In The Presence of the Holy One: A Sermon

Exodus 24:1-11 (NIV)

Then he said to Moses, “Come up to the Lord, you and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel. You are to worship at a distance, 2 but Moses alone is to approach the Lord; the others must not come near. And the people may not come up with him.”

3 When Moses went and told the people all the Lord’s words and laws, they responded with one voice, “Everything the Lord has said we will do.” 4 Moses then wrote down everything the Lord had said.

He got up early the next morning and built an altar at the foot of the mountain and set up twelve stone pillars representing the twelve tribes of Israel. 5 Then he sent young Israelite men, and they offered burnt offerings and sacrificed young bulls as fellowship offerings to the Lord. 6 Moses took half of the blood and put it in bowls, and the other half he sprinkled on the altar. 7 Then he took the Book of the Covenant and read it to the people. They responded, “We will do everything the Lord has said; we will obey.”

8 Moses then took the blood, sprinkled it on the people and said, “This is the blood of the covenant that the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words.”

9 Moses and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and the seventy elders of Israel went up 10 and saw the God of Israel. Under his feet was something like a pavement made of sapphire, clear as the sky itself. 11 But God did not raise his hand against these leaders of the Israelites; they saw God, and they ate and drank.

This text is notoriously difficult.  There are parts of this story, that, to be honest, seem primitive and weird.  It can be a bit off-putting for well-dressed modern readers.  Folks who like shampoo and manicures can have a hard time with this passage.  Moses builds an altar, which represents the Lord, and he builds twelve stone pillars, which represent the twelve tribes: Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Zebulun, Benjamin, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Asher, Ephraim and Manasseh.  Maybe there is a symbol on each pillar so you can tell which one is your tribe.  It is early in the morning when Moses does this, and the people gather round.  Strong young men select flawless young bulls from the herds of Israel, and lead them to the altar where they are sacrificed.  Burnt offerings and peace offerings are made, a graphic symbol of the peace that exists between God and the tribes.  Blood from the sacrificed bulls runs thick.  Half of it Moses puts into bowls.  The other half he sprinkles on the altar.  Then he reads the Book of the Covenant to them.  These are the laws that God has given, the commandments that will establish the values of their nations, the statutes that will guard their hearts.  In a rare moment of deep and pure faith, the people respond.  “We will do everything the Lord has said; we will obey.”

Moses lifts up the bowl, and he dips his fingers in the warm blood.  With vigorous motions he sprinkles the blood upon the crowd.  Blood dots the people of Simeon.  There is bright red on the arms and faces of the tribe of Levi.  Crimson stripes run down the cheeks of Judah.  Eyes are closed and hands lifted up, in Issachar, Zebulun, Bejamin, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Asher, Ephraim and Manasseh.  All are sprinkled with the blood.  Moses calls out, “This…is the blood…of the covenant…the Lord…has made…with you…in accordance…with all…these words.”

It is done.  The Lord has a people.  The Israelites have a God.

This text is notoriously difficult.  It intrigues scholars and vexes preachers.  Fundamentalists will bend over backward to fit it into their tidy syllogisms, but the text doesn’t budge.  Liberals will ignore it or dismiss it as an old and obsolete story that made it’s way into the Bible because no one felt quite right about snipping it out.  Unlike some other difficult passages, the problem isn’t that we can’t be certain what it is saying.  No, what is says is clear enough.  The problem is that what it clearly says runs counter to what we thought we knew about God from other passages, especially the line that tells us “No one can see God and live.”  God may have inspired that verse, but he won’t be bound by it.  With a kingly divine freedom that is continually frustrating to the folks who would like to know exactly what they can and can’t expect from God, He does what we thought he would never, ever, do.  He hosts a mountaintop picnic for the leaders of Israel.  Moses and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and seventy elders ascend the mountainside, and when they arrive at the summit, they do the impossible–they see God.

This text is notoriously difficult.  It feels ancient.  It is dream-like, mysterious.  And it refuses to answer our questions.  “Moses, Aaron, elders—when you made that final climb, when your muscles were aching with the exertion of the hike, when your lungs were panting in the thin mountain air, when you finally set foot on the rocky peak, when you turned and saw God—what did he look like?”  No one says.  He has a body of some sort, with hands and feet.  His hands are huge, formidable, the kind of hands you would expect God to have.

Back when Moses explained the Passover ritual to his people, he said:

“In days to come, when your son asks you, ‘What does this mean?’ say to him, ‘With a mighty hand the Lord brought us out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. 15 When Pharaoh stubbornly refused to let us go, the Lord killed every firstborn in Egypt, both man and animal. This is why I sacrifice to the Lord the first male offspring of every womb and redeem each of my firstborn sons.’ 16 And it will be like a sign on your hand and a symbol on your forehead that the Lord brought us out of Egypt with his mighty hand.” (Ex 13:14-16).

The elders have witnessed the fearsome work of those hands.  And now they see them with their own eyes.  Heart-rates go up.  Knees weaken.  Some of the men brace themselves for what must surely come.  But the hands of the Lord remain at his side.  “God did not raise a hand against the leaders of his people,” we read.

When they glance down they see God’s feet.  Under his feet is a kind of sapphire pavement, blue like the sky and as clear and pure and heaven itself.  They’ve never seen anything like it.

Having seen God and survived, seventy-four men sit down on that sapphire pavement, and they eat and drink.  Does God dine with them?  Did He provide the food?  What exactly did they have to eat and drink?  Does anyone speak?  Does God?  Does anyone dare ask him a question?  Or, after the travails of slavery, the struggles of the journey, the stresses of leadership, is this a bit of that Sabbath rest God told them about—a chance to truly, protected and provided for by God.  Is this a time for slow, deep breaths?  A time to rest in quiet security in the presence of God and just be?

This text is notoriously difficult.  One could, I suppose, go to a lot of trouble to try to explain it; clear it up; make it palatable.  But that would be an injustice.  The prophets and scribes knew good and well that this text was a challenge, but they handed it down anyway.  They gave it a central place in the Exodus narrative.  The may very well have intended it to be the climax of this story.  And they didn’t feel the need to add explanatory footnotes or parenthetical comments.  They bequeathed it to us as an act of wild and mysterious grace.  “Remember this!” they say.  “The God who carried us out of slavery on eagle’s wings and brought us to himself gave our leaders the blessing of his tangible, visible presence.  We pledged ourselves to him in fire and blood, and he pledged himself to us at a sapphire-tinted banquet.”

There is no other passage like this in the Bible.  It is the most extraordinary story of divine presence in all of scripture.  And when we read on, we quickly see that God intends this to be the beginning of an ongoing relationship with his people.  He gives Moses the plans for a tabernacle.  The twelve tribes are to build a portable dwelling for God, a place where they can go and meet with him.  He has chosen to live among them.

Centuries later, God will be dine again with his people, this time in the form of Jesus.  And it won’t just be the leaders of Israel.  In fact, they won’t even top the list.  No, it will be folks like Simon the Leper, Zaccheus the Tax Collector, dying Lazarus and his sisters.  It’s a bit of a scandal that God is willing to eat with such a diverse crowd.  “He dines with sinners!” the people said, sometimes in a wondrous tones, often in harsh accusation.

John writes this:

The Word became flesh and blood,

and moved into the neighborhood.

We saw the glory with our own eyes,

the one-of-a-kind glory,

like Father, like Son,

Generous inside and out,

true from start to finish.

(John 1:14, The Message)

Matthew quotes Jesus:

“Surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

Always with us.  Always with us.  Always with us.

Some days it feels like that.  Sing a few hymns, say a prayer, read a passage, and you can get an urge to slip off your shoes and set the tip of your toe gently down.  It’s a silly thing to do, but you know that God won’t be confined to the little box of our expectations.  And there’s always a chance that one day you’ll reach out that toe expecting to meet carpet, and find out the whole floor has turned to sapphire, as pure and clear as heaven; as pure and clear as we want our hearts to be.

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