Today we reach the last of the verses that were left out of this year’s prescribed reading of the Ten Commandments story in Chapter 20 of Exodus. The left-out verse for today is the very last one of the story. It comes right after Moses has said to the people, “Do not be afraid; for God has come only to test you and to put the fear of him upon you so that you do not sin.” The passage continues with this left-out verse: “Then the people stood at a distance, while Moses drew near to the thick darkness where God was.”
The story began when the Israelites were three months into their exodus from the land, gods, and Pharaoh of Egypt. They had entered the wilderness of Sinai and were encamped in front of the mountain. Moses had gone up Mt. Sinai to seek God’s word. God gave Moses a message for the Israelites: “If you obey my voice and keep my commandments…you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation.” Moses relayed God’s word to the people and they accepted this divine call on their lives.
Then God arranges a meeting with the people—a meeting where God would spell out the commandments which would mark the people as God’s own. It was to be an in-person meeting, but the people were to maintain a safe distance between themselves and God’s presence. After all, great power carries with it great danger to those who are unprepared to handle it.
The meeting begins with smoke and lightning, trumpet blasts and booming thunder, a shaking mountain and trembling knees among the people. Then God speaks, giving the people the Ten Commandments. When God finished, the meeting concluded in the same way it started, with light and noise and trembling. The people are so overcome by fear at this close encounter of the divine kind that they are unprepared for an encore.
They are so afraid, that they believe if God speaks to them directly again, they will die. So, they beg Moses to be their go-between—their representative, their mediator. Moses tries to ase their fear. God’s display of power was intended simply to impress upon them an awareness of who God is and an understanding of the serious nature of their role as God’s covenant people.
I’ve mentioned before those “Choose Your Own Adventure” books my daughter liked when she was little, where at various points in the story, she could choose how the plot would proceed by choosing which page to turn to. The lectionary committee chose to end our reading at a point where the story could have taken one of a couple directions. The Israelites could have accepted Moses’ words and overcome their fears. They could have lived as a people whose God was directly present with them. They could have lived as a people who could approach the God who had chosen them. They could have lived as Adam and Eve had lived at first, with God walking among them.
Or, they could do what they did—allowing their fear of being too close to God to control them and allowing Moses to stand between them and the God who had sought them, freed them, and named them as God’s own treasured possession. As a result, God’s announcement of the Ten Commandments would be God’s only direct address to the people. From then on, God would speak to them only through others—Moses at first, then other leaders and judges, priests and prophets.
On the one hand, this state of affairs makes me sad. I wonder what might have been different if Israel had been willing to risk hearing God speak directly to them again. What would have been different if they had drawn near to God and allowed God to speak directly into their hearts and minds rather than through all-too-human gatekeepers?
On the other hand, it may be that some fear of God is a good thing. We should never lose our reverence for God—a reverence that stems from our awe at God’s greatness, reverence that causes us to sing in awesome wonder, “How great thou art!” When the contemporary praise song movement took hold some forty years ago, it gave rise to many songs that some critics call “Jesus is my boyfriend” songs. The criticism is that these songs make God too accessible, and God’s love too much like what we experience in our human relationships. The sense of God’s transcendence is lost, and God becomes manageable, containable, controllable.
But, clearly, even though the Israelites strove to put some distance between themselves and their God, God still desired a close relationship with God’s people. God still desired to speak directly to them. Centuries passed while God waited for the people to draw near. Then, in the fullness of time, God took a decisive step. If God’s people wouldn’t draw near to God, God would draw near to them. On a night in Bethlehem, God came to us in the form of a human baby.
And who doesn’t want to be close to a baby? Who doesn’t want to gaze into the eyes of a newborn? Whose heart doesn’t overflow with an inexpressible love? And, who isn’t filled with a sense of awe at the miracle of a baby’s birth?
God drew near to us in Jesus, and the people could look directly into the face of God. People could draw near to God cloaked in a human body—close enough to touch God’s clothing. The danger represented by the lightning and smoke, thunder and trumpets, was dampened by a gentle touch, a loving gaze, a word of forgiveness and freedom spoken directly to those who needed to hear it. And yet, the sense of awe was still present—the awe that would cause a woman to kneel at Jesus’ feet and wash them with her hair.
There is irony in this, though. The Israelites desired a mediator because they feared that a direct encounter with God would result in their deaths. And, in Jesus, we find this to be, in a sense, true. Encountering God in Jesus doesn’t cause our physical death, as the Israelites feared. But it does require us to die to ourselves. When we accept Jesus as our Savior, we die to our old identities and begin a new life in Christ. As Paul says, if anyone is in Christ—if anyone is in that one-to-one, unmediated relationship with Jesus—”there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; everything has become new!” When we draw near to Jesus, death is part of the equation, but it’s a death that leads to eternal life.
Some may say that we still need a mediator between us and God, and that Jesus is that mediator. It’s true that when the kingdom of God that Jesus brought near ran smack up against the powers of the world, Jesus stepped in between us and those powers, stripping them of their self-claimed authority over us. It was Jesus who refused to allow God’s mission to fail at the hands of religious and political authorities It was Jesus who faced a crowd that had descended into a mob mentality, and took the brunt of their anger and fear. Jesus represented all of us when he went to the cross—all of us who have been called to be God’s people.
But although Jesus took on sin and guilt and death on our behalf, Jesus is more than a gatekeeper between us and God. We profess that Jesus is God. So, an encounter with Jesus is a direct encounter with God. Through the Spirit, God is present in our lives, every moment of every day. Through the Spirit, God speaks directly into each of our hearts. Even though we have preachers and teachers and prophets through whom we may hear God’s word, they merely facilitate that direct relationship. They don’t control it.
Some Christians may be more comfortable having a human mediator as a buffer. They see that as the work of a pastor or priest. Maybe we’re simply afraid of being too close to the immeasurable power of God and its consequences. We can be much like Moses, who hid his face from the burning bush, because he was afraid to look at God. We can be like the Israelites, stepping back to a safe, comfortable distance from God’s awe-inducing power. What a loss of intimacy we suffer, when we allow our fear to keep us separated from God.
But we have been called to the privilege and the work of being in relationship with God. We believe in the priesthood of all believers—that each of us is called to be God’s representative in our world. It’s sobering to know that, as Christians, we are members of God’s royal priesthood, with access to God’s power and the responsibility for making it known in the world. The preacher and teacher Barbara Brown Taylor described the work of a priest this way: it is “only slightly less dicey than being a chief engineer at a nuclear plant. You need to know how to approach great power without loosing great danger and getting fried in the process.” This is the work of each of us, as members of the priesthood of all believers.
The Israelites were called to be God’s priestly kingdom and holy nation. But they were afraid to draw too near to God. They wanted a buffer to shield them from God’s power. Now, we have been made a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people. We do not hide from God’s greatness. We bow down in awe before God’s great power, but with the assurance that comes with being God’s treasured possession. We draw near to Jesus with both reverence and intimacy as God’s royal priesthood, so that we may proclaim the mighty acts of the One who called us out of darkness into his marvelous light. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young