Way back on July 19 we started this series of messages based on some of the familiar Old Testament stories in Genesis and Exodus. If you recall, we started off with the story of Jacob and Esau and how Jacob had cheated his older brother Esau out of his birthright. It almost cost Jacob his life but he survived. While Jacob was fleeing Esau, he laid down to sleep by the side of the road and used a rock for his pillow. He had a dream that night in which God gave him a vision that his descendants would become a great nation and that the land upon which he was sleeping would become their inheritance forever.
After a few years, Jacob was reunited with his brother Esau and all things were forgiven. Then there was a famine in the land and Jacob’s offspring, twelve sons and one daughter and their families immigrated to Egypt where they stayed for four hundred year eventually becoming slaves to the their Egyptian masters.
God rescued them from slavery and, under the leadership of Moses, sent them on a forty year journey through the wilderness in search of the Promised Land flowing with milk and honey. It has not been smooth sailing but God ensured their safety and that they had enough food and water to survive.
But why am I telling you all of this? It’s because the journey to the Promised Land is coming to an end. Next week, the people of Israel will stand on the western bank of the Jordan River and look across to the Promised Land on the other side. But before they get there, they still have something to learn. They need to know beyond a shadow of a doubt that God is with them. That is what they are going to learn today.
Today’s story from Exodus 33, begins with Moses talking with God. He has seen all of the great things that God has done but he’s still hesitant and unsure of what to do.
Exodus 33:12-23 (NIV) says this:
Moses said to the Lord, “You have been telling me, ‘Lead these people,’ but you have not let me know whom you will send with me. You have said, ‘I know you by name and you have found favor with me.’ If you are pleased with me, teach me your ways so I may know you and continue to find favor with you. Remember that this nation is your people.”
The Lord replied, “My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.”
Then Moses said to him, “If your Presence does not go with us, 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?”
And the Lord said to Moses, “I will do the very thing you have asked, because I am pleased with you and I know you by name.”
Then Moses said, “Now show me your glory.”
And the Lord said, “I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the Lord, in your presence. I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. But,” he said, “you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.”
Then the Lord said, “There is a place near me where you may stand on a rock. When my glory passes by, I will put you in a cleft in the rock and cover you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I will remove my hand and you will see my back; but my face must not be seen.”
The tone of Moses’ words are very different from what we read in the past weeks. In those stories, there was a lot of grumbling and complaining. “How come we had to leave Egypt? There was lots of food and water there. Were there not enough graves in Egypt that you had to bring us out here into the desert to die? We never should have left. This whole Promised Land thing is getting out of hand.”
That’s not the sense of what is going on here. I don’t read in this story any complaining or griping. What I read is an honest plea from Moses for God to affirm him and his leadership at this critical juncture in the life of the people of Israel. It’s like he’s saying, “Okay God, you want me to lead these people but I still don’t know where we are going. You say that I have found favour in your eyes but how can we be sure that you will continue to bless us?”
Moses is expressing some anxiety. God has shown himself to be faithful. God has rescued the people from the armies of Pharaoh by parting the Red Sea. God has provided food and water in the desert. God has given them a legal code in the Ten Commandments. God has shown himself to be faithful.
But Moses is still anxious. Why? Because he’s looking into the future. He can look back and see all that God has done. What he doesn’t know is if God will continue to bless him and the people of Israel on the entire journey to the Promised Land wherever that happens to be and no matter how long it takes.
And that’s a very different matter, isn’t it. It’s one thing to recognize that someone has had your back in the past. But there are no guarantees that the same person will do the same thing moving forward. This is especially true when one side – Israel – has so badly broken the covenant that God has tried to establish with them. Do you remember last week how they broke the very first commandment which is not to have any gods before God. And what did the people do? They had Aaron cast a golden calf so that they could bow down and worship it. God was ticked. God was so ticked that he threatened to destroy the people right then and there and, had it not been for Moses’ intervention, may have done just that.
So Moses, remembering that event, perhaps wants some affirmation that God is not going to just give up on them and go back up to sit on his heavenly throne and leave them to wander around aimlessly in the desert forever.
Have you ever felt betrayed by someone you thought was a friend? You thought you could trust them but they stabbed you in the back or started a rumour about you or one day just walked away from your friendship and left you wondering why. That hurt didn’t it. I expect that all of us know what that feels like. And once you’ve been betrayed by one person, you’re likely more leery about trusting someone else because you don’t want to be betrayed and hurt again.
Moses knows what that’s like. Do you remember how he was raised? Do you remember that, when he was born, his mother put him in a basket in the Nile River where he was found by Pharaoh’s daughter and ultimately raised in the palace as Pharaoh’s grandson? Who turned out to be his greatest enemy in Egypt? It was Pharaoh, wasn’t it. But by this time the Pharaoh who was Moses grandfather was no doubt dead but the new Pharaoh would have either been Moses’ brother or his nephew.
Or more recently, there is the story we’ve already alluded to from last week. Moses went up onto Mount Sinai to talk with God and left his brother Aaron in charge. What did Aaron do? He betrayed Moses’ trust in him by making that golden calf which caused God’s anger and resulted in the deaths of so many of the Israelites. Moses knows what it is like to have his trust betrayed. He doesn’t want that to happen again and so he asks God for some assurance: “God, you’ve called me to lead your people. I am willing but, if I’m going to be in this for the long haul, I need to know that you are in it for the long haul as well.”
In verse 14 we read God’s reply: “My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.” “Yes,” says God, “I get what you need. I understand it. And I want you to know that even though the people have continually grumbled against me and have even abandoned me by setting up a false idol to worship, I will not abandon you. My presence will go with you and I will give you rest.”
SEEKING GOD’S GLORY
God has promised Moses that he will be with him and the people forever. But Moses’ extra need for assurance is highlighted in what happens next. In verse 15 Moses pushes that point even further. He says, “ By the way God, just to be clear, if you are not willing to be with us, then just say so because if you have any sense that you are not going to be with us, then I am not taking one step closer to the Promised Land.” Moses wants to be absolutely sure that God will not abandon him and the people.
One more time, in verse 16, God assures Moses that he will do what Moses asks. But then comes the Moses’ greatest request. In verse 18, Moses says, “Okay, I want to believe you but if I’m going to believe you, I don’t only want to feel your presence. I also want to see your glory.”
What’s that all about? God has already promised his presence. Is there a difference between God’s presence and God’s glory? Yes there is so let me explain. As a person of faith, I feel God’s presence. In fact, I feel God’s presence all the time. I know that many of you do too. We feel that presence in the person of the Holy Spirit that God gives to everyone who puts their faith in Jesus Christ. That Spirit lives within us. That Spirit strengthens us. That Spirit guides us. That Spirit helps us through each day and reminds us that, in Jesus Christ, we are never alone. That is God’s presence living within us.
God’s glory is something else. What Moses is asking for is not a feeling of closeness that one gets in a relationship. What he’s asking for is to actually see God.
You might think that’s an odd question because hasn’t Moses been up on the top of Mount Sinai for a few weeks talking with God and getting the Ten Commandments and all of the other instructions that came along with it? Yes, Moses has been with God but Moses has not seen God. In says in Exodus 19:16 that a there was thunder and lightning on the mountain and that it was covered by a thick cloud and smoke billowed up around the mountain as it would from a furnace. Clearly, Moses may know that he is in God’s presence but Moses has not seen God. But now he wants to do just that. He wants that extra assurance that God will be with him.
God, in a most unusual way agrees to Moses’ request. But there’s a catch. God will place Moses is a cleft in the rock and God will pass by the cleft were Moses is. But as God approaches the cleft, God’s hand will cover the opening so that Moses will not be able to see God’s face because anyone who sees God’s face will die. But when God has passed by the cleft, he will remove his hand from the cleft and Moses will be able to see God’s back.
All of this unfolds just as God said it would. God places Moses in the cleft, God hides his glory when he needs to in order to protect Moses but Moses is able to see God’s back which is at least a reflection of God’s glory.
ROCK OF AGES
As I was preparing today’s message, there’s an old hymn that just wouldn’t leave my head. It just kept going round and round. Can you guess which one it was? It was Rock of Ages.
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,
Cleanse me from its guilt and power.
The cleft in the rock in this song reminds me of the cleft in the rock where God placed Moses. But the hymn, surprisingly, is not based on the Exodus 33. The cleft in the rock refers to something completely different. It actually refers to an actual rock in England. Back in 1763, The Rev. Augustus Toplady, was walking along a gorge near Burrington Combe in the Mendip Hills in England. As he walked between villages, he was surprised by a sudden heavy rain squall which poured down from the clouds overhead. Being nowhere near any buildings, he ran toward a large rocky feature up ahead by the side of the road. There he found a cleft in the rock in which he took shelter until the storm was past.
In that moment, Toplady had an experience of God reaching down to shield him from the elements perhaps not unlike the way God protected Moses as he let his glory passed by on Mount Sinai. So while the cleft in the rock is very different cleft in a very different place, the meaning is not that far off. God still protects. God still shelters. God still shows us himself in the most unexpected ways whether as shield from God’s glory or protection from the storm, God’s hand can be seen by those who take the time to look for it.
And that’s the challenge for us. Moses was able to acknowledge God’s presence and his glory on the top of Mount Sinai surrounded by thunder and lightning and thick smoke. The Rev. Toplady was able to acknowledge God’s presence in the midst of a rainstorm as he sought protection in the cleft of another rock.
GOD’S PRESENCE IN THE TOUGH TIMES
So where is God’s presence for you? How do you see and how do you recognize it? Those are important questions for all of us. I want you to note something about the two rock clefts that we’ve talked about today. Moses experienced God’s presence and his glory within the thunder, lightning and billowing smoke on the top of Mount Sinai. Augustus Toplady experienced God’s presence during a storm as he sought shelter by the side of the road.
To me, there is a connection here. It’s one that I have noted in my ministry and even in my own life. It is often during the storms and upheavals of life, that we recognize the presence of God in our midst. I hinted at this last week but I want mention it again. It is in times of difficulty that we are more open to an experience of the holy in our lives.
That really should come as no surprise because when life is fine and dandy and everything is going well, there is little need to seek God’s presence. If you have two cars in the garage and two chickens in the pot and the kids are doing well and no one is sick, we can go on forever with hardly a thought of God. And why look for something that you don’t think you need right now?
But when the storms of life come to us, we may well begin to look at things from a different perspective. When the cars break down and food is not as plentiful because you’re between jobs and you’re not sure how the mortgage will get paid and one of the kids goes off the rails and someone close to you gets a dangerous diagnosis at the doctor’s office, sometimes people begin to realize that there is more to life than meets the eye. Not all things can be answered in the here and now. Not all problems can be solved by rationality and good judgement. Maybe there is something beyond the material that we can seek and find. That is when people are more open to seeking and acknowledging God’s presence.
I’ve said before that tough times will do one of two things to faith. They will either strengthen it or destroy it. But tough times will never be neutral when it comes to faith and our understanding of where God is for us in life. I personally don’t know where I would be without my faith. I know that it has been during the storms of life that my faith has carried me through. In those times when it felt like everyone and everything else in my life had let me down, God has always been there.
Moses was fortunate. He asked for God to show him God’s glory and God did that in a very real physical way. Most of us don’t get that opportunity – at least not on this side of the grave. That means that I can’t prove God to you. I can’t give you any scientific evidence to prove to you beyond the shadow of a doubt that God exists. But I can share with you my story of how I have experienced God’s presence in my life and you can tell others how you have experienced God presence in your life.
Our experience is reflected more in the post resurrection story of Thomas and his encounter with the risen Lord in John 20. If you recall, Thomas demanded proof that Jesus had risen. That’s because he had been out of the room when Jesus appeared to the other disciples the first time. A week later Jesus appeared again and showed Thomas the scars in his hands and feet and side. And Thomas believed. Do you recall what Jesus said to him? In John 20:29 (NIV), Jesus said, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”
Jesus here is referring to people just like us. He is talking about people who don’t need to see in order to believe. He’s talking about people who believe because they recognize the presence of God in their lives. They believe because they are in touch with the holy transcendence of God which reminds them that they are never alone.
God is with us. God is with us in the good times. God is with us in the tough times. God is with us through the storms that threaten to blow us away. Look for God in the experiences of life. Seek him out and be open to his presence in whatever way it may come to you.
PRAYERS OF THE PEOPLE
Blessed are you, Lord our God, Maker of the Universe, who creates the world afresh every morning. Thank you for our food. Keep us mindful of those who are less fortunate. Everyday, many bellies are empty. Every minute someone dies of hunger. People ask why you let this happen and we hear your voice asking us how it is that we let it happen. Help us, O God, in some small way, to make a difference.
Our prayers are offered, this morning, for those in Christian ministry around the world in various places and situations. These people not only share the Good News of Jesus, but they also demonstrate your love through their acts of service. We have seen, through their efforts, the true meaning of service evangelism where needs are identified and practical programmes developed to meet those needs. Help us to serve and, when we cannot serve directly, demand that we support those who can.
In a world of struggle, we pray for peace. We pray for the peace makers and the peace keepers – not only the ones who work in large international conflicts but also those who care for those in situations within families and neighbourhoods. May we always remember that true peace is not the absence of war but the presence of justice. We remember, especially, Canadian military personnel around the world who put their own lives on the line to make the world a better place for others.
We pray, this morning, for those who are sick or recovering at home or in hospital, remembering especially Richard, Brady, Gary and Bob.
Calm us, O God, as you stilled the storm.
Still us, O God, keep us from harm.
Let all the tumult within us cease.
Enfold us, God, in your peace. Amen.
WORSHIP RESOURCE PAGE
October 18, 2020 / Pentecost 20
Exodus 33:12-33; Psalm 99; Matthew 22:15-22; 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
CALL TO WORSHIP
We are God’s people joining together to worship the Lord, forgiven and free to be all that we were made to be. Let us proclaim the greatness of the Lord to every generation.
Worship awaits us, O God, as the songbird waits for the morning dawn. Give voice to our praise and prayers. Open our ears to the words of your Scripture. Enlighten and renew our minds by the infilling of your Holy Spirit. Give us the strength to physically complete the works that you have called us to do. Feed our faith, O God of the Ages, and lead us into your challenge and peace. Amen.
PRAYER OF CONFESSION
Merciful God, we are grateful for the patience which you extend to us. We are not yet all that you created us to be but neither are we what we used to be for your Spirit is at work within us. Help us to be patient with ourselves and others when we make mistakes or fail to do your will. Cleanse us from all unrighteousness as you lead us ever more nearer to your Kingdom. Amen.
ASSURANCE OF PARDON
God loves us and has chosen us to be a holy people, a royal nation, disciples belonging to the Lord. Be assured that we are forgiven and that we are loved as God’s own children.
DEDICATION OF OFFERING
We give thanks that you have chosen us, O God, to receive your great and redeeming love. You have called us to share this Good News with our sisters and brothers. Grant that the gifts which we bring this day will enable others to come to the mercy seat and receive the blessings that only you can offer. Amen.
We are called to not only be hearers of the Word. We, also, are called to be doers of God’s will. Our mission is to share the love of God at any and every opportunity. As we leave, let us be mindful of this high calling and may the Spirit of Christ guide us in all that we do. God in peace to love and serve the Lord.