ADOTS Morning Prayer
Fr. John A. Roop
Friday, 26 March 2021
A Reflection on Exodus 33: I Will Not Go Up Among You
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The story of Israel sometimes reads like a lurching from one crisis to another, with only brief periods of stability between. But this crisis — this incident with the golden calf at Sinai — seems different somehow; this feels like an existential crisis, like the relationship between God and Israel is frayed and near to breaking.
Exodus 32:9–10 (ESV): 9 And the Lord said to Moses, “I have seen this people, and behold, it is a stiff-necked people. 10 Now therefore let me alone, that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them, in order that I may make a great nation of you.”
Moses intercedes for Israel, implores God on their behalf, appealing to God’s reputation — What will the Egyptians say? — and to God’s covenant faithfulness: “Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, to whom you swore by your own self” (cf Ex 32:13 ff). Who knows what might have happened had Moses not stood in the breach?
But, there are consequences to Israel’s idolatry. In anger, Moses shatters the tablets of the Law at the foot of the mountain just as Israel had shattered them at the foot of the golden calf. At Moses’ command the sons of Levi purify the people with blood — killing some three thousand of their kinsmen — and, in the process, they are ordained as priests on behalf of the people, priests who will atone for their kinsmen with the blood of bulls and goats. And then the Lord himself sends a plague on the people.
As bad as this is, it is not yet the real crisis. This is:
Exodus 33:1–3 (ESV): 33 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.”
God will be faithful to the covenant, even though Israel has broken it. He will give the land he promised the Fathers to their offspring, a land flowing with milk and honey. God had promised the Patriarchs a people and a land, and he will make good on that promise. But, that’s all. God himself will not go up among them. God’s presence will not be with them any longer. And that is the existential crisis: how is it possible to be the people of God if God is no longer present with the people? God couches this as an act of mercy:
“…I will not go up among you, lest I consume you on the way, for you are a stiff-necked people” (Ex 33:3b).
But, it is a severe mercy (a phrase perhaps attributable to Sheldon Vanauken), a cure as deadly as the disease. Moses knows it, and it will not do.
Now, for a brief aside, a jumping ahead in the story. The final words of the Torah in Deuteronomy 34 are a eulogy for Moses written some years after his death, by an unknown scribe:
Deuteronomy 34:10–12 (ESV): 10 And there has not arisen a prophet since in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face, 11 none like him for all the signs and the wonders that the Lord sent him to do in the land of Egypt, to Pharaoh and to all his servants and to all his land, 12 and for all the mighty power and all the great deeds of terror that Moses did in the sight of all Israel.
While I agree with this assessment, there is something essential missing in the description: Moses’ faithful audacity, his boldness in reasoning and arguing with the LORD. Abraham had a bit of it, Jacob, too, perhaps, but Moses surpassed them all.
Now, back to the story. Moses is unwilling for there to be a parting of ways between the LORD and his people. Watch how cleverly and boldly he reasons with — argues with — God: not that God is manipulated or backed into a corner by Moses’ debating prowess — not at all; rather I think the LORD is delighted to “give way” before Moses’ faithful audacity.
Exodus 33:12–13 (ESV): 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.”
So, if I may paraphrase, Moses’ argument goes something like this.
“‘Bring the people up,’” you say, LORD. “But you’ve said you’re not going with us.”
“‘I know you by name and you’ve found favor in my sight,’” you say, LORD. “But it’s not just about me; this nation is yours, too. What about them?”
And the LORD gives an opening, just a small one that Moses leaps on. Notice in what follows that the LORD speaks about Moses, and Moses immediately extends the LORD’s promises to himself and to the people. For Moses, it is never about himself, but about himself and the people. Notice how Moses continually uses “us” and “we” instead of “I” and “me.”
Exodus 33:14–16 (ESV): 14 And [the LORD] said, “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.” 15 And [Moses] 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?”
This is masterful. Moses insistently moves the LORD from individual blessing to national blessing, from personal favor to corporate favor. And Moses dots the last “i” and crosses the final “t” in his argument, with a series of two questions that bank on the LORD’s commitment to the glory of his own name:
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 (emphasis added)?
May I paraphrase again?
“For better or worse, these people are the representatives of your name and your glory among the nations, LORD. How are the nations to know that this people has indeed found favor in your sight?”
And then Moses answers his own question:
“There are only two ways that I can think of: your presence with us and our differences from them.”
As far as I am concerned this morning, this is where the story has been leading us. At least, it’s right here that I feel most challenged, because of this simple but central truth:
For better or worse, the Church is the representative of the name and glory of the Lord among the nations of the world. More personally, for better or worse, all of us who bear the name of Christ are his representatives in our families, communities, towns, places of business or education, on social media, in the voting booth — indeed wherever we are. And Moses’ question comes directly to us: How are the nations to know that we have found favor in God’s sight, that we represent him faithfully and truly?
I think the twofold answer for us is the same as it was for Israel: God’s presence with us and our differences from the world.
Brothers and sisters, this is what St. Peter wrote in his first letter to the elect exiles of the Dispersion, what he wrote for our benefit, as well:
1 Peter 2:9–12 (ESV): 9 But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. 10 Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.
11 Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. 12 Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.
The world will know that we truly represent God only if they see God’s presence with us and only if we live differently than them.
So, how will the world recognize God’s presence with us? I’ll briefly mention three ways and leave you to flesh them out. God’s presence is known among us in Word, Sacrament, and mutual love. If we forsake the Word of God — Scripture — by favoring instead cultural ideologies, political platforms, self-help pop psychology, or a watered-down and non-offensive Gospel, we jeopardize the visible presence of God among us. If we minimize the centrality of the Sacraments as channels of God’s grace and the visible image of his presence among us, if we willingly absent ourselves from the Sacraments, if we reduce them to mere symbols and memorials, we jeopardize the visible presence of God among us. If we fail to love one another as Christ has loved us, if we fail to devote ourselves to the common good, if we fail to will and to act for the good of our neighbors and even our enemies, we jeopardize the visible presence of God among us.
Secondly, how will the world recognize us as different? Peter mentions our avoidance of the passions of the flesh. Our minds immediately go to sex — at least mine does — but Peter probably has more in mind: the world, the flesh, and the devil as we say in our baptismal vows. Passions — disordered affections — lead to pride, envy, anger, sloth, greed, gluttony, and lust: the deadly or capital sins. These should have no place among us. The world worships its own idols: pleasure, power, wealth, honor. We must not bow down to those gods. The world tempts us to settle down and make our home here. We must always remain the elect exiles of the dispersion, resident aliens, ambassadors of the far country.
Once again, Israel’s story is our story. We dare not go among the nations if the LORD is not with us: if his presence is not among us, if we are not different than the nations.
Let us pray.
O LORD, you are in the midst of us, and we are called by your name;
do not forsake us, O LORD our God. Amen. Jeremiah 14:9