Reflections on Exodus 33:3-7
He said He’d dwell in our midst. 1
He said He’d never leave us. 2
But the golden calf story changed all that. Sin always does. It may be small in our eyes. But it’s big in His. Big-big. Serious big. Breaking, dividing, hurting, destroying the sacred bonds of love, trust, and compassion between us.
And He was suddenly out.
"Go up to a land flowing with milk and honey; for I will not go up in your midst, because you are an obstinate people, and I might destroy you on the way."
Our sin, His holiness – they don’t mix. People cringe at the thought He’d ever leave us. Worse, that He’d destroy us. We don’t see God that way. We don’t want God that way. We want the understanding God. The loving God.
The One who always stays. No matter what we do. Because sin just isn’t that big to us. That serious. That costly. We want the One who’d never say:
* * *
I remember her always. I tell her story nearly everywhere I go.
I found her after church at the coffee hour. Sitting by herself. Such a regal woman. Distinguished. In her mid to late eighties. I was the visiting preacher that day. I caught her eye and decided to go and sit with her.
“You know who I am, don’t you” she asked me, her British accent like the Queen of England. Her hand reaching out to touch my arm.
I told her I was sorry. I didn’t know her name.
She told me she was the widow of the mighty Anglican theologian Philip Edgecombe Hughes, whose commentaries on Hebrews and 2nd Corinthians are still among the very best.
“O dear lady,” I said, a bit startled, “what are you doing at this church?”
This crazy church.
They believe in the gospel of Jesus. They believe in the Bible. Their bishop did not. He laughed at the Bible. He publically called Jesus Christ a sinner. He demanded to come to the church and preach his twisted gospel among them.
But they wouldn’t let him. How could they?
So the bishop threatened to take their building. Their historic building. With a graveyard attached. He didn’t have to threaten twice.
They left. All the history. All the memories. All the Lord did among them for decades upon decades in that church building. They left it all.
Until they found a new church home. And Mrs. Hughes went with them. Yes, she did! She left that beautiful historic church building. And the graveyard.
And suddenly I understood. “What about your husband,” I asked, “isn’t he buried at the old church? Are you saying you left your husband behind?”
Mrs. Hughes had the brightest smile. She looked me straight in the eyes and said with profound, unforgettable wisdom: “Young man, I never promised to follow my husband’s bones. I promised to follow his faith!”
The picture stuck in my head. Her standing up in that old church. Walking down the aisle. Out the door. And with that beautiful British accent saying:
* * *
She died a few years later. She’d hoped her pastors would be allowed to go back to the old church and bury her next to her husband. But that request was denied and Mrs. Hughes had to be buried elsewhere.
The story is told that, at the request of the family, the late professor’s casket was exhumed and buried next to his wife’s.
Nomads. Both of them. Even in death. 3
Because it’s what we do. It’s what we have to do when sin is in the camp.
* * *
Moses didn’t stay.
He couldn’t stay. The calf was gone. The altar remained. But it was defiled. Like the people. Filled with sin. Big. Serious. Costly. Breaking. Corrupting sin.
He took the tent of meeting. He went outside the camp.
Outside where the unclean live. The lepers. Those who committed indecent acts of sin. 4 The destitute, the immoral. The condemned. 5
He went out to meet with the Lord. Because that’s where the Lord was. Outside with the lepers. Not inside the camp. Not at the center. Not with the people.
Because He can’t stay in. He won’t stay in. Not when we allow sin to reign at the center of our life. Our church. Among our leaders. Among our bishops.
The Lord said it. Moses said it. Mrs. Hughes said it. Because it has to be said.
1 see Exodus 25:8; 29:42-46; Leviticus 26:11-12; Numbers 34:36. In Numbers 2:2, for example, the tent of meeting (upon which the cloud of glory rested- see Numbers 9:15ff) was at the center of the camp.
2 2 Deuteronomy 31:6-8
3 see my book, Never Silent, pp. 261, 359
4 Leviticus 13:45-46; Numbers 12:14-15
5 Hebrews 13:11-14