Sunday, July 09, 2006

Rock of Ages, cleft for me. A sermon preached at Dromore Cathedral Summer Praise on 9th July 2006. Exodus 33:12-34:9

Rock of ages, cleft for me, let me hide myself in thee.

As we sing this hymn, we might think to ourselves, yes, God is the Rock of Ages… but what has that got to do with blood, or sin, or the cross? Tonight we’re going to look at the passage suggested by the hymnbook compilers, to see just why we need to hide in the Rock of Ages. As we do so, we’ll see the holiness of God, the provision of God, and the glory of God.

The book of Exodus tells of God’s dealings with Israel, as he leads them out of the land of Egypt and towards the Promised Land. The centre-piece of Exodus is the covenant God makes with the people at Mount Sinai, with the Ten Commandments. However, just as soon as it had been made, as Moses brought the two stone tablets down the mountain to the people, he smashed them, because the people had engaged in idolatry with the golden calf, and already turned away from God.

As we begin to read the passage, then, we hear a conversation going on between God and Moses. God has told Moses to lead the people on to the Promised Land, but that he won’t go with them, because they’re sinful. The problem is that God is so holy, so morally perfect, so different to Israel, that his perfect justice will erupt in judgement against the people and destroy them if they continue in sin.

For Moses, though, this situation isn’t acceptable, and he won’t take Israel up towards the Promised Land if God isn’t going to go too. So he pleads with God to go with them, and asks that God would show him his ways, so Moses can know him and please him. All this is even more important, because without God, Israel would be just like any other nation, they wouldn’t be distinct. It is only with God going with them, that Israel will be distinct from every other nation. God’s presence with them makes them set apart, holy for the Lord.

God grants Moses his request, and looks with favour on him. So he’s going to show Moses his ways, and his glory, as Moses had asked in verse 18. So God says that he will ‘make all my goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you my name “The Lord”’ (19). But there’s a danger of death in doing this. Now, why could this be? Surely God’s glory and goodness is kind and loving – how could there be any danger? This is the kind of thinking we get from some Christians who see God as their best mate, first and foremost, forgetting that God is also holy and set apart from us.

Showing God’s glory is a dangerous business, as God says: ‘you cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live’ (20). Why is this? Very simply, it is dangerous for Moses, and for us, because of our sin.

Think of Isaiah, as he saw the vision of God in chapter 6 – ‘I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple’ (Is 6:1) And the seraphim called to one another ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory’’ (Is 6:3). And what was Isaiah’s response to seeing God’s holiness?

‘And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”’ (Is 6:5).

Or think of John at the start of Revelation, as he turns to see Jesus in his glory: ‘Then I turned to see the voice that was speaking to me, and on turning I saw seven golden lampstands, and in the midst of the lampstands one like a son of man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash around his chest. The hairs of his head were white like wool, as white as snow. His eyes were like a flame of fire, his feet were like burnished bronze, refined in a furnace, and his voice was like the roar of many waters. In his right hand he held seven stars, from his mouth came a sharp two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining in full strength’ (Rev 1:12-16).

And what happened to him? ‘When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead.’ (Rev 1:17). Once again, the holiness of God leads to a reaction in sinful man. To see God’s holiness brings conviction, and the recognition of our sinfulness. But it wasn’t always like that. At the start, God and people could be together without any problem. We read in Genesis 3 that God walked in the garden in the cool of the day. It had probably happened lots of times that God came to be with Adam and Eve, enjoying the creation together. Until that day, when they had eaten of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and they had realised they were naked, disobedient, and sinful.

And what did they do? ‘The man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden’ (Gen 3:8). They realised they couldn’t see God and live, because of their sin. God knew the same – let’s remember, he didn’t call out to them asking ‘where are you’ because he didn’t know where they were… he was wanting them to come to confess their sin.

But the chasm was fixed, the division between God and people begun, and we have been separated from God ever since, unable to look on him. So knowing this, then, how could the holy God show Moses his glory?

God’s holiness leads on to God’s provision. ‘And the Lord said. “Behold, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock, and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back, but my face shall not be seen’ (Ex 33:20-23). Moses couldn’t do anything about it himself – he had to depend on God’s solution.

So when God was going to hide him in the rock, and cover him with his hand, then only that solution would be effective. Had Moses said no, that he would rather stand out in the open, he would have been consumed by God’s holiness.

But God provided a covering for Moses – his hand, protecting him, so that we would not perish from seeing God’s holiness directly. It was just the same for Isaiah – as the seraphim flew to him with a burning coal from the altar, saying “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.” (Is 6:7).

The covering enabled Moses to survive, and to see God’s glory. As we read on in our passage, in Exodus 34, God tells Moses to be ready to come up the mountain the next morning, bringing two new stone tablets for the Ten Commandments. From verse 5 we read:

‘The Lord descended in the cloud and stood with him there, and proclaimed the name of the Lord. The Lord passed before him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and fourth generation.” And Moses quickly bowed his head toward the earth and worshipped.’ (Ex 34:5-9).

Moses, having been hidden in the cleft in the rock, hidden by God’s hand, was able to glimpse God’s glory – still a fearsome sight even though it was only the trailing edge of the back of God. The glory of the Lord is his essential character – of mercy, grace, love and faithfulness. And yet even in the revelation of God’s name and glory, we see the holiness coming through, as he promises judgement on those who are guilty, who have sinned.

But notice what Moses did. He quickly owed his head toward the earth and worshipped. As God’s glory was proclaimed, so Moses added to the glory by worshipping as well. It was fitting that he should worship God, of course, as he realised and recognised the grace and mercy and love and faithfulness of God – as he was spared and kept, by God’s covering.

So as we have considered Moses and God in this passage, what can we learn from it? Firstly, we see God’s holiness. God is morally perfect, and cannot abide evil. As we read in Habakkuk 1:13, God is ‘of purer eyes than to see evil and cannot look at wrong.’ Hebrews 12:29 reminds us that ‘our God is a consuming fire.’

God’s holiness creates a problem for us – if he will indeed by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and fourth generation… How can we stand before him on the Judgement Day if we’re still in our sins? Moses couldn’t even look on God’s face – how could we?

However, just as God provided a covering for Moses, so he has provided a covering for us. Jesus is the Rock of Ages – the cleft in the rock that we can be hidden in, for safety and salvation. By coming and trusting in him, we can be saved, and have our sins forgiven. As David says of God in Psalm 32 ‘You are a hiding place for me; you preserve me from trouble; you surround me with shouts of deliverance.’ (Ps 32:7). He comes to say this having found forgiveness in God – what the Psalm is all about. (‘Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.’ – verse 1)

Have you come to know God’s provision, as he covers your sin through the blood of Jesus shed on the cross? Where is your hope and confidence for the Day of Judgement? Is it in Christ, the Rock of Ages, the cleft in the rock? Or is it in yourself? How will you face God on the Day of Judgement if you haven’t used the covering God has provided?

As the hymn shows us, our own righteousness means nothing – it cannot save us… we cannot save ourselves:

Not the labours of my hands can fulfil thy law’s demands;
Could my zeal no respite know, could my tears for ever flow,
All for sin could not atone; thou must save, and thou alone.

So will you come to Christ and find the refuge, the covering for your sin, and your salvation? Will you find a safe place in Christ, as you come to him, the rock of ages?

We have seen God’s holiness, which causes us a dangerous problem. But God in his mercy makes provision for our salvation – by hiding Moses in the rock and covering him, and by giving Jesus to die for our sins, so that we are covered by his blood when we trust in him. So what should our response be, if we have hidden in Christ? As God’s glory was proclaimed to Moses, and as Moses gave God glory, so we also should give God the glory because of his glorious character, and his provision of salvation.

Rock of ages, cleft for me, let me hide myself in thee.

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