Meeting God

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We come tonight to one of the most important passages in the whole Bible as God declares his goodness, his character, his glory to Moses.  We know it's important because it becomes almost a creed inIsrael; it's quoted again and again through the OT.  And as I've been preparing this week I've stumbled on a whole new bible outline – a whole new way to organise the big story line of the whole bible.  You're probably familiar with bible outlines that talk of the bible as a story that starts in a garden and ends in a city, a story where God is the hero and he rescues a people for his glory.  Well this week I've stumbled on another way of looking at that big story line of the bible.  Let me suggest it to you – The bible is the story of God's work to reclaim his stolen identity.

Think about it - in the garden Satan slides in and slips a few choice lies before Adam and Eve and before you know it God's character has been completely warped: Satan represents himself as the good guy and God as the bad guy.  Satan claims to tell the truth – and casts God as a liar; Satan claims to be friend and guide – and casts God as oppressor; Satan claims the role of saviour – and casts God as wicked tyrant.  We could go on – but you get the drift – it's an identity theft – Satan tries to usurp God and shove him off into the darkness.  God's good character is maligned and his true word undermined; and Adam and Eve believe it, reject God and put their trust in Satan.  From that moment on everyone has approached God as suspect at best.  We exchange the truth of God for a lie, we worship and serve created things, but reject the creator who made those things.  That is, we won't go near God with a barge pole.  God has a mountain of work to do to restore his reputation – his good name.

This pops up all over the place in the bible.  Think of Elijah on Mt Carmel saying how long will you waver between God and Baal – Yahweh is the true God…  Or think of Ezekiel repeatedly declaring in God's name 'then they will know that I am the LORD'. Think of John 1 – Jesus came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him – and so Jesus (GOD!) is rejected as a blasphemer and put to death by liars who claim to work for God.  Or think of Revelation and the picture of the end when all the gathered people of God stand round his throne and declare 'you are worthy, our Lord and God to receive Glory and Honour and Power' and 'worthy is the Lamb who was slain to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honour and glory and praise' – and so God takes his rightful place on the throne and receives the glory that belongs to him, while Satan is cast down into a lake of fire.

I don't know, maybe it's just me, but I think this might have legs.  It's also been a theme in Exodus.  Remember beginning Moses meets God in the burning bush and God has to tell Moses his name, and stake his claim to be the God of the patriarchs – of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  When Moses goes to Pharaoh, Pharaoh says I don't know the LORD – I don't recognise him, I don't acknowledge him as Lord.

By this way of reading the Bible's big story line tonight's passage is one of the most important in the whole Bible, because in tonight's passage God makes the fullest OT declaration of his identity, his character.  Satan has painted him as the bad guy, the kill joy, the tyrant.  But God declares himself the good guy – full of grace and truth…  And it's no less than a summary of how he's acted throughout Exodus, and it will become a catch cry ofIsraelfor the generations to follow.

So the big idea of our passage this evening is that God lays claim to his own name – he defines himself so that we can know him, know what he is like.  And he does it here because the truth of what he says is so clearly supported by the things that he is doing.

So before we get into the text in great detail we need to grab hold of the context again – especially since we've been out Exodus for a couple of weeks now.

So rememberIsraelare still at the foot of Mt Sinai.  Moses has been up and down… God's glory has settled on the mountain in cloud, fire and bellows of smoke… God's actual voice has declare the 10 commandments to them, shaking the mountain and terrifying them … Moses has ratified the covenant based on those commandments and representatives have seen and eaten with God then Moses hung out with God for 40 days and 40 nights in the terrifying smoke and fire, receiving the law and instructions for the tabernacle.  It was amazing, fantastic – God was reversing the fall, reconstitutingEden, they live with him under his rule etc.

And then it all went wrong – just as God was promising to restore Eden, they re-did the fall!  While Moses was still up on the mountain, God's presence still there just above them the stone pillars that testified to the covenant still standing in the camp, Aaron and the elders still seeing God's glory burnt into their retina's … while God was showing Moses the design of the tabernacle where he would live with them – in that moment they broke the covenant at it's very core:

They rejected Yahweh as their one and only God and made up their own golden calf gods.

The they have broken the covenant, shattered it.  Surely they couldn't be God's people anymore!?  And so it seemed, Moses came down the mountain and smashed the stones on which God had written the terms of the covenant.  It was smashed to pieces, broken before it had even been consummated.  God sent a plague among them and declared that the deal was off – the tabernacle would no longer be needed, he was not going with them.

So Moses and the people go into national mourning – without God with them they do not want to go on from the mountain, without God with them the Promised Land holds nothing for them.  They take off their ornaments in a visible show of repentance and contrition.  And they desperately hope that God will hear their prayer, and forgive their sin and change his mind and come with them to the Promised Land.  That's where we left off three weeks ago.

And the action in our passage this evening takes place in three sections, which I have called:

1) God at a Distance, Moses up Close

2) Mediation

3) Glory

1)  God at a Distance, Moses up Close

7 Now Moses used to take a tent and pitch it outside the camp some distance away, calling it the "tent of meeting". Anyone enquiring of the LORD would go to the tent of meeting outside the camp. 8 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. 9 As Moses went into the tent, the pillar of cloud would come down and stay at the entrance, while the LORD spoke with Moses. 10 Whenever the people saw the pillar of cloud standing at the entrance to the tent, they all stood and worshipped, each at the entrance to his tent. 11 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 assistant Joshua son of Nun did not leave the tent.

Do you see what is going on here?  The promise of the Tabernacle was God dwelling among them, in the very heart of the camp.  It would be like having the Garden of Eden in their midst.  But this new reality is nothing like that.  Now God was separated from them by a distance – verse 7: this tent of meeting was set up outside the camp, some distance away.  This is not what they were looking forward to but it's no bodies fault but their own.

Sin has left them far from God.  Just like Adam and Eve in the garden they had the promise of intimacy with God - but they spurned it, even as the terms of the contract were being hammered out.  They gave God's glory, even God's name, to something they had made.  This is that same identity theft all over again – they treated a pretend cow as the creator of the universe.

Yet, remarkably despite their rebellion they retain access to God.  This tent of meeting is not the tabernacle, it's something far less.  But still, there's a connection, God may be outside the camp, but he hasn't left them completely and he hasn't destroyed them.

And because Moses can still go close they have hope.  Moses is the link between God and the camp – he goes outside the camp to meet with God in the tent, and then he comes back into the camp again.  He meets with God face to face, and he hasn't stopped being one of them.  He meets with God on their behalf, and he pleads with God for them.  Surely this intimacy suggests that Moses might be able to do something for them doesn't it?  He is one of them, but he has the inside ear of the almighty.

This is a bit like trying to become the long term manager ofChelseafootball club.   Chelseahas had 8 managers since Sep 2007.  I think it's fair to say that the owner sacks managers fairly freely.  So how do you keep the job?  Well it helps to win games and trophies, but doesn't seem to guarantee anything…  At the end of the day the only hope you have is of convincing the owner to stick with you.  So imagine you were the manager and you were shut out from discussions with the owner.  You're on the outside – you'd be counting down the days till you see someone else announced in your job.  But imagine the owner sends his trusted advisor to meet you and talk transfer policy, long term projects, re-building the squad.  Suddenly you've got a man on the inside, you've got a mediator who can give you access.  Suddenly you've got hope.

It's not what you know, it's who you know – it's the old school tie.  To gain access to power you need someone to open the way.  And through Moses all ofIsraelis still only one degree of separation away from God.

So that moves us on to point two – to Mediation.

2) Mediation

What is Moses doing when he meets with God?  He's not just watching the football, he's mediating for them, trying to set right what they have ruined, trying to restore their relationship with God.  The presenting issue is God's declaration that he will not go with the people:

vv 12-13:

12 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.' 13 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."

Moses asks for help to lead the people, specifically he wants God to come with them, as he had said that he would.  He prays for intimacy with God, not just for himself, but for allIsrael, for knowledge of God and for God's presence and power to serve God.  He prays on the basis of God's own promises to him and the people ofIsrael.

And it looks in verse 14 like God says yes:

14 The LORD replied, "My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest."

But what we can't see in English is that the 'you' here is singular – I will go with you, Moses (but not with them), I will give you, Moses, rest.  But Moses speaks on behalf of the people, verse 15:

15 Then Moses said to him, "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?"

God must go with his people, not just with Moses.  Moses knows there is no blessing in taking the Promised Land but in losing relationship with the God who promised it.  Their relationship with God distinguished them from all the other people's on earth, to lose that was to lose everything.  Moses keeps putting himself and the people together – if you are pleased with me and with your people – why? Because he knows he doesn't stand before God as a private individual, but as the mediator of the covenant, the representative ofIsrael, God's man inIsrael.  The fate ofIsrael was tied to his ministry on their behalf.  vv 17 confirms Moses is right to see things this way.

17 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."

I am pleased with 'you' is again in the singular, it is Moses who pleases God, notIsrael.  The mediator wins forgiveness for the people.  That's awesome isn't it – Moses is a direct prototype of Jesus at this point – this is what Jesus does for us, he speaks to God for us, Jesus, God's son with whom he is well pleased'.

This is awesome for us because we know that God can not be pleased with us all the time – we are shockingly out of line with God so frequently.  But it doesn't depend on our behaviour; we have a mediator and he is pleasing on our behalf.

Having secured God's presence with them Moses makes an audacious request:

18 Then Moses said, "Now show me your glory."

This sounds a bit more abrupt than it was, perhaps it could better be translated 'please show me your glory', but still it's audacious.  Moses has already tasted God's glory at the burning bush, and up the mountain, God meets him face to face, as a friend.  Yet he seeks even greater intimacy with God, greater knowledge of God.  How audacious is this?  This is a massive request, but it's not wrong. Moses isn't just curious, nor is he looking for reasons to boast.  He's close to God but he wants to be closer – to know God better, to be more like him, to see God more clearly so he can love him all the more – a bit like Paul in Phil 3, pursuing God for God's own sake, not so he can boast about it to others, or hold it over others, or to mark himself out in any way – he simply wants to know God better.

And God says yes – as much as you can handle.  We'll come to that next, but notice what is happening here.  This is a remarkable turn of events -Israel's rebellion now becomes an occasion for astonishing grace.  God agrees to show Moses a greater view of his goodness – a clearer, albeit still impartial view of his glory.  We'll go on to look at that in just a moment, but I want us just to pause here and consider how good it is that one day we will see God in all his glory – and not only that, but we will be changed to be like him.  Have you noticed in our Revelation 1-3 bible studies how Jesus says things like 'to him who overcomes I will give the right to sit with me on my throne, just as I overcame and sat down with my Father on his throne'?  Moses sought greater intimacy with God – Israel watched on from a distance… but we have the promise of not just seeing God, but becoming like him, even joining in his rule over all things.  How remarkable is that, extraordinary, inconceivable even.  What was far beyond reach is gifted to us, on the basis not of our own righteousness, but because we have a mediator who knew no weakness, who committed no sin and who sits now at God's right hand by right.  He has gone ahead and we will follow, we will – because our unrighteousness is not the end of the story, only another opportunity for him to show grace.

All of that leads us to the last point, as God graciously reveals himself to us through Moses.

3) Glory Revealed

Read with me from 33.19:

33.19 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. 20 But," he said, "you cannot see my face, for no-one may see me and live." 21 Then the LORD said, "There is a place near me where you may stand on a rock. 22 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. 23 Then I will remove my hand and you will see my back; but my face must not be seen."

34.1 The LORD said to Moses, "Chisel out two stone tablets like the first ones, and I will write on them the words that were on the first tablets, which you broke. 2 Be ready in the morning, and then come up on Mount Sinai. Present yourself to me there on top of the mountain. 3 No-one is to come with you or be seen anywhere on the mountain; not even the flocks and herds may graze in front of the mountain."

God's glory revealed is the climax of the story, the goal to which the Exodus has been working – God has been doing all of this in order to reveal himself in his glory so that he will be known.  God re-claiming his stolen identity – at the heart of his work in Exodus is this idea of making himself known as he is, over and against how we see him through the distorted lens of sinful thinking.

So what does God reveal about himself? To reveal his glory he will proclaim his name and discuss his mercy and compassion.

Did you see that? Moses asks to see God's glory but instead God tells him a sermon – he sees God's back and he hears God describe his glory, his name, his mercy and compassion.  This is partly because no man can see God's glory and live, but it's also because we often don't understand what we're seeing.  God's glory isn't primarily what he looks like but what he does, what he is like; his character and his behaviour.  God's very name is 'Yahweh – I AM who I AM or I WILL BE What I WILL BE'.   When the NIV translates LORD in capitals that's what they're translating, some older translations mistakenly translated it as Jehovah… Yahweh is his personal name, an expression of his glory because it reveals his character.  Even in his name God's character and behaviour indelibly linked, unbreakably connected – God wants to be known for and by what he does, and so he should be because unlike us God is never deceitful, what he does is always a true expression of who he is.

This is the advantage to a sermon over a viewing – God makes clear in words that can not be mistaken what Moses might not have even been able to see for himself.

So when he passes in front of Moses what does God reveal about himself? Let's see, from verse 4:

4 So Moses chiselled out two stone tablets like the first ones and went up Mount Sinai early in the morning, as the LORD had commanded him; and he carried the two stone tablets in his hands. 5 Then the LORD came down in the cloud and stood there with him and proclaimed his name, the LORD. 6 And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, "The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, 7 maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation." 8 Moses bowed to the ground at once and worshipped. 9 "O Lord, if I have found favour in your eyes," he said, "then let the Lord go with us. Although this is a stiff-necked people, forgive our wickedness and our sin, and take us as your inheritance."

As he promised God starts with his name – Yahweh – I AM who I AM or I WILL BE what I WILL BE'.  And God repeats his name, as if for emphasis –I assert my right to be known as Yahweh, the one and only, I am Yahweh, not any other (remember the Israelites have just finished worshipping a golden calf that they called Yahweh who brought them out of Egypt!)

God then expounds the meaning of his name in Seven descriptions that open up God's character.  He is:

1)    Compassionate;

2)    Gracious;

3)    Slow to anger;

4)    Abounding in Love and faithfulness;

5)    Maintaining love to thousands;

6)    And forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin; yet

7)    He does not leave the guilty unpunished.

We could very easily spend seven sermons looking at those attributes, but we've only got a few minutes.  So instead I just want to point out that what God says here is a summary of what he has done in Exodus.  He is the compassionate and gracious God who heard their groaning and rescued them.  He is the God who is slow to anger – waiting 400 years and 10 plagues before destroyingEgyptand bearing with his sinful and rebellious people.  He is the God who's love for them overflows, who has been faithful to the promises he made to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob despite their unfaithfulness.  He is the God who brought the great multitude out ofEgyptand has fed them in the desert.  And now here he is forgiving their sins yet again, relenting from his right anger, holding back his judgement and maintaining the covenant he had every right to smash into dust when they rebelled.  And in the midst of all that we should not forget that he is not a God to be trifled with, he does not leave the guilty unpunished, but brings justice.

This description of God from God's own mouth becomes Israel's confession, sort of like a mini creed that anchors their belief in God.  It is one of the most quoted verses in the whole OT.  If we want to know what God is like, look at what he's done – He has been defining himself throughout Exodus as this God – I will be what I will be – you will know me from what I am about to do – as I show myself gracious and compassionate, as I show myself slow to anger and abounding in love and faithfulness, as I reveal the depths of my love to thousands and as I forgive your very great wickedness, sin and rebellion against me.  But do not forget that I will punish, justice will be served.

This is the goal to which all of Exodus is moving, God's revelation of himself – that we might know that He am the LORD.  God is re-claiming his character, taking back the identity that was stolen from him.  He is God and there is no other.  And he is no kill joy, no cosmic tyrant; he is good, gracious, loving and kind and compassionate and faithful.  Adam and Eve doubted God's good character in the garden – but how couldIsraeldoubt it now, when God has demonstrated it beyond debate?

And yet they did doubt it, and we still doubt it today. We don't see God clearly because we are on the wrong side of his righteousness, his holiness.  We are self righteous and self justifying, we have a vested interest in skewing justice, so when we hear of God or come up against him we can not help but be opposed to him, because he condemns us and can not fail to do so by his very goodness.  So we need a great deal of help to get past the condemning to see that this is goodness, that this is not just arbitrary harshness.  We're like a street kid who has only ever seen the law doing damage to people he loves, like a hopeless addict who can not see the rehab clinic as a good thing, like an abused spouse clinging to her abuser and living in fear of the abuse becoming known.  We've got Stockholm Syndrome – we've been held captive for so long in sin that we side with our captor, not our saviour.  Satan is our abuser, but though he is bent on destroying us we identify with his values and take them on for ourselves.  We simply do not have the capacity to see clearly and so God needs to act in massive scale to reveal the depth of his mercy.

And so stop and see here just how merciful God is, over and over Israel deserves punishment, but God holds back and holds back, and in the end he not only delays punishment, but he grants them blessing upon blessing.  They have just signed a binding agreement that makes massive demands on them – just demands… but in the very act of signing it they have broken the covenant bond.   By rights they should be subject to the punishment clause and shut out from the rewards clauses. But in fact the very opposite happens, there is a small scale punishment that testifies that punishment is deserved, but the mass of the population go on as if nothing has happened, God will still be their God, they will still enjoy his presence with them in the camp, and his provision for them.

They are like tenants moving in to a new house.  The house is worth millions, but they are poor students who couldn't afford a thing.  The landlord takes pity on them and welcomes them in despite their hopeless prospects for payment.  But instead of acknowledging their gracious landlord and treating his glorious mansion with respect they send one of their members out the front to sign the lease while the rest of them are loading up a van to take away the valuable furniture and facebooking a crowd for a drunken party to destroy whatever remains.  The ink isn't even dry before they've trashed the place – and what does the landlord do?  They've completely broken the lease – they should be not just tossed out but locked up and punished.  But this landlord is so gracious that he pays for the damage and moves them back in!

And the message for us is even more profound isn't it – because the very same things are writen even larger for us when God comes into our world to stand in our place and receive the punishment that we deserve.  When the time came to punish he stood in our place.  Paul says if God did not hold back from us his only son, how will he not, along with him graciously give us all things.  In other words look at God's character from what he does – he is gracious and compassionate.  He is the fully good, he is fully for us, he holds back nothing to save us, even though we are dead set against him, we throw all he does for us back in his face.  He will not stop saving us, even if he has to give up his only son for us.

And we know that, but we've got Stockholm syndrome, we keep siding with the deceiver.  Or to put it another way we're an amnesia sufferer who can't make new memories.  We keep falling for the same old lies.  We feel in our hearts somehow that sin is better than godliness, that rebellion is fun and obedience is a little death.  And in the short term there's truth in that.  But a little bit of dying to self leads to life everlasting, and a little bit of indulging our sin leads to death.  God tells us not to do what is death to us, and to do what leads to life.  He's for us, fully for us; we can know it and trust it – and knowing God like that protects us from the lies of the evil one so we can stand.  So look again at the God of the bible, Yahweh, the God who makes himself know in acts of salvation, not in judgement, in mercy, not harsh condemnation.  And train your hearts to see through those lies of Satan and to get the picture right – it's God who is for us, God who is the hero, God who tells it to us straight.  And so give God the glory for who he is – the great and awesome God who is gracious and compassionate.  And give him what belongs to him – everything. Let's pray

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