It must have been quite a sight; the mountain blazed and shook thunderously with a roaring the people had never before heard, while smoke poured forth till the crest was enveloped in thick darkness. God had come down, and they were terrified. Who wouldn't be? Sane people don't usually want to climb an active volcano, even if God himself is there! Moses wouldn't be one of those sane people. He went up, picking his way through the lava, spanning the crevices that opened up, enduring the heat and toxic fumes till through it all he heard the voice of God.
"I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage." God was introducing himself to the people he had chosen. They had experienced his deliverance, but knew nothing of his character, his holiness. They were about to find out as one by one, he enumerates the law by which they were to live. This law was clear and simple, though by no means easy, and defined the divine character they were to emulate.
People have often complained about the supposed negativity of the Ten Commandments, but they miss the point. Only ten things are forbidden, which means everything else is permitted; an expansive life, indeed. There isn't an all-inclusive list of things one must do to remain in good standing with the Holy One; such a list would be unending. Instead, there are listed but ten things that can break the relationship he established when he delivered them from slavery. Six of those things have to do with our relationships with one another; four with our relationship to God himself. He gives us immense freedom, but places guard rails around those dangerous curves that can plunge us off the road, to certain destruction. History is littered with the human wreckage of those who ignored the guard rails to their own demise.
What tonight interests me in the text are the words immediately following Moses' reception of these Ten Commandments. In Exodus 20:18-21 we read, "Now all the people witnessed the thunderings, the lightning flashes, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking; and when the people saw it, they trembled and stood afar off. Then they said to Moses, "You speak with us, and we will hear; but let not God speak with us, lest we die."And Moses said to the people, "Do not fear; for God has come to test you, and that His fear may be before you, so that you may not sin." So the people stood afar off, but Moses drew near the thick darkness where God was.
Did you catch that? God came...so they might not sin. But they were afraid and kept their distance. They said they were afraid to die. Jesus said if we want to follow him, we must die to self, but we don't want to. We're afraid that if we die, there won't really be a resurrection, and life will be over. So we hold God at arm's length while we hold closely all the putrefying sins that are killing our souls instead of yielding them to Christ who wants to put an end to them. I suspect there is stuff in our lives we don't want to die; habits and sins we cherish. And so we cling to the life we know and lose the life we were meant to have.
The text says that the people stood "afar off." They kept the Almighty God at a distance, never experiencing as did Moses, the glory of his presence. I wonder if that's why they so easily slipped again and again into sin, ultimately forfeiting the prize of the Promised Land. When we keep a distance between God and ourselves, when we stand "afar off," our knowledge of him is at best second-hand hearsay, which is never adequate help in the time of trouble.
Tonight I am thankful for this Scripture, and pray that I will be willing to climb the fearsome mountain that quakes and spits fire. So that I might hear from God himself.