We’ve been reflecting on worship since Easter, and this morning we’re ending our short, often interrupted series by entering this story of God meeting with Moses and the leaders of Israel on Mount Sinai. As part of this meeting, we discover an unexpected meal happens after a time of worship that includes a blood sacrifice. It’s important to understand what’s been happening to understand what’s happening. The people have been camped out at Mount Sinai for a short time now, God has given the people the Ten Commandments and reminds them that the reason for keeping the commands is because God has freed them from slavery and he is their God. God has placed his claim on them. The Israelites receive these commands as a gift; God’s setting out what his expectations are for them; there’s no need to guess what it means, or looks like, to be his people. The relationship between God and Israel is clear, something no other nation or people has with their gods. This is a huge source of comfort for the people.
God gives them 3 festivals a year where the men are to gather to celebrate to God and offer the sacrifices God commands of them, no one is to come empty handed before God. God then tells the people that he’s sending an angel to bring them to the place he has prepared; the Promised Land. God then gives them this command about the Promised Land, “Do not make a covenant with them or with their gods. Do not let them live in your land or they will cause you to sin against me, because the worship of their gods will certainly be a snare to you.” With this in mind, we get a better understanding of what God’s doing her; he’s confirming his covenant promises with Israel through Moses and the other leaders in Israel. God invites Moses to meet with him on the mountain, the holy sacred mountain that no one is supposed to set a foot on unless they’re invited by God.
Aaron, Nadab, Abihu, and 70 other leaders are invited to come on the mountain with Moses. When Moses tells the people what God has said and all the laws he’s given, they reply, “Everything the Lord has said we will do,” confirming that they’ve accepted God’s gift of the law and have committed themselves to obedience. The next morning, before Moses and the others head up the mountain, Moses builds an altar and they all offer burnt and blood offerings as fellowship offerings to the Lord. Then Moses does something we find a bit disturbing; he takes half of the blood from the bulls that were sacrificed and he splashes it against the altar. This blood splashed on the altar is a symbol of God’s forgiveness of their sin and that he accepts their offering.
Then Moses takes the Book of the Covenant, reads it to the people and they respond as they did the day before, “We will do everything the Lord has said; we will obey.” Then Moses takes the second half of the blood and sprinkles it all over the people! This blood is a symbol of the seriousness of the oath they have just made to God to obey his commands and to be his people. Moses, when he sprinkles it on the people says, “This is the blood of the covenant that the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words.” The blood is a visible sign of the covenant, the promises made between God and Israel, that they’ve just made. The people wear this blood on them until they wash again. Everyone can see the blood sprinkled on themselves, just as they can see it sprinkled on everyone else. It binds them together as God’s people. It echoes back to Egypt and the blood on their doorposts that protected them from God’s wrath and the angel of death; this blood represents forgiveness and protection from the punishment they deserve because of their sin.
Rev James Wharton of Princeton writes, “what kind of role do those ancient rituals play in the life of Israel.... Gerhard von Rad in Volume One of his theology…. says each one of these little strange and, to us, confusing yet obscure details, describes an area, a sphere, a part of life on which the right of God's claim is stamped. It's not so important that one understand why one does a certain thing as it is important to understand that in that sphere of life the Lord God has a claim and by responding affirmatively in that particular instance, even according to an old half-understood or forgotten rite or ritual, one is affirming the right of God over all of Life…. That enormous determination to try to order life in such a way that you say yes to God and God said don't do that and that's sufficient…. this ancient rite of the blood now becomes part of this affirmation that God has laid a claim on life and that claim is to be respected and honored at all costs.”
Now Moses and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and the 70 elders go up the mountain and they see God! Think about this! Moses writes, “But God did not raise his hand against these leaders of the Israelites.” So, what do these leaders do while they are on the mountain with God? They see God and then they eat and drink; they have a meal. This is all in the context of the covenant promises that are tying God and Israel closer together. The giving of the gift of the Law, the time of worship and sacrifice, and now this meal are all connected together, acts that draw God and his people closer together. Our relationship with God is not simply based on believing in the right things about God, it’s a faith that’s lived out in our daily lives through worship, obedience, and offering our lives to Jesus to be used for his kingdom.
This is what our sacraments do, they draw us closer to God and each other in the act of eating in the Lord’s Supper, in the act of sprinkling water in baptism, all in the context of worship and recommitting ourselves to following Jesus. This meal on the mountain echoes ahead to Jesus’ meal with his disciples just before his crucifixion. In Matthew 26, we see Jesus giving us what we now call the Lord’s Supper, “While they were eating, Jesus took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying, “Take and eat; this is my body.” Then he took a cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.”
Jesus ties this meal and his coming sacrifice to the covenants in the Old Testament, to the festivals God gave Israel in Leviticus, to the new covenant written on our hearts mentioned by Jeremiah, “The days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and with the people of Judah…. “This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel after that time,” declares the Lord. “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. No longer will they teach their neighbor, or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,” declares the Lord. “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.”
The Lord’s Supper and baptism are acts or sacraments given to us to help us grow deeper in our faith, to recommit ourselves to obedience to Jesus’ commands to us out of gratitude for what Jesus has done for us through the cross, washing away our sin, giving us life, new life. In giving us these sacraments, God seals our relationship to him through the working of the Holy Spirit who draws us closer to Jesus and his love expressed in these acts. It’s like the wedding ring in western cultures that couples give each other when they get married. Every time they see the ring on their finger, they’re reminded of the promises they’ve made to each other. The rings work as a seal in their relationships, showing the world that they’ve committed to love and honour each other through the good times and the hard times. In the sacraments we tell God and the world that we are committed to God and each other through good times and hard times.
The reality is that we will fail in our relationships with each other, especially in our relationship with God, but we are reassured in the meal and the water that God always holds up his side of the commitment through Jesus’ sacrifice and the Holy Spirit, drawing us back into relationship again and again. As the song writer tells us, “To this I hold, my hope is only Jesus. For my life is wholly bound to His. Oh, how strange and divine, I can sing, "All is mine," Yet not I, but through Christ in me.”