Well, over the last ten weeks or so we have been reading together through God’s first public speech to his people. He has spoken ten words — what we now call the Ten Commandments. And through these ten words God has been describing who he is. He has been describing ten particular character traits that he wants his children to imitate as they grow up to be more like him.
And really this whole process began right after the people of Israel escaped from their slavery in Egypt. They had passed through the Red Sea, and had been reborn as God’s children. And right away, as God led them into the wilderness, they entered into a time of testing. God allowed them to experience thirst, then hunger, then thirst again, then war, then disorganization. And through all those tests God was teaching them two things: first, that even though they had been physically set free from slavery, they were still slaves spiritually and emotionally; they needed a profound healing from the inside-out. Second, God was teaching them that he is the one who would heal them; those were his exact words: “I am the Lord, who heals you.”
The people of Israel had been reborn as God’s children, but they were still a baby nation. Through that time of testing, God was growing them up into greater maturity, growing them up to the point where they would be able to choose for themselves whether they wanted to continue as God’s children, or not.
Well, after all those weeks of testing in the wilderness, the people of Israel had apparently grown up to a point where they could make a choice. So God brought them to the foot of a mountain on the far side of the wilderness — Mount Sinai — and he asked them, through Moses, whether they wanted to continue in their relationship. When the people said, “Yes,” God said, “Great! Get ready! Because now we are going to enter into a covenant together.”
And that is when God — for the first time — began to speak directly to all his people from the mountain, describing those ten character traits he wants his children to grow up imitating.
And as we read through each of the ten commandments in turn, you may have noticed that we followed a bit of a pattern.
First, we always saw how each commandment is a healing commandment. We saw how this whole covenant program is an essential part of the process by which God’s children will grow up to resemble their Heavenly Father. We saw that the law is good, and that obedience to the law will result in a whole new kind of human society.
But then, as we looked more deeply into each commandment — and especially as we heard how Jesus interpreted each commandment! — we realized that we really have no hope of keeping any of God’s laws.
And that was made especially clear last week when the final commandment proved that God does not just care about external actions and words, he cares about corruption in the human heart.
In this, God’s law is almost completely unique: ultimately, other religions in the world only care about external behavior. They would say that, as long as we are doing the right things for society on the outside, what we think or feel or believe on the inside is irrelevant. But the Judeo-Christian God is not content with just modifying physical behaviour, he is committed to healing people completely, from the inside-out. He knows that a truly transformed society can only come from a truly transformed people.
But then, each week, as we realized we have no hope of keeping God’s law, our despair always drove us to seek help! — to look for someone or something who might save us from the shame of our failure and the fear of God’s judgement.
And each week we were reminded that God has provided someone to save us: Jesus Christ, his only begotten Son. Jesus not only interpreted each commandment properly, he also kept them all perfectly, he fulfilled them all.
And each week we were reminded that, if we have been baptised into covenant with Jesus, then we are God’s adopted children, and Jesus’ perfection has become our perfection. We were reminded that as we come to believe in his perfect love for us more and more, then more and more that perfect love begins to drive out all our shame and fear and even the self-enslaving self-love that lies at the root of our shame and fear.
And we were reminded that, as those things begin to fade, we will be able to look back and see the goodness of God’s law even more clearly than we did at first.
So this is the process we went through every week, with each commandment in turn: we saw that the commandment is good. Then we saw that it is so good we cannot help but be bad in relation to it, which caused fear. But then, when we remembered the salvation and freedom we have through Jesus Christ, we were able to look back at the commandment — this time without fear — and see that it is possible, with the Holy Spirit’s help, for us to learn how to keep the commandments. Not perfectly! Never perfectly in this life. But well enough to begin building a new kind of human society together.
So that is what has been going on for the last little while: God has been speaking from the mountain in a voice like thunder. If this was a movie, we would say that the camera has been focused on the mountain throughout God’s sermon to his people.
But now that God’s sermon is over, as we read on we find the camera panning around to capture the congregation’s response:  When the people saw the thunder and lightning and heard the trumpet and saw the mountain in smoke, they trembled with fear. They stayed at a distance.
And this is quite a change, actually, from the last time the camera panned across the people gathered at the foot of the mountain.
If you remember, near the end of Chapter 19, the Lord descended to the top of Mount Sinai and called Moses to the top of the mountain. And God was probably about to tell Moses something significant when suddenly he had to say, “Oh, no, wait, Moses, quick, go back down and tell the people to stay away!” And when the camera panned down across the foot of the mountain we saw the people rushing the mountain like kids at a rock concert, like drunk football fans running onto the field after a victory.
But this time, near the end of Chapter 20, when the camera pans across, we see the people running away! They went from, “Yayyyyyy! We get to see God!” to “Ohhhh nooooo, we don’t wanna see God!”
What changed? In Chapter 19 there was thunder and lightning and a trumpet and smoke, and the people tried to rush the mountain. Now there is still thunder and lightning and a trumpet and smoke and the people are running away. What is the difference?
The difference is God’s sermon.
Back in Chapter 19, when God asked the people, “Do you want to continue in covenant with me,” they said, “Yes!” even though they had not yet heard the details.
Now, they have heard the details. They have heard the commandments. And they are now experiencing what we experienced each week as we heard each commandment: they are experiencing the fear and despair of discovering that they have no hope of keeping any of them completely.
Before the commandments, the thunder of God’s voice was scary, of course. But the people were thinking: “We are circumcised, we have been consecrated, we have washed our clothes and abstained from sex for the last three days, we are holy enough to climb the mountain and see God.” Now, after the commandments, the thunder of God’s voice has become absolutely terrifying, because the people know that they are in no way ready to see God!
The people do not want to see God anymore.
What do they want now, instead? Well:
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.”
So here we find that the people’s despair has driven them to seek help, just as it did for us. Through the law they have become suddenly conscious of their sin. They want someone or something to save them from shame, from fear.
We looked to Jesus Christ, of course. But the people of Israel did not know Jesus, he would not be born for another 1500 years or so. They did know Moses, however. Before God started speaking directly from the mountain, he had always spoken through Moses, and the people are saying, “Hey, you know, can we go back to that system? We liked that better.”
So  Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid. God has come to test you, so that the fear of God will be with you to keep you from sinning.”
Which is a little funny. Because Moses is sort of saying, “Do not be afraid!…but be afraid a bit.”
What Moses’ comment here tells us is that God is still testing his people. He tested them several times in the wilderness by depriving them of good things like water and food. Those tests were designed to help the people learn their limits, refine their appetites, and grow in their trust of Moses as God’s messiah, God’s anointed representative.
Well here, at the mountain, God has just tested his people by giving them too much of a good thing! — too much directly spoken law, too much of his direct presence. He just tested them by giving them a bad fright. But we see that this test is teaching the same lessons as the previous ones: now the people understand that they are limited in their ability to approach God; their desire to approach God has been refined; and they are now asking Moses to act as their mediator once again, as he did before.
And all this is the fulfillment of God’s stated purpose back in Chapter 19. He had told Moses, “I am going to come to you in a dense cloud, so that the people will hear me speaking with you and will always put their trust in you.”
Well, now it has happened! For just a moment, the people had thought, “Now that God has arrived, we don’t need Moses anymore!” Now they are saying, “Uhhhhh…actually, Moses, you go.”
So  the people remained at a distance, while Moses approached the thick darkness where God was.
And this marks the beginning of a section known as The Book of the Covenant. And the reason it is called that is because, four chapters from now, when Moses descends from the mountain, he is going to write down everything he has heard in a book that called The Book of the Covenant.
What is this Book of the Covenant going to be all about? It begins here:
 Then the Lord said to Moses, “Tell the Israelites this: ‘You have seen for yourselves that I have spoken to you from heaven:  Do not make any gods to be alongside me; do not make for yourselves gods of silver or gods of gold.”
And that is correct: those were the first and second commandments that God spoke from the mountain to all the people: “You shall have no other gods before me,” and, “you shall not make any idols.” The people did hear those commandments directly from God.
But apparently God is not finished explaining what those commandments mean. He has more to say. But now the people fear him more appropriately; now they know for sure that it is God who is speaking through Moses. And now that they know this, they have asked that God not speak to them directly anymore, they would rather hear through Moses.
So that is what this Book of the Covenant is going to be all about: through Moses, God is going to be explaining his ten commandments in more detail, so that his people can know better how to act them out in their everyday lives. They have heard the basic commandments directly from God; from now on they will be learning the more detailed applications from Moses.
So let’s read on!
God has just reminded his people of the first two commandments, which called upon them to turn away from false worship and seek God alone. What does that look like in everyday life? This is what it looks like:
 “’Make an altar of earth for me and sacrifice on it your burnt offerings and fellowship offerings, your sheep and goats and your cattle. Wherever I cause my name to be honored, I will come to you and bless you.
So apparently one way God’s people are supposed to turn away from false worship is by building an altar and making sacrifices on it.
But that is not unusual. Building altars and making sacrifices was a pretty common religious practice at the time: the Egyptians did it, the Canaanites did it, the Babylonians, the Hittites, everybody. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob all built altars at various times and various places. Moses built an altar back in Chapter 17, after their successful war against the Amalekites. So how is building an altar a way of rejecting false worship when everyone in that part of the world worships by building altars and making sacrifices?
Well, this altar is going to be different in two ways: first, it will be made of earth. Soil. Dirt. Second, wherever God inspires his people to build an altar like this, he will bless them with his presence.
But what difference do these two differences make?
Well, let’s talk about the first one first:
Earth — dirt — is a very common substance. It is not the sort of thing people value, is it? In fact, we could say that dirt is really the exact opposite of silver or gold. Dirt is not rare, it is not pure, it is not permanent. Dirt is worthless. But worthless dirt is exactly what God wants his people to use for their altars!
And when we glance at the next verse we find that this idea of using worthless materials is actually repeated:
 “‘If you do make an altar of stones for me — perhaps because you are in a place where there is not enough dirt — then do not build it with dressed stones, do not build it with cut or shaped stones, for you will defile it if you use a tool on it.
Stones are also very common. A stone is also the opposite of silver or gold: it is worthless — unless a craftsman starts shaping it. Then the stone becomes valuable. And a craftsman that is shaping a stone for sacred purposes is likely to work very hard to make sure that stone fits just right. And the longer he works, the more precious and special and holy that stone becomes — at least, in the eyes of human beings.
But God is saying that, in his eyes, a stone that has been shaped by a tool is not more valuable, it is not more holy, it has actually been defiled. Any stone that has been deliberately shaped for use in an altar is actually worthless to God and must not be used in an altar for him. But raw stones — common, ordinary, everyday, untouched stones — these are what God wants his people to use for their altars.
So what we are discovering here is that this instruction is really an exact mirror-image of the second commandment. God just said, “do not make for yourselves gods of silver or gold” — that is false worship. Instead, “make an altar for earth for me” — and that will be an act of true worship. In other words: the commandment “you shall not make any valuable idols” also means “you shall make worthless altars.”
So that is the difference the first difference makes: when God inspires someone to build an altar for him, true worship requires that they build it out of worthless materials.
But why? What does this mean? What is God trying to accomplish by defining true worship in this way?
Well, like all good fathers, God knows his children well. He knows we all have a tendency to make value judgements based on what we see as valuable. Gold and silver, aromatic woods and spices and oils are precious to us because they are rare, and beautiful, and a delight to our senses. Now, none of those things are necessarily bad! but we all have an unfortunate tendency to start over-valuing them. And over-valuing very quickly turns into idolatry — especially if we have spent a lot of time and effort shaping those precious substances into objects that we will use in worship.
We are physical creatures. Therefore our worship requires some kind of physical interaction, some kind of building activity. Building an altar for worship is good! But God wants to protect his people from the temptation to start worshiping the altar itself. And the best way to do that is to make sure they build their altars out of worthless, temporary things like rocks and dirt.
But this commandment is not just designed to protect God’s people from their tendency to worship idols of silver or gold or carefully carved stones; it is also designed to grow their understanding of what is truly valuable. Even though their altars are to be built of common, worthless materials, God’s people are supposed to realize that those altars are actually going to mark the most valuable places on earth, because they are going to mark the places where God was present with his people in a special way.
That is the difference the second difference makes — that is the point God is making when he says, “Wherever I cause my name to be honored, I will come to you and bless you.” His “worthless” earthen altars are going to be more valuable than any pagan idol made of gold or silver, because they will mark the place of his presence.
But again, this aspect is not unusual, either. Because didn’t the Hittites and the Canaanites and all the other idol-making cultures also believe that their gods were present with them in their idols and altars and temples?
Yes. That is what they believed. However, quality of their belief was completely different, completely inferior. They believed it was possible to trap the essence of a god inside an object by luring it close through the use of sacrifices — the promise of spiritual food — and then binding it there with magic.
That is actually what the final verse in our passage today is speaking against:
 “‘And do not go up to my altar on steps, or your private parts may be exposed.’”
For ancient pagan people like the Canaanites, size mattered! A bigger altar was better than a smaller one; an altar on top of a man-made mountain — a stepped pyramid — was even better that that; and a large altar on the top of a real mountain was best of all for attracting the attention of the gods.
And so was the promise of sex. Pagan religions were fertility cults. As such, they featured a lot of nakedness, followed by physical and sexual degradations of every kind — because the people believed that the gods fed on this sort of behaviour, that they imitated it, that they even possessed people’s bodies sometimes so they could participate directly.
The God of Israel is completely different. He does not care about the size or quality of the altar. He does not want his people to exhibit even accidental nudity in worship. Yes, his altars are going to guarantee his presence — but not because he was lured near through the promise of food or sex! Not because he was too stupid to avoid being tricked, too weak to avoid being trapped! No: the God of Israel will be there simply because he promised to be there.
And that is what makes all the difference. That is why it is possible for an altar fashioned out of worthless dirt to contain the Spirit of God.
After all, what was the first man made out of? And yet God breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.
So that was the first chapter of the Book of the Covenant.
It began to answer the question: what does true worship actually look like?
And the answer was: true worship is centered around the sacrifice of burnt offerings and fellowship offerings. But the fellowship that comes through true worship does not depend upon the quality of the altar, it depends upon the quality of God’s gracious promise to be there.
And the purpose of this answer was to continue the process of healing God’s people from their slave mentality. People who think they can enslave the gods with magic soon find that they have been enslaved by the gods in return. But people who have discovered that the true God over all gods loves his children freely, as a Father — those people are on the road to healing and freedom.
And we find that God does keep his promise to Israel. In the generations to come, whenever someone is inspired to build one of these temporary altars, God is present there. In just a few chapters, Moses is going to build one as part of this covenant ceremony. Joshua builds one a generation later at another covenant ceremony. The judge Gideon makes one out of dirt after an angel appears to him; Samson’s father uses a large uncut stone for the same purpose. Going forward in history we find God’s people building altars before battles, after battles, during famines and any kind of crisis, really. They worship in faith that God is concerned about the identity of the worshiper, not the quality of the altar. They worship in faith that he will be present with his people as he promised, that he will hear their prayers and answer them.
And that lesson is really quite amazing. Whoever heard of a God who shows up just because he promised to, just because he has decided to love his people?
But this first chapter of the Book of the Covenant also answers another, deeper question that the people of Israel perhaps did not even know they were asking.
If you recall, just before God called Moses up to the top of the mountain, the people had been keeping their distance. God preached a sermon to them, and their response was to run away! Through the law they had become conscious of their sin. They had become conscious of their need for help. And they were wise enough to realise that Moses was the help God had given them: Moses would be the mediator, the prophet who would speak heaven’s words to the earth.
But here is the question the people of Israel had not yet asked: why would Moses’ mediation work? God has apparently chosen him to act in this special role as prophet, but Moses is just as sinful as everybody else. What is going to keep Moses from dying in God’s presence? And if Moses their messiah dies, then surely the rest of the nation that depends on him will also die!
What God has done with these instructions is offer his people the beginning of an answer. Moses is just as sinful as everyone else. Just like everyone else, he is not actually holy enough to see God. There will be blood shed! — just not Moses’ blood.
These instructions about how to build temporary altars are God’s first official hint at the permanent sacrificial system that is going to be revealed to the people over their next few months at Mount Sinai. In just a little while, Moses is going to build a temporary altar of earth at the foot of the mountain, and through the shed blood of sheep and goats and cattle, he will officially baptise the nation of Israel into covenant with God. A few months after that, Moses is going to build a permanent but portable altar made of wood covered with bronze, and from that point on there will be a system of regular sacrifices — not just fellowship offerings made by ordinary people, but sacrifices of atonement for sin performed by priests. Through those continued priestly sacrifices, the ordinary people of Israel will be able to continue to approach God as his children, knowing that their sins have been paid for. Through that priestly bronze altar, the ordinary people of Israel will be able to build temporary earthen altars of their own as needed, knowing that their Heavenly Father will be present with them as promised.
But now we come to the point in our sermon that we come to every week, the point where we ask this question: do these instructions about altars have anything to do with us? Are we failing to practice true worship here? Should we start building altars and sacrificing animals in order to guarantee our forgiveness and God’s presence with us?
Well, the answer to that last question is no: we are not supposed to be building altars and offering sacrifices. But the answer to the first question is yes: these instructions about altars and true worship are relevant to us today.
So, why are we Christians no longer supposed to build altars out of earth or stone?
Because those common earthen altars depended upon the central bronze altar for their effectiveness, as we just noticed. The priestly atonement offerings on the central bronze altar forgave the people’s sins, which then allowed them to make fellowship offerings on earthen altars in their hometowns. But the central bronze altar is gone! So: no more bronze altar, no more earthen altars.
Does that mean we ought to rebuild the bronze altar?
No. The bronze altar has been replaced. Replaced by what? Replaced by the cross upon which Jesus Christ was crucified.
Jesus himself hinted at this shift during his conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well in the Gospel of John, Chapter 4. She tried to start a theological debate about which mountain true worship is supposed to happen on. But Jesus cut her short. He said, “Woman, believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain or that. A time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.” In other words: God does not look like anything, that is why his people are forbidden to make idolatrous models of him. In addition, God is not limited to just one location on earth, which is why the time is coming when God is going to delete that centralizing bronze altar so he can meet with his people anywhere and everywhere — earthen altars no longer required.
Now, if you are familiar with the story of Jesus’ life, you know that he died just a couple of years after he had that conversation. Which was a big disappointment…until he was resurrected, and poured out his Holy Spirit upon all his followers.
And it took some time, but after a while — through the Holy Spirit — Jesus’ followers figured out how it all worked. They realized that Jesus’ death on the cross was the final atoning sacrifice for the sins of all his people. No more sacrifices are needed; no more bronze altar is needed. And because Jesus’ people are now permanently forgiven, the presence of God lives within each one of them. Which means that, whenever and wherever Jesus’ people gather for worship, what we are seeing is a super-concentration of God’s presence.
We could say it like this: when we Spirit-filled earthen individuals are piled up together in worship and community, we become the completed version of the earthen altars that the earthen altars were pointing forward to from Moses’ day onward.
So we Christians are no longer supposed to build altars out of earth or stone because we are the altars made of earth and stone, filled with the presence of God. Every time we gather like this to pray, and sing, and read, and listen, we are building the earthen altars that God commanded his people to build.
Therefore, these instructions about altars and true worship must still be relevant for us today.
But now we have to ask: how? I mean, let’s get practical here: how can we apply these instructions about dirt and stone and not using steps to our worship today? Shall we say, “it’s okay for us to worship on the second floor because we use a lift to get up here”?
We’re going to look at just two practical applications today.
The first one is related to God’s test of his people in this passage. God preached a sermon, and it was so bad that his people ran away. But that was actually part of the program: the people needed to experience the terror of God’s presence so they would turn and put their trust in Moses and in the altars and sacrifices to come. And they did put their trust in these things.
Well, in the Gospel of John we are told that Jesus also once preached a sermon so bad that his people ran away. In essence, he was saying, “Look, if you want to be healed from your slave mentality, you are going to have to accept me as your final atoning sacrifice.” And because his disciples could not accept the idea of a human sacrifice, they ran away — all except the original twelve disciples. And when Jesus asked them, “Why are you guys sticking around? Why don’t you leave like everyone else?” they answered, “Hey, Lord, we’re kinda stuck here. Because it is obvious to us that you have the words of eternal life, even if your words do sound scary and repulsive. We do not fully understand what you are saying, but we are putting our trust in your character.”
So, if you are here today and you are not a Christian, if you have become aware of how you are living with a slave mentality, dominated by fear and insecurity; dominated by desire for gold, silver, wealth, status, all of these things that are actually worthless; if you are tired of worshiping gods who have to be manipulated and tricked and trapped into spending time with you, well then, listen, this is your application, this is what you should do:
Put your trust in Jesus. Jesus is the only god in history who has promised to be present with his people whenever they need him, he is the only god in history who has poured out his essence upon his people for free. All you need to do is become one of his people. And the way you do that is 1. by trusting that he means what he says, 2. asking him to go and speak on your behalf to the God you dare not approach, and then 3. being baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. God will be present with you. And that, friend, is a treasure beyond value, beyond gold, silver, sex, or any other kind of wealth.
But now, what about the rest of us who have already put our trust in Jesus, what is our practical application of this passage?
Well, we are altar builders. That is clear. We are in the business of building altars made of dirt, altars made of ourselves and other human beings. And because we are now in the altar-building business, we must learn how to value what our Father values. Gold and silver and incense and huge sanctuaries made of elaborately carved stones — all of these things are very precious to us because they are rare, and beautiful, and a delight to our senses. And none of those things are necessarily bad! but they can be a distraction from this simple truth of the Gospel: that God is present with his people whenever and wherever they gather to read his Word and listen to his voice. The quality of our clothing does not matter, the quality of our salary does not matter, the quality of our background culture does not matter: God is present with all his children no matter who we once were, no matter who we are now. All that matters is that we are here, together, now, one covenant family gathered around the well of living water that is the Word of God, Jesus Christ.
So let us continue to commit ourselves to the simplicity of true worship, and so participate in the healing process our Father has promised to complete. This is how the apostle Peter describes what is happening to us: “As you come to Jesus, the living Stone, you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.”
And this is Paul’s conclusion, in his Letter to the Romans: “I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship.” Of course, we want to know what offering our bodies looks like. So Paul goes on: “This is what true and proper worship looks like: Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.” So our living sacrifice, our true and proper worship, is to actively reject the enslaving patterns of this world, and move purposefully into the world that is to come.
But what does that look like? Well, it looks like a lot of things. And God is going to be talking about those details over the next few weeks, as we read through his Book of the Covenant — so keep on coming back for that.
But for the sake of time, let’s just close with this short description from the author of the Book of Hebrews: “Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise—the fruit of lips that openly profess his name. And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased.”