Exodus 19:16-25 – An Awesome God

Mount Sinai by Scottish painter David Roberts (1796-1864)

On the morning of the third day, thunder roared, and lightning flashed, and a dense cloud came down on the mountain. There was a long, loud blast from a ram’s horn, and all the people trembled. Moses led them out from the camp to meet with God, and they stood at the foot of the mountain. All of Mount Sinai was covered with smoke because the Lord had descended on it in the form of fire. The smoke billowed into the sky like smoke from a brick kiln, and the whole mountain shook violently. As the blast of the ram’s horn grew louder and louder, Moses spoke, and God thundered his reply. The Lord came down on the top of Mount Sinai and called Moses to the top of the mountain. So, Moses climbed the mountain.

Then the Lord told Moses, “Go back down and warn the people not to break through the boundaries to see the Lord, or they will die. Even the priests who regularly come near to the Lord must purify themselves so that the Lord does not break out and destroy them.”

“But Lord,” Moses protested, “the people cannot come up to Mount Sinai. You already warned us. You told me, ‘Mark off a boundary all around the mountain to set it apart as holy.’”

But the Lord said, “Go down and bring Aaron back up with you. In the meantime, do not let the priests or the people break through to approach the Lord, or he will break out and destroy them.”

So, Moses went down to the people and told them what the Lord had said. (NLT)

As Christians await Easter and the resurrected Christ, the Revised Common Lectionary reminds us of another great anticipation from the Old Testament. The ancient Israelites were amazingly delivered from Egyptian slavery, miraculously walked through the Red Sea, and traveled with wondrous anticipation to Mount Sinai. Now, in today’s reading, they are about to meet with God!

The scene of this meeting is not exactly the romantic highland encounter of the Man from Snowy River (my wife’s all-time favorite movie). The landscape is much more akin to the dark and volcanic Mount Doom from The Lord of the Rings. The picture appears more foreboding than loving. The thing about mountain top experiences is that they are not all monolithic one-size-fits-all encounters with bright rainbows and happy skipping unicorns.

Mount Sinai by English painter Edward Lear (1812-88)

Mountain Top Experiences

Holy Scripture is replete with mountain experiences. Mountains serve as symbols for significant encounters with a mighty God. Whether it is Christ’s transfiguration on a mountain, or the giving of the law on a mountain, the awesome mountain serves as a tangible symbol of divine majesty, strength, and sovereignty. And, I might add, conversely, valleys in Scripture are symbolic of difficulty and suffering. Our God is Lord of both mountain and valley. The God of the Bible is both transcendent and immanent, ruling with power and might high above us on the holy mountain. Yet, the Lord also comes near to us in the valley of the shadow of death.

Leading up to the giving of the Ten Words (Commandments) in Exodus 20, Exodus 19 portrays an awesome scene of God in transcendent holiness and power. In fact, the experience was so otherworldly that the people were afraid to even come near the mountain. The Israelites needed limits placed on themselves because of God’s holy presence. Just like coming too near the immense power of the sun will destroy us, so getting near to God can ruin us if we do not respect divine holiness.

The Lord of the Mountain

Respecting God’s power and transcendence brings the reality of the Lord’s immanence into greater appreciation. God has gone to extreme lengths of self-revelation to people. For the Christian, it all culminates through the incarnation of Christ, the sending of the Son. In Jesus, the transcendence and immanence of God meet perfectly to bridge the chasm between humanity and the divine. Because of Jesus, the awesome sounds of thunder and trumpet do not lead to fear; they announce grace to those who approach God by faith.

You have not come to a mountain that can be touched and that is burning with fire; to darkness, gloom and storm; to a trumpet blast or to such a voice speaking words that those who heard it begged that no further word be spoken to them, because they could not bear what was commanded: “If even an animal touches the mountain, it must be stoned to death.” The sight was so terrifying that Moses said, “I am trembling with fear.” But you have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the Judge of all, to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant….

See to it that you do not refuse him who speaks. If they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, how much less will we, if we turn away from him who warns us from heaven? At that time, his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, “Once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens.” The words “once more” indicate the removing of what can be shaken—that is, created things—so that what cannot be shaken may remain. Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our “God is a consuming fire.” (Hebrews 12:18-29, NIV)

Our God is an awesome God. The divine dramas of God’s victory over Egypt and Christ’s victory over sin, death, and hell, have provided God’s people with spiritual power. Both the deliverance of the Israelites from Egyptian slavery by God and the deliverance secured on Mount Zion from spiritual slavery by Jesus are meant to free us to do the will of God. With God’s Word and God’s Spirit given to us, we are emancipated from an empty way of life to experience the fullness of Christ.

May the peace of God which surpasses all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of God, and of the Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord, and the blessing of God almighty. May Father, Son, and Spirit be among you and remain with you always. Amen.

2 Corinthians 2:12-17 – The Sweet Scent of Salvation

“When I went to Troas to preach the good news about Christ, I found that the Lord had already prepared the way.  But I was worried when I did not find my friend Titus there. So, I left the other followers and went on to Macedonia.

I am grateful that God always makes it possible for Christ to lead us to victory. God also helps us spread the knowledge about Christ everywhere, and this knowledge is like the smell of perfume. In fact, God thinks of us as a perfume that brings Christ to everyone. For people who are being saved, this perfume has a sweet smell and leads them to a better life. But for people who are lost, it has a bad smell and leads them to a horrible death.

No one really has what it takes to do this work.  A lot of people try to get rich from preaching God’s message. But we are God’s sincere messengers, and by the power of Christ we speak our message with God as our witness.” (CEV)

God is the One who calls and empowers people for service in the church and the world. God is the powerful sovereign ruler of the universe who prepares the way for people to proclaim the good news of deliverance in the name of Jesus. God is the Being who dominates Holy Scripture. God is the main and principal actor in the unfolding drama of redemption in the Bible.

God is the Great Shepherd who calls, gathers, assures, forgives, teaches, leads, and sends people throughout every era. God is the diligent and careful farmer who enables the knowledge of Jesus to spread across the earth and cause a bloom of grace to flower.

God is the divine florist who produces the sweet smell of salvation from a rancid past of relational separation.

You see, my friend, that unless we capture the vision of a God who orchestrates and animates self-revelation to others, you and I will muck around this world trying to live the Christian life in the misguided notion that leading others to Jesus Christ is on our shoulders – that somehow our ability, or lack thereof, determines whether another person is delivered from their brokenness and finds God.

Oh, my goodness. Nothing could be further from the truth. Those who are estranged from God, like vulnerable lost sheep in the world, are called by the shepherd, not us. We simply go in the enablement of God’s power and blessing to pick up lost sheep and carry them back to the fold. 

You and I are messengers, couriers from God with a life-giving message of forgiveness and deliverance for all whom the Lord calls – and God’s voice can be heard across the entire world.

We are field hands who enter the harvest and enjoy the gathering of fresh grain into God’s great storehouse of grace. You and I did not make anything grow. God was really behind the planting, the growth, the rain, the sunshine, and the harvest. In many ways, we are just along for the tractor ride.

Many Christians put far too much emphasis on themselves – what they should and could be doing, as if the salvation of others depended on them. But God is behind every good and beautiful thing in this earth. Learning to trust the Lord’s leading and power makes all the difference in a world needing Jesus. 

Lord God, almighty and everlasting Father, you have brought me to the beginning of this day. Preserve me with your mighty power that I might be an instrument in your grand orchestra of salvation, giving off the sweet scent of salvation and blowing the sound of Jesus Christ in melodious sounds of deliverance; with the breath of the Holy Spirit giving the wind.  Amen.

The Authority of Jesus

They went to Capernaum, and when the Sabbath came, Jesus went into the synagogue and began to teach. The people were amazed at his teaching because he taught them as one who had authority, not as the teachers of the law. Just then a man in their synagogue who was possessed by an impure spirit cried out, “What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God!”

“Be quiet!” said Jesus sternly. “Come out of him!” The impure spirit shook the man violently and came out of him with a shriek.

The people were all so amazed that they asked each other, “What is this? A new teaching—and with authority! He even gives orders to impure spirits and they obey him.” News about him spread quickly over the whole region of Galilee. (NIV)

When I was in college, I drove a big car – an Oldsmobile Delta 88 with a 455 Rocket engine. Because I had the largest car around, I could fit a lot of people into my vehicle to drive to church on Sundays. Since I often gave rides to people I did not know very well, one Sunday I picked up two sisters who had never been to my church before.

Everything went like a typical Sunday morning, until toward the end of the pastor’s sermon one of the sisters began yelling and crying out in the service, maybe much like the account we have in our Gospel account for today. The pastor quickly brought an end to the worship service and the congregation hurriedly filed out of the building. I stayed behind because, well, I was her ride.

What happened next is an entire story for another day. I will just say that I saw some crazy stuff that did not seem readily explainable with our five human senses. And, I might add, there was a deliverance on that Sunday from whatever or whomever was influencing the young lady.

Ever since my experience on that Sunday, I continually wonder: What are our expectations when we come to a worship service?  Do we anticipate Jesus will be present via the Holy Spirit?  If so, do we believe he is there to confront demons and bring deliverance to people? Do folks even believe there is such beings as angels and demons anymore? How do we make sense of stories like this?

Perhaps there is so little deliverance from evil in our own experiences and in many faith communities because we simply have no expectation that such a thing will happen. Maybe the demons just sleep through gatherings knowing that their influence is not being threatened.

This brings me to the bread and butter of today’s message. I will give you three pre-suppositions (that is, things that we assume or take for granted) from which I work from when approaching Scripture and ministry. I will also make three observations of this story about Jesus, because ultimately the story is really all about him and not about demons. Finally, I offer three applications based on today’s Gospel lesson.

First Pre-supposition: Demons are real.  We know almost nothing about the man in the Gospel story other than he was “possessed by an evil spirit” which meant he was being influenced by a demon. I believe there is an unseen reality we cannot perceive with our physical eyes.

Second Pre-supposition:  Jesus has authority over demons.  Jesus took charge of the situation because he had the authority to do so. Throughout Mark’s Gospel, Jesus is portrayed as one who came to decisively deal with the powers of sin and death, especially as expressed through the demonic realm.

Third Pre-supposition:  Demons could be here.  I do not mean to scare anyone. I simply intend to point out that demons, or any type of evil manifestations, are not just out there somewhere in the world. Today’s story takes place in the sacred space of worship to God: the synagogue. Although it is a rather dramatic story, most demonic activity goes unaware because demons do not like to be recognized; they like the anonymity of the shadows and to operate in the dark where no one can detect them.  If we knew they were around, we would do something about it!  Just because we have dedicated spaces to the worship of God does not mean that it magically keeps evil out. God’s people must be savvy to evil demonic ways and take charge to use our authority in Christ with truth, justice, peace, faith, and the message of the gospel so that we might live wisely and shoo the devil away.

Based upon those three assumptions, the following are three observations about God and Jesus concerning the Christian life. These realities ought to evoke confidence in our lives without fear of the demonic realm…

First Observation: Jesus is directly interested in people.  Jesus came to seek and to save the lost. Christ came to directly confront evil and deliver humanity from sin, death, and hell.  Jesus showed interest, care, and love to people.  In the story, Jesus went to Capernaum to begin his ministry. Capernaum was a non-descript small village that was of no interest to anybody outside of it. Yet, Jesus sought to reach common ordinary people as well as the rich and famous because all are in need.  Furthermore, Jesus is concerned about every part of our lives, and not just the spiritual matters.

Second Observation: Jesus deals with pain and suffering.  One of the truest theological statements I could ever say to you is this: God loves you in the person of Jesus through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit.  Jesus suffered on our behalf. Christ is against everything that destroys. In fact, Jesus did not even destroy the demon, who was probably expecting that to happen. Instead, the Lord Jesus took the demon’s power away.  Jesus has taken the sting out of death.  Anything that robs life of its intended flourishing, Jesus is ready to do away with.  This can be a tricky point because God will use pain and suffering to teach us and form us into faithful people. Yet, that does not mean God is the author of pain or enjoys suffering. It just means that God’s grace will bend any circumstance, whether good or evil, to divine purposes for our benefit.

Third Observation: Jesus gives grace.  Every instance of healing, each miracle, and every event of deliverance from evil are all because Jesus loves us and cares about us, despite whether we deserve it or not.

Now let’s pull this together into some points of application…

First Application: We need the deliverance of Jesus, and not only psychological therapy.  I am a big believer in counseling and therapy for all kinds of emotional issues. It seems to me that far too many persons do not take advantage of the resources we have today in the psychological realm. What is more, I daily provide a range of counseling for individuals as both a church pastor and hospital chaplain. However, this in no way diminishes the need for spiritual deliverance or that therapy can somehow replace Jesus. If demons are real, and evil truly present, then no amount of counseling will deal decisively with Satan because only Jesus can do that.  I believe Jesus is not merely one option among a smorgasbord of people who could help us. Rather, Jesus is the Messiah who delivers us from evil, like no other can.

Second Application: Amazement is not faith.  The people in the Gospel story were amazed at Christ’s teaching and deliverance ministry. They had never seen or heard anything like it. Yet being impressed is not the same as naked trust. Spreading news of what Jesus did is not the same as putting Christ’s teaching into practice and personally experiencing divine power to deliver from sin.

Third Application: The Lord’s Table brings healing.  Christian communion is neither only a remembrance of what Jesus did on the cross, nor a magical act of bringing deliverance. Rather, the Table is a means of grace in which we partake of the elements in faith knowing Jesus is victorious over the demonic realm. What is more, the Spirit will join us to Christ and give us the confidence and hope to confront all that ails us. Liturgical rhythms of grace consistently and surely work their way into us and bring about the healing we need and want.

Conclusion

Jesus Christ has authority over everything, including the demonic realm. This makes him perfectly suited and situated to provide spiritual deliverance from evil – which is precisely how Christ encouraged us to pray. So, let us pray the prayer our Lord taught us:

Our Father which art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.

Thy kingdom come, thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread.

And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.

And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil: For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever. Amen.

Psalm 46 – Divine Help

Psalm 46:1 by Connie Van Huss

God is our refuge and strength,
    a help always near in times of great trouble.
That’s why we won’t be afraid when the world falls apart,
    when the mountains crumble into the center of the sea,
    when its waters roar and rage,
    when the mountains shake because of its surging waves.

There is a river whose streams gladden God’s city,
    the holiest dwelling of the Most High.
God is in that city. It will never crumble.
    God will help it when morning dawns.
Nations roar; kingdoms crumble.
    God utters his voice; the earth melts.
The Lord of heavenly forces is with us!
    The God of Jacob is our place of safety. 

Come, see the Lord’s deeds,
    what devastation he has imposed on the earth—
    bringing wars to an end in every corner of the world,
    breaking the bow and shattering the spear,
        burning chariots with fire.

“That’s enough! Now know that I am God!
    I am exalted among all nations; I am exalted throughout the world!”

The Lord of heavenly forces is with us!
    The God of Jacob is our place of safety. (CEB)

We possess the unconditional presence of God. Yes indeed, the Lord of all creation is always with us. What a wonderful and radical thought!  But that is not all. What is more, God helps us. The Lord does not stand by idly to watch us squirm in tough situations. Because God is present with you and I, there is divine assistance which can help us in troubling times.

Something we can all seem to agree on is that we are in times of trouble and hardship. Everyone is collectively experiencing adversity. COVID-19 has punched us in our worldly gut and caused us to bend over, writhing in pain. We need the Lord. We require Divine help.

The psalms, as Hebrew poetry, were designed with a certain structure. Unlike the way we arrange things with a thesis statement said right up front, Hebrew poetry has the most important statement smack in the middle of the psalm. What comes before that statement is a growing crescendo meant to highlight the central idea. Everything that comes after is the decrescendo pointing back to the main idea.

What we have in the middle of today’s magnificent psalm is the important truth that the Lord of heavenly forces is with us. This reality is meant to drop its weight on us so that we will feel the impact of God’s presence and power. Consider some of English translations of the Hebrew statement:

The Lord All-Powerful is with us. The God of Jacob is our fortress. (CEV)

The Lord of Armies is with us. The God of Jacob is our stronghold. (GW)

Jacob-wrestling God fights for us, God-of-Angel-Armies protects us. (MSG)

The Lord Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress. (NIV)

The Lord of Heaven’s Armies is here among us; the God of Israel is our fortress. (NLT)

Yahweh of Armies is with us. Jacob’s God is a turret for us. (FT)

Today (and everyday) is a good day to use the statement, “The Lord of heavenly forces is with us,” as a point of thought, contemplation, and deep consideration. God has the back of those who do right and seek to be just in all things. Whenever you are waiting, driving in the car, in-between scheduled stuff, or just sitting at home, repeat this biblical statement many times to yourself and to the Lord. Then, allow God’s Spirit to bring the truth of it home to the depths of your soul. There is no better security, no better hope than to know God is with us.

God Almighty, great upheaval in this world does not make you nervous because you are above it all.  Thank you that you are with me in all the great churnings of my life, as well as all the small things of trouble.  Even if all around me changes, you do not; through Christ my Savior, I pray. Amen.