Two Tribes

St Barnabas, 16th August 2015

Reading – Exodus 19:1-19

How many people here watch the quiz show Two Tribes? It’s a show hosted by Richard Osman that goes out at 6pm on BBC2. There are seven contestants who before it goes on air have to answer “yes” or “no” to various questions, such as, “I’d like to be prime minister”, “I like cats”, “I enjoy talking to people on holiday”. In each round the contestants are divided into two teams depending on the answer they gave to one of those questions and gradually they are whittled down to two finalists.

I thought this morning I’d have a go at dividing the church here into two tribes. Don’t worry – I’m not going to ask anything embarrassing or personal. Simply say “Yes” or “No” to the following statements:

I was born in Plymouth.

I am a member of the Green Army.

I hate football.

two tribes

Today we are coming to an extremely important passage in the Bible which describes the creation of a tribe different from any other in world history. We are now at the point some three months after the Israelites have been delivered through the Red Sea from the pursuing Egyptian army. They have arrived at Mount Sinai, the mountain of God, where some time earlier God revealed Himself to Moses in the burning bush as Yahweh, the Great I am. And the Lord appears again, not just to Moses, but to the whole Israelite nation, to make promises to them and confirm that He is their God.

In some ways this is rather a strange and mysterious passage with the mountain of God trembling violently, smoke billowing from its summit and the sound of trumpets filling the air. I don’t imagine that many of us have had an experience of God quite like this, and maybe what’s described here doesn’t sit too well with our understanding of what God is like. Yet the whole point of the book of Exodus is that God is the great I am, the same yesterday, today and forever, who is still the same God for us as He was for the Israelites way back then.

So what can our reading teach us about the nature of the God we worship?

First of all, and most importantly, that He is a Holy God.

Now we don’t talk much about the holiness of God nowadays. We like to concentrate on the love of God, on the fact that we have a Heavenly Father who is full of mercy, grace and forgiveness – and with good reason. We are told in the first letter of John that God is love. The most famous verse in the Bible tells us that God so loved the world. And nothing should detract from the wonderful and astonishing truth that God is indeed full of love.

But if we forget the holiness of God, there is a real danger that we end up making our God too small. We have a God who is there to comfort and to bless, but perhaps doesn’t present too much of a challenge to us, a loving God who is there when we need Him but we can safely ignore at other times.

Yet when the angels sing their praise in the heavenly realms we are told both in Isaiah and in the Book of Revelation that they cry out: Holy, holy, holy is the Lord (God) Almighty. We all need reminding sometimes that God is in essence a holy God who is in many ways completely unlike us. For a start, He is a pure and sinless God untouched by any hint of evil or wrongdoing. He is constant God who does not change and, in contrast to the ancient gods of old, is not prone to swings of mood or bursts of irrational anger. He is a God who will not tolerate rivals and who will act against whatever or whoever pretends to take His place.

That is the nature of the God we worship. And what does it mean for us?

To being with, unlike God, we are anything but pure and sinless, anything but constant and true. That is why in our reading the Lord commands Moses in verse 12 to put limits for the people round the mountain and tells Him that whoever touches the mountain shall be put to death. It’s a graphic illustration of the simple truth that we cannot approach God by our own merits, that we cannot plead any good work or any right attitude that can earn us access into His presence.

Now I realise that what I am saying this morning is deeply unfashionable. That is partly because, over the centuries, the church has tended move from one pole to another in its teaching and worship. So, for example, when the old prayer book was written, there was very much a sense of God’s holiness and our general unworthiness. Whenever we came to the confession we pleaded: Have mercy upon us, miserable offenders. Whereas, in the modern liturgies, by contrast, there is much more of an appeal to God’s Fatherhood and His love.

Of course there are good reasons for such a change of emphasis, and in today’s world I don’t think we are going to attract many people by calling ourselves miserable offenders. Yet I do worry that sometimes we can be encouraged to have an almost casual approach to God’s forgiveness, that we forget just how much we are in need of His mercy and that without His grace we are indeed lost and excluded from His presence.

That is why there is so much emphasis in our reading on the Israelites purifying and preparing themselves for their encounter with the Lord. Listen again to the instructions the Lord gives in verses 10-11:

10 And the Lord said to Moses, “Go to the people and consecrate them today and tomorrow. Make them wash their clothes 11 and be ready by the third day, because on that day the Lord will come down on Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people.

Naturally the simple act of washing their clothes could not by itself make the Israelites ready for what was about to happen. But it was at least a sign that they accepted the need to do serious business with the Lord who had chosen and saved them. It was a small token that showed they were willing – as they had just promised in verse 8 – to do everything the Lord had said. And if the holiness of God means anything to us, it should lead us to examine our own hearts and to see what we need to put right in our lives so that we are ready to meet with Him.

Because the second thing that our passage teaches this morning is not only that we worship a holy God, but also that we worship an awesome God of infinite power and might.

Listen again to verses 17-19 of our Old Testament reading:

17 Then Moses led the people out of the camp to meet with God, and they stood at the foot of the mountain. 18 Mount Sinai was covered with smoke, because the Lord descended on it in fire. The smoke billowed up from it like smoke from a furnace, the whole mountain trembled violently, 19 and the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder. Then Moses spoke and the voice of God answered him.

Now we don’t know exactly what happened that day on Mount Sinai. Whenever God moves in power, human language can never adequately describe what we experience. But clearly the Israelites were faced with the unmistakeable truth that the Lord was the God of fire, of earthquake and of thunder. And if any of them up till this point still believed Yahweh was just another tame god, then here was the proof once and for all that He was not.

Of course the Israelites did not know the science behind so many of the natural events that they saw and heard around them. They lived in a world of fear where anything unexplained was the work of a god, and where they could predict so little of what was going to happen each day. Our times are different – yet just because we now understand the reason why many phenomena occur does not mean that we should lose anything of our awe and wonder at the power and majesty of God.

Take, for example, the basic science in a thunderstorm. Did you know that one single flash of lightning produces 5 billion joules of energy – the same as in 145 litres of petrol? The energy produced by the lightning heats the air in the cloud to an astonishing 18,000 degrees Fahrenheit. This causes a sound wave we call thunder which can be heard up to 25 miles away. Now some people when they see all the facts and figures claim that our discoveries explain away our need for God. For my part, I find there is even more reason to bow down and worship my Creator who is able to control such powerful forces in ways which my limited mind simply does not comprehend.

This is why I am so grateful for the third great truth that our passage teaches us, namely that we have a God who speaks.

Because for all that I said so far, nothing negates the truth that God still loves us. His greatest desire is to reach us and communicate to us in a way that we can understand. So He does not leave us guessing as to what He is like or play any kind of games with us. He speaks to us in language we can understand and uses words to which we are able to make a response.

So how does God speak to the Israelites in our reading? After all, the Lord is atop the mountain, in clouds of smoke, and in dark clouds. The Israelites are far below in the desert, forbidden from even setting a single foot on the slopes. There is a real distance between the Lord is and where the people are, and perhaps as in few other places in Scripture do we see so clearly illustrated the picture of the huge gulf that exists between God and us. We are weak, sinful and mortal. He is powerful, pure and eternal. How, then, is communication possible?

Well, in our passage today, we find Moses acting in the role of go between, who bears the responsibility to keep going up and down the mountain.

Verse 3: Then Moses went up to God, and the Lord called to him from the mountain.

Verse 7: So Moses went back and summoned the elders of the people and set before them all the words the Lord had commanded him to speak.

Verse 8: So Moses brought their answer back to the Lord.

Verse 14: After Moses had gone down the mountain to the people, he consecrated them.

Verse 20: The Lord descended to the top of Mount Sinai and called Moses to the top of the mountain. So Moses went up.

Verse 25: So Moses went down to the people and told them.

That’s three times, in my calculation, that Moses goes up and down the mountain in the space of a single chapter. Now there is no doubt that Moses was an exceptional person, full of faith and chosen by God. Yet for all that He was appointed as a mediator between the Israelites and the Lord, he was still an ordinary human being. His first recorded act in the Bible is that of manslaughter, killing an Egyptian who was ill-treating a fellow Hebrew. He certainly did not lead a perfect life, even if it was fairly remarkable, and ultimately it was his sin that prevented him from entering the Promised Land. That is why at Mount Sinai he could not get any higher than the top of the mountain. He was limited and mortal just like anyone else.

So if we want to know how this passage applies to us, the answer is that it shows the need for a greater mediator, one who comes from God and is able to permanently bridge the gap between the Lord and ourselves. That is the theme of the book of Hebrews which we will start looking at in a couple of weeks’ time, and the whole reason why it was written was to show that this greater mediator has indeed come and that His name is Jesus. Jesus is the one greater than Moses, the great high priest, the one who ever lives to make intercession for us, as the writer to the Hebrews makes clear. And, remarkably, thanks to Jesus we do not, as it were, have to remain at the foot of the mountain trembling with fear. The wonderful good news is that despite all our sin, our weakness, all our general unworthiness, we are also admitted into the presence of God through Jesus’ blood shed for us.

As we read in Hebrews 12:

18 You have not come to a mountain that can be touched and that is burning with fire; to darkness, gloom and storm; 19 to a trumpet blast or to such a voice speaking words that those who heard it begged that no further word be spoken to them … 22 But you have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly,23 to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the judge of all men, to the spirits of righteous men made perfect, 24 to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant.

And for the fact we live under this new covenant we should be constantly thankful and full of praise.

Yet we must not make the mistake of thinking that because Jesus has now come, somehow the character of God is any different. He is still holy and worthy of all worship and adoration. He is still awesome and able to far more than we can ever imagine. And He still speaks with words we are able to understand, if only we would listen.

So what is God’s word to us as we finish looking at our passage this morning? Let’s go back to the beginning of the reading, and listen again to verses 4-6:

4 ‘You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. 5 Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, 6 you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation’.

Because ultimately God’s tribe is not a particular people group or denomination or any other human structure. God’s tribe is made up of people who experience His saving power, who obey His commands and who reveal Him to the wider world. So let’s take what our passage teaches us about the Lord so that its message shapes our lives, and may others discover through us that He is a holy, awesome God who speaks us today through Jesus Christ. For His name’s sake. Amen.

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