Sunday, April 11, 2021

Fire on the Mountain: Sermon on Exodus 19

What do you think it was like to be there? Put yourself in their sandals this morning. You're one of the Hebrew men or women who grew up in the house of bondage – in Egypt, where you or your husband spent the day making bricks for the Egyptian government or building their cities for them. All your life, you knew you were second-class. But then Moses came – one like you, sent by the God of your ancestors, the God you'd nearly forgotten, sent with power to confront and confute the gods of Egypt. In judgment after judgment, devastation fell on the land for your sake, until finally, for the tenth plague, you sacrificed a lamb, you coated the lintels of your house with blood, brushing it over the etching of your name, and you ate a meal inside, while that night, death came to the land (Exodus 12:1-30). Your house was spared. Your freedom was granted. It was time to run, with all the treasure your neighbors could give you as a bribe to just go away (Exodus 12:33-36). You traveled for days toward the edge of the sea (Exodus 13:17—14:2) Then came the pursuit (Exodus 14:5-9). Your back was to the sea. You were terrified, cornered (Exodus 14:9-12). Then the sea split for you, and you ran across with your family and your goods (Exodus 14:21-31). On the other side, you sang and danced for joy (Exodus 15:1-21). On a day in early April, this God saved you! You're a slave no more, you'd been redeemed – how you loved to proclaim it!

Then continued your journey into the desert. Uprooted from your settled lifestyle in your old house, now you and everyone with you was a nomad, pitching tents at campsite after campsite. In the nights and days you'd move, you'd march fifteen, twenty miles at a time. From the night when death passed over your house until you reached where you were headed, it'd be six weeks. It was a three-day march south into the desert of Shur along a ridge to the place you called Marah, 'bitter.' You relied on finding water, but here it was tainted with magnesium sulfate – a bitter mineral. Thirsty, you complained, and then Moses threw in some wood and, by a miracle, purged the minerals from the water, making it good to drink (Exodus 15:22-25). Praise God! Soon enough, moving on from there, you came to an oasis with twelve springs and seventy palm trees, Elim (Exodus 15:27; Numbers 33:9). What a relaxing place, so good to be at. You were sad to eventually move on. But you did, and reached the next desert a month after the night you set out. Initially, camping by the seashore, you could dig holes and wait for them to fill with fresh water (Numbers 33:10). But then you all turned east through a dry riverbed (Exodus 16:1; Numbers 33:11). You got hungry and complained (Exodus 16:2). You started to long for the way you were fed and kept in your slave days (Exodus 16:3). So through the night, God began to send something flaky – you weren't totally sure what it was – to coat the ground by morning; and as evening fell each night, flocks of confused quail, pausing to rest on a long journey, became easy prey for meat (Exodus 16:4-36). Finally fed, you passed through the turquoise-mining district of Dophkah (Numbers 33:12) – it was the off-season, it was safe, and you picked up some nice supplies – and then began to turn through a few more dry riverbeds like Alush (Numbers 33:12). At one riverbed called Rephidim, there was an oasis – but you couldn't go there. A strong tribe, the sons of Amalek, were jealously hoarding access, and you could not drink. You were so thirsty, and began to complain (Exodus 17:1-7). Then Moses tapped his staff on a rock, and water began to gush forth. You drank with gladness. So jealous were the Amalekites that they attacked, but you fought through all the day as Moses lifted up his staff in both hands, blessing you with power and victory, until at last you drove them out (Exodus 17:8-16). You stayed at Rephidim for a while, long enough for Jethro to come and bring Moses back his wife Zipporah and sons Gershom and Eliezer (Exodus 18).

After some stay there, you finally came out onto the plain from which you could at last see the mountain more clearly – the mountain you'd glimpsed in the distance. You pitched your tent by the light of a new moon (Exodus 19:1). It was about the middle of May. You suspected you'd be here for a while, and it felt like a relief for this leg of your trip to be over and done with. All this way, this God of your ancestors had rescued you and was feeding you and watering you and fighting for you. You were here to worship him. Not only that, but to find him – to find his presence. In the land of Egypt, dotted with temples, your old neighbors had no trouble finding the presence of their failed little gods. You'd never had that. But this mountain, Moses had said, would be the temple soon. Here, this plain, this would be the outer court; the mountain slope would be the holy place inside the temple; and at the summit, the holiest place of all – once God would come to be there.

And why had you come? You'd come to cut a covenant with God (cf. Exodus 19:5). You had some awareness that, all through the world, small nations and big nations made treaties, defining the duties of little kings to great kings. At this mountain, you and each of your friends and family would be the little kings, signing on to the treaty this great king called God was about to put in front of you. It would be for you, for your children, for your grandchildren, for all who'd come after you. And just like there'd been ten plagues with which God had judged your captors, so there would be ten words spoken, ten basic principles as the basic stipulations of the treaty – ten, so that even your littlest children could learn them by heart on their fingers as you raised them in responsibility and dignity. That was what you were ready for. That was why you'd come. Moses explained to you and the crowd that God had brought you all to himself here for this purpose. You felt ready. You joined the general cheer, telling Moses, “All that the LORD has spoken, we will do” (Exodus 19:8).

Moses, going back and forth from the mountain to the camp, relayed the words of instruction. That very day of the new moon, the day you'd arrived on the plain, he said a fence needed to be put up, a boundary marker between the plain and the mountain. You helped carefully to put in the stakes. Beyond that limit, you could not go, your animals could not go, nothing must go – if it does, you must kill it from afar (Exodus 19:12-13). Before ever a law was given, a zone of special purity was said to be off-limits, just like that tree in the garden in the old stories. You were safe in your tent, safe on the plain, but the mountain – that was dangerous. You had to be very clear on that. And before you could approach even the border of the danger, you'd have to prepare yourself. Moses consecrated you – a first day, a second, into a third, he said. For it was the third day when you'd have the encounter (Exodus 19:11). Until then, you would wait. You would wash your garments in the water supply of the area, restoring them to the condition they had before you sweated six weeks in them and got them crusted with desert sand (Exodus 19:10). You'd take a bath. You and your spouse would have to abstain for a few days, resisting temptation to live out your married life as normal in your tent (Exodus 19:15). Ritual purity was demanded of you. Consecrate yourself. Because this God, you're finding, is not simple to approach. This purpose and mission, of being bound to him by a treaty, of becoming his covenant partner – it isn't easy to take on. This was serious business. You could not approach this casually or lightly. That's why you were being assigned several whole days of just waiting, time to reflect very thoughtfully on the immense ramifications of what you were about to see and hear and say. Think very carefully about this high calling.

You wake up on the third morning. You rise on the third day. It hadn't been easy to sleep – your mind raced as you thought about what the day might bring. You had scarcely any idea what things would look like. Yawning, you get dressed and wandered out of your tent at daybreak. Moses is waiting. It's not a sunny morning, when the dawn comes. It's actually rather gloomy. The sky is dark. You're still not too far from your tent as the sky begins to darken. Clouds, thick and black, begin to gather over the mountain. A violent storm, but you feel no rain. But you hear the low rumble of thunder. You see the flashes of lightning. And then you hear what no storm had ever brought: a sound like the blast of a trumpet in the sky. And it's so loud, much louder than the thunder had been, and it catches you off your guard, it frays your nerves, it makes you quake in your sandals. You wonder if maybe you made a mistake – if you're meddling with powers you can't bear, if perhaps even a drop of this God is a flood you'll drown in (Exodus 19:16; cf. Hebrews 12:18-19).

Moses leads you and the thousands of trembling others outside the camp, in the direction of this fierce storm. You leave your tent behind. You leave your property behind. You leave your animals behind. Your family alone is with you, and your friends. You're all dressed in your clean clothes. You've consecrated yourself. You've gone through the preparations. But you wonder how anyone could be prepared to withstand this. You'd come to worship. And now is the time. This is the day of the assembly (cf. Deuteronomy 9:10). It's the first time you've ever gotten to gather with others for an organized encounter with God, and you won't return to your tent – if you somehow live to – until you've met him. You've hungered for this, thirsted for this. All the travels and travails of the past six weeks have been to get you here, that you might gather in the outer court, and worship God in his storm. So now you stand, at the foot of the mountain (Exodus 19:17). And in the storm, you see something burning. From the heights of the sky, fire pours down in the heart of darkness, and smoke pours forth like an oven, cascading down the slope and rising to the heights of heaven (Exodus 19:18; Deuteronomy 4:11, 36). The mountain visibly shakes. The earth shakes. You feel the ground move beneath your feet, vibrating, trembling as if terrified. You can relate. You wince as the sound of the trumpet is growing louder and louder and louder, and your ears hurt, and the glow of the fire glows through the darkness, and you're so close to the action, it almost feels as though if you reach out your hand, the smoke will swallow you up. You can smell the burning. You can taste it on your tongue, like scorched incense, sweet and bitter.

Just when the trumpet seems loudest, Moses stands in front of you, leaning against the barricade, and shouts up to the mountain. You can barely hear what he says. But evidently God can hear him just fine. For God shouts back in a piercing crack of thunder that cuts off the trumpet (Exodus 19:19), and when this thunder roars in its sevenfold depth, the ground under your feet winces and shakes – the whole earth does (Hebrews 12:26). But as the echo of the thunder fades, you realize that everything is quiet. No birds sing. No donkeys bray back in the camp. You don't hear the wind. You don't even hear the crackle of the fire. All creation has paused. God, the Lord God, the Omnipotent Maker of all things, has invaded his creation, has come into her midst, has seated himself in fire on the mountain, wrapping himself in darkness and smoke for the world's protection. He is about to speak. Creation is listening.

And so, for the first time, you hear with your own ears the voice of God – and see it, somehow, with your very own eyes. Later legend, as it tells the story, will have it that the words were traced out in flame that poured forth from God, that each was accompanied by torches, that word by word, this speech flew over your head, hovered over you, circling around before returning to God. Those legends will also have it that each utterance, as you heard it spoken, translated itself into all the languages spoken by humans. And some legends will even imagine that, as you listened to the languages and saw the words etched in fire, angels came down and crowned you with glory. (And if those stories sound at all like how Luke writes the story of Pentecost, good catch!1)

That morning, confronted with the God you came to worship, you receive those ten words. Hearing them, you realize that perhaps you aren't cut out yet to hear God directly, which is why you'll soon be begging Moses to be the intermediary who listens to God's voice and relays it to you. Patient as he's been, you trust him not to distort the message. He'll relay it faithfully, and in hearing him, you'll know what God wants to tell you. But you feel the need for some distance, to retreat back from the edge, to insulate yourself a bit more from this God.

And yet the reason why you're here, the reason why your tribe is here, the reason why all the associated tribes and their members are here – it's because God made you an offer, which you accepted. God has a marvelous plan and purpose for your people. Moses told you a few days ago – these are the words you've been meditating on while you consecrated yourself. God said through Moses that you'd seen what he'd done to the Egyptians for your sake, and how God in his care had carried you to the edge of his presence, to meet you as face-to-face as you can handle (Exodus 19:4). He is the owner of everything in the earth, all of it is his. But, that said, if you'll obey his voice, if you'll uphold this covenant he's making with you, then out of all the peoples on the earth, you'll be special. You will be his secret treasure, gained and gathered through his effort and reserved exclusively to his personal purposes. Your whole nation will be this God's special servant. Your nation will be separated from all other nations by this unique way of life – it will set you apart, it will purify you, it will make you holy, an earthly mirror of your God. Each and every one of you will be to all other nations what priests are within a nation. Each of you will, to the world, communicate God's will; each of you will, to the world, show what it means to be sacred; each of you will, to the world, intercede and minister and guide. “If you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:5-6).

Step forward over 3200 years, and land in a pew here. What does all this mean for us? You, no less than they, have passed through the sea. For in those days, “all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea” (1 Corinthians 10:2), but we now have been “baptized into Christ Jesus” (Romans 6:3). They camped where the wood purified the water; we camp where the wood of the cross purifies all things. They camped at the oasis of twelve springs and seventy palm trees; we camp in the nourishment of twelve disciples and seventy apostles. They, reaching a new desert, were fed manna and quail – they “all ate the same spiritual food” (1 Corinthians 10:3). But we feed on the Greater Manna: the flesh and blood of Jesus, “the Living Bread who came down from heaven” (John 6:51). At Rephidim, they back then “all drank the same spiritual drink, for the drank from the spiritual rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ” (1 Corinthians 10:4) – and so do we. The gift put them in conflict with the envy of the Amalekites, and the gift puts us in conflict with the powers of darkness; but as long as the cross is lifted high, Christ on heaven's throne will give us the victory. After the new moon, they then gathered for the day of assembly. And so do we, for that word 'assembly' that Moses applied to them, Jesus gives to us – it's 'church.' You aren't so different from those who stood beneath the mountain.

And in Christ, we are now his treasured possession, gained by the purchase of his blood and valued highly as his special treasure. We are now his holy nation, set apart from all the peoples of the earth, set apart even from the United States of America – and our responsibility here is to live differently than the American norm. So too, we are his kingdom of priests, called to pray for and teach and guide the entire creation to what we've found already in him. And how do we know this is true? Christ tells us by Peter: “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9).

So let us go to the foot of the mountain. “Let us go to him outside the camp and bear the reproach he endured” (Hebrews 13:13). For we have come to this place to worship. And we are preparing to hear the words of the covenant that the Lord our God will speak in our midst. In coming weeks, we will begin to hear and understand the voice of God who spoke in thunders. “Keep listening to the thunder of his voice and the rumbling that comes from his mouth” (Job 37:2). For ours is a high and holy calling, to live these ways and to teach the entire universe to live these ways through our example and guidance. But it is for no less a dignity and no less a duty that we have been chosen in Christ.

Therefore, over these next few weeks, let's consecrate ourselves all over again, washing the garments of our faith white in the blood of the Lamb (Revelation 7:14). Let's bathe ourselves by returning with tears of repentance and joy to our first love. Let us keep back the beasts of our vices from the mountain to which we are summoned. And let us abstain from setting our minds on mere earthly things, that we might meditate instead on our heavenly calling. “Seek the things that are above, where Christ is … Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth” (Colossians 3:1-2). “You who share a heavenly calling, consider Jesus, the apostle and high priest of our confession, who was faithful to him who appointed him, just as Moses was faithful in all his house” (Hebrews 3:1-2). He leads us from the darkness and the gloom into the blazing light of glory – hallelujah! Amen.

1  For these legends, see Targum Pseudo-Jonathan Exodus 20:2 and b. Shabbat 88a-b, and compare with Acts 2:1-4

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