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The Not-So-Unprecedented Backside of God

Exodus 33:12-23; John 2:1-11

Pastor Jason Zirbel

2nd Sunday after Epiphany
Grace Lutheran Church  
Greenwood, AR

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Sun, Jan 17, 2021 

The grace, mercy, and peace of Christ Jesus rest upon each and every one of you this day.

Once again, Scripture reveals the fact that the “unprecedented times” we find ourselves in today are not so unprecedented at all.  This account from Exodus could’ve been written in 2020, and it would make perfect sense to our ears.  And—yes—believe it or not, but even the great and mighty Moses occasionally had bad days.  Even the great and mighty Moses struggled in his faith sometimes… just like us.  This where we find him in our OT lesson for today.  Moses is feeling depressed, defeated, and abandoned.  His people are an utter mess.  The Israelites have just finished with the whole golden calf debacle, and God is angry.  Imagine: God’s people treating His grace and providence like garbage, preferring instead to do their own thing and worship gods of their own choosing/desire!  My… how things change. 

Anyway… God is so angry that He sends a plague upon the people as a consequence for their blasphemous idolatry, and then He informs Moses that the Israelites need to leave Sinai and make their way to the Promised Land.  However… God won’t be traveling with them on this trip.  “I can’t be in the midst of such sinfulness.  My holy presence would kill these people, and I don’t want that.” All Moses hears, though, is that God is abandoning them.  God never said that at all.  God is always present.  But… because of their rebellious idolatry and blasphemy, God will not be blessing them along the way.  They will not know the blessing of God as they journey.  Again, all Moses hears is that God is abandoning them.  “You said that You would do all these things, and now You’re reneging!  Give me a sign; give me some kind of proof so that I know that You still love us.  Give me some kind of sign/proof so that I know that You haven’t utterly abandoned us and brought us out here to die.  Show me Your face!”

Umm… who’s in charge here?  Moses is telling God what to do?  Moses is demanding a face-to-face meeting with God?  That doesn’t seem very smart… and yet it still happens all the time, particularly over these past several months.  Many a Christian seems to think they know more than their Good Physician, and they aren’t afraid to say so either.  Here’s the thing: God has mercy on Moses.  He deals gently with Moses in all the ignorance of his misery and suffering and despair.  God tells Moses that He will show him His good and merciful presence, BUT… “you can’t see My face, for man cannot see Me and live.” So God Himself places Moses in a safe place; in the cleft of a rock, covering him with His own hands until He has passed by.  And then, once God has passed by Moses, God will take away His hand and let Moses see God’s backside.  Moses does get to physically behold God, but God works this in such a way that Moses isn’t immediately struck down and consumed by seeing the face of God.  “Man cannot see Me and live.” Moses asks for a miracle.  He wants—demands—a face-to-face with God.  God, instead, shows him His backside.  Moses gets to look at the south end of a northbound God.  That’s the miracle. 

Folks: Nothing has changed.  We’re talking about the almighty and unchanging God here.  We see this in the manger, as almighty God takes on flesh and comes down to sinful humanity, not in wrath and vengeance; not in royal might and power, but in the humble form of a little baby wrapped in rags and laying in a feed trough in a stable.  God backs in for our salvation.  We see this at the wedding in Cana.  The wedding party (probably close family to Mary) runs out of wine before the party is over.  It doesn’t get more embarrassing and shameful than that.  “Jesus, do something!” (Mom outranks Moses!) This is when Jesus speaks very calmly to her, not as her son, per se, but as the Word of God in the flesh; almighty God who is using this opportunity to teach and reveal who He really is.  “Woman, what does this have to do with Me?” I know I’ve preached on this in the past, but it definitely bears repeating.  That’s NOT what Jesus said.  That’s a very poor translation of what Jesus said.  In the original Greek, Jesus said to His mother, “What to you and to me?” Well…that doesn’t really flow off the tongue well, does it?  That just doesn’t work grammatically.  But…there is GREAT theology in this question of Christ.  What Jesus is asking His mother is, “This is a God-issue.  How does the solution pertain to you and me together?  What do you have to do with the remedy to this God-issue?  What can you contribute?  This is not a problem that can be solved by man or even with man’s help.  This is a “God problem.” This is a problem that can only be solved by God.  You and I—together—have nothing to do with this.  This is for Me to handle…not you.”

And you know the rest of the story.  Jesus works this first miracle—this first sign/proof—in order to reveal His divine majesty and power.  But… He doesn’t make a big show of it all.  He doesn’t rend the heavens.  The earth doesn’t quake.  The sun doesn’t go dark.  There are no heavenly war trumpets sounding and angelic hosts.  He doesn’t even call attention to Himself.  Jesus doesn’t even stand up and clear His throat loudly so everyone will notice.  He quietly speaks a simple (almost crazy) command to a lowly servant, and that’s it.  His Word works, accomplishing what He purposes.  Many of the people at the feast don’t even know what had happened, other than the fact that the bridal party served the good wine last instead of first.  Jesus reveals His divinity… and it barely raises eyebrows.  He backs in… and His disciples believe. 

My fellow disciples: I direct your attention to this crucifix.  “What to you and to Me?” You can’t save yourself from your sin, no matter how good your intentions may be or how hard you try.  You can’t even save yourself from the common cold!  If you could make payment for even one of your sins, then Jesus didn’t need to die.  But die He did.  “What to you and to Me?” This is almighty God doing something about our sin, although it’s in a very backsided and unassuming way, isn’t it?  Here on this cross, veiled in the flesh of the lowliest of men, here is God’s just and righteous wrath against all sin, and here—at the same time—is God’s immeasurable and incomprehensible love for you.  Here is victory!  Here is life! Here, and only here, is where God Himself provided the God-sized remedy to our deadly sinful condition.  So many people today say (rightly) that we have a huge “God problem” on our hands.  Well… here’s the answer to the God problem.  The answer won’t be found in stimulus checks and vaccines and masks and arbitrary distances and hand sanitizer.  The answer certainly isn’t found in the golden donkeys in Washington, who really do see themselves as our saviors.  Nope.  The answer to the “God problem” is staring you in the face! Behold, the backside of God!  Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!  Behold God without dying! 

Folks: Nothing has changed.  In spite of our sinfulness, God continues to have mercy on us, in spite of all our prideful stupidity and stubborness.  He comes to us, even when we, in our ignorance, accuse Him for our sorrows and griefs and make demands of Him, as if we’re in charge and He needs to answer to us.  Instead of striking us down (which we justly deserve), He shows us His mercy, His goodness, His love, and His grace.  Because of His great and unconditional love for us, He continues to “back in,” so to speak, and give Himself to us in ways and means that won’t destroy us, but instead draw us near to Him so that we may have and receive life, in abundance, I might add.  Look no further than this font, where God Himself took you into the palm of His hand and placed you into the cleft of the Rock of Salvation.  “Do you not know…?” Look to the altar.  Look to and listen to what’s being proclaimed from the lectern and the pulpit.  Here is your almighty and gracious God and Lord, essentially “backing in” to our presence so that He may dwell with us and remain with us and feed us, nourish us, guide us, and protect us.  Here is almighty God, in your very presence, loving you, caring for you, and delivering you from all sin, death, and damnation.

Now…can I make you believe any of this?  The world is a tough and miserable and dark place, and it’s only getting worse.  It’s hard to not look around (like Moses or Mary) and cry out to God for some sort of miracle.  “Do something!  Show yourself!  Explain yourself!” Can I make you look to these ordinary “backside” elements of Word, water, bread, and wine and recognize almighty Christ in your midst, feeding and nourishing you?  Can I make you hunger and thirst for these?  No…that takes a miracle.  That’s the miracle of faith, which God Himself continues to work on you, in you, and through you each and every time His Word is rightly taught and His sacraments rightly administered.  Don’t overlook or shun these miraculous means!  This is how your Bridegroom works! 

My friends: Here is God’s miracle for you.  Here is Christ.  This is how Immanuel—God with us—keeps His promise and abides with us, even as we journey through the dark and shadowy valley of sin, death, and despair.  Regardless of what all the fools may say (including the fool in the mirror, who is often only concerned with saving himself/herself and living a cross-free, pain-free life), here is the most important thing!  Here is the full glory of God for you.  Yes…this glory is veiled, but the full glory of God, which dwells bodily in Jesus Christ, is right here, all for the purpose of manifesting and making known His great love and mercy and grace that He has for you in Christ and because of Christ.  Here is Immanuel—God with us—for you, for your forgiveness, and for a peace that surpasses all understanding and is known only in Christ. 

To Him alone be all the worship, praise, glory, and honor… AMEN.

Feel free to use any or all of this sermon for the edification of God's people. It is NOT necessary to ask my permission for any of it! In fact, you don't have to mention me at all. (I think it's highly problematic when pastors seek credit/glory for sermons inspired by the Holy Spirit!) Give praise to God for the fact that He continues to provide for His people.

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