Presented on The Lutheran Hour on May 17, 2020
By Rev. Dr. Michael Zeigler, Lutheran Hour Speaker
Copyright 2020 Lutheran Hour Ministries
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Text: Exodus 19
She grabbed him by the face. She literally grabbed him by the face. My old professor, Glen, he tells this story about his granddaughter, Lana, when she was four years old. She was sitting next to him and saying his name, "Papa, Papa." But she could tell that he was only half listening. You know what that's like. You're talking to someone, but they're only half paying attention to you. They're distracted. Something else has their attention; something else has them. And every once in a while, they might look up and give you a moment of eye contact, and nod and say, "Nuh, huh, nuh, huh," but you know that they're not really paying attention to you.
And so often, we tolerate this. We accept it. We realize that we only have a fraction of people's attention. And we're okay with it until we have something important to say. And Lana had something important to say to her grandpa, so she reaches up her little hands and puts them on his squishy grandpa cheeks, pulls his face into a pucker like this, turns his face to her and looks him square in the eye, and now she's got his attention. And he says to her, "Yes, Lana." And she says, "Papa, I have something important to tell you."
Not all words are equal, but all words matter because people matter. And Lana matters. Her words matter. That's why she had to get her papa's attention. That's why she had to get his eyes. See, Lana was small of stature, unassuming. She's got a gentle heart, a gentle spirit. And she could easily be ignored by someone who is big and important. So she did something out of the ordinary. She grabbed hold of her grandpa's face. She elbowed her little arms into his world to capture his attention. We've been listening to the story of Exodus, the second book in the Bible. It is the story of the God of Abraham, the story of the God who elbowed His almighty arms into our space, who rescued His people out of slavery so that He could dwell with them, so that they could be with Him and serve Him in His kingdom.
For 12 weeks we've been listening to this story, and now we have arrived at the place where the whole story has been leading, to chapter 19, to Mt. Sinai, the mountain where Moses originally had his burning bush moment with God, to the place where the people are going to have their moment with God, their burning mountain moment. And this God that speaks out of Mt. Sinai, He is not completely different than Lana trying to get her papa's attention because what He has to say is important. And He wants your attention, and He will go to extraordinary measures to get it. And like Lana, He can be quiet and unassuming. As Jesus revealed the character of God in Matthew 11:29. "I am gentle and humble in heart," He said.
See, this God, who has revealed Himself to be a mighty warrior in the book of Exodus, this God, who has shown Himself to be a consuming fire, in Exodus 19, He also compares Himself to a mother or a father eagle, who gently carries their fledglings in their pinions, and brings them to the nest and covers them. And when these people would press and test this God, when they would break His heart over the broken covenant, that's when He's going to show who He is at His heart. He says, "I am gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness." And when a person is that loving and that gentle and that compassionate, sometimes they are easily ignored in a busy and distracted world by people who think they are big and important.
And so God does something extraordinary to get His people's attention. Listen to it in Exodus 19.
Now in the third month, after the exodus of the people of Israel out of Egypt, on the very day, they came to the wilderness of Sinai. And after they had set out from Rephidim, they went into the wilderness. And Israel camped there in the desert in front of the mountain, the mountain. And Moses went up to God, and God called to Moses from the mountain, saying, "This is what you are to say to the House of Jacob. This is what you are to tell the children of Israel. 'You yourself saw what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagle's wings and brought you to Myself. Now if you truly listen to My voice, you will keep My covenant promise, and you will be for Me, out of all the nations of the earth a treasured possession, because all the earth is Mine. And you will be for Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.' This is what you are to say to the children of Israel."
So Moses went back and summoned all the elders of the people. And he set before them all the words that the Lord had commanded him to say. And the people responded all together saying, "All that the Lord has said, we will do." And Moses brought their answer back to the Lord. And the Lord said to Moses, "Look. I, Myself, will come down to you in a thick cloud, so that the people will hear Me speaking to you, and they will always put their trust in you." Then Moses told the Lord what the people had said.
And the Lord said to Moses, "Go to the people and set them apart as holy today and tomorrow. Have them wash their clothes and be ready on the third day. Because on the third day, the Lord will come down on Mt. Sinai in the sight of all the people. Now set boundaries for the people around the mountain and tell them, be careful. Be careful. Be careful so that none of you goes up the mountain, and none of you touches the mountain because whoever touches the mountain will certainly be put to death. Not a hand is to touch him. He will be stoned, or shot through with arrows, whether man or beast, he will not be permitted to live. Only when the ram's horn sounds a long blast, then have the people come up the mountain."
So Moses, after he had gone back down to the people, set them apart as holy. And they washed their clothing. And Moses said to them, "Prepare yourselves for the third day. Abstain from sexual relations." And it happened on the morning of the third day. There was rumbling thunder and flashing lightning, and a thick cloud covered the mountain. And a very loud blast of the shofar horn. And all the people in the camp trembled. And Moses led the people out of the camp to meet God. And they took their stand at the base of the mountain, and Mt. Sinai was covered in smoke because of the presence that the Lord had descended upon it, and fire and smoke billowed up from it like smoke from a kiln, from a furnace. And the whole mountain trembled, and the sound, the sound of the shofar grew louder and louder.
And Moses spoke. And God answered amid the sound. The Lord descended on top of Mt. Sinai, and He called Moses up to the top of the mountain, and He said to him, "Go back down and bear witness to the people, so that they do not try to force their way through to the Lord, to see, and many of them fall dead. Even the priests who appear before the Lord, they are to set themselves apart as holy, otherwise the Lord will break out against them." And Moses said to the Lord, "The people are not able to come up because You Yourself bore witness to us, saying, 'Set boundaries around the mountain and set it apart as holy.'" And the Lord said to Moses, "Walk back down. And come up and bring Aaron with you. But the priests and the people, they must set themselves apart as holy. And they must not try to break through and come up the mountain, so that the Lord does not break out against them." So Moses went back and said this to the people. Then the Lord spoke all these words. "I am who I am, the Lord, your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You will have no other gods before Me." This is the Word of the Lord. And the Lord's words matter.
Now when I listen to that passage from Exodus 19 and the very beginning of 20, there's one question that sticks with me that I cannot shake: Why? Why the death penalty? Really, it's for touching the mountain before the shofar sounds? And as I puzzle over this question, I remember that gentle and unassuming does not necessarily mean safe and harmless. For example, on the morning of December 2, 1942, a quiet and unassuming experiment was conducted on the campus of the University of Chicago. And it was conducted in a place that would be easily forgotten, easily disregarded, in the unheated squash courts in the basement, underneath the football stands. And to an uninformed visitor, this experiment would've looked like a crude pile of black bricks with some wooden timbers.
But this unassuming scene was the world's first nuclear-powered reactor. Scientists from the top-secret Manhattan Project, in a race to build the world's first atomic bomb, successfully initiated a controlled nuclear reaction. Within those graphite blocks, packed with lumps of uranium, in a quiet and unassuming basement on the campus of the University of Chicago, the atomic age was born. And the world will never be the same. They demonstrated the power, the Creator's power hidden in every atom, power that if not properly appreciated, could break out and millions could fall dead. The power of a nuclear weapon, the power of a nuclear reactor, is tiny, insignificant, compared to the power of the sun.
Our sun, it releases the power of a trillion nuclear reactors every second. And our sun is among the smaller stars that comprise the billions in the universe. And God created and sustains them all by the power of His Word. And it was that God who came down to Mt. Sinai. It wasn't the voice of somebody's granddaughter speaking. It was the consuming fire, Creator, the voice who spoke in Jesus and said, "Come to Me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me because I am gentle and humble in heart. And you will find rest for your souls because My yoke is easy and My burden is light."
As for the death penalty, it's the same thing He put in effect at the Garden of Eden for all of us. He gave Adam and Eve one simple word, "Don't. Don't eat from that tree. You may eat of all the other trees of the garden, but don't eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil because in the day that you eat of it, you will certainly die." Now at Mt. Sinai apparently no one died that day. Everybody listened and obeyed on that day. And even when Adam and Eve disregarded God's Word and threw His yoke off of them, God didn't break out the nuclear option. He didn't vaporize them. What did God do? He covered them in the shadow of His wings. He protected them from that serpent who deceived them. He sheltered them. He cared for them. He clothed them.
Adam and Eve didn't die that day, at least not physically. But there is something much, much worse than physical death. It's the relational death that comes from acting like God's Word doesn't matter. Imagine an existence without God's Word. Imagine being separated from the Source of goodness and life. That's the definition of hell. That is a fate worse than death. This is the hell from which God wants to save us, all of us. And God saved us. God saves us by sending His Word, Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, to speak to us.
When God threatened the death penalty to Israel at Mt. Sinai, He did it to save them from hell. When Jesus threatens you with eternal death for disregarding His Word, He does it to call you away from that, to come back to Him, to trust in Him, to take His yoke upon you, and you will find rest for your soul. See, this is how much you matter to Jesus, that He was willing to be quiet and unassuming to save you. Even though He is the voice who called the universe into existence and upholds all things by the Word of His power, He came as a human being so that He could talk to you. Even though He is the King of kings and the Heir of all creation, He came to serve you.
Though He holds the keys of death and hell in His hand, He gave Himself to save you because you matter to Him. Jesus will stop at nothing to get your attention, to get you, to grab hold of you. And maybe the difference between what God did and what Lana did can be overstated. Maybe God getting our attention and Lana getting her grandpa's attention isn't as different as we thought. See, Jesus was willing to become small and unassuming. He was willing to be dismissed, scorned, and left dead on a cross. So great is His love for you that He rose again from the dead to raise you up on wings of eagles, to shelter you and cover you in His wings because you matter to Him.
And Lana matters; her words matter. That's why her papa told her story, because even if she is small and unassuming, she matters. She matters to Jesus, as do you and every person you meet.
So if you're willing, I invite you to pray with me. Lord Jesus, You saved me because I matter to You. Help me to attend to Your words and to the words of every person who speaks to me. Help me to give them my full attention because they matter to You. Amen.
Note: The Lutheran Hour is produced for the ear and designed to be heard. If you are able, we encourage you to listen to the audio at lutheranhour.org. It includes emotion and emphasis not reflected in the transcript.
Reflections for May 17, 2020
Title: Words Matter
Mark Eischer: You're listening to The Lutheran Hour. For archived audio, free online resources, our mobile app, and much more, go to lutheranhour.org. The book of Exodus not only tells how God rescued His people from slavery, it also set the standard for how He wished to dwell with them. For more on that, here's our Speaker, Dr. Michael Zeigler.
Mike Zeigler: Thank you, Mark. I have joining me again in the studio. Dr. Tom Egger from Concordia Seminary. Thanks for coming back.
Tom Egger: Great to be here, Michael.
Mike Zeigler: So your expertise, you've studied a lot in the book of Exodus. What would be the core message of Exodus?
Tom Egger: The book of Exodus is a picture of God's deliverance of His people. It's a book of salvation that God looks upon the dire need of His people. He sees it, He springs into action, and He shows Himself capable and willing to save His people. And to save this particular people, the descendants of Abraham, specifically the sons of Jacob, the descendants of Jacob—and Jacob's other name is Israel—so the sons of Israel, the Israelites, he's taking their side and rescuing them so that they can belong to Him and be His people because it's through this people that He's going to bring blessing and salvation to all the families of the earth, ultimately, through Jesus.
But He doesn't simply rescue them from this tyrant and from this bondage. He then brings them to Himself. And it's also a book of the deep desire of God to bring His people near to Himself and for Him to come near to them, for God to dwell with man again, and for man to dwell with God. So in some ways you might say that the book of Exodus is the beginning of the reversal of the expulsion from Eden, after the fall into sin. As man was kicked out of the garden because of sin, we could no longer dwell in the presence of God. In the book of Exodus He's delivering the people in this mighty way, but also now providing a way in which they can dwell near to Him as His holy people.
Mike Zeigler: And that's good because the second half is that dwelling in the presence of God and the joy in the service of God, and we spend a lot of time talking about the first half, but sometimes the second half gets left off. So say some more. Why is the second half so critical?
Tom Egger: It's an interesting thing, and you get to Sinai even in the middle of the book and this great dramatic encounter between God and His people and you hear the Ten Commandments that familiar text in chapter 20. And then you start getting into laws and those start to get a little repetitive.
Mike Zeigler: This is when the movie just fades off into the sunset.
Tom Egger: Yeah, kind of bogs down, and then in chapter 25 through 40 you have all the tabernacle and priesthood instructions and this in many well-intentioned Bible reading plan has faltered on the tabernacle details.
Mike Zeigler: But that might also be communicating something.
Tom Egger: It makes clear that dwelling near God is not a simple thing. It's not to be taken for granted. There is much to be concerned with about a sinful people dwelling in the presence of the holy God. And so God with painstaking details says it must be like this, and it must be like this, and it must be like this. And there's things to be learned from each of those stages or details about the tabernacle. But I think the general thing to be remembered is, first of all, it is a fearful and a difficult thing for sinners to dwell in the presence of a holy God. But the other thing to be learned is God wills it.
Mike Zeigler: Right?
Tom Egger: He wants it.
Mike Zeigler: It's worth the effort to Him.
Tom Egger: And He is the One who's giving these instructions. He's providing the way and the way is ultimately sacrifice of atonement and priestly mediation. And all of that is looking ahead to the wonderful way that He has brought us near to Himself through His great High Priest, Jesus Christ, and His once-and-for-all sacrifice for sinners.
Mike Zeigler: Right. And it just sets up the mission of Jesus with such depth and complexity that we say He died for us. But unless you have this account, you can't grasp the fullness of that.
Tom Egger: Yeah. We should wonder and marvel that God draws us near to Himself and that He's opened the way to Himself for sinners in Jesus Christ. We should not take it for granted or even think that we're doing God some big favor by coming to church or something like that. Though of course He's delighted to have us come into His presence. It's an awesome thing for sinners to come back into the presence of the holy Creator.
Mike Zeigler: As you said before that He's putting Eden back; He's putting it right, but this is by no means a simple thing.
Tom Egger: Yeah.
Music Selections for this program:
"A Mighty Fortress" arranged by Chris Bergmann. Used by permission.
"Dear Christians, One and All, Rejoice" From The Concordia Organist (© 2009 Concordia Publishing House)