Among American Gods: The Terrifying and Beckoning God

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For Meditation

We begin a new sermon series this week called Among American Gods. It is a series that examines the Ten Commandments and how they confront the idols of Our American Life.

One way to understand the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Old Testament, is to see them collectively as God’s answer to a world of disordered worship. And what we discover in the Pentateuch is that God’s answer to a world of disordered worship is a people and a life. His covenant people. His covenant life.

In Genesis 12 and 15, God called Abram and set apart a people for himself out of the peoples of the earth. He promised Abraham that his descendants would flourish and that the entire world would be blessed through them. Exodus 19 and 20 are one part of that blessing breaking into the world. God had saved his people from Egyptian bondage. God led them by a pillar of smoke and fire to a mountain in the deep, deep desert wilderness. And there, at Mt. Sinai, God meets with them in order to speak their new covenant life together into existence with just Ten Words. Ten Commandments to mark the contours of a communal life unlike any the ancient near east had ever seen.

But when the people arrive at Sinai, what they see is terrifying to behold. Peals of thunder. Spears of lightning and fire. A dense smoky darkness blanketing the mountain itself. The text says that God himself might break out against them at any moment. It was a sight so unnerving the author of Hebrews says even Moses trembled with fear.

This following quote by C.S. Lewis captures the mood of Sinai so well:

An impersonal God? Well and good. A subjective God of beauty, truth and goodness inside our own head? Better still. A formless life force surging through everyone vast power we can all tap? Best of all. But a living God pulling at the other end of the cord approaching at infinite speed, the hunter, the covenant Lord, the husband? That is quite another matter. There comes a moment when people who have been dabbling in religion suddenly draw back supposing you really found Him? Or, worse still, suppose He found you. If there is a God you are in a sense alone with Him. You cannot put him off with speculations about your neighbor’s hypocrisy, or memories of what you have read in books. What will all that chatter and hearsay count when the anesthetic fog we call the real world fades away and the divine presence in which you have always stood becomes palpable, immediate and unavoidable?

Who is this God — who saves and yet is terrifying to behold? Who is this God — utterly unapproachable, and yet always approaching? And what will His glory demand of us, the people he has set apart for Himself?

These questions which confronted the ancient Israelites confront us as well. The author of Hebrews says “it is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” and “our God is a consuming fire”.

In this first sermon of our new series Among American Gods, we will ask and answer many of these questions. And in doing so we will discover the dangerous and beautiful harmony that exists between God’s Glory and His Grace.

In preparation for worship, I invite you to read through all of Exodus 19 and Hebrews 12:18-29.  Then take 15 minutes engage in the following through exercise:

  • Put yourself into the story of Exodus 19.
  • Imagine what it would it have been like to be an Israelite on that day.
  • What would you see, smell, feel?
  • What would you think of yourself? Of God? Of Moses?
  • How do you think you would have responded had you been there?
  • How could this change the way you think of God or approach Him this week?

Our weekly worship guide can be found here once finalized. 

Exodus 19:1-9

On the first day of the third month after the Israelites left Egypt—on that very day—they came to the Desert of Sinai. 2 After they set out from Rephidim, they entered the Desert of Sinai, and Israel camped there in the desert in front of the mountain.

3 Then Moses went up to God, and the Lord called to him from the mountain and said, “This is what you are to say to the descendants of Jacob and what you are to tell the people of Israel: 4 ‘You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. 5 Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, 6 you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words you are to speak to the Israelites.”

7 So Moses went back and summoned the elders of the people and set before them all the words the Lord had commanded him to speak. 8 The people all responded together, “We will do everything the Lord has said.” So Moses brought their answer back to the Lord.

9 The Lord said to Moses, “I am going to come to you in a dense cloud, so that the people will hear me speaking with you and will always put their trust in you.” Then Moses told the Lord what the people had said.

10 And the Lord said to Moses, “Go to the people and consecrate them today and tomorrow. Have them wash their clothes 11 and be ready by the third day, because on that day the Lord will come down on Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people.12 Put limits for the people around the mountain and tell them, ‘Be careful that you do not approach the mountain or touch the foot of it. Whoever touches the mountain is to be put to death. 13 They are to be stoned or shot with arrows; not a hand is to be laid on them. No person or animal shall be permitted to live.’ Only when the ram’s horn sounds a long blast may they approach the mountain.”

14 After Moses had gone down the mountain to the people, he consecrated them, and they washed their clothes. 15 Then he said to the people, “Prepare yourselves for the third day. Abstain from sexual relations.”

16 On the morning of the third day there was thunder and lightning, with a thick cloud over the mountain, and a very loud trumpet blast. Everyone in the camp trembled. 17 Then Moses led the people out of the camp to meet with God, and they stood at the foot of the mountain. 18 Mount Sinai was covered with smoke,because the Lord descended on it in fire. The smoke billowed up from it like smoke from a furnace, and the whole mountain trembled violently. 19 As the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses spoke and the voice of God answered him.

20 The Lord descended to the top of Mount Sinai and called Moses to the top of the mountain. So Moses went up 21 and the Lord said to him, “Go down and warn the people so they do not force their way through to see the Lord and many of them perish. 22 Even the priests, who approach the Lord, must consecrate themselves, or the Lord will break out against them.”

23 Moses said to the Lord, “The people cannot come up Mount Sinai, because you yourself warned us, ‘Put limits around the mountain and set it apart as holy.’”

24 The Lord replied, “Go down and bring Aaron up with you. But the priests and the people must not force their way through to come up to the Lord, or he will break out against them.”

25 So Moses went down to the people and told them.