In Exodus 19, Mount Sinai is the place where God formally introduces himself to his newly released and redeemed people. Israel had been enslaved for hundreds of years, and through Moses God had brought them out of the hand of Pharaoh. Sinai is the stage for proper introductions. Moses tells the people to wash their garments and prepare themselves to meet with God. Like a child bathing and putting on fresh clothes for a meeting with an important adult, the nation of Israel takes three days to make sure they are spiritually ready to be introduced to Yahweh. Lines are drawn around the mountain and warnings are given not to get too close, because to haphazardly come into the presence of God would bring certain death. When God comes to the people they are terrified. Exodus says that they “tremble”. They have spoken and longed for this moment for hundreds of years, and now that it is here they cannot wait for it to be over. God is more than they had expected him to be. Israel immediately understands that they are not worthy of standing in the same zip code with this God. They tremble because they lack. They tremble because they are weak. They tremble because this God seems too holy for them to deserve an audience.
What is God’s purpose for this meeting? What does he want the people to know? What is he trying to accomplish by showing up and terrifying the people simply by showing his existence? Thankfully God gives his purpose statement in Exodus 19 when he says,
Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. (Exodus 19:5-6 ESV)
God’s revelation of himself is followed by his stated intention to change them into something else. When God invites a people into his presence to worship and behold him it is a glorious invitation that is extended for a singular purpose...to change those invited into something that they are not. A holy nation. A kingdom of priests. This is God’s purpose statement for Israel. It has not changed for us. The invitation by God to come and worship him has never been an invitation to simply come into a room and sing general niceties about him in three part harmony. It is not an invitation to simply come and “feel” something of the divine. Worship does not conjure God into our presence, it is the invitation to come into his.
What was to be done for Israel in this equation of holiness and need? God begins to provide a way to make this transition happen in his chosen people. Moses is called up on the mountain and God begins to give the law, a law that will seek to change a common people into one that follows after the heart of God. Israel, however, has other plans. As Moses hears from God, Israel begins to craft worship by different means. They contribute their gold and form a calf. They engage in “revelries” and declare their allegiance to gods made by their own hands, fashioned from their own sense of virtue and beauty. Just as in the Garden of Eden, God’s newly formed people abandon him and seek out their own way. They desire to worship, but they will be the ones to establish the means and the results of that worship. God has once again been abandoned.
What follows is tragic. God tells Moses that he will wipe this people off the face of the earth and start over through him. Moses, having already been changed in the presence of God, begins to intercede on behalf of the people.
So Moses returned to the LORD and said, “Alas, this people has sinned a great sin. They have made for themselves gods of gold. But now, if you will forgive their sin—but if not, please blot me out of your book that you have written.” (Exodus 32:31-32 ESV)
Moses is becoming the priest that God had desired his entire people to become. He is offering his life in the place of the people. He has heard the voice of the Lord, he has become an intercessor on behalf of the people, and he will be the one to point them back to Yahweh. He has responded to God’s invitation to come up on the mountain to worship and has been changed into something different. Moses has been transformed.
We are called to be transformed as well, but I am afraid that in our modern context we are dangerously close, and in some instances already dancing around calves of gold. For many, worship is no longer an invitation to come and be changed, it is a gathering of those who wish to remain the same. It is filled with those who equate the gospel with words of affirmation and acceptance for their sinfulness and not in spite of it. Worship has become the shouts and emotions of those who have decided what holiness should look like and are now inviting God into the midst of their creation.
Worship does not exist so that God can make us feel better about our brokenness. God is not seeking to give us comfort in spite of our imperfections. The love of God we sing about over and over again is not a love that simply accepts who we are or who we desire to be. We have changed love into an affirmation of personal choice. Sexuality and morality now depend on how the individual feels, not on what God has demanded, and now, even for some in the church, to love is to let a person remain as they are with arms wide open. God does not accept our sin because of his love, his love is the force that is seeking to crush it. Worship reveals sin by inviting the worshipper to behold the perfection of God. The grace extended by that invitation is our means of escape and victory over it. Our hope lies in our deliverance, not in our desire to remain. We must be changed.
I love Luke 24. Jesus, on the road to Emmaus, reveals to two men that he is the fulfillment of all that was spoken of through Moses and the prophets. Just as Moses had led the people to the mountain, through Jesus, God was again inviting a people to the mountain to worship, but this time not to the edge, he was inviting them all the way to the top, giving them full access to his life altering glory. Hebrews 12 says it beautifully.
For you have not come to what may be touched, a blazing fire and darkness and gloom and a tempest and the sound of a trumpet and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that no further messages be spoken to them. For they could not endure the order that was given, “If even a beast touches the mountain, it shall be stoned.” Indeed, so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, “I tremble with fear.” 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, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.
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. At that time his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, “Yet once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens.” This phrase, “Yet once more,” indicates the removal of things that are shaken—that is, things that have been made—in order that the things that cannot be shaken may remain. Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God ACCEPTABLE WORSHIP, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire. (Hebrews 12:18-29 ESV)
Are we offering acceptable worship? We are invited into his presence to be changed into a people that are set apart in holiness to proclaim his excellencies as a kingdom of priests. The purpose of the invitation has never changed. The means of the invitation (Jesus making a way for us to come with boldness before God) has been gloriously altered.
The cross of Jesus did not give God an excuse to sweep our sin under the rug. God cannot simply look the other way from sin...it must be dealt with and we must be changed. Dietrich Bonhoeffer famously said, “When God calls a man he bids him to come and die”. This statement is a summation of Paul’s words in Romans 12 where he writes,
I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:1-2 ESV)
And so there it is. Worship will kill you. It is self sacrifice. To truly worship in holiness the self must die and the mind must be transformed. Are you being changed? Through Jesus, are you accepting the invitation to come into the presence of God to be made into his image, or are you looking from afar, making him into your own? Those who truly seek to worship the divine will be altered and pressed into his holiness, those who do not will remain the same. Eternity will resound with the former, death will forever silence the latter. Hebrews again speaks to us,
For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries. Anyone who has set aside the law of Moses dies without mercy on the evidence of two or three witnesses. How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has trampled underfoot the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace? For we know him who said, “Vengeance is mine; I will repay.” And again, “The Lord will judge his people.” It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. (Hebrews 10:26-31 ESV)
May we worship in holiness. May we worship in truth. May the love of God and the grace of God bring us to the knowledge of God. May we accept his invitation to come and worship and be forever changed into his image. Amen.