Experiencing the presence of God in the wilderness

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a sermon for Desert Mission Anglican Church on October 22, 2017

by Fr. Nathan R. Hale

Passage: Exodus 33:12-23

When I was in college I went through an intense period of time in where I really wrestled with my faith. It seemed like I was working very hard at being a better person but not making much headway. It seemed like I was learning a lot about God, but not really knowing him more. Can you relate?

What keeps us going as individual Christians and as a community of faith? What can propel us forward and catalyze healing when it seems like we, like the Israelites in today’s passage, are walking through dry deserts—both literally and figuratively?

If we pursue the social life of the church for its own sake, we become a club with all its attendant problems like cliques, posturing, and power grabs. If we focus our services on production values and making sure we feel a certain way, we lose the authenticity of worship for God’s sake. If we think we will solve the world’s problems with our programs, we will become prideful at first if we have some success but ultimately we will fall into despair when we realize we have no power to change hearts.

No, we need the power and presence of God in us and with us, for our energy, wholeness, and holiness.

God says to Moses,

“I know you by name, and you have also favor in my sight.” (Exodus 33:12)

This means that the almighty and all-powerful God, most important person in existence, had noticed Moses. He knew his name. More than that, Moses had found favor with God, which doesn’t just mean God liked him a lot. It meant he been chosen as a recipient of God’s grace.

God manifested his presence in a special way to Moses so that he would know that he was known, loved, and equipped to lead God’s people in love. I don’t think Moses could have done it without the presence of God. When you know you have God’s approval, you don’t need to posture for power. You don’t have join cliques to preserve your social status. When you know you have God’s favor, you can really begin to love one another unconditionally.

Now therefore, if I have found favor in your sight, please show me now your ways, that I may know you in order to find favor in your sight. Consider too that this nation is your people.”” (Exodus 33:13, ESV)

Here again Moses is reminding God that he has chosen not just a leader, but a people. Of course God knows this.

And [God] said, “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.”” (Exodus 33:14, ESV)

What he is saying is, “you won’t have to search and strive for my ways, to know me. I am going with you and my people, which means I will reveal myself to you.” When worship becomes about manufacturing a certain kind of experience or feeling, or when it becomes about checking off a box for the week, it ceases to be restful, and becomes about striving. But God’s heart is that as people come into his presence, they find rest, and are refreshed and renewed as he reveals himself to them.

Moses knows his people need the presence of the Lord, so he says,

“… 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, so that we are distinct, I and your people, from every other people on the face of the earth?”” (Exodus 33:15–16, ESV)

What will set us apart from the world, ultimately, is the presence of God in our midst. More than our marketing or events or programs, people will notice whether or not we have something different, something special—a heart of love that can only come from outside of ourselves—that can only come from God. When Jesus sends out the apostles on mission after his Resurrection from the dead he said:

 “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”” (Matthew 28:18–20, ESV)

It is beautiful thing to know we are not sent out on mission without the presence of God.

It is a joyful thing to know that you don’t have to do anything to be saved from the sin and sickness and brokenness in our lives. We can’t do anything. Only God is powerful enough and only Jesus has taken care of all that for us by offering his perfect self as a sacrifice on the cross.

It is no accident that one of Jesus’ names is Emmanuel, which means “God with us.” Not only does this remind us of how Jesus was God come to be physically with humanity as a human, but it reminds us that that God is on our side. He’s with us.

Because of what Jesus accomplished in his life and death and because all authority has been given to Jesus, we, with Moses, can rest secure in faith that God loves us, which frees us up to love others.

When we realize that Jesus is also alive and offering us his abundant, Resurrection life freely, no strings attached, we are also free to come and worship with no pressure on ourselves or anyone else for anything. We are free to worship by resting and receiving the presence of God.

The incredible thing is as we come to God in worship this way, he binds us all closer together and closer to him in such a way that we become a light to world, we become the Body of Christ, carrying his presence wherever we go. When we do good works as a group and as individuals and people ask why, we won’t be to able help saying, because God is with us! He has come to us in Jesus! People will notice and lives will be saved.

I have an amazing grandmother, Barbara. She’s encountered her fair share of hardship and suffering, including many years away from her son, my dad, and her grandchildren while he was away in Africa as a career missionary. And yet I’ve only ever seen her react to this by praising the activity of God in those things, and resting contentedly in his presence with our family, and always giving thanks for his plan, even in the difficulty of being far away. When I think of my grandmother I think of someone that lives in joy and hope and peace, and that’s all because she is constantly aware of the presence and power of Jesus.

I want to give you three ways that we can all begin to practice being in the presence of God and experience his power today, especially when things get tough. Especially when it seems like you are walking through a dry desert.

The first is to approach the Table of the Lord in faith.

Jesus said, “…where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”” (Matthew 18:20, ESV)

Whenever we gather for Holy Eucharist, we gather in his name, which is to say, according to his will and under his authority. So he is present with us even now in the power of the Holy Spirit.

Jesus also said regarding the bread and wine, “this is my body” and “this is my blood” (1 Cor. 11:24ff)

So we take Jesus at his word, brothers and sisters. When we approach this gathering and this altar in faith, we can be assured that God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is specially present and doing something special in our hearts and in our midst—he is making us more like himself.

The second is to spend time with those that are needy, oppressed, or hurting.

Psalm 34:18 says, “The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit.” (Psalm 34:18, ESV)

If we want to find God, we can always find him with those that are suffering. This is so important, brothers and sisters. One of the Early Fathers, St. John Chrysostom, is thought to have said,

“If you cannot find Christ in the beggar at the church door you will not find him in the chalice.”[1]

The God who heals is with those that need healing. And we find that as we extend words of hope and restoration, helping to heal others together, as community of faith, we find our own broken hearts being mended. Such is the power of our God and his Gospel.

Finally, remember that that Lord lives in you.

St. Paul said, “…do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you…” (1 Corinthians 6:19, ESV)

Brothers and sisters, the God that created the universe has taken up residence in those that believe. The plain biblical fact is that we are always in the presence of God, but we are simply not always aware of it.

Cultivating awareness of God is not complicated, but it does take discipline, because it requires a shift in attention. We must learn to take our attention off ourselves, our constant inner monologue, our thoughts and our worries, and place attention on the presence of the Holy Spirit inside of us.

The easiest way to do this is to practice silence.

Set your intention to rest in the loving presence of God, and then literally just sit there in silence. You’re not going to be able to not think, so I’ve found it helpful to simply pick a word or phrase from the Bible that that I can return to remind myself of God’s presence.

I like to use the biblical word “Abba” which means something like “Dear Father.” When I get distracted, I just say that word internally and return my attention to the Lord.

It’s helpful to practice this regularly, like a discipline, but you can do this anytime and all the time to remind yourself that you are never alone, but the God with the power to break every chain and the might to overcome death itself is with you. As you place your attention on God the Holy Spirit living inside your body, you will know you are safe, you are cared for, you are loved.

All three of these practices were crucial for me personally as I emerged from my own spiritual desert that I spoke about at the beginning of this sermon, and I trust they will bless you as well.

So, as we come to the altar in just a few moments, come with faith, expecting to receive the very presence of God in your hands and in your heart. As we leave this place and go into the world, let’s be determined to find Jesus in and with those that are in need. And as we go about our very busy, very full daily lives, let’s all take some time this week to pause, be silent, look inward, and find rest in the presence of the Spirit. God is everywhere and God is with us, all because of Jesus. May we have eyes to see. Amen.

[1] http://liberlocorumcommunium.blogspot.com/2015/04/if-you-cannot-find-christ-in-beggar-at.html