Prayer, Giving, and Confession

A sermon for Proper 24: Exodus 33:12-23, Psalm 99, 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10, Matthew 22:15-22

This story begins in verse 1 when God tells Moses it time to leave this place and go to the promised land. However, because Israel is a “stiff-necked people” God will not go with them, but God will send an Angel to guide them. Israel is aghast, and no one put on any rings, earrings, or other ornaments of any kind. Moses isn’t so sure about this angel leader either. He knows he cannot lead Israel without God and like any good leader he wants certainty before setting out to complete this wild wilderness journey (Bratt; Brueggemann). God answers okay, “I will send my presence with you and I will give you rest.” which implies God’s blessing. Only “with you” is not in the Hebrew, and “you rest” is singular not plural (Olson; Brueggemann). It sounds like God is speaking to Moses, not to all of Israel.

So, Moses presses on for more. He knows Israel will not survive on her own (Brueggemann). He knows that only God’s presence will make him favored and Israel distinct. And being distinct is important it points back to the plagues. Israel escape the flies, the deadly pestilence on livestock, the hail that destroyed crops, the dense darkness that none could see in, and death of all first born because they were distinct (Exodus 8:22; 9:4, 26; 10:23; 11:7; 12:23)  (Gaventa and Petersen). Knowing that the plagues are part of the divine plan to free Israel Moses knows all Israel must be included (Olson).

So ~ Moses presses for even more as he asks for a glimpse of God’s glory. God agrees, sort of. The divine goodness, which can be used understood as shalom, or the blessing of the material wholeness of creation, will pass before Moses (Brueggemann). God also reveals more of the divine name;

  • which if you remember begins way back in Exodus 3:6 with “I am the God of your ancestors” (Exodus) 3:6,
  • and progressed to: “I Am Who I Am” and/or “I Will Be Who I Will Be” or somehow both (Exodus 3:14)
  • and then moves on to “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Exodus 20:2)
  • and then “I am the LORD their God, who brought them out of the land of Egypt in order that I might live among them” (Exodus 29:46) (Olson)
  • and now includes
  • “I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious,”
    which reveals God’s completely unfettered capacity to be unconditionally generous
  • and “I will show mercy on whom I will show mercy,”

which reveals God’s capacity to act positively as God chooses (Brueggemann).

However, God continues to stand’s firm about revealing the divine face; that is not going to happen. As we heard Moses does see God’s goodness, that is revealed on God’s backside.

There are lots of curious tidbits is these verses. However, there are two gleanings I’d like to focus on this morning. I want to give credit to Walter Brueggemann who brings both of them to our attention. Brueggemann sees in Moses behavior a model for Prayer. Moses requests are daring, and insistent; which are good qualities for prayer. Moses asks to know God’s ways, which is another good quality for prayer. He insists that God go with not only him, but all of Israel as they make their way through the final wilderness stretch to long hoped for promised land. Moses continually asks to see God’s glory, which refers to God’s awesome, shrouded, magisterial presence; after all it is God’s presence that makes all the difference, not just some brilliant shining light, or some awesome thunder and lightning. Above all that we might seek in our prayer life, nothing ~ nothing is more significant or life changing than God’s presence.

Moses prayer is also deeply theological. Moses is singularly, we could say relentlessly concerned with the person and presence of God. He just keeps insisting that God be there, not only with him, but also with Israel. But, Moses also knows how to stop, when to stop. He while acknowledges his own considerable freedom in prayer, at the same time he honors the unique supreme sovereignty of God (Brueggemann). What would our prayer life be like if it sounded like a determined respectful insistence to know God’s life changing presence for ourselves and our community that is strong enough to reveal our trust in God’s graciousness and mercy, and respectful enough to honor God’s unknowable divine-self?

Brueggemann also sees a model for giving in this story. Moses is relentless in his request, his demand, that God be present with Israel as they make the final leg of the trip to the promised land. God is equally relentless in keeping to God’s self the unknowable, mystic person of God. God is at the same time inconceivably generous in revealing God’s self to both Moses and Israel. It is not like Israel, from Abraham on down, including Moses, have been a paragon of virtue, a model of righteous honesty. It is this non-negotiable and unending tension that makes giving possible. This constrained versus liberal model of giving is a worthy addition to a rule of life, our rule of prayer. If we are too constrained or too liberal in our giving to others, we risk destroying the relationship between ourselves and others we wish to help (Brueggemann).

A closing thought. I know I have, and I expect all of us have a prayer we fervently offered. It may be one of those that didn’t really get answered; and perhaps we hang our heads a bit at the memory of such prayer. Maybe we question God’s presence. Maybe we question our worth. But I’ve been thinking, that in such times, or with such memories we just might be a bit like Moses. We did not get to see God’s face, we only got to see God’s back, God’s going; God’s disappearing around the corner, if you will; and it is only after that, that we realize how God has just acted for us (Bratt). Perhaps the shadow of disappointment, or despair is really the shadow of God protecting hand. As the shadow recedes dare we be like Moses, dare we raise our heads, and witness the presence of shalom, the blessing of the wholeness of life? I do not think it is a risk. It is an outward and visible expression of your steadfast faith in the confession of your gracious and merciful God.


References

Bratt, Doug. Proper 24 A Exodus 33:12-23. 22 10 2017. <cep.calvinseminary.edu>.

Brueggemann, Walter. New Interpreters’ Bible Exodus. Vol. 1. n.d. 12 vols.

Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 22 10 2017. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly&gt;.

Gaventa, Beverly Roberts and David Petersen. New Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary. Nashville, n.d.

Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.

Lewis, Karoline. Loyalties. 22 10 2017. <workingpreacher.org>.

Liggett, James. “Whose Image?” 22 10 2017. Sermons that Work.

Olson, Dennis. Commentary on Exodus 33:12-23. 22 10 2017. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/&gt;.

Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.