Text: Exodus 33:12-23
Today in the Gospel reading we heard about the first miracle of Jesus. At a wedding in Cana, Jesus changed water into wine. As a sign of His good will and His support for marriage, Jesus made it so that the celebration need not stop. In fact, the master of the feast commented that the best wine had been saved until then. The Holy Spirit tells us through St. John why this particular account is included in the Gospel. He says, “This, the first of His signs, Jesus did at Cana in Galilee, and manifested His glory. And His disciples believed in Him.” (John 2:11, English Standard Version) In St. John’s Gospel, the miracles are called “signs,” because they point to the truth about who Jesus is and are, in themselves, little manifestations of His glory.
The manifestation of the Lord’s glory is what we celebrate in the Epiphany Season. The Lord manifested (He showed) His glory to the Gentiles by way of His star and Word. The glory of the Triune God was both seen and heard when Jesus was baptized; the Holy Spirit descended from heaven and the Father Himself spoke. Today, Jesus manifested His glory and gave us a picture of the wedding feast in heaven, where there will be no end to the celebration. In the Old Testament reading, which serves as our sermon text, when Moses was filled with doubt, the Lord made His glory be seen by him to comfort and strengthen him. Today we confess that, as the Lord manifested His glory before Moses, so is God’s glory shown to us in Christ.
Now remember, one of the most important rules for interpreting and understanding a Scripture passage is to look at it in context. If something in Scripture is difficult to follow, the surrounding passages often shed some light. Let’s put our Old Testament reading in context. 1446 B.C. is about when God led the children of Israel up out of slavery in Egypt. He led them through the Red Sea on dry ground and then through the wilderness for about three months, until they came to the base of Mt. Sinai. He led them with a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. It was there, at Mt. Sinai, that God revealed through Moses the Ten Commandments. As Moses was delayed coming down from the mountain – God and he were speaking for 40 days – Aaron built for the people a golden calf, which they then worshiped as the true god who led them out of Egypt. These are the things that happened in the chapter before today’s reading. This is what God said to Moses just before the start of our text, “Depart; go up from here, you and the people whom you have brought up out of the land of Egypt, to the land of which I swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob…I will send an angel before you…but I will not go up among you, lest I consume you on the way, for you are a stiff-necked people.” (Ex. 33:1-3)
Essentially, the Lord was telling Moses that they had to leave His mountain and head toward the Promised Land and, though He would lead them with an angel, God Himself would no longer travel with His people – lest He punish them for their sinfulness. Of course, hearing this, Moses and the people were greatly saddened. This is where Moses is coming from when he said, in verse 15, “If Your presence will not go with me, do not bring us up from here. For how shall it be known that I have found favor in Your sight, I and Your people? Is it not in Your going with us…?” (33:15-16) Up to this point, the Lord had been with His people. He called them and set them apart from all the nations of the earth. The nation of Israel alone among all the nations had their God actually show Himself to them – for He is the only one that exists. But, now, because of their sinfulness, God was taking that away. Moses, for his part and on behalf of the people, received this preaching of the Law and repented.
The Lord then had mercy on Moses. He said, “This very thing that you have spoken I will do, for you have found favor in My sight, and I know you by name.” (v. 17) In order to comfort Moses and strengthen his (and Israel’s) faith, the Lord would cause His glory to be seen. The Lord told Moses stand on a rock. Then, as He drew near, He would put Moses in a cleft of the rock and cover him with His hand. When the Lord had passed by Moses, He would remove His hand and Moses would see His back. Moses would see the Lord’s back because, as He said, “man shall not see Me and live.” (v. 20) What the Lord told Moses He would do did happen in chapter 34. In order to comfort Moses and strengthen his faith, the Lord manifested His glory before him.
When we put the text in context, we can see the reason behind Moses’ desire to see the Lord’s glory. He and the people now had to come down from the mountain and wander through the wilderness to a place which they had never known nor seen. What’s more, as a discipline, the Lord would lead them by an angel and no longer by His direct presence. It must’ve felt like the rug was pulled out from under them. Maybe God was no longer with them, maybe they were on their own. But, if they could just get a glimpse of His glory, all would be okay. If they could just have some indication that God is with them, they could draw strength and have a good conscience before Him. I dare say, when we consider the reading like this, we at times feel very similar things to Moses and the people. We also wander through the wilderness of life. We live in a different time and place, but it’s a wilderness the same. Sometimes in our wandering, even as Christians, we feel like a ship out on the ocean with no rudder. But, just as the Lord comforted and forgave Moses by manifesting His glory to him, so He has done the same for us.
God has made His glory known to us in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ. Jesus is the eternally-begotten Son of the Father, who was appointed and sent to take on flesh for us. In Christ, we see the glory of the eternal God, for in Him the fullness of deity dwells bodily, as St. Paul says. In Christ, the fullness of God’s glory is made manifest for the forgiveness of sins. He came and dwelt among us not in judgement, but in grace. He came to take our sins upon Himself and to make payment for them in His death. By His resurrection, He opened the gates of the Promised Land and He brings us into this eternal kingdom by faith. Not only has He done this great and glorious thing, but He – even now – continues to make His glory shown to us. We see the glory of Christ in His Means of Grace.
In the Word, Christ makes Himself known to us. He reveals to us His saving acts throughout history and brings us into them by the Holy Spirit. In Baptism, though we see only a simple action with our eyes, yet the glory of Christ is manifest in it. It isn’t the pastor’s hands who Baptize, but they are truly Christ’s hands that wash us with pure water and unite to Himself. In Holy Absolution, it isn’t the forgiveness of the pastor we receive, but the glory of Christ’s forgiveness. In the Sacrament of the Altar, though with our eyes we see only bread and wine, yet with the eyes of faith we perceive that it is the true body and blood of Christ given to us for the forgiveness of our sins and the strengthening of our faith.
Moses feared that he and the people were being sent out into the wilderness to drift and that, without the Lord’s presence among them in the same way as before, they would be overrun. To strengthen and comfort him, the Lord made His glory known to Moses. He has also manifested His glory to us in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ. As with Moses, He doesn’t send us out adrift; He continues to reveal His glory to us and be with us in His Holy Word and Sacrament. When we seek Christ and the assurance of His presence and goodness, let us ever learn to find Him here and, having been refreshed by His presence, go forth in peace and joy. In Jesus’ name. Amen.