Lifeline: Does prayer change things?

Exodus 33:12-23

Exodus 33:12-17 – 12 Moses said to the Lord, “See, you say to me, ‘Bring up this people,’ but you have not let me know whom you will send with me. Yet you have said, ‘I know you by name, and you have also found favor in my sight.’ 13 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.” 14 And he said, “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.” 15 And he said to him, “If your presence will not go with me, do not bring us up from here. 16 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, so that we are distinct, I and your people, from every other people on the face of the earth?” 17 And the Lord said to Moses, “This very thing that you have spoken I will do, for you have found favor in my sight, and I know you by name.”

All of us want our lives to matter. We want to know that we are significant and important. The fact is, we cannot live without deep assurance that we matter. The Biblical term for it is glory. The word glory is the Hebrew word, ‘kabowd,’ which means weightiness, but it also means importance and significance. All of us are after glory. We can’t live without glory. Some people are after professional glory, artistic glory, political glory, relational glory, or maybe financial glory. So that means if you are a pianist and you are seeking glory, what you are really looking for is someone to come up to you and say, “You are an amazing pianist. I’ve heard you play, and you are one of the best. There are not many people who are as gifted as you.” When someone says that to you, how that makes you feel? You feel great. You feel like you are someone. You feel like what you do matters. That’s glory. Everyone needs glory. Imagine if we meet someone without it. They are saying, “I don’t matter to anyone. Nothing I do matters. People don’t even know I exist. I am just nobody.” If we meet people like that, they are in big danger. They might take their own lives. Why? Because no one can live without glory. Moses understands this. He knows he can’t live without glory. But rather than seeking his own glory, Moses prays to God, “Please show me your glory.” This is one of the most famous prayers in the Bible and this is our text for tonight. This text will answer our longing for glory and the question, “Does prayer change things?”

But before we get into the text, we must understand the context in which Moses prays this prayer. Our passage comes right after the story of the golden calf. Remember the story of the golden calf? Think about what the Israelites had just witnessed with their own eyes a few weeks earlier. They saw the 10 plagues happen. They saw how God sent hail, darkness, and ultimately how God killed every first-born son in Egypt but spared the Israelites. They saw the Red Sea split into two. Can you imagine walking on dry ground while having sharks and turtles swim all around you, with the background voice of Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston singing “There can be miracles when you believe”? Even if you did not believe, it made you believe. Then once they got to the other side, the Red Sea closed and swallowed the Egyptian army. And when they got to Mount Sinai, God established a covenant with them. God said, “I have set you free from the slavery of Egypt. I have redeemed you and now you are mine. You are to obey my voice and keep my covenant and I will make you my treasured possession.” And the people of Israel agreed to this covenant. Then Moses went up to Mount Sinai to meet with God. The purpose of the meeting was to plan for God to dwell among his people, what we know as the Tabernacle system. It was God’s desire to be among his people. But did you know what the people of Israel did? They created a statue of a golden calf and worshipped it. These were the same people who just witnessed the mighty hand of God. These were the same people who just agreed to live in a covenantal relationship with God. And in a matter of days, they broke the covenant already. And God was extremely angry and wanted to kill all of them.

God said to Moses, “Mo, I can’t do this. I am so angry at them, and I am going to kill all of them. But not you. I am going to start over with you and I am going to make a great nation of you.” And Moses replied, “God, you can’t do that. If you do that, what would other nations think of you? They would think that you are an incapable and incompetent God. It is your name and your reputation that is at stake.” So, Moses stood in the gap between the Holy God and the sinful Israel. And a couple of verses later, Moses said this famous line to God. Exodus 32:31-32 – 31 So Moses returned to the Lord and said, “Alas, this people has sinned a great sin. They have made for themselves gods of gold. 32 But now, if you will forgive their sin—but if not, please blot me out of your book that you have written.” What a prayer. Moses said to God, “If you won’t forgive their sins, remove my name from your book of life. Let me die with them.” Just like we saw last week how Abraham interceded for Sodom, Moses interceded for Israel. But if God said yes to Abraham, God said no to Moses. So, Moses is caught in the tension between God’s holiness and Israel’s need for God. God’s holiness demands punishment for Israel’s sins, yet Israel needs God. And so, in our passage, Moses meets God in a tent and God speaks to Moses as a man speaks to his friend. What is happening inside the tent is high-level negotiations between God and Moses. Can Moses change God’s mind? And Israel’s destiny depends on what happens in this meeting.

In this meeting, Moses does three things, and they are the outline of my sermon. Moses prays God’s word; Moses desires God’s presence. Moses seeks God’s glory.

Pray God’s word

Exodus 33:12-13 – 12 Moses said to the Lord, “See, you say to me, ‘Bring up this people,’ but you have not let me know whom you will send with me. Yet you have said, ‘I know you by name, and you have also found favor in my sight.’ 13 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.”

I love how straightforward Moses is with God. He says to God, “God, I can’t do this without you. You are the one who told me to bring these people to the Promised Land. You are the one who chose me for this job. I did not send my resume for this job. And you promised that you would be with me. That’s why I took this job. But now you said you are not going. I am confused. Then, who is going with me? How would I know you and your ways if you are not with me?” But to understand why Moses says that we need to know what God said to Moses earlier.

Exodus 33:1-3 – The Lord said to Moses, “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, saying, ‘To your offspring I will give it.’ I will send an angel before you, and I will drive out the Canaanites, the Amorites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. Go up to a land flowing with milk and honey; but I will not go up among you, lest I consume you on the way, for you are a stiff-necked people.”

God is saying to Moses, “I’ll give you the Promised Land. You will have it. I will keep my promises. I will give you military success. I will give you economic success, prosperity, and wealth. You will have all of them. But here is the thing, I am not coming with you. Instead, I’ll send an angel to lead you. Because if I go with you, I don’t know what I would do to your sinful people. I might kill all of them before they get to the Promised Land because they are so sinful.” Did you hear that? This is amusing. First, God is calling Israel, “The people whom you have brought up out of the land of Egypt.” God is saying to Moses, “They ain’t my people, Mo. They are your people.” And Moses is like, “No, these people are not mine. They are your people.” It’s like when a mom doesn’t know what to do with her son anymore, and she says to her husband, “Do something about your son.” And the husband is like, “My son? You know you are the one who gave birth to him, right?” And second, what an offer from God. Most people consider this dream religion. You get all the wealth, power, success, and everything you want, without the hard work of living a life that is centred around God. All the joy without the pain. All benefits and no maintenance cost. It’s like the joy of having a child, without the pain of raising a child. Do you know what we call them? Grandparents. This is what most people want, right? The grandparent God whose job is to give them what they want with no condition attached. This is a dream offer. This is what God offers to Moses and Israel. What would you say if God offers you the same thing?

Moses says, “Thank you for the offer. Thank you for giving us the Promised Land. Thank you for sending an angel to lead me. But what I need is you. Not an angel. So, teach me your ways that I may know you.” Moses will not settle for anything less than the very presence of God. But here is where I want to draw your attention. Moses disagrees with God. He actually argues with God. I mean, what gives Moses the guts to argue with the God of the universe? Do you know what it is? It is God’s words. Moses argues with God using God’s words. He says, “God, you said you know me. You said you love me. You said I have found favour in your sight. You said you will be with me. That’s what you said. So, I won’t settle for anything less than what you have told me.” There is an important lesson here. Listen. The most persuasive prayers argue from promises that God has revealed through his words. Moses dares to argue with God because his confidence rests on the God who keeps his promises. Moses knows that God will not fail to keep his promises. And that is our confidence to bring our prayers to God. The kind of prayer that God loves most is the kind of prayer that rest on his promises. When we do that, it shows God that we trust him. It shows God that we need him and that we are putting our hope in him and his promises. That is why to pray effectively, we need to know God and his words. Praying God’s words back to God is the most powerful type of prayer. The most effective prayers are the ones that start with the word of God.

Let me give you a personal example. I am the type of person who gets anxious easily. Anyone else gets anxious easily? So, how do I pray to God about my anxiety? I don’t just say, “God, I am anxious. Please make me not anxious.” That’s a good start, but that’s not sufficient. What I need to do is to pray God’s words to God. So, I open my Bible and look at one of God’s promises that deal with anxiety. This is one of my favourite ones. Matthew 6:26 – Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? So, I meditate and pray on this verse. This verse reveals to me how much God cares for me. Jesus commands me to look at the birds of the air. There are hundreds and thousands of them. They never collect food. They do not sow nor reap. Yet every single one of them finds daily provision. How? Because God feeds every one of them. And now the question is, how much more valuable am I compared to them? So, I have birds on one side, and I have me on the other. Which one is more valuable? God’s word says I am more valuable than them. So, I pray to God, “God, you say I am more valuable than the birds of the air. And if you feed them, you will surely take care of me.” But why? Why am I more valuable than birds? Now it requires me to think. Listen. What does it cost God to provide food for the birds? Nothing. But Jesus refers to God as my heavenly Father. What does it cost God to make me his children? It cost him the life of his one and only beloved Son to die for my sins. Now, I connect the dots. If that is how valuable I am to God, and if God provides for birds that cost him nothing, would he not provide for me that cost him everything? Then what reason do I have to be anxious? Then I can pray to God, “God, I feel like you are not taking care of me right now. But I know that can’t be true. I know your words. I am much more valuable than the birds of the air and you are my heavenly Father. So, you will not fail to take care of me. Please help my anxious heart.” This is how we pray God’s words to God. More of this in a few weeks.

And listen to God’s reply to Moses. Exodus 33:14 – And he said, “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.” God can’t go back on his own words. So, God says yes to Moses’ request for God. He will no longer send an angel to lead Moses. God himself will go with Moses. But God ignores Moses’ request to be with Israel. The ‘you’ in this verse is singular. It is referring to Moses. God is willing to help Moses and go with Moses, but not Israel. God agrees to meet Moses in the middle. It’s a win-win situation. Moses gets God’s presence and God doesn’t have to deal with Israel. Can we agree this is a big win already for Moses? So, does Moses stop here? He doesn’t. Moses asks for more.

Desire God’s presence

Exodus 33:15-16 – 15 And he said to him, “If your presence will not go with me, do not bring us up from here. 16 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, so that we are distinct, I and your people, from every other people on the face of the earth?”

Moses understands that he is not the only one who needs God’s presence. Israel desperately needs God’s presence. If God is not present with his people, then God’s people won’t be able to carry out God’s mission to be God’s people. Because what makes Israel distinct from every other nation is that God is with Israel. John Mackay puts it like this. “If the Lord is not prepared to show his presence with his people – as distinct from merely with Moses himself – then they have lost their special calling and status as the Lord’s covenant people, and there is no point in them moving forward to the land. It would be better to remain in the wilderness at Sinai than to enter Canaan without the Lord’s full blessing and endorsement.” In other words, Moses once again says, “Thank you God for promising to be with me. But that’s not good enough. I want more. If you are not going, we are not going. We will only go if you go. Full stop.” What a man.

But is this some form of blackmailing God? I don’t think so. Moses understands what the exodus is all about. He knows it is part of God’s saving plan for saving the world. And he knows the only way the people of Israel can fulfil their part in that plan is by having God with them. If God is not with them, what makes them different from other nations? Israel is not God’s people because of their land. Israel is not God’s people because of their wealth. Israel is not God’s people because of their culture, their righteousness, or their strength. Israel is God’s people because God is with them. If God is removed from the equation, Israel is nothing. The only thing that separates Israel from other nations is the presence of God. Moses knows that. So, Moses says, “God, you can keep all those blessings. If you are not coming with us, I don’t want it.”

Let me ask you this question. If God offered to give you everything you dreamed of – riches, wealth, health, success, fame – but God is not with you, would you take it? If God says to you, “I’ll give you what your heart desire. I’ll give you your dream. I’ll give you a great future, a loving family, good health, a successful career, but you won’t have me,” what would you say? Your answer to this question reveals whether God is useful or beautiful to you. Listen. If you see God as beautiful, you want God just for who he is in himself, not for what you get out of it. If you see God as useful, God is simply a means to something else that you want more than God. Imagine this situation. You are engaged to be married and you are excited. And during the engagement, you decide to invest all your money into Robo trading to secure your future, and later you discover that it is a scam. You lost all your money and there is no way to get it back. You are completely broke. You tell this to your fiancé, and she says, “Oh well, if that’s the case, we should not get married. Let’s break the engagement,” and she leaves you. How would you feel? You would feel used. You would say, “All this time she never loved me. She never loved me for me. She loved me for the money.” In other words, you are simply a means to an end. You would feel violated. Do you realize that we all approach God like this? “God, look at what I have done. I’ve been a good person, I went to church, and I did Bible study. But why are you not answering my prayers? I am disappointed in you, and I’ve had enough. I am leaving.” That means we married God for his money. But Moses is different. Moses says, “God, you can keep your money. What I want is you. It’s better to be in the desert with you than in the Promised Land without you. Unless I have you, I have nothing.” Moses has come to see God as beautiful in himself. So, friends, here is my question. Do you see God as useful or beautiful? If tonight, you have to choose – everything without God or nothing with God – what would you choose?

And pay attention to what happens next. It is extremely breathtaking. Exodus 33:17 – And the Lord said to Moses, “This very thing that you have spoken I will do, for you have found favor in my sight, and I know you by name.” Wow. Did you get what just happened? God listened to Moses. One second God said he wasn’t going, and the next second, he says he will do what Moses asked. God will go with Moses and the people of Israel to the Promised Land. Do you realize what Moses has just done? Moses has just altered the destiny of the people of Israel. First, Moses persuaded God not to destroy the Israelites because of the golden calf incident. Then he convinced God to stay with him and guide him. And now Moses made God go with the people of Israel. In other words, Moses changed God’s mind. Let that sink in. Moses’ prayer changed God’s mind and altered the destiny of Israel.

Now, I realize that this is not easy to digest. The thought of God changing his mind is making many of us feel deeply uncomfortable. It goes against our deep theological conviction. Some of you are ready to throw your shoes at me and walk out of the building right now. But before you do that, hear me out. I am going to tell you three truths that we must hold in tension because on the surface they look like contradictions. These three truths are everywhere in the Bible, and we must hold all of them. And let me warn you, we will never fully understand how these truths work together in harmony, but they are. And I am stealing this from David Platt and J.D. Greear. Truth number one: God’s purposes are unchanging. It means what God has determined from the very beginning will come to fruition. Numbers 23:19 – God is not man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should change his mind. Has he said, and will he not do it? Or has he spoken, and will he not fulfill it? What God has spoken, He will fulfil it. God never learns anything new. He doesn’t gain some new insight that makes him re-evaluate His plan. He knows the end from the beginning. God doesn’t change his mind. That’s truth number one. You can put your shoes back on now. The person sitting next to you is praying right now that you do it soon. And now you are questioning, “Wait, I thought you said Moses changed God’s mind. And now you tell me that God never changes his mind? Make up your mind!” Just wait.

Truth number two: God’s plans are unfolding. In Exodus 32 and 33, God changed his course of action based on Moses’ prayer. But notice, it is God who actually created the moment of crisis, setting up circumstances to give Moses a chance to argue with God. It is God who told Moses what was going on, and it is God who made the promise that Moses used to argue with God. In other words, God placed Moses into a situation in which Moses would see the problem, remember God’s promise, and then petition God to change the course of action God had announced. God wanted Moses to argue with God, so God sovereignly put Moses there. God’s true intentions weren’t revealed all at once. He unfolds them over time. Are you still with me?

Truth number three: Prayers are instrumental. When we look at it from our perspective, Moses’ prayer really does changes things. Without Moses’ prayer, God would have destroyed Israel. Yes, God has set things up for Moses to pray that prayer, but, nevertheless, Moses’ prayer is instrumental in getting God to change his course of action. And I know what you are thinking right now. What if Moses did not pray? Is that mean God would have killed all of Israel? Or would God just get someone else to pray for them instead? This makes your head spin. I understand your ‘what if’ questions. Let me answer your questions by asking you some questions. Does God know the day that you will die? Yes. Has he appointed it? Yes. Can you do anything to change that day? No. Then why do you eat? What happens when you don’t eat? You die. So, if you don’t eat and die, would that be the day God has appointed you to die? The point is, stop asking stupid questions and eat. Eating is the preordained way that God has appointed for living. Can you see where I am going with this? Prayer is the preordained way God has determined to get his will done on earth. Moses does not dwell on the unchangeable purposes of God. He does not know the unchangeable purposes of God. But he knows the unchanging promises of God and he applies them to his situation. And so, Moses prayed. And in the unfolding plans of God’s unchanging purposes, God used Moses’ prayer to save Israel. I love the way David Platt puts it. “When we pray we take our God-given place and use our God-ordained privilege to participate with him in the accomplishment of his purposes on the planet.”

Friends, God accomplishes his purposes through the prayers of his people. Prayer is one of the laws of God by which he runs the world. Just like gravity. We can’t ignore the law of prayer as much as we can’t ignore the law of gravity. And I believe God sovereignly places us in certain situations for the purpose of us praying his promises. That’s why he puts us where we are. Think about all the problems we see around us. The broken relationship, the dysfunctional family, the people far from God, etc. God put us there so we can see the problem, pray God’s promises, and see God works powerfully. Wherever we are, we are not there by accident but by divine appointment. We are there to make a difference. Does prayer change things? Absolutely. God’s unchanging purposes will happen no matter what. But our prayers are part of God’s unfolding plans. That’s why we can pray with confidence and anticipation that God will not fail to accomplish his good purposes.

Seek God’s glory

Exodus 33:18-23 – 18 Moses said, “Please show me your glory.” 19 And he said, “I will make all my goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you my name ‘The Lord.’ And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. 20 But,” he said, “you cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live.” 21 And the Lord said, “Behold, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock, 22 and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by. 23 Then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back, but my face shall not be seen.”

Once again, Moses asks for more. And what a request it is. Up to this point, Moses has seen many glimpses of God’s glory. He has seen the burning bush, the 10 plagues, the parting of the red sea, the cloud of fire, the mountaintop experience of God’s presence, etc. But those are not enough for Moses. Moses wants more. Here is what I know about those who have seen God’s glory. They want more. They can’t have enough of God’s glory. So, Moses asks God, “Please show me your glory.” This is a remarkable prayer. To want to see God’s glory is to want to see God’s beauty. What Moses wants above all is to see more of God’s beauty. He knows the answer to all human longing is the glory of God. Life is meaningless without it. Listen. When we see God as beautiful, we pray to God not just for things, we pray to God for God. Instead of simply praying, “God. I need your help to do this and that,” we find what we need in God. Instead of simply praying, “God, help me to achieve this and that,” we find that achievement in God. This is Moses’ request.

But God says no. He says, “Moses, I will show you my goodness. But you cannot see my full glory. You cannot see my face and live. Because I am too beautiful for you to see. You won’t be able to take it. It would destroy you. But I will walk past you and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by. And then you can see my back, but not my face.” So, this is a yes and no answer from God. Yes, Moses will get to see more of God’s glory. No, Moses will not get to see the fullness of God’s glory or else he will die. Most of you probably do not know this movie because you weren’t born yet, but in the movie Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, some Nazis looked into the Ark of the Covenant, and they melted like wax. God is telling Moses, “If you see me in all my glory, you will melt like wax. So, I am going to cover you with my hand.” So, Moses is protected by God from God. And there is an important change in the way God speaks. Moses says, “I want to see your glory.” God says, “I am going to show you my goodness. But not all of it. Just the back side of my goodness.” That means God’s glory is connected to God’s goodness. God’s greatest glory is that he is good. To see all of God’s glory is to see all of God’s goodness.

And look at what happens when God shows up. Exodus 34:5-7 – 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.”

God says, “I am infinitely loving, infinitely gracious. I forgive sins.” But then God also says, “I will never let sin go unpunished.” That’s weird. That’s almost like a contradiction. “I am infinitely loving I want to forgive sin, and I am infinitely just I must punish sin.” And both are true of God. This is God’s goodness. This is God’s glory. Why does God want to forgive sin? Because he is good in the sense of being loving. Why does God want to punish sin? Because he is good in the sense of being just. God is both infinitely loving and infinitely just. To which we go, “Hold up. That’s not possible. God is either perfectly loving so he forgives people and does not punish people, or perfectly just so he punishes people and does not forgive people. He can’t have both.” But God says, “I am both. That’s my goodness. That’s my glory.” That’s what Moses sees at the top of the mountain. Moses sees the back part of God’s goodness. And if the Bible ends at Exodus 34, that’s all we are going to know. The back part of God’s goodness seems like a contradiction.

But today, we have something far greater than Moses. We have the front part of God’s goodness. Listen to what John writes. John 1:14 – And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. This verse is talking about Jesus. And the word ‘dwelt’ is the word ‘tabernacled.’ Jesus became flesh and tabernacled among us. And we have seen his glory, full of grace and truth. Do you know what John is saying? John is saying that through Jesus we can see the glory and the beauty of God that Moses wasn’t allowed to see. Moses could only see the back part of God’s glory and goodness, but we can see the front part of God’s infinite glory and goodness in Jesus. Jesus came so that we could see the fullness of God’s glory. How? Think about it. How can God be infinitely loving to forgive sins, and infinitely just to punish sins at the same time? The answer is the cross of Jesus.

What happened to Jesus at the cross? Jesus cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” At the cross, Jesus was ignored. For the first time in Jesus’ life, God turned his face away from Jesus. At the cross, Jesus experienced the nightmare of every human being, the loss of the face of God. At the cross, Jesus did not matter. He got what we deserved because of sin, absolute insignificance. The punishment of sin fell on Jesus, and he was ignored. The infinite justice of God is upheld. Why? So that we can receive the infinite love of God. Jesus lost the face of God so that we can receive the face of God. And now we can be forgiven, and we can matter eternally. It is at the cross of Jesus Christ that we finally see God as beautiful. Think about it. If you do not believe in the gospel, you might believe in a loving God who loves everyone no matter what. Is that beautiful? Does that move your heart? Does it bring tears to your eyes? No, it doesn’t. He is just a nice God but not beautiful. Or you might believe in a just God who demands everyone to pay for their sins. To go to heaven, you must try super hard and be good all the time. And then maybe you will make it. Is that beautiful? Does that change your life? No, it doesn’t. It is only when you gaze at the gospel that you see all the goodness of God pass before you and it captivates you. The gospel says that Jesus satisfied the demand of God’s infinite justice so that you can receive forgiveness. That’s beauty. And now because of Jesus, God looks at you and says, “I love you with my infinite love. You matter to me. You are the best.” That’s glory. Listen. The more we gaze on the gospel, the more God matter to us more than anything in this world, and the more we realize we matter to God. Now we won’t have to look to anything else to make us feel we matter. Moses saw the back of God’s goodness, but we see the front – the gospel. Does prayer change things? Absolutely. But more than changing things, prayer gives us God. Let’s pray.

Discussion questions:

  1. What struck you the most from this sermon?
  2. Why is the most effective prayer the one that starts with the word of God? Discuss the different ways we can apply it.
  3. Look at the three truths we must hold in tension. What happens if we remove one of the three?
  4. Explain the difference between seeing God as useful and beautiful. Give some daily life examples.
  5. How does the gospel show us the glory of God?
No Comments

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.