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Holy Thursday with Stripping of the Altar

March 28, 2024; Rev. Kurt A. Lantz, Pastor
Holy Thursday. eucharis.jpg

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Something had changed. When the LORD first came down upon Mt. Sinai to speak with His people, “there were thunders and lightnings and a thick cloud on the mountain and a very loud trumpet blast, so that all the people in the camp trembled” (Exodus 19:16). The LORD came in all of His terrible splendour and majesty.


Not only was it frightening, it was dangerous and threateningly fatal. “And the Lord said to Moses, ‘Go down and warn the people, lest they break through to the Lord to look and many of them perish’” (v. 21). It is death to see this God who destroyed the Egyptians, who humiliated Pharaoh and left the most powerful empire in the world destitute. It was awesome that this mighty God had saved them from bondage in Egypt, but who would save them from this God?


“Now when all the people saw the thunder and the flashes of lightning and the sound of the trumpet and the mountain smoking, the people were afraid and trembled, and they stood far off 19 and said to Moses, ‘You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, lest we die’” (Exodus 20:18-19). The people of Israel needed to be saved from the presence of the holy God in their midst, the one who had saved them. They needed to be saved from His thunderous voice of judgment. And so do you.


You are not so very different from the rebellious, complaining people of Israel. You are certainly not mightier or stronger than they in any significant relation to be able to stand in the presence of God. You are not less sinful. You are not more morally upright. And the LORD God Himself has not changed in any way. He has not become weaker or less majestic or less powerful. He has not downgraded His holiness or turned off His terrible splendour.


So, in our Old Testament reading for tonight, which is found just a few chapters later in the Book of Exodus, after that first appearance of the LORD on Mount Sinai, it is a wondrous and amazing thing to hear that not only Moses and Aaron, but also Aaron’s two sons and 70 of the leaders of the people are called to go up the mountain to meet the LORD.


They do not only hear His voice directly in their ears, but also with their own eyes “they saw the God of Israel” (Exodus 24:10). They were able to give a brief description of what they saw, so far as they were bold enough to lift up their eyes to Him. They saw God’s feet. “There was under his feet as it were a pavement of sapphire stone, like the very heaven for clearness.”


As much as I would like a fuller description of the LORD standing there with them on the mountain, I cannot blame them for not lifting their eyes any higher. The Bible tells us that no one can see God and live. Moses was only permitted to see the LORD’s back, after He had passed by Him. God concealed His glory and majesty in a cloud while He accompanied His people all the way on their journey to the promised land. But, as recorded in our Old Testament reading tonight, Moses and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu and the 70 others saw God’s bare feet.


It was not so much like catching a glimpse of a celebrity who might be driving by in a car to a local film location, as it was like catching sight of a murderous gunman who might be leaving a crime scene. This LORD had just killed all the firstborn in Egypt in order to allow His people to escape their bondage. And He wiped out the entire Egyptian army and left their dead bodies to wash up on the shore of the Red Sea. It was just judgment, not murder, but the fear of those who saw His feet on the mountain was genuine terror rather than giddy excitement.


But something had changed. “He did not lay his hand on the chief men of the people of Israel; they beheld God, and ate and drank” (v. 11). It wasn’t a matter of enduring the powerful, mighty voice and presence of the almighty, transcendent God. It kind of sounds like it ended up being a relaxing social evening with Him. They not only heard Him, but they saw Him, and no mention of thick cloud or smoke or lightning. They saw where God rested His feet. They did not fast, but feasted. They ate and drank before the same God whom they previously could not approach nor even endure the sound of His voice. Something had changed. Access had been granted. But a price had been paid.


Every year in June, Niagara Falls hosts a convention of science fiction, fantasy, and horror. Stars of comic books, movies, and television shows come to the city to make their appearances before crowds of adoring fans. But they are very careful to stay somewhat hidden while they are here. That is because there is a price to be paid in order to see them. There is a price of admission to the convention centre. This year, for $200 you can get a photo with two of the aging supporting actors from the Harry Potter films. Without that $200 ticket you won’t be allowed near them. There is a price to be paid to stand in their fading glory. That is how they continue to make their living.


A price had to be paid for Moses and his entourage to have their meet and greet with the LORD. It was not that God needed to make a living off of His fame. It was because His holiness would consume the sinfulness of fallen man. There was a price that needed to be paid for the cleansing of sin, for the purifying of these men who not only had their own transgressions but were also stained by the world of death and disease in which they lived.


The price that had been paid was life itself. Bulls were killed. Their throats were slit and their blood was caught in bowls. Half of that sacrificial lifeblood was thrown onto the altar where the animals were burnt as an offering to the LORD. The LORD’s approach to accept the pleasing aroma of this sacrifice of faith, according to His Word of promise, made the altar holy, and so also the blood that came into contact with it.


The other half of the sacrificial blood, then made holy, was thrown upon the people, making them holy through faith in the LORD’s promise given in His Word to Moses. The holy God made His people holy so that they could approach Him and He would not raise His hand against them. His holiness would not consume them, for they were made holy by His Word.


It wasn’t that the blood of the bulls did anything. It was costly, but in itself it was impotent. The LORD declared it to be a way of access to Him, more specifically, a way of purification for the sins of the people so that they could be in His presence without Him executing them for their sins. The bulls paid the execution price and their blood was considered as payment for the sins of the people. The bulls covered the cost and the people were covered in their blood when Moses threw it upon them.


It was not just a literary allusion when Jesus used the words He did at His institution of the Lord’s Supper on the night before His sacrificial death. He took the cup, just as Moses took the bowls of bull blood, and Jesus said, “This cup is the new covenant in My blood, which is shed for you for the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 28:28). It is more than a literary reference. It was the enacting of a new promise from God through which we may have access to Him. By faith in these words of Jesus we are granted the forgiveness of sins to stand before God and to enjoy His gracious presence as we eat and drink at His table.


A price has been paid for our sins, the price of lifeblood. But not the impotent blood of bulls or goats or lambs. It was the price of the blood of God. The eternal, immortal, almighty, transcendent Son of God took on human flesh and blood, so that holy blood could be shed to purify us from our sins and bring us into the gracious and glorious presence of our heavenly Father.


Again, it is more than a literary allusion when the writer of the letter to the Hebrews declares to us, “This is the blood of the covenant that God commanded for you” (Hebrews 9:20). The people of Israel were commanded to use the blood of animals. We have been given the new command of Jesus to use His blood.


With that blood sacrificed and spilled out on the altar of the cross, Jesus ascended into the heavenly mountain where God sits enthroned eternally. He sprinkles us with His blood as He gives it to us in the cup of Holy Communion to splash down and cleanse us inside and out, not just purifying our bodies through some outward action, but cleansing our consciences through faith in His promise. His once for all sacrifice on our behalf puts away our sins and secures for us an eternal redemption so that we might serve God without fear. We live before Him on this earth of sin, death, and disease carrying out our vocations, and we ascend before Him with Christ to offer our prayers and receive His blessing.


We are therefore rightfully warned not to spurn the Son of God who has offered Himself into death and shed His blood for our salvation. We are not to disdain this sacrament by only coming when it seems convenient to us. Nor are we to profane it by approaching with no desire or intention to amend our sinful lives, and to make every effort to live according to His Word, His mandate of love for one another according to His commandments. Such flagrant hypocrisy, we are told, will outrage the Spirit of His grace.


We have heard how the God who welcomed Moses, Aaron, Nadab, Abihu, and the 70 leaders of His people, visited His wrath upon them when they lived in rebellion to His Word and direction. When Nadab and Abihu presumed to offer unauthorized fire before this same LORD with whom they ate and drank, fire came out from the altar and consumed them (Leviticus 10:1-3). Neither does the blood of Jesus excuse or purify us from such deliberate sins of arrogance or presumption. Rather, the greater worthiness of the precious blood of Christ amplifies the guilt of these transgressions.


But by this same holy, precious, priceless blood, we can be all the more sure that we are perfectly purified and completely cleansed when we come with faith in His Word and Promise, when we sincerely speak as the people of God saying, “All that the LORD had said we will do and we will obey” (Exodus 24:9). It is not our promise that makes God’s forgiving grace effective, but our promise is compelled by His faithfulness to us. It is the God who raised Jesus from the dead after He was sacrificed and shed His blood for us, that will equip us with “everything good to do His will” (Hebrews 13:20).


It is the love of Christ extended to us in His sacrificial service that compels us to receive His cleansing so that we might enter the presence of our God and Father. Jesus washes us so that we, like Moses and the leaders of Israel, might see the feet of God.

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