Stories like this are nearly unbelievable for your average church goer and literally unbelievable for your average neighbor, because God doesn’t talk this way to us today, “face to face as a man speaks with his friend (33:11).” Very few of us ever hear God’s voice over a lifetime of faith. That’s why several years ago I preached a series of sermons on Moses entitled, “What God would say if we could hear.” This famous story was part of that series. My sermon went something like this. Perhaps it will give you some ideas for a sermon on this text.
Imagine yourself on a desert island like the ones you see in those cartoons– a little spit of sand with one palm tree under a blazing sun surrounded by circling sharks. If you could have one thing on that desert island, what would it be? What do you need most to survive on a desert island? Water, food, shelter, a boat, an iPhone?
Now, stop imagining and change the picture to fit our text and our own very real situation. We’re in a desert, wandering through the wilderness on our way to the Promised Land. What do you need most to survive in this wilderness world? What is the one thing you absolutely must have to make it to the Promised Land?
Ancient Israel didn’t know the answer to that question, until that one absolute necessity was taken away. Then they freaked out because they knew that, without that basic necessity, they couldn’t survive. So, Moses talked to God about it and God talked to him face to face as a man speaks to a friend. That’s when God said to Israel what he would say to us if we could hear. “My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.” That’s the One thing we need in the wilderness on the way to the Promised Land.
To understand this very strange and wonderful text, try to put yourself in God’s place. Have you ever gotten so frustrated with someone you love that you wanted nothing more to do with that person? Maybe it was a teenage child who tested the limits again and again. Night after night you waited up until 2, 3, 4 in the morning as she was out carousing. You prayed and prayed that she would come home safely, that God would spare her life out there. And then when she finally staggered in, you wanted to hug her and kill her at the same time.
It happens to the best of us; we can be so angry with someone we love that we almost want to kill them, or at least kick them out of our lives so we don’t have to watch them self-destruct. If you can’t relate to that feeling, you’ve never had a truly rebellious teenager. But if you understand that complex set of feelings, you can begin to understand God in our text.
Our story begins back in Exodus 32 with Moses up on the mountain talking with God and Israel down on the plain making their own god. God has already given Israel the Ten Commandments and now he is completing the constitutional guidelines that will guarantee their life and liberty for the generations to come. But they can’t see God, or even the Mediator he has given. Moses has been up there for over a month, 40 days to be exact. Israel grows impatient and demands that Aaron make them a god to lead them through the wilderness.
Of all the stupid, ungrateful, outrageous, forgetful, and commonsense things! Through Moses God has repeatedly told them that he will get them to the Promised Land. Through Moses God has demonstrated again and again that he has the power and love to do that. Through Moses he has just told them not to have any other gods or make any images of him. And then the first thing they do when Moses is out of sight is disbelieve God’s promise, violate his law, and break his covenant by making a god.
But of course! That makes sense, commonsense, because the thing they needed more than anything else out there in the wilderness was god, a god they could see– not a god hiding in the smoke up there on the mountain, but a god who would be present with them all the time. It made sense, and it made God furious.
So furious that when he tells Moses what is going on down in the valley, God says in effect, “That’s it. I’ve had it. I’m done with them. They want to make a god? Then they won’t have this God. They have broken my covenant one too many times. I’m leaving.” Indeed, says God in Ex. 32:10, “Now leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them. Then I will make you into a great nation.”
What follows is one of the most amazing conversations in all the Bible, in all of literature, because Moses will not leave God alone. In fact, he keeps talking, arguing, pleading with God until God changes his mind. Back and forth the conversation goes, God speaking to Moses face to face as a man speaks to a friend, Moses daring to plead the case of God’s sinful people in the face of God’s righteous anger born of wounded love. Moses is a mediator par excellence, a powerful picture of Jesus Christ, hundreds of years before Jesus came. Ex. 32:11 sums up the work of Moses in the story. “But Moses sought the favor of the Lord his God.”
Moses reminds God of how much he has already done for Israel, asks God if he really wants to give the Egyptians an opportunity to gloat, and repeats the promises God had made long ago to the patriarchs. And, says Exodus 32:14, “the Lord relented and did not bring on his people the disaster he had threatened.” When Moses comes down out of the clouds on the mountain and actually sees the sin in the valley, he blows up and, on his own initiative, kills 3000 people. But then the next day he goes right back to God to plead for more grace for sinful Israel. He even offers his own life for theirs. “Oh what great sin these people have committed…,” he says in Exodus 32:31. “Now please forgive their sin—but if not, then blot me out of the book you have written.”
God says a terrible thing in verse 33 of Exodus 32. He says, in effect, “No. Whoever has sinned against me I will blot out of my book. Each person is responsible for his own sin. When the time comes for me to punish, I will punish them for their sin. Now go. Lead my people up to the place I have promised, and my angel will go before you.” This angel will defeat the people who hold the Promised Land, so you will take it. You’ll get what you want. But you won’t have what you need the most out here in the desert.
Let me repeat that. You’ll get what you want. But you won’t have what you need most out here in the desert. You won’t have me. In fact, you don’t really want me. “I will not go with you,” God says in Ex. 33:3, “because you are a stiff-necked people and I might destroy you on the way.”
But Moses isn’t done yet, thank God. And neither is God. The people repent of their sin and Moses continues his face to face with God in verses 12-13, where today’s Lectionary reading begins. Moses says, in effect, “I need more. We need more. An angel isn’t going to do it. We need you.” And the Lord replied with the loveliest words you could ever hear in the wilderness, “My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.”
But Moses still isn’t satisfied because that word “you” is in the singular, meaning just you, Moses. Moses replies, “If your presence does not go with us, all of us, your covenant people who have broken your covenant, do not send us up from here. How will anyone know that you are pleased with me and with your people unless you go with us? What else will distinguish me and your people from all the other people on the face of the earth?”
Lord, the one thing we need, the only thing we need, the thing that makes us unique in this sinful world is your presence with us. Without that, we are lost, we are doomed, just like everyone else. God responds with overwhelming grace, “I will do the very thing you have asked, because I am pleased with you and I know you by name.” “My Presence will go with all of you and I will give you all rest,” not because of the goodness of my people, but because of you, Moses, because you are my beloved Mediator.
Like I said, it’s a strange and wonderful and troubling text. Two things particularly are troubling and touching. One is the picture of God we get here. What kind of God is this, who blows up and threatens extinction and then lets himself be talked out of it? Sounds way too volatile, too emotional, too, well, human. No, not human, but a real person. What kind of God is this? Well, not the golden calf of pagan religion, the crude creation of your hands; not the Unmoved Mover of pagan philosophy, the sophisticated creation of your mind; not a god who can’t think or feel or talk. No, the God of the Bible is very personal with deep thoughts and powerful emotions and life changing words. In his holiness he cannot stand sin. In his justice he must punish it. In his faithfulness he keeps his promises. In his grace he forgives sin. And in his deep love he provides a mediator who will stand between himself and his sinful people.
That’s the point of the story, and of the whole biblical story. The personal God who has entered into a covenant with his people has sent a Mediator to intercede for them when they break his covenant. Moses gives us a preview of that perfect Mediator– pleading for sinners, putting them before himself, offering his life for theirs, not quitting until everyone of them gets the blessing God has promised. Moses was not the perfect Mediator, as his temper tantrum coming down from the mountain demonstrated. The perfect One would come down to another mountain and die, and then leave from another mountain with these familiar words, “Behold I am with you to the end of the age.”
“My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.” That’s the other troubling and touching thing in this story. What is this business about the Presence of God? Isn’t God already present everywhere? Well, yes, but not in a saving way. God is everywhere in his power, and his holiness, and his justice, but not necessarily in his saving grace.
We all know what that’s like. You’ve experienced the human equivalent of that many times. You can be with someone, but that person is not with you. You are on a date with your boyfriend, having a wonderful time. And then you say something, and he gets mad, and although you are still in the car together, he isn’t with you anymore. He’s there, but not there. His face has turned away. He is angry, hurt, distant. He is still there physically, but he is not really present.
God says, “My presence will to with you, in spite of your sin, because of the work of my Mediator. And I will give you rest.” God’s presence was with Israel in the pillar of cloud and fire, then in the Tabernacle and the Temple where the Shekinah cloud of his glory hovered over the Ark of the Covenant. But then the cloud of glory left the Temple when Israel went into exile, and it didn’t return until Jesus entered the Temple in his mother’s arms. Jesus was not only the perfect Mediator, but also the very Presence of God in the world.
Echoing this story about God speaking face to face with Moses and picking up on the end of the story where Moses asks to see the very glory of God, John 1:14 says, “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only, who is at the Father’s side, has made him known.”
What we need most of all as we wander through this wilderness world is God—not a god we make with our hands or in our minds, but the God who is with us always in the person of Jesus. Celtic spirituality talks about thin places on the earth where the barrier between heaven and earth is wafer thin, and you can sense God’s presence. The Gospel of Jesus offers us something far better. The place you can meet God, the place where God is present in all of his grace and truth, is not a place at all, but a person, the one who long ago said to Moses what he would say to us if we could hear. “My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.”
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, October 18, 2020
Exodus 33:12-23 Commentary