Sermon series: God's Story, Part I

  1. The Baptist Faith and Message: Mankind - Genesis 1

  2. [Abraham, Called of God - Genesis 12](/en/articles/sermon-abraham-called of-god-genesis-12)

  3. The Forward Movement of God's Plan - Exodus 1

  4. Misusing God's Name - Exodus 20

  5. When God Leads the Way - Exodus 33

Scriptures: Exodus 33

Main theme

We are like Moses. When led by God, we do not see God's face, but his back. Why is that? We cannot see his face, because we cannot see him coming. We see God's back, because we see where he has been, and what he has done in the past. We do not anticipate, or second-guess God. It is only after long reflection that we are finally struck with what God has been doing all along.


Chris Rose writing in Reader's Digest said, "As a real-estate agent, I spent six months showing homes to one couple. At last I found two that they liked, but they couldn't decide which to buy. The wife and I returned to the second house, and she began wandering about for another look, while I waited upstairs. Eventually, she told me that they would take the first home. I asked how she made her decision. 'I was standing in the family room,' the woman explained, 'and I asked God to give me a sign. Right then and there, a plane came zooming over on its flight path to the airport, and I knew that wasn't the house for us.'"

We are always looking for a sign, aren't we? Recently, I was driving down the road, pondering an important decision I needed to make. I vividly recall shouting out to God, "Why don't you write me a message across the sky, so I'll know what to do."

Wouldn't that be awesome? Every time we are faced with a decision, we would have a heavenly teleprompter sending us messages across the sky. It's interesting that we humans don't ask for God's input on every decision, we only seem to want God's handwriting in the sky on certain decisions - the "biggies." Where should I go to school? Whom should I marry? Which job should I take? Or should I change jobs? In each instance, we want God to show us a sign. Any old sign will do.

I. Desperate for a sign (vv. 12-13)

Moses, the great Old Testament leader of the Hebrews, was no different. He wanted God to show him a sign, too. On one occasion, Moses got alone with God, away from the rest of the Hebrews, to seek direction. He wanted another divine guidepost, an omen, a heavenly gesture. It's not that Moses had not had indicators along the journey. In fact, he witnessed some rather remarkable visual demonstrations. A burning bush. A staff that became a snake. Tree branches that cleaned up polluted water. Pillars of fire leading the crowd by night. Clouds leading them by day. Manna, the heavenly bread falling each morning. But now Moses wants further clarification. He prays, not unlike us, "Look, You have told me, 'Lead this people up,' but You have not let me know whom You will send with me. You said, 'I know you by name, and you have also found favor in My sight.' Now, if I have indeed found favor in Your sight, please teach me Your ways, and I will know You and find favor in Your sight. Now, consider that this nation is Your people" (Ex. 33:12-13). Moses asked God to "guide me clearly along the way" (LB). Other translations say, "teach me your ways" (NIV), or "let me know thy ways" (NASB), or "show me now thy way" (KJV).

Don't we want to be guided? To be taught God's ways? To know the path we are to take? To be shown the right way? We are a people hungry for guidance. We long for direction. We are like wanderers in the desert crying out to God, "Show me the way! Give me a sign! Just write in the sky, so I can see it."

Interestingly, God never wrote Moses a message in the sky. He never laid a blueprint down. In today's terms, he did not send a fax, an email or a letter. He did something better.

Once, as a youth pastor, our ministry constructed a maze. The "Amazing Maze" - was a labyrinth of cardboard boxes that zigged and zagged the fellowship hall of the church. There was one way in and one way out. Many dark channels, bewildering dead ends and unexpected surprises punctuated the maze, which ended in a free falling slide to freedom.

The students entered with different emotions. The adventuresome could not wait. They raced through enjoying themselves.

Some were daring, yet cautious. They approached the experience like their first time to drive a car alone, excitement mixed with caution.

The most interesting explorers were the timid. They stood at the entrance wondering: How long will it take to get out? Is it difficult to find the way? What if I get lost? Will I know if I am going the right way?

Does this sound like the way we approach life? Some of us are ambitious; others, timid; some, skeptical. We all want to finish the course. We all want someone to show us the way.

The reluctant ones waited, unsure about entering the maze. The longer they waited, the more they feared the unknown journey. Several of the eager ones, who had finished the course, tried to comfort and assure the fearful. Finally, in desperation, the timid - almost in unison - asked, "Will you go with us?" Deep in their hearts, it was a guide - even more than guidance - which they wanted.

II. Something better than a sign (v. 14)

This was the better thing that God offered Moses. God promised Moses his presence. God replied to Moses' prayer - his request for a sign by saying, "My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest" (Ex. 33:14). God personally and providentially led Moses and the nation of Israel. God offered something better than guidance; he promised to be their Guide. He promised to accompany them, to be with them. He was not some God that only lived in a heavenly domain, but rather a God that chose to come down and live among his people. God wouldn't provide handwriting in the sky; but he would offer his hand to Moses and his people and walk with them, side by side, friend with friend.

Though the Bible never uses the word guidance, it does speak of a Guide. We may seek guidance, but God provides something better - himself. Deep in our hearts, it is a guide, even more than guidance, which we want.

Which would you prefer, on your first day, at a new, large campus: The campus map or a kindly student who says, "Look, I'm on my way there now. I'll go with you and show you the way"? Which would you prefer your first day in a new community: a street guide or a neighbor who says, "I've got some free time. I'll ride along with you. I'll be your personal tour guide"?

Guidance for a Christian comes from our ongoing relationship with God. He wants us to know him. Being guided by him is a part of that relationship. Signs are temporary; a relationship is permanent. Signs can be misinterpreted, misread, or not seen at all. God wants to lead us each step of our journey, not just in the biggies. And he does that best by walking with us, being in relationship with us.

It was this presence, this relationship that Moses experienced. One of the most telling indicators of Moses' life is found in Exodus 33:11. "The Lord spoke with Moses face to face, just as a man speaks with his friend" (Ex. 33:11). This verse speaks to the reality and depth of communion between Moses and God. Moses was God's friend, not because he was perfect, gifted, or powerful. They were friends because friends trust each other, talk to each other, and share common interests. No one can drive a wedge between them. Moses never knew where he was going with God, God didn't always provide a signpost to direct him, but it didn't matter. He knew with whom he was going, and that was all that mattered.

Moses was a real person who had real encounters with a real God. This relationship provided him with the direction and guidance he desired.

If we want to know God's will, we must get to know God. The guidance hinges on the relationship. If we seek the Guide more than guidance, we just might see the sign we are looking for. And, even more, we receive some wonderful benefits.

III. Benefits of the relationship

We are a people who have grown accustomed to benefits. We want them. In fact, we expect them. Because God's presence accompanies us, we have some stupendous benefits. Better than any 401(k) or HMO. Better than any expense account. Or the perks of a country club membership or the use of a beachfront condo. The benefit package of a relationship with God is as follows:

A. We have a companion (v. 14)

"My Presence will go with you" (Ex. 33:14). As the old hymn "In the Garden" says, "And he walks with me, and he talks with me, and he tells me that I am his own, and the joy we share as we tarry there, none other has ever known." Regardless of our condition or circumstance, God is with us. Our situations don't change God. He is still with us.

During Gladys Aylward's harrowing journey out of war-torn Yang Chen, during the Communist take-over, she faced one morning, with no apparent hope of reaching safety. A 13-year-old girl tried to comfort her by saying, "Don't forget what you told us about Moses in the wilderness," (referring to God's promise of his presence) to which Gladys Aylward replied, "Yes, my dear, but I am not Moses." The young girl replied, "Yes, but God is still God."

The God of the universe walks with us. He is our companion, our friend. The whole world may walk out on us. But God never will. We have his word on that.

B. We will experience rest (v. 14)

". . . and I will give you rest" (Ex. 33:14). The rest that is spoken of here is a rest that comes while we are on our journey. It is a rest that reaches to the core of their being. It is not like a weekly day off, paid vacation, or guaranteed holidays. It is not merely a cessation of activity, struggle, or of journey. It is a calmness and a security that comes through walking with God.

In the Challenger space shuttle disaster, key NASA officials made the ill-fated decision to go ahead with the launch, after working twenty hours straight, and getting only two to three hours of sleep the night before. Their error in judgment cost the lives of seven astronauts and nearly killed the U.S. space program.

In recent years, our most notorious industrial accidents - Exxon Valdez, Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and the fatal navigational error of Korean Air Lines 007 - all occurred in the middle of the night with fatigue-stressed operators.

Rest provides the compass points that show us where to go. It gives us the physical and emotional endurance to make correct judgments. It is the solitude that gives us wisdom. The necessary tools for finding God's way.

Rest is a testimony of trust.

There's the story of the two birds perched high above a busy city watching all the people busily scurrying from one activity to another. The Robin said to the Sparrow, "Why do those humans scurry to and fro?" "Perhaps," said the Sparrow, "they do not realize they have a heavenly Father like ours that cares for them so."

Corrie ten Boom, the Dutch lady known for her family's hiding of Jews during World War II, in which she was imprisoned, used to say, "Don't wrestle, just nestle." That's what trusting is all about.

A benefit of living in God's presence is that we can snuggle up close to our Heavenly Father, knowing that we can rest confident, secure, and victorious.

C. We will be distinguishable (vv. 15-16)

"If Your Presence does not go . . . Your people will be distinguished by this from all the other people on the face of the earth" (Ex. 33:15-16). I suppose that we all desire to be distinguishable, set apart from the rest of society. God's presence does just that in our lives. Because of God's presence, we are holy people. As has been stated before, holy means set apart, distinct.

When we come into God's presence, we are on holy ground. And, we set aside one day a week - the Sabbath - as a holy day. The thrust of this text is that because of the accompanying presence of God, we are holy people. We aren't holy because we are weird, queer, or odd. We are different because God's presence accompanies us. We are not different because of what we do, but rather because of what God does in and through us. A holy person takes God's accompanying presence seriously.

Think about it. We are consciously aware of God's presence; it will impact our talk, our behavior, and our thoughts. It's worse than having the pastor play golf with you. It's more powerful than having your mother go on a date with you. It is stronger than taking your children on a business trip. God's accompanying presence causes us to think different, act differently, talk differently, love differently, and serve differently. "And if you address as Father the One who judges impartially based on each one's work, you are to conduct yourselves in fear during the time of your temporary residence" (I Peter 1:17, HCSB).

The accompanying presence of God calls us to stand out in the crowd, to be distinct, separate, and unusual. He calls us to be different.

D. We will be known (v. 17)

"The Lord answered Moses, 'I will do this very thing you have asked, for you have found favor in My sight, and I know you by name" (Ex. 33:17). Can you imagine being known by God? The encounter with God is an intimate experience. We come to know him and he comes to know us. Can you imagine the significance that gives to us? The Creator of the universe calling us by name.

On hearing of the death of Pulitzer Prize winning cartoonist Jeff MacNelly, creator of the comic strip Shoe, fellow cartoonist Walt Handelsman of The Times-Pacayune (New Orleans) wrote:

I once received a phone call from (editorial cartoonist) Mike Peters, complimenting me on a cartoon and saying that he and Jeff MacNelly had just been talking about how much they liked it, and when I got off the phone, I told my editor that that was the highlight of my career - just knowing that Jeff MacNelly knew who I was.

It's hard to explain, but to have someone great know who you are, brings a sense of significance to life. God, the greatest One in the Universe, knows us by name. In fact, he knows everything about us.

4. Seeing the signs in the rearview mirror

Actually, God does provide signs for us. Granted, they aren't like road signs, directional signs, billboards, or a writing in the sky. But they are signs nevertheless. They are there, but sometimes we don't see them. When we are walking with God, when his presence accompanies us, his signs are all around us.

A. The sign of his glory (v. 18)

"Then Moses said, 'Please, let me see Your glory'" (Ex. 33:18). The glory of God is the weighty importance and shining majesty that accompanies God's presence. Michelangelo prayed, "Lord, make me see your glory in every place." The Heavens declares it. Creation witnesses it. The church embodies it. Christians reflect it. The glory of God is all around us. Moses came to understand, sense, and see God's glory. But Moses did not see the entirety of God's glory and neither will we.

B. The sign of his goodness (v. 19)

And the Lord said, "'I will cause all My goodness to pass in front of you . . ." (Ex. 33:19). The word goodness refers to the manifestation or essence of God's glorious attributes, most often thought of as the works of his hands. The goodness of God is the concrete experience of what God has done and is doing in the lives of his people. Moses experienced the goodness of God time and time again, but he did not witness all the goodness of God.

C. The sign of his grace (v. 19)

And the Lord said, ". . . 'I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion'" (Ex. 33:19). The grace of God is his unmerited favor, an expression of his heart. God's heart is one of love and compassion. Many times on our journey, we may deserve justice, but God instead grants us favor, the embodiment of his grace. We, his people, are the recipients of his grace, but not all of his grace.

Now, here's the interesting thing about the signs of God - His glory, his goodness, and his grace. Most often as God is leading us, we see these signs afterwards. Sort of like looking in the rearview mirrors of our lives, we see how God has shown up, performing his work. We look back, seeing how God caused a bad situation to work out for our good. We see an event play out and remark, "Only God could have done that." We reflect on an unfolding series of happenings and know that those pieces could have only come together by the hand of God. We look back at things that happen to us so undeserved and unmerited. It was God's working. We look at the tragedy of others and then the blessings in our own life and remark, "There, but for the grace of God, go I." While the path of our life's journey is not always a straight line, when we look back, we can detect the leading of God, be it more like the switch back of a mountain road God still gets us to the destination he desires.

Wayne Oates stated it this way, "Marketplace thought about the presence of God is one of sentimental familiarity. Country-western songs speak of 'having a little talk with Jesus' almost as if the Lord were a chum with whom one has a chitchat. . . . In stark contrast, however, is the persistent biblical wisdom that God's presence comes to us, when we know it not. At the least, our awareness of the presence is an afterthought."

Moses wanted to see God's glory - he wanted a sign. God said you see signs all the time - my goodness, my grace - are all around you. But if you want a visible appearance - a theophany - do the following: "Here is a place near Me. You are to stand on the rock, and when My glory passes by, I will put you in the crevice of the rock and cover you with My hand until I have passed by. Then I will take my hand away, and you will see My back, but My face will not be seen" (Ex. 33:21-23). Moses did as he was instructed. He stood in the crevice of the rock and God passed by. A visible appearance, this time in human form. And Moses saw him, not his face, but his back.


We, too, when led by God, do not see God's face, but his back. Why is that? We cannot see his face, because we cannot see him coming. We see God's back, because we see where he has been, and what he has done in the past. We do not anticipate, or second-guess God. It is only after long reflection that we are finally struck with what God has been doing all along.

It has been my experience that God does not always point the way, but he leads the way. When I look back, I see those leadings. I hope you will, too.

Rick Ezell is the pastor of First Baptist Greer, South Carolina. Rick has earned a Doctor of Ministry in Preaching from Northern Baptist Theological Seminary and a Master of Theology in preaching from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Rick is a consultant, conference leader, communicator, and coach.