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We’ve been at the mountain for three weeks now. The Israelites are at the base of Mount Sinai. Moses has erected a Tent of meeting outside the camp and it is here that the people can go to meet with God. Now Moses is in the tent to fast and pray on behalf of his people who have grieved God greatly with their sin. Earlier in the story, Moses had gone up the mountain. He took a while to come back down, and the people started to worry. They came to the conclusion that Moses was gone forever and so they take matters into their own hands. They build a golden calf and have a party. It’s here we see that freedom, while preferable to slavery, requires more emotional maturity than slavery. The Israelites have been through an ordeal, and now, at the foot of Mount Sinai, they are actually free. But they don’t know what to with their freedom. They have to make a choice and they choose wrongly. Moses comes down and is rightly angry. He destroys the tablets that contain the holy covenant that God has just given to him and a lot of people die.
In chapter 33, Moses storms out to the tent and we find ourselves witnessing a conversation between God and Moses in which neither one of them is happy. The kids have been unruly, ungrateful, and just plain bad. God, whose anger has been burning toward the Israelites, is showing mercy and assuring Moses that he will go forward with them. He will not abandon them even though they abandoned him the first chance they got. Moses is having a panic attack. He’s begging God to with them and even after God says he will, Moses keeps panicking. If you won’t go with us, he says, don’t let us move from here. Forget the milk and honey and land that God has promised, I’m done leading these people.
Moses’ panic is understandable. After all, he never wanted this job. God called him to something that was beyond his human capabilities. He stood up to Pharaoh, he led everyone through the Red Sea, he saw God’s provision of Manna in the desert carried out in holy obedience, he’s been under a lot of pressure. And after all of that leading and pleading with God for his people, when the Israelites believe Moses has disappeared, they do nothing. No search and rescue party goes out to bring the beloved leader back, they just shrug and say, I guess he’s gone.
One author describes this as the first account of pastoral burnout in the Bible. Moses has stopped listening to God but it’s in this place of exasperation that Moses makes his audacious request of God. Show me your glory.
This isn’t how we generally speak to God. We’re not supposed to demand things of him, are we? But we see God’s friendship with Moses at play here and while there is no equality in their relationship, there’s is a mutuality that God allows. He agrees to Moses’ request and places the fatigued leader in a rock cleft so that as God passes by, Moses will get a glimpse of the Divine. The whole scene is pretty comical. Moses, mighty leader that he is, is hiding in a rock. God comes down in the form of a cloud and reaches out his hand to cover Moses and only lifts it when he has passed so that Moses sees his back. And even the back of God is too much to handle. Moses falls down and worships God and again, asks him “Go with us!”. God agrees, and now Moses is ready to receive the covenant.
This story shows us what God will do for love. It shows us what his favour looks like for those upon whom he would lavish favour. We have to wonder why God who appeared as a burning bush, then a pillar of cloud, then a thundering voice from a mountain, would come down to Moses’ level simply because he asked him to. The Bible shows us that God will do the ridiculous, for the sake of love. We know this. We know that God sending his perfect and holy son to die for all the disgusting things we do is ridiculous. We can be like the Israelites, reveling in our newfound freedom, unable to distinguish right from wrong, and easily forgetting the miracles that God has done in our lives. And God’s justified response to us, as it was to them, could be “I’m out”. But it’s not because they have a leader who intercedes on their behalf. His response is I’m going to make a way for you to see my glory. I’m going to shelter you and cover you with my hand so that you can enjoy me and more than that so that I can enjoy you. And every time you stray, or forget, or grow weary, I’m going to pull you back because that’s who I am.
Moses’ relationship with God has grown throughout this journey. When he first encounters God in the burning bush, he doesn’t know who he is. He asks to know his name. When God calls him to deliver the Israelites he resists. Then, after he has met God and been persuaded by him, God opens Moses’ eyes to see the great suffering of his people. As their relationship continues to grow, we see Moses learning how to follow God’s way as he receives instructions on how to live. He learns to trust God’s power to provide and to protect and he’s meeting with God every day to talk with him and to listen to him. Now, on the mountain, as Moses watches God’s glory pass by, he has come to a new point in their relationship. He is learning to enjoy God. When was the last time you enjoyed God?
The first part of the Westminster confession of faith, says this: What is our chief purpose in life? To glorify God and to enjoy him fully. This can be a hard concept for some of us. We might understand God as Father or Provider, but do we know him as Friend? When we think of the Christian life as simply following a list of rules or commandments or even just doing good works, we miss the essence of who God is.
Think of marriage for example. I was at a wedding this year, where the minister stood up and looked at the young and excited couple he was about to marry and said: “now, don’t think of marriage as a prison from which to escape”. And I looked around the room and can reasonably say that I don’t think anyone, especially not the bride and groom, were thinking this. We can look at marriage and say well, it’s good for tax reasons, and security and BOGO events, but if we do this, then we are missing the essence of marriage. We get married because we enjoy the other person and want to enjoy them fully. We have a covenant ceremony to share that enjoyment with those we love. Traditionally, part of that covenant ceremony is the bride removing her veil as she presents herself to her groom.
It’s no accident that the Bible refers to the relationship between Christ and his Church as a marriage. The Church is betrothed to Jesus Christ and we look forward to the day when the groom returns for his bride and we celebrate the marriage supper of the Lamb that we read about in Revelation. And part of our waiting involves enjoying a relationship with him now. The Church is participating in the work of God here on earth but we are also to be like Mary and sit in the presence our Saviour and enjoy him.
We’ve been singing about it in our worship music and we’ll sing a song after the sermon as our response to his Word, that puts it this way - Now you’re making me like you, Clothing me in white, bringing beauty from ashes, For you will have your bride, free of all her guilt and rid of all her shame and known by her true name. And it’s why I sing... It is out of this enjoyment that we praise God.
Part of the way I enjoy God is through music and through dance. There’s a dance company in New York named for the gifted choreographer Alvin Ailey. And one of the pieces he created is called Revelations. It brings together the story of Moses hiding in the rock with the judgement of God we read about in Revelation. We can’t handle God’s judgement or his holiness, we can’t handle seeing his face. That’s why he had to cover Moses as he passed by him.
When Moses goes back down the mountain, he doesn’t know it, but his face is shining. Even though he only got a glimpse of God, his glory was so much that it stayed with Moses. The people see him and they are afraid. It’s too much for them so Moses puts a veil over his face. God had to cover Moses from his glory and now Moses must cover God’s glory from the people. But they see this glory and they know that Moses has been with God. You see, God’s glory can be veiled, but it cannot be contained. When we are spending time in his glory, basking in his presence, worshipping and enjoying God, people will see that in us. We will reflect God’s glory to others.
I’m reminded of a couple of years ago when Bruce and I went to Alaska. We went camping in a small tourist town called Talkeetna. There was pretty much only one street that was lined with little tourist shops and restaurants and hotels. Even though there isn’t much there, it is a hub because it’s where all the hikers gather before they climb Denali, which, at 20,000 feet, is the highest mountain in North America. Hikers gather in Talkeetna, fly in a bush plane to the Kalhiltna glacier which is about 7,000 feet up, and then hike the remaining 13,000 feet to the top. It takes about 13 days to reach the summit if the weather is good, and another two to come down. I remember walking along the street in Talkeetna and knowing exactly who had come back down from the mountain. You could tell right away because of their faces. They were red, except for the outline where their goggles had been. And if you were sitting in a pub and these hikers walked in, people would look at them and clap and then someone would buy them a drink. You could tell by their faces.
What do people see when they look at our faces? Do they see God’s glory? Of course, you and I are in a different situation from Moses. God gave him a covenant but when Jesus came, we received a new covenant. Paul talks about this covenant in 2 Corinthians 3.
We read: Since we have such a hope, we are very bold, not like Moses, who would put a veil over his face so that the Israelites might not gaze at the outcome of what was being brought to an end. But their minds were hardened. For to this day, when they read the old covenant, that same veil remains unlifted, because only through Christ is it taken away. Yes, to this day whenever Moses is read a veil lies over their hearts. But when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.
Remember what happened when Christ died on the cross? The veil in the temple was torn in two. God’s glory was unveiled. It no longer had to be hidden from us. The veil was what separated the people from God. It separated them from the Holy of Holies because anyone who entered and was unworthy would die. When Christ died, there was no longer separation between us and God. Our sinfulness is covered in Christ’s blood so we can be in the presence of God. Christ filled the space that existed between us and God and made a way for us to be in a relationship with God. Not only can we reflect God’s glory, we are being transformed into his image from one degree of glory to another. But the world doesn’t always recognize that glory.
It was obvious in Talkeetna who had climbed the mountain. Just one look up and you see Denali, looming large above you. But I suppose that one day, it could be possible to walk down the street and be so distracted by the souvenir shops and pubs and people that you forget to look up.
Our world is full of people who forget to look up. We can tell and remind them of the gospel. Maybe they are like Moses at the burning bush, seeing God but not knowing who he is. Or maybe they know God’s law but haven’t understood his grace. Maybe they are at the point where they have seen God’s power but have yet to ask for his mercy. My prayer is that everyone will come to a place where, like Moses, you are enjoying a friendship with God; a relationship where you can ask God to show you his glory.
And what is that glory? It’s his goodness. His compassion. His mercy. His power. His justice. May this glory that has been unveiled through Jesus Christ, be reflected in us all.