Sermon Commentary for Sunday, October 8, 2017
Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20 Commentary
Comments and Observations
When preaching on Exodus 20 and the Ten Commandments, there are multiple directions to go in a sermon. It’s a bit challenging to preach on all of the commandments at once, though a way can be found to do that, of course. But for this sermon commentary, I have chosen to ponder these famous verses and this well-known story through the lens of—and under the overall heading of—having proper reverence for God, which in many ways is a theme that permeates this part of Exodus.
Reverence is something we see very little of these days. Increasingly so is basic respect. Ours is a society that will lampoon, satirize, and poke fun of just about anyone and anything. In fact, the higher up a person goes politically, the more likely it is that he or she will become the target of the irreverent humor that has become the staple of late-night comedians. Often these days you may hear someone ask, “Is nothing sacred anymore?” and the answer is clearly “No.”
As Roger Shattuck notes in his book Forbidden Knowledge, it seems that nothing is any longer considered taboo. In older societies the things that were deemed taboo usually were places where holiness and pollution were not yet differentiated. That is to say, you could better avoid something altogether rather than run the risk of, even accidentally, mixing up the sacred with the profane. Because confusion (and probably lots of social and personal harm) could result if people were not careful. But even a quick glance at television reveals that there are no taboos in American society. In the name of free speech we allow anyone to say anything he or she likes. There is no subject, act, or person we dare not approach. Once you lose your sense for the sacred, you also lose your fear that you might, even accidentally, pollute that holy thing to the harm of many.
And so reverence withers, too. A sense for majesty and the mystery of the divine fades. We can scarcely imagine encountering something so grand that it would either stun us into respectful silence or cause us to cover our eyes because we deem ourselves to be unworthy of seeing something that is too beautiful for us.
All of this is prelude to our look at a key part of Exodus 20. A good bit of this chapter and the preceding one gets consumed with God’s very careful regulations of the whys and wherefores of keeping the people off the holy mountain. Dire warnings are given as to what would happen to the man, woman, child, or goat that touched the mountain. Detailed instructions are given as to how to fence the mountain so that no one would get too close even by accident. Ironically, however, it turns out that there is no chance whatsoever that anyone would get too close! For in the end Moses and Aaron do not need to beat the people back but rather they need to encourage the people not to stay too far away! If anything, the people were too terrified to come anywhere near God.
Perhaps this can provide us with a reminder of something we tend to forget these days. Of course, as Christians we don’t want to scare people away from God. As Christians our idea of reverence for God means something other than the kind of terror that led the Israelites to keep their distance from Sinai. But that is why Exodus 20:20 is so intriguing.
Because there Moses says something that at first blush looks contradictory. Moses himself had strung up the ancient equivalent of that bright yellow “Do Not Cross” tape that police use to cordon off a crime scene. The people needed to stay behind the tape. Again, however, once God’s presence descended on Sinai, keeping the people behind the tape was not a problem. So in verse 20, after the people beg Moses to meet God so they won’t have to, Moses says, “Do not be afraid because God has come here like this so that your fear of God will keep you from sin.”
Don’t be afraid.
But then again, be afraid.
Moses says both.
But perhaps this was a way to say that although the people needed to have a healthy level of fear where God is concerned, they did not need to fear God too much. I suspect reverence lies somewhere near the midpoint between complete terror and chummy over-familiarity. Reverence exists at the intersection of love and respect, of grace and awe. God does not want to terrify us to the point of stupor yet he does want to impress us enough that we will know that this God is not someone to be trifled or toyed with in some casual manner. At least part of our motivation to serve this God is exactly because we take him so seriously.
But if that is so, then generating reverence requires at least an inkling of the very terror that, left unchecked, would make you run for your life. God’s grandeur gets your reverential attention, God’s love keeps your fear in bounds. God’s holiness means you need a fence in front so that you do not presume too much in approaching God. But God’s grace builds a fence behind you, too, so that you won’t run away.
Moses tried to allay the terrifying side of fear so as to make room for a nuanced and respectful fear. But as verse 21 tells us, the people nevertheless remained “at a distance.” But things could not remain that way forever. Because a proper piety is one that helps us to remain reverently humble before God’s power and yet it keeps us close enough to this same God so that he can embrace us in his everlasting arms.
Reverence is a balancing act. In Exodus 20 the people fall short of reverence because they are scared to death of the sheer might of God’s presence. And so they stay “at a distance.” But there is one other famous portion of the Bible where people are said to stay “at a distance” and it comes near the end of the gospel when the Son of God is lifted up on a cross. Mark in particular makes clear that when Jesus was lifted up to die, all those who had once been close to him remained afar off, “at a distance” as Mark puts it.
So there you have it from the Old and New Testaments: there are two things that could frighten us into keeping our distance: one is the presence of God in all its splendor and terror and the other is the complete absence of God in the dereliction of the One who cries, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me!?” Both the fullness of God’s presence and the Godforsaken sense of his absence can be too much for us.
When the Lord God Yahweh descended on Sinai, there was smoke on the mountain, and it got the people’s attention. In these latter days our God has come to us through Jesus who ended up dead on a cross. Yet all the splendor, glory, might, and fierceness of God is within also Jesus.
As the disciples saw on the Mount of Transfiguration, as the apostle John saw in his apocalyptic visions in the Book of Revelation, Jesus contains the effulgence of glory. When he opens his mouth, it is the sound of rushing waters that is heard. When he pulls back his cloak, it is the light brighter than a thousand suns that blazes forth. Yet when he looks you straight in the eyes with his piercing gaze, what you see is not just fierce intelligence but also the font of all love, mercy, grace, and compassion. His divine smile draws you in as you reverently worship him and fellowship with him in the splendor of holiness and in the delicious knowledge that this majestic God is also your dearest Friend.
There is mystery enough in all that to keep us humbly reverent forever.
Some years back the American Film Institute conducted a big survey to determine the top 100 heroes in cinematic history. Happily (and somewhat surprisingly) the number one movie hero was not some gun-toting, violent figure but instead the character of Atticus Finch from the film To Kill a Mockingbird. Gregory Peck played the role of Finch and he did so with a kind of noble simplicity that managed to convey a tremendous amount of moral heft, gravity, and power. In the story Atticus Finch is an attorney who defends a black man against a false rape charge made by a white woman. Although he ultimately loses the case, Finch throws himself into that trial with such ardor, compassion, and conviction that he wins the reverential respect of the entire black community.
The one scene in that movie that always makes tears leap to my eyes comes after the unjust guilty verdict is handed down by the all-white jury. The trial is over and so the main floor of the courtroom has emptied out. But the balcony, where the black people of the segregated community had to sit, is still packed and with every single person up there standing silently and as if standing at attention. The only white person up there—and the only one still sitting—is Atticus’ daughter, Scout. While Atticus silently packs up his briefcase at the defense table, one black man nudges Scout and says, “Stand up, Miss Scout, stand up!” The child asks, “How come?” And the answer comes back, “Your father’s passing by.” And as Atticus Finch exits the courtroom, every black person in the balcony stands reverently before this white man whom they have come to respect and adore.
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