Exodus 24:8-18 (ESV)
8 And Moses took the blood and threw it on the people and said, “Behold the blood of the covenant that the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words.”
9 Then Moses and Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel went up, 10 and they saw the God of Israel. There was under his feet as it were a pavement of sapphire stone, like the very heaven for clearness. 11 And he did not lay his hand on the chief men of the people of Israel; they beheld God, and ate and drank.
12 The Lord said to Moses, “Come up to me on the mountain and wait there, that I may give you the tablets of stone, with the law and the commandment, which I have written for their instruction.” 13 So Moses rose with his assistant Joshua, and Moses went up into the mountain of God. 14 And he said to the elders, “Wait here for us until we return to you. And behold, Aaron and Hur are with you. Whoever has a dispute, let him go to them.”
15 Then Moses went up on the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain. 16 The glory of the Lord dwelt on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it six days. And on the seventh day he called to Moses out of the midst of the cloud. 17 Now the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel. 18 Moses entered the cloud and went up on the mountain. And Moses was on the mountain forty days and forty nights.
Let’s do something a little different this morning. (Pick a high school student to come up front.) Come on up here? Come closer please. Closer. Closer. Notice how hesitant (name) is to come up here? The closer I asked (him/her) to come the more nervous (he/she) became. That’s only natural because I never told (name) that I was going to call them up here. (He/She) didn’t have a chance to mentally prepare themselves. For all (he/she) knows, I’m going to scold (him/her) for something (he/she) did earlier in the service. If that why is really why I wanted (name) up here and (he/she) knew it, (name) would have run the other direction. On the other hand, if I was going to reward (name) for something (he/she) did, then (name) would have come up front without a problem. Okay, you can go sit down.
Let’s look at this scenario in a different way. What if it was God standing up here this morning and he said to you, “Come closer!” Would you do it? Or would you take off running the other way? If we’re honest with ourselves … we would be running out of the back of the church as fast as we possibly could. But here’s the thing … although we can’t see him, God is urging us to come closer to him. This morning we’re going to look at this coming closer to God through our Old Testament lesson from Exodus 24. Through an experience which Moses had, I want us to see that this coming closer to God is both a holy command which frightens, but is also a gracious invitation which brings comfort.
When we think about the stories in the book of Exodus, one which we probably think of is the one which involves the ten plagues. You remember how it goes. Moses and Aaron approach Pharaoh and say on behalf of God, “Let my people go!” Pharaoh says, “No!” Moses tells Pharaoh what plague is about to happen next. After the plague is over, Moses and Aaron tell Pharaoh and say on behalf of God, “Let my people go!” Pharaoh says, “No!” Then another plague. This happens through all ten plagues. Finally, after the tenth plague and Pharaoh’s son dies, Pharaoh finally says, “Go! Get out of here!” After Pharaoh realizes that all his workers are gone, he pursues after them, not to bring them back, but to kill them.
Then we come to another popular story. Moses sees Pharaoh’s army coming and God parts the Red Sea. After God successfully leads the Israelites to the other side and sees that Pharaoh’s army is in the middle of the Red Sea path, God brings the water back together, killing Pharaoh’s entire army.
After a huge celebration, Moses leads the people to Mt. Sinai where God gives him the Ten Commandments. The Israelites would camp out there at the base of Mt. Sinai for the next eleven months. This time at Mt. Sinai was no picnic, especially for Moses who finds himself going up and down the mountain to visit with God.
Moses would go up, listen to what God would have to say, and then come back down and report to the people. It sounds like a crazy system but that’s the way the people wanted it. God would have rather communicated with them directly, but when he did that, he scared the living bejesus out of them (Hebrews 12:18-21). It wasn’t just the booming voice of God which scared the people, but it was the way in which God appeared to them. We heard in our lesson that God would descend upon the top of Mt. Sinai in fire and billowing smoke. Other places in Exodus says that the mountain shook, lightening flashed, and thundered boomed with the sound of a trumpet growing louder and louder (Exodus 20:18-19). Any one of these thing would have been enough to scare someone, but put them all together. It’s no wonder that Moses himself said, “I am trembling with fear” (Hebrews 12:21b).
It’s easy to question God as to why he would appear this way to the Israelites considering it really freaked them out. I mean, isn’t he suppose to be a God of love? Aren’t the Israelites his chosen people? Was God doing this to frighten the Israelites into doing what he wanted them to do? No. God through the fire and the smoke is simply highlighting a couple of his characteristics. God appears here and throughout the Bible in fire and smoke to impress upon the Israelites his power and his holiness.
Put yourself there in the Israelite’s place. You see all this fire and smoke happening on the top of Mt. Sinai. You hear God say to you, “Come closer!” Would you have done it? Would you go up the mountain? I could instead ask you, “would you run into a burning house or away from it because that is exactly what it would have looked like. I bet you anything you would probably run away from a fire because you don’t want to get burned. But when God says “Come closer!”, this is a holy command which should frighten you and me as unholy people. Fire can’t help but burn straw or wood, a holy God can’t help but consume sinful people.
So let me ask you this … did you feel scared when you came to church this morning? Did you fear for your life this morning knowing that you were approaching a holy God? Probably not and really, that’s too bad. The reason we don’t always fear God is because we don’t always fully appreciate our sinfulness, we don’t always recognize the severity of it and we don’t recognize God’s holiness. You know, had we murdered someone this week, cheated on our spouse, or gotten so drunk or high that we couldn’t remember what it was that we did the night before … then we may be afraid to come to church for we see those things as sins which a holy God hates. But he also hates our dislike for our teachers, our fantasies of what we would like to do with people who we’re not married too, and our lack of self-control when we gossip about others. These sins, any sins really, should make us scared of stepping forward when the holy God says “Come closer!” Why? Because doing so only brings us closer to God’s wrath over our sins.
“Come closer!” though is exactly what God said to Moses and it is exactly what Moses did. The Israelites who saw Moses walk into the fire and smoke must have thought he was nuts. Who in their right mind would walk into a consuming fire of God’s glory? Yet Moses did and he survived to tell us about it.
Now how was Moses able to walk in the fire and survive so being close to God? Was Moses himself without sin and thus holy like God? Far from it. Moses back in Egypt murdered and Egyptian. Moses was slow to answer God’s call as he kept coming up with excuse after excuse of why he shouldn’t go back to Pharaoh. Moses failed to circumcise his sons as God had commanded. So why didn’t Moses die in the consuming fire of God’s glory? Moses didn’t die because God’s call for him to come closer wasn’t just a holy command … it was a gracious invitation.
By allowing Moses to enter into God’s holy presence without being destroyed, God was revealing another one of his characteristics. God showed that he is a gracious and forgiving God who wants sinners to be able to stand in his holy presence. We see that truth emphasize on another mountain which is covered in God’s glory. On a mountain, Jesus was transfigured, he was changed, before the eyes of three of his disciples. Jesus’ clothes became as white as snow and his face shone like the sun. Then Moses, along with Elijah appear and speak with Jesus about what was to be accomplished on another mountain. On Mount Calvary Jesus would die for the sins of the world, for you and me, and through his death and resurrection on Easter, the whole world would be declared forgiven of their sins.
Please, don’t misunderstand this. Jesus did not come to tell us that God has nothing against us. Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection did not put out the fire of God’s holiness. Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection protects us from the fire and being burned because we are clothed with Christ’s holiness. Like a firefighter who can walk into a burning house without being burned because he is decked out in his protective suit, you and I can stand like Moses and the disciples in the presence of God’s holiness and not be harmed because we are covered in Christ. Without Christ, without his protection … God’s holiness is still fearsome as it continues to burn and will throughout eternity. Those who decide to toss aside the forgiveness Jesus won for them will get burned.
So don’t treat Jesus’ forgiveness like a cheap coat we can afford to toss aside. Wear it at all times! Wear it boldly and proudly so that when God says “Come closer!”, you are ready to enjoy the benefits of his gracious invitation and being in his awesome presence. Amen.
The peace of God, which surpasses all human understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord, now and forever. Amen.