Heavenly Father, speak to us we pray, by your Spirit through your word. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
We’re coming to the end of our series in the Book of Exodus – and this evening we’re looking at Exodus chapters 33 and 34. And they have a great message for a church and a world in the midst of this viral mega-storm. If you’ve got a Bible with you, please open that up. Exodus 33.
What’s the story so far? God’s people were enslaved and suffering under the harsh hand of the hard-hearted Egyptian Pharaoh. God heard their cry and used Moses and a series of plagues to redeem them from their slavery and set them free to serve him in a covenant relationship of love.
The other day my little grandson Ezra found a toad, stranded on open ground, parched, desperate for water, and no doubt utterly miserable. If toads can be miserable. Ezra and his mum helped it along then, when it could go no further, picked it up and carried it to the river – and off it swam, happy as Larry. I know, because I saw the video on WhatsApp. A redeemed and rescued toad. That’s what God did for his people.
So the Lord met with his people at Mount Sinai out in the desert. But while Moses was up on the mountain meeting with God, the people lost both faith and patience and fell into gross idolatry and immorality. And the Israelites were given a taste of death through slaughter by sword and plague – though the Lord stayed his hand and spared the rest, so that the mortality rate seems to have been around 1% or less – similar to that inflicted by this terrible virus.
Which brings us to chapter 33 – and my first heading. So:
1. A Looming Disaster For God's People
You’d have thought that a mortality rate of 1% or so would have been enough of a catastrophe. But now a far worse disaster threatens to come their way. The Lord in his righteous anger tells Moses to take the people with him and go. He tells them to head to the Promised Land, which in his mercy he will still give to them. But there is a terrible sting in the tale of his command. Look at Exodus 33.3, where the Lord continues to Moses:
“Go up to the land flowing with milk and honey; but [and listen to this] I will not go up among you, lest I consume you on the way, for you are a stiff-necked people.”
An utterly holy and faithful God cannot live together with a deeply unholy and unfaithful people, any more than fire and straw can live together. The one gets consumed by the other. And speaking of this encounter at Mount Sinai, Hebrews 12 says to us New Testament believers:
"See that you do not refuse him who is speaking … for our God is a consuming fire."
So the Lord says to the Israelites, 'I’m not coming with you. Because of your sin it would destroy you if I did.'
And this is where we see the other side of God’s people, because when they hear this, they come to their spiritual senses. Remember they’ve just come through a devastating storm of death and destruction that’s swept through their camp. But what they’ve just heard puts the frighteners on them far more even than that. The prospect of journeying on through life without the living God living among them terrifies them. Exodus 33.4:
"When the people heard this disastrous word, they mourned …"
Life without the living God, far more than decimation by plague, was the looming disaster for God’s people.
The other day I watched again the old film ‘The Battle of Britain’. I remember seeing it when it first came out in 1969 when I was a ten-year-old boy. My dad took me to the cinema to see it. How he got that past my mum I have no idea. When the scenes got particularly bloodly he would cover my eyes with his hands. Which was annoying because a ten-year-old boy loves a bit of blood of guts. He doesn’t understand what he’s seeing. But that film captures the sense of looming disaster here in the summer of 1940, with invasion just round the corner.
Let’s pray for our nation and our culture and ourselves, that we will fear the withdrawal of the Lord’s presence and the prospect of life without the living God far more even than the looming disaster of a plague.
First, then, a looming disaster for God’s people. Then:
2. A Crucial Friendship with the Living God
The only hope that the Israelites had in the face of this looming disaster was the unique relationship that one man had with God. That man was Moses. Back in Exodus 32.30, Moses had said to his people:
“You have sinned a great sin. And now I will go up to the Lord; perhaps I can make atonement for your sin.”
And now in Exodus 33.7-11, there’s a window opened for us onto the extraordinary friendship that Moses has with God – in which lies the only hope for the Israelites. It tells how Moses had a special tent outside the main camp – his ‘tent of meeting’ – where he and the living God would talk together. Exodus 33.9:
"When Moses entered the tent, the pillar of cloud [the sign of God’s presence] would descend and stand at the entrance of the tent, and the Lord would speak with Moses."
And on to Exodus 33.11:
"Thus the Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend."
It’s true for us, too, that our only hope of avoiding the looming disaster of journeying through life and its storms without the Lord alongside us lies in the crucial friendship of one man with the living God. But the relationship of Jesus to God makes even this amazing friendship of Moses with God pale into insignificance. God the Father and Jesus, God’s beloved Son, are one.
And the even more astonishing and wonderful truth is that through the blood of Christ poured out for us on the cross for the forgiveness of our sin, we too can share in that friendship of Father and Son.
In our household – not least in these strange times – we’re suckers for a good costume drama. Early on in the new one called Belgravia, there’s a fascinating scene. It’s 1815, in Brussels, and there’s a looming disaster as Napoleon’s Great Army bears down on the allied forces for the cataclysmic confrontation that came to be known as the Battle of Waterloo. A young woman – just a teenager – confidently walks through door after guarded door, straight past increasingly senior army officers, right into the presence of the man on whom the Duke of Wellington himself is relying to supply all the provisions his army needs for what lies ahead. When she arrives, he summarily sends packing the man who he’s talking to, in order to turn his full attention to this teenager. Why? She is his daughter of course. Her relationship with her father gives her privileged access.
Moses was God’s friend. Jesus is God’s Son. On him alone we depend if we’re to avoid the looming disaster of life without the living God.
So – on the basis of this crucial friendship that Moses has with God, what does he do, in order to save the Israelites from disaster? He prays. So:
3. A Powerful Prayer for God's Presence
Take a look at this fantastic and bold exchange that Moses has, on behalf of the Israelites, with the living God, who is a consuming fire, but who is also his friend. This is Exodus 33.12-17. But note this. Moses repeatedly speaks of ‘finding favour’ with God. We mustn’t misunderstand that. This favour is not earned. It’s a gift. It’s all grace. It really means ‘find grace’. Think of that as we read this prayer. And notice too how Moses prays boldly on the basis of the favour that he has already found, to ask for even more favour in the face of the looming disaster. So – Exodus 33.12-17:
"Moses said to the Lord, '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 favour in my sight." Now therefore, if I have found favour in your sight, please show me now your ways, that I may know you in order to find favour in your sight. Consider too that this nation is your people.' And [the Lord] said, 'My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.' And [Moses] said to him, '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 favour 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?' And the Lord said to Moses, 'This very thing that you have spoken I will do, for you have found favour in my sight, and I know you by name.'"
In answer to Moses’ bold prayer, the Lord relents, and gives Moses what he has asked for, and promises his presence with his people as they travel on.
What comfort it is, and what hope it gives us in these otherwise fearful times, to know that the Son of God himself is at the right hand of the Father, praying for us. Because of Jesus, we have found favour with God, and he is with us, and he will never leave us, and he will bring us through, and we are safe for all eternity.
Rod Earnshaw of Holy Trinity Gateshead has given a helpful reminder of the privilege of prayer that we have in Christ. He says this:
"Can I call on you to pray. From a purely human perspective it appears as if there is no stopping this coronavirus. The news … is quite frightening. But God has many times called a halt to deadly plagues while they were still spreading (see for example 2 Samuel 24.26), and we know that he hears and answers our prayers. So please pray for a halt to this crisis. He may have other plans in our time, and if so we can trust that they will be good; but for the sake of our neighbours and for ourselves we who know the Lord must cry out to him for mercy in times like this."
And why can we dare to pray boldly for mercy? Because God has shown us that he is good, and that he is merciful. So:
4. A Revelation of God's Mercy, Grace and Glory
The Lord’s gracious answer to Moses’ bold prayer leads him on to even greater boldness. So in Exodus 33.18, he prays:
"Please show me your glory."
And the Lord tells him that he will show to Moses his goodness, grace and mercy –
"But [Exodus 33.20], you cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live. Behold, 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 shows us all that we can bear of who he is. The full weight of his glory is more than we can bear. But we see enough. And we see it above all in Jesus, and at the cross where he was glorified.
Down in the South West, near where we once lived, there is a rock, cleft through. The locals claim that Augustus Toplady took shelter in it one day during a storm, and it inspired his great hymn:
Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
Let me hide myself in Thee …
Nothing in my hands I bring,
Simply to Thy cross I cling;
Naked, come to Thee for dress,
Helpless, look to Thee for grace:
Foul, I to the fountain fly,
Wash me, Savior, or I die.
And as we put our trust in him, he has washed us. And we will not die.
And so the Lord did pass before Moses, and told him once and for all what he is like. Exodus 34.6:
"The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness …"
Yes, there are continuing consequences from the sin in our lives, just as whatever happens now the world will never be quite the same again after COVID 19 – in all kinds of ways that we can’t foresee. But whatever we are heading into, this we know. God is good, and gracious, and merciful, and loving. And on this we can rely.
So – looming disaster for God’s people; a crucial friendship with the living God; a powerful prayer for God’s presence; a revelation of God’s glory. And finally:
5. A Confirmation of God's Good Purpose For His People
It’s as if Moses says to God, 'Did I hear you correctly. I want to be sure. Tell me one more time.' Exodus 34.8-10:
"And Moses quickly bowed his head towards the earth and worshipped. And he said, 'If now I have found favour in your sight, O Lord, please let the Lord go in the midst of us, for it is a stiff-necked people, and pardon our iniquity and our sin, and take us for your inheritance.' And [the Lord] said, 'Behold, I am making a covenant. Before all your people I will do marvels, such as have not been created in all the earth or in any nation. And all the people among whom you are shall see the work of the Lord, for it is an awesome thing that I will do with you.'"
And Moses did see God do awesome things. But they were nothing to what we have seen God do in Jesus, through the cross and resurrection that we’re going to be rejoicing in all over again this coming Easter time. No virus can make a dent in that!
After the Battle of Britain, on 20 August 1940, Churchill famously said:
"Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few."
He was, of course, wrong. He forgot a far greater occasion even than that. Never has so much been owed by so many – not to so few, but to one man, Jesus Christ, our Lord and Saviour. Come what may, through him we can be sure of God’s good purpose for us.
Let’s bow our heads to pray:
Heavenly Father, we praise you that as you showed yourself to Moses, you have shown yourself to us above all in the Lord Jesus. We praise you that you are full of grace and mercy and goodness. Have mercy on us, our church, and our nation. And when we feel fear rising within us, teach us to put our trust in you, and have peace. In name of our Lord and Saviour Jesus. Amen.