1 The Fear of God - Keep away audio (7MB)
To truly understand the events of Good Friday we need to delve deep into the history of Israel. So let me take you back to Mt Sinai, in the first few weeks of the Exodus, the journey from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the promised land. [Bible Reading: Exo 19:16-21]
As the Israelites look up at Mt Sinai, cloaked in clouds, with thunder and lightning cracking around the peaks, accompanied by a loud trumpet call, they’re reminded of the nature of God, the fear of God.
Fear of God is something we struggle with in the 21st century. We’re so steeped in the concept of a loving God who cares for his people that we forget that that same God is a God to be feared. And I do mean afraid in the sense of terrified.
The people come out to the edge of the mountain and we’re told there’s a blast of a trumpet so loud that all the people who were in the camp trembled. They don’t actually need to have Moses tell them to stay clear of the mountain. In fact they tell Moses, we don’t need to come up with you. You just go on your own and speak on our behalf and then tell us what God says. We’ll take your word for it.
Later on, whenever Moses goes into the tabernacle, into God’s presence, they all watch from a distance (Reading 2: Exo 33:8-10). It’s not surprising that they hang back because in the next chapter we read that as he came down from the mountain with the two tablets of the covenant in his hand, Moses face shone because he had been talking with God. Now this wasn’t the sort of glow you get after a day at the beach or at the MCG watching the cricket. This was a visible shining forth of the glory of God. And the people were so afraid Moses had to cover his face with a veil so they wouldn’t be scared of him.
As we think about the events of Good Friday, let’s not forget that though Jesus has emptied himself, becoming just like one of us, he is God and God is a God to be feared.
For fallen human beings to approach the living God is a fearful thing. As we’ll see in our next meditation, the people of Israel needed God to set up a system of sacrifice so it would be possible for them to continue to live under his protection, to worship him, but even then it was always at a distance, always knowing that their sin ultimately kept them separated from God. This is the significance of the curtain that separated the people from the Holy of Holies, the place reserved for God. When Jesus came it had to be in human form so he could live among us and communicate with us face to face. In fact Jesus coming was the first step to us being brought back to the relationship with God that he always intended for us.
Heb 12:28-29: “Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us give thanks, by which we offer to God an acceptable worship with reverence and awe; 29for indeed our God is a consuming fire.”
2 The Holiness of God - Sacrifice for Sins - Garrett Edwards
God is now scary to us – could you imagine a time when we would’ve walked side by side, talked face to face with that same God who descended onto Mt Sinai, with bolts of lightning and peals of thunder making the earth shake? We once had a real intimate, personal relationship with that same God who the Israelites were so scared of going near, who I would’ve wanted to run away from.
Now God is a God who can’t be related to. Moses himself never saw God face to face or walked with him in the cool of the afternoon. As we delve into the deep history of Israel, he is a God no one can approach except through sacrifices.
Aaron, the chief priest brings forward a goat, he lays both hands on its head and confesses all the sins of a nation. He then sends the goat away into the desert, the man releasing it, needing to wash his clothes and bathe before coming back into camp. Aaron himself needs to bathe in a holy place and put on clean clothes before going out once again to offer a burnt sacrifice, a bull and a goat, for himself and the people to ‘make atonement’, he is even to burn the fat of the offering on the alter. Then the blood of those animals was to be taken outside the camp, their hides, flesh and its internal organs to be burnt. Again, the person taking those out would have to bathe before he could enter the camp again.
Its hard to understand what this is about isn’t it? It’s hard to reconcile this God, with our loving creator who desires relationship. But it’s exactly for that reason that sacrifices were needed– God longed to be personal with us again!
This sacrifice was a means of avoiding punishment for all our sins, that goat that was led out to the desert, that bull and goat burnt on an altar, their death in our place for all our sins. The blood of the animals needed to spare our lives.
But this didn’t work too well, God says despairingly of Israel, ‘They offer sacrifices given to me…but the Lord is not pleased with them.’ (Hosea 8:13) and the prophet Micah’s sarcasm is palpable when he says, ‘With what shall I come before the Lord and bow down before the exalted God? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings?’ (Mic. 6:6)
Sacrifice as nothing more than a ritual act did not excuse our wrongdoings. Rather it was the expression of a contrite heart, and appeal to God for the mercy that he, and only he, could provide that could really set us right. ‘The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.’ (Ps. 51:17)
So the sacrifices of Israel weren’t able to correct a broken relationship with God, they held little room for closeness, and love. There was little chance of experiencing him through something that had affect for such a short-lived and brief span of time. It was still a fearful thing for humanity to approach God. Could there be a way of coming closer to God? Could there be a possibility of a lasting forgiveness for the sin the keeps us away from God?
Congregational Prayer: Lord God, you desire not sacrifices but hearts that are turned back to you; we are weak and fallen creatures; only you can save us; forgive us for our hardness of heart, give us meek hearts and minds that we might be ready to be changed by your Spirit, remade in your image, so we might please you in all we do. Amen.
3 The Promise of God - His Spirit within Us (Jer 31:31-34)
The prophets, like Jeremiah, have a difficult job to do. A prophet’s job is to hear God speak, and to relay his message to the people. A prophet is like a mediator; a go-between, kind of like a lawyer who has to move between two parties with an offer of settlement.
You see, the relationship between God and his people has become so damaged, that they can’t communicate with each other. They need a go between: someone who can hear God and face what he has to say: someone who can represent the people in the face of a total lapse of communication.
What sort of relationship breakdown does the prophet Jeremiah speak of?
Is it like a business deal gone bad; where the parties are left squabbling over what remains of the company’s assets?
Is it like the debt that one nation owes to another?
Is it like the government that seeks justice against the perpetrator of a crime?
No, says Jeremiah. It’s not like that.
The relationship breakdown between us and God is like the husband standing before his wife, after he has found her cheating on him, with another man. What God’s people have done, is the worst kind of betrayal there is … because God was their husband, who “took them by the hand” (v32), and Israel has turned her hand to another man.
Adultery is the worst kind of betrayal, because marriage involves the greatest kind of intimacy. So when it happens, it seems hopeless. Surely the marriage is null and void. How can there ever be forgiveness? And even if there can be forgiveness, how can there ever be trust again? Things can never be the same. Surely, this is the kind of permanent damage that can never be repaired.
We stand before God, facing a hopeless situation. He is the husband whose covenant relationship with us is damaged forever, because we have not loved him exclusively. We are the wife that has made a fatal mistake. We feel helpless. There is nothing we can do to fix the damage we have done. No matter how sorry we are, the damage is done. And now we can’t even look at God, or speak to him, without a go-between.
We start to adjust to the reality that things will never be perfect between us and God. He is far away. He is invisible, unknowable, untouchable. Until, along comes Jeremiah, with a new offer of settlement. How would it be, if we could tear up the marriage contract? How would it be, if God could give us a new heart, a pure heart; that would never desire anyone else ever again? How would it be, if the marriage wasn’t just a piece of paper, but written on our hearts for eternity?
And we respond, “Sounds good, but how can it be possible? We can’t erase the past. What’s done is done.” And God says, “You can’t erase the past, but I can make it so that I don’t remember it anymore. I can give you a brand new start. I can make everything new. The days are coming”, says the Lord.
Psalm 51:6-10: You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart. 7Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. 8Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have crushed rejoice. 9Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities. 10Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.
4 The Presence of God - Full Access to his Sanctuary
There’s only one thing that’s stopped people throughout history from worshipping God in complete freedom, and that’s our human sinfulness. Our sinfulness has resulted in us being separated from God by religious systems, priests, buildings, etc. Even in the Jewish religion where God had spoken directly to his people, set up a way that they could come before him, the way into his sanctuary, into his very presence was closed off. A great curtain had been placed across the entrance to the sanctuary which only the High Priest could enter and then only once a year, and not without taking the blood that he offered for himself and for the sins committed unintentionally by the people. (Heb 9:7 NRSV).
What was needed was a way that we could be cleansed of our sins, brought into a state where our sinfulness was no longer a barrier for us. And so Jesus comes and takes our place in dying for all the sins that we’ve committed. Jesus becomes our substitute. We see that so clearly as he cries out to God: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Why has God forsaken him? Because he bears the sins of the world that separate us completely from God. There’s three hours of darkness, three hours of infinite separation from God. Then Jesus gives a loud cry (we know from John’s account he cries out “It is finished”) and he breathes his last.
Has his death been effective? Have things changed between us and God? Mark tells us “38And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.” The way into the sanctuary is opened up. The barrier has been removed. Like this. (tear curtain).
The writer to the Hebrews tells us this: (Reading: Heb 10:11-25).
Do you see that?: “14For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified.” And he goes on to say: “19my friends, ... we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, 20by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh).” What Jesus has done on the cross gives us a new confidence in coming into his presence.
You may be very aware of your sinfulness, of your fallen human nature at the moment. You may feel that there’s no way you could be acceptable to God. But here’s the proof that God has made it possible for your sins to be wiped away: the curtain that was there, separating us from God has been torn in two, inviting us into his presence.
But it isn’t just that. God does even more for us. We saw it in the last meditation on Jeremiah 31 and the writer to the Hebrews reminds us of it here: “15the Holy Spirit also testifies to us, for after saying, 16"This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, says the Lord: I will put my laws in their hearts, and I will write them on their minds," 17he also adds, "I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more."
God has given us his Holy Spirit as the down payment, the guarantee, Paul says, of God’s presence with us into eternity. His Holy Spirit living within us brings us into his presence right now.
But then if that’s the case, if we’ve been made clean by Jesus sacrifice, filled with his Spirit, how are we going to live? You see Good Friday isn’t just a day to think about Jesus’ sacrifice for us. It’s also an occasion for us to renew our commitment to him. If he gave up his life for us then surely we should be willing to give up our lives for him. And so the writer finishes with this exhortation: “23Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. 24And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, 25not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”
There’s a certain centrality to the idea of us meeting together regularly, not just to worship God, that should be our constant attitude, but to encourage one another, to provoke one another to love and good deeds. Isn’t that a great expression? - egging each other on to bigger and grander exploits in Jesus’ name.
I’m not sure why the Church Fathers decided that the Church year should start at advent. The real life of the church starts at Easter, as we’re released from the bondage to sin, freed to enter into God’s presence and then sent out to serve him with love and good deeds for the rest of our lives.
We’re going to do something today that we don’t normally do on Good Friday. We’re going to celebrate the Lord’s Supper as a reminder to us that the way into God’s presence is now open to all. And we’re going to gather in a circle to remind us that we’re invited not just into God’s presence but into his family, his community of love.