Pentecost +14 2019
A Priest in the Temple of the Lord
Rev. Doug Floyd
Exodus 32:1, 7-14, Psalm 51, 1 Timothy 1:12-17, Luke 15:1-10
Today we prayed a prayer for mercy in Psalm 51. We hear the story of God’s mercy in the conversion of Paul from persecutor to proclaimer of God’s love in Christ. We watched Jesus model the great mercy of God by eating with sinners and telling a story about a shepherd goes leaves the 99 to go in search of the one lost sheep. With these images of mercy in the background, I want to pause over the great mercy of God extended to his unfaithful people at the foot of Mt. Sinai. In Exodus 32, 33, and 34, we read a story of Moses as priest praying four separate times for the mercy of God in the midst of the people. In these prayers, he anticipates the Great High Priest of Jesus Christ as well as our own calling to follow Christ as priest and kings in the midst of a dark and broken world.
The last time they saw Moses, he climbed up the mountain and stepped into a cloud. He stepped into the same glory cloud that terrified all of Israel. In Exodus 20, we read,
18 Now when all the people saw the thunder and the flashes of lightning and the sound of the trumpet and the mountain smoking, the people were afraid and trembled, and they stood far off 19 and said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, lest we die.” 20 Moses said to the people, “Do not fear, for God has come to test you, that the fear of him may be before you, that you may not sin.” 21 The people stood far off, while Moses drew near to the thick darkness where God was. (20:18-21)
Moses has been gone for forty days. It seems the darkness and clouds took him. Without Moses, how can the people find divine help? Have they been abandoned in the wilderness? The people cry out to Aaron to make a way to this god who is redeeming them. Aaron takes their jewelry and molds a bull that is essentially a totem, a visual representation that points to the divine power that has delivered them from Egypt.
Israel has turned away from God’s instruction to idolatry. They have corrupted themselves. They are no longer the holy people set apart unto to God. Like Adam and Even who turned aside from God’s way in Eden, they have turned aside from God’s way in the wilderness. When the Lord looks, he behold a hardened stiff-necked people. That image of a stiff neck is the image of an animal resisting its owner who is leading it. They have resisted God’s period of waiting and are now making their own way to God and treating God as a power they summon to do their bidding. They have reversed out relation to God. Instead of being his children and servants, they act as though he is their servant at their command. When Moses throws down the tablets of stone, he is acting out what just happened: the covenant has been broken.
The Lord tells Moses to “leave me alone” that his wrath may consume this people. Then he will destroy them and raise up another people for Moses. But Moses does not “leave God alone.” Moses prays for mercy. In this first prayer, Moses prays that God will not destroy the people.
He makes two arguments for mercy. He appeals to God’s name among the Egyptians and suggests that the Egyptians will think God rescued Israel for evil purposes. Next, he appeals God’s promise given to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to raise up from their descendants a family as vast as the stars. The Lord relents from destroying His people.
Moses comes down off the mountain and destroys the two tablets as a sign that the covenant has been broken between Israel and God. Judgment is released in the camp upon the instigators. Then Moses tells the people that he will pray for atonement of their sin.
At the end of Exodus 32, Moses intercedes a second time asking the Lord to forgive the people. This is when Moses makes his bold intercession, when he prays, “Alas, this people has sinned a great sin. They have made for themselves gods of gold. But now, if you will forgive their sin—but if not, please blot me out of your book that you have written.” (32:31-32)
The Lord does not treat this sin of idolatry lightly. In this act of turning away from the Lord and going their own away, Israel demonstrated the same brash behavior that led Cain to kill Abel, that the Sons of God to marry the daughters of men, that led the nations into such a dark descent that the only remedy was total destruction in the flood and a new family raised up through the family of Noah. This appears to be the kind of judgment that could have happened to Israel, but the Lord relented. Yet this does not excuse sin. The people and the land must be purified.
In response to Moses second prayer, the Lord first sends a plague as an outward sign of the people’s rebellion. In chapter 33, he agrees to allow the children of Israel to begin traveling to the Promised Land, but an angel will lead them. He then tells Moses that he cannot go with the people because his holiness will consume the people.
When the people hear that God will not go with them, they begin to see the depth of their offense. The people mourn when they hear this word. They strip themselves of their ornaments.
Moses intercedes a third time in the Tent of Meeting. He moves the tent of meeting outside the camp for God will not enter the camp lest he destroy this people. All the people watch as Moses enters the tent of meeting. Moses cries out for favor upon him and the people. He pleads with God to restore the people, and dwell in their midst again. He prays that they would become a people who reveal the name of the Lord to all nations.
The Lord responds to third Moses’s cry by promising to return. He says, “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.” (33:14).
Now Moses prays a fourth time. This time he asks for a sign of God’s favor. He prays to behold the glory of God. The Lord instructs him to return to Mt. Sinai and he will see the back of God’s glory.
Moses will return up the mountain. Before he goes, he recuts the tablets according to the Lord’s instruction. The people and the animals must not to go near the mountain.
Moses returns up the mountain alone. “The Lord descended in the cloud and stood with him there, and proclaimed the name of the Lord. The Lord passed before him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.” (34:5-7)
In this descent, we behold the mercy of God, the faithfulness of God, the steadfast love of God extending for thousands of generations, and the holiness of God that judges iniquity. In the midst of this glorious encounter, Moses intercedes once again for forgiveness, for favor, for God’s presence, for restoration as God’s people. And the Lord restores the covenant, “Behold, I am making a covenant. Before all your people I will do marvels, such as have not been created in all the earth or in any nation. And all the people among whom you are shall see the work of the Lord, for it is an awesome thing that I will do with you.” (34:10).
The rest of Exodus 34 recounts God’s blessings and commands of the covenant. Moses returns down the mountain with the tablets as a sign of the restored covenant and with the glory of God shining out from his face as a sign of God’s favor. Moses himself becomes the very sign to the people that God has forgiven and restored his favor to the nation.
This story we have remembered today is a story of human rebellion, God’s judgment, God’s mercy, and ultimately God’s restoration. Moses stands between Israel and God as a priest, crying out for mercy. He intercedes multiples time and in various ways for God to show mercy but not only mercy but favor. For God to restore the fallen nation back into a place of favor.
Now let’s back up a bit. In Exodus 31, Moses is still on the mountain top receiving extensive directions from God concerning the construction of the tabernacle and specifically the crafting of the ark of the covenant and the mercy seat. Moses has been beholding God’s purposes for mercy, for covenant, for a tabernacle, a dwelling place of God in the midst of His people.
In the midst of this instruction, Moses is confronted with the sin of the people. I would suggest, that in one sense, Moses is tested. He is tested about what he has been learning about the very purposes and character of God as revealed in the tabernacle, in the ark of the covenant, in the mercy seat. When Moses hears about Israel’s sin, what does he do? He please for mercy, he cries out to restore the covenant. He has learned and acted upon what God has revealed to him. In so doing, Moses has become a priest in the Temple of the Lord.
This story we read today is a story of human sin and rebellion, but it is also a story of priestly duty. Moses has given a picture of the true priest who is to come.
In Christ, today’s story finds fulfillment. In Christ Jesus, we see the fullness of God’s mercy and covenant revealed. Christ comes as God’s mercy incarnate. Christ also comes as God’s judgment incarnate. Dietrich Bonhoeffer suggested that grace is costly. It is costly because God himself has born the cost and full impact of human sin and rebellion. God himself has entered into the breach, the sickness, the pain, the anguish, the loss, the death cause by Cain killing Abel. God himself has entered into our own sin and death and offered mercy and life instead.
Christ Himself becomes the sign of the covenant. In the story of Moses, the Ten Words were cut in stone. In the story of Christ, this Word is made flesh. His very heart beats with the covenant faithfulness of God. Moses could only behold the back of God. But in Christ, we are told that we will behold him face to face. We are moving from glory to glory.
Moses bore this glory on his face. We bear this same and even greater glory in our heart even as we ourselves are becoming signs of the covenant through the work of the cross. We are a cruciform people shaped by the death and resurrection of Christ. In both suffering and in joy, we bear the marks of Christ for the world.
Like Moses, we become priests of the God of mercy and grace. We do not simply pray for Israel, we pray for the world in sin and death. We intercede for nations gone astray. We go out into the very places where God has sent us: into the school system, into the business world, into the Paneras and Starbucks, into the university, into the hospitals, into the library, into the stores and homes and places of our community. We pray for these places, for these people. We pray in and through our Great High Priest Jesus Christ, who ever intercedes before the throne of God.
And we trust that God hears and forgives and extends mercy and restoration to those broken under the weight of sin.