In today’s Scripture, we find a scene where God is angry with the people of Israel, and rightly so. After all God has done for them, they have turned their backs on God again. The moment Moses goes up the mountain to receive the tablets containing the covenant, the people made a gigantic golden calf to worship.
In chapter 32:9-10, God says to Moses, “I have seen these people, and behold, they are a stiff-necked people. Now therefore leave me alone, that my wrath may burn hot against them, and that I may consume them….”
Moses intercedes for the people even though he is “plenty angry” with them as well. But in verse 31, he implores of God by putting his own life on the line, “Oh, this people have sinned a great sin, and have made themselves gods of gold. Yet now, if you will, forgive their sin—and if not, please blot me out of your book which you have written.”
Then in the beginning of chapter 33, God instructed the people to go the Promised Land. In verse 3, Yahweh tells the Israelites to go “to a land flowing with milk and honey: for I will not go up in the midst of you, for you are a stiff-necked people, lest I consume you in the way.” Obviously, God was still angry with the people. God decided to send them on their way, but God was not going with them.
Moses immediately realized that the people could not make it without God’s special presence. So Moses set up the tent of meeting, which was a special place where he met with God, and there, Moses interceded once again for the people.
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In this meeting with God, Moses continues in his tradition of intercession on behalf of the people. But this discussion contains some fabulous insights about Moses relationship with God.
1) God knows us by name
First, I want you to notice that God knows Moses by name. In verse 12, Moses says to the Lord, “Behold, you tell me, ‘Bring up this people:’ and you haven’t let me know whom you will send with me. Yet you have said, ‘I know you by name, and you have also found favor in my sight.'”
Then in verse 17, the Lord confirms what Moses has already said. Here, the Lord said to Moses, “I will do this thing also that you have spoken; for you have found favor in my sight, and I know you by name.”
This is a remarkable truth about God. God knows our name. I think of this as a New Testament concept, but here we find it in the earliest pages of the Bible.
In Matthew 10:29-31, Jesus says, “Aren’t two sparrows sold for a penny? Not one of them falls on the ground apart from your Father’s will, but the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Therefore don’t be afraid. You are of more value than many sparrows.”
My former pastor Dr. John McClanahan used to love to tell the story of a young family who lived in New Haven, Connecticut so that the father could attend Yale University. One night, their small daughter said the nightly prayer, and as often happens she got the Lord’s Prayer a little mixed up when she said, “Our Father, who art in New Haven. How did you know my name?”
She may have confused the words, but she got the message just right. God is in our city, and God knows us by name.
2) We need the presence of God
The second remarkable aspect of Moses conversation with God is found in verses 15 & 16 when Moses says to the Lord, “If your presence doesn’t go with me, don’t carry us up from here. For how would people know that I have found favor in your sight, I and your people? Isn’t it in that you go with us, so that we are separated, I and your people, from all the people who are on the surface of the earth?”
Moses simply was unwilling to go on without the presence of God. When we read between the lines, we can see that Moses has had a terrible burden on him for a long time. Leading the children of Israel turned out to be much more difficult than he ever imagined. Now he is running on empty. He is running on fumes. He’s overworked, overextended, and stressed out. He is about to drop.
Did you ever feel that way? Sure you have! You probably feel that way most of the time. Ours is a hurried world, with information overload, with rush hour traffic, with family responsibilities, and with heavy burdens at work. Sometimes we feel like we have gone as far as we can go on our own power, and if God is not going with us, then we might as well sit down and not go anymore. That’s the way Moses felt.
At least Moses was aware of his real need. He needed the presence of God. We would do well to recognize that need for God’s presence in our fast-paced world.
Moses then asks the key question: “If you aren’t with us, what’s going to distinguish us from the world?” After all, it was God’s presence in his life, in the life of the community that has distinguished him and them from others. Without God’s presence there is no difference.
What distinguishes you and me from the rest of the world? We are certainly no brighter and no better looking. What is there about the folks who gather in this room and in the churches across our world that distinguishes us from the folks who are home in their pajamas on Sunday morning? Just one thing – the presence of God. And that makes all the difference.
In 1995, twin girls had been born 12 weeks premature in the Medical Center Hospital in Worcester, Massachusetts. They weighed in at about two pounds each, and had been placed in separate bassinets. One started to do just fine – the other began slowly to fade. Her heart-beat was rapid, she was visibly anxious, and nothing the nurses could do seemed to be able to stop what they saw as her inevitable death. Then one nurse remembered something she had read about treatment of premature infants elsewhere in the world. As a last resort the nurses put little Brielle, the weaker twin, right into the bassinet with Kyrie, her “big sister.” (Kyrie was 3 ounces bigger!) In the words of one of the nurses on duty, the results were both immediate and dramatic. Little Brielle snuggled up to her sister, and her heart rate immediately slowed to normal. Her color came back. The baby visibly relaxed, almost it seemed with a sigh of relief. She accepted nourishment. The crisis was over. She would survive.
We are like that little baby. Deeper than words, back behind all conscious thought, we know what we really need – a sense of the special presence of God. Even when we cannot express or fully understand our hunger for God, that hunger remains. When we don’t have that presence, our lives waste away. We are made for God, and we are made for fellowship with each other. When we are isolated and alone we are in trouble, serious trouble, like tiny two-pound Brielle. We need to be close to God and close to others who love us. Deep down within us, we have a need to be a part of the family of God.
3) We only see the back of God
There is one last fascinating aspect of this episode between Moses and God that also rings true of our relationship with God. Moses says, “Please show me your glory….”
God replies, “I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim the name of Yahweh before you…” But, he said, “You cannot see my face, for man may not see me and live.” Yahweh also said, “Behold, there is a place by me, and you shall stand on the rock. It will happen, while my glory passes by, that I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; then I will take away my hand, and you will see my back; but my face shall not be seen.”
Isn’t that the way we experience God? I know it is for me. I have this incredible desire to see God face to face, but it seldom happens that way. More often than not, it is only the backside of God that I see.
To me, this story speaks of the ineffable nature of God, the mystery of God’s presence. We love to sing that great old hymn, “In the Garden,” where it says, “He walks with me and he talks with me, and he tells me I am his own.” I truly wish my relationship with God were as straight-forward as that. But I usually only get a glimpse of God out of the corner of my eye.
Someone has said that faith is what you do between the last time you experienced God and the next time you experience God. Those who are honest about their faith admit that they are like Moses, seeing only the backside of God.
One time Carlisle Marney asked his father if he had experienced the continual presence of God all his life. “No,” Marney’s father responded, “faith for me has been riddled with holes and gaps, and there are days that I do not know. But I know that it is always right when I can get to the meeting when the church bell rings.”
Dag Hammerskjold was a famous Swedish statesman and secretary-general of the United Nations from 1953 to 1961. Once he described his experience with God in his diary by saying, “I don’t know who – or what – put the question. I don’t know when it was put. I don’t even remember answering. But at some moment I did answer ‘Yes’ to Someone – or – Something – and from that hour I was certain that existence is meaningful and that therefore, my life – in self-surrender, had a goal.’ . . . That is the Divine Spirit knocking.”
Frederick Buechner describes such an experience with God as a moment “where in one way or another we happen upon mystery as a summons to pilgrimage, a come-all-ye; where [we] are led to suspect the reality of splendors [we] cannot name.”
When Rudolf Otto considered the incomprehensible yet magnetic pull of mystery and holiness in our lives he coined a term from the Latin, mysterium tremendum.
“This mysterium tremendum,” says Otto, “may come sweeping like a gentle tide, pervading the mind with a tranquil mood of deepest worship. It may pass over into a more set and lasting attitude of the soul, continuing, as it were, thrillingly vibrant and resonant, until at last it dies away and the soul resumes its . . . everyday experience. It may burst in sudden eruption up from the depths of the soul with spasms and convulsions, or lead to the strangest excitements, to intoxicated frenzy, to ecstasy. . . . It may become the hushed, trembling and speechless humility of the creature in the presence of-whom or what? In the presence of that which is a mystery inexpressible and above all creatures.”
In his Testament of Devotion, Thomas Kelly describes the presence of God this way: “Over the margins of life comes a whisper, a faint call, a premonition of richer living which we know we are passing by.”
Shhh! Listen! There’s that whisper, that faint call. Only those who really listen can hear it. Only those who really look can see it. For people of faith, it’s the glory, the presence of God passing by. Can you hear it?
Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.
Copyright 1999, Mickey Anders. Used by permission.