13th Sunday After Trinity August 24, 1997
355, 295, 149, 50
Hymns from The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) unless otherwise noted
When the people saw the thunder and lightning and heard the trumpet and saw the mountain in smoke, they trembled with fear. They stayed at a distance and said to Moses, “Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die.” Moses said to the people, “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.” The people remained at a distance, while Moses approached the thick darkness where God was. Then the Lord said to Moses, “Tell the Israelites this: ‘You have seen for yourselves that I have spoken to you from heaven: Do not make any gods to be alongside me; do not make for yourselves gods of silver or gods of gold. Make an altar of earth for Me and sacrifice on it your burnt offerings and fellowship offerings, your sheep and goats and your cattle. Wherever I cause my name to be honored, I will come to you and bless you.’” Here ends our text.
In Jesus Christ, Whose name we honor, and whose blessings we expect, Dear Fellow Redeemed,
Here in Washington, Mount St. Helens was for years a major tourist attraction. With Mt. Rainier and Mt. Hood, it was known as one of “The Three Sisters.” People from surrounding cities like Seattle, Vancouver and Portland would stream to Mt. St. Helens for recreation. It was a mecca for hunters and fishermen, campers and climbers. Some people built cabins and moved there permanently. The serene, snow-covered peak of Mt. St. Helens seemed to beckon to people: “Come closer, come closer…”
That was the problem. When the dormant volcano finally erupted on May 18th, 1980, some people were too close. No longer a peaceful vista, the mountain turned overnight into a smoking, ash-spewing nightmare. People ran for their lives in every direction. Sixty-five people didn’t make it. They were too close.
If God were a mountain, which of these would He be? The beautiful, snow-covered pinnacle…or the angry, smoking volcano? Which would you choose to characterize the Lord? Actually, either description could be true, depending on whether you’re looking at Him from the point of view of the Law, or of the Gospel. And both have something to do with our relationship to God. Our theme today is…
I wish I could show you a picture of the Sinai mountain range in the southern Sinai Peninsula. The black, forbidding-looking peaks rise so abruptly, it’s said a person standing on the plain can reach out and touch the base of the mountains. It was on one of these mountains that the Lord came down, in person, to deliver His Commandments to the people of Israel.
On this occasion of the giving of the Law, God wanted to make a lasting impression on the people. So He displayed His awesome power and His absolute holiness with some stunning special effects. He made a thick, black smoke encircle the mountain. He caused thunder and lightning to crash constantly around it. The earth shuddered, and out of nowhere came the sound of a loud trumpet blast.
Well, the Israelites reacted predictably—the same way you and I might react if we were there—they were terrified. “When the people saw the thunder and lightning and heard the trumpet and saw the mountain in smoke, they trembled with fear. They stayed at a distance and said to Moses, ‘Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die.’”
God was showing His “Law side” to the people. He was revealing Himself as the God of the Ten Commandments, the God of awesome power and absolute holiness…the righteous Judge of sin. And, at that moment, if you had asked any of those people, “How close is God?” I’m sure they would have answered, “Much too close for comfort!”
Too bad there aren’t more people in this world who felt that God was too close for comfort. The problem seems to be just the opposite. There are so many in this day and age who have an all too comfortable view of God. Either they don’t think of Him at all, or else they imagine Him as some benign old Santa Claus figure, who winks at sin and rewards good intentions. The truth is that God is anything but benign when it comes to sin. In Psalm 7, King David says, “God is a just judge, and God is angry with the wicked every day. If he does not turn back, He will sharpen His sword; He bends His bow and makes it ready. He also prepares for Himself instruments of death; He makes His arrows into fiery shafts.” vv. 11-13. Put even more simply, Paul says, “The wages of sin is death.” And he means not just temporal death, but the death of eternal damnation. If only people knew! If only the unrepentant of this world realized how close they’re standing to the smoking volcano of God’s anger over sin! Maybe then they’d see that, as the righteous Judge of sin, God is much too close for comfort.
But I’m not addressing impenitant unbelievers this morning. I’m talking to Christians. By the grace of God, you and I know our own sinfulness, and we know enough to repent of it every day. Even Christians, though, can lose sight of the volcano from time to time. We, too, have to be careful we don’t get too comfortable with sin. Moses told the Israelites, “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.” There’s a big difference between being afraid of God, and having a proper fear of God. To “fear God,” Biblically speaking, means to respect the Lord, to stand in awe of Him. And the better we understand the absolute power and holiness of the true God, the easier it will be to have a proper fear of God. Also, it lets us see clearly how enormous each sin against our holy God really is.
…And yet, we need not be afraid of God! Why not? If our God is this righteous Judge revealed at Mt. Sinai, why shouldn’t we want to get as far away from Him as possible!? Because He is also the merciful Savior of sinners, and as such, God can’t be close enough!
You and I can’t get close enough to the One who has delivered us from our sins. Even in the midst of smoke and thunder of Mt. Sinai, the Lord showed His “Gospel” side to the people. After warning the people about idolatry, He told them, “Make an altar of earth for Me and sacrifice on it your burnt offerings and fellowship offerings, your sheep and goats and your cattle. Wherever I cause my name to be honored, I will come to you and bless you.” How can this be? The same God who arrayed Himself against sin with thunder and smoke, in the very next breath promises the sweetest blessings to His followers! What happened to all the wrath and anger? What happened to the punishment for sin that God, as a righteous Judge, surely must demand??
Praise be to the Lord, that anger was expended on our crucified Savior, not on us sinners! In fact, that’s what all those Old Testament sacrifices were for—the sheep, the goats and the cattle. Each time an animal was killed by the priests, it was to remind the people that the real Lamb of God would one day be sacrificed for the sins of the world. And hundreds of years later, on the cross of Calvary, that’s exactly what happened. The innocent Son of God offered up His own body as the payment for our sins. Are you a sinner? Don’t be afraid! Just as Moses met with God in behalf of Israel, Jesus is the Mediator who goes to God on our behalf. John says, “We have one who speaks to the Father in our defense—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.” I Jn 2:1-2 NIV.
Do you remember our Epistle reading from a few minutes ago? The writer to the Hebrews tells us not to tremble at the smoking volcano of God’s wrath. In Christ, God shows us His Gospel side—the beautiful, inviting vista of Mount Zion—instead! “For you,” he says, “have not come to the mountain that may be touched and that burned with fire, and to blackness and darkness and tempest… But you have come to Mount Zion… to Jesus the Mediator of the new covenant.” Heb 12:18ff.
“Rejoice, rejoice, believers, and let your lights appear.”—If anybody has a right to sing that hymn, it’s you and me. After all, the Lord has promised to come and bless His believers in every place where His name is honored. Well, aren’t we present right now in a place where His name is being honored? Hasn’t God put faith in our hearts to believe in His Son? -That’s all it takes to secure God’s blessings for time and eternity! We don’t have worry about tomorrow, for Paul asks, “He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how shall He not with Him also freely give us all things?” Rom 8:32. We don’t have to be afraid of death, for our resurrected Lord Jesus says, “Because I live, You shall live also.” Best of all, we never have to be afraid of God, for Jesus has reconciled us—made us friends with—God, once and for all, through His blood. In Christ, God is our Heavenly Father; not a God of vengeance, but a God of mercy. And to this God, I think you’ll agree, the closer we get, the better! AMEN.
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.