Note: I had the privilege of preaching in chapel the other day. In true Anglican fashion, I was given 7 minutes! The following is a transcription of my mini-sermon, and the audio can be found at the end.
Our passage today covers a pivotal moment in the relationship between God and his chosen people. God is enacting the Mosaic Covenant, which holds 5 promises that God makes with Israel. Three come from Exodus 19:5-6, one comes from Exodus 23:22, when the covenant is first ratified, and one from Exodus 34:6-7, when the covenant with Moses is renewed:
- Israel will be God’s prized possession.
- Israel will be a Kingdom of Royal Priests.
- Israel will be a Holy Nation.
- God will defend Israel from All her enemies.
- God will be merciful, gracious, and forgiving.
Then he said to Moses, “Come up to the Lord, you and Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel, and worship from afar. Moses alone shall come near to the Lord, but the others shall not come near, and the people shall not come up with him.” -Exodus 24:1-2
Our passage picks up the story in the build up to the moment when this covenant is enacted. God tells Moses to bring the leaders of Israel up on the mountain. In preparation, Moses writes down in a book all that God had told him up to this point concerning the covenant, and he begins the covenant-making process where he reads this book aloud for all to hear, and he sacrifices some oxen and takes their blood and throws it on the people. The implication is that a covenant has been made, and the consequences of breaking it are that blood will be shed and it will be on the heads of the people.
And Moses took half of the blood and put it in basins, and half of the blood he threw against the altar. Then he took the Book of the Covenant and read it in the hearing of the people. And they said, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient.” And Moses took the blood and threw it on the people and said, “Behold the blood of the covenant that the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words.” -Exodus 24: 6-8
Reading these words, we that know the story of Israel can’t help but to think forward to the golden calf and the broken promise, before the tablets can even be completed.
Then Moses and Aaron and the elders head up the mountain and meet with God, and God in his immense majesty and glory is at least partially revealed to them, and we get to verse 11, and this is where I want to ask a question.
Then Moses and Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel went up, and they saw the God of Israel. There was under his feet as it were a pavement of sapphire stone, like the very heaven for clearness. And he did not lay his hand on the chief men of the people of Israel; they beheld God, and ate and drank. -Exodus 24: 9-11
Here’s my question: How is it that a just God can remain in the presence of a duplicitous people while they eat and drink, and celebrate their good fortune? Put another way: how can he withhold his power and extend grace in this moment, when he knows that this very covenant will be broken within 40 days, before Moses can make his way back down the mountain?
This is the only question I will ask of this passage, because it is so important that we get this right.
Here is the answer: God choosing us is much different than us choosing God. We choose God for a moment; God chooses us for eternity. God extends grace in this moment just as he did when he made a covenant with Abraham, and with Isaac, and with Jacob, by looking forward to the covenant that is to come, the one sacrifice capable of providing true satisfaction, true reconciliation, true redemption. God withholds his power on Mt. Sinai so that it can be displayed on the mount of Transfiguration, and on Mount Calvary, when the Son of God will come down again to meet his people, to shed his blood, and to cover them with it–not to condemn, but to claim.
Friends, consider the implications of this truth in your life: God came down. He came down to extend grace to the people of Israel, and through his incarnate Son he came down to extend grace to you and me. You are his special possession. You are a kingdom of priests. You are a holy nation. It is your enemies that God opposes, and it is to you that he will be “a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.”