Exodus 33 - How We Find Favor
November 30, 2014 Speaker: Series: Exodus
Topic: Sunday Worship Passage: Exodus 33:1–33:23
[Exodus 33 - "How We Find Favor"]
Chapter 32 closed with dark questions. Israel had quickly abandoned their Redeemer to worship an imagined god. So, judgment fell by sword and plague. But when Moses interceded for his people YHWH promised to keep this Story of Redemption moving forward. But dark questions loom. YHWH will keep Israel moving toward the Promised Land – but will he go with them? Israel is losing the favor of God's presence with them. Can such favor be restored? And for people like us - with hearts not so different from Israel's - what does that mean for us?
When we think of finding God's favor it's easy to reduce having his favor to having things his favor might (or might not) get for us. What I mean is this - perhaps we too often (especially as North Americans) confuse "having God's favor" with "being successful." There is an assumption that if I have God's favor, then I will be successful. Or on the contrary - if I am unsuccessful, then I must not have God's favor.
Maybe we think that when we look at our material possessions. "I must have God's favor because look at my house, my funds, my stuff." Or on the other hand - "Look at my apartment, my empty accounts, my busted stuff - I must not have God's favor." It's the kind of crass error proponents of the "health and wealth gospel" have fallen into. Still it's a common (even if subconscious) error. But as quickly as we might reject that error, maybe we fall into the same confusion in other areas of life. Maybe if we feel "successful" in our families or jobs, we take that as proof of God's favor. Maybe if we feel "successful" in our theology, we take that as proof of God's favor. Maybe if we feel "successful" as a church (often meaning that numbers are increasing or the building looks like a church "should" look), we take that as proof of God's favor. Apparent success or feeling of failure becomes the litmus test for whether or not we have God's favor.
But when I speak of finding favor, what I mean is "favor as it is recognized in this passage." What I mean is this - we can think of many ways God's favor could be seen: material blessings, peace in our families, or success in reaching goals (just to name a few). But to understand them as proof of God's favor is often based on assumptions on our part. In this passage there is only one particular (perhaps even ultimate) expression of God's favor being upon a people. There is only one way to know someone has the favor of this God. And that is whether or not God's presence is with them.
Look at Israel. In vv.1-3a, the people hear their God sending them out with the promise of success; their arrival to a new home in Canaan is assured. An angel from the God who conquered Egypt will drive out their enemies. They're promised the land "flowing with milk and honey...." (v.3) What greater success could they hope for? With such assurance of success it's obvious they enjoy the favor of God!
Except they know they don't. Because YHWH says, "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." (Exodus 33:3)
And so, from Israel we hear how anyone should think about losing the presence of God; about not having the ultimate expression of God's favor. The news they were going forward without God was a "disastrous word." (v.4)
Disaster is when a bad event has even worse outcomes. Disaster is when the only thing that follows pain is more pain. Disaster has no silver lining. Disaster has no bright side. Disaster has nothing in its other hand but more grief. Disaster is hopeless; it is catastrophe with no hope of rescue.
To have everything except the presence of God with us is disaster - which is why the New Testament always presents life without Christ as hopeless. When Paul looks back to the time before we come to faith in Christ he says, “remember that you were at that time separated from Christ…having no hope and without God in the world.” (Ephesians 2:12) To have a successful job or a beautiful family or bursting bank accounts but not have Christ is to be hopeless and without God. To be separated from Christ is to live in an unfolding disaster.
Israel had no one to blame but themselves for this disastrous loss. It was their rebellion; their rejection of their God that broke the covenant binding him to them. And it was their rebellious hearts that would keep YHWH's presence from them. Look again at v.3.
YHWH is not some petty god, refusing to be with his people because his feelings are hurt. He withdraws the favor of his presence because his holiness would destroy them. God says, "...I will not go up among you, lest I consume you on the way, for you are a stiff-necked people." He looks at their heart, their disposition toward him and calls it "stiff-necked." So, this isn't just about one act of idolatry. This loss of God's presence is about hearts that love choosing idols over the True God; choosing feast and song over his covenant; choosing a golden lie over YHWH's himself (chapter 32). So, YHWH's choice to not go with his people is about God keeping them alive. They'll live. But they won't live with him.
Israel seems to understand what they've lost. It's like Adam in the Garden all over again - losing the presence of God because he chose something else. And so this passage is pregnant with the question - can God's favor be restored? Can his presence return to his people? And if so, how?
Do you ever ask that question? If now you’re realizing that you live in the disastrous state of separation from God, then perhaps you're wondering how God's favor could ever come to you. Maybe you're beginning to recognize that your heart has wanted success but not God; maybe you've been content with disaster 'till now. Now, maybe you're wondering if you can earn his favor somehow. Or maybe now you want his presence but you fear what might happen to you. After all, if he knows your heart like he knows Israel's - wouldn't he consume you if he came to you?
Or for you, Christian - maybe you wonder if you've lost his presence. Because our hearts are not so different from Israel's. Our hearts so easily choose just about anything, it seems, other than this God. Maybe we've taken God's presence with us for granted. And maybe - like me sometimes - you wonder how long he'll be patient. Maybe you feel distant from him and wonder how to gain his presence once again? Or maybe you've been confusing success with his favor and pride has grown. Maybe you've been confusing hardship with his rejection and despair has grown.
How? How can humans enjoy the presence of this holy God? How can the favor of this God be restored after it's lost? And how can his presence with us endure when we have stiff-necks and stubborn hearts? These are the central questions this text answers. And the answers are as beautiful as they are hopeful.
This passage tells us how God gives his favor to his people. We find favor 1) through repentance, 2) through the mediator, and 3) because God chooses to show mercy.
First, we find favor through repentance. When Israel heard that it was their rebellious disposition toward YHWH that kept his presence from them - the news cut them to the heart.
Ah, but their heart was the target of God's word all along.
God says to his people (in v.5), "...You are a stiff-necked people; if for a single moment I should go up among you, I would consume you. So now take off your ornaments, that I may know what to do with you.” Now, God didn't need time to collect himself like I do sometimes before speaking to my boys. When he calls them to take off their ornaments, he's calling them to stop pretending like everything's okay.
Because by God's disastrous word, Israel is beginning to recognize their problem runs deeper than whether or not they make it to Canaan. They have a disastrous heart problem they can't fix. So, YHWH is drawing out a response from Israel. And we see the best response Israel could give - they mourn. They take off their ornaments and don't put them on again (v.6).
These ornaments - their jewelry of gold and precious jewels - these were the symbols of status as God's favored people. These were the spoils of a war won by YHWH; spoils enjoyed by his favored people. But now Israel isn't confusing symbols of success with having God's favor. For Israel here, mere "success" isn't enough anymore. And now, in their response to the disastrous word, we're seeing sanity and hope both breaking into the story. Because now YHWH's favor - his presence - is all Israel wants.
Repentance from sin and mourning over a sinful heart is always presented in the Scriptures as a return to sanity from the absurdity of rebellion against this good God. Throughout the Story of Redemption, people are called to return to him; to mourn over this heart problem we can't fix; to stop pretending everything's okay; to stop trusting signs of success and agree with the Lord that without him we don't have anything good. Jesus himself calls us to repent. His first words in Mark's Gospel proclaim good news and call for a response - "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel." (Mark 1:15)
Repentance is the way to favor. Of what do you need to repent? Where do we need to mourn over sin? Individually? Corporately? As a society? Would we go so far to mourn not just over our actions but over our sinful hearts that want to do them?
We see Israel doing that here. But they do more with their repentance. Their repentance bears necessary fruit.
Look at vv.7ff. Israel doesn't just mourn and give external signs of repentance. Some go outside the camp to the tent seeking YHWH. Their hearts are turning away from the golden calf and returning to their Redeemer. And see (in v.8) how they watch Moses go to the tent to meet with God on their behalf? In chapter 32 they were ready to leave Moses behind. Now they can't take their eyes off the mediator God provided for them. With longing, with expectation, they look to him as he goes to meet their God. And see (in v.10) how they worship YHWH in their own tent when Moses meets with YHWH? Ended is the worship of the golden calf and renewed is their worship of the Living God.
Back in chapter 32 we saw death and judgment fall but no sign of repentance in Israel. But now YHWH's word has drawn Israel to repentance. God's word is always meant to lead us to repentance. He breaks us, shows us our rebellion and our rebellious disposition. He calls us to turn away from our golden calves or anything else we hope in other than him. Maybe it's sexuality outside the bounds he established. Maybe it's self-righteousness or relying on right theology to gain his favor. It might feel like death (and in a way it is) but for us (like for Israel) the way to God's presence begins with repentance. Of what do you need to repent?
Don't be content just going through the motions of repentance. Mourn, separate your actions from those of a rebellious world and seek the Lord. Look again to Jesus; don't take your eyes off him as he speaks with God for you. And worship him in expectation. Because the Lord has not called anyone to seek him in vain (Isaiah 45:19).
You can't say repentance got anything for Israel. People can never compel God to be merciful. But repentance is the necessary condition for God’s mercy. God's favor cannot be restored to rebels without repentance. But look what happens to rebels who mourn and look to this God for mercy. Mercy is found. And with it comes favor through the mediator God gave to Israel.
That's the second thing. Because repentance is necessary - but repentance alone is not enough. People like us need an advocate, one to stand between a holy God and mournful sinners. And God's people find favor through the mediator he gives us.
Look at Moses' work for Israel. In v.7 he sets the tent of meeting outside the camp. There is concern for the holiness of God here. The "otherness" of YHWH is respected. But there is also concern for the survival of the people. YHWH said his presence would consume them, so Moses pitches this tent away from the people. Until Moses knows what will happen, God must stay out of the camp.
But listen to Moses in vv.12-16. And hear what the mediator does.
There is a lot here but notice just two things. First, Moses knows how to listen. When YHWH speaks in v.2 he says, "I will send an angel before you...." But Moses understands the difference between an angel going "before" Israel and YHWH going "with" Israel. It's as if he says, "Fine, send the angel ahead of us. But I need to know you'll be with us." Listen to the boldness of Moses. Listen to this one who once shrunk from God's calling on his life. Listen to how his matured faith and confidence in the LORD leads him to fight for God’s favor to fall again.
Second, he uses his place of favor for the sake of his people. YHWH called Moses by name back at the burning bush. It was YHWH who rescued Moses as a babe and YHWH's presence has been with Moses ever since. Moses enjoys the favor of God. And now he uses the favor he has as God's chosen representative and appeals to God for the sake of those who can't. Now he reminds YHWH that these people aren't really Moses' - they belong to YHWH himself. Persistently, Moses asks for God's presence to be with him and with this people. Persistently, this one who enjoys God's favored presence wants more of it for himself and his people so that they together might know this God and his ways.
And what do we see in v.17? Through the work of the mediator, YHWH grants his presence again to his people. What was lost is regained. Israel again finds favor because their mediator has God's favor.
It's not hard to see how central Moses is in this passage. Israel would be lost without their mediator to intercede for them. And so would we. Because this passage shows us our need of an even better mediator than Moses. Moses died. And there came a day much later in Israel’s story that the favor won by Moses came to an end in the face of even greater rebellion than before.
But we have our greater Moses – we have Jesus Christ the one, final mediator between God and men (1 Timothy 2:5).
Without Christ our mediator interceding now for us - our crucified, resurrected, and ascended Lord - then how could we regain the favor of God? But Christ died to satisfy the wrath we earned. And Christ rose again to bring us to new, eternal life with him. And Christ prays now for you, interceding before the throne of God and using his favor for your sake so that the presence of God will not fail to reach (and can never be taken from) those who look to him in faith.
Because by faith we are in Christ. And if we are in him all the favor Jesus enjoys is our favor as well. We receive mercy – we receive the favored presence of God with us – because Jesus is faithful to us.
Without repentance and without a mediator, humanity can never be restored to the favor of God. No piety can earn his presence. No earthly success in work or home is a sufficient replacement for the presence of this God. But there is one last element to this answer of how God's favor comes. And it rules over repentance. It is the reason for the giving of the mediator. This reason is the most humbling and hopeful of all - we find favor because God chooses to show mercy.
We’ll talk about this more next week because the events of chapter 34 are tied to this passage. But here Moses gets a preview of what he asks for when he says, “Please show me your glory.” (v.18) In v.19 YHWH says, "I will make all my goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you my name 'YHWH.' And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy." (Exodus 33:19)
In this we hear the most offensive, truest reality humanity will ever hear. This God says, “I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy.” It is God's choice (and his choice alone) to give his grace and mercy to anyone. God's mercy and favor and presence cannot be bought with deeds of obedience or tears of sorrow or taken from him by force of strength. If his mercy is withheld, rebels cannot call it injustice. If his mercy is given, rebels can only give thanks. Because if his mercy comes - it comes not for any good in us. That is the humbling news we heard from Paul in Romans 9 (quoted from this passage).
But the humbling news that mercy comes by God's choice alone is also a cause for thanksgiving. Because if God chooses to be merciful, then he also provides all the means by which his favor comes to us. He gives us the gift of repentance, empowered by the Holy Spirit (see Acts 11:18 for an example). And he already gave Jesus the Mediator to win this mercy for us by taking his wrath.
Why would God choose to be merciful to people like us? I confess I do not really know. I only know he is pleased to be merciful and through his mercy his glory is recognized in a different way.
But we can see something of a purpose behind God’s mercy in this text. In his great mercy he chooses to be merciful to Israel so that they will be his “distinct” people “from every other people on the face of the earth.” (v.16) Only the presence of God with them would set them apart. Only with the presence of God would they be assured of his forgiveness and mercy and favor. And only with the presence of God would Israel be a foretaste of what God was doing in this Story of Redemption. His presence with them would be a sign that the God whose creation we shattered in rebellion was making all things new and right. His distinct people – a repenting people with a faithful mediator – would shine in this world showing the beauty and goodness of YHWH so that all might come to him.
Isn’t his beauty and goodness why you have come to Christ? Isn’t his mercy toward you what stirs your heart in love for him? By his Spirit he leads us to repentance so that we mourn. And by his Spirit he works faith in us so that we look in hopeful expectation to Christ our mediator who died for us. In him we have the assurance that God is indeed with us – the favor of God rests on us now and forever. He has made us distinct from the world so that all might see his Church enjoying his presence – a foretaste of the age to come – so that we might bear witness to the goodness of God.
So, rejoice, Church, with thankful hearts. And walk forward through this world with the assurance of God’s favored presence with you that endures in every circumstance. Because Christ has said he will never leave you or forsake you (Hebrews 13:5). And the favor of God is irrevocable because of Jesus. So, keep repenting. And keep fixing your eyes on your faithful Savior who still prays and keeps favor for you. The end of your story will not be disaster. Through repentance and resting in Christ, your end is eternal life with him.
[Benediction – from Jude]
“Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy, to the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen.” (Jude 1:24-25)