The Indispensable Presence
Homily Text: Exodus 33:1-14
1 And the Lord said unto Moses, Depart, and go up hence, thou and the people which thou hast brought up out of the land of Egypt, unto the land which I sware unto Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, saying, Unto thy seed will I give it:
2 And I will send an angel before thee; and I will drive out the Canaanite, the Amorite, and the Hittite, and the Perizzite, the Hivite, and the Jebusite:
3 Unto a land flowing with milk and honey: for I will not go up in the midst of thee; for thou art a stiffnecked people: lest I consume thee in the way.
4 And when the people heard these evil tidings, they mourned: and no man did put on him his ornaments.
5 For the Lord had said unto Moses, Say unto the children of Israel, Ye are a stiffnecked people: I will come up into the midst of thee in a moment, and consume thee: therefore now put off thy ornaments from thee, that I may know what to do unto thee.
6 And the children of Israel stripped themselves of their ornaments by the mount Horeb.
7 And Moses took the tabernacle, and pitched it without the camp, afar off from the camp, and called it the Tabernacle of the congregation. And it came to pass, that every one which sought the Lord went out unto the tabernacle of the congregation, which was without the camp.
8 And it came to pass, when Moses went out unto the tabernacle, that all the people rose up, and stood every man at his tent door, and looked after Moses, until he was gone into the tabernacle.
9 And it came to pass, as Moses entered into the tabernacle, the cloudy pillar descended, and stood at the door of the tabernacle, and the Lord talked with Moses.
10 And all the people saw the cloudy pillar stand at the tabernacle door: and all the people rose up and worshipped, every man in his tent door.
11 And the Lord spake unto Moses face to face, as a man speaketh unto his friend. And he turned again into the camp: but his servant Joshua, the son of Nun, a young man, departed not out of the tabernacle.
12 And Moses said unto the Lord, See, thou sayest unto me, Bring up this people: and thou hast not let me know whom thou wilt send with me. Yet thou hast said, I know thee by name, and thou hast also found grace in my sight.
13 Now therefore, I pray thee, if I have found grace in thy sight, shew me now thy way, that I may know thee, that I may find grace in thy sight: and consider that this nation is thy people.
14 And he said, My presence shall go with thee, and I will give thee rest.
What can you not do without? What must you have? The three year old in the checkout line at the grocery must have that candy. The teenage kid cannot do without that boy or girl their life revolves around. We adults are not much different. We catch car fever, and we really must have that new model. We can’t do without that latest piece of electronic gadgetry.
Do you ever think about what God’s people can’t do without? Moses did, and he made every argument he could think of to make sure that God would give his people the one thing God’s people must have.
1. The Command
The Lord gave Moses a command to lead the people of Israel to the Promised Land. To understand why the Lord says this we have to know where Israel is and what had recently happened.
The people who had left Egypt are camped at the base of Mt. Sinai. The Lord had called Moses and Joshua up into the mountain where he gave Moses the Law and instructions for building the Tabernacle. Moses had spent 40 days on the mountain, and, when day after day passed and Moses did not return, the people became anxious. They began to think they needed a god like the gods of the other religions. They wanted a god they could see. So they persuaded Aaron the priest to make a golden calf. When it was finished they not only had a god like the gods of other religions, but they also worshiped their god the way other peoples worshiped their gods. Soon the whole thing degenerated into a pagan drunken orgy.
When Moses came down and saw what was happening, he took the two stone tablets inscribed with the 10 Commandments and threw them down so they broke in pieces. This was anger but not just anger. It symbolized that Israel had broken its covenant with God, that Israel had forfeited its special relationship with God. Then there followed punishment as Moses burned the calf, ground the remains to powder, sprinkled it on the water, and made the people drink it. Then the Levites went among the people killing 3000, and the Lord sent a plague that killed more.
Now the question was, What next since I Israel had broken the covenant? Moses didn’t know. Would they stay in the wilderness forever? Go back to Egypt? Scatter? Then the Lord gave the command,
Depart, and go up hence, thou and the people which thou hast brought up out of the land of Egypt, unto the land which I sware unto Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, saying, Unto thy seed will I give it.
They were after all, despite their great sin, going to get to go to the Promised Land, a land flowing with milk and honey. Moreover, the Lord said he would send an angel with them, and the angel would drive out the people who were already living in Canaan so that Israel could take possession of the Land. It seemed like everything was lining up for Israel. They had worshiped a false god and engaged in gross immorality, had broken their covenant with God, yet they still were going to the Promised Land and an angel would help them conquer it so they could settle and live there.
This same kind of thing happens with us. Even if we don’t become pagans and sin grievously against the Lord, we may forget and ignore him - living our lives as though he does not exist or does not matter, doing what we want without a thought of him. Despite that, everything seems to go our way. We get what we want in life; things go smoothly for us. We go our merry way thinking that life is good and everything is coming together for us just like we wanted.
But, as Lee Corso says on the Game Day program, “Not so fast.” As it turns out, there is a catch, and we must look at that now.
2. The Catch
The catch was that, though the Lord was going to give them the Land and send an angel to go ahead of them, the Lord himself was not going with them. The reason the Lord gave was, “You are a stiffnecked people, and if I went with you, I would consume you.” Y’all may be too good parents to have ever done this, but some of us parents have said to our misbehaving kids something like this: “It would be good for you to go to another room, or better yet outside. It’s dangerous for us to be around each other right now.” God was saying, “I know what you are like; I know what you have done; and I know what you will likely do in future, so I am not going to go, because I know you are going to provoke my holy anger against you, and I could destroy you. I’ll send an angel, but I’m not going.”
If the Lord was not going, then he would not be living in their midst, so there would be no need for a Tabernacle. So instead of proceeding with construction of the Tabernacle, Moses took a small tent, went outside the camp, and set it up.The Tabernacle was supposed to a Tent on a grand scale and set up in the middle of the camp with the Israelites camped around it. This was to be God’s Tent where he would live with his people and reveal his glorious Presence. But the Lord was in effect saying to them, “I won’t be needing my Tent, because I am not going to be traveling with you.” Putting a tent for God outside the camp was a way the Lord communicated to the people that he and they were estranged, and he was distant from them, yet had not abandoned them completely. One of my students from campus ministry days was the son of career Army officer. The father did several tours in Viet Nam, leaving behind three very rambunctious boys with their mother. From time to time the boys would act up, and the mother would get enough, go upstairs to her bedroom, lock the door, and refuse to come out. She was around, but she was not going to live among them. That’s the way it was between the Lord and his people at this time.
However, the Lord was still friends with Moses, so he would meet with him in a tent outside the camp. He also had not completely cut himself off from the people, so the people could stand at their tent doors and worship God as he revealed his glory outside the camp. Those wanted to seek the Lord for some special thing could go outside the camp to the tent where Moses was meeting with the Lord. Putting a Tent for God outside the camp was a way the Lord communicated to the people that he and they were estranged, and he was distant from them.
This is the catch. The people are going to get the Land and the help of the angel, but they are not going to have the Lord among them. He is not going to live in the middle of the camp. And, as the people grasped to some extent and Moses saw very clearly, it is not a blessing but a disaster to get blessings but not have the Lord. St. Chrysostom once said, "To be separated from God is a greater punishment than a thousand hells.”
Moses grasps this, and the pending disaster of losing the Lord’s Presence in the camp led to a complaint before the Lord. By ignoring the Lord, assigning him a low priority, we can also forfeit communion with the Lord which, though we often forget it, is the greatest blessing, and the blessing we most need.
3. The Complaint
Moses knew that the Lord blessed him in wonderful ways. “Thou hast said, I know thee by name, and thou hast also found grace in my sight.” I really struggle with names, yet I like it when people remember my name, because remembering a name and calling a person by name is personal. The fact that the Lord knows Moses by name means that he is not just aware of Moses but has established a personal relationship with him. Moses has found grace in God’s sight. The Lord shows Moses favor based not on Moses’ merit but on God’s good and merciful nature. This was pictured when Moses enjoyed the blessing of going outside the camp to the little tent, where he and God met as friends.
What Moses already possesses, he wants more of. Moses tells the Lord, “Since you have said that I am in your favor, please show me your ways, so that I can know you better, and understand what your purposes are for these your people. Have you completely broken off your covenant with them? Is there any hope? Is there any future? Show me your ways so that I can know you better, and you continue to know my name and show me your grace.”
Yet Moses has a complaint. “You have told me to strike camp here at Sinai and take these people on to the Promised Land, but you have not told me who is going with us.” Of course, the Lord had told Moses that an angel would go with them. But Moses is saying, “I don’t know this angel. I don’t know his name. I don’t have a personal relationship with him the way I do with you, but you are telling me to lead the people to the Land with him whom I do not know.”
Moreover, Moses tells the Lord, “If you are not going with us, then leave us at Sinai, and don’t send us to the Land.” It just makes no sense for the Lord’s people to go to go, unless the Lord is going to go with them. What is the Promised Land without the Presence of the Lord? Imagine going on a honeymoon without the bride. The beautiful sights, the luxurious accommodations, the delicious food, but without the person you love, it would all be an empty waste. That’s they way it is for us as Christians. We might have good jobs, nice houses, fine cars, wonderful vacations, but if we do not have the Lord’s gracious Presence in our lives. We as a church would have the finest facilities and have pews filled to capacity, yet, if the Lord does not live among us, we have nothing.
Then, Moses reminds the Lord, “The only thing that makes us distinct from the nations is that you the one, true, and only God live among us - that you have taken us as your people and promise to dwell among us.” Without the Lord living among them, they are just one more nation among all the other nations of the world. They are in no way different. Do you know what makes the church the church? It is the Lord’s living among us by his Spirit. If we do not have the Lord’s Presence we are just another human organization like a social club or professional group, or, worse, a political party, When we are gathered in worship, if the Lord is not among us, we are just engaging in activities which we could do without. The church is a unique and divine institution, because the Lord lives among us.
The Lord hears Moses’ complaint; he considers Moses’ argument; he grants Moses’ request. Twice the Lord assures Moses: “My presence shall go with thee, and I will give thee rest,” and again, I will do this thing also that thou hast spoken: for thou hast found grace in my sight, and I know thee by name.” The Lord will be reconciled to his people. They will build the Tabernacle. He will live among them. He will go with them to the Promised Land, and, there, when all their enemies are subdued, he will give them rest, and they will enjoy the blessings God has promised. The one thing they must have - the Lord living among them, they will have.
For you and me, and for our parish, all of this focuses on Jesus. He has secured God’s Presence with us, because he has taken on himself all our sins forsaking the Lord, worshiping other gods, and rebelliously going our own ways. Instead of destroying us, God destroyed Jesus on the cross. The reason God can live among us is, is because of what Jesus did when he took our places on the cross. Jesus is greater than Moses, because Jesus, unlike Moses did just pray the Lord would be among us; he secured it for us. The reason God lives among, not in fiery judgment but with his gracious Presence and blessings, is because of Jesus.
Not only that but Jesus is God’s Presence among us. He is Immanuel, God with us. He has promised that he will be with us as individuals, never abandoning or forsaking us. He had promised that where as many as two or three of us gather in his name, he will be in our midst. He is in our lives and he is here as we worship. We cannot have God’s Presence and blessings apart from Jesus, but, if we have Jesus, we have what we must have - the Presence of the living and gracious God who knows our names. The Presence of God in and through Jesus is what we can’t do without. It is what we do have, as his Spirit works in Word and Sacraments, and gives us faith to receive him. If we have Jesus God is with us through this earthly journey through the wilderness until we come to that perfect rest in the true Promised Land.