Second Verse, Same as the First
“When all the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking, they were afraid and trembled and stood at a distance, and said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, or we will die.””
Exodus 20:18-19 NRSV
Some of you who are a bit older know the song, “I’m Henry the Eighth, I Am.” It’s the most utterly annoying earworm you could imagine, and it just keeps going on and on. I won’t repeat it here because I don’t want to get it stuck in your mind and get myself booted out of an appointment I enjoy. Suffice it to say that after one pass through the verse of this song, it embeds itself in your brain, and when you think it's going to come to an end, the song goes back to the beginning with, “Second verse, same as the first.” That part isn’t the worst, though. When you come back around to that part, it’s not “third verse, same as the first,” it’s a repeat of “second verse, same as the first, and you realize you have been swept away in a musical loop. Abandon hope, all ye who attempt to get any work done here amid this stupid song rolling recklessly around your skull. Go wash the car, and eventually, it may release its hold on you. You might even go to bed without having to hear another verse, which is the same as the first if you recall.
Evangelism, revival, and the story of God trying to love His people are just like this song.
In the Battlestar Galactica reboot from 2004, one line stuck with me. “All of this has happened before. And all of this will happen again.”
These words could have been said with the events on Mt. Sinai in mind. The big question is, “Why don’t people come to God?”
10 of 613
This passage in Exodus is placed immediately after the Decalogue, better known as the Ten Commandments. The Ten Commandments are one set of laws out of 613 total laws in the Hebrew faith. One thing I know for sure that it requires a whole lot of lawyers.
Going back to the cause, effect, and result model we've been using, let’s look at the laws. The cause of God personally giving us the Ten Commandments is that He needed to show us our abject sinfulness, the effect of which is our understanding that we are utterly irredeemable by works of our own. The result of that is the realization that we need a savior; otherwise, eternity will not go very well for us. Right there is where we encounter the problem. God wants us to know we need a savior, but the tricky part is, it’s up to us to spread the whole news of that need.
All of this has happened before. And all of this will happen again.
You see, people get stuck on being irredeemable, not understanding that God assigned a mediator for us, which was Moses as a stand-in here for Jesus Christ, who would become the permanent mediator later on. According to theologian Walter J. Kaiser, Jr., the goal God drives at with the law, and the reason Jesus said he came to fulfill the law, not abolish it, is that the law is about “how to live more abundantly by using the unchangeable perfections of the nature of God as revealed in the moral law as a guide.” That’s freeing stuff to hear if you ask me.
The problem is, we often miss the point of grace, even when it’s looking us dead in the eye. For a lot of people, all they hear is, “You have to be perfect to be a Christian.” They realize that that ship has already sailed. It’s a wake-up call of the worst kind to hear God tell Abram to be perfect before Him, and to hear Jesus tell us to be perfect as God is perfect. Neither I, nor you, nor the world can be our definition of perfect. But what we understand about perfection and what God and Jesus said about perfection are two different things.
Jesus didn’t come to save us from the law. He didn’t come to abolish it; he came to fulfill it by mediating for us. In Micah, we learn that we are to seek justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God. The point is that when we can do that, our faith development by God kicks us into overdrive. So how is it that many people can’t get out of first gear? Well, it’s easy to hear Jesus say, “Be perfect, therefore, as your Father in heaven is perfect,” and think it’s about moral righteousness. It’s easy for us to believe God is going to judge us, find us lacking, and destroy us. People get unbelievably uptight about that. Why?
Well, for one reason, because it’s true. God can and will do that if He needs to.
That said, you shouldn’t hold a fear of God that is quite as anxiety-laden and terror-filled as many of us do. It’s undeniably unhealthy to continually possess the amount of anxiety the Israelites did in their fear of God, a fear that came with all the smoke, lightning, thunder, trumpets, etc. Still, others of us did at one time before we truly knew God, and many of us continue to labor under that kind of fear. Those of us who have changed were just like those runaway slaves at one point. So, what changed us?
A tough balance
In light of all that, it’s understandable that people would be apathetic or argumentative when you witness to them. I know people in our denomination who struggle with the seeking of justice and the loving of mercy, in that they find it challenging to balance the two. With the world's current definition of perfection, it’s impossible to be perfect, but it’s not hard to end up a wreck in the process of trying.
You have to ask yourself honestly. Have you given up on telling people about Jesus because you’re tired of beating your head against that very wall yourself? Sure. You'd love people to experience what you've experienced and to go deeper with God in the process. But running up against apathy and even anger isn’t a lot of fun, and I get that. Maybe we shouldn’t be doing this that way at all. Perhaps our approach is wrong.
The truth of our approach being wrong is that even though Galatians 2:16 tells us there is no justification found in the observance of the law, people still think that justification is the main point of the law. Moral righteousness isn’t the point of the law, and God’s judgment and punishment aren’t what we should focus on nearly as much as we do. It's true that when we focus on the negative, it’s because God focuses on the negative so you can understand our similar focuses. Don’t do this, and don’t do that. But why does God focus on the negative? Because He has to definitively draw a line for us with regards to our sin. But the law isn’t there to require us to “be holy" at gunpoint. Remember, that’s forced coercion to holiness, and it’s not a relationship, which is what God is after. Justice and mercy are not a carrot and a stick. Neither Jesus nor God called you to moral righteousness or any righteousness on your behalf. It might seem counterintuitive for a pastor to say that, but it’s a fact, and here is how I know. If we could have been morally righteous, Jesus on a cross would not have been necessary. He wouldn’t have had to go through what he went through, and you and I would be under the law alone, subject to being a sinner in the hands of an angry God.
That’s not what Jesus meant when he said to be perfect, though, and it’s not what God meant either.
The law is a guide toward a single-minded desire to be like God. Alexander Ballman Bruce referred to it as “Godlikeness” in the Expositor’s Greek Testament. This concept means our moral righteousness is a pipe dream. But seeking after God’s purpose for us, and growing in His will, putting our hand to the plow and looking forward instead of backward is what makes us perfect in the eyes of Jesus Christ and God. It’s being made complete in a loving relationship with Jesus Christ, and not turning back.
When we grasp that concept of the law, mercy makes sense as well. The law without mercy leads to death, but law with mercy leads to life. The guidance of God in our lives is the law. The mercy is the forgiveness for our failings. Without mercy, the law and God Himself are enemies to our very existence, and without the law, the existence of mercy holds absolutely no point. That has to be our approach as followers of Christ. If our approach can be corrected and clarified, we might see some kingdom headway. We might even meet people in their captivity of brokenness and be able to show them a savior who can set them free and make them whole, complete, and perfect as our Father is perfect, singlemindedly after His own will.
Or we could keep on going down the same path we’re on, and keep acting surprised when people hear the word “Jesus” and run the other way because they fear another self-righteous Christian is going to tell them all the ways they are a failure at being their misconception of perfect.
Let’s take a closer look at a couple of critical points of this scripture. The trumpet referred to here is a shofar. It’s loud, and when it's played unexpectedly, it can be unnerving. It makes you want to stand a ways off from it as fast as you can run. Now imagine a whole mountainside of them. Throw in some lightning. Roll around some thunder and smoke. It sounds like a volcano, but it wasn’t, because Moses went up on the mountain and stayed there for almost three months. There is no record of human incineration, and neither was there a record of the ash cloud a volcano would have produced. We’d have heard about this because they absolutely would have said something regarding the people it would have killed. We'd have at least been told how problematic it would have made their stay, as near to the mountain as they were.
Instead, we get something far different. We conclude this is the very presence of God. The word for thunder also means a voice. It specifically uses a pictograph showing a shepherd who speaks, and the sheep know His voice. Sound familiar? Maybe like something you read in John 10 about a good shepherd? So we have a shepherds voice calling to His sheep. But the sheep didn’t know Him, and so they stood a long way off and were genuinely afraid they would die. A millennium or so later, Jesus broke this whole situation out for them, stating that the shepherd is not a hired hand and that he lays down his life for the sheep. These people huddled outside Mt. Sinai were sheep that had no shepherd, and they finally heard his voice. It terrified them. Is it any surprise at all that when people are impacted by the love of Jesus Christ in their lives, convicted of their sins, it's a terrifying thing? They believe they are a sinner in the hands of an angry God when, in reality, they are a lost sheep hoisted on the shoulders of a savior who would suffer unimaginable pain and humiliation for them.
God’s plan all along was to have redemptive communion with us. His desire is not to punish us, but to love us so that we can be sheep who know His voice. No mistake, He will punish us if He has to, but that's not His goal.
This focus was the plan all along, from Abram’s introduction to God to the prophecy of Micah to Jesus in Matthew 5:48. The word for “with us” in Hebrew is Immanu, and the word used here for God is not Yahweh, it’s Elohim. This meaning is the plural God, the full, whole, and complete God. Put them together, and you get Immanu Elohim. Sounds a lot like Isaiah 7:14, yes? Immanu El is translated as "God with us," the prophecy of the coming of Jesus Christ repeated in Matthew 1:23. God has always wanted to be with us, and we’ve generally run away from the prospect. In the case of the Hebrew people, they were OK with the God they knew and could see and could quantify, but for this God that showed up and then showed out in such a terrifying way, they had no answer except to shrink back. They didn’t know Him and were terrified at the prospect of facing the full weight of God.
The strange part is, they acted as if Moses had some favorable control over God. We’ll listen to you, Moses, and we want you to be with us and among us, but don’t let Him near us because He scares the living daylights out of us. We can’t hear Him or have him with us, among us. It’s similar to how some of us are asked to pray by people who don’t pray. Hey, you seem to have some influence on God, and He appears to listen to you. Can you ask Him to do me a favor? They asked Moses because he was a sheep who knew the voice of the shepherd. And Moses responded.
This scenario has all happened before, and will all happen again. People need a leader, and we need to learn to lead. The people need a shepherd, and they have to find a sheep who knows the voice of the shepherd so they can join the flock.
Moses showed the people they didn’t have to be afraid and told them precisely that in the following verse. Throughout several paragraphs in the chapter, and over several months, in reality, Moses helped the people to experience God. They started afraid of God and His utterly incomprehensible power. We started the same way. Many more lay outside the walls of this church and other churches in that same condition, lost, alone, and frightened, whether they know it or not. The shepherd weeps for them. Luke 19 tells us this in great detail how the people didn’t see the shepherd, or how he would lay down his life, but he did it anyway, regardless of their choice.
The people on Sinai still went astray. The people in Jerusalem that Jesus cried over still went astray. We still go astray. That is why the right kind of leadership is essential. But it has to be humble leadership. It has to be a balance of justice and mercy. It has to be a balance of the cost and the grace about which Dietrich Bonheoffer spoke.
Moses, whose name means, “to draw,” was born a slave drawn from the water that could have drowned him. We were all once slaves to sin, and Jesus drew us out of the sin that was drowning us. Moses led the former slaves to become a new nation. You are called to lead others out of captivity. One of those slaves, Joshua, led those people by example to choose between remaining a slave to their former gods or serving the one True God. What will the slaves you lead to freedom achieve?
Every single one of us who was a slave to sin was set free. How can we be set free from the yoke we used to have around our necks and not feel the need to be a catalyst for freedom in the lives of others?
If we’re called to do that, and we don’t, then what happens? Are we willing to take a risk to change it? Even if only one word can change a life, are we willing to endanger others by not speaking that word?
Remember when I told you that I was going to challenge you to act upon the ownership of the inheritance Jesus gave us? That time is now. Take being a leader seriously. Learn to lead. Take the spiritual disciplines seriously and apply them. Be single-minded in the application of these disciplines to your life.
In a recent midweek class, we discussed the connectivity of our denomination. Someone impacted us powerfully for Christ within this church; otherwise, we wouldn’t be here. We learned about the people who had gone before us as leaders in the Methodist faith, and we developed a vital understanding. Every single one of us is connected in some way, back to John and Charles Wesley. The people you were impacted by, were affected by someone else, all the way back to those men and women we studied. There’s a legacy that they carried on into your life. It’s the reason you are here, the reason this church is here, the reason that we will be here tomorrow. They sang the same song, generation after generation. Second verse same as the first. We know the tune, too.
If we look at the example of the people who impacted us individually and the legacy they are a part of in our denomination, the line doesn’t start at John Wesley. It goes back to Martin Luther. It goes back to Justin Martyr. It goes further back to King David and comes to this point in time with Moses. If not for Moses, you wouldn’t be here. If not for David, you would not be here. If not for Justin Martyr, Martin Luther, John Wesley, or the person who impacted you positively enough to be in a pew today, you wouldn’t be sitting here right now, and you might not even have encountered Christ. So I have only two questions left to ask here.
Who is it you are called to impact? To who will you sing your verse?
Roland Millington is a United Methodist Church pastor serving Brimfield United Methodist Church in Brimfield, IL. He's the author of two books available digitally through our store, or as hard copies through LuLu Publishing.