A Meal in the Presence of God
by Jack Wald | November 13th, 2016

Exodus 24:1-11

Mountains have a significant role in God’s dealings with his people. God asked Abraham to go to one of the mountains in the region of Moriah to sacrifice his son Isaac. It was on Mount Sinai where God gave the law to Moses. On Mount Carmel Elijah challenged the false prophets of Baal to a contest to see whose god would answer by fire. Jesus taught his disciples on the Mount of Olives and he was transfigured on a mountain when he spoke with Moses and Elijah. And then there is Mount Zion, the place where King David built his city (later called Jerusalem). Mt. Zion points toward the celestial kingdom where we will one day be welcomed into God’s home forever.

Because of the significance of mountains in the Bible, we talk about “mountain-top experiences.” These are times when we have a powerful spiritual experience that lifts us up to a greater emotional and intellectual experience of God.

The disciples of Jesus experienced this when Jesus taught them in the Sermon on the Mount and when he fed the crowd with a multiplication of bread and fish.  Peter, James, and John experienced this when they saw Jesus revealed in his heavenly glory, talking with Moses and Elijah. The disciples experienced this as well when Jesus healed the blind, made the lame walk, and raised the dead to life. These miracles did not happen on a literal mountain, but they were still mountain-top experiences because of the revelation of Jesus as the Christ, the living Son of God.

This morning we will focus on a mountain-top experience that took place while Israel camped out at the base of Mt. Sinai.

Exodus 1-18 takes us from the birth of Moses to his call to lead Israel out of slavery in Egypt and take them to the land of Canaan that had been promised to Abraham. The events of Exodus took place about 500 years after the events in the life of Abraham.

Moses led Israel out of Egypt and traveled through the Sinai Peninsula to Mt. Sinai in a journey that took about two months and when they arrived at Mt. Sinai, they stayed there for almost a year. During this year Moses climbed the mountain to meet with God multiple times.

The part of this story I want to focus on this morning is the verses in Exodus 24 where Moses, Aaron, Aaron’s two sons, and seventy of the elders of Israel went to the mountain and ate a meal in the presence of God.

In the year that Israel camped out at Mt. Sinai, when did this meal eaten in the presence of God take place?

In Exodus 19 Israel arrived at Mt. Sinai and Moses climbed the mountain where God invited Israel to be his chosen people, so long as they obeyed his commandments.

The Israelites immediately accepted his offer, even though they had not yet heard his terms. They had seen God lead them across the Red Sea where God defeated Pharaoh’s army. They had seen they were led by a cloud during the day and fire by night. This God who spoke to Moses was a powerful God so they immediately agreed to be his people.

Then God told Moses he would meet with him and allow the people of Israel to listen in on the conversation. This was done to ensure the people of Israel realized Moses was God’s prophet.

This takes us to Exodus 20 where the people of Israel heard God speak the Ten Commandments which are a summary of the law. From the cloud-covered mountain, with lightening and thunder, the people heard God speak and they were terrified.

They begged Moses to excuse them from listening any further to God’s voice and they again promised to obey whatever Moses relayed to them in God’s name.

Moses climbed the mountain again while the people kept their distance and the law was given in greater detail to Moses.

Moses came down from the mountain and relayed to the people what God had said. This time, knowing the law they were to obey, the people reaffirmed their willingness to comply in a covenant ceremony.

This brings us to the text for this morning.
Exodus 24:1–18
Then the Lord said to Moses, “Come up to the Lord, you and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel. You are to worship at a distance, 2 but Moses alone is to approach the Lord; the others must not come near. And the people may not come up with him.”
3 When Moses went and told the people all the Lord’s words and laws, they responded with one voice, “Everything the Lord has said we will do.” 4 Moses then wrote down everything the Lord had said.
He got up early the next morning and built an altar at the foot of the mountain and set up twelve stone pillars representing the twelve tribes of Israel. 5 Then he sent young Israelite men, and they offered burnt offerings and sacrificed young bulls as fellowship offerings to the Lord. 6 Moses took half of the blood and put it in bowls, and the other half he splashed against the altar. 7 Then he took the Book of the Covenant and read it to the people. They responded, “We will do everything the Lord has said; we will obey.”
8 Moses then took the blood, sprinkled it on the people and said, “This is the blood of the covenant that the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words.”
9 Moses and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and the seventy elders of Israel went up 10 and saw the God of Israel. Under his feet was something like a pavement made of lapis lazuli, as bright blue as the sky. 11 But God did not raise his hand against these leaders of the Israelites; they saw God, and they ate and drank.

This meal eaten in the presence of God fascinates me. It is completely unexpected. And it seems to speak of a truth far more meaningful than just a meal to ratify a covenant.

Remember that there was great fear about the presence of God on the mountain. There was thunder and lightning, a cloud covering the mountain with fire lighting up the cloud. It was a frightening sight. God gave Moses instructions for the people of Israel. (Exodus 19:10–13)
And the Lord said to Moses, “Go to the people and consecrate them today and tomorrow. Have them wash their clothes 11 and be ready by the third day, because on that day the Lord will come down on Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people. 12 Put limits for the people around the mountain and tell them, ‘Be careful that you do not approach the mountain or touch the foot of it. Whoever touches the mountain is to be put to death. 13 They are to be stoned or shot with arrows; not a hand is to be laid on them. No person or animal shall be permitted to live.’ Only when the ram’s horn sounds a long blast may they approach the mountain.”

When the people of Israel heard the voice of God speak the Ten Commandments, they were terrified. So how do you think Moses, Aaron, Aaron’s two oldest sons, Nadab and Abihu, and the seventy elders of Israel felt when Moses told them they were invited to meet with God on the mountain?

This was not an easy invitation to accept and also not an easy invitation to refuse. They had just reaffirmed the covenant with God to be his chosen people, but I imagine there was still a lot of unease and anxiety that went with them up the mountain.

When they arrived, they saw the God of Israel. This does not mean they saw God. A bit later Moses asked for a favor from God, that he could see his glory. God responded. (Exodus 33:17–23)
“I will do the very thing you have asked, because I am pleased with you and I know you by name.”
18 Then Moses said, “Now show me your glory.”
19 And the Lord said, “I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the Lord, in your presence. I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. 20 But,” he said, “you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.”
21 Then the Lord said, “There is a place near me where you may stand on a rock. 22 When my glory passes by, I will put you in a cleft in the rock and cover you with my hand until I have passed by. 23 Then I will remove my hand and you will see my back; but my face must not be seen.”

They did not see what Moses saw, so what did they see when they climbed the mountain? They saw the presence of God. Was it light? Sound? Pulsating energy? There was some physical sign of presence and below that was something like a floor colored a brilliant blue, like lapis lazuli. What is apparent is that what they saw could not be described in words. What they saw was far greater than could be expressed with words. This is the same problem Daniel and John had in trying to describe with human words and images the spiritual being they saw in a vision.

What was it like to eat a meal in the presence of God? Did they talk among themselves? Did they laugh and tell jokes? There is no clue about what they ate and drank. Could they not taste at all because they were overwhelmed by the presence of God? Or did the food taste better than anything they had ever eaten before? My mind goes two ways. But what is clear is that this was a spiritual high, a mountain-top experience.

Allow me to take four lessons from this mountain-top experience.

First, mountain-top experiences do not guarantee faith.

Moses, Aaron, his two oldest sons, and the seventy elders of Israel came down from the mountain. What happened next?

Moses was told to go back up the mountain, this time to receive the two stone tablets inscribed by God with the Ten Commandments. He stayed there for 40 days and received further instructions about how to build the Tabernacle.

What happened in his absence?

The people became anxious. Moses had been up on the mountain for a week, two weeks, three weeks and the people worried that Moses who had led them out of Egypt was dead. And if Moses was dead, then they were lost, without a god. It is clear that God was Moses’ God, not theirs. They had promised to be loyal to God, two times, but that was when Moses was there to intercede for them. Now they feared they were alone and they were terrified by Moses’ God.

In the absence of Moses and his God, the people gathered around Aaron and said, (Exodus 32:1)
“Come, make us gods who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt, we don’t know what has happened to him.”

Exodus 32:2 says, “Aaron answered them.” What did Aaron say? Did he say, “My sons and I and seventy of the elders of Israel were just on the mountain where we ate and drank in the presence of God. We made a covenant with God who brought us safely out of slavery in Egypt and led us to this mountain. Be patient and trust in God who has delivered us.

No, he said, (Exodus 32:2) “Take off the gold earrings that your wives, your sons and your daughters are wearing, and bring them to me.” And then Aaron made a gold bull, the image of the god Baal. When Israel saw the bull, they cried out, “These are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.” And they proceeded to eat and drink and engage in a drunken orgy.

What happened to the mountain-top experience of Aaron, Nadab, Abihu, and the seventy elders of Israel? There was no resistance. No opposing point of view. No defense of Moses’ leadership. No remembrance of the meal on the mountain. It was as if it had never happened.

When Moses came down the mountain and saw their drunken orgy, dancing around the golden calf, he broke the stone tablets indicating that the covenant between them and God was broken. And then he took action. He called those who were on the Lord’s side to come to him and then instructed them to kill those who had been worshiping the golden calf. Were any of the seventy elders among them?

Later in the story of the exodus, Nadab and Abihu are killed by God when they were disrespectful in the way they were lighting the censers for the Tabernacle.

When I was in university in Boston, we experienced what was later understood to be a revival. During those years in the late 1960s and early 1970s, an estimated 14,000,000 Americans became followers of Jesus. Modern Christian music began with people in this revival. Those were foundational years for me in my Christian faith and we had many mountain-top experiences with Jesus. In fact, I look back and see those years of university and seminary as one big mountain-top experience.

Yet, not all who experienced those spiritually charged years stayed with Jesus. Over time some of the leaders drifted into a liberal theology that moved away from Biblical truth. Others fell into moral failure and moved away from faith. Others got caught up in the pursuit of material wealth and drifted away from Jesus. Jesus’ parable of the soils applies to those of us who experienced the spiritual highs of those years. Some of the seed that was sown in us fell on good soil and much fruit has been produced over the years. But there have been others whose soil was rocky and the seed did not take root. Other soils were infested with the worries and anxieties of the world and the life with Jesus was choked out.

Mountain-top experiences are not enough to sustain our life with Jesus.

Second, what makes a difference in the long-term is how we handle the daily choices that confront us.

When we come off the mountain top with our great spiritual enthusiasm, how will we handle the stresses, pressures, temptations, and anxieties of daily living?

Oswald Chambers wrote, “The test of mountain-top experiences, of mysticism, of visions of God and of solitariness is when you are “in the soup” of actual circumstances.”

Moses did not have an easy life. His life consisted of more than just mountain-top experiences. He had to deal with the incessant whining and complaining of the people of Israel. He had to deal with rebellion among the leadership of Israel. His own sister and brother challenged his leadership. In all these circumstances, Moses held on to his relationship with God.

Even when he failed, he did not give up. On the way to Mt. Sinai, the people of Israel quarreled with Moses because there was no water to drink. So Moses interceded and God told Moses: (Exodus 17:5–6)
“Go out in front of the people. Take with you some of the elders of Israel and take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. 6 I will stand there before you by the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it for the people to drink.” So Moses did this in the sight of the elders of Israel.

Later, when Israel had left Mt, Sinai and was wandering in the wilderness, Israel was once again at a place where there was no water. The people quarreled with Moses once again. (Numbers 20:2–12)
“If only we had died when our brothers fell dead before the Lord! 4 Why did you bring the Lord’s community into this wilderness, that we and our livestock should die here? 5 Why did you bring us up out of Egypt to this terrible place? It has no grain or figs, grapevines or pomegranates. And there is no water to drink!”

Moses and Aaron went to meet with God and God told Moses to take his staff, go out, and speak to the rock and it will pour out water. So Moses went out with his staff. This staff had been used to perform miracles in front of Pharaoh and his court. It had been used to part the Red Sea so Israel could cross. This staff had been used before to strike a rock so water came out. Perhaps Moses thought he had misheard God say he should speak to the rock. Perhaps Moses was fearful of looking silly by speaking to the rock and nothing happening. At any rate, he struck the rock with his staff and water came out.

But God spoke to Moses:
“Because you did not trust in me enough to honor me as holy in the sight of the Israelites, you will not bring this community into the land I give them.”

This was a major blow to Moses. God called him to lead Israel out of slavery in Egypt and lead Israel into the promised land of Canaan. But now this was taken away from him. He would not enter the land. How did Moses deal with this?

There is no indication that Moses deviated from his leadership of Israel and passing on the leadership to Joshua. Moses did not allow his failure to pull him away from God who he had experienced in many mountain-top encounters. (It is wonderful to me that Moses did make it eventually to the promised land of Canaan when he and Elijah appeared with Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration.)

The Apostle Peter spoke confidently of his loyalty to Jesus but then denied knowing him three times. How did Peter handle his failure? He continued to cling to Jesus. He was no longer confident of his leadership of the disciples, but he was not going to leave Jesus.

In contrast, Judas betrayed Jesus and then allowed his failure to pull him away from Jesus.

In our lives we will experience personal failure. We will experience tragedy and unjust treatment. We will experience disappointment and betrayal. We will experience this in and out of the church. We will be pulled by the material wealth of the world and by the temptations of the world. Mountain-top experiences are wonderful but they will not sustain us by themselves. We have to make daily choices to follow Jesus and never, never, never let go of Jesus.

Jesus said (Luke 9:23–24)
Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. 24 For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it.

It is the many, daily choices we make that will sustain us in our faith in Jesus.

Third, when our feet are stuck in the mud of life, we need to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus and the heavenly home he is preparing for us.

This meal Moses, Aaron, his sons, and the elders of Israel shared in the presence of God is a preview of the meal we will celebrate when we come into his kingdom.

In the revelation John received on the island of Patmos, he wrote about this vision. (Revelation 19:6–9)
Then I heard what sounded like a great multitude, like the roar of rushing waters and like loud peals of thunder, shouting:
“Hallelujah!
For our Lord God Almighty reigns.
7 Let us rejoice and be glad
and give him glory!
For the wedding of the Lamb has come,
and his bride has made herself ready.
8 Fine linen, bright and clean,
was given her to wear.”
(Fine linen stands for the righteous acts of God’s holy people.)
9 Then the angel said to me, “Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the wedding supper of the Lamb!” And he added, “These are the true words of God.”

Brian Zandt writes:
Feasts and banquets are Jesus’ most frequent metaphor for the kingdom of God. When Jesus wasn’t talking about a metaphorical table, he was often sitting down at a literal table. In Luke’s Gospel alone there are nearly three dozen references to eating, drinking, and sitting at table.

I have often said that it is difficult to find a significant spiritual experience in the Bible that is not associated with eating a meal together.

The path we take through the world is not always on solid and pleasant ground. Sometimes we walk in mud. The world is not a safe or friendly place and suffering abounds.

In the economic revolution of the middle class against the upper class and the politicians who have supported them, Britain pulled out of the European Union, Donald Trump was elected to be the next president of the US, and there are eight or nine right wing leaders in contention for leadership in European nations.

As part of this revolution racism is on the rise. Anti-Muslim sentiment is on the rise. Immigrants are being isolated and resisted. In the US, after the election, there has been a rise of incidents in which racist graffiti has been posted. “White Power! and “Go back to Africa” appear on walls and on social media. Women wearing the hijab have been attacked.

Hong Kong is fighting for democracy with China preventing pro-democracy legislators from taking their seats in the legislative council. Sudan continues to suffer as does Ethiopia. Turkey continues to oppress opposition to the government. Christians are suffering in North Africa and the Middle East as well as in North Korea and a number of other countries.

The safety and security of the world seems increasingly in danger and in these times, we need to keep our focus on Jesus and the wedding banquet we will share when we come into his kingdom.

Over the past two thousand years the world has moved on through despot after despot, plague after plague, war after war, tragedy after tragedy. As the writer of Ecclesiastes wrote, (Ecclesiastes 1:9)
What has been will be again,
what has been done will be done again;
there is nothing new under the sun.

And in every circumstance Jesus has been at work, rescuing people to bring into his kingdom. Jesus is at work right now as I speak. Jesus is building his kingdom. Jesus is not fearful or in distress because he sees the end. He knows his love is far more powerful than any evil. We need to never let go of our focus on Jesus and our eternal home.

This world is moving on to the time when Jesus will call an end to time and we need to be ready when it is our time to meet with him.

Our feet may be stuck in the mud but our future is in our heavenly home.

Fourth, communion is a meal that anticipates the heavenly meal that awaits us.

At the Last Supper, the Passover meal Jesus shared with his disciples the night he was arrested, (Matthew 26:26–29)
While they were eating, Jesus took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying, “Take and eat; this is my body.”
27 Then he took a cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you. 28 This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. 29 I tell you, I will not drink from this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.”

Moses, Aaron and his sons, and the seventy elders of Israel shared a meal in the presence of God. This was a meal limited to just these few. But the death and resurrection of Jesus opened up this meal to all those in the world who love Jesus and want to follow him.

In his book, Water to Wine, Brian Zandt writes:
For the Christian, the holy of holies is the Communion table. No longer is the holiest of all a veiled chamber reserved for a solitary high priest, now it’s a shared table to which all are invited.

The risen Christ did not appear at the temple but at meal tables. The center of God’s activity had shifted – it was no longer the temple but the table that was the holiest of all. The church would do well to think of itself, not so much as a kind of temple, but as a kind of table. This represents a fundamental shift. Consider the difference between temple and table – temple is exclusive; table is inclusive. Temple is hierarchical; table is egalitarian. Temple is authoritarian; table is affirming. Temple is uptight and status conscious. Table is relaxed and “family-style.”
Temple is a rigorous enforcement of purity codes that prohibits the unclean. Table is a welcome home party celebrating the return of sinners. The temple was temporal. The table is eternal. We thought God was a deity in a temple. It turns out God is a father at a table.

The power in the world that has true transformational power is not the military, not politics, not business, but the table. Do you remember the video I showed about Iraqi Christians who cruelly suffered at the hands of ISIS and were fortunate to make their way to Jordan? At the end of their story, after talking about all the ways they suffered, they said that they have forgiven these men who tortured and killed and pray for their salvation. That is far more powerful than the sword.

When the world is in turmoil, there is no better place to go than to the table and eat a meal in the presence of God.

The world of the followers of Jesus turned upside down when he was arrested, crucified, and buried. And then Cleopas and another disciple were walking to Emmaus when Jesus came alongside and began to talk with them. They did not recognize him but were enthralled with what he was teaching them from the Scriptures (the Old Testament). They invited him to stop and eat with them and when he took bread and broke it, that is when they recognized him. That is when they realized that Jesus had broken out of the grave and had risen to new life.

The disciples expected Jesus to lead a revolt against the Roman occupiers of Israel and instead they got a risen Lord sharing a meal with them.

Eating the bread and drinking the wine/juice is more than a symbol of what Jesus did for us on the cross. Is it the literal body and blood of Jesus? I don’t think so, but perhaps we share a meal on earth that we will one day share in heaven. Perhaps we eat earthly bread and fruit of the vine but as it is blessed it becomes heavenly food that will sustain us for eternity. It is a mystery but it is a beautiful mystery that deserves our attention.

There is no rule about how often we are to take communion. Paul passed on to the church in Corinth what he had received from Jesus. (1 Corinthians 11:23–26)
For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, 24 and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.” 25 In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.” 26 For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.

We worship as we come forward to eat the bread dipped in juice. We open our minds and hearts to the presence of God as we share this meal with each other. We share this meal in his presence in anticipation of the day when Jesus will eat and drink with us in his kingdom.

The communion meal reminds us that we are deeply loved. The pre-existing, eternal, creator God of the universe sits at the table with us as we eat and drink. We are deeply loved and heading toward his home, our home. Come to the table.