Things were going well for Moses as he led the people out of Egypt. God called him to Mount Horeb to receive the Ten Commandments. While he was there, the people fell away from God by returning to the ways of Egypt by building and worshiping a golden calf under Aaron’s watch. This revealed that the spiritual foundation of the people and the leadership of Aaron had not been grounded enough for the leader to have an extended absence. God’s presence had left the people.
When Moses came back and saw what had happened, he recognized the solution as well. Having God’s presence return was the only way they could proceed and have success. Moses also realized a weakness in his own ability to lead. He wanted God to mentor him. Is the presence of God in our current activities? Are the people we lead mature enough in their faith for us to be off site?
The first part of the passage we heard from Exodus was Moses’ third intercession on behalf of the Israelites. The people had repented, expressed their sorrow and remorse, and divested themselves of the Golden Calf. But God has told them that He won’t go with them because He might consume them with His wrath. God’s holiness can’t abide with sin. Because the Israelites were sinful, God’s holiness would consume them on the way. God would be present with them in an indirect way through an angel.
Moses was, understandably concerned about the future of the people, and his leadership, if God decided not to accompany them into the land of Promise. What would the neighbors think? While he can be thankful that God will fulfill the promise to get them to the land, how would they survive in this new land?
Moses went into his tent and prayed to God, hoping to change His mind. Moses reminded God of the covenant He made with Abraham. Moses also appealed because of his own relationship with God. God relented and told Moses that He would go with the people, and He would give them rest.
God’s presence does give us rest, but at times His presence disturbs us instead. For example, God’s vivid presence once appeared to the prophet Isaiah. It caused Isaiah to tremble and shake and confess. God’s presence does that; it reveals our sinfulness.
As children of God, we have received His unmerited and unending favour. As we get to know Him better through prayer, fasting and studying His word, He extends us even more favour. He promises to grant our requests, and He knows us personally. He always reveals Himself as a God of grace and compassion, and that gives us great comfort when we face life’s trials, and when we sin or make errors in judgment.
The trials of life may give us the impression that God is angry or vindictive on one hand; and unknowing and uncaring on the other. Nothing could be further from the truth. Jesus came to reveal God as a merciful, gracious, loving Heavenly Father-a Father who loves the world so much that He gave His only begotten son.
When we reflect on God, we better reflect God. We must personally engage with Him. We must go to Him in prayer and interlock our hearts, motivations, ambitions and wills to His revealed will and word. This is where our faith fits together with our actions, and where our lives go from being our own to being His.
Moses preferred to go nowhere with God than anywhere without Him. We must do likewise. We must make God’s presence our passion by being more like a sponge and less like a rock. When we place a rock in the ocean, its surface gets wet. The exterior may change colour, but the interior remains untouched. If we place a sponge in the ocean, it absorbs the water. The ocean penetrates every pore and alters the essence of the sponge.
If we are to be effective in anything we do for the Lord, He must be in the midst of it. Unless His power is seen among us, we will be just another person who has religion. Unless we show His life to others, they will see only good behaviour that is easily counterfeited by moral people.
Moses’ fourth intercession was a request to see God’s glory. All along he was willing to proceed in the promise that God gave him at the burning bush. Something happened since then. The people’s falling into sin, God’s anger against them, and God’s refusal to allow Moses to make atonement brought a whole new situation. Moses felt he needed to know more of what God was like if he was going to continue to lead the Israelites. Moses wanted a deep, personal, intimate connection to God.
Moses saw God’s astounding acts during the Exodus, but now he wanted to see more-God’s glory. God granted this bold request, passing His goodness before Moses and proclaiming His own name-the expression of His character. The Lord speaks of His manner as being gracious and showing compassion, words Paul used in Romans 9:15-18.
We are very dependent on what we can see or perceive. We make judgment calls and assessments through our own eyes. When something impairs our ability to see, we compensate by using other senses, and in those times, most of us spend a lot more time praying for wisdom. We depend on our sight more than we depend on how God sees things. It can’t be about how we see things, but what God sees in us. Like Moses, we know that we have found grace in God’s sight, but are we living to be pleasing in His sight every day with every decision?
Eventually everyone leaves churches where God isn’t obviously present and working. Churches don’t die. God’s voice in them dies, and then the people’s response of adoration goes cold too. Getting people back to church is pointless unless God comes back first in His glory. The church is called to make manifest to the senses the presence of God. The entire world is bathed in Him. God is the water we swim in and we, like fishes, don’t even know we’re in it. The church’s job is to make God’s presence felt so that when we leave this place, we know we’re swimming in water and the water is God’s presence, love and goodness.
Glory can’t be faked. It can’t be manufactured, manipulated, or manifested at will. Only God can bring glory into a church, but when He does, communities get shaken and lives get changed. Jesus’ fame curls up on the shore of human hearts like a wave.
There was a limit to what Moses would see, for no one can look upon the Lord and live. God is Spirit-with no physical features whatsoever-so the use of the terms “my back” and “my face” was a means for humans to understand what cannot be understood otherwise. Moses’ passing view of the Lord’s back was still more than ever had been seen-until Jesus, in whom the transcendent God was revealed in human flesh.
God’s decision to abide with humans is astonishing. The fact that God chooses to be in relationship with human beings makes Him vulnerable to the pain that results when that relationship is betrayed. It also means that authentic communication is made possible, and Moses is the model for us of that divine-human communication.
God isn’t limited, but we are. No one, not even Moses, could know all about God. Even though He has revealed Himself fully in Jesus Christ, there is a sense in which He remains hidden. Similarly, God has hidden some things from us. God is far beyond our ability to understand. What is revealed in the Bible is only a portion of what God is like. We will learn more about Him when we get to heaven, but even then, there will be a lot that we won’t learn. Whenever some fresh insight and meaning comes to us, hopefully we will bow our heads in humility, awe and worship.
At stake, then, is our understanding of God as transcendent, untouchable, and unviewable, versus God’s willingness to intervene on behalf of even the most stiff-necked of folks. The theophany that occurs in this story beautifully bears witness to both. In Jeremiah 23:23, God stated: “Am I a God nearby… and not a God far off?”. In our prayer lives, when do we know that “enough is enough” and one should let go of a prayer? When is it more important to keep pushing?
- Jeremiah, David: The Jeremiah Study Bible, New King James Version (Brentwood, TN: Worthy Publishing; 2013, p. 118)
- Dunnam, M.D. & Ogilvie, L.J.: The Preacher’s Commentary Series, Vol. 2: Exodus (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Inc.; 1987; pp. 338-347)
- MacArthur, J.F. Jr.: The MacArthur Study Bible, New American Standard Bible (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers; 2006)
- Stanley, C.F.: The Charles F. Stanley Life Principles Bible, New King James Version (Nashville, TN: Nelson Bibles; 2005)
- Reverend Wayne Palmer, “Looking Upon God.” Retrieved from firstname.lastname@example.org
- “In Your Sight.” Retrieved from www.dailydisciples.org
- Gwen Smith, “The Solution to Restlessness, Part Two.” Retrieved from www.crosswalk.com/devotionals/girlfriends
- Max Lucado, “Be More Sponge and Less Rock.” Retrieved from BibleGateway@e.BibleGateway.com
- Bobby Schuller, “Truth, Goodness and Beauty.” Retrieved from www.hourofpower.org
- Os Hillman, “When His Work Exceeds His Presence.” Retrieved from Christainity.email@example.com
- Os Hillman, “Unless the Lord Goes with Us.” Retrieved from firstname.lastname@example.org
- Karla Suomala, “Commentary on Exodus 33:12-23.” Retrieved from www.workingpreacher.org
- Kathryn M. Schifferdecker, “Commentary on Exodus 33:12-32.” Retrieved from www.workingpreacher.org
- Charles Cowherd, “Bible Study, 20th Sunday after Pentecost (A) – October 22, 2017.” Retrieved from www.epsicopaldigitalnetwork.com
- “Face to Face with God – A Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 20A (Exodus 33)”. Retrieved from email@example.com