Bible Passage: Exodus 33:12-23
Pastor: Pastor Schlicht
Sermon Date: July 9, 2017
On Instagram a while back someone posted a picture of a young man who had just broken up with his girlfriend while they were sitting next to each other on an airplane. (He obviously didn’t think it through.) And from the looks on their faces it seemed that even though they were sitting right next to each other, they couldn’t have been farther apart. What does it mean to be close with someone? It’s obviously not just a matter of proximity. Being close with someone depends on a lot of different things that are hard to quantify, like how well we know someone or whether we feel comfortable enough to disclose our hopes and fears to someone. It’s hard to nail-down a precise standard for being close to someone. In fact, I don’t think we need to define what closeness is about all that definitively, because we all naturally know who we are close with and who we aren’t. It is something that we are almost instinctively aware of. Which is why it is so interesting that so many people, including Christians, wonder if they are close to God. Are you close with God? Does the answer come to you quickly? I admit that I have often wondered this myself. Because we so often hear things like “God be with you,” or Jesus’ words, “Where two or three come together in my name, there I am with them.” Yes, we believe that our Lord is miraculously present in this very sanctuary today. Or how about the fact that the apostle Paul tells us repeatedly that we are God’s temple, that the Holy Spirit actually lives inside of us! Yes, God’s Word says that his presence is so close to his people that he dwells in them. And yet closeness is not just a matter of proximity. It is still often easy for us to feel unsure about being close to God.
This morning we get to listen in on a delicate conversation that took place about three and a half centuries ago between our Lord and the prophet Moses. And as we explore the words exchanged we will find what separates people from God and the inherent danger involved, but also, and more importantly, we will find the key to being close to God.
This conversation from chapter 33, takes place in the greater context of the book of Exodus. In this book we find out that the ancient Israelites had a special relationship with God. They were his chosen people and if anyone could’ve been close with God it would have been this nation of Israel. They had witnessed the power of God close to them during the 10 plagues of Egypt; God had parted the Red Sea so they could pass on dry ground. The Lord’s presence even went along with them as they traveled, a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. His presence had led them across the land of Rephidim and had guided them through the desert all the way up to the foot of Mount Sinai. To say the least, those ancient Hebrews experienced a closeness to God that no other people had ever known. And yet when we come to our text today in chapter 33, something had changed that relationship dramatically. Of the thousands of tents that were set up around Mt. Sinai, one tent was purposely separated far away from the rest. It was called the tent of meeting. And only there, separated from people of Israel, would God’s presence come to rest. What had happened? Well, we heard about it last week in Pastor Berg’s sermon. The Israelites formed a Golden Calf and worshiped it. They had broken the heart of God and their sin had now removed his presence from their midst. The Lord had told Moses that his presence would no longer accompany the Israelites to the Promised Land. In his great mercy he would not destroy them and would send an angel to lead them, but he would not be with them. Sin had caused separation between God and people.
This brings us to our verses today, as we listen in on the actual conversation between Moses and God in the tent of meeting. 12Moses said to the Lord, “Look, you yourself have been telling me, ‘Lead this people up,’ 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.’ 13So now if I have found favor in your sight, please show me your ways, so that I may know you, so that I may find favor in your sight. Consider that this nation is your people.” Moses knew that an unnamed angel was to lead them, but that still wouldn’t fix the separation between Israel and God. He wanted to know the name of the one who would lead them, he wanted God to lead them again. And the Lord, in incredible mercy, says this in response, “My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.” God, for the sake of Moses, once again agrees to accompany Israel, showing his love and commitment to this sinful nation, despite what has happened. And it seems like Moses should simply rejoice and go on his way to share the good news, but he presses again saying in verse 15, “If your Presence is not going to go with me, do not send us up from here. 16After all, how would people know that I have found favor in your sight, I and your people? Isn’t it in this way: that you go with us, so that we are distinguished, I and your people, from all the people who are on the face of the earth?” Here we see Moses as the great interceder for the people whom he has been called to lead. He rhetorically links himself with the people twice saying, “I and your people.” Notice also that Moses keeps saying that these people are the Lord’s, reiterating God’s covenant promise. Moses wants to be sure that God’s people are close to God, for the sake of the Lord’s reputation. And again, in his mercy the Lord responds saying, “I will also do this thing that you have said, for you have found favor in my sight, and I know you by name.” You’d think Moses would certainly be satisfied with this answer, but he had yet one more request. 18Then Moses said, “Please show me your glory.” Moses asks to see God’s glory, to know him, to be as close as possible with God. Close enough to see him as he is, unveiled in glory, not manifested in cloud or fire, but to really see God as he is. Moses desperately wanted, not be separated by sin, but to come close to God.
This conversation may seem quite removed from our experience today in 2017, but we worship the same God that Moses spoke to. And his principles do not change. Unfortunately, the first principal we learn in this account is that sin causes separation. And that is still true today. When a spouse is unfaithful, that sin doesn’t just separate the couple, but often the fault line of separation runs straight through entire families. Sin causes separation. It’s the reason that two people can sit right next to each other and yet be so far away from each other. It’s the reason that someone can sit in right here in God’s house and yet be so far away from him. It’s the reason that when you fall into sin, often the last thing you feel like doing is approaching God in prayer.
The most dangerous part about this separation is that along with it comes the temptation to believe that being separated from God isn’t really that bad. The devil tells us that a little separation from God is freeing. We all, to a greater or lesser extent, know this temptation. It comes to us after repeatedly falling into a sin, after a while we get sick of trying to stop. And the devil comes to us and tells us that we trivialize our relationship with God when we confess over and over, just to fall again. And we know that if we don’t think about the separation that sin causes, then it doesn’t hurt so much the next time we sin and separate ourselves even farther away. But we don’t become freer from this separation, just more deeply enslaved to sin. Or perhaps we are tempted to keep God at arm’s length, because then we can continue to go to church and live as if nothing is wrong, without getting serious about the sins in our heart–those sins that aren’t as obvious, like inner pride, judgment, or envy. These are the sins that only we and God know about, but we’ve stopped caring about them because they don’t separate us from anyone else. And we’d rather not take the time and the humility to confess these sins to God. The devil tells us it’s just easier to keep some space between us and God. But separation is not only the present consequence of sin, but the eternal consequence of sin as well. And left to our own we would be separated from God not just here, but forever.
Thankfully we were not left to ourselves. And neither were Moses and the Israelites. Listen to God’s answer to Moses’ request, “19The Lord said, ‘I will make all my goodness pass in front of you,” Moses asked for glory, but the Lord gave him goodness. He continues, “and I will proclaim the name of the Lord in your presence. I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and I will show mercy to whom I will show mercy.” Moses wants to know who God is, well this is our God–the one who is gracious and merciful. But God reveals something else important as well, 20He said, “You cannot see my face, for no human may see me and live.” This is the nature of our holy Lord, in our current state there is still a level of God that must remain unknown. We cannot look on him and physically survive it. It is not wrong to think of God in a relatable way, but we do need to remember that he is still the Alpha and Omega, the one who dwells in unapproachable light. We find out a lot about God in the Bible, but we must admit that he remains in many ways what Isaiah called him, a hidden God (Is 45:15).” And that’s why it is a mercy that God answered Moses’ request with an alternative plan. In verse 21 we hear what the Lord had in mind: 21The Lord also said, “Look, there is a place next to me, where you shall stand on the rock. 22It will happen that, while my glory passes by, I will put you in a crevice in the rock. I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by. 23Then I will take away my hand, and you will see my back. But my face will not be seen.” Moses asked to see God’s unbridled glory, but God gave him what he could handle, a passing glimpse of God’s back accompanied by the proclamation of his gracious, and merciful name.
We can’t say exactly what Moses saw that day, hidden in the cleft of the rock, but we often sing about it. The famous hymn, Rock of Ages, which will close our service this morning, alludes to this very event. You see the hymnist saw in this story the key to getting close to God. Here is the first verse: “Rock of Ages, cleft for me, let me hide myself in thee. Let the water and the blood from thy riven side which flowed, be of sin the double cure, save me from its guilt and power.” You see even though we aren’t able to come to close to God ourselves, God sent his son to get as close as possible to us, to wear our flesh and bone, to know our pains and weakness, to carry our sin and to die in our place. Yes, God separated himself from his only Son so that we would be close to him. In the separation of death Jesus’ arms were stretched out upon that cross as an eternal link holding together humanity and God.
Our Gospel Lesson today makes this clear. Before his death Jesus said to his followers, “Everything has been entrusted to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son desires to reveal him. Come to me, all of you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.”(Mat 11:27-28) If we are in Christ, then we are close to God. Jesus is the greater Moses, who mediates before God on our behalf every moment in heaven. If we rest in the Rock of Ages then we, like Moses, hear the name of the Lord proclaimed, not in judgment or condemnation, but in grace and mercy. We say of Christ, “Let me hide myself in thee.” And there hidden in our Savior we are not only protected from the wrath of a holy God, but we are forgiven of every sin, and brought into God’s family, so that rather than fearing him we may call him Father. All separation is now gone. All sins are now forgotten, yes even those times when we tried to stay separated from God. And no matter how many times we fall, we do not trivialize our relationship with God by repeatedly asking for forgiveness, because there is nothing trivial about the payment that Jesus paid in full for our redemption. Hidden in Christ our burdens of sin are lifted and we draw near to God with a clean heart and a pure conscience in joy and fearless praise. Rest in the Rock of Ages and know for certain that you are close to God.