David A. Davis
October 20, 2019
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“Moses said to the people, ‘Do not be afraid; for God has come only to test you and to put the fear of God upon you so that you do not sin.’” Do not be afraid: God has come to test you so that the fear of God will be with you to keep you from sinning. Do not be afraid; God has come to test you so that the fear of God, always in your mind may keep you from sinning. Do not be afraid God just wants to put the fear of God into you. Do not be afraid just fear God. Do not fear but fear. “You speak to us, and we will listen, but do not let God speak to us, or we will die.” It was more than the thunder and the lightning and the sound of the trumpet and the mountain smoking that scared the people of Israel.
Last week we read and heard about their hunger and thirst and complaint in the wilderness and how God heard their cry. Just after that in the story of Exodus, Moses’ father law Jethro, comes into the wilderness where Moses and the people were encamped. Jethro brings sacrifices to God saying “Now I know that the Lord is greater than all gods.” Aaron and the elders of Israel all break bread together with Moses and Jethro. In his role as leader of this whole traveling congregation of the people of Israel, Moses sits as judge when people have a dispute and need his wisdom and his take on the Word of the Lord. Moses would make known to the people the instructions of God. Jethro sees people standing around Moses from morning until evening. Jethro tells Moses he’s going to wear himself out. The task is too heavy. It’s too much. He tells Moses to appoint representatives that he can teach so they can serve as judges then Moses would only have to listen to the hardest cases.
After Jethro leaves, the wilderness wandering brings Moses and the people to the wilderness of Sinai. There, from the camp at the front of Mt. Sinai, the Lord calls to Moses from the mountain. God tells Moses to go and say to the people of Israel, “you have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now, therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed the whole earth is mind. But you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation.” God tells Moses to go down and tell the whole wandering congregation of Israel that I brought you to myself. You and me. Us. Out of our relationship, in our relationship, because of our relationship, in this covenant, you shall be a treasured possession of mine and you shall represent me in a priestly, holy way to the whole earth. You will bear my word, you will be my witness, you will carry my kingdom to the world. My treasured nation will be a people that brings my justice and righteousness to all nations.
Moses brings all the elders together and reminds them of all that God had done. Moses tells them what God had told him. The people answer as one in the affirmative. Everything God has said we will do. We are in. We are all in. In covenant with God. In relationship with God. In bringing God to the whole world. Moses communicates their response to God and then God lays out a plan for the people to hear God speaking to Moses. “I am going to come to you in a cloud so the people will hear when I speak with you and they will trust you forever.” But first, the Lord tells Moses that the people have to consecrate themselves for two days before the Lord comes down from the mountain on the third day. God wants them to prepare in holiness for God’s own holiness and God warns them not to touch or come near the mountain because they will be put death.
On the third day amid thunder and lightning, and with a thick cloud on the mountain, a trumpet blast came that was so loud the people trembled. “Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God.” The people stood at the foot of the mountain. The mountain shook and smoked and the trumpet blast just kept getting louder. Moses would speak and God would answer in the thunder. Many scholars think the better translation is that God would answer in voice. Moses would speak and God would answer in a voice. The Lord calls Moses to the top of the mountain and again warns Moses “Set limits around the mountain and keep it holy. Bring up Aaron with you but don’t let the priests or the people break through.” The warning is that if they break through, if they cross the line, if they come up. God would burst forth against them. Moses then went down to the people and told them everything. The plan is in place for the people to hear God speaking to Moses so that they will trust Moses forever. The warnings have been given. The boundaries have been set. The consequences are clear. Consequences of life and of death. What comes next in Exodus…is this.
“Then God spoke all these words. I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.” No idols. No profaning of God’s name. Keep the sabbath. Honor your father and your mother. No murder. No adultery. No stealing. No lying about your neighbor. No wanting what someone else has. The people witnessed the thunder, the lightning, the trumpet, the smoke, and they were afraid. They kept their distance just like they were told because they were afraid. They had every reason to be afraid and not just because of creation’s unparalleled show there at the mountain. They were afraid of the very holiness of God. And that’s when Moses said to them, do not fear, but fear. Do not be afraid but allow the fear of God to empower you, inspire you, to live a holy life. Don’t be afraid of the fear of God.
The Ten Commandments and the holiness of God. There are, of course, a myriad of ways to ponder the distinctiveness of the Ten Commandments and their place in the faith tradition handed on to us. Part of the uniqueness, a really important part of the distinctiveness, is how the Ten are framed by the earthshaking holiness of God. And if one accepts the language argument in the preceding chapter I described, the chapter that sets the stage of God’s holiness and the fear of God at Mt. Sinai, if the scholarship is correct that it is more than thunder they hear but God’s very voice, then the people were hearing something of God’s voice giving Moses the Ten Commandments. Rather than simply waiting for Moses to tell them, or to show them the tablets, they were experiencing the Ten Commandments and the holiness of God in real-time.
The holiness of God calling a people to be holy. The holy voice of God establishing for a people the very core of what it means to be holy. The holiness of God proclaiming to a people not only God’s holiness, but the holiness of the relationship between God and God’s people. The holy presence of God setting apart the whole congregation of the people of Israel and gifting them with their identity, their DNA, the core of a holy faithful life. The holiness of God empowering, inspiring, sending a people to be a priestly kingdom for the world, bearing witness to the holiness of God to all nations with their very lives. The holiness of God and the holiness of God’s people, together in covenant relationship looking to change the world and bring about the very kingdom of God.
Moses wasn’t the first nor the last in the scripture to say “Do not afraid.” He’s in pretty good company with God, the prophets, Jesus, and the angels. I for one long ago came to the belief, the affirmation in my own faith and relationship with God that there is absolutely nothing now or in the life to come to be afraid of when it comes to God and God’s love. As Paul puts it, I am convinced that nothing can separate us from that love made known to us in Jesus Christ. But God’s holiness ought to knock your socks off once in a while. The power, the beauty, the timelessness, the divinity, the otherness, the wisdom that is foolishness to this world, the endless grace, the light and love so beyond the imagination, the life that conquers even death. The holiness of God ought to bring us to our knees.
That this wondrous God of all creation would invite you into a relationship and make you a promise and gift you with salvation and tell you that with this relationship, together we can change the world, we can birth a heavenly kingdom here on earth. That the God of heaven and earth, the one Jethro said is greater than all gods, the very God of very God, that God in all of God’s holiness would call us to a holy life, everyone one of us. And that the holy life, our relationship with God, our life in God shapes the very core of our being and shapes our very lives. Have no other gods. No idols. No profaning of God’s name. Keep the sabbath. Honor your father and your mother. No murder. No adultery. No stealing. No lying about your neighbor. No wanting what someone else has. The core of life for the people of God. Relationship to God. Relationship to humanity. The core of life for the people of God framed by God’s holiness.
A while back I was talking to someone who had a whole lot going on in life and family. A whole lot. They told me they were in a doctor’s waiting room and picked up one of those magazines they would never otherwise read. One of the short features was a checklist to find out your stress level. If you are experiencing x,y, or z, check and add this number. The person blew past the cautionary number for too much stress halfway down the page. Only then, to find out there was a second page continuing the list. Off the chart didn’t begin to describe it.
Checklist. The Ten Commandments are not intended to be a checklist. Don’t fool yourself like the rich young ruler in Luke’s gospel. If it was a checklist, Jesus would have patted the guy on the back when he said “I have kept all of these since my youth.” Jesus would have stopped before “There is still one thing lacking.” No, not a checklist. Not like the blasted ID point system over at the DMV. No. It is the invitation from the very voice of God to a covenant life with God. To a holy life inspired, empowered, sustained by God’s own holiness.
Just a few weeks ago I shared in the prayer time of my weekly pastor’s bible study down at the Lawrenceville Presbyterian Church that I thought I was experiencing “issue fatigue”. Like the term “disaster fatigue” that gets tossed around after another storm or another mass shooting. It’s a term that implies people will stop giving, stop caring, and grow numb to the suffering of others. I was feeling that way about all the important challenges, concerns, real issues that warrant energy and passion. A colleague said “it’s not just issue fatigue, it’s world fatigue. Life fatigue.”
I knew then and I know now that I am not the only one who feels that way, maybe more often than not. But then there is the holiness of God. Right about then, in those moments, on those days, the holiness of God ought to bring us to our knees. The thunderous, smoking, earthshaking God. The power, the beauty, the timelessness, the divinity, the otherness, the wisdom that is foolishness to this world, the endless grace, the light and love so beyond the imagination, the life that conquers even death. The holiness of God. Don’t be afraid, don’t be tired, don’t give up. All the holiness of God to capture you, inspire you, and empower you.
To allow the holiness of God to wash over you and to knock your socks off is to hear God’s voice anew, in real-time, telling you, telling me, telling us….you remember, we’re in this together. God and God’s people formed into a priestly nation, to change the world and bring about the very kingdom of God.
God’s thunderous voice, in real-time.
Do not fear. I am with you always, even until the end of the age.