The presence of God

Exodus 33

24 June 2007

Blenheim Free Church, Maidenhead

Morning service


My children love to play "spot the difference", where you have to find all the little differences between two pictures that look almost the same.

I wonder, if we were to play a kind of spot the difference between a Christian and a non-Christian, what differences would we find? And what would be the key difference?

At the broad level things look very similar don't they? The Christian and the non-Christian both have two arms, two legs, one head, two ears and so on. The Christian might wear a cross, or sandals, or have a beard, or worse dress-sense. But I know plenty of non-Christians with all these things.

What about how they behave? Now we might see something: perhaps the Christian is kinder, swears less, and gives more money to charity. Is that it? It ought to be true, but actually, I know plenty of lovely kind, non-swearing, charity gving non-Christians. So that can't be it.

Or perhaps it's that the Christian prays to God, reads the Bible and goes to church. On the whole, I suppose, only Christians do these things. But I do know a number of people who pray, or read the Bible or go to church who wouldn't consider themselves Christian at all.

When we come down to it, what actually is the essential difference between a Christian and a non-Christian?

Well, our passage in Exodus gives us an answer to this question in verse 16. Moses prays to God, How will anyone know that you are pleased with me and with your people unless you go with us? What else will distinguish me and your people from all the other people on the face of the earth?ref

According to Moses, the only thing that truly distinguishes those who are God's people from those who aren't is the presence of God. If God is with you, you belong to him; if God is not with you, you don't.

So, it's an important topic to understand, and God's presence is the theme of this chapter of Exodus. I want to look at it under three headings, God's ferocity, God's friendship and God's favour.

The ferocity of God: Do not take God's presence for granted

First, in verses 1-6, we learn about the ferocity of God. Do not take God's presence for granted.

In the last chapter of Exodus we found that what ought to have been the highest point of Israel's history actually turned out to be the lowest. While Moses was up Mount Sinai confirming the covenant of God, the people were already breaking it by making the golden calf.

And so God's fierce anger burned against the people. Three-thousand were killed immediately for their blasphemy, and who knows how many more by the plague that followed. Only Moses' intervention prevented them from being destroyed entirely.

So we start chapter 33 with a question: what next for the people of God?

At first things look surprisingly encouraging; despite all that's happened the plan remains the same. "Go up from here" , God says to Moses "to the land I promised you, flowing with milk and honey. I will send an angel before you. I will destroy your enemies." . So far so good.

Has nothing really changed? Well, of course it has. Have a close look at how God describes them in verse 1: they are not "my people" any more, but you and the peopleref. And they are not "the people I brought up from Egypt" any more, but the people you brought up out of Egyptref. And in verse 2, God's not sending "my angel" with them as before, only an angelref.

It seems like God is disowning them. And just in case the people haven't got it yet, in verse 3 he delivers the devastating blow: But I will not go with you.ref "Yes, I will keep my promises, but I will not go with you" .

So we see that we are not to take the presence of God for granted. We have no right to the presence of God; God gives and withdraws his presence as he sees fit. Not everyone has access to his presence.

In the New Testament we learn that God's presence attaches to people, not places. God's presence is his Holy Spirit within us. God doesn't hang around in churches hoping someone will turn up on Sunday, he lives in our hearts.

I think we sometimes get a bit confused about this when we sing songs like "Be still for the presence of the Lord, the Holy One is here" , or a service leader at church or a Christian event invites us to "come into the presence of God" .

If God has granted us his presence, then it's just as strong when we are at home as when we are at church. It's just as strong whether we are in the kitchen, the bathroom, the car or the office. Wherever we go we have access to the presence of God. I can no more leave God's presence behind than leave my own heart behind.

And on the other hand, if God has not granted you his presence, then no amount of going to church or Christian events is going to conjure it up for you.

We must not take God's presence for granted.

Why is God withdrawing his presence from the people? Is it part of his punishment of them? Actually, and perhaps surprisingly, it isn't. God withdraws his presence for their own protection. Remember that God's presence is a dangerous place. Look at verse 3 again, But I will not go with you, because you are a stiff-necked people and I might destroy you on the wayref.

Last week I spent 12 hours on an aeroplane and suffered with a very stiff neck, that's not what the Bible means by "stiff-necked". What it means is that the Israelites would not do as they were told; like stubborn oxen pulling a plough they were refusing to turn their heads to go the right way. They were stubborn and disobedient, just like you and me, always going their own way, and always in danger of incurring God's wrath.

So, for their own protection, God is leaving them.

How do they react? In verse 4 we find them mourning. Yesterday I heard that Thierry Henry will be leaving Arsenal football club. After 8 years his footballing genius will no longer be with us. Henry may only be a minor footballing deity, but nonetheless there is plenty of mourning and wailing among Arsenal fans.

How much more the presence of the God of creation meant to the Israelites. They knew that God's presence was the whole point. He hadn't simply saved them from Egypt, he'd saved them to be his people. "Let my people go!" was the recurring cry of the plagues. If they weren't going to be his people then the whole thing had been pointless.

So they mourned. They took off their ornaments. We don't know exactly what the significance of these ornaments was. Perhaps they were linked to idolatry, perhaps taking them off was simply a sign of their repentance. We can't be sure, but they were certainly sincere: they took them off and kept them off.

Don't take the presence of God for granted. Not everyone has access to the presence of God. It belongs to no-one by right, only those to whom God grants it.

The friendship of God: Grow in passion for the presence of God

In verses 7 to 11 we find a completely contrasting scene. The camera pans across from the big picture of the fierce judgement of God against the people, and zooms in on a little tent outside the camp where Moses enjoyed the friendship of God. That's point two: the friendship of God, subtitle: grow in passion for the presence of God.

The Lord may have been refusing to dwell within the camp among the stiff-necked people, but a long way outside the camp Moses could still meet with him.

This tent of meeting was not an emergency measure set up due to the present crisis, but it was a place that Moses was already in the habit of going to: verse 7 Now Moses used to take a tent and pitch it outside the camp some distance away, calling it the tent of meetingref.

And in this tent, verse 11, the Lord would speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks with his friendref.

Here, "face to face", of course, cannot mean that Moses saw all God's glory in the tent. We're told in verse 20 that no-one may see God and live. God must have accommodated himself to Moses in a form that he could speak with, just as he did when Jesus was among us: fully God and fully man. Jesus could say Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.ref, but people could still talk to him face-to-face.

What we are to understand is that Moses had an extraordinary intimacy with God: God was his friend! And Moses never neglected that relationship.

In Moses' day, when the people sought God, we're told that they would go to the tent. But they could not go in. Apparently, only Moses would speak to God on their behalf. The people were kept at a distance; only Moses was a friend of God.

The fantastic thing about being a Christian in these days is that we are counted friends of God ourselves!

We have all the privileges of friendship with God: we can speak to him in prayer; he speaks to us in his word and by the assurance of his Spirit in our hearts. We can seek his advice, share our worries and ask him for help. We can tell him our joys and tell him our sorrows. Our relationship with the Lord is closer even than face-to-face, because God's Spirit actually lives in us. We don't need to go out to a tent, to a church or the top of a mountain. We can meet with the Lord every day, every minute, every where. It's a fantastic privilege, isn't it!

So, brothers and sisters: why don't we do it more often?

Can you imagine Moses waking up in the morning and saying, "Oh, I don't feel too great today. It's a long way to that tent, and it's raining. I really don't think I can be bothered meeting with God today. There's always tomorrow" ?

Actually, in verse 13 we can see the kind of prayer Moses prayed. The NIV mangles the translation a bit, so I'll give you a more literal version. Moses prays, Now therefore, if I have found favour in your sight, please show me now your ways, that I may know you in order to find favour in your sight.ref This is a wonderfully circular prayer! Moses asks God to teach him his ways, so that Moses may know God better, so that God may teach him his ways, so that Moses may know God better and so on...

If you are struggling with spending time in the presence of God by prayer and Bible reading, then this is a good place to start. Simply pray that God may teach you his ways, and be serious about learning them. As he teaches you to be faithful in a little way your relationship with him will grow, and then he will teach you to be faithful in a little more, so your relationship with him will grow and so on and so on.

Actually, it's Joshua I really like in these verses. Look at verse 11, Then Moses would return to the camp, but his young assistant Joshua son of Nun did not leave the tentref. We hear a great deal about Joshua later in the Bible, and here we find out how he ends up being such a terrific man of God. He simply longs for the presence of God. He can't even go into the tent himself, but he longs so much to know God that he just wants to be as near as he can for as long as he can.

If we had only a fraction of Moses' and Joshua's passion for the presence of God, imagine what amazing things he could do with us.

The favour of God: How to be confident of the presence of God

So, we've looked at the ferocity of God: do not take the presence of God for granted, and the friendship of God: grow in passion for the presence of God.

In the last part of the chapter, verses 12 to 23 the camera moves in still closer right inside the tent of meeting where Moses is pleading with God on behalf of the people. Now we're going to look at the favour of God, subtitle, how to be confident of the presence of God.

First we find Moses praying for himself. He's confused. On the one hand he knows that God is pleased with him personally, but on the other hand it seems that God is abandoning him as well. God put Moses in charge of the people, but God will no longer be going with the people to help him. So Moses does what comes naturally to him and lays out his concerns before God.

And the reply he gets is wonderful. In verse 14 Moses receives the reassurance he seeks, The Lord replied, My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.ref God is not going to abandon Moses!

But, it's important to know that this promise in verse 14 is made only to Moses himself. The "you" the Lord uses is only the singular you. God may be with Moses, but he will not be with the people.

Some people might have been content with that — I'm all right, Jack —, but never Moses! Moses' heart is always for the people. We've seen him plead with God for the people a number of times, and here he does it once again. In verse 15 he says If your Presence does not go with us, do not send us up from here.ref Moses would rather stay wandering in the desert than have the people move on without God.

And in verse 17 we find God's answer, I will do the very thing you have askedref. The crisis is resolved; the Lord will go with them after all!

It is the reason that God gives for his decision that is the key to the significance of this passage for us. Have a look at the second half of verse 17. He tells Moses that it is because I am pleased with you and I know you by nameref. Again, the "you" is singular: it is Moses the Lord is pleased with; it is Moses he knows by name.

There is no mention here of the people's sinfulness or repentance at all. The only reason God gives for continuing with his people is that Moses has found favour in his site; he knows Moses by name. If Moses can continue to act as mediator between the people and God, then it's safe for God to go with them.

This is a great comfort to us if we are Christians, isn't it? The presence of God in our lives doesn't depend on us. It doesn't depend on our holiness or sinfulness. It doesn't depend on our effort or ritual.

The only thing the presence of God depends on in our lives is that we have a mediator who has found favour with Him.

Sometimes Christians fear that when they fall into serious sin that there is no way back. That if we let God down once too often he may abandon us forever. So King David, after committing adultery with Bathsheba and having her husband killed, pleaded in Psalm 51, Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from meref.

For the Christian, God's presence is never in doubt, because it does not depend on us or the quality of our faith or repentance. God's presence in our lives depends only on whether our mediator has found favour with God. And we know that he has: Jesus Christ died for us so that we might know the presence of God. Now he's sitting at the right hand of the Father, and he says to us, surely I am with you always, to the very end of the ageref.

So while we must not take God's presence for granted, we need never fear that it might be taken away for ever.


I'm not going to look at verses 18 to the end now since the details belong more to the next chapter. But we should note in passing that they once again show us the sheer depth of Moses' hunger for the presence of God.

Moses understands so well that in the end, the only thing that matters, the only thing that makes God's people different from all the rest, is the presence of God with them.

It's too easy, isn't it, for us to try to live our Christian lives without the presence of God. We might try to do our best; we might try to be good people and come to church week after week, but sometimes we can never say we really know friendship with God.

We can so easily be like the picture of the Israelites in the first part of this chapter, heading for the promised land, enjoying God's promises, but never knowing the presence of God himself.

But this wasn't enough for them, and it should never be enough for us.

If we trust Jesus, our mediator, then we know that the presence of God is with us. But like any relationship, true friendship with God needs nurturing to make the best of it. I'm sorry to say that I have people I count as friends whom I haven't spoken to for years. An exchange of Christmas cards is not much of a friendship, is it? Let's not be like that with God.

If you are a Christian who feels like you are struggling on without the presence of God, then do as Moses did and bring it all to God. Pray his prayer in verse 13, teach me your ways so I may know you and continue to find favour with youref.

Don't worry about whether you are good enough, or if you have let God down too much to ever know his presence. Remember, God's presence doesn't depend on you, it depends only on our mediator: Jesus Christ. If he has taken your sin away, then you have nothing to worry about at all.

There is one crucial difference between the Christian and the non-Christian: the Christian knows the presence of God. Let's treasure it with all our hearts.