Why we need more of the presence of God
Lectionary for the week of October 16–22, 2017
If you go to a church that bases its Sunday services on the Revised Common Lectionary e.g. Church of England, Methodist, URC, Roman Catholic etc, this is my personal attempt to bring one clear Jesus-centred message out of the three main readings, OT, Gospel and Epistle. Often the Gospel is read last but I stick with the logical order. The idea is that you read and prayerfully reflect on the Bible passages and notes during the week, and see how they build towards what God is saying. The message you hear in church will be a bit different, but this will give you some hooks to hang it on and something to discuss in your group.
Moses has an encounter with God about the nation he represents and receives a promise that God will presence Himself with them.*
12 Moses said to the Lord, ‘See, you have said 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 favour in my sight.”
13 Now if I have found favour in your sight, show me Your ways, so that I may know you and find favour in your sight. Consider too that this nation is your people.’
- In this encounter, God begins to reveal His ways by first revealing His character (v.19).
14 [The Lord] said, ‘My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.’
15 And [Moses] said to him, ‘If your presence will not go, do not carry us up from here.
16 For how shall it be known that I have found favour in your sight, I and your people, unless you go with us? In this way, we shall be distinct, I and your people, from every people on the face of the earth.’
- The point is brought out more clearly in the NIV and NLT renderings:
Exodus 33:16 NIV
“…unless You go with us… what else will distinguish me and Your people from all the other people on the face of the earth?”
Exodus 33:16–17 NLT
“For Your presence among us sets Your people and me apart from all other people on the earth.”
17 The Lord said to Moses, ‘I will do the very thing that you have asked; for you have found favour in my sight, and I know you by name.’
18 Moses said, ‘Show me your glory, I pray.’
19 And the Lord said, ‘I will make all My goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you the name, “The Lord”; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy.
- The name of the Lord here is more a description of His attributes, especially love that is gracious and merciful. This is further expanded later in the encounter which for us is in the following chapter. The ‘name’ is the “I am” of Exodus 20:2 “_ I am _ the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. Represented by the Hebrew letters YHWH, we say this as Yahweh or in traditional hymns, anglicised into ‘Jehovah’.
- Exod. 34:5–7 NIV
Then the Lord came down in the cloud and stood there with him and proclaimed His name, the Lord. And He passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet He does not leave the guilty unpunished; He punishes the children and their children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation.
20 But,’ He said, ‘you cannot see My face; for no one shall see Me and live.’
21 And the Lord continued, ‘See, 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.’
Message Part 1
Verses from the Psalms and Isaiah about who God is.
1 The Lord is king: let the peoples tremble;
He is enthroned above the cherubim: let the earth shake.
2 The Lord is great in Zion
and high above all peoples.
3 Let them praise your name, which is great and awesome;
the Lord our God is holy.
4 For the sake of my servant Jacob,
and Israel my chosen,
I call you by your name,
I surname you, though you do not know me.
5 I am the Lord, and there is no other;
besides Me there is no god.
I arm you, though you do not know me,
6 so that they may know, from the rising of the sun
and from the west, that there is no one besides me;
I am the Lord, and there is no other.
9 O worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness;
let the whole earth tremble before him.
10 Tell it out among the nations that the Lord is king.
He has made the world so firm that it cannot be moved;
he will judge the peoples with equity.
Pharisees and others try to trap Jesus in His words with a tricky question about paying the Roman poll tax
15 Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said.
16 So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, ‘Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality.
- What the religious leaders said was true, but insincere and deceptive in motive. It was a trap.
17 Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?’
- Jewish teaching held that Jews should pay their taxes to pagan overlords — “By Me kings reign…” Proverbs 8:15, also see Daniel 2:21 and 37–38.
18 But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, ‘Why are you putting Me to the test, you hypocrites?
- Jesus here, empowered by the Holy Spirit, gives them a demonstration of ‘wisdom from above’: But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere James 3:17
19 Show me the coin used for the tax.’ And they brought Him a denarius.
- They showed him a copper coin with an image of Caesar and inscription describing him as a high priest and son of a god. Naturally, Jews objected to using these coins with an image, except for paying the official tax. They generally used plain copper coinage for commerce. But here the religious leaders were carrying and presumably using the Roman variety as well.
20 Then he said to them, ‘Whose head is this, and whose title?’
21 They answered, ‘The emperor’s.’ Then He said to them, ‘ Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s .’
- A worldview that is centred on world and self has difficulty in looking beyond man to God. Here Jesus teaches about honouring God for what is His. The taxation may be owed to the emperor but the provision of it is God’s.
22 When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left Him and went away.
Message Part 2
1 Thessalonians 1:1–10
Paul commends the steadfast, persecuted believers in Thessalonika for being transformed by the power of the Spirit and being such an effective witness to others.
1 Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy,
To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ:
Grace to you and peace.
2–3 We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labour of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.
4 For we know, brothers and sisters beloved by God, that He has chosen you
- Being people chosen by God reflects the encounter with Moses, Exodus 33:13, and a nation chosen and set apart by God.
5 because our message of the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction ; just as you know what kind of people we proved to be among you for your sake.
- Only the Holy Spirit can empower us to be a different and Christ-like kind of people.
6 And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for in spite of persecution you received the word with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit, 7 so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia.
- They were transformed. In a relatively short time, despite persecution, they had become “imitators”. Now their lifestyle was completely different from what it was before the Gospel came to them, because their conversion led them to imitate Paul and his companions. Paul encouraged this; as one who modelled his life on Christ, he was leading people not to imitate him so much as Christ: ”Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ.” 1 Cor. 11:1
8 For the word of the Lord has sounded forth from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but in every place where your faith in God has become known, so that we have no need to speak about it.
- These people who had suffered persecution were known beyond their own region as people of faith and witness. The ‘joy inspired by the Holy Spirit’ was their hallmark as a transformed people.
9 For the people of those regions report about us what kind of welcome we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God, 10 and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead — Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath that is coming.
The message: We need God’s presence to change us and our world
1. The presence of God transforms
God longs to have a relationship with His people. He also longs for His people to DESIRE an intimate relationship with Him, where they perceive Him speaking and guiding, and want to live and express themselves in ways which bring Him pleasure. He doesn’t look for pets; he doesn’t want robots; He has given us free will to make choices. He wants us to make choices for Him, even though our independence often kicks in
Moses was a particularly godly, humble and tested man who had had a number of profound encounters with God — the Burning Bush, the Red Sea deliverance, Mount Sinai and the Ten Commandments are three we think of straight away. So Moses could say to God, “If I have found favour in your sight, show me Your ways, so that I may know you and find favour in your sight.” He could ask God for favour for His people to share that relationship. A mass of refugees, carrying all the rejection of their Egypt experience, and prone to find their security in anything other than God himself — how would that work?
This is how it works. As God presences Himself, we have an invitation to respond. We give up some of our independence, and look to Him. We sense His guidance, we experience favour in the face of adversity, we feel loved and valued in a love that is gracious and merciful — in other words, we come to Him, we fall short and God makes it easy for us to come back to Him again. Welcome to church!
2. The teaching of Jesus transforms
In sending His Son, Jesus, to live our kind of life with all its threats and dangers and misunderstandings, God made a way for us to know Him in a much more personal way. Jesus said Himself “I am the Way…” John 14:6. Now anyone, Jew or ordinary person, could turn to God and have the amazing experience of knowing God as a personal, caring Father who speaks personally through His word.
This is not the experience of the crowd. This is one-on-one. This is not coming to God through religious means. This is accepting Jesus into your heart and life by giving up your right of self-determination and allowing Him to be your Lord. The religious leaders of the gospel passage had a lot of investment in religious form and order. They were Pharisees. They were people who believed in leading a righteous life — in detail and by the book.
Like all people of a religious mindset, they were threatened by Jesus. He was common, He was just a carpenter-builder, He had a provincial accent — and He had also a following as a rabbi with a reputation for wisdom and for amazing healing actions, a fame that was spreading far and wide.
They decided to try to trap him in the net of the Jewish law, so that they could bring him to trial. So they came up with a question. Was it right to pay the Roman poll tax or not?
No Jew wanted to submit to the pagan rule of Rome — it was offensive to them, like admitting slavery. However there was no way out of it; allegiance to Rome was demanded of all. The trap they laid for Jesus was this: to argue against paying the tax would make Him a traitor; to argue for paying the hated tax would alienate most of the population. It was a classic no-win.
This is where the teaching of Jesus and the wisdom of Jesus jumps over hurdles of human logic. If the religious leaders were true to themselves, they wouldn’t be caught carrying or using the Roman coinage with Caesar’s inscription on it. That was just for the poll tax and every good Jew used the plain copper coins which were of the same value, but didn’t have the claim of Caesar’s divinity.
So Jesus asks a question and sure enough, one of them pushes a Roman coin at Him. He points to the image and inscription, and drawing on heavenly wisdom rather than the human variety, turns a lose-lose into a win-win. Honour God, he explains, in His provision of all we have, including money. But follow the Law (Proverbs 8:15) and honour the rulers, Gentile or not, according to their requirement symbolised by what is on the coin.
Life can be like that. We come up against a ‘no way through’ situation. What would Jesus do? He would be seeking revelation from His Father. And do you know what? We can do exactly the same. Jesus teaches “Ask and you shall receive” on various occasions and asking our Father for His wisdom is surely a right thing for any of us to ask e.g. Matt. 7:8.
3. The power of the Holy Spirit transforms
I Thess 1: 1–10
The epistle reading is Paul’s letter to believers in Greek Macedonia. This was a church that had experienced more than its fair share of persecution. He writes warmly, commending them, saying that their joyful and steadfast faith had been a leading light to others.
He writes: “We give thanks to God for you… for we know, brothers and sisters beloved by God, that He has chosen you.” What was the encounter with Moses, Exodus 33:12ff, all about? It was about the tribe being the people of God, having a relationship with God, being chosen by God for His favour. Here is a reminder.
And if you turn to Jesus and open the door of your life and welcome Him in, the Holy Spirit of Jesus will remind you that you, too, are chosen and called into a special relationship of trust and favour and joy, loved so that you can love others. This is what Paul is reminding them.
But people fall off. The Old Testament is a series of stories of people following their own ways and God’s messengers, particularly prophets, calling them back to Him. The essence of sin today is exactly the same as it always was. It is about our independence from God. We want to do life our way. And there’s the drift, right there. God will find ways to call us back — but do we have ears to hear?
Paul tells this early Christian church that they have not only believed in Jesus but they are empowered by the Holy Spirit to live for Him. He told them, “The message of the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction…”.
It’s not easy to live for Jesus and His values in a world which is heading in a hundred other ways. There are always people wanting to trip us or trap us. Rigidly religious people, strangely enough, are not our allies but often our encumbrances, just as they were for Jesus. But we can ask the Holy Spirit, who is the Person of God just the same as the Father and the Son, to fill us afresh and empower us again and give us wisdom from on high to know what is right — and deliver it.
We look like a small minority. How can we transform our world? By being transformed ourselves. It starts with us. And then we can pray with conviction, “Send us out in the power of the Spirit…”
The presence of God among us transforms us, as it always has. The Son of God who we experience in His word, who speaks to us in every part of the Bible, is our transforming wisdom. And the power of the Holy Spirit transforms, not just our sense of guidance and gift but also our world through us, wherever there is darkness and hardship and injustice and confusion. He is more ready to help, than we are ready to ask Him to give us His insight.
God is always about His transforming work. The real challenge is that He always chooses to do it through people like you and me, when we choose to walk with Him.
To think about/discussion starters
- Think of a time when you have sensed the presence of God, perhaps in a special way.
- What do you think invited His presence?
- What changed in you?
- What stops you giving Jesus all of the lordship of all of your life?
- “Better together”. How could you live so that you become an agent for God’s transformation in your bit of the world?