Whole Life Discipleship – A Sermon on Exodus 33:12-23

Exodus 33:12-23

Moses said to the LORD, “See, you have said 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.’ Now if I have found favor in your sight, show me your ways, so that I may know you and find favor in your sight. Consider too that this nation is your people.” God said, “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.”

And Moses said to God, “If your presence will not go, do not carry us up from here. For how shall it be known that I have found favor in your sight, I and your people, unless you go with us? In this way, we shall be distinct, I and your people, from every people on the face of the earth.”

The LORD said to Moses, “I will do the very thing that you have asked; for you have found favor in my sight, and I know you by name.”

Moses said, “Show me your glory, I pray.”

And God said, “I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you the name, ‘The LORD’; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. But, you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.”

And the LORD continued, “See, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock; and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.”

Moses is often held up as a hero of the faith, both for Jews and Christians. He is the guy who led the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt. We have this mythical picture of Moses confronting Pharaoh – “Let my people go!” – and driving his staff into the rock to part the Red Sea and standing on a mountaintop to receive the ten commandments on a tablet. Many of us have the Charlton Heston image of Moses in our minds, full of confidence, bordering on bluster.


But what I find more compelling about Moses is the contrast between that Moses, and the Moses this we find here, Moses full of uncertainty, Moses still asking God for more direction, for more proof, for more signs and miracles. Even after the plagues, after the burning bush, after the 10 Commandments, he is still not completely sure of what God is asking of him, or whether he can pull it off. Even though he routinely hears directly from God, he’s still trying to figure out what it means to follow God into unfamiliar territory.

Earlier this week, I had the pleasure of speaking to a philosophy class, and I found myself explaining to a group of college freshmen what it means to be a Christian – at least what it means to me to be a Christian. In a way that’s an easy question for me to answer: a Christian is someone who tries to live their life following the example of Jesus. But then my mind went down the rabbit trail. What does that mean? What part of Jesus’ life are we emulating? How does one act like Christ in a completely different culture and time than the one Jesus lived in? And it occurred to me that we’re basically in the same boat as Moses, just trying to figure out how to follow God into unfamiliar territory.

Moses had some advantages that we don’t have – you know, burning bushes and such. The stories of Moses are all about his ability to go straight to the source, and about his uniquely direct relationship with God. In this particular story, Moses is not in a great situation. The people he was leading were getting angry about being out in the wilderness so long, and they had decided to make a golden calf to worship – and Moses’ brother Aaron was heading up that brilliant plan. God kept promising to bring them into the promised land, but it had been years and years of wandering, and Moses was starting to wonder if they would ever get there, and whether he was ever going to get any support in the mammoth task of leading his complaining flock indefinitely with no destination in sight. So God does speak to him and reassure him. God even appears to him.

But even Moses was limited in what he could see or know of God. He never got to know the whole scope of the plan; he just got to know the next step. He couldn’t see all of God, just the back – just a glimpse of undescribable and barely identifiable glory. Just enough to lead him to follow God one more step into unfamiliar territory.

Which begs the question, what gets us the next step down the road? When we’re in the difficult situation, when we can’t quite see the final destination,  when we’re wondering if we’re ever going to get any support or have any clarity, what gets us one more step forward into unfamiliar territory, living out the example of Christ in our lives here and now?

Well, as it turns out, this is what I’ve been trying to give you pieces of for the last six weeks as we’ve been talking about different aspects of discipleship. But I do realize that most of you have not been here for every Sunday, and this may be your first time hearing about this at all. Over the last six weeks, we’ve talked about: encountering holiness, living well with one another, emotion, intellect, spiritual disciplines, and action. None of them on their own can be our only source of inspiration throughout our whole lives. But since we don’t have the voice of God to tell us exactly what to do, I think these things together make up a pretty good toolbox that we can use when we’re figuring out what it means to follow the example of Christ throughout all the circumstances that a lifetime can bring us.  

Our own encounters with holiness – experiences of awe, mystery, and beauty – show us what the presence of God is like. These thin spaces are like seeing the back of God; they remind us that God’s presence is there, and they give us a picture of what it is that we’re ultimately striving for.

Our life in community with other Christ-followers shapes us in the image of Christ, both by the support and nurture of the community that shows us love and compassion, and by challenge and accountability that smooth our rough edges and steer us back when we are going down the wrong path. The Bible calls us the Body of Christ for a reason – because together we function as the whole of Christ’s example in the world. And we can only do that with the participation of all the members of the body.

Emotions are not the only guide to what we should believe or do, but they are a guide. I’m not really a “follow your bliss” kind of person, because our bliss – my bliss, anyway – has a tendency to lead us to a spa and not into solidarity with our oppressed neighbor. But our emotions of joy, or anger, or sadness can tell us something about whether we are walking in the way of Christ, if we pay attention not just to the emotion itself but to where it comes from and what it causes us to do.

Our intellect, similarly, is not our only guide, because if nothing else, stories about Moses are a reminder that we never see the whole picture. But our intellect is God’s invitation to ask hard questions of ourselves, of each other, of Scripture, of the world around us, and of God, so that we see more of the picture – so that maybe we get to see at least the back of God.  

Spiritual disciplines put us in the habit of seeking the presence of God and listening intentionally through Scripture, prayer, meditation, and other regular practices that strengthen our connection with the divine.

Action gives us the opportunity to experience Christ’s example by actually doing the things that it seems that Christ would do in this time and place. When we are in the places and interacting with the people where Christ would be, we see Christ more clearly in them – and in ourselves.

Moses spent decades figuring out newly every day how to follow God into unfamiliar territory, and our lives of following Christ are much the same. Every day brings new challenges, and new decisions to be made. Every day invites a new commitment. Moses persevered by going back to God, again and again, in any way he could find. And we who are trying to live out the example of Christ do the same, by cultivating tools that help us seek out God in a variety of ways: through experiences of holiness, through the support and guidance of the people around us, through our emotions and intellect, through the practice of the presence of God, and through acting with compassion and justice. Each of these tools gets us one more step forward, even when we’re stepping out into unfamiliar territory.

And in that unfamiliar territory, God gives the same promise to us that came to Moses: I know you by name. My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.

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