Sermons

Holy Ground: Holy God and His Holy Things

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“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.

Sermons, Uncategorized

Preparing for Departure

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“And behold, two men were talking with [Jesus], Moses and Elijah, who appeared in glory and spoke of His departure, which He was about to accomplish at Jerusalem” (Luke 9:31).

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

Moses’ long life was marked with mountaintop experiences. At the age of eighty, God spoke to him out of the burning bush on Horeb, the mountain of God, and called Moses to lead His people out of Egypt (Exodus 3:1ff). On Mount Sinai, the Lord spoke to Moses out of the thick cloud and gave him the Ten Commandments (Exodus 19-20). When Moses came down from the mountain, the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God (Exodus 34:29-35).

In today’s Old Testament reading, Moses went up from the plains of Moab to Mount Nebo, to the top of Pisgah, which is opposite Jericho. The mountain traditionally identified as Mount Nebo is located about 12 miles east of where the Jordan River enters the Dead Sea, and it rises more than 2,600 feet about sea level. The Dead Sea is the lowest spot in the world, 1,300 feet below sea level. What a dramatic view the Lord gave of this land that Moses longed to see for many years!

By inviting Moses to view the extent of the land, the Lord showed one last act of kindness to this special leader of His people. But maybe it was more than that. Biblical precept, as well as later Roman law, let a man view land he was about to possess. Perhaps this was the Lord’s way of giving Moses a legal guarantee that the men and women he led for so long would really inherit the land, though he would die before it happened.

The Lord had a far better promised land in mind for Moses. The writer to the Hebrews included Moses among the believers from the Old Testament era who saw the Lord’s promises fulfilled by faith, not by sight:

These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth… But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for He has prepared for them a city (Hebrews 11:13,16).

The account of Moses’ death is simple but mysterious: “So Moses the servant of the Lord died there in the land of Moab, according to the word of the Lord, and He buried him in the valley in the land of Moab opposite Beth-Peor; but no one knows the place of his burial to this day” (Deuteronomy 34:5-6).

The final measure of Moses’ long life was that he was the Lord’s servant. What better epitaph could be placed under a man of God’s name on his tombstone than “Servant of the Lord!” As Jesus defines true greatness for His disciples: “Whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:26-28).

Regarding Moses’ departure, there is much mystery. It’s not clear whether we should translate “He buried him” or “He was buried.” Some have proposed that the Lord Himself buried Moses; that’s possible, but it can’t be proved definitively by the text. There’s an additional air of mystery in the words, “no one knows the place of his burial to this day.” If the Lord buried Moses, some have suggested that his body may not have suffered the physical decay that unavoidably follows death. In his epistle, Jude makes a passing reference to a dispute between the archangel Michael and the devil over Moses’ body (Jude 9). According to legend, when Moses died (by the kiss of God), the Lord delegated Michael to bury his body, but the devil tried to claim the body for himself. At least one version of the legend adds that Moses’ body was later “assumed” into heaven, accompanied by angels.

However intriguing this notion may be, we can’t speak with certainty. And anyway, Moses also wrote Psalm 90, and it’s more likely that the death he described as the common experience of all people was what he suffered too:

You return man to dust and say, “Return, O children of man!” You sweep them away as with a flood; they are like a dream, like grass that is renewed in the morning: in the morning it flourishes and is renewed; in the evening it fades and withers. The years of our life are seventy, or even by reason of strength eighty; yet their span is but toil and trouble; they are soon gone, and we fly away (Psalm 90:3,5,6,10).

Moses lived well beyond eighty years. Yet even at 120 years, his eyesight was keen and his physical strength unimpaired up until the day that he died.

Moses’ service to the Lord was unique because he enjoyed a more intimate relationship with the Lord than any Old Testament prophet before or after him. “The Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend” (Exodus 33:11). The Lord explained this special relationship to Moses and Aaron:

If there is a prophet among you, I the Lord make myself known to him in a vision; I speak with him in a dream. Not so with my servant Moses. He is faithful in all My house. With him I speak mouth to mouth, clearly, and not in riddles, and he beholds the form of the Lord” (Numbers 12:6–8a).

Before his departure, Moses spoke of a prophet who was to come: “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brothers—it is to Him you shall listen” (Deuteronomy 18:15). Little did Moses realize that the climb to the top of the mountain on the day of his death would be the precursor of another climb up another mountain to proclaim the departure of that even greater Prophet for the salvation of the human race.

That’s where we find him in our Gospel. Jesus takes Peter, James, and John along as He goes up onto a mountain to pray. As Jesus prays, He is transfigured and appears in heavenly glory. Moses and Elijah appear and speak with Him. We don’t know much about the specifics of the conversation. Luke doesn’t give us a verbatim account, but he does tell us they spoke concerning “His departure.” The Greek brings more to mind. They talked about His “exodus.”

This was not the first time Jesus talked about His departure in Jerusalem. Earlier in the same chapter Jesus spoke of His death and resurrection (9:21-22). He also spoke about the death of all who would follow Him (9:23-25). The connection between these departures and the Old Testament Exodus are obvious and worth noting. As God’s central act of deliverance before Jesus, the Exodus from Egypt meant liberation from bondage and hope for a future. Jesus’ departure in Jerusalem accomplished this and more for all who depart in faith in Him.

Which brings us back to the conversation on the mountain on the day of Transfiguration. What do you suppose that Jesus spoke about with the prophets? While we can’t be sure, I think that we can imagine the types of things they may have discussed. Perhaps Jesus told them about the difficulties He was preparing to endure in His passion. Maybe they asked Jesus how He was going to do it.

Perhaps Jesus was telling them about how the disciples—including the three with Him—would all run away. About how they would promise to stay with Him, but then how their fears would rise up and about how He would suffer alone.

Perhaps Jesus was telling them about why He was willing to endure the coming sufferings: Maybe He spoke of His love for creation, His love for all people, His great desire to restore all things. Maybe He let Moses and Elijah in on the secret—that by dying and rising He would conquer death for all time. Maybe Jesus was helping the two of them see this had been His plan from the beginning and how they (Moses and Elijah) were part of a much larger story.

Or perhaps Jesus was speaking with Moses and Elijah about how His departure—His death and resurrection—would affect our departure.

Most of us probably do not like to think about our own departure—our exodus—very often. We are too busy living to spend much time thinking about dying. But death has a way of forcing its way into the conversation. Sometimes it sneaks up on us suddenly; other times it lingers, slowly sapping life away. A few, like Moses enjoy a long vigorous life. But death always enters the picture.

Which makes this Sunday a good opportunity to prepare to not only enter the season of Lent, but also to die well. In three short days, we will be reflecting especially on our own death on Ash Wednesday.

As your pastor, my most important duty is to make sure you are ready for the day of your death. So, I must ask you: Are you prepared for your departure?

I’m not talking the practical aspects of getting your day-to-day affairs in order like purchasing enough life insurance, updating your will, or pre-planning your funeral. Those are all important details, especially for your loved one, but they’re not near as important as having your spiritual affairs all in order.

Death is inevitable. You and I must prepare for death, so we may meet it without fear and the danger of eternal ruin. It is a sad truth that we can get so wrapped up in ourselves and the attainment of our own goals, that we not only fail to take our coming death into account, but actually invite God’s wrath by the way we act and live. And day by day, month by month, year by year, we think and talk and live having no concern for the eternal consequences. And one day it’s too late.

The hard truth is: We are not able to make the preparations necessary to enter into the promised land of heaven and into the eternal Paradise that God wants us to have in His presence. Each one of us is a sinful human being who daily sins much in thought, word, and deed… by what we do and by what don’t do… by what we say and what we don’t say… by what we think and what we don’t think. Hour after hour, week after week, year after year, the burden of sin builds and there is terror as we consider what we deserve from the holy, just, righteous God. No, the Lord God must make all the preparations if we are to be with Him forever.

The Good News to you this day is this: God has done it. God the Father sent His Son into this world to take your place on the cross by enduring the penalty for your sinfulness and for all your sins… every one of them. With His holy precious blood, His innocent suffering and death, Jesus has made all the preparations for your departure from this life and into the promised land of heaven.

God baptized you into His death on the cross and your death became His death and His death became your death. You died on the day of your Baptism. You were crucified with Christ and from that moment on, it was no longer you have lived but Christ living in you; and the life which you live in the flesh, you live by faith in the Son of God, who loved you and gave Himself up for you (Galatians 2:20). On the day of your Baptism, the Lord was preparing you for your departure.

Please remember, the Lord God must make all the preparations if we are be with Him forever. The Good News to you this day is this: God has done it. In order to accomplish your salvation, Jesus rose again from the dead on the third day. Neither death nor devil nor grave could hold Him. He has defeated them for you.

God granted you your first resurrection when He baptized you with water and the Word. You were buried with Christ through Baptism into death, that just as Jesus was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so you also have walked in newness of life from that moment (Romans 6:4). On the day of your Baptism, the Lord was preparing you for your departure from this world, for your own resurrection, and for eternal life in His presence.

The eternal blessings of God because of His Son’s life, death, and resurrection are yours by faith in Christ. Salvation is by God’s gift of faith and not by mans’ good deeds. Faith itself is God’s work that the Holy Spirit gives through the Word. The Lord works faith in your heart as you hear the proclamation of the Gospel. God grants you faith to believe in Him.

The Lord, through Word and Sacrament, sustains and strengthens the faith that He began in you throughout your life. As you receive the very body and blood of your Lord Jesus Christ, you are strengthened in faith toward God and in service to your neighbor. Each time you leave, fully prepared for your departure, that is, to depart in peace, knowing that 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.