Scriptures: Exodus 33:12-23; Psalm 99; 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
The Presence of God
Before I get into the central part of my sermon, I did want to mention a couple of things with regards to the Exodus passage, a couple of notes. It's the kind of thing that normally goes in the Bible study, but I mention these because I thought one of these would be one of interest to you, and the other because it is important to our understanding of today's sermon.
The thing I thought would be of interest to you is that, even though Moses saw only God's backside, or His back – and there are lots of interpretations about what that means – the glory of God was so great that when Moses came down from the mountain, it was reflecting off his face, and was so bright people couldn't look at him, so he had a wear a veil over his face, from the time he spent with God, even just the “backside” of the glory of God.
The second thing that I want to mention is, while I don't know if your translations have it in italics or brackets or anything like, verse 14 where it says, “My presence shall go with you, and I will give you rest,” and then in verse 15 when Moses says “If your presence does not go with us, do not lead us up from here,” that might be confusing to you folks, as written.
That's because the Hebrew doesn't have the words “with us” in what God says in verse 14. Translators have put that in because they thought that would make it easier for us to understand, although if God promises His presence will go “with you,” then there's no reason for Moses to say what he says. So what it actually says is that God says, “My presence shall go, and I will give you rest.” That is why Moses then says, “If your presence does not go with us, do not lead us up from here.”
Prior to the verses that we have here in this passage, in verses 1-11, God makes several statements to Moses about His covenant relationship with His people. I think it's important for us to understand today the stress that Moses puts on the presence of God. You see, Moses had the promise of God, to get the people to a new land. That was why God brought them up out of Egypt. Moses had the past with God, where God showed His faithfulness to His word and to His people, through the wilderness, and bringing them up from Egypt and protecting them.
Moses knew the power of God, both through the miracles where God worked on His own during the Exodus, when there was a pillar of fire by night and a pillar of cloud by day that went before them and and blocked the Pharaoh's army from attacking them until they could get across the Red Sea, and in a number of other places, and of course Moses himself, when acting as God's messenger and prophet, had experienced the power of God directly, through the plagues and the other miracles that he did, including parting the Red Sea.
So he had the promise, the past, and the power of God. Moses had all that. God had just affirmed it, in the previous verses. Yet it wasn't enough. When God said, “I'm going to go, and I will give you rest,” the rest, perhaps, being from God and His terrifying power, Moses says, “Don't do that.” Moses wanted the presence of God to go with him. Right there in that moment, even after hearing God reiterate His promise to provide for His people, and keep them safe as they went into the land they had been promised, Moses demands God's presence.
Why was (and is) God's immediate presence so important? Moses had all the other stuff. And God, we know, is faithful, and Moses knew He was faithful to His promises, so he knew he would have those things. He would have protection. He would have power. He would have guidance.
Why does Moses require God's presence, to the point that he says, “If your presence doesn't go with us, don't lead us from this mountain. Don't take us into the Promised Land. I'd rather be here, in the wilderness, with You, than in the Promised Land without you.” He doesn't say that directly, but certainly that is what is implied.
He says, “For how can it be known that I have found favor in Your sight, and your people, unless you go with us?” So that's the “excuse,” you might say, that he gives. And he mentions a couple of other traits that can occur, that are pointed to by the presence of God. So let's review some of these blessings associated with God's presence with us.
The first thing, from verse 14 itself, says that God's presence gives us rest. You'll live at rest, knowing God has everything under control. Noticed that rest, being at rest, doesn't mean that you are doing nothing. It doesn't mean that you're sleeping. When you are at rest, it means that you are at peace, both in your relationship with God and with the world.
God speaks of His rest elsewhere in the Scriptures, both Old and New Testament. It's related to the Sabbath day. And being at rest in God is something that is different than simply resting. So you can be at rest, be assured, be at peace, knowing that God is in control.
God's presence proves we have found favor with God. Now, we don't have God's visible presence the way they did. So for us, it's more of an internal thing than an external thing, that we have found favor with God.
Those days, when Moses was leading the Israelites, through a land that had many gods, having the presence of your God there was very important for two reasons. Number one, it showed that you had the favor of God, and number two, it showed the power of God, because most deities were bound by sort of geographical limits, if you will.
Each country had their own god, and each god was supposedly supreme within that country's borders. A lot of times, when one country invaded another, whoever won, their god would then take over the religion of that other country, the loser, because their god had proven superior.
Yet the God of the Israelites went everywhere. He had no boundaries. He was with His people wherever they were. And that was unique. That was different. And it showed that they had favor with God.
God's presence distinguishes us from all other people. One of the basic differences between Christians and non-Christians is the fact of the presence of God. We Christians have been assured of God's presence with us – Emmanuel, God with us – while others are struggling in the darkness, looking for some kind of assurance in their lives.
So the challenge for us becomes, is our lifestyle different from our non-Christian friends in schools, universities, or workplaces? We need to be mindful of our speech, conduct, and walk, as it says, for instance, in the letter of Peter, to demonstrate that we are different, and that we are blessed with God's holy presence in our lives.
Moses knew that it was God's presence in Israel that set the people apart from all other nations, and the same is true of the Church of Christ today. Bob mentioned earlier that Roger went to the Dairy Barn and everybody kind of moved away from him, because people were afraid of the presence of the COVID-19. We would hope that the presence of God would draw people to us, as they would see that we are different, in a way that is winsome and appealing to them.
We become reliable. We become able to be confidants, because we'll hold things in prayer and confidentiality. We become folks that other folks can be vulnerable to, because we won't condemn, because that's God's job. It doesn't mean that we will condone what is wrong, because we won't do that either. But even as Jesus said to the woman who committed adultery, “Does no one condemn you? Neither do I. Go and sin no more.”
We recognizing the wrong, but tell them that we love them despite that. So they know that they are loved, and that is due to the presence of God with us. You see, we have someone who loves us always and continuously, even when we have screwed up. (I'm getting a little ahead of myself here.)
God's presence creates a desire for God's glory. Because Moses knew the presence of God, he wanted to see more of God. He wanted to see the glory of God. Why? Not so that he could sit there and think, “Score one for me,” but rather so that he could worship God and give God praise for His glory.
The more of God's glory you see, the more you are going to worship. That's what it says about us, when we get into heaven, as it tells us in Revelation and other places, when we see God face to face. There's a great song, which I've mentioned before, and I encourage you to listen to it if you have access to YouTube. Look up “I Can Only Imagine.” It's about a song about what might happen when we see God, and we fully see His glory. It's a great song. If you have God's presence in your life, you will experience God's divine order, which is part of His glory.
There was an illustration from Reader's Digest, an agnostic's woman's thoughts about God and His presence. She said, “Over the years, I've come to think I'm missing out. My friends and relatives who rely on God – the real believers, not just the church-goers – have an expansiveness of spirit. When they walk along the stream, they don't just see water falling over rocks. the sight fills them with ecstasy. They see a realm of hope beyond this world. I just see a babbling brook. I don't get the message.”
That is the message, which of course Psalms speaks of, where all creation proclaims of the glory of God. And we can gain ecstasy from that. We can see God's glory in that, as Creator, and give Him praise and worship, and we have hope because of that knowledge of who God is.
And it should make us different. What that woman observed was the effect of God's presence on people. She saw the joy and the pleasure God brought to the lives of Christians. It was so subtle and yet so exciting that it literally made her jealous.
Now mind you, there was no indication from the article that she became a Christian. But she noticed the difference, and that's what we're supposed to do. We're not responsible for other people's decisions. We're responsible for being imitators of Christ, as Paul said in the passage from Thessalonians we read today. We're responsible for sharing the good news of the gospel.
Without God's presence in our lives and in our church, life would be empty and without purpose. With God's presence with us, we know what we are to do. God gives us purpose. The first question of the Westminster Shorter Catechism asks, “What is the chief end [purpose] of humankind?” And the answer is? [Congregation answers.] “To glorify God and enjoy Him forever.”
God's presence is an assurance that He will never leave us nor forsake us. That goes all the way from Joshua 1, where God promises that to Joshua, to Jesus himself, when he was speaking to the disciples at the Last Supper.
God's presence provides guidance. In Psalm 16, David praises God, saying, “You have made known to me the path of life. You will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand.”
God's presence is with us. He doesn't just leave a signpost, or maybe a map, although the Bible can provide both of those things. I don't know about you. but I'm not a very good navigator. My dad was a navigator. He was actually an EW in the Air Force, and he could read maps, he could read the stars. I can't even find the North Star most times. You all know how directionally-impaired I am. During the day (when the stars can't be used for direction) it's hopeless.
But God's presence can provide us guidance, so that we know the way to go, according to the plan that He has made. And we can know that ultimately, no matter what that trial is at the moment, it will work to good. That's the promise that Paul spoke of in Romans: “All things work to good for those that love the Lord and are called according to his purposes.” According to His plan.
God's omnipresence gives both comfort and warning. It's an awesome feeling to be surrounded by God's presence, all the time and at all places. When we read those verses mentioned above, we're comforted to know that God is everywhere and can feel assured of His care and His kindness
But it's also a warning, isn't it, that we can never escape from His presence nor can we hide ourselves from Him? Psalm 139 asks “Where can I go from your spirit, where can I hide from your love?” He talks about going all the way to the pit of Sheol, the place of the dead, and to the heavens. He says, “The darkness is not dark to You. It's like noon.”
It's a warning to us, that we should not involve ourselves in anything that grieves the Holy Spirit. Even when no one sees us doing anything, God watches over us, and we need to be careful with our conduct. How is it that the saying goes? Character is proved by what you do when no one's around to see you.
That includes our Christian character. Of course, we have the caveat that there's never a time when there's no one around to see us. Because God always does. And that should give us an impulse and an impetus to do what is right.
We are under protection while in God's presence. Certainly the Israelites were. As long as He was with them, they won. They would win their battles, They were protected from obliteration. They are still around today. Many countries, many civilizations, have come and have gone, even great ones like the Romans, the Babylonian Empire, the Assyrian Empire, the Mongols. They're all gone. Yet the Jews remain, with an intact culture.
Why is that? They've never been a large people. They've never been incredibly powerful, even during the time of Solomon. Egypt was bigger. So was Assyria. It's because they were being protected by God's presence. They're God's people, and He will protect them. And you know what? We're God's people too. We've been adopted into the family of God by our faith in Jesus Christ.
There's something about the reality of God's presence that nothing can ever replace. It has a powerful, almost unseen effect on God's people, but if you pay attention, you can sense it, and it should give you comfort and assurance.
Lastly, the presence of God is promised to be with us as Christians forever. That was what was different between what Moses had and what we have. Moses had asked for God's presence to stay with them. Now don't get me wrong, I don't think that God ever intended on leaving. But Moses had to ask, and it says that God was pleased when he did, that apparently God's presence was more important to Moses than all that other stuff that God had already given him.
Well, we have something better, because Christ has promised us that the Holy Spirit, the Comforter, would come and be with us forever. What Moses didn't have, we have through Christ. And that should bring you joy. That should bring you comfort. That should bring you rest, peace, assurance.
Know that God is with you, wherever you go, whomever you're with, and He's always going to be on your side. Share that news. Share that joy. Share that love.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.