Not a Check-Off List

I’ve been put in my place this week, reminded that it is not the holier-than-thou that enjoy fellowship with God, but the truly holy.  And being holy is not essentially about what I do, it’s about what Jesus has done.

It all started with a sermon on Psalm 15—“O Lord, who shall sojourn in your tent?” is how the ESV puts it. “Who shall dwell on your holy hill?”
A list ensues– 
–The one who is without blame and does what’s right, who speaks the truth, not just aloud, but in his heart. 
–The one who doesn’t slander or harm his neighbor or criticize his friends…and etc.

My natural impulse sitting there listening to this list was to compare myself to it.  OK, so this is confession time, bear with me.  I tend to read down through such lists with a bent to justify myself.  I see them as check-off material, a measure of how I’m doing.  And as long as I read quickly and don’t think too carefully about the implications of each command, I’m good.  Yep.  I’ll be tenting up on the Hill tonight.

Oh dear, but the pastor didn’t let us off the hook so readily.  He got down to the nitty-gritty of these conditions.  Blameless?  Always doing the right thing? Never slandering? Always honest?  Who can meet these conditions?  Neither you nor I.  Only Jesus.  He said there are basically two ways to look at what the Bible is about. The way you see it will determine what you do with a Psalm like this one. 

Do you see the Bible as a book about what YOU need to do to approach God?  Or as the revelation of what God has done so you can access Him? One view leads eventually to despair (or to blind arrogance?), the other to hope.  One view puts the focus on me, the other on Christ.

I needed this reminder this week.  It came on the heels of days of pondering the concept of our God being a consuming fire?  There have been record numbers of wildfires raging in our neck of the woods this summer, some on our own mountain.   While we were away, lightning lit the tinder-dry slopes just outside of our town.   Meanwhile back at the coast, our old home town had smoke-laden days and ash falling from neighboring fires there.  And we, hours from there, were cycling along a lake in Washington noting smoke rising just over the hill while helicopters dipped in and out of the lake ferrying water to the spot.  Fire everywhere!  There were evacuation alerts for people we know, and some terrifyingly awesome footage emailed to us of the fire raging nearest our home. image4

It could be said to be beautiful if it weren’t so terrifying.  image1image2

I couldn’t help reflecting on what the writer of Hebrews meant when he said: “…for our God is a consuming Fire”.

image3 What does this mean!? 
It certainly precludes any notion of marching up His holy hill with my little basket of home-grown fruit to offer! Cain tried that. This is not a place for check-lists that assure me I’m ok based on what I’ve done or not done. 

Exodus 19 gives such a list: the Ten Commandments, we call them.  But the context makes clear that these are no trifling commands to be checked off in order to draw near to God.  When Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God they came to a mountain on fire, or at least lit up with lightning and resounding thunder, and shrouded in thick clouds (of smoke perhaps?).  And there was the warning: Don’t come near. Don’t even touch the mountain or you’re dead!

God was making a covenant with His people. He said: “If you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” Ex.19:5,6  Obey His voice?!  They were afraid to even listen to His voice. (Heb.12:19) The mountain shook.  Thunder and lightning terrified them and a very loud trumpet blast deafened them.  Moses, as a type of Christ, would be their representative.  He would go up the mountain to hear from God and return with His commands.  This was the setting for the giving of the Old Covenant with its rules and its regimens for dealing with sin when those rules were broken, as they inevitably would be.

It’s good to look back and to be reminded of the vast gulf between myself and this holy God who calls me His own.  Looking at the Old Covenant, smelling the smoke of Mt. Sinai, and reflecting on this God who is yet a consuming fire…makes me relinquish my check-lists and pause to give thanks for the One who has gone up the mountain on my behalf. Jesus has entered the Tent where God dwells. (Heb.9:11ff).  He mediates there on my behalf.

I commend to you a  reading and re-reading of Hebrews 8-12.  I’ve been browsing there today.  What an amazing thing Christ has done as the mediator of a new covenant…

‘a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions committed under the first covenant.’ (Heb.9:15)

“For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.” (Heb.10:14)

Instead of check-lists that produce despair or stupid arrogance God has offered to put His laws in our minds, to write them on our hearts, and to empower us to do them by His very own Spirit within us (Heb.8:10). This is good news! Instead of living beside us in a Tent He has offered to live inside us—in these ‘tents’ we call home for a while. (II Cor.5)  He looks with pleasure not on the one who claims to have done it all (see: Mark 10:17-27 for how that goes) but on the one who in faith believes that Christ Jesus has done it all on her behalf. (Yes, Lord! Thank-you!!)

Who may sojourn in His tent?  Who will dwell on His holy hill? 

By His grace, through faith in His Son, through no merit of my own I may humbly enter there because of what He has done.

Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire!  (Heb.12:28)

–LS

I commend to you a careful reading of Hebrews chapters 8-12, in conjunction with Exodus 19 and Psalm 15 and Jesus’ own words in John 14 and 15.  Oh, and II Corinthians 3,4 & 5 while you’re at it!

And this hymn comes singing through my heart saying it all:

Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
Let me hide myself in Thee;
Let the water and the blood,
From Thy wounded side which flowed,
Be of sin the double cure;
Save from wrath and make me pure.

Not the labor of my hands
Can fulfill Thy law’s demands;
Could my zeal no respite know,
Could my tears forever flow,
All for sin could not atone;
Thou must save, and Thou alone.

Nothing in my hand I bring,
Simply to the cross I cling;
Naked, come to Thee for dress;
Helpless look to Thee for grace;
Foul, I to the fountain fly;
Wash me, Savior, or I die.

While I draw this fleeting breath,
When mine eyes shall close in death,
When I soar to worlds unknown,
See Thee on Thy judgment throne,
Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
Let me hide myself in Thee.

–Augustus M. Toplady, 1776

One thought on “Not a Check-Off List

  1. Seeing and thinking about the fire on the mountains really brings a more vivid and sobering understanding – even moreso I'm sure if you've smelled the smoke and felt the heat.

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