Sunday, January 20, 2019

Sermon for the Second Sunday after the Epiphany: Ex 33:12-23

                                                                                    Epiphany 2
                                                                                    Ex 33:12-23

            Will God be with us or not? That is the question that hangs over our text this morning.  And now there was good reason to wonder.  It hadn’t always been that way.  Certainly Yahweh had been with Israel in the exodus.  At the Passover he had killed the first born males of Egypt while sparing the Israelites who had placed the blood of the lamb on their houses.  Yahweh led the people of Israel out by a pillar of cloud at day and a pillar of fire at night.
            When trapped between the Red Sea and the oncoming Egyptian army, the pillar of cloud moved behind the Israelites to separate them from the Egyptians as God brought the Israelites through the sea on dry ground.  Then he had bogged down the Egyptians who entered the sea after the Israelites, and when the water returned to its place he destroyed the Egyptians.
            When Yahweh called Moses to be his servant at the burning bush he had promised, “But I will be with you, and this shall be the sign for you, that I have sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall serve God on this mountain.” God had kept his word and brought Moses and Israel to Mt. Sinai.  There he told them, “Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”
            At Mt. Sinai Yahweh had entered into a covenant with Israel.  He had taken them to be his people.  Oxen were sacrificed and the blood of the covenant was thrown upon the people in order to signify that they were included in this covenant.  And then, something remarkable happened.  Where before Yahweh had told Moses that no one was to go up or touch the mountain upon which God had descended with fire and smoke lest they die, now Moses, Aaron and the elders went up on the mountain and saw the God of Israel.  We learn, “There was under his feet as it were a pavement of sapphire stone, like the very heaven for clearness. And he did not lay his hand on the chief men of the people of Israel; they beheld God, and ate and drank.”
            All was well.  Moses went up onto Mt. Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments and instructions for making the ark of the covenant and the tabernacle.  He was gone for forty days and forty nights.  During his absence, the days dragged on and the people did not know when they would end. And so finally they said to Aaron, “Up, make us gods who shall go before us. As for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.”  Aaron complied.  They gave him their gold and he made golden calf – an image used by the pagan religions of the area. When the people saw it they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” They offered sacrifices to the golden calf, and they celebrated with food and drink.
            Yahweh sent Moses down the mountain, and he confronted Israel about their sin.  God was ready to destroy Israel and start over with Moses. But Moses interceded for the people.  He called Yahweh back to his own promise.  He said, Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, to whom you swore by your own self, and said to them, ‘I will multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your offspring, and they shall inherit it forever.’” And so Yahweh relented.
            This great sin had happened in the chapter just before our text.  Yahweh had now told Israel to set out for the promised land of Canaan.  He told them that he would send an angel before them drive out the nations that we living there. But then he added, “Go up to a land flowing with milk and honey; but I will not go up among you, lest I consume you on the way, for you are a stiff-necked people.”  Yahweh said he would not go with them as before, because they were a sinful and stubborn. The people of Israel mourned when the heard this.
            In our text Moses addresses this question of whether Yahweh will be with them or not.  He states, “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 asked to know God’s way – what he was going to do – and he again called God back to his own word. After all, Yahweh had told Moses that he knew him by name, and that Moses had found favor in God’s sight.
            Like several other occasions, Yahweh listened to Moses’ appeal to his own word, and granted Moses’ request.  In our text God says, “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.” Yahweh promised that his presence would go with his people. Yet Moses left nothing to chance. He reemphasized how important this was as he said, “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?”
            It was the presence of God with Moses and his people that during the era of the Old Testament made them distinct – unique and different from every other people.  God promised that the mercy seat – the cover of the ark of the covenant – was his throne, and that by means of the ark and the tabernacle he dwelt in the mist of his people.
            However this unique presence with Israel was not an end in itself.  Instead, Israel was the means through which God was at work for all peoples.  In King David and his sons God gave the promise of the Messiah who would bring salvation and peace.  In particular, the prophet Isaiah revealed that God’s salvation was for the Gentiles as well.
            We have just celebrated during Christmas how God’s presence came to be with his people in order to fulfill all of these promises.  John tells us that the Word – the Son of God – became flesh and dwelt among us.  During the season of Epiphany we see how Jesus Christ revealed his glory – such as in the miracle of turning water into wine.  Through his miracles he revealed that he was God in the midst of his people to save.
            However, we are never quite satisfied.  We see it in our text this morning. God had told Moses that his presence would go with him, and that he would give him rest. But Moses now asked, “Please show me your glory.” Moses had talked directly with God.  Just before our text we learn, “Thus the LORD used to speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend.”  Apparently shaken by recent events, Moses now asked for even more.
            God granted his request – in part.  He said, “I will make all my goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you my name 'The LORD.'”  Yahweh told him the reason that he would do this.  He said, “And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy.”
            Yet God also told Moses that there was something he could not do. He informed Moses, “But, you cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live.”  This was something more than what had been described as “face to face.” It was a direct revelation of God’s glory that was simply too much for sinful man to endure.  God could not – and would not – do this. 
            But there was a way that he could reveal himself.  In our text Yahweh places Moses in the cleft of a rock and covers him while his glory passes by. Yet he removes this protection in a way that allows Moses an indirect perception.  Moses cannot see God directly.  He can’t see his face.  But he tells Moses, “Then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back, but my face shall not be seen.”
            God reveals himself, but in a way that is indirect. That’s how it was with Jesus. Jesus Christ was God dwelling in the midst of his people.  The miracles where there to be seen.  But it was not something that compelled people to believe.  On the contrary, many were able to see Jesus and still reject him.
            And this is all the more true for the goal of Jesus’ ministry.  On Good Friday, God revealed his saving glory in the crucifixion of his Son. This was God acting powerfully to take away your sins.  And yet, it looked like nothing except weakness and defeat.
            As Jesus was buried it appeared that he was not Immanuel.  It appeared as if God was not with us.  But this impression could not have been more wrong.  On the third day God raised Jesus from the dead.  In fact, the Son of God had taken on humanity in order to be the second Adam.  He had become one of us – God with us – in order to begin a new human existence that cannot die.  This is the life that will be yours too when Christ returns, for his resurrection is the first fruit of your resurrection.
            While we look for that day, we are sometimes like Moses.  We want more.  We are not always satisfied with how God reveals himself right now.  Make no mistake: It is God with us sustaining faith and giving forgiveness.  But it is not as direct as we would like. 
            The best that Moses could do was God’s “back” – a revelation that was still indirect in some way. We too continue to receive God’s revelation. Yes indeed, God is with us.  But it is indirect.  It is through means that call forth faith.  He reveals himself through his inspired Word as the Holy Spirit uses that word to give faith and salvation.  He reveals himself in the water and word of Holy Baptism, as we share in Christ’s saving death and receive the promise of our own resurrection.
            He reveals himself in the Sacrament of the Altar.  Here our risen Lord uses bread and wine to feed us with his true body and blood, given and shed for you.  In our text, Moses’ concern is whether God will be with his people during their journey.  Here in the Sacrament, Jesus Christ is God with us for our journey – for our pilgrimage through life.  With good reason the early Church described the Sacrament as the cibus viatorum – “the food of the travelers.” Christ feeds and nourishes us so that we can continue to walk in faith as saints – as forgiven sinners. And through his body and blood he guarantees our future, for our Lord said: “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink.”
            In our text this morning Moses says: “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?” Because of Jesus Christ, we know that God’s presence is with us. Through Word and Sacrament he gives us forgiveness.  And he points us to his direct revelation that will occur on the Last Day.     


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