On Holy Ground (Exodus 1-18)

At the beginning of this year, we began our study of the Bible by taking a look at the book of Genesis.  This morning, we want to continue with the book of Exodus.  Let’s watch together this video on chapters 1-18, and then I want to talk with you about what I think is one of the most important themes in this part of scripture.

            Show VIDEO (https://thebibleproject.com/explore/exodus-1-18/)

            I’d like to start my lesson this morning by quoting one of the most familiar, most profound songs in the history of our country – that great American classic, the Beverly Hillbillies theme song.  And I’m sure that many of you could quote the entire song from memory, and so you will recognize the very last line — “Set a spell.  Take your shoes off.  Y’all come back now, ya’ hear?”

            With a show of hands – How many of you here like to take your shoes off and go barefooted?  There are a number of reasons why you might want to take your shoes off.  The biggest reason is comfort.  When I’ve been out all day and come home, one of the first things I do is to take my shoes off because I want to get comfortable. 

            There are others who take their shoes off for reasons that involve cleanliness.  We had some friends once who had a sign up at the entrance of their house giving instructions to anyone who came in – “Take your shoes off before entering.”  There’s no telling what you might have stepped in or stepped on during the day and they wanted to keep their house clean.

            But, in Exodus chapter 3, when Moses took his shoes off, it wasn’t a matter of comfort and it wasn’t a matter of cleanliness.  It was the result of an encounter with God.  We pick up in the first verse of Exodus chapter 3:  

            Now Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law, Jethro, the priest of Midian, and he led his flock to the west side of the wilderness and came to Horeb, the mountain of God.  And the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush.  He looked, and behold, the bush was burning, yet it was not consumed. 

And Moses said, “I will turn aside to see this great sight, why the bush is not burned.”  When the Lord saw that he turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” 

Then he said, “Do not come near; take your sandals off your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” And he said, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God. (Exodus 3:1-6)

            After this point, Moses’ life would never be the same again.  This was how God called Moses into ministry. God had been working on Moses for a long time before this — 80 years, in fact.  But it was only after this encounter with God that Moses became the greatest leader in the Old Testament.  

            Think about where Moses was when this happened.  Moses was in the very wilderness where he will eventually lead the children of Israel.  He’s at the very mountain of God where he will return to receive the 10 commandments, God’s covenant in stone for his people.  And Moses is standing in the presence of God as he stands before a burning bush.

            It was a custom in that day – and still is in some Asian cultures – to remove your sandals or shoes before entering a temple, a palace, or even the private residence of a great person.  It’s a matter of respect.  And God wanted Moses to recognize that God deserves our utmost respect.  And, in fact, before God can tell us what He expects us to do, we must first be willing to acknowledge Him for the holy God that He is.

            You see, this was holy ground, not because there was anything special about the ground, but because God was present there.  There was nothing intrinsically holy about Mt. Horeb.  But that spot became holy because God was there.  The song that we sing says it so well, “This is holy ground.  We’re standing on holy ground.  For the Lord is present, and where he is, is holy.”

            And it’s important for us to be reminded of that when we gather for worship.  When we come together, we are in the presence of God – right here, right now, and we need to come with the respect that our God is due.  But it’s not just here, in this place.  When you leave this building, you are still in the presence of God.  And, like Moses, before God can tell us what He what he wants us to do, we must first be willing to acknowledge Him for the holy God that He is.

You see, here at this burning bush, God is going to give Moses a task.  He’s going to tell Moses to go tell Pharaoh to let the Israelites leave his country, to let all of his free slave labor of hundreds of thousands of people just walk away.  And Moses is going to offer all sorts of excuses for why he can’t do that because in his mind, it just seemed impossible.  It was never going to happen.  And it may be that some of the things God wants you to do seem the same way. 

I love this statement from Rick Atchley.  He said, “If you have ever received a call from God, it was to do something that seemed impossible because God doesn’t issue a call to do something for which his presence would be unnecessary.  God doesn’t call you to do things you don’t need him to do.  And so if it’s a call from God, it always seems to be impossible because it is impossible unless God is in it.”

That’s why God came to Moses.  Keep in mind that God could have delivered Israel without Moses – he didn’t need Moses.  But God rarely works that way.  We often talk about God’s mighty hand, but if you look carefully you’ll see that in God’s mighty hand there’s usually a human instrument.  And you may be the instrument that God wants to use next.

It would appear from our text that Moses wasn’t expecting to have an encounter with God that day.  After all, there was nothing extraordinary about Mt. Horeb.  Our text tells us that it was “the mountain of God”, and it would later come to be the mountain of God, but, at this time, it wasn’t.  Moses didn’t know then that it was the mountain of God.   To him, it was just an ordinary day on an ordinary mountain out in the desert he had taken his sheep to a hundred times.  But this was no ordinary day.  This was the day when God would call Moses to a very special task.

And it makes me wonder how many opportunities to serve God we miss out on because we go through most days not even considering, much less expecting, that God might have something in mind that he wants us to do for him that day.  But maybe, just maybe, there’s something God is calling you to do.  And you’ve been hesitant, you’ve made excuses as to why you can’t do it, you feel inadequate, you feel like somebody else could do a much better job.  But deep down, there is this nagging feeling that God has called you to a particular ministry.

And let me tell you what happens when God calls you to do something.  God always reveals enough about himself to expect an obedient response.  Because, you see, God doesn’t give a person a mission without first giving him a glimpse of his character.  God reveals enough about who He is before He expects us to trust him.

So the first thing God says to Moses is, “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.”  And it’s not because there was a temple nearby.  That ground was just plain old desert ground until the presence of God appeared, and then it became holy.   The ground was holy because God was holy.

One of the key teachings of the Bible is that God calls us to be a holy people because He is holy.  And so, it only makes sense that before we can understand what God expects us to be, we need to understand what it means for God to be holy. 

It’s important for us to talk about how we need to live good, moral lives.  But I would suggest that it’s even more important that we have an understanding of who God is.  Because it’s possible for a person to live a good moral life without ever getting to know God. 

I can teach you the principles of biblical living.  I can teach you not to lie and not to cheat and not to steal, and, as a result, you might be a good moral person.  But what is even more important is learning who the God of the Bible is, and getting to know Him personally.  Because knowing who God is will change who we are.  And so, this morning, I want us to try to get a grasp on this very difficult concept that God is holy.

            There’s a passage in Isaiah 6 where Isaiah found himself in the very presence of God, the one who is “holy, holy, holy.”  Tony Evans calls holiness the “centerpiece of God’s attributes.”  In other words, of all the things that God is, at the very center of his being, God is holy.  God’s holiness is central to understanding who God is.

And while we may accept the fact that God is holy, that’s not an easy word for us to define.  In fact, I think most Christians have a hard time answering the question, “What does the word holy mean?” 

Now, when we talk about the fact that we are a holy people, we understand that it has to do with being separate from the world, being dedicated to living for God.  But what does it mean for God to be holy? 

            R.C. Sproul (Essential Truths) gives a simple way to remember the definition of holiness that may be as good as any I’ve ever heard.

            Sproul says, “The first prayer I learned as a child was the simple table grace: ‘God is great, God is good, let us thank Him for our food.’”  He goes on to say, “The two virtues assigned to God in this prayer — greatness and goodness — may be captured by the one biblical word, holy.”

            I think Sproul is right — there are two aspects of holiness. The first is the idea of greatness – When we say that God is holy, we are saying that God is great! 

A.        God is Great

            Many of you may know that, in the Greek language, the word “holy” is related to the words “saints” and “sanctified”.  The idea behind the Greek word “hagios” is the idea of being “set apart.”  We, as Christians, are to be “set apart” for the purpose of serving God. 

            And I don’t think it’s going too far to say that the word “holy” suggests the idea of being different.  The Sabbath was, for the Jews, a holy day because it was different from all the other days.  It was a day that was “set apart” as a day to rest and draw near to God.  The temple was a holy building because it was different from all the other buildings.  It was a building which was “set apart” as a building to worship God and offer sacrifices.

            So what does it mean that God is holy?  It means that he is “set apart”.  But that raises the question – what is God set apart from?  And the answer is – He’s set apart from everything.

            Sproul suggests that this word conveys the same idea we express when we find a piece of clothing or a golf club or some piece of merchandise that is outstanding, that has superior excellence, and we might say that it is “a cut above the rest.”

            So, when we say that God is holy, we’re not talking about one characteristic of God; we’re talking about the very essence of God Himself.   God is in a class all by Himself.  He is a cut above the rest.  He is utterly unique, incomparable, and different from anything else in this world.

            We find this expressed in Exodus 15:11where Moses said,Who is like You, O LORD, among the gods? Who is like You, glorious in holiness, fearful in praises, doing wonders?”

            David said, “Lord, there is no one like You among the gods, and there are no works like Yours.  All the nations You have made will come and bow down before You, Lord, and will honor Your name.  For You are great and perform wonders; You alone are God.” (Psalms 86:8-10)

            And in Isaiah 40:25, “’To whom then will you liken Me, or to whom shall I be equal?’ says the Holy One.”  And, of course, there truly is no one who is equal to God because he is so far above everyone and everything else.

            God is holy because God is great — there is nothing or no one comparable to Him in any way.  There is no one like God. He is so far above mankind that we can’t even begin to comprehend His vastness or greatness.

            And so, this is the first strand of meaning in the Bible about the holiness of God.  God is not like anything or anyone we know. He is far above us. He is beyond us. He is so different and so unique that no one in the Bible, regardless of how devout, failed to fall down in fear and humility and repentance when they caught a glimpse of this holy God. 

            So, God is great.  The second aspect of holiness is the idea of goodness.  God is not only great.  God is good!

B.        God is Good!

            That is to say, God always does what is right and he never does what is wrong. God is unstained by sin. God always acts in a righteous manner because his very nature, his very essence, is holiness.

            Job said in Job 34:10, “Therefore, hear me, you men of understanding:  far be it from God that he should do wickedness, and from the Almighty that he should do wrong.”

            God is great and God is good.  Which is simply to say that God is holy.  But there in a sense in which every effort to try to define the holiness of God ultimately winds up by recognizing that “God is holy” simply means “God is God”.  

            God’s being and his character are utterly undetermined by anything outside himself.  God is not holy because he keeps the rules.  God wrote the rules!  God is not holy because he keeps the law.  Rather, the law is holy because it reveals who God is.  God is absolute.  Everything else is derivative.  Do you begin to see why holiness is such a difficult attribute to understand?

God says to Moses, “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.”  The very first thing God revealed to Moses, is this — “You need to take me seriously, because no one can approach me on their terms.  You approach me on my terms.”

A relationship with God always has to be on His terms.  In Leviticus 11, we read these words: “For I am the Lord who brought you up out of the land of Egypt to be your God.  You shall therefore be holy, for I am holy.” (Leviticus 11:45).

Now, the story of Moses at the burning bush is a nice story, but what does it have to do with any of us?  I think it has quite a bit to do with us.  Because, like Moses, I believe that God is calling each one of us to follow him and to serve him in some special way.  It may be a call to reach out to your neighbors and share the gospel of Jesus Christ.  It may be a call to help some of those in this community who are in need.  It may be a call to be a Bible class teacher, or to minister to widows or orphans or to be a missionary.  It may be a call to give in a generous way to a needy cause.  I don’t know what it is that God is calling you to do, but I’m confident that if you’ll listen carefully, you know what God wants you to do.

And maybe one of the reasons why we sometimes don’t respond to the call of God is because we don’t take God seriously enough.  But, folks, I’m telling you – when you see God for who He is, it will change who you are.

God showed Moses just how holy he is.  And the Bible says that Moses covered his face and he trembled.  He was afraid.  But you know what?  After he had been with God, he went back to Egypt and he was never afraid of Pharaoh again. 

John Paton was a missionary in the South Sea Islands.  He preached in an area where cannibals lived.  He had a tough time talking to folks about the gospel until something happened.  It seems there were three witch doctors who put a curse on Paton to kill him.  When John Paton walked away from them, they thought that was the last they would ever see of him.  But, the next Sunday he came back into town with a smile on his face. 

The people asked the witch doctors, “Didn’t you put a curse on him?”  They said, “Yes.”  They said, “Then why is he still alive?”  Their response was, “His God must be bigger than our gods.”

After meeting God at the burning bush, Moses went back to Pharaoh.  He left Egypt afraid, but he went back a changed man.  Because he had a call from a God who was holy.  And Moses stood up to the most powerful man on the face of the earth.  And he wasn’t afraid anymore because he recognized that, “My God is bigger than your gods.”

It is only when you know God as he truly is that you will be led to respond to him as you truly should.  It is only when you know, you really know, how holy God is, how great God is, how good God is, that you will feel compelled to give your life to Him.

This morning, perhaps God is calling you.  Perhaps he’s calling you to become a Christian and put Christ in baptism today.  Or perhaps he’s calling you to make some changes in your life, or to minister to others in a special way.  I said earlier that God always reveals enough about himself to expect an obedient response.  God has revealed to you who he is.  This morning, he calls for that obedient response.

God is calling.  Will you answer?

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