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The Israelites in Moses’ time kept God at a distance and, if we are honest with ourselves, we often struggle with this today. Yet the promise remains: Come near to God and he will come near to you.
I had a friend who was only in his late 20s but believed that he could never fulfil God’s purpose for his life because once, a few years earlier, he had made a bad decision and disobeyed God. For him, the purpose of God was rigid and unbending, and he had forever missed out on that purpose.
In the church where we both worshipped, I remember the elders earnestly seeking God for his plans for the future of the church. They repeatedly told the congregation that they were waiting for him to reveal his blueprint. After several months, one of the respected members took me aside and confided, ‘You know all this talk about finding the blueprint. Well, I don’t believe that there is a rigid blueprint. I think we just need to get on with doing what we know we need to do.’
If God imposes a rigid blueprint on our lives, then he is treating us as less than human. Certainly there are times when he makes a course of action very clear to us, maybe in relation to a job, where to live or study, a responsibility in the church. But he is much more ready to dialogue about this than we often are.
Proverbs 16:9 tells us, In their hearts humans plan their course, but the Lord establishes their steps. I used to think that this meant, we plan what we would like to do, then the Lord steps in and overrules it. There is, though another way of looking at this verse: We make our plans; we dialogue with the Lord about them; we make the necessary adjustments; then he establishes our steps. That is essentially what Proverbs 16:3 tells us: Commit to the Lord whatever you do, and he will establish your plans.
Exodus 19-20 gives us one of the many examples in the Bible where God changes his plans to fit in with human aspirations and fears. The Israelites are just three months out of Egypt and arrive at Mount Sinai, the place where the Lord chooses to seal his relationship with the people whom he has chosen.
His invitation to them is, “If you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” Naturally the people were delighted and replied, “We will do everything the Lord has said.”
Then the Lord came down on Mount Sinai, and it was pretty terrifying. Hebrews 12:18-21 describes it as a mountain burning with fire, darkness, gloom and storm, a trumpet blast, a place so holy that even an animal which touched it had to be stoned. The sight was so terrifying that even Moses said, “I am trembling with fear.”
This provoked a radical rethink on the part of the Israelites. When they saw the thunder and lightning and heard the trumpet and saw the mountain in smoke, they too trembled with fear. They stayed at a distance and said to Moses, “Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die.” No more thoughts of being a kingdom of priests.
No doubt the Lord was disappointed with their response. His invitation to them to speak with him directly had been rejected. So he changed his plan. Instead of all the Israelites having the opportunity to serve him at first hand, he reserved this privilege for just one of the 12 tribes, the Levites; and the most intimate service was restricted to a sub-group of Levites, the priests.
He did not say, You Israelites have rejected my invitation, so you have blown your chance of being the chosen nation. They continued to be central to his purposes for the human race, and still are. If only my friend had taken their example to heart, he would not have lived the rest of his life in regret. In fact, the last time I heard about him, many years ago, his despair had driven him away from the faith altogether.
I find it immensely encouraging that our God is a God of the second chance – and the Bible is full of people who were given a second chance after dismally failing: Moses himself, David, Peter, John Mark, to name but a few. And he remains the God who desires intimate relationship with human beings.
Under the new covenant Jesus Christ has freed us from our sins by his blood and has made us to be a kingdom and priests to his God and Father (Revelation 1:5-6). Through him we all have access to the Father by one Spirit (Ephesians 2:18). Yet still we fall prey to that human tendency to put another person between ourselves and God.
Protestants can readily point the finger at the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches, with their hierarchies of priests and bishops. However, there are many Protestant churches where the minister or pastor or leader sets themselves up (or is set up) as a de facto intermediary between the congregation and God, a person on a different spiritual plane from the ‘ordinary’ Christians. The theological justification for this may not be there, but the practice is.
What is it that keeps us from direct intimacy with God? It is said that the devil’s great work is to make us believe that God is to be feared and kept away from. In this he seems to have a rich vein of success, even with Christians. The Israelites in Moses’ time kept God at a distance and, if we are honest with ourselves, we often struggle with this today. Yet the promise remains: Come near to God and he will come near to you (James 4:8).