When Moses came down from the mountain and read them to the people, something very unexpected happened. Instead of bright lights and angelic rejoicing and good cheer, an odd kind of storm erupted. There was thunder and lightning, but instead of rain, there was smoke.
When the people saw the thunder and lightning and heard the trumpet and saw the mountain in smoke,they trembled with fear. They stayed at a distance and said to Moses, “Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die.”
Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid. God has come to test you, so that the fear of God will be with you to keep you from sinning.”
The people remained at a distance, while Moses approached the thick darkness where God was. — Exodus 20:18-21 (NIV)
Do you suppose the people’s response explains why they became a stiff-necked generation that refused to obey either Moses or God? A generation forbidden to live to see the Promised Land because of their rebellious refusal to enter it on God’s terms?
Anyone could have joined Moses and walked into the cloud to meet God. They all could have joined him. God gave them an opportunity to fear him (that is, hold him in reverential awe) in such a way that would keep them from sinning.
They did not fear God in this way. They were scared. And even after Moses’ invitation, they feared God in such a way that protected their favorite sins from God’s scrutiny.
They were quite content to hear preaching, but had no interest in getting to know God themselves. That was their problem. Is the American church any different today?
To be human in the world means to fear the unknown. To fear darkness and what might lie behind it. When it comes to God, to be human in the world means to fear that God won’t like what he sees. It also means to fear having to give up something in order to gain anything.
In a way, both of those latter fears are entirely correct. God does not like our sin. He offers us all things along with Christ if we’ll give up our sin. To be human in the world is to prefer sin to God. To be redeemed means to accept the grace that God offers and desire to make just that trade.
But we want it to be easy and pleasant. The door is open in heaven, but if all we see is darkness and clouds, who wants to take a chance?
The ancient Hebrews held back, even though they had seen his works on their behalf and should have understood God’s love. For the Christian, Jesus’ death on the cross should have settled any question about God’s love beyond question.
Yet still, in times of trouble, we’re tempted to hang back. We’re tempted not to go through that open door. Now, even more than after the giving of the Law, hanging back demonstrates hardness of heart and unbelief. The New Testament gives many stern warnings about that:
See to it, brothers and sisters, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called “Today,” so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness. We have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original conviction firmly to the very end. As has just been said:
“Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as you did in the rebellion.” — Hebrews 3:12-15, quoting Psalm 95:7-8 (NIV)
No one likes to hear that turning away from the living God indicates a sinful, unbelieving heart. But it’s true nonetheless. Grace is cheap grace if we can’t bear that challenge and walk through that open door regardless of the fearsome darkness.
We can either defy the darkness and walk through that open door to find God, or we can continue to hang back in our hardness of heart. In an earlier passage, the writer of Hebrews offered a stern warning about that:
We must pay the most careful attention, therefore, to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away.For since the message spoken through angels was binding, and every violation and disobedience received its just punishment, how shall we escape if we ignore so great a salvation? This salvation, which was first announced by the Lord, was confirmed to us by those who heard him. God also testified to it by signs, wonders and various miracles, and by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will. — Hebrews 2:1-4
Let’s resolve to harden our hearts toward our sin and our fear of approaching God so that we will no longer harden our hearts toward God himself. Otherwise, we face the certainty of a just punishment.