September 2 & 3, 2017 Pentecost 13 (Moses Series #10)
Exodus 19: 9-12, 16-19; 24: 4-11
Dear friends in Christ Jesus:
If you remember from your Confirmation Class days, Martin Luther’s explanation to commandments 2-10 starts out, “We should fear and love God.” Those words “should” and “love” just don’t go together. Yet fearing and loving are two emotions and actions that God expects of us. As we look at God’s presentation of the Ten Commandments, we’ll find how difficult and easy it is to Fear and Love God.
When the Israelites came to Mt. Sinai, Moses said, On the morning of the third day there was thunder and lightning, with a thick cloud over the mountain, and a very loud trumpet blast. . . . Then Moses led the people out of the camp to meet with God, and they stood at the foot of the mountain. Mount Sinai was covered with smoke, because the LORD descended on it in fire. The smoke billowed up from it like smoke from a furnace, the whole mountain trembled violently, and the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder. Then Moses spoke and the voice of God answered him. (Ex 19:16-19) How did the people respond to this view of God? It says in vs. 16, Everyone in the camp trembled. When the Israelites saw this terrifying view of God they were absolutely afraid of him.
Sometimes I enjoy seeing God scare the daylights out of people. In Daniel 5 we are told of the Babylonian King Belshazzar, who thought that he would make a mockery of the LORD by drinking out of the goblets that were taken from the temple in the overthrow of Jerusalem. Then God’s Word says, Suddenly the fingers of a human hand appeared and wrote on the plaster of the wall, near the lampstand in the royal palace. The king watched the hand as it wrote. His face turned pale and he was so frightened that his knees knocked together and his legs gave way. (Da 5:5-6) In an instant God turned this arrogant king into a blubbering and terrified baby, falling on his knees before the LORD. That king deserved that. But it seems somewhat strange for God to do that to his chosen people, the Israelites. If a dad snuck in to his daughter’s room at night with a Freddie Kruger costume and scared her to death, people would call him mean and demented. Yet God does something similar to that in his presentation of the Ten Commandments.
When we really take an honest look at the God that is revealed to us in the Bible, he scares us. Think of what he tells us to do in the Ten Commandments. Jesus described the First Commandment, to have no other gods, in this way. “Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and anyone who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.” (Mt 10:37-38) He reminds us that we are guilty of murder if we hate someone. He described the Sixth Commandment by saying that “anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Matthew 5:28) And whoever breaks these commandments is to be thrown in hell, that place of torment and torture, God says. These commands of God paint a picture of God who does not allow sinful people into heaven. If you have ever been greedy, ever gossiped, ever lied, God says you will not inherit the kingdom of God, and you will end up separated from God in a very hot place for eternity called hell. Doesn’t that scare you?
Throughout the centuries there have been many theologians who have tried to cover up these pictures of God. They will say, “God hates sin, but he loves the sinner.” Or they’ll say, “All you can do is try your hardest.” Sunday School lessons sometimes shy away from the graphic pictures of God’s wrath and instead focus on stories of his love. But the true picture of God in the Bible can be terrifying. The Bible shows us a holy God who demands nothing less than perfection and threatens you with hell if you aren’t. It’s scary. Why did God present himself this way? He told Moses, “I am going to come to you in a dense cloud, so that the people will hear me speaking with you and will always put their trust in you.” (Ex 19:9) After he did this, Moses explained to the people that God had come to test them, so that the fear of God would be with them to keep them from sinning. (Ex 20:20) The reason God presented himself in this way was to scare his people enough so that they would listen and do what he told them to do.
There is a part of us that needs this fear of God. The apostle Paul said of himself, “I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature.” (Ro 7:18) When you get beyond your nice clothes and your Sunday smile, when you reach down inside you, you still have a part of you that doesn’t want anyone to tell you what to do. It hates God. The only way that sinful nature can be motivated is if it is forced to. It needs to be scared of God and his wrath.
The sad fact is that even when God presents himself in this way, there are still millions of people that don’t fear him. Every day we have millions of Americans who watch pornographic TV shows, use the Lord’s name in vain and ignore God and his Word, who think they can do whatever they want. The really sad part is that many people who call themselves Christians are doing the same thing. How many of you, after you think an evil thought or say a mean thing, think to yourself, “Dear God, I beg of you, don’t send me to hell.” The sad fact is that we break these commandments with our thoughts and words and act as if these are just small sins. And we assume that God will look over these sins because we call ourselves Christian, when in reality the holy God says “No, these also are serious offenses!”
The fear of the Israelites motivated them to make a request of Moses. “Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die.” (Ex 20:19) The Israelites requested Moses to be their mediator, their go between. When God reveals his awesome and holy power, and lays before us his unbendable will, there can be only one result. We first of all see that our holy God is not someone we can approach as we are. That’s why God told the people, “Have them wash their clothes and be ready by the third day, because on that day the LORD will come down on Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people. Put limits for the people around the mountain and tell them, ‘Be careful that you do not go up the mountain or touch the foot of it. Whoever touches the mountain shall surely be put to death.’” (Ex 19:10-12) He was telling the people very clearly, “There’s a difference between you and me. I am holy, you are not. You cannot approach me as you are.” The result of this view of God makes us say to ourselves, “I need a mediator. Someone else has to climb this mountain, because there’s no way I can approach this holy God as I am.”
Once this concept is hammered through our thick skulls and hard hearts, this is when our scary God then comes to us in a different light. Listen to the ceremony that God performed on the people right after the giving of the Ten Commandments. He (Moses) got up early the next morning and built an altar at the foot of the mountain and set up twelve stone pillars representing the twelve tribes of Israel. Then he sent young Israelite men, and they offered burnt offerings and sacrificed young bulls as fellowship offerings to the LORD. Moses took half of the blood and put it in bowls, and the other half he sprinkled on the altar. Then he took the Book of the Covenant and read it to the people. They responded, “We will do everything the LORD has said; we will obey.” Moses then took the blood, sprinkled it on the people and said, “This is the blood of the covenant that the LORD has made with you in accordance with all these words.” (Ex 24:4-8) What was the message God was sending to the Israelites with these sacrifices? Only with a sacrifice can you enter into a contract with him.
This need for cleansing, for a mediator and a sacrifice were all pointing forward then, to a greater mediator to come. This covenant would remind them of a different covenant God made with Adam and Abraham. They would remember that and say to themselves, “God promised a different contract to us through Abraham where there is no work on our part. He promised us a mediator who would crush Satan’s head, one greater than Moses. He’s going to give more than words, he’s going to give his blood which will make the two of us come together.”
Who was that mediator? Paul tells us that there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all men. (1 Tim. 2:5-6). Jesus Christ bridged the gap between the holy God and sinful man when he as true God came down to earth as a man. Instead of coming in thunder and lightning, he came in a virgin’s womb. In a gentle and yet powerful way this boy became a man, and conquered the very laws that terrified us. Instead of terrifying people with his wrath, this God/Man then terrified himself with his wrath. On the cross he became what he was not, sin and was punished for our sins. It is through faith in that sacrifice that we, the once unholy, become holy in God’s sight. It’s that sacrifice that makes us able to now approach God.
The interesting picture of God that we get in these Ten Commandments is the one that is before and after the God of wrath. Before God ever lays out the Ten Commandments, before he ever comes with the thunder and lightning, God told Moses to remind the Israelites that, “You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself.” (Ex 19:4, 20:1) With these words God paints himself as a merciful God like an eagle taking care of its young. After the Ten Commandments are then given, and the blood is spread on the people, what does Moses say happened next? Moses and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and the seventy elders of Israel went up and saw the God of Israel. Under his feet was something like a pavement made of sapphire, clear as the sky itself. But God did not raise his hand against these leaders of the Israelites; they saw God, and they ate and drank. (Ex 24:9-11) After the sacrifices were made and the blood is applied, we find that, although this God is holy and powerful, he is approachable. The Israelite leaders actually sit there and eat and drink with God. Even though they were sinful, God didn’t raise his hands against them. What a beautiful picture of God. Even though he is scary and demanding, with sacrifice and by his mercy, through a mediator, he still allows himself to be approached.
Never lose sight of the before and after of this picture of God. He is not only a God who demands and condemns in the Ten Commandments. He is also a God who fulfilled the Ten Commandments. He is not only a God who sheds blood. He is also a God who accepts blood, the blood of Jesus Christ on the cross. He is not only a God who cannot be approached, he is also a God who allows himself to be approached. He doesn’t only put up the barriers, he also takes down the barriers. He redeems. He invites. So as you sit at the foot of Mt. Sinai and view this holy God, remember the pathway to God. See that your mediator is Jesus. Remember that he boldly went up a different mount, Mount Calvary, and faced God’s wrath and took it away from you. Now through Jesus, God invites you to come and approach him. He says to you, “Come up and talk to me. Feast on me. Worship me. I know I am holy and just, but I am also loving and forgiving. I want to have fellowship with you.” As scary as this holy God can be, when we go through Christ God welcomes us and doesn’t condemn us. This makes us naturally say, “Not only do I fear God, I also love him.”
Today we are privileged to see God for who he is. He is a God who punishes, and One who forgives, One who demands, and One who gives. It sounds contradictory. But it all comes together in Christ. At the cross we see God’s wrath and his love become reconciled. In the cross we see God demand and give. We see him punish and forgive. And seeing this, we fear and love God. Amen.