Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Sermon on Exodus 33:12-23, for the 2nd Sunday after Epiphany, "Favor in God's Sight"



Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The book of Hebrews says this about the prophet Moses: “Now Moses was faithful in all God’s house as a servant, to testify to the things that were to be spoken later, but Christ is faithful over God’s house as a son.” Today in our Old Testament reading, we see Moses interceding for God’s people in a Christ-like way, but also throwing himself completely upon God’s mercy and help. He models Christ, our mediator between God and man, but also models a persistent faith that hangs onto God and seeks His favor and promises.
Why was Moses so earnestly seeking assurances of God’s help? This was just after a serious crisis. A short timeline: Moses had given the 10 Commandments to the people at Mt. Sinai. After that, he went up to the mountain to continue to receive God’s Law. Then, in chapter 32, while Moses was up on the mountain, the whole terrible incident of the golden calf took place. The Israelites fell into gross worship of an idol and sinful revelry, and when Moses came down and saw how they had so quickly abandoned God, who delivered them out of Egypt, he smashed the stone tablets of the 10 Commandments in his anger. But then Moses threw Himself upon God’s mercy and sought forgiveness for them. But at the start of chapter 33, where our reading is found, God swears that He will still keep His promise to bring them into the land He promised to Abraham and their fathers, but God refuses to go with them personally. He refuses because He does not want to destroy them on the way, because of their stubbornness. The next verse says, “when the people heard this disastrous word, they mourned…” (33:4).
It was disastrous to think that the God who had been their deliverer from Egypt, would not go with them to the Promised Land. God did promise to send an angel with them to drive out the nations before them, but He would not personally accompany them. This was a devastating rejection, and while all Israel mourned and repented, it struck Moses the deepest. Our reading begins with Moses begging God to reverse His decision, and amazingly, by the end of the reading, he has been successful! Moses appeals to God’s mercy, and overcomes God’s fully deserved righteous anger.
Would you envy Moses his job of leading the Israelites, who, through 40 years of wandering in the wilderness, would repeatedly disobey, rebel, and complain against him and against the Lord? Do you envy either our outgoing or incoming presidents, in their jobs of leading a divided and conflicted nation? Moses was not only the chief civil leader of Israel, but he was their spiritual leader as well, and coming off the mess of the golden calf incident, he was sure he couldn’t face this job without God’s help! Even the Israelites realized it would be disastrous to not have God with them. Would that all of our leaders would seek God’s help as earnestly as Moses! Would that we were as earnest in prayer and faith as Moses, to seek after God’s favor and blessings! Would that we would recognize how disastrous it is to face life without God’s presence and favor!
Moses, appealing to God, says, “Now 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.” 5 times we hear the phrase, “found favor in your sight.” Moses needs, he insists, on reassurance that he has found favor in God’s sight. Favor describes God’s attitude or disposition towards someone; it’s how He looks upon us—which is why it says this favor is found in God’s eyes. Favor is to be pleased with someone, or to show kindness or mercy toward them. The opposite would be to be displeased, unfavorable, or angry with someone—which is the very thing God had felt towards the idol-worshipping Israelites when they flaunted His first commandment: You shall have no other gods before me.
We too seek after God’s favor, for God to be gracious to us, to look upon us with His favor, and give us His peace. We seek God’s favor because we know that we have sinned, and surely deserve His present and eternal punishment. We should not ask the question “Why do bad things happen to good people?” but rather should ponder, “Why do good things happen to bad people?” Namely, why would God show mercy and kindness to us sinners, who daily forget or worse, ignore and flaunt His commandments? Why would God show favor? In Christ Jesus we know the answer, and that is for the sake of His Son Jesus. Because Jesus came and interceded for our sins, just as Moses interceded for his people. Because Jesus came and sacrificed Himself as the payment for all of our guilt before God. Because Jesus sends His Holy Spirit into our hearts to produce fruits in keeping with repentance—a genuine sorrow over our sins, a faith that seeks His mercy, and the beginnings of a new life that turns away from sin. God shows favor, even to notorious sinners, because they turn to God our Savior and find that He forgives.
Moses humbled himself and asked for assurance of God’s favor. But also notice that he asks if he has found favor, that God would “please show me now your ways, that I may know you in order to find favor in your sight.” A deepening of his relationship and understanding of God and His ways. To know God better. Psalm 25 prays the same; for God to show us His ways and His paths, for God is the God of salvation and forgiveness. The Psalmist sings that God teaches the humble, He shows His steadfastness or loyalty to those who keep His covenant and testimonies, and that God forgives and befriends those who fear Him. Moses was asking for just this, and he received it! The same prayers should be on our lips, to deepen our relationship with God, for us to lead and teach us in the ways of His salvation. That we would learn His just laws, and with a humble and repentant heart that we would seek forgiveness and friendship from God.
The first wonderful turn of events in Moses’ conversation with God is that God agrees with Moses’ request and says Yes, He will send His presence with Moses, and give him rest. Moses successfully prayed for God to reverse His decision, not to go with the Israelites. In several places in the Old Testament where God “changes His mind” like this, it is from judgment towards grace. This shows that at the heart of God, grace takes priority. God does not eagerly desire to judge or punish, but in response to sin, He often must. But when people turn their hearts to God in repentance, God shows many times that He is eager to show mercy. He even says this is part of His very character, in Joel 2:13, “Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love; and he relents over disaster.” God willingly relented because Moses and the Israelites repented, and sought His favor. God would now go with them!
We must likewise take our own sin seriously as we seek to know God’s ways, to understand both His will and commands, but also His mercy and love. Humble yourselves and return to the Lord, and seek God’s presence with the earnestness of Moses. And take comfort in knowing that just as God promised His presence with Moses and the Israelites, so also has Jesus given His disciples this baptismal promise: surely I am with you always, even to the end of the age. We have been called into the waters of baptism and Jesus tells us to learn everything He has commanded. We stand in the favor of God because of the forgiveness of our sins, and because we are known by God (Gal. 4:9).
After two successful requests for God’s presence and favor with His people, Moses makes an even bolder request from God—“Please show me your glory.” Moses learns that God cannot completely fulfill this request—because “you cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live.” The unsettling truth is that our sins are deadly baggage before God’s holiness. Hebrews 12:14 tells us that without holiness, no one will see the Lord, and later, that we should worship God with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire (vs. 28-29). Standing before God with our sins is something like approaching a fire when your clothes and skin are soaked with gasoline. The holiness of God is something too awesome for us to grasp, but it describes His total purity and separation from sin. His total goodness. With our sins, we would perish in God’s presence. Knowing this, for Moses’ own good, God did not grant the request.
But this is what God did allow—He showed Moses His goodness, proclaimed His Name, “The LORD”—which in Hebrew is Yahweh—the Name God revealed Himself by in the burning bush; and God declares to Moses that “I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy.” Finally, God places Moses in a cleft, or small space in a rock, shields him with His hand, and God’s glory passes him by. Moses gets as close to God’s glory as God can safely allow, and as He is walking away from Moses, God removes His hand, so Moses can glimpse the back side of God’s glory, but not His face. Here it becomes clear that Moses is seeing God’s glory in the form of a person. Who is that person? He is the One whom St. John calls the Word became flesh, and we have seen His glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth (John 1:14). For the law was given through Moses, grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, He has made Him known (John 1:17-18).
Jesus is the revealer of God, He is full of God’s glory as the only Son. He is the One who became man so that we can see God’s glory, that we can know God. Jesus is the One who teaches us God’s ways and His paths. Jesus is the One who reveals God’s grace and truth. Just as Moses so earnestly sought to find favor in God’s eyes, for himself and for God’s people, so Jesus has sought and brought God’s favor to us. Not only is He appealing God’s mercy, but He Himself accomplished it for us, by His death on the cross and resurrection. He delivers His salvation to you by faith, through channels of His Gospel proclaimed and believed, through the death and resurrection of baptism into Him, and through His body and blood given and shed for you. God accompanies us, His people, He places His Name upon us and promises His favor to us, as we press on to the promised land of heaven. For all of our sins and failures, for all of the times we have needed the earnest, faithful pleadings of Jesus for our sins, God has answered us faithfully and He is present with His people. Go with Him bold in faith to know that He is with us always, and that in Him we find favor in God’s eyes. In Jesus’ Name, Amen.

Sermon Talking Points
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  1. What major sin crisis had unfolded with the Israelites at Mt. Sinai, in Exodus 32? Fresh after this terrible event, God declares His anger with them and His unwillingness to go with them, in Exodus 33:1-5. In our reading, 33:12-23, how does Moses appeal to reverse God’s decision?
  2. Five times in the reading, it refers to finding favor in God’s sight. Cf. Genesis 6:5. Explain what God’s favor is. Why is it found “in God’s eyes” or “in His sight?” What is the contrasting attitude that God can have toward sinners or the unrepentant?
  3. Read Exodus 33:13 carefully, and examine Moses’ request from God. What did he desire to learn about God, and why? Why is this a model request for us to pray and seek after God? What does it mean for us to learn God’s ways? Psalm 25:4-14.
  4. Moses seeks God’s mercy not only for Himself, but also the nation of Israel, and assurance that God will really be with them. How will this show that Israel was set apart from the other nations? Exodus 33:16; Numbers 14:13-14; Exodus 19:5-6; Psalm 147:19-20.
  5. How has God extended His grace to all nations, and for what reason? Isaiah 49:5-6; Romans 1:16.
  6. After two affirmative answers from God for his requests, Moses makes a third, even bolder request, to see God’s glory. How does this illustrate the boldness of faith? 2 Timothy 1:7. Why should we be bold to make our requests before God? James 1:5-6; Mark 11:24
  7. God shows Moses the “back” of His glory, as He passes by Moses, hiding him in the cleft of the rock. Read and meditate on the hymn “Rock of Ages, Cleft for Me” (LSB 761) and reflect on how it uses the imagery of Moses seeing God’s glory, to our relationship to Jesus.

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