A sermon on Exodus 19 by Rev Richard Keith on Sunday 29 November 2020
In Exodus chapter 20 God gave to the Israelites his ten commandments. That’s right, commandments. They aren’t the ten suggestions. They aren’t the ten optional extras. They come from God clear as crystal with no “Beg your pardon”s. Thou shalt have no other gods before the Lord thy God. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image. Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain. And the others.
The funny thing is that many people live as if they were the first and last words that God ever spoke. On the one hand you’ll get those people who’ll complain about how the world is going wrong because people don’t keep the ten commandments. They are the kind of people who, fifty years ago, may not have come to church themselves, but made sure their children went to Sunday School in order to learn decent morals. They are the kind of people who don’t mind other people getting a little bit of religion to make them better people, as long as they don’t get so much religion that they start upsetting everyone. It’s like a kind of vaccination, getting a small dose of religion so you don’t get a big dose of religion. They are the kind of people who give the impression that the Christian faith is about being good and keeping rules. They carry on like the ten commandments are the first words that God ever spoke.
But then there are other people who go one step further and argue that life is like a test. An exam. God has set a test the ten commandments are the ten subjects it covers, and those who pass the test go to heaven. And those who don’t can go wherever they like. They carry on as if the ten commandments are the last words that God ever spoke. And sadly, such folk are either very judgmental, always looking down on others, or very insecure, never really sure how they stand with God.
But today we are looking at Exodus chapter 19. The one before the ten commandments. And what it teaches us is that the ten commandments weren’t the first words God spoke on the mountain. And that they weren’t the last either. Exodus 19 shows that before God ever said, “Thou shalt not,” he had something better to say. Words that put the commandments in their proper place in our life and faith.
Exodus 19 begins with the people of Israel finally reaching their destination. For God had spoken to Moses once before on Mt Sinai when he appeared to him in the burning bush.
This will be the sign to you that I have sent you: When you have brought the people out of Egypt, you will worship me on this mountain.
After the tenth and final plague, Pharaoh had released them from their slavery and practically driven them out of his country. But true to his nature, he had changed his mind and pursued them with his chariots. But the Israelites had crossed the Red Sea on dry land. Three months of travelling since then, and they had finally reached their destination. And they set up camp at the foot of the mountain.
Then Moses went up to talk to God and this was the Lord’s first word:
This is what you are to say to the people of Israel: You yourselves have seen what I did in Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself.
Before God ever said, “Thou shalt not,” his first word was the announcement of a salvation already accomplished. The Lord had saved them out of Egypt. They had been slaves. They have been forced into hard labour, constructing the building projects for Pharaoh. But God had brought them out. He had judged the land of Egypt with terrible plagues and Pharaoh had let them go, in order to save his people from even worse things to come. And the Lord had carried them all the way. He had parted the Red Sea. He had led them through the wilderness. He had given them bread to eat and water to drink. He had brought them to himself. They had soared like eagles on the Lord’s powerful wings.
Every step of the way the Lord had taken the initiative. And for whom? A great and powerful nation? A generous and noble people? Not at all. They were all but a rabble of slaves which grumbled most of the way.
What have you done to us by bringing us out of Egypt? Didn’t we say to you in Egypt, ‘Leave us alone; let us serve the Egyptians’? It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the desert!
“Of course there was all that back breaking work and they murdered our children, but there was always plenty of gruel to eat.” Yes, sadly, it was easy to take the Israelites out of Egypt. But it was much harder to take Egypt out of the Israelites. They were a rebellious, ungrateful, back-stabbing rabble.
But there they were: at the foot of the mountain. The Lord had taken the initiative. He had saved them. He had done it all without their help, without their co-operation. When they were weak. When they were still slaves. Before they had done anything good or noble. Before they had obeyed any commandment, without passing any test or proving their own goodness, God had done for them what they could not have done for themselves. He did not do it by it the law of ten commandments, but by the higher law of grace.
In Romans chapter 8 the apostle Paul speaks of the powerlessness of the law and of a higher law.
Therefore, there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death. For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering.
By the law we are condemned. Outwardly, we may conform to the morals of decent society. But in our hearts we are condemned as law breakers. We may not kill. But we may despise our neighbour. We may not commit adultery. But we may look with lustful eyes. We may not covet our neighbour’s ox or donkey. But we may not be content with what we have. And although we should, we do not love God with all our heart. We do not, because we cannot. The law sets us a standard, but gives us no strength or motivation to achieve it. We do not live up to our own values. How far short do we fall of God’s values! The law is weak. It cannot help us. It fails us, and to sink the boot in, it condemns us.
But in Christ we are under the rule of a higher law. It is the law of the Spirit of life. It is the law of love. It is the law of grace. It is the way of Jesus Christ who never sinned, who always did good, and yet died a sinner’s death, so that the law that was used against him might be exposed as a fraud and perish with him. We are not saved because we have passed a test. We have all but failed every test. But God took the initiative for our good and for our salvation.
We are like the people of Israel. We are slaves set free not because of our own worthiness, but because of the mercy of God. God’s first word to us is not law, but it is his gospel. His first word is not condemnation, but forgiveness. His first word is not demand, but it is promise. He does not give us the back of his hand, but offers us his open hand. In Jesus Christ God has brought us to himself.
God’s first word on Mt Sinai was the announcement of a salvation already accomplished. No good deed, no grand gesture, no amazing sacrifice was required to obtain it.
And so the Lord’s second word was an call to service. God said,
You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagle’s wings and brought you to myself. Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all the nations you will be my treasured possession. The whole earth is mine, and you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.
Have you ever watched a potter working with clay on the potting wheel? He takes a lump of clay and spins it on the wheel and starts shaping it into something beautiful and useful. The slightest touch with his fingers in the wrong place and the clay will lose its shape. But the potter has the patience and skill to start again and make it right.
What we learn in Exodus 19 is that the Lord is a potter who was willing to mould that rabble of slaves into something beautiful and useful. His plan was to shape them into a new nation with a new constitution, into a kingdom where the Lord was king and his subjects all served him, a holy nation, a kingdom of priests. The whole earth belongs to the Lord. All its nations owe their worship to him. But God’s plan was to make Israel his special treasure, his crown jewels on display for all the world to see.
The Lord wasn’t being racist. The people of Israel were not his favourites like a foolish parent having a favourite child. No, he loved the whole world so much, that he decided to make a new nation, a kingdom where he would be king, a nation where his word would be law, a group of people consecrated in his service.
They would be priests with a duty to God and a duty to all people. A priest stands between God and his people. He stands between them as a channel of blessing. Praying to the Lord. Speaking to the people. The Lord chose Israel to be his channel of blessing to the world. Their duty to their God was to listen to his word and to keep it. Their duty to the rest of the world was to proclaim the glory of God by what they said and by what they did.
I am not a priest. I am your servant. We are all priests in this world. We have a duty to God and a duty to all people. Our duty to God is to love and obey him, to walk by his Spirit and in his way of love. And in this way we fulfil the commandments. Not to pass some entrance exam. But because we have already entered by God’s grace into his blessing. Because God’s new life calls for a new way of life. And so we have a duty before people to declare to them the wonderful deeds of Christ our Saviour. We fulfil that duty by sharing the gospel of Jesus and we show the truth of those words by living the way of Jesus.
As Paul says in Romans 8,
God condemned sin in order that the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the sinful nature but according to the Spirit.
And so Exodus 19 puts the commandments in their proper place. We are not good in order to be saved. But we are saved in order to do good, that we may know the Lord and love him and serve him. It is the gospel of Jesus Christ that saves us from being judgmental and from being anxious and uncertain. We are no better than others, nor does our salvation rest on our performance. God has done everything so that from this place of rest and security in him we might do our all.