Exodus 33:14, the Lord replied, “My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.”
Moses is angry, frustrated, and fit to be tied, and who would blame him. He had just spent the last thirty days on Mt. Sinai receiving from God, what can arguably be the most famous set of laws in all of human history, the two stone tablets of The Ten Commandments inscribed by the very finger of God. I am sure that Moses had great expectations of coming down off the mountain, two tablets in hand, ready to lead his million plus Israelites brethren in a thunderous worship service that would be epic in its size, grandeur and significance.
But instead of finding his Jewish brethren poised and ready to worship the one true God, Moses find something entirely different. To to his horror and dismay, Moses finds that his brother Aaron, had just days earlier, cast for them a golden calf. A golden calf that Aaron is now proclaiming as the one true god that freed them from their bondage in Egypt. A golden calf that Aaron is helping lead the nation in worship, complete with singing, dancing and carousing. It’s sinful disobedience on a epic and national scale.
It’s into this mix of disappointment, disobedience and distress Moses turns to the only place he knows he will find solace, sense and sanity. He turns to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The God whom Abraham once named Jehovah Jira, My Provider. It’s here God comes close to Moses and we get a front row seat encounter of how the two interact.
Here’s are some of the lessons I notice.
1. First, while Moses finds himself at the end of his rope, he will soon learn that he is not the end of his troubles, but just the beginning.
It is not like the Children of Israel haven’t pulled off this type of disobedience before. Five times in their recent past since leaving Egypt, the nation of Israel had a choice to either, in faith, follow God’s leading or follow their own feelings and sinful desires. It’s a fifty-fifty chance here folks. Getting the answer right just once in six tries shouldn’t be that difficult . . . you would think.
But each time they reach a fork in the road to either follow God or follow self desire, they have chosen self. This incident of the a golden calf was, up to this moment, the most egregious act of turning against God. But as the story would continue to unfold throughout Exodus and roll into the Book of Numbers, it would not prove to be their last or their most offensive. There would be four more bridges in unbelief and disobedience that the children of Israel would cross over before they would be forced out into the desert for a forty year walk to think things over.
That is the part of the story that Moses doesn’t know yet. This is just six out ten acts of unbelief that children of Israel would walk through. Then there would be the forty years of desert walking. Forty years of waiting for an entire generation that doubted God to die in the desert never seeing the Promise Land. A land that God would lead the second generation to claim ownership of. In term of timescale though, this incident of the golden calf at Mt. Sinai is just the national anthem playing. The real game hasn’t really started. We haven’t even really hit the hard stuff yet. But Moses doesn’t know that yet and God isn’t telling him either.
How often have I gone to God in agonizing prayer seeking an end to troubles only to find a very quiet God on the other end of the line. Sometimes I have wondered why. Why with such an earnest prayer God isn’t moved to quick and effective action? Maybe now I realize, it’s because God doesn’t see the need to tell me that not only is the current troubles not over, but the really tough and longer trials are looming just around the corner.
Not exactly the answer I am wanting from God when I am in deep distress. Yet a pathway that He alone knows all too well is how he has things planned out to work out for my best and long term good. Reminds me of the words of Jesus in John 16:33, “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”
“Peace”, what a wonderful word. A word that describes the ache of my heart. An ache that it truly yearns for, yet finds so little of in a world broken by the wages of sin. And somehow, in the sovereignty of God’s mighty working hands, he promises us more than just answers, he promises Peace. The route that we must travel to obtain this peace is often found to wind through places of parched dirt and dry deserts. Deserts that have few signposts that give us direction. Which is why Moses asks God for a most usual gift which leads us to the next lesson I learn.
2. When in trouble, Moses pleads more for God’s Presence throughout the journey than answers to problems arising during the journey.
In Exodus 33 Moses finds himself in a mess. He turns to the only relationship that matters. He turns to God and gets right to heart of the matter. What Moses begins asking God for is not answers to the problem of Aaron and the nation’s seemingly inescapable desire for idol worship. He pleads for God’s presence. Listen to how Moses pleads his case in Exodus 33:13 – 17, and notice how God responds.
Moses begins by saying . . .
13 “If you are pleased with me, teach me your ways so I may know you and continue to find favor with you. Remember that this nation is your people.”
14 The Lord replied, “My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.”
15 Then Moses said to him, “If your Presence does not go with us, do not send us up from here. 16 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?”
17 And the Lord said to Moses, “I will do the very thing you have asked, because I am pleased with you and I know you by name.”
What Moses wants more than anything else at this point in his struggle with the nation of Israel, is God’s presence. He does not ask for answers. He does not ask for a cessation of problems. He does not ask God for another people to lead. He simply asks for God to come close enough so that he can walk alongside of Him through the mess. And within the mess, God promises Moses something far more precious than answers, God promises to give him his Presence. With his Presence comes a bonus, rest.
What do you find yourself asking God for most often in your times of troubles? What is at the root of your own heart when life around you is far from your expectations and anticipated outcomes? What happens when even the simple things of life seem to be such a struggle to obtain and enjoy? When you find yourself at such a fork in life’s journey, what are you asking God for? Answers or Presence?
For Moses, he sought God for one thing and one thing alone . . . someone to walk with. If Moses could walk alongside of God, then all would be well. But if God was not gong to walk the journey, then Moses wasn’t moving forward in a direction either. Better to just wait till God was willing to move, then Moses would join in that journey.
And journey with God, he did. For forty years, until the end of his life, Moses lead the Israelites. Well I guess it would be better to say that Moses walked with God as his friend as God lead the Israelites. Two friends walking side by side leading a million people through the desert to The Promise Land. And when a man walks with God that closely for forty years, it has a tendency to change him dramatically in ways that only forty years of close friendship can.
Which leads us to lesson number three.
3. When you’ve walked with God forty plus years, the next generation will want to know what you’ve learned. Tell them so they can avoid some of the pitfalls you encountered.
If you continue reading the narrative of Moses and fast forward forty plus years through trials and troubles of all sorts and various kinds, you will find this sage leader giving some timely advice to the next and upcoming leader of Israel, Joshua. Joshua, the man who had walked alongside Moses since the days of Egypt. Joshua, the man whom God appointment to take over leading the Israelites into The Promise land after Moses would die. Joshua, the man who would lead the attack against armies of immense size, soldiers of immense strength and technology much more advanced than theirs. The odds of victory were mathematically inconceivable.
Yet into this very scary scenario, Moses has forty years of conviction and reassurance that he is anxious to pass on to his successor. We find these reassuring words in Deuteronomy 31:8. Moses tells Joshua, “the Lord himself goes before you and will be with you, he will never leave you or forsake you. Do not be afraid. Do not be discouraged.”
Not a thread of doubt in Moses’s voice concerning God’s enduring Presence. Not even a thought of God not leading the way. Not a care in the world that God would ever leave Joshua or forsake him. It was a faith in God that Moses knew came out the burning coals of desert trials. Trials that granted him the integrity to look Joshua in the eye and reassure him had no reason to be afraid or discouraged.
Being afraid and discouraged were two character traits that I am sure to Moses felt like were crushing loads of stone at the foot of Mt. Sinai so many years earlier. A memory of a time of sadness and sorrow so many years previous. A memory he could still remember the noises of the people singing, dancing and carousing to a golden calf. A memory that took Moses back to a time when it felt like his world was falling apart. Yet through it all, Moses gained the bedrock assurance that the most precious gift of God comes in having his Presence throughout the journey rather than simply the answers to the troubles of the journey.
And when you have the Presence of God, you can truly have the rest our hearts so deeply yearns for. Rest that is pure and unending. Rest that has the taste of heaven bursting through. Rest that comes when you place yourself in the hands of a Savior and trust him when he says in Matthew 11:28-29, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”
Moses was distressed at the foot of Mt. Sinai and he turned to God and asked for more than answers to his problems. He asked for God’s Presence. A Presence that brought Moses something far more precious than answers. He found rest. A rest that could be experienced in the midst of troubles not just merely in the cessation of them.
What mountain like struggles are you facing today? What are you asking God to do for you? Are you asking for answers to your problems or his Presence for the journey and his rest in the midst of them?
God help us all find the courage to ask for your Presence and the rest that comes in knowing you are close and that you call us your friend and that you call us by our name.
Written by: D. Mike Collins for his family and friends