Standing at Sinai

Genesis 21 tells us that 4,080 years ago God the Holy Spirit visited Sarah, just as He had said He would do, and she bore Abraham a boy-child named Isaac, one who causes laughter. Now Abraham had two wives, and the first was jealous of the second. So Sarah, seizing on Ishmael’s cruel mockery of Isaac, suggested to Abraham that he send Hagar and her son, Ishmael, away. Abraham, like any good father, doesn’t appreciate this idea, but God tells him to do as Sarah says. What is particularly important to our story is God’s reason: “for through Isaac shall your offspring be named.”

Isaac had a son whose name was changed to “Israel”, and some 625 years later we find 2 million + people called “Israelites” quaking at the foot of Mt. Sinai, while thunder rolls from a dark cloud filled with flashes of fire, descending on the top of the mountain as all the while the voice of God roars like an earth-encompassing trumpet.

Just imagine, as if you were there, for indeed, God says that we are to consider ourselves to have been there. Speaking of Passover, which He enjoined upon all Israel’s generations, God said:

You shall tell your son on that day, ‘It is because of what the LORD did for me when I came out of Egypt.’ Exodus 13:8 (ESV)

In 1447 BC, God-through Moses-delivered His people, Israel, out of Egypt and trekked them through the wilderness for 3 months till they arrived at the mountain of God, otherwise known as Mt. Sinai or Mt. Horeb. The same place, incidentally, where Moses saw the burning bush, and where Elijah heard God’s voice in a whisper, but not in the earthquake, the wind, nor the fire.

In Exodus 19 and 20:18-21 we find that God said to Israel, “I want you to be a nation of priests; an entire people who draw near.” But, in one of the saddest moments in Scripture, Israel replied, “Moses, we’re afraid; you go talk to God and come tell us what He says, but we are going to stay “far off.”

Moses climbs Mt. Sinai and spends 40 days communing with the Lord, as God shares with him the particulars of their wedding contract. Just 40 days after God’s proposal, and their betrothal acceptance, “All the words that the LORD has spoken we will do”, Israel is all ready unfaithful. Having declined God’s offer of intimacy, they commit the sin of the golden calf.

Moses descends the mountain in fury and speaks these unforgettable words: “Who is on the LORD’s side? Come to me.” Let’s look at the passage in Exodus 32:

“Then Moses stood in the gate of the camp and said, “Who is on the LORD’s side? Come to me.” And all the sons of Levi gathered around him. And he said to them, “Thus says the LORD God of Israel, ‘Put your sword on your side each of you, and go to and fro from gate to gate throughout the camp, and each of you kill his brother and his companion and his neighbor.'” And the sons of Levi did according to the word of Moses. And that day about three thousand men of the people fell. And Moses said, “Today you have been ordained for the service of the LORD, each one at the cost of his son and of his brother, so that he might bestow a blessing upon you this day.” Exodus 32:26-29 (ESV)

Here we find the first chronological mention of ordination in Scripture. It came about because God’s offer of intimacy for all His people was declined. Therefore a special cadre of those who were willing to serve the Lord even at the cost of son or brother were singled out for special blessing and special responsibility.

The Apostle Paul reveals in his letter to the Ephesians that we also have been brought near:

Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh …were… separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. Ephesians 2:11-13 (ESV)

Like the Israelites at Sinai, many today choose not to take advantage of their spiritual inheritance. As a people, we have been given the privilege of drawing near to God, and someday we will receive bodies of righteousness and no man will need say to his neighbor “know the Lord” for all will draw near. Until that day, however, a few are chosen to be consecrated in the here and now in a first fruit of the first fruits sort of way. Those few are known as priests, pastors, bishops, elders, or ministers.

Those who feel called to the role of priest must ask themselves whether they are willing to draw near to God even when others shy away? When the cloud descends on the mountain, when the ground trembles and the wind roars, will you still draw near? When those to whom you minister refuse to walk in the reality of their new creation, will you draw near on their behalf? Will you, like Moses, plead their case with God? Will you memorialize God’s sacrifice for their atonement? Will you assure them of God’s forgiveness? The privilege of thus serving is not given freely; there’s a price to pay, a burden to carry. James, the brother of Jesus, wrote:

“Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers; for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.” James 3:1 (ESV)

In a sense we all stand at Mt. Sinai and say, “All that God has spoken I will do.” And like all men, we break our oath. But, to our great blessing, God has promised in the New Covenant that He will save us, that He will write His words on our heart, and that He will forgive our violation of the covenant requirements. Today, also like at Sinai, God has chosen some among his kingdom of priests to be Priests and Levites of a particular nature–to be presbyters and deacons. Today, those called to shepherd stand at the foot of the mountain waiting on the breath of God, to come through the laying on of hands, that the Spirit of God might implant within them the seed that will give birth to spiritual children.

What is the point of being one who draws near? First it tells us something about God’s character; He longs for intimacy with us. It is only out of a passionate relationship with Him that we find words to speak which can overcome that fearsome warning, “not many of you should be teachers.” Like the glow that wouldn’t leave Moses’ face, out of our times with God come words that burn like a fire in our bones. Words of life and words of hope, words that can’t be kept silent within but must fly to their intended purpose. Words of testimony from our experience; so that we can say in life’s darkest moments, “I don’t understand what God is doing, but I know His character.”

Secondly, it is so that, as Paul wrote, we can “be imitators of God like dearly beloved children.” God is a pursuer. The familiar words of Psalm 23:6 don’t convey the full significance of God’s words:

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever. Psalms 23:6 (ESV)

Mercy in Hebrew is chessed, a word so full of meaning that no single English word can capture it; it is variously translated as mercy, love, grace, lovingkindness, and steadfast love. The core idea is of a robust love that never falters;a love that is completely reliable. But the really interesting word here is “follow” or radaph; yes it means to follow, but more significantly it is the word used to describe a villian chasing his victim or a predator hunting its prey.

So we might read this as “Surely, goodness and chessed shall pursue me all the days of my life.” Will you pursue God’s people with the same intensity that God unfailingly pursues us?

Some days your congregants will break your heart, but how often have we grieved God? It is our privilege to share in this small measure of His sufferings. Some days you will join the angels dancing in heaven over the one that has returned to the 99. This is the path of a priest, great responsibility and powerful intimacy. By God’s grace, you are to be a foreshadowing of that which all creation groans in expectation of.

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