“And [God] did not lay His hand on the chief men of the people of Israel. They beheld God, and they ate and drank.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this Maundy Thursday comes from the Old Testament lesson read a few moments ago from Exodus chapter twenty-four. Dear friends in Christ, a covenant is an agreement between two parties, a solemn pledge by both sides that they will fulfill what is required of them. We don’t necessarily use the term too often today, but we do see the concept all the time in our world. We have covenants between renters and landlords, lenders and borrowers; even nations have agreements with one another: “If I don’t attack you, you won’t attack me.” Human relationships would have a difficult time operating without covenants.
God is also in the business of making covenants. He made the covenant with Noah to never destroy the earth again through a flood; His covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob promised many descendents and the Promised Land for them to live in. In our text, God makes another covenant with His people as He prepares to take them to that land. This is a covenant of obedience, for God has finally delivered to His people His promised Law, which tells them how to live before Him. If they obey, He will care for them and defeat all their enemies, and it sure sounds like they intend to obey: “All that the Lord has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient.” To show how serious this is, oxen are sacrificed. “And Moses took half of the blood and put it in basins, and half of the blood He threw against the altar.” The altar indicated God’s presence, and half the blood was thrown there to show that God would keep His end. Then the people were reminded of their obligation. “And Moses took the blood and threw it on the people and said, ‘Behold, the blood of the covenant that the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words.’”
Having pledged and promised their obedience, having received the blood upon their heads as a sign of this covenant with their God, the leaders of Israel are summoned up the mountain to eat a meal. Moses doesn’t tell us if these men knew what kind of a meal this would be, but when they reached the appointed place, they experienced what few ever had. “Then Moses and Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel went up, and they saw the God of Israel.” They saw the God of Israel. The creator of heaven and earth, the One whose mighty arm had brought them out of Egypt, the God who fills all things with His power and glory appeared there before them. They fell down in worship, and Moses records for us what they saw under the feet of the living God. “There was under His feet as it were a pavement of sapphire stone, like the very heaven for clearness.” We can tell that Moses is having trouble finding the words, at a loss to describe through human language the appearance of the glory of God. This is a holy God, clean and pure, as indicated by the pavement He stands upon, and that is a problem, for these are sinful men. They had made a covenant of obedience on the bottom of that mountain, a solemn pledge to obey God, but when Moses returns to those same people, they will be worshipping a golden calf. Mankind is sinful, we are completely corrupted to our very cores. We can make all the promises that we want to God, but we fail every time. By rights, then, this holy God should strike down these decidedly unholy men, but He doesn’t. “And He did not lay His hand on the chief men of the people of Israel; they beheld God, and ate and drank.” In His great grace, God permitted them to eat and to drink in His presence.
Wouldn’t it have been amazing to be on Mount Sinai that day, to actually eat and drink in the very presence of God? Moses describes one of the more amazing events in the Old Testament with just a few words: “they beheld God, and ate and drank.” So much of this event is a mystery, even for those who experienced it, but it truly happened. They beheld the God who created the universe, and they ate and drank. Too bad that sort of thing doesn’t happen anymore, right? “Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, ‘Take, eat; this is my body.’ And He took a cup, and when He had given thanks He gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.’”
The Lord’s Supper doesn’t look as impressive as the meal of Mount Sinai. There isn’t a pavement of sapphire stone, there isn’t a visible manifestation of God, simply bread and wine set on an altar, with words spoken by a man no different than you. As Christians, the ordinary appearance of the Lord’s Supper often deceives us. Do we truly appreciate how amazing and miraculous the Sacrament of the Altar is? Or do we simply go through the motions, coming forward because it’s just ‘something we do?’ Here the God of the universe, who created you and all things, comes near to you and physically touches you. The incarnation becomes real as the God who took on our human flesh here offers His Body and Blood for you to eat and to drink. This isn’t a show, this isn’t simply spiritual, this is real, this is a miracle, this is truly Christ coming to you to touch you with salvation. If we truly understood this reality, I think it would have a great effect on how we prepared for the Lord’s Supper and how we acted before, during, and after we received it. If we knew we were going up Mount Sinai to see God, we would sure be prepared, and make no mistake, what happens here tonight at this altar is an even greater miracle that what happened on that mountain. For here we do not simply eat and drink in the presence of God, here we actually partake of Him. He is the host, but He is also Himself the meal. Jesus gives Himself to us: the same body that hung upon the cross for our sin, the same blood that was shed there as the price for our redemption. God Himself touches your lips in the Lord’s Supper; in this feast you taste and see the Lord is good.
When we fail to appreciate the great miracle and gift that Jesus gave to His people on that first Maundy Thursday, we demonstrate the same sinfulness that the Israelites did. They couldn’t fulfill the promise they spoke so boldly to God: “All the words that the Lord has spoken we will do.” God was faithful to His covenant, while His people rebelled time and time again. What was needed was another covenant, this one a gift from God to His sinful people, and once again blood would seal it. “And He took a cup, and when He had given thanks He gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.’” This new covenant is established in the blood of Jesus Christ, poured out and shed for all people upon the cross.
Tomorrow night we will gather to ponder the sufferings of Christ. You will see Him suffer and die for you and for all your sin. On Good Friday He poured out His blood to bring you the forgiveness you so desperately needed. Christ won your salvation upon that cross, and He delivers that salvation to you and me in this most holy Supper. The holy things of God are offered tonight to you and me, people who are by no means holy. The Lord of the universe dines with His sinful people, bestowing forgiveness upon you and me. This feast actually makes you clean, it forgives your sins, it makes you holy, allowing you to dwell with God forever. The ancient fathers of the church called the Lord’s Supper the ‘medicine of immortality’ precisely for this reason: in this Sacrament, salvation is delivered to you!
Tonight you will not see God with your physical eyes, only with the eyes of faith. But what Jesus gives to you in the Lord’s Supper is forgiveness, life, and salvation, the very promise that you will behold God for eternity. Job declared, “And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see for myself, and my eyes shall behold, and not another.” Come to the feast, for here Christ gives Himself for you! Here the very benefits of His death and resurrection are brought to you; here the Savior of the world comes to you to touch your lips with salvation! Taste and see that the Lord is good! In the name of Jesus, who shed His blood for the forgiveness of all your sins, Amen.