He warned them. He told them he was coming, but they were unprepared. Not ritually-his demands were in keeping with many of the religious practices of the day, a checklist of dos and don'ts that required only effort: Wash your clothes, keep your distance, abstain from sex.
They were allowed three days of consecration, a period marked (we might imagine) with increasing excitement and anticipation. All the great nations of the world had national deities; it was a badge of identity. Now this body of nomads, shepherds, and slaves was to be formally introduced to theirs. If the signs and wonders that accomplished their deliverance from Egypt were any indication, Israel could look forward to a deeply satisfying religious experience.
Thunder and lightning began early on the third day. Then the clear gleaming tone of trumpets pealed from the sky, louder and louder until the very air rang with it. By then the mountain writhed in smoke and fire. As the people watched with intensifying terror, Moses went up to God, who spoke to him. They could hear his voice, though it is unlikely they could understand the words. Perhaps he spoke in a language they could not understand, or perhaps their comprehension was overwhelmed by the awesome presence, the true and terrible dimensions of "God with us."
This was the first advent. God had descended and spoken before this and would do so again, always to individuals and always with a particular message to deliver. But at Sinai he showed himself to a people, with the purpose of revealing his character and law.
The spectacular mode of the presentation was no mere caprice: Though God no doubt intended to provoke reverence and fear, he was not primarily interested in bestowing a "religious experience." He was bestowing himself. The account bristles with tension, a reining-in of God's glory that otherwise might devour the very nation he chose to bless.
He warned Moses not to let the people come near "lest I break out against them." The creative and sustaining power of the universe was confining himself in a very small place; eternity squeezed into a moment of time. "The heavens themselves cannot contain you," Solomon would declare-how much less this mountain, this nation, this world. The threat to "break out" carries a literal ring, a sense of infinite power held in check. "You speak with us," the people begged Moses, "and we will hear. But let not God speak with us, lest we die" (Exodus 20:19).
What the Israelites felt, but could not articulate, was their own littleness: another name, as he would teach them, for sin. Holiness cannot dwell with corrupted flesh. The violence of his appearing was the clamor of a gulf not easily breached, the roar of battle between perfect righteousness and total depravity.
Small wonder, then, that no one was prepared when he came again, even though he warned them. The prophets foretold and the psalmists looked forward in hope to the time when "mercy and truth have met together; righteousness and peace have kissed" (Psalm 85:10). But once again the people failed to comprehend their own condition, or consider what it might take for righteousness and peace to kiss.
After centuries of law-keeping they believed themselves fit to receive the promises, not yet understanding that they dealt with a God who could not, in justice, deal with them. The blood of bulls and goats may have kept his righteousness from "breaking out," but making peace required a better sacrifice.
Thus the second advent: no thunder, lightning, or trumpet, just the weak cry of a newborn in the middle of an overcrowded city. They were looking for a king and a champion, but they received God himself molded to human flesh and confined in a very small space.
They were looking for a conqueror to defeat their enemies, not expecting he would take on the ultimate enemy. They were looking for Messiah to solve their problems, not understanding that he must first become their problem, for "[God] made him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in him" (2 Corinthians 5:23).
No fire and smoke on the mountain, but a "breaking out" on a hill. Grace and justice, mercy and truth met together and established peace at last, and the place where they met forms a cross.