You have not come to something that can be touched, a blazing fire, and darkness, and gloom, and a tempest,
…But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God.
The people of Israel lived with a very tangible faith. Early on, God had revealed himself to Moses in a burning bush. Later, he came to his people on Mount Sinai, and he taught them how best to approach him – through a very calculated system of animal sacrifice and purity. Everything could be measured, everything could be judged, and nothing was uncertain.
But there was fear.
The author of the letter to the Hebrews reminds the early Church how terrifying it was to be so close to God at Mount Sinai in our reading this morning. Here’s the original passage from the book of Exodus:
“On the morning of the third day there was thunder and lightning, as well as a thick cloud on the mountain, and a blast of a trumpet so loud that all the people who were in the camp trembled. Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God. They took their stand at the foot of the mountain. Now Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke, because the Lord had descended upon it in fire; the smoke went up like the smoke of a kiln, while the whole mountain shook violently. As the blast of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses would speak and God would answer him in thunder… When all the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking, they were afraid and trembled and stood at a distance, and said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, or we will die.”” (Ex.19:16-19; 20:18-19)
“Do not let God speak to us, or we will die” – that is what the Israelites pleaded, and that is deep fear. It’s an acute awareness of the awesomeness, the otherness of God. An awareness that humanity in its sinfulness can’t be anywhere near the glorious presence of God without being consumed, without being burned to a crisp.
And so they pleaded for an intercessor, someone to stand in the gap between them and God, to protect them from his majesty. So the sacrificial system was set up, with Moses, and then his brother Aaron and all the priests in the levitical line, going in to stand before God on behalf of the people.
All through the Bible the visions of the prophets echo this awareness of humanity’s frailty and sinfulness in front of an awesome God. The prophet Isaiah writes this: “In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple… And I said: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” (Is 6:1,5)
And then a little later the prophet Ezekiel, sitting with the exiles on the riverbank after the fall of Jerusalem, sees a vision of God in all his splendour: “Above the dome,” he says, “… there was something like a throne, in appearance like sapphire; and seated above the likeness of a throne was something that seemed like a human form. … I saw something that looked like fire, and there was a splendour all around. Like the bow in a cloud on a rainy day, such was the appearance of the splendour all around…. the likeness of the glory of the Lord. When I saw it, I fell on my face.” (Ezek 1)
God, revealed in all his glory, in all his majesty, is more than our limited senses can handle. And yet God in his infinite mercy and love chose to make a way for us to be in his presence without fear.
And so he sent his Son to be born as one of us, a vulnerable child, who became a vulnerable man, one who was taken and beaten and tortured to death. And in that moment of his death, the curtain of the temple that had symbolically separated God from the people, was torn in two, as Jesus, the perfect High Priest, sacrificed himself – the perfect offering – to forever make us holy before God. “When Christ came as a high priest,” the author of Hebrews writes, “… he entered once for all into the Holy Place, not with the blood of goats and calves, but with his own blood, thus obtaining [for us] eternal redemption.” (Heb 9:11-12)
All our sins, all our imperfections and failures, all atoned for in that one moment, giving us the right to stand before God without fear. Jesus became for us forever the way into God’s beautiful, majestic, holy presence.
And because of this, my friends… we can have a confidence that the people of Israel, standing at the foot of Mount Sinai, did not have. We can freely approach the mountain where God dwells, Mount Zion, where angels beyond number are rejoicing and celebrating in his presence, and where all the children of God are. God hasn’t changed. God is still as awesome, as majestic, as glorious and perfect as he was at Mount Sinai. But we have changed, because we are coming to him made perfect by the blood of Jesus, with no need to be ashamed or fearful.
Our acceptance of Jesus’ work for us and our love for him in return is all that is needed to come freely into God’s presence.
Earlier in the letter to the Hebrews we find this remarkable statement: “Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.” And here’s the most important part: we can “therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” (Heb 4:14-16)
This incredible, awe-inspiring, fear-inspiring God who created the universe and is more majestic than visions can even begin to describe – we have the right to approach his throne, anytime, with boldness. That, my friends, is amazing grace.
“Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us give thanks, by which we offer to God an acceptable worship with reverence and awe; for indeed our God is a consuming fire.”
It’s been such a profound and wonderful two years for me here at St Mary and St Martha. The lessons you have taught me and the love you have shown me will continue to feed me for my entire ministry. And I pray that if there’s one thing I’ve left with you, it’s the deep love that Jesus has for each of you, and his desire to make you more like himself. As you approach the throne of grace with confidence, you can know that God is delighting to transform you more and more into the image of his Son, as he burns away the parts of you that separate you from him.
I’ve been so privileged to see Jesus doing this work in you. And I challenge you to continue submitting yourselves to the fiery, beautiful, transformative grace of God, a grace that knows no bounds.
As I was thinking about the image of our God as a consuming fire this week, this verse from the prophet Isaiah came to mind.
“When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior…”
And because we are precious in his sight, and honoured, and he loves us, he has given us his Son as our Saviour , so that we can approach his throne anytime, night or day, with confidence. As God continues his work of refining fire in you, may you be ever mindful of his love for you, a love that knows no bounds or limits. He is with you, even to the ends of the earth.
Thanks be to God.