Sermon: Exodus 33:12-23
Pentecost 7 - July 23, 2017 - Rev. Steven J. Radunzel
Tucker Carlson has a show on Fox News in the evening. This past week one of his guests was an atheist. He had a debate with her about who was more tolerant - atheists or religious people.
The debate itself is not what got my attention. What I was really thinking about as I watched this show is what it must be like to live your life believing that there is no god, what it must be like to live your life without God.
The atheist of course would argue that life is perfectly fine without God, without any belief in a god. As a matter of fact, the atheist would say that life is better without religious beliefs about God and the restrictions that God might put on life. The Christian on the other hand would clearly argue that life without God, life without belief in God, life without God’s constant presence, would be, at best, pointless and uncertain.
Today we’re going to consider this question:
WHAT IF GOD WERE NOT WITH US?
In our text today Moses was a man who was forced to grapple with this question, “What if God is not with us?” And in Moses’ case we’re not talking about simply facing the challenges of everyday life. He was leading the people of Israel, an entire nation of people, to the Promised Land, and he was well aware already that this was an assignment that he could not handle on his own.
The assignment, we should really call it God’s call or directive, was to lead the people of Israel out of Egypt to the Promised Land of Canaan. This was a big deal, not only because it was a whole nation of people, but also because bringing the people of Israel to the Promised Land was one part of God’s elaborate and gracious plan to send a Savior to the world. Out of the nation of Israel, settled in the Promised Land, would come One promised long ago to Adam and Eve and Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, a Savior for the world, a Savior for you and me.
Moses had been very reluctant to accept this call from God. He originally gave the LORD God at least four reasons why he shouldn’t take on this task of leading the people of Israel. Finally God’s anger convinced a reluctant Moses to accept God’s calling. He went to Egypt, and we might think that God would have made things easy for Moses. They were not easy. Things went terrible. Pharaoh would not conveniently let the people go. He made work harder for the people of Israel. The people got mad at Moses. And Moses went to God and said, “Why have you brought trouble upon this people? Is this why you sent me? Ever since I went to Pharaoh to speak in your name, he has brought trouble upon this people, and you have not rescued your people at all.”
I suspect that at this point in his life Moses might have said, “If God were not in my life, my life would be a lot better.” Have you ever felt like that? Be honest. Have you ever been tempted to feel like the atheist: Life would be a lot better if I were not restricted by beliefs about God and the restrictions of God’s commandments? Or worse yet - do you actually think and live that way already - disregarding biblical beliefs and God’s commandments or taking them for granted?
If we’re going to rejoice in the truth that there is a God and that he’s always with us, then we also have to accept the truth that God will still challenge us as he did Moses. The results of sin fill this world, and sometimes God allows difficulties, tragedies, disappointments, and sadness to enter our life. God allows such challenges in life to discipline us, to make us stronger believers, to get his will done in our lives, to teach us lessons, to ultimately save us eternally.
And just when you think that leading the people of Israel out of Egypt was going to go all right, things went real bad. Moses did lead the people out of Egypt. You know the story of the Exodus. God even led the people miraculously through the Red Sea. He brought them to Mt. Sinai where with frightful drama he gave them his Law and commandments. The very first of those commandments was, “You shall have no other gods.”
So God called Moses to the top of Mt. Sinai to give him the Law written on tablets of stone. But Moses was on top of the mountain for a long time, and the restless people of Israel decided that Moses must be dead, so they needed to take matters into their own hands. And what did they do? They built a golden calf like they had seen in Egypt. It became the idol they would worship. Rule number one: “You shall have no other gods.”
The LORD God was furious and told Moses that he was going to destroy this entire nation of people. Moses, who was clearly becoming a wiser man, pleaded with God not to destroy the people. God relented but said that he would no longer accompany the people to the Promised Land. He would send one of his created angels instead.
And that’s where Moses finds himself in our text today. Moses, who knew the challenges of God’s presence and commands, was now also terrified by the thought that the LORD God would not accompany his own people to the Promised Land.
And so with great courage 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.” It’s interesting what Moses said to God. God had in fact told Moses who would go with the people - an angel, but not God himself. Moses knew that. But Moses’ words were his humble way of saying, “Please don’t send just an angel with us. We need you to come with us, LORD.” Moses was becoming a very wise man.
It’s here that God speaks words to Moses that had to be an unimaginable relief and evidence to us of God’s amazing grace, love, and mercy. “My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.” In other words the LORD was saying, “I will go with you and the people. I will give you the comfort and peace of my Presence and the comfort and peace of the Promised Land.”
Moses was so overwhelmed with his effort to get God to go with the people that it seems as if he almost didn’t hear God’s promise to go with them. Moses continues to convince God why he should go with them: “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 God, I think smiling a bit on Moses’ overextended efforts to convince him, repeated his promise, “I will do the very thing you have asked, because I am pleased with you and I know you by name.” In other words, “Moses, I’m going with you. I’m pleased with you.”
What would it be like if God were not with us? I don’t want to find out. The only place that I know that God is not is in hell, and I have no intention of finding out what hell is like. God doesn’t want us to find out what hell is like either. That’s why he’s with us. That’s why he didn’t abandon the people of Israel in his anger and wrath. He went with them to the Promised Land. And one day in the province of Judah, in the little town of Bethlehem, God kept his promise to send that Savior for the world.
He sent Jesus, his own Son, whom Isaiah the prophet said would be called Immanuel. The word Immanuel is special to us. It’s the name of our congregation. The word Immanuel is a Hebrew word that literally means “God is with us.”
In our true Immanuel, in Jesus Christ, God gave the ultimate proof that he is with us and will go with us to the Promised Land of eternal life. Jesus did what was necessary for God to go with us. He lived a holy life so that God could credit his holiness and righteousness to each one of us. Jesus died on the cross to pay the penalty for our sin. And when God raised Jesus again from the dead, he said to you and me, like he said to Moses, “I am pleased with you and I know you by name.” Because of Jesus God is pleased with you and me and knows each one of us by name. That’s the eternal and priceless blessing of “Immanuel,” God with us.
Moses was so thrilled and overwhelmed with joy that he said to the LORD, “Now show me your glory.” In a way Moses was saying to God, “Your Presence is so wonderful, so peaceful and comforting, that I want to see all of you. I want to see all of your glory.”
This might have been another moment when God smiled on Moses’ overextended enthusiasm. God knew that Moses, that no mere, sinful human being, could stand in the presence of all his glory. A human being would literally die in the blinding presence of God’s perfect glory.
But God, the always gracious and merciful God, said to Moses, “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 you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.”
Don’t miss that even in this amazing moment God protected Moses. He put Moses in the cleft of a large rock so that when he passed by shining in all his glory, Moses’ eyes and body would be protected. Moses would see only a portion of God’s glory. But what a moment it must have been.
You and I have seen a portion of God’s glory. His name is Immanuel, Jesus Christ. God hid his glory in the body and person of his Son Jesus Christ. God hid us in the cleft of the rock so that we could see enough of his glory in Jesus Christ to know that our sins are forgiven and that one day we will see the full glory of God in heaven.
The atheist is a fool. The Bible says so. The Bible is right. You can pretend that there’s no god. You can pretend that you don’t need God. You can pretend that life goes on fine, life is even better, without belief in God and commandments from God. But you would be a fool.
What if God were not with us? I don’t even want to think about it. I just want to rejoice in the LORD’s words to Moses and to us: “My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.” Amen.