Monday 29 August 2011

A heaven without God (Exodus 33)

God’s blessing minus God

Then the LORD said to Moses, “Leave this place, you and the people you brought up out of Egypt, and go up to the land I promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, saying, ‘I will give it to your descendants.’ 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.”
Exodus 33:1-3

What if God offered you all the blessings of heaven? What if he gave you the deepest longings in your heart - success, wealth, happiness, peace - everything you’ve ever wanted and dreamed of? Everything, that is, except God.

You get to go to heaven. But God says He won’t be there.

That’s the deal on the table in Exodus 33. God tells the Israelites that he will give them the Promised Land “flowing with milk and honey”. These former slaves from Egypt will become prosperous landowners. Their descendants will continue to live there for generations to come. God will even send a bodyguard, “I will send an angel before you,” he says. This heavenly Rambo will take care of every opposition along the way.

“But I will not go with you,” God says. God offers them everything, but takes himself out of the equation. This is God’s blessing minus God.

Would you take up the offer?

Lose the bling

When the people heard these distressing words, they began to mourn and no one put on any ornaments. For the LORD had said to Moses, “Tell the Israelites, ‘You are a stiff-necked people. If I were to go with you even for a moment, I might destroy you. Now take off your ornaments and I will decide what to do with you.’” So the Israelites stripped off their ornaments at Mount Horeb.
Exodus 33:4-6

For the Israelites, they sense something profoundly wrong with the situation and “they began to mourn and no one put on any ornaments.” The stripping of their ornaments - jewellery, ear-rings; essentially their “bling” - reminds us that all this is connected to the events of Chapter 32: The golden calf. In last week’s study we saw how the people of God were told by Aaron to produce their gold ear-rings which he used to manufacture an idol in the shape of a golden calf. It was a bootleg version of the ark of the covenant: an attempt to manufacture their own form of worship, and in doing so, their own false god to worship.

God is angry with them. That’s part of the reason he is keeping his distance.

But another important reason is this: God is keeping his distance for their safety. “If I were to go with you even for a moment, I might destroy you.” God’s holiness means he cannot tolerate sin. God’s justice means he must judge sin. The Israelites have proven themselves to be stubborn in their sin - “You are a stiff-necked people,” God says - they will continue to be sinful. God knows, they will continue to face the danger of God’s anger and judgement for their sinfulness.

Yet there is hope. God still meets with one man. He speaks to his servant Moses.

Face to face

Now Moses used to take a tent and pitch it outside the camp some distance away, calling it the “tent of meeting.” Anyone inquiring of the LORD would go to the tent of meeting outside the camp. And whenever Moses went out to the tent, all the people rose and stood at the entrances to their tents, watching Moses until he entered the tent. As Moses went into the tent, the pillar of cloud would come down and stay at the entrance, while the LORD spoke with Moses. Whenever the people saw the pillar of cloud standing at the entrance to the tent, they all stood and worshiped, each at the entrance to his tent. The LORD would speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks with his friend. Then Moses would return to the camp, but his young aide Joshua son of Nun did not leave the tent.
Exodus 33:7-11

The past seven chapters, prior to the incident involving the golden calf, have seen Moses receiving instructions from God about worship. And all these instructions centered on one location - a construction of a tent called the Tabernacle, where God’s presence will come and meet with his people. At the Tabernacle, the priests would serve God and the people would come offering worship and sacrifices to God.

But now we read that Moses pitches a tent, meets God in this tent, that he sets up outside the camp, “some distance away”. What it is saying is: the whole plan for the Tabernacle is now suspended. There might not be a Tabernacle. There won’t be any priests or sacrifices. God’s presence will no longer be with his people. It’s like watching an episode of Grand Designs where the newlyweds pour in their time and all their life-savings into drawing up detailed architectural plans, purchasing the best materials, hiring the most skilled builders, only to have the whole project stalled. In the meantime, the happy couple who were expecting to move into their swanky new designer home have had to spend the past year living in a rusty old caravan in their parents’ backyard. That’s Moses with this ten pound tent he got from Argos that he pitches in the Israelite community’s backyard in order have some face-time with God.

But there, God meets with him. The pillar of cloud descends and “the LORD would speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks with his friend.” Moses’ relationship with God is so unique compared even to all the rest of the prophets in the Old Testament, that the closing verses of Deuteronomy would say this: “Since then, no prophet has risen in Israel like Moses, whom the LORD knew face to face.” He had a connection with God that was that close and just that personal. He met with God face to face.

You da man

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 favour with me.’ If you are pleased with me, teach me your ways so I may know you and continue to find favour with you. Remember that this nation is your people.” The LORD replied, “My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.”
Exodus 33:12-14

The “you” in verse 14 is a singular “you”. God says to Moses, “You da man!” Or as Austin Powers put it so elegantly, “It’s just you and me, baby! Yeaaah, baby!”

That is, God promises he will be with Moses. But just not with the people.

But Moses isn’t pleading for himself. He is there as a representative - a mediator - for the whole nation of Israel. For the whole people of God. “Remember that this nation is your people,” he says to God. Don’t give up on them.

And the amazing thing is, God listens to his mediator.

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.”
Exodus 33:17

Just think for a moment: What is Moses asking God to do? To not send them away? Yes, in part. To not judge Israel for their sin of idolatry? Moses already succeeded in that petition (at least, in part) back in Chapter 32, as we saw last week.

What Moses, on behalf of all the people of Israel, is asking God to do, is to go with them. He is asking God to be with them.

But God had already said that he is keeping his distance for their good. His very presence would endanger their lives. “If I were to go with you even for a moment, I might destroy you.” (Verse 5)

Moses is pleading for God’s presence to remain with them, not just in times of blessing, but even if his presence results in judgement. What matters is God, not the blessing.

And God agrees to Moses’ request. “I will do the very thing you have asked.” A couple of chapters on, the Tabernacle begins construction and it is located right in the centre of the campsite. The priests are ordained. The worship of God is established in the midst of the people of God. God dwells with man.

But there is more.

Show me your glory

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.”
Exodus 33:18-23

Moses wants proof. It is a daring request when you consider who Moses is asking. He says to God, “Show me your glory.”

And God replies, “I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you.”

God’s glory is seen in his goodness. Not his power. Not his majesty. Not his wisdom and omniscience. All of which are glorious of God; unique to God.

But the proof and evidence that God displays before Moses is his goodness. God is good. That statement is profoundly awesome. That the God we worship is loving and cares for his creation and lavishes his grace upon us sinful, rebellious human beings - is a measure of how truly glorious this God we worship is. God is good.

“But,” God says, “you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.”

So, God hides Moses in a crack in a rock. God will pass by and what Moses will see in the end is the trailing edge of his glory: His back, as it were. That’s all. Moses asks to see God’s glory. God says the most you will be able gaze upon, for your own safety, is an outline of the shadow of my presence.

We have seen his glory

For almost a hundred years now, the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols has been held on Christmas eve every year at King’s College, Cambridge. It is a series of bible readings, meditations and and hymns sung by an all-boys choir, commemorating the birth of Jesus Christ. Thousands queue outside in the freezing cold, some the night before, just to get a seat in the chapel. Millions tune in on radio and TV.

The opening carol is always “Once in Royal David’s City”. And the last bible reading, or the “ninth lesson” as it is called, is taken from John’s Gospel Chapter 1, ending with these words:

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.
John 1:14

Two thousand years ago, the apostle John, reflecting on the experience of Moses and the Israelites in the desert wrote about his own experience.

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling - literally, tabernacled (as the Authorised Version has it) - among us. It’s the picture of God’s presence with Israel. It’s the picture of Moses standing before God face to face. But it is saying, we as Christians, have witnessed something even Moses, the prophet of God, never got to see in his lifetime.

We have seen Jesus.

O Come All Ye Faithful
Joyful and triumphant,
O come ye, O come ye to Bethlehem.
Come and behold Him,
Born the King of Angels;
O come, let us adore Him,
O come, let us adore Him,
O come, let us adore Him,
Christ the Lord.

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