Exodus 34: 29-34
Sometimes when God is dealing with human beings, it takes a couple or more times to get it right. We sort of know this from our own lives. Oftentimes when God is trying to get our attention, we ignore at least the first attempt, and some of us have gotten so good at it that God has to go after us on multiple occasions, just to get us to give some serious thought to what he’s challenging us to do. And not to excuse us in any way what so ever with our reluctance to respond to God, that seems to be the biblical pattern whenever the human element gets factored in. In the Bible, it almost seems universal that when God calls someone to a particular task or ministry, that the response is “Go get someone else”, or “I’m not qualified,” or “Surely someone else could do a better job of it, you really haven’t thought this through, have you God?”
And Moses is a perfect example of the reluctant prophet. His burning bush experience was pretty awesome when we think about it; Moses got to talk to God, Moses had the whole rest of his life planned out for him, Moses had God’s promise of his abiding presence and power to sustain him throughout his ministry, lots of good stuff, and yet when it all came down to it, Moses still told God to buzz off, go find someone else. Now of course that didn’t last, because Moses discovered that when God calls someone to do something, that God has this handy way of answering all of the objections that we can toss in God’s direction.
And in our passage this morning, the human element has entered in in a pretty powerful way. This is “Take two” on the delivery of the Ten Commandments. “Take one” was a complete disaster. Moses had been up on the mountain, communing with God, learning from God and fellowshipping with God, and getting the Ten Commandments. But while he was up there having this awesome experience with God, the people down below were getting lonely. They were feeling like Moses had abandoned them, they claimed not to know where he was, they assumed that he must be dead, and if Moses was missing or dead, then God must also have suffered the same fate. And so they demanded that Aaron, Moses’ brother, craft for them a replacement God that they could see, feel and keep track of. And Aaron did just that. He made for them a lovely golden calf, and the people were perfectly pleased, and they bowed down and worshiped it and had a grand time doing so. It was just what they needed. It is amazing how quickly we human beings can slide so easily into idolatry, when we become the least bit disappointed with God.
And everything was going just fine. The people had a new god, and they were happy. And then, quite unexpectedly, Moses came down from the mountain. Oops. And when Moses saw the orgy of idolatrous worship that was going on, he became so angry, that he heaved the stone tablets containing the Ten Commandments, they crumbled into a big mess, and so did everything else. And things did not go well for the people of God for quite some time.
But even though we often give up, God never gives up, God keeps at it, and God gives second chances. And so after a bit, Moses went back up the mountain to get another set of the Ten Commandments. This is “take two”. And this time when he came down, there was visible, glorious evidence that Moses had been in the presence of God. The text says that “Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God.” That’s an OK translation. The Rabbis would say that Moses’ face shot forth beams of light. I like that better. It adds a sense of the amazing and the astonishing.
And having never seen anything like this in their lives, the people were terrified. They shied away from Moses. This is glory too intense for human comprehension. It is stunning, it is beyond understanding. It is inexplicable. But it is also the work of God. And the more that we encounter the work of God in our own lives, the more that we discover that God’s work is often stunning and amazing and astonishing, and also, often completely inexplicable.
And that can be frightening. And the people were certainly frightened when they first laid eyes on Moses. And throughout the Scriptures, when God’s work is made manifest, people are often terrified. But there’s good news here. With the terror comes the command to stop being afraid, and with the command, comes divine peace. And that’s sort of what happened here. Moses spoke first to Aaron and the leaders, and Aaron and the leaders come closer to Moses, and afterward, the rest of the people came near, and with his face all aglow, evidencing the divine glory, Moses imparted the word and the commandments of God to the people, and the people listened. This will become important in just a second.
There is always glory when God speaks to his people. The words themselves carry all of the glory that we need to listen and to respond. As far as we know, this great shooting forth beams of light happened only one other time in the Scriptures. One day, Jesus took Peter and James and John to the top of a mountain, and there Jesus’ whole being was transfigured, and his entire being shot forth beams of light. On that day Jesus was revealed to this trio of disciples in his full heavenly glory, and they were terrified. The command that day was, “This is my Son, the beloved, listen to him!” When there’s glory, we had better listen.
On the night that Jesus was betrayed, he gathered in a secret place to celebrate the Passover with his disciples. That night he delivered the awful news that he would be betrayed by one of his own, that another of them would adamantly deny ever knowing him, and that all of them would desert him. And yet, on that same night he instituted the most sacred and intimate and glorious moment that we can ever experience with him. He took bread, and he blessed it, and he broke it and he gave it to his disciples and said, “Take, this is my body, which is for you.” And then he took a cup of wine, and again, giving thanks for it, he gave it to them and said, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many.”
As the evening was winding down, however, Jesus refused the fourth cup of wine, which normally signaled the completion of the Passover meal. And in refusing it he said, “Truly I tell you, I will never again drink of the fruit of the vine until the day when I drink it new in the Kingdom of God.” In refusing that last cup of wine, Jesus declared that the celebration of Passover was to remain incomplete until that day when we gather together in the fullness of his glory in the Kingdom of God. That night, in the presence of a betrayer and in the presence of one who would deny him, and in the presence of all who would desert him, Jesus announced that there is more to come; much more to come.
This morning, when we gather around the communion table, perhaps as those who would also deny, betray and desert our Lord, it is the third cup of wine that we will drink, reminding us that the celebration of communion remains incomplete. This cup reminds us that there is more to come, much more to come. There is a day coming, which we await with joyful anticipation, when we will drink the fourth cup of wine in the completed Kingdom of God. We close the communion service with words that remind us of this very truth. We say to one another, “As often as we eat this bread and drink from this cup we do show forth the Lord’s death until he comes again.” When he comes again, we will sit down at that great heavenly banquet, and when the wine is poured, it will be the fourth cup that we share with our Lord. That cup signals that all is complete in God’s great plan of redemption. And that will be glory beyond all imagination.