You can’t domesticate some things. Least of all, God.
A leopard lies in the grass, waving its tail like a cute, overgrown house cat. An alligator basks under an afternoon sun, seemingly indifferent and inattentive. A grizzly bear ambles through the woods like a hulking Winnie-the-Pooh.
Be careful. There’s another side to all of them.
And God? Listen to any number of sermons and it sounds like He’s a buddy you could have a beer with (make His non-alcoholic, though). Come as you are, we like to say. You have nothing to be afraid of.
Our Lord is a lamb.
Yes. Amen. But have you heard He’s also a lion?
Our Lord is a servant.
Yes. Amen. But have you heard He’s also a king?
The problem is we like to simplify things until they’re almost wrong.
Exodus 19 shows God wanting a relationship with His people. They accept. You’d think it would be time for a party.
Instead, God begins to lay out warnings.
The people were told to “wash their garments.” In an ancient geo-cultural setting where water was used for drinking, and not to wash clothes, that might have sounded excessive. But the idea was to “be ready….the LORD will come down…” (19:11). No filthy duds allowed.
He also said, “Take care not to go up to the mountain or touch the edge of it. Whoever touches the mountain shall be put to death. No hand shall touch him, but he shall be stoned or shot, whether beast or man, he shall not live” (19:12-13). Not only would they not be giving God hugs, they wouldn’t even be allowed to touch the place He was standing.
A final command before the meeting: “Do not go near a woman.” The God who created sex commanded the people to take a break from it for a few days, like He might tell us to take a break from food during times of fasting. This would be a special occasion, needing undivided attention.
The people obeyed.
God didn’t disappoint.
16 On the morning of the third day there were thunders and lightnings and a thick cloud on the mountain and a very loud trumpet blast, so that all the people in the camp trembled. 17 Then Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God, and they took their stand at the foot of the mountain. 18 Now Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke because the Lord had descended on it in fire. The smoke of it went up like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain trembled greatly. 19 And as the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses spoke, and God answered him in thunder. 20 The Lord came down on Mount Sinai, to the top of the mountain…
The whole scene doesn’t look promising. Nobody begins a relationship with a mushroom cloud.
That is, unless you’re trying to get through someone’s incredibly thick skull. Like the Israelites.
They had lived in a pagan country for hundreds of years. Egyptian idolatry was in their bones, with scarcely an ounce of sound theology in their minds.
The Bible shows idolators having funny ways of thinking about God. They make figurines, prop them up to keep them from falling over, and worship them. They transport them in bags. They steal them from each other. God is a trinket to carry around in one’s pocket. He, or she, or it, is what you use to have a better life. And if you become angry, you control god by threatening to withhold your worship.
The explosive scene in Exodus is essentially God telling the people, “I am different from that. I am deeply committed to you, but you will never be able to use me. You will never be able to scare me or threaten Me. You will never manipulate me. I’m not like those Egyptian deities fashioned from metal or mud and made to have human limbs and dog heads. You can safely ignore those gods. You can use them as doorstops.
And so God corrects a mindset. These cultural blind spots are actually a problem all of us have.
I think of my time in missions. Taxi’s in east Africa are mini vans with too many human beings stuffed into them. I rode on several of these over the years, and the body odor onboard was always overpowering, like a cross between hydrochloric acid and fish. I asked a friend if the locals were aware they smelled so bad.
My friend laughed and asked me if I realized I smelled so bad. Apparently the odor of a North American to the rest of the world is a cow. I objected, saying I bathed regularly and wore cologne. My friend agreed and said I smelled like a clean cow that wore Stetson. Certain cultures have “smells” they’re hardly aware of.
American culture for instance, smells of independence and irreverence. We’re not used to anything being “holy,” don’t understand holiness, and would hardly respect it if we did. We feel it is important to dismantle heroes, attack titles, question authority, and level everyone. Sometimes we’re right in doing so.
But we’re also prone to lampoon things truly sacred. In keeping with the comedic code of nothing being off-limits, holy things are treated with the same disrespect as sketches about politicians or pop tarts.
There’s an almost guttural ease with which we relate to God, while in a weird twist, we assign great formality to trivial things. Think of the pomp that goes into game shows like The Voice—the glam, the ooh’s and aah’s when three chairs turn around! The drama. The buildup. The special night of the week. Voting. Tears. Adulation.
The Exodus commands clash with our sensitivities, for precisely the same reason they did with those ancient idolatrous Israelites! Human beings today have very little idea of what they’re dealing with when they think of God.
No doubt today the covenant available to mankind is one of grace, not law. But we wrongly reason when we think that makes it less serious.
The writer of Hebrews says in chapter 12,
18 For you have not come to what may be touched, a blazing fire and darkness and gloom and a tempest… 22 But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, 23 and to the assembly[a] of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, 24 and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.
25 See that you do not refuse him who is speaking. For if they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, much less will we escape if we reject him who warns from heaven.”
Our God looks like a lamb, so please do approach Him.
But know it’s the most serious thing you could ever do.
Photo credit: Richard Clark