corporate or individual worship?
Of course, it’s far more biblical to ask whether people see something of God’s glory in the way we behave, think and talk. God, after all, gives us glimpses of God’s glory so that people may see what we do and give their own glory to God.
When I was in tenth grade, our high school’s boys’ basketball team advanced to the quarterfinals of the state high school tournament. While our team lost, many of us thought we ought to celebrate what we called a “glory day” by skipping school the next day in honor of the team’s amazing tournament run.
While I’m not sure students celebrate such “glory days” any more, my memories got me to thinking about the concept of “glory days.” While I attended a Christian high school, I don’t think anyone thought of our glory day as giving glory to God.
Mostly, I think, we thought of it as an excuse to skip school. If any glory was to be had, it was that of the members of our team. Perhaps there was also an element of our “glorying in,” that is, celebrating the Eagles’ accomplishment.
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