July 26, 2020
Let’s set the scene for the words we heard Bob Valentine read just now. Moses is on the mountain with God, receiving detailed instructions for the sanctuary, the tabernacle, the ark (where the covenant will be laid), and many other things. God is providing Moses with information so that Moses can direct the people to prepare God’s dwelling place. God plans to come into the midst of the people of Israel. God is coming down from the mountain, and Moses is to prepare a place for God among the people.
Moses is on the mountain for forty days and forty nights. The Israelites become impatient and, with Aaron’s help (and blessing) they take a forced offering of gold, melt it down, form a golden calf, and worship the calf in a festival to the Lord. God tells Moses he’d better go – the people are worshiping an idol; when he sees it, Moses is so angry that he breaks the tablets. God is angry as well. Really angry. Yet God relents when Moses pleads on behalf of the people. New tablets are made and the covenant is renewed.
It’s interesting to note that, unlike Aaron’s forced offering, the offering about which God spoke to Moses was a voluntary one: “Tell the Israelites to take for me an offering; from all whose hearts prompt them to give you shall receive the offering for me.”
Scholars believe that this portion of the book of Exodus was first written down during one of the periods of exile, when Israel was far from home and far from its place of worship. The exiled Israelites, trying to sing God’s song in a foreign land, were perhaps comforted by hearing the very detailed story of how God came down from the mountain to dwell among them. Could it be, they wondered, that even in a land far from everything familiar, far from the ark and the tabernacle, God was still with them?
We can relate to the feelings of sadness that the Israelites felt at being away from their sanctuary. We can relate to feeling lost and to missing times of worshiping our God together in our sanctuary. However, we must be careful not to paint this with too broad of brush strokes: the Israelites were in exile for generations; we are away from our sanctuary for a span of months… perhaps many months, but still months. Also, the Israelites were enslaved and pressed into hard labor, much like those in our day who deeply relate to the stories in Exodus of being freed from bondage: those of African descent whose ancestors were taken from their homes and pressed into hard labor. We experience no such bondage, no such slavery, in our Shelter-in-Place. While we experience feelings of displacement, especially around being away from our place of worship, we are not in exile, or in bondage, or pressed into hard labor.
Still, I believe it is a valid comparison. We feel lost and alone. We miss our time together in God’s house. We wonder how long? We wonder how to worship our God in this strange time. We wonder whether God accepts our worship offerings, such as they are. And maybe sometimes we wonder whether God is walking through this with us. God could remain on the mountain, after all. God could stay removed from all this.
But is our God distant? Is our God far off? Sometimes when we read the Old Testament with all its laws and all of the incredibly detailed instructions for tabernacle, ark, and other worship implements, it can seem as if God is unattainable. We can’t follow all of the instructions and laws perfectly.
The prophet Jeremiah writes,
The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt – a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord; I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.”
No matter how many times we fail to honor our covenant with God – no matter how many times the Israelites failed to honor their covenant with God – God does not leave us. God’s law, our path to God, is written on our hearts, and we all know God, and we are all forgiven by God.
Our sanctuary is important. It’s where we usually gather in worship and praise of our awesome God. And we are heartbroken to be away from it. But the law of God, which is love, is written on our hearts so that when they break, it falls in. The law of God, which is love, is written on our hearts so that when they break, it falls in. Our God has written the law on our hearts, the law that has been fulfilled in Jesus, so that we will all know him. And our God is with us every moment of every day: as we work, as we eat, as we sleep, as we play, and as we worship.
What is our worship? Certainly, it is our weekly Sunday morning gathering (or Sunday afternoon, or whenever you join us) via our computer screens and phones, just like worship was – and will be again – a gathering in our sanctuary where we hear the stories, sing the praises, and profess our faith in our Triune God.
With the law of God written on our hearts, and with the love of Jesus deep down in our hearts, can we expand our vision of what worship is? Just as we can’t put God in a box, we can’t keep our worship of God in a box, either.
People of God, when you care for one of the least among us, you care for Jesus. This is worship. When you help someone get on the computer so that they can be a part of worship and other meetings, you care for Jesus. This is worship. When you speak out for the voiceless, and when you stand up with the oppressed, you care for Jesus. This is worship. When, in the stillness of your heart, you find fear and you give it to Jesus, this is worship. When you don’t see the path ahead, so you call on Jesus, this is worship. God is with us, every step of the way.
God’s law, which is love, is written our hearts so that when our hearts break, it falls in. Open your hearts, your eyes, and your minds so that the love that is in your hearts through Jesus pours out all over this hurting world.
This is worship.