Main point: God refuses to go with the Israelites because of their sins, but he still meets with Moses outside the camp at the Tent of Meeting, where God talks to Moses like a friend. In true worship, we need to commit to God by learning from his ways and seeking his presence.
A Christian pastor from America surveyed thousands of church-going Christians. He asked them, “Have you ever experienced God in a worship service?” And only one-third said that they regularly experience God in church.
Another Christian writer, William Hendrix, wrote in his book, “Exit Interviews” about why today’s generation is leaving the church. He summarises the views of many worship dropouts: “Perhaps the most common complaint was that worship services were boring. It was not just that these gatherings were not interesting; they were not worshipful. They did little to help people meet God.”
When was the last time you experienced the presence of God in a worship service? Life-changing encounters with the living God are indeed missing from many churches today. I have learnt from my mistakes. One of the greatest needs among churches is not new programs, not a new Christian conference, nor a new bible study. What is needed today is an encounter with God. We desperately need a life-changing glimpse of the greatness, the awesomeness, the wonder, the power, the mercy, the goodness, and the loving-kindness of our holy God.
Worship occurs when people encounter God who loves them and desires a relationship with them. When we worship God, whether on our own or in church, we come with an agenda: to meet with God. We also need to remember that God has an agenda as well: to meet with us. If worship is about encountering the presence of God, a simple question is raised: Isn’t God’s presence always with us? We will learn about why sometimes we feel God is far away, and the importance of God’s presence in the place of worship through today’s passage.
1) God refuses to go with the Israelites
After the events of the golden calf, God was still angry with the unfaithful people in Exodus 33. Imagine this, if you are the hero, and you have saved a princess like a Disney movie, but after the wedding kiss, the princess betrayed you in the honeymoon and spent a night with another person, how jealous will you be toward your bride? This is what God had experienced in Exodus 32.
Even God’s people have betrayed him, out of his faithfulness and steadfast love, God still keeps his promise to the Israelites. So God told Moses, “Leave this place, you and the people you brought up out of Egypt, and go up to the land I promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, saying, ‘I will give it to your descendants.’ 2 I will send an angel before you and drive out the Canaanites, Amorites, Hittites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites. 3 Go up to the land flowing with milk and honey. But I will not go with you, because you are a stiff-necked people and I might destroy you on the way.” (Exodus 33:1b-3)
God couldn’t live among them because of their sin. God said he is no longer going with the people in the wilderness because of their stubbornness. In Hebrew, “stiff-necked” means stubborn or “not to be led”. Like if you ride a donkey and the donkey is stiff-necked, it is very hard for you to make the donkey to turn to the direction you want. That generation in Exodus was so hard to lead that God doesn’t want to walk close to them, otherwise because of their sins, out of God’s holiness and justice, he might destroy the entire camp on the way. But because our God is a loving God, and his steadfast love last forever. Even when God is unpleased with the unfaithful people; he still drives out the foreign power and races before them so that the Israelites can inherit the Promised Land.
And God spoke to Moses in verse 5, “”Tell the Israelites, ‘You are a stiff-necked people. If I were to go with you even for a moment, I might destroy you. Now take off your ornaments and I will decide what to do with you.'” 6 So the Israelites stripped off their ornaments at Mount Horeb.” (Exodus 33:5b-6)
When God decides to destroy someone, it is not because he has lost his temper, but because he responds to sin with perfect righteousness. Our God is a God of justice, and this made it too dangerous for him to stay with Israel. It would be safer for them if he didn’t go with them at all. The real issue was their sin. The Israelites were covenant lawbreakers, or as God put it, “a stiff-necked people.” Like a disobedient donkey who refuse to turn to the right direction. And the consequence of their sin is that the Israelites have to face life without God. The Israelites would have to go alone. They were still booked for the Promised Land, but God did not want to go with them
How would you have responded to the news that God wasn’t going with you in your journey of life? Would you feel sad about it?
Most people want God to help them overcome whatever obstacles they are facing in life, and they want to reach a promised land, but they are not all that interested to have God defeat all their enemies and let them into his kingdom, even if he did not give them himself. In fact, this is what some people who claim to be Christians have tried to do. They have made a decision for Christ so they can get into Heaven, but they are not living with Him as their Saviour and Lord.
Even the Israelites knew better. God’s presence with them is their blessing. Without God, there will be no true blessing. The Israelites refused to settle for any blessing apart from God’s very presence: When the people heard these distressing words, they began to mourn and no one put on any ornaments or jewellery, as a symbolic act of repentance. By taking off their jewellery, they were rejecting their pagan idols and recommitting themselves to serve the one true God. You know, whenever we realise that something is causing us to sin, we need to get rid of it right away. We also need to make sure that we never go back to it. Once they stripped off their jewellery, they kept it off. In the same way, when the Holy Spirit convicts us of any sin, we need to take off whatever is leading us into sin and never put it on again.
Gold and jewellery are the spiritual power of money. We can trace the people’s spiritual progress by simply looking at what they did with their wealth. Earlier in chapter 32, they took off their earrings to make the golden calf, using their wealth to turn away from God. This time they were taking off the rest of their jewellery as a sign that they wanted to worship God alone. They were putting off idolatry. They were learning to give it up for God and use it for his glory.
What we do with our money and possessions is one of the best indicators of our true spiritual condition. Are we spending most of it on ourselves, or are we growing in the grace of generosity? Are we becoming more and more selfish with what we have or are we making deeper and deeper sacrifices for God’s kingdom? Are we only giving what’s left, or are we giving more than we think we can spare so that God can do his saving work? Jesus said, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew. 6:21). By examining our patterns of giving and spending, we can see whether our hearts are in the right place or not before God.
Today’s passage reminds us to love God more than we love his blessings. There are many blessings come from God, but the biggest blessing we can have in life is God himself. Knowing God is better than anything else we can imagine. We should not focus so much on what he does for us that we neglect who he is to us. It is a true blessing to have a personal relationship with the living God.
2) The Tent of Meeting
After this, Moses pitched a tent called “the tent of meeting” outside the camp of Israel – far way outside away from all the people. It had to be far away because the Israelites were still under divine judgment. Their camp was still a place of sin, and God had said that he would not dwell in it. So at least for the time being, if the Israelites wanted to meet with God, they had to go outside the camp. They were separated from God by their sin.
The Israelites’ situation is like all of us in our former way of life. We were all separated from God because of our sins. God loves us; He wants to have a relationship with us. He wants us to be his people, and he to be our God. But unfortunately, because of our sins and uncleanness. God cannot come near us, or we will receive judgment. God is so holy that he cannot let sin unpunished. Like the way that while the camp of Israel was still a place of sin, God said he would not dwell in it. If we are still living in sin without repentance, or trusting in Jesus, the Spirit will not come into our lives to dwell in us. We are far away from God.
But the people of Israel still have a mediator, Moses, in between them and God, and God would meet up with Moses who intercedes with the people. Without Moses in-between, the Israelites could not approach God by themselves. No matter what they do, because of their sins.
Their situation is somehow the same with us today: Without our mediator – Jesus the High priest in heaven, we cannot approach God by ourselves. No matter what we do, because of our sins.
Yet God had not entirely abandoned his people. The tent of meeting was a temporary tabernacle— that is an alternative place to meet with God. Moses would leave the camp and walk out to the tent of meeting. As he was going, the people would stand and worship from a distance. They were looking to their mediator as he went to meet with God. When Moses entered the tent, a pillar of cloud would come down from Heaven and cover the entrance. This pillar of cloud is a visible manifestation of the glorious presence of God. It showed to the people that Moses was meeting with God.
Today, as the church, we have Jesus, the mediator in the heavenly tent. Jesus is interceding for us before his Father, pleading for God’s mercy and grace for us.
Do you have any hidden sins that stop you from having a genuine fellowship with God right now? Do you feel there is a distance between you and God in worship, and couldn’t approach him closely because of sin? If yes, Jesus is here to intercede with you. He is willing to help you reconnect with his Father because the Son and the Father are one. Jesus is much closer than Moses as our mediator. Deal with sin and do it no more. Come back to God, and he will draw near to you.
As it is written, in James 4:6b-10, “That is why Scripture says: “God opposes the proud but shows favour to the humble.” 7 Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. 8 Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. 9 Grieve, mourn and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom. 10 Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up.”
Therefore, let us humble ourselves, return to Christ and receive God’s full forgiveness of sin. Let us all worship God with a pure heart without the hindrance of sins. Let Christ dwell in your hearts, come to God and praise Him.
3) Friends with God
When Moses met God in the Tent of Meeting, God talked to him like a friend would do. Moses had immediate access to God. This was a level of intimacy and fellowship that no human being had experienced since the day that God banished Adam and Eve from the garden. Moses and God were friends. God told him everything he needed to know about God’s plans for Israel. He spoke with Moses like a friend with a friend. This meant that there was still hope for them.
And guess what? We also have this hope through Jesus Christ. Like Moses has access to God and talk to him, God is ready to speak with us too in His Word through his Son Jesus. We have this privilege and full access to our Creator because Jesus had already broken the barrier of sins that separates us from God 2000 years ago when he died on the Cross. We can have fellowship with God because what Jesus has done for us. God is willing to befriend with us, like the way he was friend with Moses – If we submit to God, and love him as we should.
And how can we find the presence of God? Learn from Moses: First, we all need a hunger for God. Moses asked God in verse 13, “If you are pleased with me, teach me your ways so I may know you and continue to find favour with you.”
Moses wasn’t interested in God’s ways just because he desired knowledge. His desire came from the heart of a worshipper that was saying, “I want to follow you for life – not just a few months or years. I want to walk with you into eternity.” It was his way of saying that I want to become little by little, more intimately walking with the living God. He was saying that he wanted to experience God every day of his life. He didn’t just want the facts. Moses wanted God. He was talking about a relationship. Moses hungered for God. He longed for God. He realised that nothing else in the world could compare to the experience of being with God. Moses had a passion for God’s presence.
But do you realise that you can experience God’s grace without experiencing his presence? You can have an understanding that Jesus died for your sins, and not ever have an intimate relationship with him? You can know facts and figures, dates and times, and still not really know the One who loved you first. What a shame to be saved and not really enter into the joy of knowing Christ. Sadly, people do it all the time. Churches are full of people who know about God but they don’t really know Him in person and have never experienced his presence. Our worship should hunger for God.
Secondly, Moses asked in verse 18, “Now show me your glory.” He wants to see God face-to-face. He wanted a visible encounter with the living God. He was not content with business as usual. He wanted God to show up in his life.
Ask yourselves these questions: When you come to church, are you tired of business as usual? Are you going through the motions? Showing up Sunday after Sunday for worship service and not having your soul stirred? Leaving the same way you came in? Don’t you want God to show up in your life? We not only need to hunger for God, but we also need an encounter with God. This encounter, this sense of God’s supernatural presence, transforms our worship from duty and routine to devotion, from a ritual to a relationship, from just another meeting to a holy gathering. God’s attendance in our lives and our experience of him is the essence of real worship.
So, in summary, how do we experience God in worship? Well …
- Look forward to God’s revealed presence in worship. Long for him.
- Look for God’s hand at work in worship and in daily life.
- Listen for God’s voice in His Words and prayer.
- Open yourself up to the manifestations of God’s presence.
- Be sensitive to the leadership of God’s Spirit in our decision makings.
Let us pray and ask God for our hunger for him.