Reader: “Mark off a boundary all around the mountain”
Response: “to set it apart as holy.”
Scripture: Exodus 19:16-25
On the morning of the third day, thunder roared and lightning flashed, and a dense cloud came down on the mountain. There was a long, loud blast from a ram’s horn, and all the people trembled. Moses led them out from the camp to meet with God, and they stood at the foot of the mountain. All of Mount Sinai was covered with smoke because the Lord had descended on it in the form of fire. The smoke billowed into the sky like smoke from a brick kiln, and the whole mountain shook violently. As the blast of the ram’s horn grew louder and louder, Moses spoke, and God thundered his reply. The Lord came down on the top of Mount Sinai and called Moses to the top of the mountain. So Moses climbed the mountain.
Then the Lord told Moses, “Go back down and warn the people not to break through the boundaries to see the Lord, or they will die. Even the priests who regularly come near to the Lord must purify themselves so that the Lord does not break out and destroy them.”
“But Lord,” Moses protested, “the people cannot come up to Mount Sinai. You already warned us. You told me, ‘Mark off a boundary all around the mountain to set it apart as holy.’”
But the Lord said, “Go down and bring Aaron back up with you. In the meantime, do not let the priests or the people break through to approach the Lord, or he will break out and destroy them.”
So Moses went down to the people and told them what the Lord had said.
Reader: “This is God’s word as recorded by Moses.”
Response: “Thanks be to God for these powerful words.”
Have you ever been very, very close to a lightning strike? Close enough to hear the “fry” and smell the ozone? And the thunder crack . . . it’s terrifying. Living in the supposed “lightning capital of the US,” I can vouch for some possibility of truth. A lightning bolt hit between our house and our neighbor’s and blew out an electrical box in Nancy’s closet and melted a circuit board in the pool pump. We smelled the air! The whole house shook! And we’ve experienced several earthquakes both in California and in Washington where the whole house “rolled” like a wave at sea! Then there was the California fires stopping a block from our house. It was not calming! The force of nature is frightening.
Now, put yourself in the Israelites’ place. You know that this is the day you are going to meet the Lord. You are at Mt. Sinai in the morning, ready for the encounter, but you are not sure what is going to happen. Then you hear the rumble of thunder which grows louder and louder . . . and you are not sure how loud it is going to be . . . but it keeps increasing. In the midst of the ever increasing roar, lightning flashes everywhere and you watch a dense cloud descending on the mountain top. In addition to all you hear and see, comes a very loud, long blast from a trumpet. Then Moses says, “Come on, we’re going to meet YHWH!” Underneath you are saying, “And I’m going to die!” You all stop at the foot of the mountain―remembering the part about not crossing the boundary. Smoke billows from the top of the mountain like the smoke from a brick kiln, reminding you of your former days of brick making in Egypt. Then the whole mountain begins to shake violently while the blast from the horn grows still louder and louder, showing you that even nature is subservient and trembles before God.
Such was the encounter where the Israelites learned first hand of the mysterious, covenant-making, fearsome, totally separate, independent, and sovereign God over all his creation. As the people stood shaking in terror, God called Moses to join him at the top of the mountain. And you are thinking, “We’ll never see Moses again!” In his conversation with God, Moses was told to go back down the mountain and remind the people to stay put, the priests to purify themselves, and to come back bringing Aaron with him. God knew his people’s curiosity would tempt them to get a closer look at this rarest of events, hence the second warning from Moses.
Fear is not an uncommon response when God does something miraculous in overcoming natural law. Recall the story of Jesus casting the demons into the herd of pigs. When the townspeople heard the news from the man who had been healed by Jesus, what was their response? They were afraid and asked Jesus to leave! Remember when Jesus walked on the water, the disciples were terrified.
In the case of the Israelites, shortly after this frightening encounter with God at Mt. Sinai, they received the Ten Commandments written in God’s own hand. The Lord of heaven and earth was showing them who it was that was making a covenant with them. God wanted them to begin to get a grasp of the one with whom they were dealing. Is it possible during these days of Lent, we may have too casual an attitude toward God? How might such slackness reveal itself? Perhaps in a casual attitude toward our own sin, our worship attendance, treating absolutes as relatives, thinking that God doesn’t really care that much about little things . . . I’m sure you can come up with others!
Music: “Behold, God the Lord Passed By” from Elijah St. Olaf Chapel Choir
This is the place in the oratorio where, on Mt. Sinai, Elijah encounters the Lord who gives him a word of encouragement. Elijah learns he is not alone in proclaiming the truth. Like the Israelites, he also gains a much bigger picture of the awesome power of his God.
Behold, God the Lord passed by, and a mighty wind
Rent the mountains around, break in pieces the rocks
Break them before the Lord.
But yet the Lord was not in the tempest.
Behold, God the Lord passed by!
And the sea was upheaved, and the earth was shaken
But yet, the Lord was not in the earthquake.
And after the earthquake there came a fire
But yet, the Lord was not in the fire.
And after the fire there came a still small voice.
And in that still small voice onward came the Lord.
Prayer: O hidden Source of life, let me now meditate upon the great and gracious plan by which Thou hast brought it to pass that a mortal man like me should look up to Thee and call Thee Father. In the beginning Thou, the Uncreated, making all things out of nothing: Space and time and material substance: all things that creep and fly, the beasts of the forest, the fowls of the air, the fish of the sea: and at last man, in Thine own image, to have fellowship with Thyself: then when, in the corruption and disobedience of his heart, that image had been defaced: a gracious design for its restoration through the gift of Thine only-begotten Son: new life in Him, and a new access to Thy holy presence. O hidden love of God, whose will it is that all created spirits should live everlastingly in pure and perfect fellowship with Thyself, grant that in my life today I may do nothing to defeat this Thy most gracious purpose. Let me keep in mind how Thy whole creation groans and travails, waiting for the perfect appearing of the sons of God; and let me welcome every influence of Thy Spirit upon my own that may the more speedily make for that end. ―John Baillie, A Diary of Private Prayer, p.57