Exodus 33:12-23, I Thessalonians 1: 1-10
As people of faith, we desire to know God and be in relationship with God, but as we know all too well, humans screw up a lot. We are not consistent, we fail and we doubt.
We go to church, hear holy words and sing beautiful songs but once Monday comes around, we crash back into reality. We have trouble following Christ every day in our every act and deed. And for me and I would imagine for most of us, our problem comes from a lack of trust and a desire to be more in control. We know that God promises to be with us in every thing we do, but do we really believe it?
When we read about the promises of God in scripture, we see that God does not always act or react in a way we expect and that these promises are not always brought to fruition in a manner we anticipate or in the way that we wish.
This was frustrating for the people who interacted with God in the Bible, but God’s ways of doing things continue to perplex and surprise us. Allowing grace to show up in the most unexpected places.
We see in our text from Exodus that while Moses trusts in the promises of Yahweh, he is frustrated with the way Yahweh is acting towards him. Saying things like “If I have found favor in your sight, show me your ways, so that I may know you and find favor in your sight!”
And when Moses says these things. Yahweh’s response is almost no response at all. Yahweh’s reply is simply “My presence will go with you and I will give you rest.”
Moses’ frustration continues to build and this banter goes back and forth for a few verses until Moses finally says “Show me your glory, I pray!”
Moses is wrestling with God. Or perhaps more accurately Moses is wrestling with what God has planned for the Israelites. He wants in on the details of what God has in store.
Moses knows the promises that God has made with him and with the Israelites. These promises go all the way back to the original covenant between Abraham and Yahweh, where Yahweh tells Abraham:
“I will always keep the promise I have made to you and your descendants, because I am your God and their God. I will give you and them the land in which you are now a foreigner. I will give the whole land of Canaan to your family forever, and I will be their God.”
Keeping these words from Genesis in mind, I think we can understand why Moses is pushing Yahweh for more knowledge of his plans. The history between Moses and Yahweh is anything but simple. Yahweh called upon Moses to lead the Israelites out of bondage in Egypt and that feat miraculously happened because of God’s action. But Moses was a reluctant leader at first, always looking for a reason to not be the one Yahweh chose to lead his people.
But after obeying Yahweh through the plagues and the trials of the Exodus, Moses and Yahweh became inextricably linked. Moses is forever changed by his role in Yahweh’s redemption of his people, but now Moses and the Israelites have been wandering in the wilderness for 40 years trying and failing to follow Yahweh’s commands. And Moses and the Israelites are not thriving after being redeemed from slavery.
Reality has set in and even though God has done amazing, holy things with Moses and the Israelites, frustration, doubt and impatience have won the day and the people are no longer focused on God and what he has promised them.
In fact, right before our passage in Exodus is the infamous scene where Moses comes down from Mount Sinai because the Israelites have grown so impatient with him and with Yahweh and have shifted the focus of their worship onto a golden calf they have built. This is what this wandering in the wilderness has done to the people. They have been miraculously redeemed but they are still human beings, with faults and an inclination to sin. Yahweh becomes angry with the Israelites, but Moses intercedes and tries to make atonement for the sin of the people.
It is out of this context that Yahweh finally tells Moses to leave the wilderness and head towards the land he promised his ancestors, BUT Yahweh says he will only send his angel ahead of the Israelites and that Yahweh will not go ahead of them because his presence would consume them after the great sins they have committed.
So when we finally get to our scripture Moses is pleading with Yahweh to give him some hope that Yahweh will go with him and the Israelites. Moses even begs Yahweh to not send them to the Promised Land if Yahweh will not go with him
Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase translation of the Bible makes Moses’ frustration more obvious:
“Look, you tell me, ‘Lead this people,’ but you don’t let me know whom you’re going to send with me. You tell me, ‘I know you well and you are special to me.’ If I am so special to you, let me in on your plans. That way, I will continue being special to you. Don’t forget, this is your people, your responsibility.
Eventually Yahweh relents to the persistence of Moses saying
“I will do the very thing that you have asked; for you have found favor in my sight, and I know you by name”.
Moses is contending with God. He is not satisfied with the current state of affairs and is willing to tell God about it. This passage of scripture is an exemplary demonstration of the power of intercessory prayer. And it reminds us that our relationship with God is not a one way street. We can bring our frustrations with God to God and work it out together, but it must be emphasized in this passage that Yahweh does not simply let Moses dictate how everything will play out.
Yes, Yahweh listens to Moses and because they are in a covenantal relationship he responds to Moses’ plea. Moses knows the history of God’s people and is reminding Yahweh of his promises and thus Yahweh agrees to go with the Israelites but he only does this in a very particular way. Continuing in our scripture we see God saying:
“I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you the name, ‘The LORD’; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. But, you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live. See, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock; and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.”
God is still God. Moses has his eyes covered by Yahweh so that he only sees his back. And that’s enough. The promise of Yahweh to go with and remain with them and honor the promises to their ancestors is sufficient. The Israelites sinned mightily against Yahweh, but Yahweh has spared them and has decided to stay with them and even bless them. Moses’ intercession has allowed for God’s promises to remain and to multiply.
When we look at our Gospel scripture in Thessalonians we get a glimpse into what the promises of God have brought to life.
Thessalonians is believed to be the earliest written text in the New Testament. Even earlier than most Gospel accounts are believed to have been written. This makes the text all the more interesting because it is Paul’s letter of encouragement to a young church that has no written record of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, but rather only has the hope of Christ that was preached to them by Paul and others.
Now obviously, a lot has changed in the time between our two passages, but God’s enduring presence remains. But how we understand God’s presence and God’s promises has been forever transformed by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Now some people, including myself, struggle to see how the coherent narrative between the work of Yahweh in the Old Testament, the redeeming work of Christ in the New Testament, and the enduring power of the Holy Spirit that remains with us even today.
But I’d like to tell y’all today that this is what we must believe and it is what scripture tells us is the Truth!
What we see in our short passage from Exodus is but a precursor of what Christ will do for all of humanity through his life, death and resurrection. The Israelites cannot save themselves or avoid the simplest idolatry, but Moses intercedes on their behalf.
They have been released from bondage into the hope of a new life with a God who promises to not abandon them, and yet they can’t even wait for Moses to come down the mountain before they build a golden cow to worship. But because of Moses, God still goes with them.
We may have gotten beyond the point where we would not worship a golden cow instead of Christ Jesus, but we are infinitely creative in finding other ways to ignore or disregard the Living God, but God still promises to remain with us.
We are not alone in this urge to stray from the way of Christ. In fact it seems to be the mark of some of his closest followers in scripture. The disciples go to great lengths to express their ignorance and misunderstanding of Jesus and his redemptive mission.
For instance in Matthew, there is a fascinating passage where Jesus asks the disciples who he is? To which Peter answers, “You Are the Christ, the Son of the Living God”. Jesus in turn blesses Peter and tells him that he will be the rock that Jesus builds his Church upon. This all sounds pretty good, right?
Well if you read for a few more sentences, in the next scene Jesus predicts his death and resurrection, which is the necessary climax of Jesus’ life of redemption, but Peter immediately takes him aside saying “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.”
Peter sees that Jesus is the Christ but he can’t imagine a Christ that doesn’t fight back. A Christ that must die to expose the injustices and sin of our world. His understanding of redemption quite simply can’t include a Crucified Christ. A crucified messiah, in Peter’s eyes, could never fulfill the promises of God to redeem his people.
But what the disciples and others miss is that Jesus became human to redeem us and show us what it means to truly be human.
Or as Pope Francis said a bit more eloquently the other day:
“There is the temptation to come down off the Cross, to please the people, and not stay there, in order to fulfill the will of the Father; to bow down to a worldly spirit instead of purifying it and bending it to the Spirit of God.”
Peter and the other disciples were thinking of redemption with this worldly spirit Pope Francis speaks of. The creative supernatural work of God operates on a different level and we often doubt the ability of God to fulfill his promises in his own way. We want God to do things that make sense to us and fit with our reality. We are like the disciples.
But Jesus is the Messiah we need, the redeemer of all mankind but yet nobody could recognize it. They were looking for a new Moses or David. They were not looking for someone born out of wedlock, to a peasant woman in an unimportant village.
They were not looking for someone who talked in mysterious parables, refused to fight back, or taught people that if they wanted true freedom and wanted to truly find God, that they must lose their entire life in order to find it.
These attributes did not calculate with their idea of a Messiah. They believed that God would still honor his promise to redeem them, but their imagination of what redemption meant could not comprehend a truly strange figure like Jesus.
But it is his strangeness that makes him so vital and so necessary. We see in him another way of being and living and deep down we know that our way of living and being pales in comparison.
Jesus comes to us to open up a new way of knowing God intimately. The people of Israel are still holding on to the promises God made to Abraham and to Moses and it is holding them back from the new thing that God is doing.
God’s promises to humanity endure, but the way we expect them to be fulfilled is often incorrect, and the way God chooses to honor his promises can sometimes even offend.
Israel could never measure up to the vocation Yahweh had for it. But God promised Moses and the Israelites that he would never abandon them. Israel could not fulfill its mission, but Jesus came to honor Yahweh’s promise and remind us of who we are and what God has always wanted for us and the world. Jesus is the ultimate fulfillment of God’s redemptive work in the world and is God honoring his promise to us. To not abandon us, to not allow us to be destroyed by violence, injustice, and sin.
The fruits of this redemption are what we see at work in Thessalonians. Jesus’ death and resurrection took place about 20 years before this letter was written and yet in 20 years the Gospel and the Holy Spirit have traveled all the way to Greece and the redemptive work of Christ continues through the growth of His Church.
Paul tells us of this and encourages the Thessalonians saying:
“For we know, brothers and sisters beloved by God, that he has chosen you, because our message of the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the holy spirit, and with full conviction!”
Because Christ died for us and has showed us what it truly means to live, we now have the strength and conviction to follow God and believe that he will honor his promises to us
But just because Christ has done this for us, doesn’t mean we automatically fall in line. Following Christ is tough work and it challenges the way we live, think and act in the world. This often leads to confusion because it doesn’t always make sense to us why God honors promises the way he does. But God always has us in mind, even when we stray, even when we push back.
And when we continue to follow him, amazing things can happen. The people of Thessalonica show us how a community can be transformed by the knowledge of Christ and the sustaining power of the Holy Spirit.
The text from Thessalonians in the Message translation continues by saying:
Your lives are echoing the Master’s Word, not only in the provinces but all over the place. The news of your faith in God is out. We don’t even have to say anything anymore—you’re the message! People come up and tell us how you received us with open arms, how you deserted the dead idols of your old life so you could embrace and serve God, the true God.
This is what can happen if we trust in the promises of God. If we believe that Christ has died for us and that the holy spirit is living among us and pushing us onwards, we can live in the way Jesus showed us. We can expose the injustices in our world, we can work to mend relationships, we can love others in a way we never could before, and we can do all of this knowing that God’s presence will always be with us and will always sustain us. No matter where we go.
Sure surprises will pop up and problems will arise. God may cover our eyes like he did Moses’ so that we do not see God fully at work, but we will see the fruit of his work and action all around us.
What we must come to understand is that our relationship with God is covenantal and fluid. We have decided to be God’s people and live the way Jesus taught and showed us. We may not be able to see the promised land from where we currently are, but our God is a faithful God who HAS not and WILL not abandon us. Our paths are not etched in stone, but that’s ok, God’s promises endure forever.
We have been given a terrible freedom that gives us the ability to make decisions for good or ill. And we have been given the holy spirit as our instructor and comforter through all our trials
We may not have all of the answers or heck we may not even have a single clue but take heart and remember the final enduring promise of the risen Christ.
“Be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Amen.