Holy Ground: Holy God and His Holy Things

“Moses and the Burning Bush” by Marc Chagall

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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:

  1. God speaks.
  2. The one to whom God speaks is confused and asks for clarification.
  3. God verifies that it is indeed God.
  4. The one God is calling acknowledges his unworthiness and humbles    himself before God.
  5. The assignment is given.
  6. Objections are raised.
  7. Assurance is given, often in the form of a sign.
  8. 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.


When the Helper Comes…


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“When the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, He will bear witness about Me. And you will also bear witness, because you have been with Me from the beginning” (John 15:26-27).

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!

Oh, to be there on that day! The Day of Pentecost. A large multitude gathered from every nation under heaven. Rushing wind, tongues of fire, speaking in other languages. So much excitement that some could only imagine they must be drunk. Peter preaching boldly on the fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy.

As we gather here on this Day of Pentecost, we don’t have that, do we? The assembly can hardly be called a crowd, let alone a multitude. And we’re not exactly the poster child for diversity. Only one person born outside the borders of the United States. One who speaks fluent (Portuguese) Spanish, a few who can converse in German, and one or two who know a couple of colorful expressions in Norwegian. The only air that’s moving comes from the ceiling fans. The only fire from the candles on the altar. The preacher is not nearly as impressive as St. Peter. And no one is calling the sheriff that we’re disturbing the peace.

But we do have the promised Helper, the Holy Spirit at work. Oh, certainly we are missing the wind, the tongues of fire, and the miraculous ability to preach in other languages; but we do have Baptism, the Word, and the Lord’s Supper. And it is in those means of grace that the Holy Spirit does His work.

But don’t take my word for it. Let’s go back to what our Lord says as He tells His disciples what the Holy Spirit will do: “When the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father,He will bear witness about Me. And you will also bear witness, because you have been with Me from the beginning” (John 15:26-27). The first thing that Holy Spirit does is “bear witness” about Jesus.

Note a couple of things before we move on. First, we hear the glad news that the whole Trinity is working to save you, because the Son sends the Spirit from the Father to bear witness.

Second, the Holy Spirit bears witness—not “demonstrates,” for instance. We therefore conclude that the Holy Spirit regularly works by the Word, not by signs and wonders. He can work such things if He desires, but the absence of extraordinary sights does not mean He is absent.

Third, we note that, when the Holy Spirit bears witness, He bears witness about Jesus. The work of the Holy Spirit, in concert with the Father and the Son, is to bear witness about the Savior—not about Himself. Therefore, when the apostles bore witness, they spent little time on the Holy Spirit. By the work of the Holy Spirit, they testified of Christ. This is important for us to understand. The Holy Spirit desires to put the spotlight on Jesus. If we unduly focus upon the Spirit instead of the Son, we are not doing what the Holy Spirit would have us do.

The second action of the Holy Spirit is that He comes to Jesus’ disciples. He comes because Jesus goes away. Jesus says: “I did not say these things to you from the beginning, because I was with you. Now I am going to Him who sent Me, and none of you asks Me, ‘Where are You going?’  But because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your heart. Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send Him to you” (John 16:4b-7).

Jesus tells His disciples that He is going away, and this news pains them. Why? Because He is going to the Father by way of the cross. He is fulfilling the plan of salvation. He is preparing the way to the Father in heaven for all who believe in Jesus. Jesus speaks these words at the Last Supper. His betrayal, suffering, death are all very near. And it is because of His cross that He will send the Holy Spirit to them.

This tells us something significant. The work of the Holy Spirit is linked with the death of Jesus for the sins of the world. If Jesus did not go to the cross, the Holy Spirit would not come and work. Without Jesus’ death and resurrection, the Spirit would have no means to work saving faith. This reinforces what we learn elsewhere in Scripture, and in the rest of our Gospel lesson. The work of the Holy Spirit, first and foremost, is to deliver the forgiveness of sins won by Christ.

And this leads us to the third action of the Holy Spirit: He convicts. “And when He comes, He will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment: concerning sin, because they do not believe in Me; concerning righteousness, because I go to the Father, and you will see Me no longer; concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world is judged” (John 16:8-11).

The Holy Spirit convicts, and that conviction has two meanings linked together. On the one hand, to convict is to convince by producing evidence. A prosecutor seeks to convince a jury and convict a criminal by displaying evidence. On the other hand, to convict is to pronounce a verdict. The criminal isn’t officially convicted until the jury declares him guilty. The Holy Spirit does both. He convicts by producing evidence of the truth, and He convicts by declaring a verdict.

So, the Holy Spirit convicts the world of sin, because on account of sin the world does not believe in Jesus. The Holy Spirit produces evidence in order to convince people that they are guilty of sin before God. Exhibit A here is the Law of God in His holy Word, because the Law shows us our sin and our need for a Savior. And only the Holy Spirit can convict us that we are indeed poor miserable sinners, who justly deserve God’s temporal and eternal punishment.

The Holy Spirit convicts the world of righteousness—because Jesus goes to His Father. He convinces us that the righteous, sinless Son of God went to His Father by way of the cross. Having triumphed over sin, death, and the devil, Jesus has returned to the Father in glory.

The Holy Spirit convinces us that that righteous Savior has suffered for our sins, and now gives us forgiveness and clothes us in His righteousness so that we might be acceptable to God. The Holy Spirit’s evidence for this is the Gospel. It is by the work of the Holy Spirit that the Gospel is proclaimed, forgiveness is given, and faith is strengthened.

Hmmm… So far, the work of the Holy Spirit is therefore to preach the Law and the Gospel, which sounds suspiciously like the doctrine and practice of this congregation. And what is the third convicting work of the Holy Spirit?

The Holy Spirit convicts the world of judgment, because the ruler of this world is judged. In other words, by Law and Gospel, the Holy Spirit convicts by handing down the verdict. The ruler of this world, the devil, is already defeated at the cross and sentenced to death—eternal death. All those who refuse the forgiveness won by Christ face the same verdict—“guilty”—and the same sentence of everlasting condemnation. However, it is quite the opposite for those who hear His message of sin and righteousness and, by the Spirit’s work, believe in Jesus. To them, the Holy Spirit announces the verdict of “Not guilty”—forgiven for the sake of Jesus Christ. They will have everlasting life.

And that, in a nutshell, is the work of the Holy Spirit. He is sent from the Father to testify about the Son. He convicts the world of sin by the Law and announces the redemption of Christ in the Gospel. And as He gives the forgiveness of sins, the Holy Spirit also gives faith to believe.

Given the Second Reading and the Gospel lesson for this day, can we conclude that the Holy Spirit is at work here at Our Saviour’s/St. John’s/Trinity? Absolutely! By the grace of God, we proclaim His Law and His Gospel, and by these means the Holy Spirit is at work. By that same Word, He works forgiveness and faith in Baptism and the Lord’s Supper—just as He did among those early Christians in the book of Acts.

To those who ask, we gladly concede that the Holy Spirit can do extraordinary things like tongues of fire or languages if He desires; but His foremost work is to glorify Jesus and point to Him. If miraculous signs or speaking in other languages don’t point to Christ and Him crucified, it is safe to say they do not come from the Holy Spirit.

Furthermore, we don’t especially miss rushing winds or tongues of flame, for they do not give forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation. Rather, given the Lord’s Word and Sacraments, we have far better workings of the Spirit—for what could be more extraordinary than receiving everlasting life?

On this Day of Pentecost, rejoice! As those first Christians gathered around Word and Sacrament, so do we; in fact, to ignore the means of grace and pursue the Holy Spirit elsewhere is to snub Him. Is the Holy Spirit here? Most certainly. Does He desire more attention for Himself and less for Jesus? Most certainly not! Our focus upon Christ and Him crucified is certainly, and only, the work of the Holy Spirit. And that is why Pentecost is so important, for apart from the Holy Spirit you would not be a Christian.

We live in a time when many deny such a thing as absolute truth, and the veil of sin is too much to keep them from refuting the absurdity of their position. Others still affirm that there is a right and wrong. However, it is only by the Spirit’s work that you confess your sinfulness and need for the forgiveness won by Christ at the cross.

It is only by the Holy Spirit that you believe in Jesus as your Lord and Savior, for it is He who has called you by the Gospel.

It is only by the Holy Spirit that you remain a child of God, because He has gathered you into the Church and keeps you in the one true faith—the faith of Jesus Christ, crucified and risen for you.

It only by the work of the Holy Spirit that you can be sure that you are not forsaken, that Christ has redeemed you and will deliver you.

It is only by the work of the Holy Spirit that you have the confidence of eternal life; for though you grow weary, He continues to call, gather, enlighten, sanctify, and keep you in the faith, so that you may be raised from the dead to life everlasting.

It is only by the work of the Holy Spirit that you have the comfort of knowing that He has made you one in Christ with those who have gone before you in faith.

Apart from the Spirit, you have none of these gifts. But by the Holy Spirit’s work, the kingdom of heaven is yours for the sake of Jesus. You can be sure the Spirit is with you, because you know exactly when and exactly where He works: In the Lord’s Word and Sacraments.

Thanks be to God, who for the sake of His Son sends His Holy Spirit. For on this day, and each day, the Holy Spirit is at work to convict you of your sin and Christ’s righteousness, so that, you might repent and believe: For Jesus’ sake, you are forgiven for all of 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.