Standing too close to a roaring fire instinctively makes you want to take a step back, or maybe two. Likewise, being confronted with your guilt makes you want to slink out of the room, go hide, and never return. Combine both of these to get the general atmosphere of Deuteronomy 5:22-33. Earlier in Deuteronomy 5, Moses is recounting when God gave the Ten Commandments. The mountain is on fire and covered in smoke. God’s people are basically running from the mountain saying, “You’ve got this, right, Moses?”
They were moving away quickly because they were scared. They had heard God’s voice. They were keenly aware that God was paying attention to them. And they knew if they stuck around for much longer, they would be destroyed: because sin does not last long in the presence of God. They witnessed God speaking to humans, and they were surprised that they still lived. But they seemed to ask themselves, “Why risk spending any more time so close to God when we know we are so sinful?” God’s attention is intense, it seems. Few people want to stand this close to the fire when they’ve already burned off a bit of their eyebrows.
God is paying attention. This is something that comes up again in one of our other passages of Scripture for today: 1 Peter 3:12 says that “the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous and his ears are attentive to their prayer, but the face of the Lord is against those who do evil.” This verse struck me as interesting because it talks about God’s attention. God’s eyes are turned toward the righteous, and God’s face is against those who do evil. We are used to hearing about God’s face turning toward us as a blessing (“…may the Lord turn his face toward you and give you peace,” Numbers 6:26). But here, God’s attention is focused on the good and bad.
Initially, the idea that God is paying attention may be guilt-inducing. I’ll grant you, that’s not a good feeling. But perhaps it’s not a bad thing. Maybe it’s just what you need. Feeling guilty after you’ve wronged someone is the correct feeling to have. Having that person’s attention in the midst of that guilt can be awkward, yes, but it generally leads to reconciliation…hopefully.
Maybe knowing that God is paying attention just feels creepy. Like someone looking over your shoulder. Sometimes this has been used by people in the church to manipulate others, or to scare them into doing what’s right. Perhaps that isn’t the best way to think about how God pays attention to us. God isn’t like a creepy person who just won’t leave you alone. God cares about us enough to pay attention to us. So much so that God gives us the plan for the good life. God says, ‘here are things to avoid, and here are things to celebrate – follow these instructions and you will live life to the fullest!’ That’s essentially what God is saying with the Ten Commandments. God wants us to thrive.
When God drew close to his people again in the person of Jesus Christ, there seemed to be less fear, but about the same amount of intensity. Jesus wasn’t setting mountains on fire, but he said some radical things from the top of one. Jesus shook things up. The law that had been given to Israel had been used inappropriately by the religious leaders. They had turned aside “to the right and to the left,” even though they thought they were following the straight path. Jesus was calling them up out of the ditch and back onto the road to attend with them, to be present with them, to give attention to them. And in a way, Jesus was affirming that these people couldn’t do it on their own. Holiness to God’s standard is not something we can do by pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps, or pulling ourselves out of the ditch. It would take Jesus dying and rising again for us to be justified before the Lord.
God is paying attention. God comes close to us, wants to be present with us, attends with us. There are times where that will be uncomfortable, and rightly so. God is still holy, and that means we must deal with our sin. He wants to help, and has promised a way to deal with it through Jesus. No more running, no more hiding. God pays attention and wants to help us deal with this guilt. And because of Jesus, God can turn his attention toward us with all its intensity, coming close to us in our everyday living – and we won’t burn up. But I can’t promise that your eyebrows won’t get a little singed.