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When the Lord saw that he turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” Then He said, “Do not come near; take your sandals off your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.”
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
One of the most famous speeches in American history is Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. The occasion was the dedication of a cemetery where those who had been killed in the Civil War battle were buried. It was, Lincoln said, “altogether fitting and proper” that they would do this.
But, Lincoln went on, in a larger sense, those who had come to set apart that ground could not “dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground.” The brave men who had struggled there had already hallowed it “far beyond our poor power to add or detract.” It was those who had died for their country at Gettysburg that made holy the land on which they were standing.
It was also a death that enables us to stand on holy ground. Jesus’ death enables us to stand on the holiest ground, in the very presence of God.
What makes ground holy? Let’s go to our Old Testament lesson.
As Moses tends the sheep of his father-in-law, he notices an astonishing sight: a bush that is on fire and yet is not consumed. The Angel of the Lord calls out to him from the burning bush, “Moses, Moses!” When the eighty-year-old shepherd answers, He tells Moses to remove his sandals because the ground on which he is standing is holy ground.
“I am God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob,” He goes on to say. Realizing this is the Lord God Himself, Moses hides his face, because he is afraid to look. He knows that a sinful human being cannot stand in God’s holy presence and live. Moses could not bear to look up. But that’s not really surprising, is it? Think of it—the God who had spoken to the forefathers of Israel, who for hundreds of years has been silent, is now speaking to him out of this burning bush! What would you do?
God assures Moses that He has heard the cry of His people. He will rescue Israel from their slavery in Egypt, and Moses is His chosen instrument for this deliverance. God tells Moses that He will be taking them to a good and spacious land. The good land is fruitful, “flowing with milk and honey,” but unfortunately it is also filled with wicked people. The people are so wicked that God doesn’t want any of them left when the Israelites settle there. God wants them completely wiped out so their idolatry will perish with them. So that they will not contaminate His holy people. He knows that if any of them survive they will easilty ensnare the people of Israel with their idolatry.
The ground Moses is standing on isn’t nearly as spacious as the Promised Land. It isn’t a desert—sheep can graze there—but it isn’t flowing with milk and honey, either. Still, it is a special place; it is holy ground because it is where God chooses to reveal Himself to Moses.
God reveals Himself as Yahweh, “I AM WHO I AM.” It is a name that will be in use for generations to come. Years later, Jesus will apply the name to Himself, “Before Abraham was born, I AM” (John 8:58). “I AM the Good Shepherd…I lay down My life for the sheep” (John 10:11, 15). “I AM the Resurrection and the Life, whoever believes in Me, though he die, yet shall he live” (John 12:25). “I AM the Way and the Truth and the Life, no one comes to the Father except through Me” (John 14:6). This is the key to all holy ground. Holy ground is a place where God reveals Himself to us.
How can anyone stand on such holy ground?
Moses understands how unworthy he is. He isn’t even up to the task God has for him: “Who am I to go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” he asks. This is a much different Moses. He’s grown up a lot in the last forty years. He’s much humbler than the man who had wanted to take on this job of deliverer all by himself when he killed an Egyptian and tried to settle an argument between two of his people. Now he doubts his own ability to do this work.
The truth be told, Moses isn’t worthy to go to Pharaoh as God’s representative. He’s even less worthy to stand in the presence of God. Sin makes anyone unworthy to stand in God’s holy presence. God’s holiness cannot tolerate sin. In fact, anyone coming into God’s presence dressed in the rags of sin would be destroyed.
But God says, “I will be with you.” He even gives Moses a sign as a pledge. “When you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall serve God on this mountain.” It is on this very same mountain, this holy place, that Israel is to receive God’s Law as His own covenant people.
It’s ironic that God first says, “Don’t come any closer; this is holy ground.” Then He says, “I will be with you.” Why the difference? For the answer to that question we need to take a broader view.
God’s calls to his prophets and deliverers in the Old Testament (also to Gideon, Samuel, Jeremiah, and Isaiah) follow a remarkably similar pattern:
- God speaks.
- The one to whom God speaks is confused and asks for clarification.
- God verifies that it is indeed God.
- The one God is calling acknowledges his unworthiness and humbles himself before God.
- The assignment is given.
- Objections are raised.
- Assurance is given, often in the form of a sign.
- The assignment is accepted.
It may seem in these cases that God is going through some rather cumbersome motions, but God’s way invariably brings an important effect: in each case the one who is called is able to say that he did not seek this calling himself. God called them when they were busy doing other things. Since the calling is completely God-initiated, the outcome is also dependent upon God. In considering a call, we can always trust God. Vocation is truly an expression that nothing is impossible with God.
That’s certainly true of our salvation. By nature, we are children of wrath, enemies of God. We are dead in our trespasses and sins. Spiritually blind, deaf, and rebellious. Unable to move the first step toward God, and even if we were somehow able to, we couldn’t last for a millisecond in His holiness. As we are by nature, we could no more stand on such holy ground than could Moses. We, too, are corrupted through and through by sin. We could never dare approach God on our own merits.
We acknowledged as much at the beginning of this service. I said, “Since we are gathered to hear God’s Word, call upon Him in prayer and praise, and receive the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ in the fellowship of this altar, let us first consider our unworthiness and confess before God and one another that we have sinned in thought, word, and deed, and that we cannot free ourselves from our sinful condition. Together as His people let us take refuge in the infinite mercy of God, our heavenly Father, seeking His grace for the sake of Christ, and saying: God be merciful to me, a sinner.”
God knew that we couldn’t act first to enter His holy presence, so He sent His Son to death before us. That’s why God can be with us even after He’s warned us to stay away. He came near to us. He came as one of us. Like us in every way, except without sin. Conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary. Perfectly obedient to the will and Law of God. Suffered, died, and was buried as payment for our sins. Risen from the dead for our justification, the firstfruits of our own resurrection. He ascended to the right hand of God the Father Almighty, where He continues to intercede on our behalf even as He has promised to be with us always in His means of grace—His Word and Sacrament.
Because of Jesus, we can draw near to God. Baptized into His triune name, we come fearlessly into His holy presence, this holy ground. Just as God spoke through the burning bush, so today, through His called and ordained servant, the Lord speaks His holy Word and absolution. God’s doesn’t say, “Don’t come any closer.” He says to us, as we sing in the Communion hymn, “Draw near and take the body of the Lord” (LSB 637:1).
As daunting as the task of going to stand before Pharaoh seemed, the more amazing call from God was for Moses to stand in His, God’s, own presence. If Moses was inadequate to the task of freeing Israel from Egypt—and he was—he was infinitely less adequate to stand in the presence of the holy God. No one wrapped in sin can. But God enabled him to do both. By promising to go with Moses, God would enable Moses to face Pharaoh. And by sending Jesus into death to remove sin, God allows Moses—and each one of us to stand in His holy presence now, and on the most hallowed ground, forever.
Almighty God in His mercy has given His Son to die for you and for His sake forgives you all your sins. As a called and ordained servant of Christ and by His authority, I therefore forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.