Preached at Wycliffe Hall Chapel
20th April 2016: Morning Prayer
Psalm 135; Exodus 33; Luke 3:15-22
Gracious God, pour out your Holy Spirit upon us that in our poor speaking and weak hearing we may discern your voice and see your glory in the face of Jesus Christ, in whose name we pray. Amen.
“Show me your glory,” Moses asks the Almighty. He’s got some chutzpah, hasn’t he? Surely he was already pushing his luck pleading with God not to destroy the Israelites for their peccadillo with the golden calf. Their action, after all, was tantamount to committing adultery on the wedding night. And to make matters worse, we’re told they pawned their engagement ring to pay for their night with a prostitute—the jewellery they plundered from the Egyptians, the riches that were a down payment on richer blessings still to come.
God had paid for Israel. He had bought her freedom from slavery. And it was for that very reason that the first of God’s Ten Commandments was that he didn’t want them fooling around with other gods. Surely God was well within His rights to end it, to end them, right there in the wilderness. But Moses not only pleads for this ragtag band of sorry losers, he pleads for them by insinuating that dumping Israel in the desert would make God look bad, that it would play poorly in the Egyptian newspapers the next morning.
That Moses’ intercession should see the Lord relent of His white-hot rage was surely victory enough. But alas, it appears not. God tells the people to leave Horeb, to take possession of the land He had promised to their ancestors and to enjoy its milk and its honey. To push the matrimonial metaphor a little further, God tells the Israelites to take the wedding presents, go on the honeymoon and live in the marital home He’d prepared for them. Now to me, that sounds like grace. It is far more than this wretched people deserves. But the catch is: God Himself will not be going up among them.
Moses hears this for the disastrous word it is. Canaan may have been the land God promised to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, but he knew there was no promise to be found in the land without the presence of God. And so, Moses does the unthinkable. He does something that most of us probably would hesitate to do in our pastoral counselling. He pleads the victim of adultery to come back and live with the partner who had defiled their marriage bed with a prostitute on their first night together. It’s not enough for God to send His angel ahead of them. Unless the very presence of God Himself goes with them, all is lost.
I wonder whether we hear God’s word for the devastating word that it is, or whether we are really more interested in God’s blessings than God Himself. Do we hear God’s words, “Take the house, take the car, take the money,” and mourn because God also says, “I will not go up among you”? The Israelites were at least able to recognise what a hole they were in unless God went with them. And so, they stripped themselves of their ornaments, the ornaments they used to fuel their sin, and dressed themselves before God as the poor beggars they now knew they were.
The camp now polluted, Moses goes and pitches the tent of meeting “outside the camp, far off from the camp.” The Israelites’ sin had thrust a wedge between them and God. And yet, grace upon grace, God continued to meet to with Moses there. The people would stand at the entrance of their tents, see the pillar of cloud indicating that God had not completely withdrawn His presence from them, and they worshipped. Here in this tent we meet a God who, though ineffably, unspeakably holy, simply will not be deterred from approaching us. Still God comes to His messed-up, good-for-nothing, deadbeat people. He will not be stopped.
Moses would not even contemplate going forward without God and he begs God to extend the favour he personally enjoys towards the people as a whole. Eventually, God relents. After all, this is a God whose desire is, and always has been, to be God-With-Us. It is as a pledge of the favour he has with God and that God truly will dwell among the people without destroying them that Moses makes his bold request, “Show me your glory.” In Hebrew, the verb is in the causative form, the hiphil: “Make me to see your glory.” Moses knows well enough that we don’t see God through any resources of our own. God is the Subject as well as the Object of revelation. All knowledge of God comes from the side of God.
“Show me your glory,” says Moses. And God says, “I will show you my goodness.” God’s goodness is His glory, a glory known more in mercy than in majesty. God’s goodness is God’s willingness to maintain His presence among a people who have so successfully demonstrated their skill at betraying Him. The goodness God shows to Moses is that He should deign to come so close as to brush past him as he hides in the rock. God’s glory is God’s presence. More precisely, God’s glory is God’s presence with us. That the Creator God should dwell among finite human beings is remarkable enough; that He should choose to be in relationship with those who have a track record of infidelity and betrayal is frankly astounding.
God’s glory is to be seen in His self-deprecating willingness to be God-With-Us; to be born in poverty, to grow up in obscurity, to live the life of a restless peripatetic, to be mocked, betrayed, denied and abandoned, and finally to die on a cross beside two criminals. The cross is the inevitable consequence of God’s decision to be God-With-Us. For this is our response to love. For God to be God-With-Us is for God to be vulnerable with people He knows full well are going to hurt Him. But God’s goodness is His refusal to be safe. If a holy God was going to dwell with wretched sinners like us, it was clear that one of us was going to die. We just didn’t expect it to be Him.
In Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and ascension, we see a better Moses pleading the case for God’s presence among sinful humanity, and His intercession being heard. Moses could only see God’s back, the “afterglow of the effulgence of His presence,” as Robert Alter puts it. Anybody who has looked into the face of Jesus Christ on the cross has seen God’s glory head-on. Is it any wonder, then, that so many should turn away in horror from the sight of a God whose glory is a cross? It is a truly terrible sight, and one that only God can make us to see the glory of.
We adore you, O Christ, and we bless you, because by your holy cross, you have redeemed the world. Amen.