Sermon on Exodus 33:1-23 – “The Presence of God”

Sermon for Sunday, February 6th, 2022 at First Presbyterian Church at Unionville, NY (BPC)

Old Testament reading:

[Exo 33:1-23 ESV] 1 The LORD said to Moses, “Depart; go up from here, you and the people whom you have brought up out of the land of Egypt, to the land of which I swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, saying, ‘To your offspring I will give it.’ 2 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. 3 Go up to a land flowing with milk and honey; but I will not go up among you, lest I consume you on the way, for you are a stiff-necked people.” 4 When the people heard this disastrous word, they mourned, and no one put on his ornaments. 5 For the LORD had said to Moses, “Say to the people of Israel, ‘You are a stiff-necked people; if for a single moment I should go up among you, I would consume you. So now take off your ornaments, that I may know what to do with you.'” 6 Therefore the people of Israel stripped themselves of their ornaments, from Mount Horeb onward. 7 Now Moses used to take the tent and pitch it outside the camp, far off from the camp, and 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 up, and each would stand at his tent door, 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 would speak with Moses. 10 And when all the people saw the pillar of cloud standing at the entrance of the tent, all the people would rise up and worship, each at his tent door. 11 Thus the LORD used to speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend. When Moses turned again into the camp, his assistant Joshua the son of Nun, a young man, would not depart from the tent. 12 Moses said to the LORD, “See, you say to me, ‘Bring up this people,’ but you have not let me know whom you will send with me. Yet you have said, ‘I know you by name, and you have also found favor in my sight.’ 13 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.” 14 And he said, “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.” 15 And he said to him, “If your presence will not go with me, do not bring us up from here. 16 For how shall it be known that I have found favor in your sight, I and your people? Is it not in your going with us, so that we are distinct, I and your people, from every other people on the face of the earth?” 17 And the LORD said to Moses, “This very thing that you have spoken I will do, for you have found favor in my sight, and I know you by name.” 18 Moses said, “Please show me your glory.” 19 And he said, “I will make all my goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you my name ‘The LORD.’ And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. 20 But,” he said, “you cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live.” 21 And the LORD said, “Behold, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock, 22 and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by. 23 Then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back, but my face shall not be seen.”

New Testament reading:

[Act 7:44-53 ESV] 44 “Our fathers had the tent of witness in the wilderness, just as he who spoke to Moses directed him to make it, according to the pattern that he had seen. 45 Our fathers in turn brought it in with Joshua when they dispossessed the nations that God drove out before our fathers. So it was until the days of David, 46 who found favor in the sight of God and asked to find a dwelling place for the God of Jacob. 47 But it was Solomon who built a house for him. 48 Yet the Most High does not dwell in houses made by hands, as the prophet says, 49 “‘Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool. What kind of house will you build for me, says the Lord, or what is the place of my rest? 50 Did not my hand make all these things?’ 51 “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you. 52 Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered, 53 you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it.”

Gospel reading:

[Mat 16:13-20 ESV] 13 Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” 14 And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 15 He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” 16 Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” 17 And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. 18 And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. 19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” 20 Then he strictly charged the disciples to tell no one that he was the Christ.

 

Introduction

The Presence of God is our subject this morning. The Presence of God.

Years ago it was common to speak about the presence a person had. A dignitary or a reverend may be spoken of as a “man of presence.” It is a quality about a person that makes you intensely aware of their being there, of their presence.

Last summer at the national Synod meeting of the Bible Presbyterian Church I gave a speech about the Rev. Dr. John Witherspoon, a Presbyterian minister, president of the College of New Jersey, and signer of the declaration of independence. And researching for that speech I found mention of Witherspoon as a man of great presence. In fact, a contemporary of his, who knew many of the leading men in the colonies, spoke of Witherspoon’s presence as second only to that of General George Washington. When Washington walked into the room, all were aware of his presence. And when Witherspoon arrived you knew he was there. Not because of any flamboyance, but because of his presence, that somewhat indefinable quality about the man – perhaps combined with genuine holiness – that drew your mind’s attention to him and instantly brought your respect.

I. The Presence of God in the Exodus

Greater though than the presence of any man, is the presence of God.

God was present with his people Israel, and they knew it. In the Exodus God was present

– in the burning bush (Exodus 3)

– in the pillar of cloud by day and pillar of fire by night (Exodus 13)

– from above the Ark of the covenant (Exodus 25)

– and in the tabernacle, his dwelling place, this emphasized even with the “Bread of presence.”

God was with his people. He was with them as he took them out of slavery, our of the land of Egypt.

The presence of God was unmistakable. Almost in no other account in the Scriptures are so many miracles of God occurring. And in now place does God speak to a person in as much length as he does here to Moses on the top of Mt. Sinai.

But despite the people’s awareness of God’s presence we have seen that they have at times ignored their God and gone quickly astray. They made a golden calf and worshipped it.

The Lord now threatens to take aware his presence.

He says, “Go up to a land flowing with milk and honey; but I will not go up among you, lest I consume you on the way, for you are a stiff-necked people.”

And this terrified the people. It is called a “disastrous word.” And it is said that they mourned.

II. A Stiff-Necked People

God has spoken of his people as stiff-necked.

This is a metaphor from the farm. When a poorly-trained horse or an ox is pulled by rope one way, they flex the muscles in their necks and go the opposite way.

I don’t have a lot of experience with such large animals as on the farm. But I was once the owner of a one-hundred pound Bernese Mountain Dog. As I started walking this lovable cuddly monster, all he wanted to do was bite the leash and go in the opposite direction. He was stiff-necked, and very strong indeed as the breed was historically used to pull carts in the mountains of Switzerland. It took me almost 3 years to win that battle with my canine-combatant Henry Pawsworth Bigfellow. And even in his later years he would at times revert to his natural stubbornness.

When God speaks of the Israelites as stiff-necked we see that it is because they constantly want to go back to Egypt and to sin. Not just resisting the direction of God, but working against him to head in the opposite direction.

He says “You shall have no other God’s before me.” And “Thou shalt not make a carved image.” And what do they do – they make a golden calf and worship it, replacing the living God with a dead idol.

III. A Threat Diverted

So God threatens to remove his presence from them.

And again Moses acts as mediator asking God not to depart.

Moses says: “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.”

And again God relents, saying

“My presence will go with you and I will give you rest.”

And God says,

“This very thing that you have spoken I will do, for you have found favor in my sight, and I know you by name.”

And God will remain present with his people.

This is a great thing, for the removal of God’s presence is fearful and terrible. Separation from God is the worst of all possible things. Without God we are totally alone and helpless. The evil of the world would rush in upon us if not for the protecting hand of God.

There is a sense in the Scriptures in which God’s presence itself is terrifying. And there is a sense in which his presence brings unspeakable joy and tranquility.

God warns that “you cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live.” God’s presence in that way is overwhelming, more than man can handle.

But God’s presence in another way is what we absolutely need and depend up.

Thus the Psalmist says:

[Psa 51:11 ESV] 11 Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from me.

The greatest thing for us, the greatest thing we can want is God’s presence.

Being separated from God should haunt us. Indeed such separation is associated with hell itself in 2 Thessalonians:

[2Th 1:9 ESV] 9 They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might,

So it is that all who have sinned must be reunited with God to have his presence and therefore to have eternal joy.

We saw that the stiff-necked-ness (not nakedness, it’s ok to have a naked neck) continues in the New testament. In Stephen’s speech in Acts he points out that nothing changed with regards to the people then:

51 “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you.

It was a national trait, to be opposed to God.

And this sinful attitude continues in our day.

But praise be to God that he has reunited us through our Lord Jesus Christ so that God’s presence is with us.

[Eph 2:13-15 ESV] 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14 For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility 15 by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace,

You who were far off have been drawn near to God.

We even have the Holy Spirit dwelling within us. So we say “Gracious spirit, dwell with me” knowing this to be a reality.

Application 1:The Presence of God assures us that our evangelical efforts will be successful.

God is present with us as we work for Him. And He will achieve His ends. All of His own will come to him and one day be in his presence. His word will not return void.

Application 2: The presence of God brings us great peace.

It is not to bring us fear because we know that we are saved through Jesus Christ. And we know that our God who is present will never depart. We have the promise of 2 Corinthians 4:14 “he who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and bring us with you into his presence.”

Application 3: We have the promise of God’s presence even when we don’t feel like it.

His presence doesn’t decrease when we have sinned or when we are feeling low. God’s presence is eternal and full. Jesus promises, “I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

God is present, even for you. Even though you have been stif-necked, God is present in your life and in you because we have a mediator better than Moses, we have the Lord Jesus Christ who has turned aside from us the wrath of God and brought us into God’s presence for our joy and peace. So let us indeed be joyful and have peace in our hearts and minds.

So I’ve got some homework for you. Sometime soon, this week, take a moment to consider God’s presence. To see Him active in our world. In the beauty of the world. In the beauty of music. In the immensity of it all. Consider God’s presence on this earth in the person of Jesus Christ. And consider the presence of the Holy Spirit within you. Let not that idea become “old hat.” Let it not become boring. We have the Holy Spirit of God within us!

Consider the presence of God in your life. And if you cannot see it, consider what blinders you have on. You’ll see God’s presence in his church, but you must come to church. You’ll see God’s presence in his word but you must read it. You’ll see God’s presence in prayer but you must pray. The Lord indeed is present. He’ll even make himself know through our blinders, but we can see much better with them off.

Let us end then with same blessing Jude gives at the end of his epistle:

[Jde 1:24-25 ESV] 24 Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy, 25 to the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen.