I Know You by Name, Exodus 33:12-23
Plymouth First United Methodist Church, October 18, 2020
Pastor Toni Carmer
A couple of weeks ago, Scott and I watched the movie Late Night, starring Emma Thompson, which came out in 2019. The story is about a legendary late night talk show host who has fallen into the comfort of her reputation, and though she maintains a loyal fan base, her ratings have dropped and the network has decided to replace her. There are all kinds of factors that play into her generally disagreeable personae, but she responds to the threat of being canceled by connecting with her writers to see what they might be able to do to kick things up a notch. In this immediate response to “do something” she looks around this table and proceeds to “name” them Numbers 1-8. Most have written her materials for years—even decades—but she doesn’t know their names, and isn’t motivated to learn them.
Which of course, is unfortunate, because our names are important to us. Most likely, our parents spent much time and thought deciding what we would be called long before we were born. Whether we received a family name or a name in honor of someone our parents admired, or were given one because our parents liked the sound of it, felt it was “just right” or beautiful, our name and another person’s caring about us enough to know and remember it, is important.
I learned years ago to respond to “Terry Cramer” when my computer or car was done being serviced, because Toni Carmer when quickly glanced at is apparently easily translates into Terry Cramer. I generally just let it go and respond, because this is a transaction and not a relationship, but if I want to know and to be known by the other individual, if I want to be in relationship—the other person knowing my name and my knowing theirs is important.
Back the end of August, you may remember from Exodus 3 when Moses began a close and intimate relationship with God at the sight of a burning bush. The spectacle of seeing such a thing is what caught Moses’ attention. When he approached, God called him by name. As they talked together, Moses had the courage to ask God’s name, and God replied, “I Am Who I Am.” God and Moses know one another by name, and the relationship grows.
Since that moment, God and Moses have conversed many times—as Moses, at God’s leading and direction—has led Israel out of slavery. At our last meeting in Exodus, God had given the Ten Commandments to Moses. From there, Moses has been at the top of Mount Sinai, where God gives laws to Moses to order the lives of the community, including Sabbath laws and festival days. God promises that an angel will accompany them, will prepare their way. As they follow the angel, God will be an enemy to Israel’s enemies and will oppose those who oppose them. God’s presence will remain known to them so they will be able to refrain from worshiping the gods of the lands they will enter. God will be with them to establish the land where they will settle (Exodus 23:20f).
All this is so good—so hopeful. God continues to instruct Moses on the mountain, and he is gone from the people for 40 days and 40 nights. It’s a long time. The people grow restless as they wait.
They’re so restless they go to Aaron, asking him to make them gods to worship. “We don’t know about this guy Moses, where he’s gone and what he’s doing. We need to see something to worship.”
So, Aaron—who you would think should know better—tells the people to bring him their jewelry and he makes a golden calf. Later, Aaron justifies what he’s done by telling Moses this story: I threw their jewelry into the fire, and out popped this calf!
Ah, that calf makes everything better, doesn’t it?
It sounds silly at first glance, and yet, how many times have we turned our attention away from the God of our faith to the gods of our culture? How have we bowed down to the shiny gods of this world, rather than keeping our focus on the One who has remained steadfast in faithfulness throughout the generations? How has our impatience with God’s timing turned us to take action that looks like we believe we know more than God does?
God knows what’s happening in the camp down at the foot of the mountain and tells Moses it’s time for him to return to his people. God is angry and says to Moses, “Leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them. Then I’ll make you (he says to Moses) into a great people.” (Exodus 32:11-14)
Moses doesn’t mince words with God; he is very direct, speaking straight from his heart. Moses has freely asked questions, and has challenged and pleaded with God, and does so now. Moses appeals to God on behalf of the people: remember Abraham, Isaac and Israel. Remember the promise you made that you would make Abraham’s descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky, promising them a land that would be their inheritance forever…
The Lord relents, scripture tells us, and Moses descends from the mountain, carrying the tablets with the covenant law God inscribed on both sides. He sees what the people are doing, and his anger ignites. He throws the stone tablets, breaking them into pieces. The people have already broken the covenant they’ve made with God, this physical act only illustrates what they’ve already done. The people can’t see how close they’ve come to losing everything.
Moses confronts Aaron, and then deals with those who choose not to follow the Lord. He sends the Levites—who do choose to follow—throughout the camp, killing those who have turned away, and the next day Moses returns to God, to plead for the people.
Moses asks God for three things, the first being if God plans to accompany him as he leads the people to the promised land. Moses has come to realize the hard way that he can’t lead the people on his own. He reminds God that God knows him by name, and thinks highly of him. Then teach me your ways, he says, so that I may know them, and that you may really approve of me. And think not only of me, but of your people.
God answers pretty quickly, it seems, “I’ll go with you. I’ll help you.”
Moses persists, it seems he’s not convinced: If you’re not going with us, then don’t make us leave this place (v. 15). “How will anyone know you are pleased with me and with your people, unless you go with us? How will we be different from anyone else, if you’re not with us? (v. 16).
God’s responds, giving Moses the assurance he’s looking for—an assurance again rooted in the fact that God has found favor in Moses and knows him by name (v. 17).
Moses decides to push even further, saying, “Then show me your glory.” (v. 18).
God’s response doesn’t completely fulfill Moses’ request, as he promises to show Moses his “goodness” rather than his glory, because no human can see God’s face and live (33:20). The “goodness” God will reveal is, in many ways, even more impressive than another display of glory. Moses has seen God’s glory and God’s power—in the burning bush, in the plagues of Egypt, in the parting of the sea, the quail and manna provided in the wilderness. Now Moses will be given a view of God’s character — the goodness, the grace and the mercy that God intends for Israel as he leads them to the promised land.
God tells Moses there’s a safe place where he can go. “I’ll set you in a gap on the rock, and I’ll cover you with my hand until I’ve passed by. Then I’ll take away my hand, and you will see my back, but my face won’t be visible.”
I don’t know. At first, that seems to me to be rather odd. And yet, it’s a good thing, I think. A safe place to shelter. A solid rock on which to stand. An assurance of protection by God’s own merciful and compassionate hand. And perhaps it’s a good thing to be familiar with the back of our Master, as he leads us forward…as we follow…
As we read scripture we can find many names for God. But one of the most powerful truths you and I can know, is that the God who created the universe knows our names. We will not be left to our own devices by a God who doesn’t know our names and is indifferent to us. We won’t be abandoned in the wilderness times of our lives by a God who turns a deaf ear to our suffering. We won’t have to navigate our way in the world without a God who knows the way to life. God knows our names! Jesus described the intimacy with which God knows us: that even all the hairs on our heads are numbered (Luke 12:7).
If God knows our names, then we as God’s people should make every effort to know the names of others and to proclaim the Lord’s name to them as well. As we know God through Jesus Christ, others will come to know God through those of us who follow Christ. When we take the time to learn their names, to value and connect with them, they begin to see a reflection of the God who knows them even more.
I know you by name, God says to Moses.
I know you by name, God says to you, and to me.
That’s good news. Amen.