Scripture Readings: Exodus 33:12–23 | Psalm 99 | 1 Thessalonians 1:1–10 | Matthew 22:15–22
Moses said, “Show me your glory, I pray.”
Today we wrap up our exploration of the book of Exodus. Over the last several weeks, the lectionary readings have led us through some of the highlights of this important arc in the much larger story of God. In this book, we have been invited to see a new vision of Yahweh, the Living God: not only as the Almighty Creator, but as the Merciful Rescuer… coming to set Israel free from slavery and cruel oppression. And not only that, but also to guide them safely through the desert and into the Promised Land… proving Himself again and again, to be their Faithful Provider. And over the last two weeks we heard how God brings them to Mt. Sinai, and invites Israel into a sacred relationship… a covenant… to be His chosen partners in His work to rescue the world.
But last week we heard that at the very moment this sacred partnership was to begin, the people of Israel break their promise, and go back on their vows to the LORD. They form for themselves out of gold an idol, an image of a calf… and they bow down to it in worship, turning their backs on the glory of God.
At this crucial moment, God listens to the prayers of mercy from Moses, and so He does not give up on Israel, which would have destroyed them. So Moses goes down to the people, destroys the calf, and stops their false worship, even going so far as to slay those who refused to repent and turn back to the LORD. Then Moses goes up the mountain again to plead for mercy for the people. To ask the LORD to rescue their shattered relationship.
The Old Testament scholar, John Sailhamer sums up the situation well: “Israel’s relationship with God had been fundamentally affected by their ‘great sin’ of worshipping the golden calf. All was not the same. The narrative shows that there was now a growing distance between God and Israel that had not been there before.” In Exodus 33:2-3, just before our reading today, we can hear how God intends to respond to His people’s rebellion: “I will send an angel before you, and I will drive out the Canaanites, the Amorites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. Go up to a land flowing with milk and honey; but I will not go up among you, or I would consume you on the way, for you are a stiff-necked people.”
Thanks to the prayers of Moses, Israel would not be totally abandoned by God. The LORD would fulfill His promises and be completely faithful, graciously blessing this stiff-necked people in ways they simply did not deserve. God would make sure Israel would finally be brought to the Promised Land. But this in itself was not what the LORD had always wanted for them… that was only a glimpse, a taste of His deepest desires for them.
Way back in Exodus chapter 6, while they were still oppressed in Egypt, the LORD had shared with Moses what this whole rescue mission was about: Exodus 6:5-8, “I have also heard the groaning of the Israelites whom the Egyptians are holding as slaves, and I have remembered my covenant. [That is, God’s promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob] Say therefore to the Israelites, ‘I am the Lord, and I will free you from the burdens of the Egyptians and deliver you from slavery to them. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with mighty acts of judgment. I will take you as my people, and I will be your God. You shall know that I am the Lord your God, who has freed you from the burdens of the Egyptians. I will bring you into the land that I swore to give to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; I will give it to you for a possession. I am the Lord.’
“I will take you as my people, and I will be your God. You shall know that I am the Lord your God”. God wants more than to simply bless Israel… God wants to belong to them… He wants them to be His people… to be truly known by them. To be their Merciful Rescuer, to be their Faithful Provider. God wanted to share His divine life with this people forever.
But after the Golden Calf, it is clear that Israel has other plans. They want to serve less demanding lords; gods of their own making, ones that they could use to help them get the things they wanted. That is what idolatry is after all: refusing to acknowledge and serve the Living God, and instead to try and manipulate divine power to grab hold of something else. To use the divine for some other purpose.
It can be easy for us to fall into this temptation as well… to seek what God can give us, instead of seeking God Himself. To pursue all of the spiritual, psychological, and social blessings that come with our religion… but never to search for the face of the LORD.
Yes, we may not make a golden calf for ourselves… but are there ways we too distort our relationship with God? Using Him to try to get what we want, even unconsciously?
For example: Is our ultimate goal simply to get through the wilderness and into the Promised Land? For many years, the Gospel has almost been reduced to sacred fire insurance. Is our commitment to God simply about getting to heaven one day? Doing whatever it takes to avoid punishment or hell?
Or is our goal to feel better? Do we use God just to help us face our struggles? To find peace, joy, forgiveness, purpose, and hope for ourselves? Are we serving God simply for the emotional benefits?
Or is our goal to find community: to feel like we belong? To hang out with likeminded people, or to avoid loneliness?
Are all of these desires and more at work within us? If I am being completely honest, they are all at work in me.
And what’s more, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with any of these things! They are all good aspects of God’s blessings that are intended for His people… they’re all part of His plan for them, and for the world. Just like there was nothing wrong with the Israelites having gold, but it was wrong for them to take that gold and make it into a god… to serve it and centre their life around it… in the same way there are so many gifts God offers to those who follow Him that in themselves are good, but that will distort our truest purpose if we build our lives around them.
Imagine marrying someone, not because you want to share your life with them… to grow in intimacy, understanding, and mutual love… but just for their house? Or because they say nice things to you. Or because you like to spend time with their social circle? All these things can be a part of sharing your life with someone, but what matters most is the bond, the connection, the love that is shared.
Like Israel, God does not simply want to bless us, but to belong to us, and for us to belong to Him. He wants to be our God, and for us all to truly be His people… to share in His divine life. To know Him intimately, and to respond to Him in love.
Back on Mt. Sinai, God tells Moses He will not abandon Israel in the wilderness to die. He will faithfully fulfill His promises to them and to their ancestors… but His presence will not be going with them. They will receive much more then they deserved, but they will have missed the greatest gift of all: an ongoing relationship with the Living God… to know the LORD their Saviour with intimacy and love… to truly belong to God, and belong with God forever.
Standing alone in faith before the LORD, Moses intercedes again… he pleads for God not simply to bless the people… or to be faithful to His promises… but to go with them… to stay with them… to always be with them. To not give up on being Israel’s God, and for them to be His people. And amazingly God says yes again! God will go with His people. Though their relationship would be rocky, as the people kept falling back into fear and sin, God would share His divine life with them. Moses’ prayer was answered.
Then something incredible takes place: Moses goes a huge step further. “Let me see your glory!” He prays. “Let me see your glory.” Moses, who alone in biblical story so far, had experienced an amazingly intimate knowledge of the Living God, wants even more. Moses wants as much of the LORD Himself as humanly possible… he’s not seeking what God could give to him… He’s not using God to get something else. No, Moses wants to know the LORD, to follow in God’s ways… to share as fully as possible in God’s holy life. Here we see Moses embodying what the third century Church Father, St. Gregory of Nyssa, called having the true vision of God: “never to be satisfied in the desire to see him.”
And again, God answers Moses’ prayer: revealing Himself to him… giving to Moses a powerful glimpse of His goodness and glory. This was a deeply personal blessing and gift, a life-changing encounter, not simply for his own benefit, but so that all of Israel might come to a deeper knowledge and love of the LORD as well. Through Moses’ seeking the face of God all of Israel was given a way forward to be God’s people… to truly belong to Him.
In Jesus Christ the Living God offers this same gift to us. As the Eternal Son of God Christ reveals God’s true face to the world… that He is our Merciful Rescuer, and Faithful Provider. That His desire is still for all of humanity, as stiff-necked and sinful as we are, to truly belong with Him. For Him to be our God, and for us to be His people. To share in His divine life, both now and forever.
Jesus stood alone on our behalf to reconcile us to God. To live among us as God’s faithful covenant partner, and in His death on the cross to deal with all our sin once and for all: repairing our relationship with the Living God, that united to Him in faith, we can be with our Saviour forever.
There are many gifts that come with sharing in God’s own divine life, but the greatest gift He offers us is the gift of Himself… that in Jesus Christ we all are invited to truly know and love the LORD… to belong to Him, and belong with Him all of our days. So let us receive everything that our Saviour desires for us, and above all else may we seek to draw near to Jesus: who is the face, the goodness, and the glory of God. Amen.
 John H. Sailhamer, The Pentateuch as Narrative (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1992), 313.
 Gregory of Nyssa, The Life of Moses, trans. by Abraham Malherbe & Everett Ferguson (New York: Paulist Press, 1978), 116.