Scripture: Exodus 33:12-23
The magician and comedian named Penn Jillette is one-half of the comedy magic duo Penn and Teller. Some of you have likely seen them on late-night TV over the years. If you know their act, Jillette is the one who speaks; his partner, Teller, is always silent.
Years ago, Jillette posted a video on his blog about an experience he had just had after a show in Las Vegas. Oh, yeah… for context, here’s another important fact about Jillette that you need to know: he is an outspoken atheist. He talks about his atheism a lot.
Anyway, he was signing autographs after this show, when a Christian businessman came up to him for an autograph. The Christian told him that he was a fan, that he enjoyed his act, and that he wanted to give him something. Then he gave Jillette the gift of a Bible. The man said, “Listen, I know you’re not a believer, but I want to give you this and encourage you to read it. Because Jesus is everything to me, and I want you to know him, too. This book will tell you how to have eternal life. Please read it.”
And you can see in the video that Jillette—this hardened skeptic—was deeply moved by this gift; tears were welling up in his eyes as he described this gift.
And here’s what got me: this well-known atheist went on to say that he appreciates Christians who “proselytize.” That’s not a word we Christians use a lot. We would say “to witness,” or to “share our faith.” But he said that he appreciates Christians who are bold enough to witness—even when they do so to outspoken atheists like himself.
In fact, he said that he doesn’t have any respect for Christians who don’t do this. He said:
If you believe that there’s a heaven and hell, and people could be going to hell, or not getting eternal life, or whatever—and you think that, uh, well, it’s not really worth telling them this because it would make it socially awkward… how much do you have to hate somebody to not proselytize them? How much do you have to hate somebody to believe that everlasting life is possible and not tell them that? I mean, if I believed beyond a shadow of a doubt that a truck was coming to hit you, and you didn’t believe it, and that truck was bearing down on you, there’s a certain point where I tackle you. And [eternal life] is more important than that!
“How much do you have to hate somebody.” Okay, I get it… the word “hate” is too strong, but don’t you see his point? Would we rather avoid “social awkwardness,” as he calls it, rather than witness to the lost, and to warn them that, apart from knowing Christ, something infinitely worse than a fast-approaching truck is in its way—which is an unredeemed sinner standing before God in Final Judgment—and that time is running out to change their eternal destiny!
Because… as even this hardened skeptic understands… If Jesus is who we say he is, isn’t our failure to witness nothing less than a failure to love? Do we love people enough to do what God is calling us to do to save them?
In today’s scripture, Moses does love his people like that. But let me explain…
Remember what happened in last week’s scripture, in chapter 32. Moses had been up on Mt. Sinai for forty days—receiving the Ten Commandments and other important instructions—and when he came down the mountain, he saw that the Israelites, with the help of his own brother, Aaron, had grown tired of waiting for him to return, and they had melted down their gold and re-created a god that they knew from Egypt, in the shape of a calf—a golden calf. They grew tired of waiting on their God, Yahweh, so they began worshiping another one—the very thing that God had warned them against doing in the first two of the Ten Commandments, which God had just written on tablets of stone and given to Moses up on the mountain.
And Moses is angry. More importantly, God is angry! God has wrath because of Israel’s sin; they deserve God’s punishment. But in the verses leading up to today’s passage, Moses intervenes through prayer to save most of them. And God relents. He won’t wipe them out after all. Even though that’s what they deserve.
But… God also won’t go with the Israelites into the Promised Land. It’s for Israel’s own good, he tells them. If you have your Bibles—and you should—look at chapter 33, verse 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”—that is, I would wipe you out because of your sin.
So… instead of going with Israel personally to the Promised Land, God says he’ll send an angel. But notice in verses 1 through 6 of chapter 33, God offers Moses everything else—all the good stuff he promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—including military success, peace, prosperity, abundance, land, security, safety, freedom from fear—with no strings attached except one: God said, “You’ll have all this good stuff. But you won’t have me—you won’t have my presence. I’ll send you an angel instead.”
From a worldly point of view, doesn’t this seem like a pretty good deal for the Israelites! This is the kind of religion that most people think they want. They want God to give all these good things to them and do all these good things for them without asking anything in return! They want the good things God can give them, the good things God can do for them, without having God himself.
So that’s what God offers Moses in the verses leading up to today’s scripture… And Moses boldly says, No. “That’s not enough, God!” Verse 15: “If your presence will not go with me, do not bring us up from here.”
Now… before I can continue, I have to clear up some confusion. God has just said in verse 14, “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.” And then in verse 15, it seems like Moses doesn’t even hear what God has just said, because he says, “If your presence will not go with me…” To make matters worse, if you have an NIV or NASB or New Living Translation, Moses doesn’t say, “if your presence will not go with me”; he says, “If your presence will not go with us…”
Why is this verse so confusing?
Because in Hebrew the words “with me” or “with us” in verses 14 and 15 aren’t there at all. The English translators have added those words in an effort to help us understand what God and Moses mean.
So let me cut to the chase and tell you what most Bible scholars believe God and Moses are saying: Moses was listening to what God said in verse 14. And what God told Moses was, “My presence is going to go with you, Moses. I’m going to have a personal relationship with you… I’m going to save you… but not with the Israelites.” Moses rightly understands that ultimately God is saying, “I’m going give Israel all the land and peace and prosperity and military success that they could ask for, but… I’m going to let them go their own way… I’m going to give them up… I’m going leave them in their sins… If they don’t want a relationship with me, I’m going to honor their wishes.” And Moses rightly understands that if God follows through with these words, he’s ultimately saying that they’ll have no chance to repent, no chance to be saved… indeed, no chance to play their special role in bringing salvation to the rest of the world.
And Moses has the boldness, the courage, the audacity to stand up to God and say, “No… If your presence won’t go, not only with me but with all of my people… and all of your people… Then just let me die right here in the wilderness. Because these people, my fellow Israelites, need you! They need you, God, infinitely more than they need me, or the land that you promised them, or the peace and prosperity and financial security and military success that you’re promising them now! They need you!
“And even though you’re offering to take care of me, and give me everything I could want, and give me your presence, it’s not enough unless you do the same for them!”
Let’s take a moment to appreciate just how much Moses has grown… spiritually speaking. Remember Exodus chapters 3 and 4… God called him to liberate the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, to lead them to the Promised Land, so that they can bear witness to the world about who God is and ultimately, through them, bring salvation to the world through Christ. And you can look back at those chapters and see for yourself… He offers up at least a half-dozen excuses why he shouldn’t be the one to embark on this mission. Finally in Exodus 4:13, “Oh, my Lord, please send someone else.”
Moses didn’t want to fulfill God’s mission for him back in chapter 3 and 4, and now it’s like, wild horses couldn’t drag him away from fulfilling his mission!
Make no mistake… God is seemingly offering Moses everything to abandon the mission for which God called him in the first place. And Moses is saying, “No. I don’t want any part of your plan… if it means that my people Israel are left out of your plan.”
In other words, Moses is willing to give up everything for the sake of these people that he loves! What a remarkable change. What a remarkable love! If only we could be as Christ-like as Moses!
Moses’ words remind me of the apostle Paul’s words in Romans chapter 9, when he’s talking about his fellow Jews, most of whom have rejected Christ and the gospel. In verses 2 and 3, Paul writes, “My heart is filled with bitter sorrow and unending grief for my people, my Jewish brothers and sisters. I would be willing to be forever cursed—cut off from Christ!—if that would save them.” In other words, Paul is saying, “If it were possible for me to sacrifice my own salvation so that my Jewish brothers and sisters would be saved, I would do it. Granted, it’s not possible—because they have to accept Jesus for themselves—but if it were… I would do it. That’s how much I’d be willing to give to save my people.”
Oh, dear brothers and sisters, what about our people? What are we willing to do? What are we willing to give… to save them?
Friends, who are your people? Who are mine?Because if our hearts aren’t breaking at the thought that our people—our family, our friends, the members of our community, the people we work with, the people we go to school with… if ours hearts aren’t breaking—the way Moses’ heart was breaking, the way Paul’s heart was breaking—at the thought that our people might spend eternity separated from God… especially when we had the power within ourselves—the power of the Holy Spirit—to change the course of their lives, by bearing witness to Christ, by telling them about Christ, by introducing them to Christ… If our hearts aren’t breaking at that thought, are we even Christians at all?
And if we at Toccoa First United Methodist are not about making disciples, and showing people what they must do to be saved, what are we doing here? Are we wasting our time?
We just came through the busiest season in the life of this or any United Methodist church… because we’ve had to get ready for an annual meeting with our District Superintendent known as Charge Conference. It basically lasted all of September. Just getting ready for it, it takes time, as many of you know. And the worst part of Charge Conference for me is something that I’m responsible for… The pastor is the chair of the Lay Leadership, or Nominations, Committee. The committee’s main task is to ask people to serve in various lay leadership capacities in the life of the church for the next year—or three years.
Well, y’all know this because… many of you were asked or have been asked and you’ll be asked again. But truthfully it’s the least favorite part of my job.
And you want to know why? Because what I want to say is, “You have this amazing opportunity to help our church fulfill the Great Commission to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world… You have an important and necessary role to play… in fact, God is calling you to do this.” But the way it usually comes out of my mouth is, “Hey, would you mind serving on this committee next year. It won’t take much of your time. And I’ve got this hole to fill, I’ve got this empty space here, and our Book of Discipline says that there needs to be a name next to it before Charge Conference, so what do you say? Can I write your name down and check it off the list so I can get this bureaucratic monkey off my back?”
I don’t blame anyone for saying “no” to that kind of offer—I mean, even if you didn’t already have a good reason to say no because of other things going on in your life.
So this is my problem, not yours. And I’m only sharing it with you because I’m telling you that this problem is someday not going to be a problem any longer. I’m telling you that there’s going to come a day in the life of this church when the powerful wind of the Holy Spirit is going to blow through and bring revival and bring renewal and bring the lost people of this community into a saving relationship with God though Christ, and when that happens there won’t be enough slots to fill with all the names of the people who will be eager to serve… because you’ll see what we’re doing here at Toccoa First… and it will be so obvious that what we’re doing here isn’t filling a slot… or checking a box… or even serving on a committee… No, we’re on a mission… we’re making a difference in the lives of people for eternity. And it will be so exciting and so rewarding and so fulfilling that of course you’ll want to take part in helping us to do that!
A couple of years ago I had the pleasure of getting to know a pastor named Trey Hildebrand. He’s the campus pastor of the Snellville Campus of the 12Stone Church. A lot of you have heard of 12Stone… it’s a multicampus megachurch throughout North Georgia. And I think a few of you are even related to pastor who works at 12Stone! But anyway, Trey was telling me that not long after he came on board at 12Stone, he got a call late one night from his boss—the senior pastor of 12Stone Church… Kevin Myers. Kevin asked Trey and all the other pastors to come to his house, that it was an emergency. And when they got there, Kevin was in tears. That he was just overwhelmed with sorrow, and he couldn’t get hold of himself. And he explained that his heart was broken… broken… as he thought about all the lost people all around their churches who needed the gospel… and could they just get on their knees right then and there and pray for them… and pray that they would be used in powerful ways by the Holy Spirit to reach them.
At the time Trey told me this I thought, “Wow! I’ve never thought about doing that. My heart has never broken for lost people. I’ve never cried as I’ve thought about people I love spending eternity apart from God.”
Well… I don’t know what’s happened to me. I wasn’t there then. ButI’m there now. And I want you to join me there. Like Moses, I want your heart to break when you think about lost people, your people, and their need for God’s grace, for God’s love, for God’s mercy.
And when your heart breaks, the first and most important thing that any of us can do for reaching them with the good news of Jesus Christ is to pray for them.
That’s what Moses did for his people. He prayed! He intervened on behalf of his people and told God, in so many words, “I will sacrifice everything to save them.” And God responded… God said “yes”… God saved his people. You look at the scripture and tell me… Would God have rescued Israel apart from Moses’ prayer, apart from his broken heart, apart from his willingness to sacrifice everything?
No. There’s no evidence that he would have. You can get theological and say, “Well, God foreknew that Moses was going to pray this prayer… and that’s true… but he fact remains: God wasn’t going to do anything until Moses’ heart was broken… until he prayed this prayer… until he reached a place where he could say, “I’ll give anything… I’ll sacrifice anything… I’ll surrender everything for the sake of my people who need to be in a relationship with God.”
Is God waiting on us… to do the same?
I’d sure like to find out. How about you?