Scripture: Exodus 33:1-4, 12-23
In many senses, our passage for today is a strange way to end our sermon series on the people of Israel. We have followed the story of God making the slaves of Egypt, the descendants of Abraham, into a community—the people of God. Today, we rejoin them in the immediate aftermath of the golden calf incident. The betrayal has caused a serious breach in the relationship between YHWH and the people. The covenant is in jeopardy and their future is uncertain. The people are in the middle of an identity crisis—one of the biggest identity crises in Israel’s history in fact. The golden calf is referenced continually throughout the Hebrew Scriptures as a great betrayal, permanently altering the relationship of God to the people. The continued presence of YHWH is up in the air. Shouldn’t we be ending our sermon series called “Becoming God’s People” on a more conclusive note? It seems like Israel hasn’t become a people at all!
Put yourself in their position and imagine what you would be thinking and feeling. We left Egypt to worship and to follow God to a new land and now all of that hope and promise is shattered. We’re in the middle of the desert halfway in between Egypt and the Promised Land and we may have caused our only hope, YHWH, to turn away from us. It was YHWH who freed us and made us into a people to begin with and gave us the law that defines our community. Who are we without YHWH? Where do we go from here?
Perhaps it is not strange, but very appropriate that we end our series in the middle of this tension. We don’t always find ourselves at the extremes experienced by the people over the course of their story. It is rare to be on the shore of the Red Sea marveling at God performing a miracle right in front of our eyes. Thankfully, it is also rare to find yourself reveling at the foot of golden calf in such reckless disobedience of God’s will. No, we more often find ourselves in the in-between space. In between miracle and betrayal, certainty and doubt, freedom and slavery, presence and absence. Maybe we can relate to the identity crisis of Israel. We know that in our story we too have acted badly, we too must force ourselves to remember God’s liberation, provision, and guidance in our life as a community, and we too need to hear what to do next in order to keep moving through the wilderness towards the promised land.
The first words God speaks to the people in our passage are words of grace. Even after Israel’s direct and dramatic rejection of God, God is still set on giving them the land promised to their ancestors: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God tells them to “Go” in the same way Abraham was told to go from his land and kindred in Genesis. After everything, God still calls the people out of their idolatry, away from their former lives, and into God’s good future. However, the consequences of their idolatrous display begin to get more severe after that. YHWH breaks the news that an angel will be sent to accompany them rather than the presence of God. God will not be going lest the people be destroyed because of their stubborn rejections. You are a “stiff-necked” people God says. The expression “stiff-necked” comes from driving oxen. When the driver wanted the oxen to turn, he would prick them on the neck, indicating the direction they should turn. An ox that didn’t respond to such instruction was called stiff-necked. Over and over, YHWH called the people, offering them guidance on the direction that would make them the most alive, and yet they continually refuse to turn their faces towards God, preferring the old ways and the old gods of their slavery to the freedom offered by YHWH.
The primary condition for resumed relationship with YHWH is that the people must strip themselves of their ornaments before continuing on their way. Interestingly, the word translated as “stripped” here is the same Hebrew verb used in chapter 12 when the Egyptians handed over their riches to the Israelites before God led them out of slavery. The ornaments they strip themselves of are of the same type as those that were melted down to cast the golden calf. They came from the riches of the empire. YHWH is unwilling to allow the people to continue on with the temptation that they will fall back into their idolatry. They must throw off their earthly riches, which are clearly a hindrance to their worship of YHWH alone, before God will allow them to continue on the journey. The Bible says that the people mourned when they heard the harsh words of God, and no one put on ornaments. They felt the weight of their disobedience and were ready to do what was necessary to reestablish some kind of relationship with God moving forward, no matter how difficult.
What might we need to strip ourselves of as a people in order to follow God fully and faithfully? This story sternly warns us once again, as the Bible does so many times, of the danger of falling prey to the fetishizing of wealth and commodity. Money and greed can disrupt our relationship with God and alienate us from our neighbor more quickly than anything else that promises to give us meaning in this world. That is why Jesus had a lot to say about the god of Mammon, as Ben talked about last week. Jesus understood, partly because of the wisdom handed down to him through stories like this one, of the destructive power of money not just on individual faith, but also on the individual’s relationships with others. As people in America today, this message about wealth speaks just as forcefully as it did in the Biblical context.
After God’s proclamation to the people, Moses once again intercedes on their behalf as he has done so many times before. “See you have told me to bring up this people,” he says, “yet you have not let me know whom you will send with me. If I have found favor in your sight, show me your ways, so that I may know. Consider too that this nation is your people. How shall it be known that I and your people have found favor unless you go with us? In this way we shall we be distinct, I and your people, from every other people on the face of the earth.” Moses understands that the only thing making this collection of individuals into a people is the presence of God. If God takes that away, they have nothing left to mark them as distinct in the world and to hold them together in community.
This principle is true of the church as well. We have no marks of specialness apart from closeness to the God who freely invites us into relationship. Our distinctiveness is built on following Jesus alone. I can tell you that as I have traveled around the region in the past two years, whenever I mention where I work, someone asks me, “How are things going there?” We are still known by some in the Baptist world for our recent history of conflict. Of course, that’s not the kind of distinction we are shooting for. The ministers have often heard those of you who were here say that you felt the presence of God was absent during that time, that the very thing meant to mark the church as a holy people felt distant. We who live in this community every day, however, know that while the recent unpleasantness continues to play a role in our identity, lots of great things have been happening around here the past few years. If I asked you today, what you thought made GFBC distinct, what would you say? This beautiful sanctuary? Our programs? Our staff? Our lay leadership? Although Greenwood Forest has a nice sanctuary, great programming, and wonderful, young ministers, none of that sets us apart from the world as a people. We can build all the buildings we want and offer all the amazing programming anyone could hope for but none of that will make us into the Body of Christ. Only striving to be disciples every day, only moving deeper into relationship with Jesus, only following Jesus to unexpected places, emulating his radical welcome and reckless love, and allowing him to break down the boundaries between us will make us into the Church of Christ, distinct from the world around us. What if this became the next chapter in our story? What if we started proclaiming the new ways in which the Spirit is present and moving among us?
On Monday and Tuesday of this past week, Ben, Lauren, Robin, and I attended Duke Pastor School. This year, the conference was a reassessment after 25 years of the influential 1989 book, Resident Aliens, by Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon. If you haven’t read this book, you are strongly encouraged to read it. It sent shock waves through American Christianity by declaring that the era of “Christendom,” in which our culture was assumed to be Christian, was officially behind us and it was time for the Church to relearn how to live “in the world, but not of it” with our “citizenship in heaven.” One of the most famous quotes from the book that we heard several times over the course of our two days at Duke is: “[The Church] must live in such a way that our lives would be unintelligible if the God we know in Jesus Christ did not exist.” In other words, if our lives make sense to the world apart from the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus and his continual presence with us then we’re doing something wrong. Remember, the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us it is the power of God. It may be time for us to assess how intelligible our lives are to the world. Are we “foolish” enough? Could our lives be explained away by the American story, or the Southern story, or do they only make sense in light of the gospel?
We have much to learn from Moses’s prayer and God’s response in this passage. Moses’s prayer is surprisingly insistent and daring. He is brave in his approach to God and not easily dissuaded. He is not overly deferential but crowds God aggressively at times. Even after God tells Moses that his request will be granted, Moses pushes even further, saying, “Show me your glory, I pray.” You can feel Moses’s yearning for closeness with God in his prayer. “Show me your ways, we need your presence, show me your glory!” We often use the word “glory” in church without understanding the full weight of its meaning. It means magisterial or kingly splendor. Moses is basically asking God to show him something so incredible that all other allegiances will fall away immediately. When we say or sing “Glory to God” or “Glory be to the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost” we are saying that our political allegiance is to God and nothing or no one else. It’s a radical thing that Moses was asking for! What if we were to use Moses’s prayer as a model for how we pray? We can claim the boldness offered by Christ’s act of mediation between us and God in our prayer lives. Our prayer is often so watered down and passive that it’s no wonder Americans are praying far less than they were fifty years ago. Learning how to pray like Moses might make prayer less boring to us and reinvigorate a facet of our spiritual lives that according to all the research, is sorely lacking in the life of the modern Church.
God’s response to Moses is remarkably self-giving. Despite all the people’s offenses, God graciously responds, “I will do the very thing you ask because you have found favor with me and I know you by name. I will make my goodness pass before you. I will proclaim my name to you. I will be gracious and I will show mercy.” But God’s response also maintains the balance between self-giving and self-withholding necessary to keep Moses alive. “But” says God, “you cannot see my face, for no one shall see my face and live.” God knows that showing Moses everything would not be good for him. We could learn a thing or two from the balance God strikes here. Not only is our prayer often overly deferential, but in our attempts to follow in Christ’s way of self-sacrifice, some of us end up giving all of our selves to something that will simply drain us. We also enable others in taking advantage of our generosity of self when we only work and give of ourselves and leave no room for Sabbath and renewal. We could use God’s ability to be remarkably self-giving while at the same time self-withholding when necessary as a model for our healthy human relationships as Christians. We must remember that Jesus is the most perfect example of self-giving we have to look to, offering his body and blood for the sake of the world, and yet he still withdrew from the crowds in order to renew his spirit with God for the journey.
In the end, Moses gets to see God, but not fully. The in-between space is reaffirmed, the tension reinforced rather than resolved. The fancy academic word for this is “liminal” space: of or relating to a transitional stage, occupying a position at, or on both sides of a boundary or threshold. Liminal is from the same Latin root as our word “limbo.” The New Testament writers understood the feeling of being “in limbo.” In 1 Corinthians 13, Paul says “for now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully even as I have been fully known.” Just as Moses wanted certainty, wanted to know for sure, wanted to see God’s glory with his own eyes, and had to settle for being known by God and for seeing God’s glory in part, so do we have to walk by faith but not by sight, living in to the kingdom of God that is already but not yet.
We do, however, have the advantage of having seen the truest picture of God’s face and having understood the nature of the glory of God. We most clearly see the face of God in Jesus on the cross. In 2 Corinthians, Paul said, “And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake. For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness’, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” God’s glory in the face of Jesus on the cross goes unrecognized and hated by the world, spat upon and disfigured, because it stands over and against the ways of the world as a witness to their failure. It makes the simple, wise, and the wise, simple. This is not the face we expected. This is not the type of kingly glory we wanted to see. And yet, it is the way God chose to enter into our mess and conquer the death-dealing violence of the powers and principalities of this world, showing us how to live resurrected lives in opposition to them. God is always overturning our expectations, and how God chose to become present to us as Immanuel and reveal the character of salvation is no exception. God’s way cannot be harmonized with the way of the world; it is distinct.
God came directly to the people in Jesus, as the Word made flesh, just as God gave the people of Israel the ten words on the stone tablets of the covenant. And just as the people rejected the ten words by demanding that Aaron cast the golden calf for them to worship, so did the people reject the Word made flesh in Jesus, choosing the way of violence and fear. But by the power of his resurrection and the coming of his Spirit, we, the Gentiles, have been reconciled to God, and can now live in God’s presence as part of the people of God. This is the story that makes us a part of the Exodus narrative. But what God spoke to Moses is still true. We cannot see God’s face in Jesus on the cross and live. If we really want to be his disciples, we are called to die daily just like we died in the waters of baptism, and to be raised a new creation as followers of Christ. When we truly see the glory of God in Jesus, there is nothing left to do but to take up our cross and follow him. And we must follow him even when we do not know the way, even when our vision is clouded, even in the space between certainty and doubt, even in limbo as we proclaim that the kingdom of God is nigh and help Jesus make it into a reality. As disciples who regularly come together to be in the presence of God and eat his body and blood at the communion table, the most amazing thing happens. We become God’s presence in a world that is desperately crying out for the church to give it something to believe in. We, the Body of Christ, whose lives find their meaning only through the God revealed in Jesus, become the hands and feet and eyes and ears of God in the world. This is our story as the people of God. This is the great challenge and the great adventure of the Church. The only question left to ask is this: Will we allow this story to make us into the people of God or will we let something other than God’s presence shape who we are?