A sermon on Exodus 19 given by the Rev. Justin Clemente at New Creation Church (Anglican), Hagerstown, MD on September 13, 2020, the fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost. This is the eighth sermon in an ongoing series on the book of Exodus.
I. Examining Ourselves
Let’s start with this: Why did you come here today? And what are you looking to find? Are you here out of obligation? Are you here because it’s simply your habit? Are you here for your spouse or for another family member?
Or, are you here to get God? To meet with the living God. When that is the case, it will radically change what you bring to worship together and what you expect to get out of it. Exodus 19 will teach us about this, for it is the first worship service, the first assembly, of Israel (v.17). And what a worship service it is.
II. Out of Egypt, Into Covenant (vs. 1-6)
It’s also the beginning of the second part of the book of Exodus. There is part one: Out of Egypt, and there is part two: Into Covenant. I hope you see how this is the Christian life, writ large. As it is for us, so it was for the Old Testament people of God. We have been delivered by God into covenant relationship with the living and holy God.
Look with me at verses 4-5 and you can see this: “You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I…brought you to myself. … Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession.”
III. Dwelling With a Holy God (vs.10-25)
Egypt fades to the background and Sinai comes to the foreground as God draws near. But dwelling with God is easier said than done. For sinners, that is like having a nuclear power plant move into your neighborhood. I’m fond of Annie Dillard’s description of what worship on Sunday worship should perhaps really look like, if we understand this:
“Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? … The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews.” (Teaching a Stone to Talk, from the essay, “An Expedition to the Pole”)
Look at vs. 12 and 16 in our passage. Much of chapter 19 is devoted to the merciful distance that must be maintained (on the people’s part) for God to be present.
Verse 12: “And you shall set limits for the people all around.”
Verse 16: “On the morning of the third day there were thunders and lightnings and a thick cloud on the mountain and a very loud trumpet blast, so that all the people in the camp trembled.”
At the presence of the living God, creation bursts into a frenzy of fireworks. In the midst of this, humanity is but wax in the presence of the bright flame of God.
A few years back, Ford put out a commercial for their SUV, the Explorer. It featured a family on a road trip, heading directly into one heck of a storm. Dark clouds, lightning, and thunder gather overhead. But in the commercial, the mom looks back from the front seat as if to say, “no worries kids, we got this! We’re in our Explorer.” It ends with the tagline: “the all-new 2016 Ford Explorer – be unstoppable!” Well we’ve all driven through some pretty bad storms, and I’m not sure we felt that way. Imagine, then, how the people of Israel felt as they stood before this storm – the storm of God’s holiness.
Tim Chester puts it this way:
“It as if the holiness of God is nuclear. If you want to approach a nuclear reactor, then you must put on protective clothing, and even then you must not get too close. In the same way, if the people want to approach God they must come prepared through consecration, and even then they must not come too close. A nuclear reactor must be encased in layers of concrete. And as the glory of the LORD descends on Mount Sinai, the mountain is split into three zones of increasing holiness and therefore danger (just as, later, the tabernacle would be). Only Moses may ascend to the top. Aaron and the seventy elders may go on the slopes. The third zone is the border of the mountain, where the people must remain. Transgressing these boundaries leads to death. Sinai leaves Israel, and us, in no doubt. God wants a relationship with his people. But God is also dangerously holy.” (Exodus for You, pg. 150)
As God draws nigh to his people, we are taught, at one and the same time that sin excludes and, therefore, holiness threatens (as Alec Motyer puts it).
IV. Into the Holy of Holies (Hebrews 12:18-29)
You see this is where Exodus begins to be so wonderfully instructive for our worship today as we dwell in the New Covenant made through Jesus’ precious body and blood.
I must emphatically say to you today that, against popular opinion, God has not become any less holy than he was that day at the first worship service of God’s people. Rather, the perfect holiness and acceptance before God that he has won for you is that much greater in Christ Jesus. Sinai reveals the remaining depth of our need and the overwhelming adequacy of our Savior to save.
Let me put it his way: in Christ and all that he accomplished, he has no longer left you on the doorstep of the church, so to speak. He has not left you at the back pew, simply tolerating your presence. In Christ Jesus, he has brought you all the way in, my friend. He has made an end of your sin. He calls you his friend. As the Son is to God our Father, so you are to him, in God the Son. Furthermore, you have been gifted and graced with God’s very Spirit within you. The veil of separation, created by sin and placed there in merciful provision by God, has been torn down by the living God himself! (Matt. 27:50-51)
In his classic hymn, God Moves in a Mysterious Way, William Cowper captured the awe, the holiness, the love and the grace of God displayed at Mt. Sinai and Mt. Zion:
God moves in a mysterious way, His wonders to perform.
He plants his footsteps on the sea, And rides upon the storm.
Ye fearful saints fresh courage take, The clouds you so much dread,
Are big with mercy, and shall break, With blessings on your head.
Judge not the Lord by feeble sense, But trust him for his grace.
Behind a frowning providence, He hides a smiling face.
Our reading from Hebrews 12 put it this way: “But you have come…to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.” (Hebrews 12:22, 24)
And what is that better word? Forgiveness, total and complete. How holy is your God and how great is your Savior!
V. Reverence and Awe – the Soil of True Holiness
Finally, let me end by speaking a word about the fear and reverence of God we see expressed in this passage. Christians today often wrestle with how to apply this. Should we fear and reverence God? The answer is yes, emphatically yes! In fact, I’d be worried about you if you didn’t. In my own experience, that’s when I’ve been most susceptible to sin!
Hebrews 12:28-29 is explicit about this, and in fact says that Christian worship is to be characterized by reverence and awe: “Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe,for our God is a consuming fire.”
We might say that reverence and awe are the soil for true holiness in the life of the Christian. Out of overwhelming gratefulness for what we have received, how can we not serve God with our life? How can we not receive his commandments as gifts rather than burdens (that’s the next chapter of Exodus), how can we not worship him with all we are?
Many there are today who are shutting up their ears to God, saying to God, like the Israelites, I will hear you no more! If they would but hear the voice of their Father, calling them home in the person and work of Jesus, they would be able to come home and enter into the joyful worship of heaven, and serve God with gladness.
So, what did you come here for today? Come to get God. Come to serve and be served by the living God. It will make all the difference in the world. Amen.