Summary: God is a God who rescues his people, who continues to love them and forgive despite their repeated rebellion, and who chooses to come and dwell among them.
One of the questions we’re faced with more and more at the end of the 20th century, as we interact with other people, in this multi-faith, multicultural society of ours, is, ’how is our understanding of spiritual things different from that of others?’ More particularly how is our understanding of God different from theirs? If we think that Christianity is unique, that it’s different from the other religions of the world, then where does that difference lie? It’s one of the common questions that people will raise when you’re talking to them about your faith. Why should I believe in your God when there are all these other Gods out there? Why can’t I just find the good things in all the world’s religions and come up with my own way of worshipping God?
Well, in today’s reading from Exodus, we find something about the God of Israel, and the God of Christians, that I believe is unique. We find described here, a God who breaks down all the stereotypes of the vengeful God of the Old Testament and who at the same time shows himself to be so different from the gods of human imagining.
In fact the picture we get of God in this passage is no different from the picture given throughout the book of Exodus, but here it’s all brought together.
But first, lets look at the context in which the passage is brought to us. If you were here a couple of weeks ago you may remember the episode with the golden calf. Do you remember how in Moses’ absence the people convinced Aaron to make a god for them out of their gold jewellery: a golden calf that they could worship as though it were the god that had brought them out of Egypt? And do you remember how angry God was at what they had done? At the way they’d so quickly forgotten what he’d said to them about making images to worship?
Well, as a result of that act of disobedience, chapter 33 begins with God telling Moses to start off again for the promised land, but that God wouldn’t be going with them. Instead he’d send an angel to show them the way. This, he says in v4, wasn’t because he was trying to punish them. Rather, it was for their own good, because he’d seen how stiff-necked they were and if he went with them he might end up destroying them on the way because of some further act of disobedience. Do you remember how he was about to wipe them out in ch. 32 when Moses intervened and pleaded for mercy on their behalf? God could see that the same thing was likely to happen again, so it might be better if he wasn’t with them.
Well Moses isn’t put off by what’s really another test of his leadership. He tells the people to take off all their ornaments as a sign of repentance and perhaps also because their ornaments are a reminder of the golden calf, and he pleads with God to change his mind and go with them. But notice the basis on which he asks.
First he pleads that God will go with them on the basis of God’s call to him. He says "You called me to lead these people to a place that I will show you and you haven’t yet showed me where it is." In other words, you can’t go back on your promise now. You promised to lead us, so keep on leading us. Then he pleads on the basis of God’s assessment of Moses himself. He says (v12): "You have said "I’ve found favour with you", so keep on leading me and teaching me so I’ll keep on finding favour in your sight. Don’t leave me now, I’m only just getting the hang of it!" Thirdly he pleads, as he has before, on the basis of God’s choice of Israel: He says "Remember that this nation is your people." He says "If you’re not going to go with us, it’d be better for us to stay where we are." He seems to be thinking "At least here we can talk to God on his holy mountain."
Then we find the first thing that distinguishes God from all other Gods. He tells Moses he will do as he asks. Why? Because he’s pleased with him and, what? Because "I know you by name." God is a God who knows us by name. That is, who has a personal relationship with his people. Di and I went to a function at Di’s school the other day to farewell the outgoing head. And as I walked in I looked around and there was no-one there that I recognised. But then as I looked further I saw one or two people that we’d had dinner with some time ago and I could even remember their names. The rest were total strangers but there was something comforting about knowing that there were 2 or 3 people whose names I knew, because knowing their names indicated some sort of relationship. Now I don’t want to take that idea too far because there are obviously plenty of people in this day of world news reports, whose names I know but with whom I don’t have a personal relationship. But that’s the idea behind this expression of God about Moses. Moses is referred to elsewhere as the friend of God. And the fact that Israel as a nation was known as God’s special people was also a sign that God had chosen to form a personal relationship with them.