By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
February 19, 2023
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Exodus 24:12–18 (ESV)
12 The Lord said to Moses, “Come up to me on the mountain and wait there, that I may give you the tablets of stone, with the law and the commandment, which I have written for their instruction.” 13 So Moses rose with his assistant Joshua, and Moses went up into the mountain of God. 14 And he said to the elders, “Wait here for us until we return to you. And behold, Aaron and Hur are with you. Whoever has a dispute, let him go to them.” 15 Then Moses went up on the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain. 16 The glory of the Lord dwelt on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it six days. And on the seventh day he called to Moses out of the midst of the cloud. 17 Now the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel. 18 Moses entered the cloud and went up on the mountain. And Moses was on the mountain forty days and forty nights.
This week as I was considering this passage my mind wandered as it often does. For those of you that are unfamiliar with the book of Exodus, it is the story of the trials of Israel under the yoke of slavery in Egypt, Israel’s deliverance, and finally the establishment of Israel as a nation. But if we are to turn our attention only to this passage we need to understand the context.
When God confused the languages in Babel, we are told that he divided these various language groups into nations, and put these nations under the sons of God, of hosts of heaven. This might confuse some, if not all of you. It almost sounds as if I am saying that there are multiple gods. That is not what I mean, in Hebrew the term Elohim can mean many things, but basically it is spiritual beings. This could be the spirit of humans that have passed beyond the veil separating life and death, it can mean the beings we commonly refer to as angels. It can also mean God the most high. What Moses means when he says, in Deuteronomy, the sons of God, is angelic beings. These beings are not equal to God, and they are not equal to humanity. If we want to believe what is written in Deuteronomy, this would mean that each nation, each language group, had an angel set over them, but each of these angels could either encourage the people to walk toward God, or away. But out of all the nations, God chose Israel to be his allotment.
Israel, was not a nation when this announcement was made in Genesis. Israel was not even a tribe. It is important to remember this. When God judged the world at Babel there was no Israel, God relegated the entire earth to these lesser beings, and what did he keep for himself? The answer is nothing. God let our rebellious ancestors live just as we wanted. We chased after these spiritual beings, we wrote myths and formed religious cultic practices honoring them. And God allowed it to happen. And only after he gave the nations to the forces of chaos did God begin to work on his own allotment. In the land of Ur he called one man Abraham.
I want us to get a grasp on what God did prior to this point, because only then will we begin to truly appreciate the revelation he provides us in scripture. Egypt was a nation, Babylon in some form was a nation, Ur was a nation, all of these are nations that were in the areas occupied in scripture, but at that moment Israel did not exist. One man, Abraham of Ur, was called. This man was already an adult, he was married he belonged to a family that lived in one of the nations that God had allotted to another spiritual being, but out of that chaos He called out to Abraham, and this man in faith followed.
Abraham was told that he would be the father of many nations, that his offspring would be like the stars in the heavens. And yet Abraham had no offspring because his wife was barren. God chose a man with a barren wife to become the nation through which he would reverse the sin and rebellion of the world.
When Abraham was well along in years his wife finally gave birth to a child named Isaac. One child, when he was over one hundred years old. And Isaac then carried on this hope that God would make him the father of many nations. But much like his father, Isaac was not blessed with an abundant house. They had wealth, their livestock holdings, and their servants would make most people in those ancient times green with envy, but they did not have a large family. Isaac had two sons, Esau and Jacob. Jacob, the younger of the brothers, out of deceitfulness gained his father’s blessing, but this deceitfulness caused Jacob to live in fear most of his life. Jacob was blessed with a large family. Abraham had one son, Isaac had two, Jacob had twelve children. Finally the seed of nationhood is beginning to take root, yet Jacob lived in fear instead of hope. He stole the blessing from his brother and he shrewdly gained his wealth by trickery. If we were to just look at the life of Jacob without knowing anything else, we would find Jacob as being a man with questionable morals.
When Jacob returned to the land of his father, the land where his brother Esau resided, Jacob was afraid. He knew that he had lived a dishonest life, he knew that his brother had every right to be upset with him, and could extract revenge according to the laws of the kingdoms of man. Jacob knew all of this, and he still returned. He returned because he knew that he was running from the life he was called to and he needed to repent. And one night a man came to him, and Jacob wrestled with this man throughout the night. He struggled and fought, we are not fully told why, but at the end of the story we are told that Jacob eventually realized that he was not just struggling with a man, but something greater. Jacob wrestled until the man blessed him. And this is where Jacob became Israel, one who wrestles with God.
We now have the name Israel, but we are far from a nation. Abraham was promised a land; that promise was extended to his son, and to his grandsons. Jacob returned to this land so that he could reunite with that promise, but they were still far from being a nation. At this point Israel was a dysfunctional blended family of twelve sons from four different women.
Famine struck the land, and the tribes of Israel left the land promised to them for Egypt. They went because this dysfunctional family sold one of their siblings into slavery and after some time this former slave rose within society to become the second most important man in Egypt. Joseph invited Israel to live in Egypt and they were fruitful in that land. They were fruitful yet they were living outside the promise given to Abraham.
They were enslaved because they trusted in themselves and the kingdoms of men instead of their God. They looked after themselves. They became fruitful in this land, but it was not where they were supposed to be. God allowed this, but this was not his ultimate plan. Even Joseph the son sold into slavery recognized that they were living outside the promise and begged them to take his bones to be buried in the land that God had promised.
When we live outside God’s promise, when we live according to the kingdoms of men instead of God, we put ourselves at risk. The kingdoms of men are not always faithful. Egypt loved Joseph, he had brought them through a famine, and yet eventually the acceptance turned. Eventually Egypt saw Israel not as a blessing but as the source of all their problems. So, they made them their slaves. We can learn much from this story, but that is not the point today.
God heard the cries of his people while they toiled in bondage. They began to recognize that they were not where they should be, and they began to turn back to the God of their fathers. And out of Egypt, God called Moses and Aaron. He through great feats of awesome power, brough the might of Egypt to their knees and Israel was free. They marched out of Egypt into the wilderness. They wandered through the wilderness, being guided by the presence of God in a cloud and pillar of fire. And they made camp at the base of a mountain.
I think about mountains quite often. I love mountains. When I travel to Colorado, I like to imagine what the people that crossed the great plains heading west might have thought as their covered wagons neared the Rocky Mountains. The mountains take your breath away, but imagine if you had to try to walk, and push and pull a wagon up through them? Imagine trying to encourage an ox or horse to drag all your earthly belongings up over these massive rocks that reached into the heavens. This is the image I want you to have when you think of the scene. Israel, this massive group of people descended from Jacob, were walking through the wilderness and they came to a mountain range. Right in front of them was something that seemed impassable.
It was here, as Israel stopped and made camp that the presence of God revealed himself. They had the pillar of fire and the cloud, but they did not know exactly what those things were. When they came to this mountain, the cloud grew and surrounded the peak, and out of that cloud, God began to speak not only to Moses but to all the people.
As the people stood in shock, listening to the voice of God, Moses began to record what was said. And this became known as the Book of the Covenant. Once God had finished his monologue, they began to do something else. They built an altar, they made sacrifices and they put the blood of the sacrifices into two bowls. The blood from one bowl was ceremonially splattered on the altar, and the blood of the other was sprinkled on the people. This is the only time the blood of a sacrifice is split between God and the people. This ceremony is important. The book of the covenant was God’s call to the people, asking them to become his nation. The sacrifice and the sprinkling of blood was the ceremonial rite that bound the two parties together into the covenant. Then Israel shared a meal with their God at the base of this mighty mountain.
It is at that moment Israel became a nation. While they ate the meal, Moses read from the book of the Covenant. He reminded them of what they were bound to. And once this meal was complete, God called Moses to come up to meet with him.
This morning we are at the base of the mountain as we reflect of this morning’s scripture. I mentioned that there were nations prior to Israel; Egypt, Babylon, Ur, there were Amorites, Hittites, and other nations. Each of these nations, each of these people groups interacted with each other. They shared stories and had religious systems that overlapped with each other. They had different names for their deities, but there was something interesting about these religions, they were very similar. Each had a greater god and lessor gods. Each taught of their gods living in the mountains. High in the heavens where humanity could not quite reach. All these cultures had influence on the people that became Israel. Israel knew there God, but they did not fully know how to relate to God, nor how their God fit into the world system all around them. Because in this ancient world the most powerful god was the god whose people had the most power. This concept continued long into Israel’s history and we continue to see it in the writings of the prophets. But at the base of this mountain, God revealed himself to his people. At this mountain God became the God of a nation. And then he calls the leaders of this nation to come up and meet with him.
Moses takes Joshua, Aaron, and the elders up into this mountain, and they leave the people down below. He calls to Moses, “Come up to me on the mountain and wait there, that I may give you the tablets of stone.” Israel had just participated in a covenant ceremony. In those ancient days when a covenant was made, both parties would receive something to commemorate what was agreed upon. They would carve in stone or make markings in a clay tablet. Archeologist are finding these sorts of things throughout the Ancient Middle East. This covenant was agreed upon not just by Moses, but all the people, and now God is calling Moses up to retrieve the documentation.
The Elders, along with Moses, went up onto the mountain, and they waited. The Glory of God dwelt on this mountain, Mount Sinai, as a cloud covered it for six straight days. This would have been an awesome and fearsome sight. When scripture speaks of the Glory of God, it often speaks of light, and sometimes earthquakes. For six days the elders are up on the mountain. Lights flashing, the earth trembling, and a cloud surrounding them. Then on the seventh day, God calls out from the cloud for Moses to come further up. Our passage says that the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel.
I want you to picture this in your mind. A thunderous voice is calling down to you from the clouds, and a mountain is glowing. For me I would want to run away because when I picture this the only thing that comes to mind is a volcano, and I grew up watching movies about volcanoes and I do not want to be anywhere around one. And all the people heard God call their leader, Moses, to go on up into the very flames. Moses entered that flaming cloud and was on the mountain forty days and forty nights.
This week is Transfiguration Sunday. It is the day where we celebrate the revelation of Jesus’ true nature. Jesus took his disciples to a mountain. He left some of the disciples down at the base, he took a few up onto the mountain, and then he moves further up again to pray. Jesus on this day is reflecting the very scene that we see here in Exodus. And as He prays, the glory of God shown around him, and his garments became like a radiant light, and with him. the disciples reported, was Moses and Elijah.
We have just listened to the story of Moses on the mountain. We have yet to hear about Elijah. Moses brought Israel to the mountain, and they became a nation. Once they entered into the land promised to them, they were to become God’s people and God, would be their God. But shortly after this Israel began to fall away. They fell because they had all these other nations influencing them. Nations that had a long history and wealth to prove it. They began to turn away from their God and chased after the gods of the nations. Elijah is the father of the prophets. He served during a time when the Baal was being worshiped in Israel. This is important to consider, because Baal worship is ancient, but Baal was not the most high god of that nation. The worshipers of this deity worshiped Baal as the intermediary between humanity and the higher god El. Many in Israel may have thought that they were staying true to God even while participating in these religious rites, justifying their worship as being to El not Baal.
Elijah was sent to tell them otherwise. On Mount Carmel Elijah challenged the priests of Baal to a godly duel. The priest of Baal were to cry out to the gods to light the fire of sacrifice. They chanted, danced, cut, and worked themselves into a religious frenzy but the altar remained cold. Elijah then took his turn and said a simple prayer. In response, God sent fire from heaven and burned the sacrifice, and the stones of the altar to the ground. Elijah then killed the priest of Baal and ran for his life. He stayed upon a mountain, hiding from the king and his evil queen. Elijah just witnessed this miraculous event, and he went to the mountain and hid in despair. He cried out to God, I am all that remains faithful. Only Me. And God visited Elijah where he was. A wind and a fire raged outside the place Elijah hid. And then a stillness. It was in the stillness that Elijah covered his head and went out to speak to God.
Moses entered the cloud, and Elijah exited the cave. And on these mountains, they spoke with God. Separated one from the other by hundreds of years, yet in that moment and in that place the Law and the Prophets met with Jesus on the mount of Transfiguration.
Nothing going on today in the kingdoms of men is new to God. We might think that the world is crumbling all around us and we like Elijah are crying out to God that we are all that is left and the rest of the world is corrupt and without hope. We like Moses might be looking at the people around us wondering how on earth are we supposed to influence and lead these people that claim to follow God yet seem to turn away at the slightest discomfort. We struggle. We despair. We worry. We sometimes run. And like Moses and Elijah, God is calling us to come up to Him on the mountain and wait there. Come and wait, he says, that I may give you the tablets of stone, with the law and the commandments, which I have written for their instruction. God wants us to stop looking at the world around us for our direction and instruction. He instead desires that we wait in prayer so that he can carve or write the law on and in our hearts.
Let us now repent and turn from the kingdoms of men, and return to God. Let us come up to him and wait. Let us lay down our fears, our struggles, our despairs, and our worries. And let us let God in his stillness write our future in our hearts. Let him create in us the people and nation he desires at this time and in this place. Let us wait, so he can make us into a people Loving God, embracing the Holy Spirit, and living the love of Christ with others.
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