18 Now when all the people perceived the thunder and the lightning and the sound of the trumpet and the mountain smoking, the people were afraid and trembled; and they stood afar off, 19 and said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will hear; but let not God speak to us, lest we die.” 20 And Moses said to the people, “Do not fear; for God has come to test you, and that the fear of him may be before your eyes, that you may not sin.” 21 And the people stood afar off, while Moses drew near to the thick darkness where God was. — Exodus 20:18 — 21 (RSV2CE)
“But let not God speak to us.”
The boundlessness, the magnitude, and the depth of this request from the people of God! It is fear, certainly, that brings them to speak thus. The people of God believed with conviction that His Word would bring them death! And yet, it was the Word who Himself dies. The assembled people of God rightly sing — asking the Father expectantly — “And can it be that I should gain / An int’rest in the Savior’s blood?” How can it be?
A misunderstanding belongs to one class of error, but to categorically reverse the Truth, even by dint of fear, speaks loudly of the people’s error. More, it tells us something for today. Are we afraid to speak to God like His people were at Sinai? More to the heart of the matter: do we believe that God’s Word will bring us death, rather than life — and life abundantly, at that? Later, Moses will go into “the thick darkness where God was” (v. 21). By his faith and by his love, Moses walked into the abyss of the being of God to encounter His loving-kindness and steadfast faithfulness.
In encounter with God, we hear His Word, and it is precisely in the darkness that the goodness of His law is felt most deeply. Wherefore do we deny the darkness of God? In His abyss, and perhaps only there, do we find the light of His lightning and hear the music of His angels’ trumpets.
Encountering His presence is an invitation to risk everything luminous. Moreover, in total abandonment of the luminous world, we risk cavorting with inauthentic piety. We risk the penetration of the world’s light into the deep darkness of the being of God. Worldly light, however, is not an insurmountable obstacle to entering into the darkness of God’s light. We do not make idols in our mind (cf. v. 23), but with the strength of our very selves, we visit the altar of God and make a peace offering (cf. v. 24). Something happens here. We are “rescued, with the corner of a couch and part of a bed” (Amos 3:12). The Lord, in encounter, “[pardons] iniquity and [passes] over transgression” (Micah 7:18). We are therefore invited to “[come] to him, to that living stone, rejected by men, but in God’s sight chosen and precious; and like living stones be yourselves built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 2:4–5).
The stone of the altar bears the weight of His presence. We gaze at the mystery, heralded by the smoking mountain of incense. The world, even by its very luminosity, turns what is the light of God at the altar into a bellicose superstition. But what is “now mysterious shall be bright at last.” We cross the threshold and fall deeply into the liminal space of His realized kingdom-come. But how do we make this spiritual sacrifice?
On you light has already shined (cf. Isaiah 9:2). In the intimate space of His encounter we relinquish the vestiges of our luminous attachments and abide in Him (John 15:4). To the call of God’s “Yes!” to the world, the world in response utters a resolute and sincere “Yes” to the Eternal One. As His Word has died and risen, He speaks the Word of Peace to the world and to you, and behold you are not dead! Moreover, He invites your own response to this great mystery.
Two lovers dance in the darkness of the night, yet the brightness of their “Yes!” is their fire for seeing.
Do not fear the encounter, for you are being tested. The test is of the truthfulness of your “Yes.” For by the measure of your faith in His presence will your success be determined. By your proclamation in the liminal space of God’s abyss, God’s darkness, you will be given eyes to see the brightness of God’s light and the darkness of your own luminous attachments. He will wipe them away again and again, and invite you to sin no more.