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Will God Be With Us? / Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost

Exodus 33:12-23

13Now therefore, if I have found favor in Your sight, please show me now Your ways, that I may know You in order to find favor in Your sight. Consider too that this nation is Your people.”

Have you ever felt desperate for just a few minutes of time by yourself? We all need “alone time” occasionally to clear our head and relieve a little stress. So it is hard to imagine what it’s like for prominent people, like the President of the United States, who never get a single moment alone.

There are over 1,300 Secret Service agents who serve as the security detail for the President, the Vice President, and their family members. It’s their job to ensure that our nation’s most powerful leaders are never alone. In fact, before the President travels anywhere, an advance team of agents travels to the location and arranges all the details for a safe, smooth trip. They oversee the preparation of all the President’s meals. If the President has a hobby, such as horseback riding, jogging, or hunting, then a few members of his or her security detail also have to learn the finer points of the hobby so they can assist the President in his downtime.

And maybe it’s a good thing Presidents never get alone time. When they’re alone, strange things can happen. According to one White House story, early in the days of President Jimmy Carter’s administration, he was using a restroom near the Oval Office and pressed a button that he assumed would flush the toilet. Unfortunately, it was a panic button, meant to summon immediate help in the event of any danger.

Secret Service agents with guns drawn jerked open the bathroom door and swarmed the room, much to President Carter’s embarrassment. President Ronald Reagan made some of his Secret Service agents dress up as the Easter Bunny so they could guard him at the annual White House Easter Egg roll in 1984.

It takes a special commitment to stick with someone 24 hours per day, seven days a week for years at a time. I would imagine that if the agents do their job well, the President occasionally forgets they’re even there. It would be easy to take them for granted.

I’m sure you’ve probably heard the story about a priest who was trying to teach his congregation a liturgical response to open the worship service. From now on, as he opened every worship service with the declaration: the Lord be with you. With the response: And also with you. He practiced it with them until it became natural for them. The next Sunday, as the priest stood in the pulpit and affixed his lapel mic to his robe, he offhandedly said, there’s something wrong with this mic. And his congregation responded with enthusiasm, and also with you!

We all want to know that the Lord is with us. That’s why we come to church or pray or read the Bible. We know that there’s more to this world than what we experience through our five senses. We want to know that there is a Way, a Truth and a Life far beyond our daily grind. We believe that we find ourselves and the meaning of our lives in knowing God.

So, why is it so easy to take God’s presence in our lives for granted? If we really believed that the Almighty God, the I AM, the Creator of the universe is always with us, listening to our prayers, closer than our very breath, wouldn’t we be overwhelmed with wonder and gratitude and joy? And yet, that’s not how we live, is it?

Let me ask you to consider an alternate scenario: what if you could have all the good things in life, the things that we, as Christians, refer to as “blessings”, but didn’t have God? Would that be enough to make you happy? How long would it take you to notice His absence? What if you could have health and wealth and security and an easy life but not have the presence of God, or any relationship with God? What if God just left you alone?

That’s the issue Moses confronts in our Bible passage today, and that’s the issue that we contend with in our lives as followers of Jesus Christ. Which do we want more, the “blessings” of God or God’s own self?

Our Bible passage last week from Exodus 32, the people of Israel put their faith in Moses instead of in God. When Moses was away, they build a golden calf as a substitute god, an object of worship. They broke the covenant with the God who created them, who called them, who freed them from slavery and restored their identity as God’s chosen people. And the result is separation from God, widespread death and suffering among the Israelites.

This week in chapter 33, God tells Moses that He is still going to fulfill His promise to the children of Israel. Not because they deserve it, of course, but because God is always faithful to His promises. They will enter Canaan, the Promised Land, a land flowing with milk and honey. In fact, an angel of the Lord will go before them to drive out the other inhabitants of the land. God has arranged everything to provide abundance, prosperity, and safety for His people. The only catch is God won’t be going with them. So, let me ask you again: is it enough to have the Promised Land without the presence of God?

In verse 12 of our passage today, Moses says to the Lord, “You have been telling me, ‘Lead these people,’ but You have not let me know whom You will send with me. You have said, ‘I know You by name and You have found favor with me.’ If You are pleased with me, teach me Your ways so I may know You and continue to find favor with You. Remember that this nation is Your people.”

Do you hear the deepest yearning of Moses’ heart? In his opinion, there is no blessing that compares to knowing God and God’s ways. Do we believe that too?

The highest dream we could ever dream, the wish that if granted would make us happier than any other blessing, is to know God, to actually experience Him. The problem is that we don’t believe this idea is true. We agree to it in our heads. But we don’t feel it in our hearts.

Moses believed this because he experienced it. He was in God’s presence and experienced God’s goodness. Even though he witnessed God perform awesome miracles on behalf of His people, if Moses had to choose between God’s awesome miracles or God’s continuing presence, it was no contest. He wanted to know God.

The Lord replied, My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.

That’s a comforting assurance from God. There are just two little problems with it. The English translation of this first phrase is wrong. The Lord says to Moses, My Presence will go, but there is no “with you.” Bible translators added the “with you,” but it’s not there in the original Hebrew. The Lord may be going to Canaan, but He will not be going with His people.

And the second problem, which shows up in the second phrase . . . and I will give you rest. In the Hebrew, the word “you” in this phrase is in the singular. The Lord is offering to go with Moses and give him rest. But what about the children of Israel? Has their sin separated them forever from the Lord? Has God finally given up on Israel?

I read an article about the strange and funny ways people have resigned from their jobs. In the article, one man quit his office job and left an out-of-office email message full of stupid quotes he had collected from his bosses and senior executives. Anytime anyone sent him a professional email, they would automatically receive his out-of-office email with the stupid quotes from the company’s senior management. It took more than a week for the IT department at his company to disable his email account.

Would you have blamed Moses if he had chosen to quit? Would you have blamed God if He had given up on us? It must have been tempting to both Moses and God to throw up their hands and to walk away. They had endured the complaining and the idolatry and the recklessness of the Israelites long enough. God was giving Moses a way out. It’s okay, Moses. You don’t have to lead these stiff-necked people anymore. I’ll withdraw my presence from them, but everything will work out fine for you.

But Moses said to the Lord, If your Presence does not go with us, do not send us up from here. How will anyone know that You are pleased with me and with Your people unless You go with us? What else will distinguish me and Your people from all the other people on the face of the earth? Moses made his choice crystal clear: all the blessings of the Promised Land mean nothing if God isn’t with them.

The greatest blessing in life is knowing God and living in God’s presence. That was God’s original plan for humanity, and its still God’s plan that will be accomplished when God’s Kingdom is established on the earth. You have made us for Yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You.

As Moses discovered, to truly know God, we must know God’s glory and God’s goodness. God’s glory is a concrete manifestation of divine presence that interacts with people. Glory and goodness are the essential, integral, definitive qualities of God. They can’t be separated from one another because they’re God’s very nature. When Moses asked to see God’s glory, the Lord replied, I will cause all My goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim My name, the LORD, in your presence. I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.

In spite of their unfaithfulness, in spite of their sins, God shows them mercy and compassion. And God does the same thing for us today, even though we don’t deserve it any more than they do. God’s character never changes. That’s why more than 1,400 years after God led the Israelites into the Promised Land, God’s glory would be revealed again in the person of Jesus Christ. As the apostle John would write about Jesus’ coming into the world, And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth (John 1:14).

God never gives up on His people. God never stops trying to restore humanity. That’ the greatness and the goodness and the awesome nature of God. That’s God’s glory. There’s no blessing that compares to knowing God and living in God’s presence.

Our circumstances, good or bad, aren’t a measure of God’s blessings. Our health, wealth, happiness, security, or success isn’t a measure of God’s blessings. Knowing God and living in God’s presence, those are the greatest blessings in life. It’s in God that we find the Way, the Truth and the Life. It’s in God that we find ourselves and our purpose. You have made us for Yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You.