Homily on Exodus 33:12-23 and 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10 by Pastor Galen Zook at Hampden United Methodist Church in Baltimore, MD. Oct. 18th 2020
The theme song for the 1980s American sitcom “Cheers,” (which took place almost exclusively in the front room of a bar), proclaimed,
Sometimes you wanna go
Where everybody knows your name
And they’re always glad you came
You wanna be where you can see
Our troubles are all the same
You wanna be where everybody knows your name
“Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name.”
This is one reason why many people like attending small churches, or join a small group within a larger church. It’s also why many people frequent the same coffee shops or banks or retail stores on a regular basis. We want to go to a place where we are known, where everybody (or at least the sales clerk), knows our name. And it’s even better if the owner of the establishment knows our name!
God Knows Our Name
In the book of Exodus, God proclaimed to Moses, “you have found favor in my sight, and I know you by name” (Ex. 33:17).
In Bible times, someone’s name was their identity. And so to know someone’s name was to know who they were to the core. God is declaring to Moses that he is fully known by God, and fully loved and accepted. God knows Moses inside and out, God knows Moses’s faults and flaws and failures. And yet Moses is known and accepted by God.
There’s also an element here of calling. God knowing Moses’s name means that God has a special purpose, a special calling for Moses to fulfil.
This reminds us of the calling of the prophet Jeremiah, when God announced to Jeremiah, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations” (Jeremiah 1:5).
The idea that we are fully known and fully loved by God is rather astounding when we stop and think about it, given that this passage in Exodus also describes God as so holy that Moses would not live if he saw God’s face – instead God allows him to only see a small passing glimpse of God’s glory.
But even that small glimpse is enough for Moses, who was only willing to move forward if he had the assurance that God’s presence would go with him.
It makes sense that Moses needed this reassurance. Leading the people through the wilderness to the Promised Land was a big responsibility, a task that Moses knew he could not do on his own. And so Moses pleaded and begged God to show him a revelation of God’s glory, so that he could know beyond a shadow of a doubt that God was with him.
Although God did not reveal his full glory to Moses, God gave Moses just enough — enough to reassure him that God’s presence was with him. Enough to know that God was right there, had always been there, and always would be with him.
Becoming Aware of God’s Presence
It’s an amazing thing to be known and loved by God. It’s amazing to know that out of the 7.8 billion people in the world, God knows us and loves us individually and specifically. And it’s amazing and to have the assurance that God is with us. Moses knew that he could face anything as long as God’s presence was with him.
The reality is that God is always present with each and every one of us — whether we realize it or not.
Priest and author Father Richard Rohr has said,
We cannot attain the presence of God because we’re already in the presence of God. What’s absent is awareness. Little do we realize that God’s love is maintaining us in existence with every breath we take. — Richard Rohr
“We cannot attain the presence of God because we’re already in the presence of God… God’s love is maintaining us in existence with every breath we take.”
Sometimes we need a little help in order to recognize the presence of God with us — especially when we’re going through difficult and challenging times.
Beloved by God
Paul, Timothy, and Silvanus, writing to the church in Thessalonica 1500 years after the time of Moses, were writing to a church that was experiencing intense persecution. Here in chapter 1 of their letter to the Thessalonians, they reassure the believers in Thessalonica that they are known, and have been chosen, by God.
Paul, Timothy and Silvanus write “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 labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. For we know, brothers and sisters beloved by God, that he has chosen you” (1 Thess. 1:2-4).
Knowing that they were not only chosen, but “beloved by God” would have been very much an encouragement to the Thessalonians. No doubt they feared that they were experiencing persecution because they had done something wrong, or that perhaps God had stopped loving them, or perhaps even that God had withdrawn God’s presence from them.
But Paul, Timothy, and Silvanus say “no!” You are beloved by God, you have been chosen by God. They highlight that the Thessalonians’ lives had been transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit. They had been convicted of their wrongdoing, they had turned away from worshipping false idols, and they looked to Jesus for their salvation and for the forgiveness of their sins.
Not only that, but they had followed the example of Jesus, living out Jesus’s teachings, welcoming Paul, and Timothy, and Silvanus just as they themselves had been welcomed into the family of God. And in following Christ’s example and in welcoming the strangers into their midst, they had become an example to all of the other believers around the whole area of Macedonia and Achaia. Their transformed lives have been an inspiration to many other people, many who were also experiencing persecution just as the Thessalonians were.
And so Paul, Timothy, and Silvanus write to encourage the Thessalonians that they are not experiencing persecution because God was displeased with them, or had withdrawn God’s presence from them. In fact it was just the opposite. They were experiencing persecution because they were following in the footsteps of Jesus, who himself suffered intense persecution and in fact was put to death on a cross. As Jesus told his followers in John 16:33, “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”
Troubles and difficulties in this life are not an indication that God is absent from us. In fact, when we look back on it, it’s often in the midst of trials and persecutions that we experience God’s presence most intimately with us.
As the Psalmist said in Psalm 23, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me” (Psalm 23:4).
Known By Name
Right now many of you might feel like you’re going through a “valley of the shadow of death.” Perhaps you or a loved one are experiencing illness or disease, job insecurity or financial difficulties. Maybe you’re experiencing persecution for your faith, or maybe you just are feeling lonely or isolated.
During this time of social distancing, many of us are feeling alone. We crave community. We miss giving and receiving warm hugs and hearty handshakes, we miss being in places where we know everyone, and where everybody knows our name.
Like the Thesselonians, perhaps you wonder if there’s something you’re doing wrong. Like Moses, perhaps you just need reassurance that God’s presence is with you.
This is one reason why every Sunday morning we pass the peace. In doing so, we remind one another that God is with us, and that we’re part of a community, where we are known and loved.
This is why we’ve tried so hard during this time to include everyone in our worship gatherings, whether you’re able to be physically present with us, or whether you’re worshiping with us online.
This is also why we pause to pray for one another each day at 7am or 7pm, and why we print and mail out the prayer list each week. /We do so in order to remember and to remind each other that we’re not alone, that we are known and loved by God and by one another.
Invitation to Prayer
Over these next several months I’ve committed to praying for each and every person who is a part of this church community by name each and every week. And I want to invite you to join me in this! I want to invite you to pray for as many people as you know by name each and every week. That means that if you don’t know someone’s name, you’ll need to ask them before you leave today! That also means that for those of you who are joining us online who we’ve never met before, we’d love for you to send us your name, fill out our virtual contact form so we can be praying for you each week by name.
Like the show Cheers, I’m glad to be a part of a church “where everybody knows your name” and where we can see that “our troubles are all the same!” But even more importantly, over these next few months, I pray that we as a church would grow in our knowledge and awareness that we are known and loved by God, and that God’s presence is with us, no matter what we are going through. May we too find hope and comfort in the fact that we are known and accepted by God.