Exodus 20:18-19. 18 Now when all the people saw the thunder and the flashes of lightning and the sound of the trumpet and the mountain smoking, the people were afraid and trembled, and they stood far off 19 and said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, lest we die.” 20 Moses said to the people, “Do not fear, for God has come to test you, that the fear of him may be before you, that you may not sin.” 21 The people stood far off, while Moses drew near to the thick darkness where God was.
At Mount Sinai God invited his people to come to meet him. God had graciously rescued the Hebrews out from bondage in Egypt, brought them through the Red Sea, guided them across the wilderness, and settled them at the base of the mountain. God didn’t free his people so that they could be left to their own devices. He set them free so that they could be holy unto him.
But, of course, they aren’t holy. And neither are we. We don’t want to worship God; we want to worship ourselves. We don’t want to be free from our idols; we enjoy our addictions too much. We don’t want to give up control of our own lives. We all think we’re the one person who can cheat the death of the law.
So what does it look like when a holy God and an unholy people meet? Exodus describes it in terrifying terms. Thunder. Lightning. Blasting trumpets. Earthquakes. Fire and smoke. Thick darkness. It was so terrifying that the people actually beg Moses to keep God away – do not let God speak to us, lest we die.
Have you ever felt this way about God? “Get away from me God.” “Depart from me, Lord.” “Where’s the fig leaves?” “Which way to Tarshish?”
What makes us push God away like this? Is it guilt? Shame? Fear? Frustration? Self-righteousness?
Moses tries to encourage the people – Do not fear, for God has come to test you, that the fear of him may be before you, that you may not sin.
Wait what? “Don’t be afraid, but fear God, and then you won’t sin.” Is this supposed to be helpful, Moses?
Moses says that God is revealing his holiness in front of them as a test. But isn’t this a test we will all fail? Isn’t it really hard to fear (respect and worship) a God who looks like he wants to kill you, especially when you really do deserve to die?
But what about a God whose holiness must expose your sin, and whose love must also cover that sin with grace? What would that God say?
Exodus 20:24. An altar of earth you shall make for me and sacrifice on it your burnt offerings and your peace offerings, your sheep and your oxen. In every place where I cause my name to be remembered I will come to you and bless you.
That kind of God would say, “build an altar.” At God’s altar sin will be exposed, but it will also be covered. At God’s altar they can find life. At God’s altar they can draw near in fear and without being afraid at the same time. At God’s altar we are simultaneously fully exposed and fully covered.
Fifteen Hundred years later the altar of earth would be replaced with the altar of Christ’s cross. The cross of Christ is where God’s holiness and love collided with our sin and shame. The life of Christ is where the testing of God was passed by the sinless life of Jesus.
Now “to live is Christ” means no more fear and trembling in God’s presence. No more standing far off. No more “get away God.” No more fear of death. No more testing. No more thick darkness. Just the perfect collision of God’s holiness and love destroying all our guilt, and covering all our shame and leaving only Christ’s righteousness and goodness in its place in our hearts.
Has there ever been a time when you’ve asked God to stay away from you?
You in Christ
How does knowing that you are in Christ allow you to always draw near to God with confidence?
Christ in You
What is one specific way that you can invite God to come near you today?
Playlist: The Altar.
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