By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
October 22, 2023
Exodus 33:12–23 (ESV)
12 Moses said to the Lord, “See, you say to me, ‘Bring up this people,’ 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.’ 13 Now therefore, if I have found favor in your sight, please show me now your ways, that I may know you in order to find favor in your sight. Consider too that this nation is your people.” 14 And he said, “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.” 15 And he said to him, “If your presence will not go with me, do not bring us up from here. 16 For how shall it be known that I have found favor in your sight, I and your people? Is it not in your going with us, so that we are distinct, I and your people, from every other people on the face of the earth?” 17 And the Lord said to Moses, “This very thing that you have spoken I will do, for you have found favor in my sight, and I know you by name.” 18 Moses said, “Please show me your glory.” 19 And he said, “I will make all my goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you my name ‘The Lord.’ And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. 20 But,” he said, “you cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live.” 21 And the Lord said, “Behold, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock, 22 and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by. 23 Then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back, but my face shall not be seen.”
Last week we sat with Israel as they made one of their gravest errors. Last week we observed the children of Israel look not to the Lord, but to the gods of the nations for comfort in their distress. They were scared and alone. They had spent a month without a leader, shortly after they had heard the very voice of God give them wisdom from on high, and they turned away.
We often look at the children of Israel in wonder. We look at them and we begin to judge them. We ask, “How could they?” Maybe you do not have those thoughts, but I do. How could they seemingly turn their back on the Most High God of the universe, when they had witnessed what they had? They watched the greatest empire of the world submit to the deity of the slaves. They watch this God perform miracles that even to this day science cannot explain so they say it must be a legend. Yet, Israel walked out of Egypt. Something happened. Sure, it could have been multiple factors coming together to create the perfect opportunity for the entire slave class within that ancient culture to walk away from their oppressors without challenge. We can say that because we can look back in the pages of history, we can see it within the dusty trenches of the archaeologist, and on the pages of scripture that in the bronze age something happened within the ancient world that caused a global collapse. And after that global collapse, Israel emerged.
We can look at the history books, but even the greatest historians cannot explain how or why that collapse occurred. They have theories, they have ideas that they cannot prove, they have issues with their ideas because like so many people, they cannot admit that maybe there was something more going on. That maybe God.
We judge Israel. We judge them because they saw something amazing happen, and they turned away.
I spoke last week about the golden image they created. I probably confused and scared some of you by saying that the image they made was the image of El, and then I equated El with Yahweh. I mentioned this to show each of us how interconnected and similar the stories of Israel and that of the world can be. El in the world was a far-off god that did not associate with humanity directly but worked through lessor gods that ruled over the nations. That was the world view of Ur, of Cannan, of Egypt, of the Norse, and pretty much every polytheistic religion that has ever existed. This was the faith, the worldview that even Abraham had prior to his journey. God was far off, the Most High God did not interact with humanity. We look at these religious traditions as being pagan and wrong, but I do want us to look beyond. God was far off. God did remove himself from most of humanity, he removed himself because we walked away from him. We walked away and we replaced his ways with something else. And the forces of evil that initiated the turning of our first parents set themselves up over various nations and people. These nations were guided by these evil influences and gladly warred with one another as they sought wealth, power, and a name.
We judge Israel, for their turning. But we are no different.
They turned back to the world they knew. They returned to a place of comfort. They faced in their future something they could not explain, something they could not control, and they were afraid. In their fear many returned to the old stories, the easy stories. The stories that allowed them to seek wealth, power, and a name through their own strength. Aaron saw this as he stood before the people making their demands. And Aaron proceeded to build what they demanded.
We judge Israel, and we judge Aaron. But I know and have experienced that pull. I have stood alone when everything around me seems to go off the deep end, people that I have respected seem to turn their back on the faith they once taught me. I have watched as those that once inspired were bent to conform and appease the fear ridden crowd. Some of you might even see that in me because we are human.
One among many. One voice in a crowd. One leaf blowing in the winds of time.
God saw Israel that day, and he told Moses that he was going to give up once again. Moses began to pray for his people. Moses reminded God of God’s own words. Remember Abraham, Moses said. Remember Isaac. Remember Jacob. You told Abraham that you would make him into a great nation, that they would be like the stars in the sky. Remember what you said you would do if he followed you. Moses knew the stories; he even knew the pagan stories. El was a far off god that did not associate with his creation, until El spoke to Abraham, until God chose that one seemingly worthless person that did not have a name or an heir to be his people. We often look at this story and we build theology around it. Some will say that God changed his mind, and others will say that God never changes His mind. I say it does not really matter if He does or does not because we cannot fully know the mind of God. What does matter is that God caused Moses, no God compelled Moses to remember.
Moses walked down the mountain, and he saw what had happened to the nation. He gazed upon the people that were called to be God’s people a holy nation gathered to be the light of the nations. He looked at them and what he saw was a nation of people fading into the masses. Returning to the world.
Moses was enraged. He threw down the stone tablets God had etched the ten words or lessons on, and he burned the golden calf and ground it to a powder. Then he gathered the tribe of Levi, the tribe that was dedicated to the service of God and he sent them to the camp gates, and throughout the camp and they waged war with themselves.
This scene breaks my heart. God’s people divided, God’s people slaughtering each other in the name of God. God’s people in chaos.
We look at this and some may find it inspiring, but it is not. God told Moses that he was going to blot out the people for their sin, Moses begged God for mercy and God apparently changed his mind. But then Moses took up the sword in God’s name. God granted mercy, but humanity did not extend the mercy. I understand why Moses did what he did. I can even justify it in my own mind. God did not tell Moses to take up the sword, Moses in his own jealousy and rage did that himself. God had chosen mercy, Moses chose vengeance.
Was the battle necessary? We cannot fully say yes or no to that. We often look at the world around us and we use our own wisdom and cunning to make those judgements. What we do know is that Israel now had knowledge of sin, they knew what God required and they had become aware of the consequences of sin. Moses knew that they were all nearly annihilated, but the people at the base of the mountain did not know the extent of their transgression. The wage of sin is death, separation.
I am not condemning Moses. Moses is a man just like each of us. He was a man whose desire is to please the God he loves. He acted no differently than most of us would have acted, and in that time and place the sword was most likely the easiest tool to use to teach the lesson that needed to be learned. But that lesson weighed heavy on the people, even on Moses.
Moses returns to the mountain to ask for atonement, he confessed their sin, he begged for forgiveness, and he even offered himself in exchange for the people. God responds to Moses. God says that he will indeed blot out those that have sinned, and that Moses should go. But when he said to go, something changed. God seemed a bit more distant than before. God does not say I will go with you, he says my angel will go with you.
This might seem odd, but before in the Exodus accounts the writer uses the phrase Angel of the Lord, or Angel of God but there is a difference in how the words are used in this case. Moses noticed the difference. Before God was with them, now after this grave sin, it seems as if God is again distant. Moses accepts this judgement. He walks down to the camp; a plague hits the camp and many die. There is heaviness in the camp. They know something has changed, they know they had taken as step away from God, they know a mistake has been made. God commanded that they go, but Moses could not bring himself to move.
He enters the tent of meeting, and he prays. “See, you say to me, ‘Bring up this people,’ 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.’ Now therefore, if I have found favor in your sight, please show me now your ways, that I may know you in order to find favor in your sight.”
“That I may know you…” This phrase became the focus of my contemplations this week. This simple phrase carries a lot of weight. It is the difference between those that are focused on the world and the righteous. The people focused on the world act as if they possess the knowledge, that they have the power and strength in themselves. While the righteous seek, search, and examine. The people of the world act seemingly without thought, whereas the righteous will often struggle to act.
That I may know you is a phrase that recognizes a position of submission. If we were to look to the nations of the ancient world, the leaders within were often regarded as the offspring of the gods. Pharaoh was a god king. The leaders of Babylon and Persia would often be called the king of kings and lord of lords, and the people would follow their name with the phrase, “Live forever.” We even see this within CS Lewis’s chronicles of Narnia, some might see this a bit racist, but I believe Lewis was making a greater statement about the kingdoms of the world and the kingdom of God. To say live forever, one must regard that person as greater than a mere human. They are divine in origin. Moses is the spokesman of God in this nation, Moses could so easily slip into the very same position among the people as Pharaoh was to Egypt. He is the voice of God, but Moses does not take that position lightly, he instead takes a submissive approach. That I may know you.
This is the difference between the ways of the world and the character of the righteous. The world seeks things for themselves, but true righteousness loves God with all that they are and loves their neighbor. True righteousness does not seek glory for themselves, but instead seeks the wellbeing of and justice for the people around them.
It is extremely difficult to live this lifestyle. It is difficult because we are afraid. We fear the things we do not know. We are afraid that the people around us will not live as we do, and if they do not live by the same standard, will I be taken advantage of? Will I be lumped in with the unrighteous that live within our community? Will I…notice the focus. Our fears are often based on I and not us.
God understands this fear we have. The people were afraid of being alone in the wilderness and they demanded that Aaron make gods to lead them because they did not know what had happened to Moses. Aaron was afraid of the people so he built the statue even though he knew what the people would do with it. Moses was afraid, even though God had announced his mercy toward the rebellious people, so he commanded that the lives of those that turned away from God be removed from their camp. And today we see more uncertainty.
As humans we fear a great deal. It is not a sin to fear, just as it is not a sin to be angry, or to have desires. Sin enters when we begin to let the emotions lead us to a place we should not venture. Moses is just as human as us, he is afraid and has uncertainty. At times he let the fear get ahold of him and he reacted in violence. When Moses lashed out in anger, when he led the people of Levi to become the judge of the people, he bore the name of God in vain and did not honor the lives of fellow image bearers. We justify this action because he did this in a quest of honoring God. We can in our righteous fervor, fall into sin just as easily as those that seek only selfish desires. We do this when we fail to love our neighbors. We see this every day on the news. We see it in the wars that are waged between nations. We see it when labor strikes happen because management and the workers cannot come to an agreement. We see it when the addict harms the ones closest to them and when we fail to help those that are held in bondage to an addiction.
We can justify our action. We can even quote scripture to support our behaviors. But are we honoring God?
Moses was told to lead the people away from the mountain of God in Sinani. And Moses was afraid. He knew that God had been angry, that a wedge was once again place between God and Israel. God had said that his angel would accompany them, but would God be with them? This time the Moses took the emotions of uncertainty to God. He seeks God, he even expresses his emotions in a manner we might see as disrespectful toward God. “See, you say to me, ‘Bring up this people,’ 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.’” Moses lets God know his uncertainty and his concern.
“Now therefore, if I have found favor in your sight, please show me now your ways, that I may know you in order to find favor in your sight.” Moses knows that even he, the one to whom God called to be his spokesman to the nation, has failed to live up to the standard of God’s lessons that were given at Sinani. He knows that Israel failed as a nation mere days after they proclaimed their faith in God, and he knows that he is among those that failed. “Show me now your ways,” He pleas, “that I may know you.”
His greatest desire is to know God as God knows him. His greatest desire it to lead the people in a way that will honor them as image bearers of God, and so that when he is among them, he will encourage them to greater devotion to God. He then says something profound, “If your presence will not go with me, do not bring us up from here. For how shall it be known that I have found favor in your sight, I and your people? Is it not in your going with us, so that we are distinct, I and your people, from every other people on the face of the earth?”
What makes the people of God different from all nations on the earth? What gives them distinction? In the ancient world views of the region every nation had a servant of the Most High God that would lead the people. A mere angel guiding them would make them just another nation among many. The difference is if the Most High God goes with them. Moses does not only want to have knowledge of God, but he also wants to interact and build a relationship with God. He wants God to live with them, and he wants to know God.
God with us is the desire of Moses. Emmanuel. This is the desire of each of us here today. We want to know God and we want to be known by God. We want God with us. But these are words written thousands of years ago. They look forward to Jesus, and now we are thousands of years beyond the Ascension of Christ. Yet our desire to know God and to be known by God remains. We, like Moses, cry out to bear witness of God’s glory. But often we are gripped by fear. Often, we cannot see God through the various failures of our nation and the nations around us. We cry out that Christ will return and renew and restore Eden.
We have these desire but what is God calling us to do? What is God encouraging us to do? He is not calling us to war. He is not calling us to force righteousness onto the world. He is calling us to abide with him. He is calling us to love God with all that we have and all that we are, and to love our neighbors. He is calling us to live with him, to know him and his ways, and to bear or take that into the world today. What gives us distinction? What sets us apart from the kingdoms of this world? It is how we live with others. It is living out the commands, the lessons that God set before us. It is Loving God, embracing the Holy Spirit and living the love of Christ with others. It is knowing God and knowing that of God in even those who oppose us.
As we consider Moses’s prayer, I want us to make it our own. I want us to seek God’s ways and desire to know him as he knows us. I want us to seek to see his glory here in this community and ask for eyes to see and hears to hear. I want us to pray that we become a people focused on loving God, embracing the Holy Spirit, and living the love of Christ with others.
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