November 5, 2023
Scripture Reading: Exodus 33:1-11
This is probably shaping up to be my last sermon on the early stories of our faith from Genesis and Exodus. In one way, we are leaving these Israelites at a very fragile part of their journey and development as Beloved Community. We might wonder if they are ever going to make it together. It’s a marriage turned rocky!
They’re in the middle of the desert, on a 40 year journey together, they have just received from God through Moses the guidelines for living as a gathered people – the 10 Commandments! And they immediately and grievously violated their pledge of faithfulness to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. They came dangerously close to trading God in on a sculpture of a calf! Like a child on a long journey trapped in a car for hours on end who finally erupts in a rage: “I wish you weren’t my mother. I wish I was Mrs. Jones’ child!”
Like a young child, the Israelites seemed to have no idea how deeply they had wounded God until God said to Moses: “Go, leave this place, you and the people whom you have brought up out of the land of Egypt (Are you noticing here that the author has God saying “you” and not “we”?), and go to the land of which I swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, saying, ‘To your descendants I will give it.’ I will send an angel before you, and I will drive out the Canaanites, the Amorites, the Hittites, the
Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. Go up to a land flowing with milk and honey, but I will not go up among you, or I would consume you on the way, for you are a stiff-necked people.” (Exodus 33:1-3)
What a hard place for Moses! On the one hand, the Israelites are ready to demote their One and only God for a statue of a calf. On the other hand, God is ready to resign as captain of the ship and send an angel in his stead!
If you were Moses, I’d think you’d be wondering who was going to jump out first – the bratty kids in the back seat or God the driver! There’s nothing like a long road trip to find out where the pressure points are! It’s the story of living together in Beloved Community, isn’t it? You always wonder about the beloved part.
It’s just like a marriage. If you tuned into the conversation at specific places such as in the heart of a heated argument, you would be sure the whole arrangement was in shatters. It turns out that the thing that saved this community from totally disintegrating was the spiritual life of one person – Moses! In the middle of this huge relationship-ending squabble, the text breaks and focuses on a singular habit Moses had apparently kept from the beginning of this journey:
Now Moses used to take the tent and pitch it outside the camp, far off from the camp; he called it the tent of meeting. And everyone who sought the Lord would go out to the tent of meeting, which was outside the camp. 8 Whenever Moses went out to the tent, all the people would rise and stand, each of them, at the entrance of their tents and watch Moses until he had gone into the tent. 9 When Moses entered the tent, the pillar of cloud would descend and stand at the entrance of the tent, and the Lord[b] would speak with Moses. 10 When all the people saw the pillar of cloud standing at the entrance of the tent, all the people would rise and bow down, all of them, at the entrance of their tent. 11 Thus the Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend. Then he would return to the camp, but his young assistant, Joshua son of Nun, would not leave the tent. (Exodus 33:7-11)
Here is a man who had one essential passion in his life: MORE THAN ANYTHING, HE WANTED TO KNOW GOD AND TO WALK WITH GOD MORE THAN ANYTHING ELSE IN THE WORLD. How would you answer the question: “What is your one great passion in your life?” It wasn’t the creative Israelites who saved the day. It wasn’t the artisans who carved the golden calf. It wasn’t a committee or a general, or a politician. It was one man who loved God more than anything else in the world and who determined that he would not give up this life-long quest until he had learned everything a human can learn about the heart of God!
How did he go about that? We don’t have nearly all the answers to that question. But there is one clue and the author of Exodus inserts it right in the middle of the big family fight – In the middle of a crisis over who is going to remain faithful to the covenant between Israel and God. The one hint we have as to why Moses was able to salvage what remained of the Beloved Community is this habit of Moses to regularly practice meeting God and talking to God in a tent just outside the camp.
I’m going to do like the author of Exodus and interrupt this sermon with a little piece of religious history: The Quakers don’t have churches. They don’t have statues or fancy instruments to play. They don’t have buildings that knock your socks off when you see them. And, they don’t have bulletins or orders of worship. They just have Meeting Houses designed with only one thing in mind: coming together to meet one another in the Beloved Community face to face and to meet God. They
don’t always pull off their goal of meeting God every Sunday, but it’s their intent.
And it was Moses’s direct encounter with God that saved the day. He made his appeal to God with a “How could you do that after what you promised.” And you can’t believe the result: Both God and Israelites repented, Moses went back up the mountain for another copy of the 10 Commandments after he had shattered the first engravings and everyone re-pledged themselves to being Beloved Community one more time!
This thing of encountering the Living God and standing in the gap for your people is no walk in the park. Sometimes it can be great joy. Other times it can be more like a wrestling match! It can be profound insight or total bafflement. You can come to the edge of splitting or to grand reunions. It is amazing that either humans or God keep on showing up for these meetings sometimes. I’m afraid that few ever dare to enter the place of meeting. Some get as far as their own door steps where they wait. Some never notice those who actually enter. Some, like Joshua, watch their mentor’s every move to see if they can pick up some hints about this person of passion who will never be satisfied until they have learned all they can about the One who has called them to be God’s friend.
May God raise us among us people with passion to know God! To even dare to ask to see God’s face! And to be a healing and redeeming presence in our church, our nation, and the world.