Exodus 33 begins immediately after the first great national sin in the history of the people of Israel, which is recorded in chapter 32. Moses had been up on Mount Sinai, meeting with God, receiving the Law; unfortunately, he was up there so long that the Israelites got restless. Restless people tend to do stupid things, and they were no exception; they talked Moses’ brother Aaron into making them an idol, a golden statue of a cow, that they could worship and pretend it was the Lord. That might seem odd, but golden cows are safe, and this God of theirs had already proven himself anything but. Their action, of course, infuriated God, who judged them harshly for their sin. (Aaron, who had allowed the whole thing, escaped judgment despite offering perhaps the dumbest excuse in recorded history; when Moses took him to task for his actions, Aaron’s response was twofold: one, “Don’t blame me, blame them, they’re wicked people,” which is bad enough, but then two, “They gave me the gold, I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf!” Honest, that’s a direct quote from Exodus 32:24. “I didn’t make the calf, it just happened!” Reminds me of some of the excuses I’ve gotten from my children.)
After this, God told Moses to tell his people, “Go on up to the land I promised Abraham I would give you, and I’ll send my angel before you, but I won’t go with you, or I would destroy you on the way; for you are a stiff-necked people.” At that, the people went into mourning, and Moses began to plead with God to reverse this decision, for the sake of his people, and for Moses’ sake. Notice the reason for their concern. It’s not that God won’t bless them—he’s still promising to give them the land, and victory over the people who currently live there, and all the good things he’d already said he’d give them; it’s that he’s refusing to go with them. He’s keeping his presence from them, promising only to send an angel with them to do all this rather than going with them to do it himself.
The NIV calls this statement “these distressing words,” but the English Standard Version is blunter: they’re “disastrous.” God’s blessings are nice, but having his presence with them means far more; that’s what sets them apart from the other nations as his people. Without that, without God going with them, they were no different from anyone else, either to themselves or to any other nation. Thus when God says in verse 14, “Don’t worry, Moses, I’ll still be with you and give you rest,” Moses responds, “That’s not good enough. Either go with all of your people, or don’t bother.” Nothing else will do—not for Moses and not for Israel, and ultimately, not for God, either. After all, what would it do for God’s reputation to lead his people out of Egypt and then leave them in the desert? In response, God says, “All right, Moses—for your sake, I’ll do as you ask.”
At this point, Moses does something extraordinary. You can understand why he does it—he’s probably giddy with relief, for one thing; but more than that, God had just made him a promise, and he wants confirmation, and so he asks, “Show me your glory.” This might not sound like a big request, until we remember that Moses had been spending considerable time with God on the mountain—he was up there for eleven chapters of Exodus before the Israelites decided they’d rather worship a golden cow; he’d seen quite a bit of God, in fact, and now he’s clearly asking for something more. He’s talked with God, he’s seen demonstrations of God’s power and glory; now he wants to see God.
And God says, “I can’t do that, because you wouldn’t survive it. No human being can see my face and live.” God is infinite, and we’re finite; he’s perfectly holy, and we’re sinful. The gap between us is great, and the attempt to cross it, to experience the full reality of the infinite God, is simply more than we can bear. And so God tells Moses, “I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you my name, Yahweh; I will put you in a crack in the rock and cover you with my hand while my glory passes by, then I will remove my hand, and you may see my back; but my face you shall not see.” Now, I don’t know what this looked like to Moses; I’m not sure what exactly God meant by his “back”; but what’s clear is that God told Moses, “I won’t show you my face, but I’ll show you who I am; I’ll reveal my character and my goodness to you.”
That would have to be enough for Moses, and for everyone else; but the desire for more, the desire to see God face to face, persisted. We see this in Psalm 27, which is a psalm of David—which is valuable to know with this psalm, because David, like Moses, was one of God’s special servants, someone who got as close to God as it was possible to get. The Lord truly was his light and salvation, his refuge and stronghold; he’d had armies encamped against him more than once, and evil men working overtime to kill him, and he’d learned that as long as he was on God’s side, he had nothing to worry about. He was unquestionably a man who could write a psalm like this and mean every word.
Out of David’s great confidence in God comes great loyalty and devotion, which we see in this extraordinary statement in verse 4: “One thing I have asked of the LORD, this one thing will I seek: to live in the house of the LORD all the days of my life.” Psalm 84 makes a somewhat similar statement—“How lovely is your dwelling place, O LORD Almighty! . . . Better is one day in your courts than a thousand elsewhere”—but this takes things to a whole new level. It’s not that this is the only thing David wants—this psalm is, after all, a prayer for victory over his enemies—but this is his one thing: it’s his focus, his primary concern, his primary desire. It’s what he wants to order his life and make sense of everything else; his prayer is that he would live his life as much in the presence of God as if he were always in the temple offering worship and sacrifice to God.
Now, trying to keep that focus is hard, and it was hard for David, too; but at the core, his great desire is to experience the presence of God. There are two reasons for this. The second one mentioned is “to inquire in his temple,” which is to say, to seek guidance from God for his decisions; he wants to live in God’s presence in order to come to know and do what God would have him to do. He understands that we can’t make godly decisions with any sort of regularity if the only time we spend with God is an hour a week on Sunday mornings. But as important as this second reason is, the first is more striking: “to behold the beauty of the LORD.” This is starting to get into the same territory as Moses—it isn’t quite the same, but David’s moving that way: he wants to see God.
That comes out in full force in verses 8 and 9: “‘Come,’ my heart says, ‘seek his face!’ Your face, O LORD, do I seek. Do not hide your face from me.” It’s a prayer that can’t be fully answered, but still, the longing is there. And it should be—it means a lot to be face to face with those we love. I discovered just how much during my last semester in college, when Sara went off to Scotland, to Aberdeen. (In that case, not only could I not see her, I couldn’t even hear her voice, since I couldn’t afford international long distance rates.) I learned then that there’s a degree of real intimacy and knowledge in talking with someone we love face to face, in the openness of their facial expressions and body language and the immediacy of reaction; we can know someone more fully face to face than at a distance. David wanted to know God in that way.
These texts are the backdrop against which Jesus tells his disciples, “If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.” Philip was probably studying to be a rabbi, so he knew all this stuff; but when Jesus said that, he couldn’t help himself, and he burst out, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” He knows they can’t—he knows how God answered Moses, and no doubt he expects much the same response— and so maybe we may hear in Philip’s plea an edge of disappointment, that ultimately Jesus can’t quite give them what he’s promising.
Jesus responds with gentle exasperation: “Philip, haven’t you been paying attention all these years? Have you been with me this long, and you still don’t know who I am?” And then this staggering, world-shaking statement: “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” No one could see God and live; we could not leap across that chasm and even hope to survive the jump; so God crossed it from his side. The glory, grace and truth of God were too much for our eyes, until the coming of Jesus; when he came to earth, God took on a human face and allowed his people to look him in the eyes; and through those eyes, and through his words, and through his actions, his glory, grace and truth shone unveiled and undimmed. As John put this point earlier in his gospel, at the end of his prologue, in 1:18, “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.” We cannot see God and live—unless God makes it possible; and in Jesus, he has, and we have.
This is why we can pray as we do. We don’t have to approach God behind a veil of smoke, because Jesus made a way for us. We see God’s face in him and do not die because he took that death, and every other death, on himself; he came down to us, and through his death, resurrection and ascension he became the way to God. We in our sinfulness still could never survive the sort of revelation Moses wanted, but in the words and deeds of Jesus recorded in the gospels, and through the presence and power of the Holy Spirit, we can see God in ways that he never could; in worship, in study and in prayer, God invites us into his presence to seek his face, as David longed to do.
That’s why the church could adopt the motto Coram Deo, which means, “in the presence of God”—because that’s where we as the church are supposed to live. That’s the key to kingdom-centered prayer. It’s not the subject—I hope I didn’t give anyone the idea last week that praying for our needs or the needs of others can’t be kingdom-centered, because it can, if our overall approach to prayer is focused on God and centered on the work of his kingdom. That approach and that focus are the key, that though we pray for ourselves and others, our prayer is fundamentally about God and concerned with his will. The foundational prayer is that of Moses and David: God, let me see your face, let me live each day in your presence, consciously aware of your presence. It’s not about trying to make God do what we want, but about letting go of such efforts—letting God be God and ourselves just be his children—and seeking to know him as he is. This isn’t something that just happens; seeking means looking hard and earnestly, and it takes intention, concentration, and thought. It takes real effort and commitment, not because God’s trying to hide from us, but rather because there’s a part of us that’s always trying to hide from God; to seek God’s face, we need to fight that down and consciously bend ourselves to his will. So let’s concentrate on seeking God’s face this morning, the face of Jesus our Lord, in the presence of his Holy Spirit, in song, in the confession of our faith, and in prayer.