Pastor Eric Schroeder

Text: Exodus 33:18-23, 34:5-7 

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Did you get the presents you were hoping for? By this point in the season, you may or may not already know. Some of us opened gifts last night, maybe you unwrapped them this morning, and others have presents still waiting for us. So maybe you had all your Christmas dreams come true and more, but if not, perhaps there’s still time. Did you get the presents you were hoping for?

We could ask Moses the same question, although the word “presents” would have a different spelling. About three month’s earlier, Moses had led the nation of Israel out of Egypt, through the Red Sea, and now the people were encamped near Mount Sinai, and Moses was near the top. By this time, God had already revealed his law to the people in the Ten Commandments, but those first stone tablets didn’t last long. The first commandment was (and still is…) “you shall have no other gods,” but by the time Moses came down from the mountain, the people had made a golden calf and were worshiping it. God’s anger burned, we’re told, but Moses came back up the mountain to talk to God; he boldly acted as a mediator and reminded God of his promises, begging and pleading for God to forgive his people. God kept his word and directed Moses to lead the people onward.

By this time, though, Moses was understandably cautious, and he made two bold requests. The first? Basically, Moses told God, “Without your Presence, we’re not going anywhere.” He knew that if God didn’t go with them, they weren’t going to make it to the Promised land. And so, God responded, “My Presence will go with you.” God promised Moses the presence he was hoping for. But how could Moses be sure? He wanted some proof. That’s where our verses pick up, with Moses’ second request.

18 Then Moses said, “Now show me your glory.”

For any of us here this morning, seeing God’s visible presence would be a pretty big deal, but Moses had seen plenty of visual evidence before. After all, God had first appeared to Moses in a burning bush. Since then, God had shown his power in the ten plagues. God had led the people in a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night, to guide them and protect them. God had sent manna and quail to feed them, and made water come out of rocks so they wouldn’t go thirsty. Moses knew God had been with them. But would God remain with such an unfaithful people?

19 And the Lord said, “I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the Lord, in your presence. I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. 20 But,” he said, “you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.”

No sinful person can stand in the presence of the Almighty God. To see his unveiled face would bring instantaneous death. It doesn’t matter that Moses hadn’t committed the same sins the rest of the people had. It didn’t matter that Moses was the leader and the people were grumbling followers. The same would be true for any one of us. We might be tempted to think that we are somehow better than the rest of the general population, and we can always find the worst kind of people to compare ourselves to in hopes of feeling better about ourselves. But that’s not the way God works. God doesn’t grade on a curve. You’re either worthy of being in his presence or not. And none of us are worthy. Not even Moses was.

Have you ever noticed what angels say when they appear to people in all the Bible stories? In the opening chapters of Luke’s gospel account, for instance, the angel Gabriel appears to Zechariah, who will be the father of John the Baptist, and then he visits Mary, who will be the mother of Jesus, and then we know about the shepherds, who will be some of the first witnesses of the Savior’s birth. Three different sightings of God’s glorious messengers, and each time the people who see angels are instantly struck with the same natural reaction: be afraid . . . be very afraid. No matter what they were thinking about the minute before the angels showed up, as soon as they appear, the overwhelming sense is that of one’s own unworthiness. So the angels know that their first job is to calm the people— “Do not be afraid,” they say.

That tells us something about the God who sent those messengers. You see, despite our unworthiness, God wants people to know him, who he is, and how much he loves his creatures. So, he patiently hides his righteous glory in order to reveal himself in a way that allows us to receive him. He did so for Moses.

21 Then the Lord said, “There is a place near me where you may stand on a rock. 22 When my glory passes by, I will put you in a cleft in the rock and cover you with my hand until I have passed by. 23 Then I will remove my hand and you will see my back; but my face must not be seen.”

Did Moses get the view of God’s Presence that he was hoping for? Not exactly. He couldn’t see God’s face and live. But he got something better. More on that in a little bit.

At this point, we might be wondering what all this has to do with the birth of Jesus. But with just a little perspective from God’s Word, we can all make the connection. Let’s go back to what we talked about earlier. All of us are unworthy of God’s presence. Each one of us has a conscience that is constantly prodding us with two related truths. Truth #1: we are far from perfect. We know that our sins separate us from a Holy God. Truth #2: we know deep down that one day we are going to meet God, and then our unworthiness is going to be a big problem. Remember what God told Moses? “No one may see me and live.” Our natural knowledge of God tells us that we are sinful, and someone has to pay.

But God reveals himself to us in a glory that is often hidden. That’s why the greatest thing that Moses experienced wasn’t what he saw on the mountain, but what he heard. The beautiful thing is that it was the same voice that cried out almost 1500 years later, in a stable in Bethlehem. A child was born, and wrapped in cloths and placed in a manger. The shepherds who saw him were not struck with fear, but pure joy and wonder as he looked so normal, so human, so much like them, only smaller. He had skin, and bones, and flesh and blood like they did—like we do. He looked so helpless, so tender, so frail, just like we did when we were born. What child is this?

None other than the Savior who has been born to you. He is Christ, “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, 7 maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. This Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. He is the One and Only begotten Son of God, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. He is Immanuel, God with us, the fullness of God in a helpless baby boy. The God of heaven came down to earth to hunger, and thirst, and grow tired just like we do. That’s the point: he was born of a woman, born under law, to redeem those under law by his own perfect obedience in place of our sins. His human flesh felt pain like ours, but he would be pierced for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities, and the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed. Our forgiveness would not be possible without Christmas.

Today, let’s all be filled with joy and wonder as we see how God saves us. For us to see his glory, he must hide it from us as our substitute. For us to see his face, he must become unrecognizable to the world. For us to live forever, the immortal God must be willing and able to die. Today is the proof that he is a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness. We have already seen a greater glory than Moses ever did, because we know the name of Jesus and we see what this child grew up to do for us, because our LORD came to us in humility and lowliness to save us.

And one day we will, by his grace, see him face to face, and we have nothing to fear. His flesh and blood paid for our sins, his resurrection set us free from the fear of death, and his nail-marked hands will one day receive us in a loving embrace. It all started when the Son of God took on flesh, and God’s face appeared for all the world to see, in a little face that looked just like ours. Amen.