Looking at the Back of God

October 15, 2017 – Pastor Doug Stratton

Exodus 33: 12-23           

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.”

CCI: Though our knowledge of God is limited, God intimately knows us, in fact, God knows my name and still loves me.

Intro: Relationships are mysterious. It seems that no matter how well we know a person, there are still surprises awaiting us. In loving tributes couples often reveal the surprises in their relationships. How things change after you are married; how new discoveries deepen the relationship. Surprises slowly open couples to one another, and change us and cause us to grow. As we live with others, as we permit our lives to become intertwined we learn new things at each turn. This is the excitement of the mystery of relationships.

The children of Israel had seen God work in ways that perhaps no one else had ever seen. The deliverance from Egypt was precipitated by plagues of blood, locust, hail, boils, frogs, lice, flies, darkness, and death. As the people left Egypt, the plundered the land taking all they could. Then they crossed the sea as it became dry land. They watched as the sea returned to drown their enemy. They had been provided with meat and manna. God had stopped a plague that was burning through the people. They had seen the mighty hand of God. And as they camped at the base of Mt Sinai, they were witnesses to God’s presence on the Mountain. They were coming to know God and Moses, their leader knew God.

But as they awaited the return of Moses from the mountain, the people began to feel abandoned, despite all they had seen and experienced, they began to question if it was all true. The story we read this morning is the end of a story that began in Chapter 32. There we read that despite all God had done for them, they conspired to build an image of God and then worship before that image. Their idolatry was so loud and raucous that Moses was able to hear it from the mountaintop. When he went down from the mountain, he found a scene filled with idolatry, adultery, selfishness and lust.

The people had seen God at work, yet they persisted in sin. And yet, even now, God was willing to fulfill his promise, but there would be a change. At the beginning of chapter 33, God tells the people: “I will send an angel before you and drive out the Canaanites, Amorites, Hittites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites. Go up to the land flowing with milk and honey. But I will not go with you, because you are a stiff-necked people and I might destroy you on the way.”

Even after all they had done, God was going to honor the promise to give the people the promised land, but God would not go with them, God would send an angel to lead them. It seems that God was conflicted. God loved the people dearly, but had been cut to the quick by their disobedience. There was a mystery in God’s relationship with the people that was like a knife that the people twisted in God’s side. Twice in this chapter God said, “If I were to go with you, even for a moment, I might destroy you.” You  have hurt me so deeply.

Yes, God would fulfill the promise, but the disobedience and betrayal of the people was more than God could bear.

       This is a really important thing for us to learn. Our sin is not just between us and the people we have hurt. It is just about our feeling guilty. No, our sin breaks the heart of God. When we fall into sin after all God has done for us, it is hard for God to even look at us. That is the message of the beginning of this passage but that is not final story. Despite the pain our sin causes God, God continues to abide with the people.

So Moses prayed for the people, “If your Presence does not go with us, do not send us up from here. 16 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?”

Every nation and every people want to think of themselves as exceptional. Remember the way the population of Lake Wobegon was described? It is the town “where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.” We want to be exceptional. We all want to be strong, we all want to be good looking, and we all want our children to be above average. And yet, even the Israelites, the people God had chosen as God’s own, were no different than any other people, unless God’s presence was visible. It was God’s presence that distinguished the people from all other people on the face of the earth. We are not exceptional, except as God works in our lives. Only as we follow the call of God to “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” Only as we practice the fast of justice that Isaiah spelled out a fast “To loose the bonds of wickedness, To undo the heavy burdens, To let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke.” These are the actions that will make us exceptional because they demonstrate God’s presence in our lives.

And more than anything, Moses wanted God’s presence. He wanted to know God. Even after years of walking with God and leading the people, Moses prayer was “teach me your ways so I may know you and continue to find favor with you.” The people refused to move forward unless God was present with them. Yes, they had sinned, but still God had not abandoned them.

So, Moses makes an audacious demand, “Show me your glory!”

Show me your glory! Moses is talking to God! He had been in God’s presence for 40 days on top of the Mountain. He communed with God regularly in the tent outside the camp. He had been used to break the chains of Egyptian slavery that had bound them for 300 years. God had been present with him throughout his life from the day he was placed in the Nile to the day he plead for the people. But still Moses prayed, “Show me your glory!”

Are you and I that hungry for God’s glory? Do we long for the opportunity to experience God’s presence? Or are we content with a taste of God, just enough to soothe our conscience but not enough to change our hearts? But friends, a taste of God will never satisfy. If all we do is expose ourselves to a taste of God, then we will become hard hearted. If all we want to a bit of religion to make us more acceptable, then we will become insulated to God’s call.

Moses demanded that God show him God’s glory. Surely Moses had experienced God’s glory! The dictionary defines glory as: “magnificence or great beauty.” Moses had seen God’s beauty. But he wanted more!

What is glory? We use the word often. But what does it mean? If you have ever looked at a mountain lake from high above, you have seen the glory of nature. If you have ever looked up at the stars on a moonless night and seen the vastness of the Milky Way you have experienced the glory of the sky. If you have watched your baby giggle for the first time, you have experienced the glory of life. We know glory. But what did Moses want? He wanted to experience the glory of God. What is that? I think God’s response explains the glory of God.

When Moses demanded that he see God’s glory, God responded: I will show you my goodness; I will proclaim my name; I will show Mercy; and I will reveal my compassion. But I will not show you my face.

God’s goodness, this can be seen by all who are willing to let God open their eyes. God’s name is not just the name we use, it is the heart of God’s nature, it the fact that God is the I AM throughout all generations. God’s mercy is seen in our continued existence, it is because of God’s Mercy that the children of Israel were not destroyed in the wilderness. And God’s compassion is experienced in the pure love we encounter each day.

God’s glory, it is not the throne room of God, it is God’s nature and name.

Yet, still they were lacking something there was something that God would not reveal. “You will not see my face, for no one can see my face and live.”

In other words, God will keep the mystery. Just as we make new discoveries each day that we live with our partners or our friends, so God wants us to continually discover new things about God and God’s love for us. God demonstrates what it means to live in the tension of self-giving and self-care which is what we do for ourselves. God will show God’s self, but not fully, the mystery will remain. In any relationship, there must be openness and mystery.

You see, “Life is not a problem to be solved, but a mystery to be lived. Prayer offers no ironclad guarantees—just the certain promise that we need not live that mystery alone.” (Philip Yancey, author of Prayer: Does It Make Any Difference?)  And so, God told Moses that he could see God’s back. Why God’s back? Because it is the back of God that we can follow. If we were to look on the Face of God, we would be moving ahead of God, If we were to look at God’s side, we would be making ourselves equal to God, but when we gaze at the back of God, we are following, we are seeing what God has done, we are resting is the experience of God’s care and we are following God into the future. One day, one glorious day, we will see our God face to face, but until that day we follow.

Today, many of us want to know why? Why the earthquake? Why the Hurricanes? Why the wild fires? Why? It is a mystery that we want to solve. But I can’t provide a satisfactory answer. Nor do I believe that we will ever find a satisfactory answer. As the Israelites refused to move unless God was leading them, we must gaze upon God’s back, then and only then can we be assured that God is going before us. And that, while we may not have the answers, is why we can move forward with confidence. Jesus Christ is the face of God for us today. God has been revealed in the Son, and while we my only see the back of the Father, through the work of the Spirit we can look into the face of Jesus, the one who loved us and gave his life for us.