Pastor Walther / Exodus 19:2-8a / You are God’s Holy People / July 2, 2017 / Pentecost 4
2 After they set out from Rephidim, they entered the Desert of Sinai, and Israel camped there in the desert in front of the mountain. 3 Then Moses went up to God, and the Lord called to him from the mountain and said, “This is what you are to say to the descendants of Jacob and what you are to tell the people of Israel: 4 ‘You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. 5 Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, 6 you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words you are to speak to the Israelites.” 7 So Moses went back and summoned the elders of the people and set before them all the words the Lord had commanded him to speak. 8 The people all responded together, “We will do everything the Lord has said.” So Moses brought their answer back to the Lord.
A couple weeks ago I went to Eaux Claires music festival. The headliner on Friday night was Chance the rapper. One thing about Chance the rapper is that he puts a lot of gospel music into his songs and proudly claims that he is a Christian, in a very non Christian music genre. Near the end of his set, he asked, “Do you want to go to heaven?” I stood still. I couldn’t believe it. I don’t think the people did either. Here is a rapper, acknowledging his problems but his trust in Jesus as his savior. On top of it all, he got the people thinking. Here’s an interesting thing about music festivals: there are a lot of young adults and young professionals probably far away from any religion. I hope my assumptions are wrong. But, as if one question didn’t silence the crowd, he asked it again to get a sort of murmured response. I couldn’t help but think the terrible thought, is this really the best place to evangelize? Did the people find it cringeworthy or pretentious, or was it just me? Weeks later, I still can’t help but remember how easily this man confessed his trust in Jesus. Why, why, why did I find it cringeworthy?!
Jump back to times when I would have a short prayer with my family in a restaurant before a meal. I sat there thinking, couldn’t we just pray to ourselves so that no one would know we’re praying? Why did I find that cringeworthy? Maybe you’re like me, looking at how we live our Christian lives as if they were cringeworthy, as if they were embarrassing. I think that’s what the younger generations of Christians often struggle with. Is it a generational gap or is it actually a struggle with accepting the Christian doctrine of sanctification, i.e. Christian living? Maybe you’ve had those conversations with your child, or with your parent. Why can’t I live with my boyfriend? That’s just how people do it these days. Dating isn’t like it was 50 years ago. Your way of not living together before marriage is outdated and embarrassing. What about the topic of evolution, of carbon dating, of science? Don’t people view Christians as being dumb for not believing in science! Or the topic of Love? Don’t people view Christians as bigots and narrow-minded when it comes to who can love who. “Love isn’t that antiquated definition you hear in the Bible. Love is for anyone and everyone.” You probably already know that being a Christian is tough these days, where people often view the church as an exclusive club that no one can leave and no one can enter. I guess the question is: are we helping that opinion of the church?
I kind of wonder the same thing about the Israelites. I feel like we could safely assume that the neighboring peoples and nations often felt as outsiders to the Jews. There was a certain arrogance that Jews had because of a thing called a covenant. A covenant is nothing more than a promise or a contract between two parties. The Israel nation had a very special covenant, a covenant with God. On Mount Sinai, God brought a two sided covenant to the nation of Israel. It contained the condition: if they obey God and keep his covenant, then out of all nations, the nation of Israel would be His treasured possession. That covenant included laws that governed in great detail the religious, the social, and political life of Israel, which you know some of those laws as the 10 commandments. Our section of Scripture comes minutes before the 10 Commandments are given. So the question that pops up is why? Why did God propose this covenant? Why burden people with these laws? Today we will focus only on a few of those reasons.
Who of you are shoppers at Woodman’s? Have you ever witnessed young families shopping there? Maybe you’re one of them. That is a huge store. To a 3 year old, that’s like the biggest place in the world. You make it to the first isle and you’ve already put in 10,000 steps. To a three year old walking next to you, they have 20,000 steps. The first isle seems fun and exciting and monstrous. By the second isle, the little feet start slowing down. By the third isle, the child is hungry. By the fourth isle, all bets are off. There is no rationalizing with that child, but nevertheless a parent has to tell them what will happen if they listen or if they don’t listen. You see Israel was sort of like this child in a huge store. The nation of Israel were immature in their walk with God. God had led them in love. He did these amazing things for them, but they did not mature. They didn’t respond to God properly, which is why the Israelites would be given these laws.
As much as a child might be whining, crying, and stomping their feet in a store like Woodman’s, can you imagine the feeling of losing that child as they walked away huffing and puffing looking for something they wanted? That’s what leads us to really the most important reason for God sitting down with Moses. These laws that would be given to the Israelites were designed to keep the people close to God. In fact, you can hear the fatherly, loving tone the Lord uses as he announced the covenant that would be established between him and the people of Israel.
The beauty of this relationship was that God brought about this relationship. He did it in spite of Israel’s their grumbling and complaining. He adopted them as his own special people out of pure grace. They were not any more deserving than any of the other peoples. These words, “I brought you to myself,” show that the Lord did not want a forced obedience to the 10 commandments but a willing and loving obedience in response to his incredible love. They were to say, “We love because he first loved us.” Right there, the concept of a loving response to a law, obeying out of love not fear, was revolutionary! Think of the ancient concept of the Hammurabi code. If someone got caught stealing, they’d lose a hand. But now, love not fear! That's different and people take notice of that. Outsiders want to know how they can get in on this idea of living not out of fear but for something else entirely. This law was different because of the motivation to follow it.
That leads us to the other reason we’ll highlight today about why God gave the Israelites the law. God calls his people a kingdom of priests. Now that’s interesting because priests were set apart from the common people. They acted as middlemen between the people and God, interceding for them and offering sacrifices for them. Because they were in the presence of God they would have to stay ceremonially clean, dedicated entirely to the service of God. God calls the nation priests because he had a mission and a purpose for his people. Their purpose was not to be an exclusive club, to be pretentious because they were the chosen ones and everyone else was filth. Their purpose was not to turn people away nor was it to look down on others. Instead, like priests, their purpose was two-fold. They were to keep a close relationship with God for the purpose of being mediators between God and the world. So you see that the law and the Ten Commandments were not only important for them, but were also important to the mission that God had for the world. As priests, the nation would share with the world the knowledge of the real and only God and the gospel promise of the Messiah.
Now, having heard the conditions, the people agreed to keep their end of the arrangement. Clearly these people remembered all that God had done for them. But you can’t help but remember that shortly after this unanimous promise these same people built and bowed down before a golden calf. We might wonder how they could so quickly forget the promise they had made, but Sin so easily frustrates the best of intentions. Think about our own confirmation promises. Are we keeping them? How many young people promise to be faithful to the Lord at their confirmation only to fall away from the Lord not long after the promise?
Why does the Christian life become so difficult to live up to? Doesn’t it become exhausting trying to motivate ourselves to live Christian lives? Do we feel depressed when we can’t follow through for God? When we look at that website once again, when we get angry for no reason, when we drag our friend’s name through the dirt, when we doubt God’s promises, when we’ve been a bad worker or a bad spouse, when we fail time and time again, do we wonder how God could possibly forgive us again? How do we motivate ourselves to try again? What about trying to motivate other Christians, like young Christians to live godly lives, or to go to church? Is your explanation for why we live “Christian lives” because you said so and that’s the way we’ve always done it? Is that really the best motivation?
We’ve got to marvel at the patience of the Lord as he experiences our unfaithfulness to our end of the promise. But, this section of God’s Word is so important for us to hear because God’s reminders of what he had done for his people and the promise for the future comes all before he gives the law, before he gives the 10 commandments. That's so important to know that God doesn’t want the law to be the motivation for living Christian lives, but the gospel, the good news that we are forgiven. God did not want us to feel the burden of the law but he wanted us to feel the freedom from it. Christ would bring an end to the law. Jesus came and fulfilled all of those laws for your sake. The specific rules and regulations that were given on Mount Sinai no longer apply to us.
That does not necessarily mean that God’s law has nothing to say to us as God’s people. The basic law of love toward God and other people as we see in the 10 commandments make up our guide in living a life that is pleasing to God. But, we don’t have to live in fear that if fail God, He will abandon us. Our standing in grace is not dependent on our faithfulness but it is dependent on his faithfulness and his forgiveness, which he offers freely and every single day. Being a part of God’s family, we have that covenant relationship, that promise that forgiveness is ours, through Christ. That’s why we need God’s Word in our lives, because through his Word, God leads us and guides us and reminds us of the forgiveness for our sins. It reminds us that our motivation is different now. We love because he first loved us. That is our motivation each and every day to follow his commands. I know I have failed, but God’s forgiveness helps me to look forward not backward.
Our lives as Christians are ultimately lived to God’s glory, but also for an important purpose. God called the Israelites a kingdom of priests because he wanted them to be priests to the world. In the New Testament God calls us Christians a “chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God.” Our motivation as Christians is to share the life giving message with the world, the message that they don’t have to live in fear that they can't live up to a perfect standard but that they can live in hope and love for what God has done for us. Our job as Christians and our job as St. Paul isn’t for us to be exclusive or pompous because of what God has given, but we are to share the message with everyone. We have forgiveness! Let the message itself be proper the motivation to invite our families, friends, and our neighbors. Will we be made fun of? Probably. Will it sometimes be awkward? Probably. Will people not like us because of it? Probably. Will it feel cringeworthy talking about Christ out in public? Maybe.
My dear friends, we are God’s holy people, priests to the world around us, not an exclusive club. We were set apart for a purpose. We get to live for Jesus and share the message about His forgiveness. That is not a cringeworthy task, but a beautiful task. That is not an embarrassing message but an empowering one. Amen.