August 4-5th 2012
10th Weekend after Pentecost
Pastor Tim Smith
3 When Moses went and told the people all the LORD’s words and laws, they responded with one voice, “Everything the LORD has said we will do.” 4 Moses then wrote down everything the LORD had said. He got up early the next morning and built an altar at the foot of the mountain and set up twelve stone pillars representing the twelve tribes of Israel. 5 Then he sent young Israelite men, and they offered burnt offerings and sacrificed young bulls as fellowship offerings to the LORD. 6 Moses took half of the blood and put it in bowls, and the other half he sprinkled on the altar. 7 Then he took the Book of the Covenant and read it to the people. They responded, “We will do everything the LORD has said; we will obey.” 8 Moses then took the blood, sprinkled it on the people and said, “This is the blood of the covenant that the LORD has made with you in accordance with all these words.” 9 Moses and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and the seventy elders of Israel went up 10 and saw the God of Israel. Under his feet was something like a pavement made of sapphire, clear as the sky itself. 11 But God did not raise his hand against these leaders of the Israelites; they saw God, and they ate and drank. (NIV-1984)
This is the Word of the Lord.
It was the moment when it truly began. Up to this point, Israel had been a family God was looking after. He had made promises to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob. God had watched over them as they immigrated, 75 of them, to Egypt to survive a famine, and God had just brought them back out of Egypt four centuries later, now closer to two million people. The Lord had revealed his true name to them, promised to protect them and to provide for them, and he was preparing to give them his holy Law, beginning with the Ten Commandments.
Later, he would describe them as “his covenant people.” And this was the making of that covenant. As Moses strapped on his sandals to head up the mountain to receive the Law, God invited the people to make sacrifices and share the meal with one another. It was the original covenant meal. The Passover had been the covenant of the firstborn. But this—this was the Covenant of the Mount Sinai, the covenant under which the Old Testament Church would live until the coming of Jesus Christ, who fulfilled all its terms and removed the burden of its laws for all time.
It was also a preview of things to come.
A week from now, the 30th Summer Olympics will come to an end, and I’m sure that we will see a fantastic montage of all the greatest moments that took place this year. There will be great swimming and running and volleyball and rowing victories–not to mention a first ever gold medal in Judo– and there will be exciting music and somber narration.
All of the moments that are truly special will be strung together and placed before us, and if it’s anything like what we’ve seen in the past, I’m certain that it will be very gratifying, very satisfying, and quite memorable. The purpose of that kind of a scene is to plant special memories and commemorate what has taken place. And in case you missed an event or two, it will be your chance to see at least the most important moments so that you can say: “I saw that myself.”
Here we have the very opposite. We have highlights of the whole Bible—but before any of those things actually took place. It’s like—well, going back to the Olympics this week, it’s like the day when I came home and had heard about some particular athlete’s great victory winning a record number of medals, and I shared that with my wife, but she said, “No—don’t tell me, I haven’t seen it happen yet!”
We begin with a preview of heaven itself. Moses builds an altar representing of course God’s presence among his people—that’s exactly what our altar represents here before us—and around it, Moses sets us twelve stones, one for each tribe of Israel. And that’s a scene from the last book of the Bible, from Revelation, where John sees the Lamb of God, sacrificed for our sins, sitting on the throne of God, and this of course is God’s presence among his people, and there all around are the Twelve Elders of the Tribes of Israel, representing all of God’s Old Testament believers. In Revelation, John also sees the Twelve Apostles, representing all of God’s New Testament believers, but the scene is still the same. God’s people around God himself.
Next, we have burnt offerings and fellowship offerings, made by the young men of the tribes. This is a preview of something that, if you look carefully at Exodus, you will realize hasn’t begin yet. Israel has no system of burnt offerings to the Lord yet. God is still in the process of appointing what kind of offerings he wants done, and when.
And there are the young men making these offerings. We’re not told what tribe or tribes they’re from, because there are no appointed tribes yet to supply priests for Israel. In fact, the custom was that the heads of the families would make offerings and serve as priests—that’s what we saw in the book of Genesis, when Abraham served as priest for his family, and Isaac for his, and Jacob for his, and so on. But here the young men served. This reminds us that God’s plan was that we all should serve him in righteousness and in purity forever. The rebellion that took place against Moses shortly after this ended with only Levites serving as priests, and that regulation was in place until the moment that Jesus Christ served as our true High Priest and offered his own innocent and holy body on the cross, once and for all time, once and for all sins, ending and fulfilling the Old Testament regulations.
There was also here the Blood of the Covenant. Moses took the blood from the sacrifices, and he poured half of it on the altar—the reminder of God’s presence among the people—and then he sprinkled half of it on the people themselves, to show that they were under the covenant, too. Can you imagine their Twelve vast families, arranged in tent-cities all around the foot of the lofty mountain, and Moses walking up and down pathways like streets within those tent-cities, flinging blood with a stick from a broom tree on each group? The spatters hitting the people as they sang songs, the song getting softer now as Moses approached, so that perhaps it was perfectly quiet as the great prophet of God actually passed by—and a tiny spatter of blood as he moved on to the next group. Did a drop actually touch your forehead? That blood is the blood of the covenant, the blood that makes you part of God’s chosen and holy people. For now you are no longer an extended family on the run, seeing miracles and wondering where you’re going. No—now you are the covenant people. Now God would give his laws. Now God would hold you accountable to those laws and to that way of life until the Messiah comes.
This blood pointed ahead to the blood of that Messiah, of the Savior Jesus Christ. He shed his blood once, for all, and like this blood at Sinai, the blood of Christ was also the blood of the covenant. But not this covenant. The blood of Jesus was called something new. Listen to familiar words from Luke 22:
“In the same way, after the supper, he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you.”(Luke 22:20).
Those are the words that we cherish and that we silence ourselves to hear whenever we share the Lord’s Supper. This new covenant is what brings us forgiveness directly from the cross into our hearts, through faith in our Crucified Covenant Christ.
This is essential to our relationship with God. Think of what our sins do to us. Our sins smash the altar and knock over twelve pillars. That image of heaven with all believers worshiping around the throne of God? The glimpse is gone—heaven flies away out of reach like a jet plane lifting into the sky. There’s no way for us to jump and grab hold; it’s vanishing into the clouds until its white contrails become part of the clouds themselves. Our sins drag us back and shackle us to our guilt and pull us underground, so that without Christ, without the blood of the covenant, we are helpless, hopeless, and condemned. They say that in some prisons, the architects make the windows especially narrow and deep to heighten the prisoner’s constant realization of no escape. And that’s how it is with mankind in our sins. And we even sin against the blood of the covenant. When we spurn the Lord’s Supper, when we question God’s wisdom in establishing closed communion, when we are tempted to invite anyone forward who does not share our confession of faith despite Paul’s warnings and injunctions in 1 Corinthians 10-11, then we call down judgment on ourselves and not only those who call down God’s judgment by drinking the blood of the covenant in an unworthy manner.
And then—as we realize the depth of our guilt, like the depth of inescapable prison windows, God himself comes and invites our repentance. He invites us to his table like the seventy elders of Israel, and he spreads his forgiveness and his grace over us like that mysterious “Sapphire pavement” in our text, so that although we do not yet see him clearly, we see his grace, we see his love. We feel the effects of his sacrifice and we know that in this meal, in the blood of the new covenant, we have the forgiveness of our sins, the assurance of eternal life, and the joy to serve our God in this lifetime and the next because we, too, are children of this covenant through Jesus Christ, who gives us the peace of God which transcends our understanding, and which guards our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.