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.


Give Thanks to the Lord, Our Redeemer and Deliverer

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“Christ on the Cross” by Eugene Delacroix

“Oh give thanks to the Lord, for He is good, for His steadfast love endures forever! Let the redeemed of the Lord say so, whom He has redeemed from trouble and gathered in from the lands, from the east and from the west, from the north and from the south” (Psalm 107:1-3).

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

The psalmist commends God’s goodness and His steadfast love as reason for giving thanks. However, there are three kinds of people who do not give thanks to the Lord because He is good. The first kind is those who do not believe in God, or if they do doubt His ability or inclination to do anything to redeem them from their trouble. Some look at events in the world, or circumstances of their life and doubt His goodness and love.

The second kind is that of the despairing, those who certainly believe that God can and knows how to deliver them from their distress, but they do not believe that He also is willing to do it for them. Weighed down by the guilt of their transgressions or the pain and shame of others’ sins against them, they don’t trust that He has enough love for them to redeem them from their trouble.

The third kind of person who does not give thanks for the goodness and steadfast love of God is that of the presumptuous, those who regard themselves as good and self-sufficient, as if they did not need divine goodness. And they presume to climb up to equality with God, because they want to be what God is, namely, good in themselves. They want to make themselves equal to God. But they end up removing and denying God altogether, because they do not believe His goodness is so much greater than theirs.

At any given moment, due to our sinful nature, we can be one or the other—faithless, despairing, or haughty in spirit.

Fortunately, our psalmist understands and trusts both the goodness and steadfast love of the Lord. In Psalm 107, he mentions four specific challenges from which the Lord has delivered and redeemed His people. Our selected text, verses 1-9, has the first of the four: The people are wandering in desert wastes, finding no way to a city to dwell in. They are hungry and thirsty; their soul faints within them. Then they cry to the Lord in their trouble and He delivers them from their distress.

There were many situations in Israel’s history in which they cried out to the Lord, but this one seems to focus on the time of restoration from the exile. Israel had been scattered first by the Assyrians and then by the Babylonians. They were ready to go home. God had a city for them to dwell in. He delivered them from their distress and led them to Jerusalem. There they would rebuild the city, its walls, and the temple of the Lord. He would satisfy their hungry souls and fill them with good things.

The psalmist uses several words that are important to our understanding of God’s plan of salvation. In verse 6, the psalmist uses na-zal, “to deliver,” which has the idea of being physically rescued from something or separated from danger. The Lord saves us from spiritual and physical ill. As we confess in the explanation to the First Article of the Creed: “He richly and daily provides me with all that I need to support this body and life. He defends me against all danger and guards and protects me from all evil. All this He does only out of fatherly, divine goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness in me. For all this it is my duty to thank and praise, serve and obey Him.”

In verse 2, the word translated, “redeemed,” in Hebrew is go-ale, to be ransomed or bought back by a close relative as from debt or slavery. Jesus is our brother—a close relative. He redeemed us by buying us back from the debt of our trespasses and the slavery of our sin.

We confess this in the explanation to the Second Article of the Creed: He “has redeemed me, a lost and condemned person, purchased and won me from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil; not with gold or silver, but with His holy, precious blood and with His innocent suffering and death, that I may be His own and live under Him in His kingdom and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness, just as He is risen from the dead, lives and reigns to all eternity.

“[God’s people] cried to the Lord in their trouble, and He delivered them from their distress. Oh give thanks to the Lord, for He is good, for His steadfast love endures forever!

It was a cycle that continued to repeat over and over. God’s people fell away from Him. They experienced the consequences of their sin and unbelief. They cried out to the Lord, and He delivered them from their distress. He redeemed them from their trouble.

And that makes it rather like the everyday life of the Christian, doesn’t it? We fall away from the Lord and reap the consequences. We wander, hungering and thirsting for that which we cannot get for ourselves, but can only receive from the Lord’s gracious hands. Coming to our senses, we cry out to the Lord in our trouble. He delivers us from our distress. He redeems us from our trouble.

As we learn in the catechism, the life of the baptized is characterized by “daily contrition and repentance” that drowns the “Old Adam” sinner in us so that he dies “with all sins and evil desires, and that [in the sinner’s place] a new man should daily emerge and arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.”

Here in time, through baptism, we experience daily what will happen once, for eternity on judgment day.

“Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and He delivered them from their distress. Oh give thanks to the Lord, for He is good, for His steadfast love endures forever!”

The daily life of the Christian, while full of distress, every day having enough trouble of its own, is also full of the grace and love of God in Christ. In fact, it is the distress and trouble that points us to that grace and love. Without the distress and trouble, who would need, let alone look for, the grace and love that proceeds only from the beloved Son of the living God?

“For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through Him” (John 3:16-17).

Jesus didn’t need to take on flesh to condemn sinners, that was the state of things already. He came to deliver us from the death sentence of that condemnation. He came to redeem all who believe in Him and His work of salvation. On the dark Friday we call Good, He gave Himself to suffering and death, even a cursed death on the cross, so that you would not perish, but live eternally. To make a straight way to a city that is to come, the New Jerusalem. To satisfy your spiritual thirst, and fill your hungry soul with good things.

So here is one final thing for you to think about. However dark things may look to you on any given day; however painful the day’s trouble proves to be for you; however monstrous the obstacle you see before seems to be; the darkness, pain, and monstrosities from which your Savior is protecting and delivering you are infinitely greater. The devil prowls like a hungry lion seeking whom he may devour, and his armies are legions beyond counting. If you could see them for even a moment, you would not only give up hope, you would drop dead from fear.

But thanks be to God! He spares you from that which you could never begin to bear. And He gives you but enough to cause you to seek His help, to call on Him daily for forgiveness, and to keep you humble before Him and in the eyes of a critical world looking for any reason not to believe and to blame their unbelief on those who do.

So today, and every day, let us join together with all the faithful as we give thanks to our Redeemer and Deliverer. You are the redeemed of the Lord. In Jesus, God has restored the peace you long for. Your sins are forgiven, and where there is forgiveness of sins, there is life and every blessing. Speak up and tell others it is so: “Oh give thanks to the Lord, for He is good, for His steadfast love endures forever!”

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.