I’m sure we’ve all been in this kind of situation. You’re in a public place, when you overhear a conversation between two people. Some part of what one of them is saying catches your attention, and whether you really meant to or not, you end up listening just a little bit longer. I think it’s safe to say we’ve all eavesdropped at some point, and maybe for some of us, it’s really interesting when we do. When you only hear partway through the conversation, it becomes a challenge almost to figure out what this conversation is about and why it’s even going on.
Well, that is today’s reading from Exodus. We have been dropped into the middle of a conversation between Moses and God, no context, no background, no real clues about what this conversation is about. Sometimes our lectionary—the way we organize readings each week—is annoying like that. So what, exactly, is the context of this strange conversation?
We are just coming off the heels of the golden calf incident from last week. Remember, this was when Moses was gone for forty days, and the people got impatient. They had Aaron make an idol for them (even though they literally just heard the commandment not to make idols), in an act of flagrant betrayal to the God who rescued them from Egypt. In between last week and this week, God had concluded that these people weren’t going to abide by the covenant—the agreement that made them God’s people. So God told Moses they would go to the Promised Land, and God would send an angel ahead of them—but God would not be going with them.
And that’s what Moses is bargaining with God about in this chapter. God wasn’t going to go with them. God’s presence would not be in the camp. Moses would have to rely on some angel to guide him instead of the very God who called him. Moses was not okay with that. In fact, he was so not okay with it, that he dared to throw down an ultimatum to God: you go with us, or we stay at this mountain. They were a stiff-necked and awful people, sure, but they were God’s stiff-necked and awful people. God had made a promise. And if that wasn’t good enough, Moses reminded God of how he (Moses) was supposed to be favored in God’s sight, so this would be the way to prove it.
Well, something in that conversation must have worked, because God decided to go with them. God wouldn’t abandon the people to be led just by an angel, but God’s own presence would guide them in the wilderness and bring them into the Promised Land. And that’s what distinguished Israel from all other nations around them: God was with them. God went ahead of them. God’s presence was in their midst, guiding them and helping them along the way.
And this morning, we saw and heard how God continues to make that promise to us. Weston and Brad were welcomed into the waters of baptism, brought into the family of God forever. They received a mark on their foreheads that is a reminder: you are marked with the cross of Christ and sealed by the Holy Spirit forever. They have the promise of God’s presence with them, now and forever, because of the waters of baptism. It’s something we all have as Christians. Like the Israelites in the wilderness, we have the promise of God’s presence not because we followed the commandments rightly, but because God in Christ has chosen to be with us.
I love how that is always God’s go-to move with us. Israel did the worst thing imaginable: broke the covenant mere days after swearing they would keep it forever. They broke God’s heart by going back on their word. And yet! God still agreed to be their God. God was still going to go with them. And God does the same for us.
But this way is not all smooth sailing, either for the Israelites or for us. Baptism may cleanse us from the shackles of sin, but like the Israelites, we are still going to mess up. All along the wilderness journey, the Israelites messed up. They failed to trust God. They turned to idols from time to time. They even believed that the giant warriors of the Promised Land couldn’t be defeated, even with God’s help! But the thing is, the wilderness journey helped make them God’s people. But, the longer they had to rely on God, the closer they got to truly trusting God. And that’s what we do, too, when we hear the baptismal promises.
We promise to live among God’s faithful people, hear the Word and celebrate the Lord’s Supper, learn and grow in the basics of our faith, read scripture, and turn to God in prayer, so that we can trust God, proclaim Christ in word and deed, care for others and all of creation, and work for justice and peace. And we don’t always get it right! But that’s why it’s a long journey in the wilderness. The Israelites were out there for forty years before they could get into the Promised Land. It may take us time too.
Moses asked God to go with the people as they wandered in the wilderness, and God agreed. In their baptisms this morning, Brad and Weston got the same promise from God—that God would go with them wherever this wilderness journey led them. And God makes all of us that same promise. God will go with us, leading our steps, defending us from evil, and shaping us to be the people that God has called us to be.
It’s the presence of God, and nothing we can do, that shapes us to be the kind of people who will share the gospel of God’s kingdom on earth. It’s God’s presence that makes it possible to work for justice and peace in the world. And it’s God’s presence that draws us together to worship, to grow in our faith, and to share our hope and love with others.
May all our eavesdropping give us that kind of hope.
Thanks be to God. Amen.