Exodus 19 - Promises, Promises.
June 15, 2014 Speaker: Series: Exodus
Topic: Sunday Worship Passage: Exodus 19:1–19:25
[Exodus 19 – “Promises, Promises.”]
Promises are sacred territory, even humanly speaking. A promise to my son is not forgotten by him. So what grace is there for people who make promises to God and can’t keep them?
[Pray - O Lord, your Word is truly a lamp to our feet and a light to our path. Give us grace to receive your truth in faith and love, and strength to follow on the path you set before us; through Jesus Christ, Amen.]
In the passage we read in Mark's Gospel (14:26-31) Peter makes a promise. Not just Peter, of course - all the disciples promise they'll stay faithful to Jesus 'till death. They've seen so much following Jesus – him transfigured in glory, blind men healed by his hand, Gentile children rescued from demons by his word - and the disciples are convinced he is the Christ. They're convinced he's the one come to make all things new. And they're also convinced of their ability to follow him forever.
They sound a lot like Israel standing at the foot of Mount Sinai. Just a few weeks ago they'd been slaves in Egypt. But Israel has seen so much following YHWH out of Egypt - ten plagues showing YHWH's power, Egypt's army drowned in the Red Sea, manna from heaven and water from a rock - and they're becoming convinced that their God is The God. And here, they hear him speak of their redemption already accomplished. They hear him begin to speak of how they'll live together. And convinced that YHWH is making all things new, Israel promises with one voice, "All that YHWH has spoken we will do." They're convinced of their ability to follow him forever.
When we hear what this God has done - how the same God who broke the chains of his people long ago broke into this world again to redeem it through Jesus - if we believe that, then it isn't hard to make promises to him. Because like Peter, our hearts are aflame, desiring to stay close to our Savior. Like Israel, we're eager to live together with our God. He's rescued us from slavery to sin by the blood of Christ - of course we'll follow him. He's brought us to himself by his Spirit - of course we promise to do all he says.
But if Israel promises to do "all that YHWH has spoken;" if we make promises to follow Christ, then what exactly are we promising? In other words, what does it look like to do what he says? In this passage YHWH begins to tell them (and us) what it means to live in community with the Creator and Redeemer.
We hear it in vv.5-6. First, it means obeying his voice. Second, it means serving him. Third, it means living as his peculiar people.
First, it means obeying his voice. When YHWH calls Moses up the mountain, he tells Moses what to say to Israel in vv.3-5. And framed in the reality of redemption already arrived, YHWH calls Israel to obey his voice. He says, "Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine..." (v.4).
What it means to obey his voice will become clear in the rest of Exodus. This overarching call is spelt out in the chapters to come as the Law comes from YHWH's own mouth. But as YHWH calls his people to obey his voice, we're seeing a change in how he's going to deal with Israel. When YHWH speaks of Israel keeping his "covenant," we're seeing a change. Because before this point, God dealt with Israel on the basis of his covenant with Abraham. And there was nothing about that covenant Israel could "keep." After all, it was made while Abraham was asleep; it depended on God's faithfulness alone (see Genesis 15). From Abraham through the Passover through the outpouring of water from a rock, God dealt with Israel on the basis of his promises to Abraham.
But from their arrival at Sinai through the end of the Old Testament - for the next millennia and a half - YHWH would deal with Israel on the basis of his covenant with Abraham and this covenant (commonly called the Mosaic Covenant). Like an architect adding another level to a massive structure, to the unconditional covenant with Abraham YHWH added another covenant. He would be faithful to his promises to Abraham, and he would also deal with Israel on the basis of their obedience. So, when Israel embraces this new change - promising to do "all that YHWH has spoken" - they're promising to be obedient covenant keepers. And if they don't they'll be shown to be covenant breakers.
What that means is simple. They’re promising to listen to YHWH's word as it comes through Moses (which means they'll have to continue believing in Moses as their mediator between them and YHWH - v.9). And when they hear YHWH's word, then they'll have to do it. By promising to do "all that YHWH has spoken" they're binding themselves to obey every law - great and small - that comes from the mouth of God. And in v.8, Moses, the mediator, does his job, reporting the people's promise to YHWH.
If we want to live with this God, if we promise to follow Christ, then we still hear him calling us to obedience. And we still hear him calling us to obey his voice - not the voices of others and certainly not our own voices. We live in a culture that loves to speak loudly. We live in a culture that demands to be listened to, that threatens the labels "intolerant" or "judgmental" to those who do not bow to its words. But for people who promise to follow Jesus, we can't say we want to be close to him then call him wrong when he speaks. Jesus says, "My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me" (John 10:27). He says, "If you love me, you will keep my commandments" (John 14:15). So, far from being judgmental, to say what the Lord says is to bow to the judge himself, simply agreeing with him about what is good and right. To agree with Christ about the wrongness of sexual sin in all its forms (both homosexual and heterosexual); to agree with Christ about the wrongness of greed and injustice and rage and selfish worry - to agree even when we do these things ourselves and mourn over them - to agree with the word of the Lord is a part of what it means to follow him. When we promise to follow him, it means pursuing obedience to his voice.
So, Israel was promising obedience to the voice of YHWH. And, second, Israel was promising to serve God. Because YHWH was calling them to be his kingly priests, to live worshipful lives of service to him and to the world.
YHWH said, "Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant," (there's that condition of obedience) "you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests...” (vv.5-6, emphasis mine).
Their existence as a "kingdom of priests" would be a part of their life with YHWH as they obeyed his voice. In their covenant relationship with their God, Israel would live in service - both to God and to the world. Because that's what priests do, right? Priest serve between God and human beings. If you notice, Israel will be a "treasured" possession out of a wider world. Because Israel isn't God's only possession. He says, "…all the earth is mine."
This helps us see how this Mosaic Covenant layers on top of God's covenant with Abraham. To Abraham God said, "...I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed." (Genesis 12:2-3, emphasis mine) God wasn't abandoning the world to rescue Israel. He was going to use Israel to mediate his blessing to all the families of the earth. As Israel served God and lived in close relationship to him, Israel would serve as a light to nations, a city on a hill, an instrument in the hands of YHWH to show the world the steadfast love and justice of YHWH.
Israel had an honored place in the Story of Redemption. But it still stands that Israel's life and redemption was about so much more than themselves. This covenant with YHWH was meant to turn them outward faced in service of God and others. As they promised to do "all that YHWH has spoken," they're binding themselves to be a people on a mission. And that mission is to fill the earth with the knowledge of God as the waters cover the seas.
When we say we promise to follow Jesus, we, too, are promising to be a people on a mission. We're promising to serve God and serve others - not just ourselves. We're promising to turn outward as part of our obedience to his voice. Because after Jesus accomplished our redemption, he turned our eyes outside of ourselves. Some of us he sends to far off places to tell the Good News of the Kingdom of God. Others – most of us – he calls to "live quietly...and to work with (our) hands," (1 Thessalonians 4:11) worshipping God and making disciples of Jesus by serving our neighbors in word and deed. The mission may look radical or completely mundane - each has their place in the Kingdom of God. But both belong to our promise to follow Jesus.
So, Israel was promising obedience to the voice of YHWH. And they were promising to serve him and the world as a kingdom of priests. And, third, they were also promising to live as God's peculiar people. Israel was to be a "holy nation."
YHWH said, "Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation..." (vv.5-6, emphasis mine).
To be a holy nation meant that Israel was to live as a people set apart - as God's treasured possession; as his priests. But they were also to be set apart in their lives. Their obedience and service and worship was all to be done in a context of purity. This is one of the emphases of Leviticus (which we'll get to one day); God can only be rightly worshiped by a holy people. Uncleanness - which is different than sin - uncleanness cannot be in the presence of a holy God. That is why the people are called to wash their clothes and to refrain from sex - it was a matter of holiness. They were being prepared – cleansed, made holy, set apart from the world - in order to come before a Holy God. In Israel's food laws, their laws about washings, their law's about blood and touching dead bodies and even the timing of marital congress all had an impact on their holiness. In their bodies and in their lives, they were meant to show that their God was set apart from all other gods and that those who worship him must worship him as a people set apart. It actually was a part of their mission; it was part of their being a light to the nations.
God still calls those who belong to Christ to holiness, to be a people set apart from the world because we don't belong to the world. To follow Christ is to pursue holiness in body and soul, to follow Christ into suffering that perfects us and purifies us. To follow Christ is to confess that only those who are holy may worship a Holy God because he cannot look at anything less. The people of God are still his peculiar people, set apart for life with him.
All this is what Israel promises to do in v.8 - to obey YHWH's voice, to serve him and the world, to live as his peculiar, holy people. And a lot of folks think that is really the essence of what it means to follow God. They believe the Gospel of Jesus is about "doing." So, Christianity is reduced to believing facts about Jesus, then doing (or worse, "being") good. And the cross of Christ is robbed of it's meaning because Jesus might have died for you, but you've got to get holy on your own.
But if that’s all there is – if “doing” good is what life with God is all about – then that's as much a problem for us as it is for Israel here. Because if God is going to deal with them (or us) based on our obedience, our service, our holiness, then all we hear is bad news. Because even in this text we see a truth - Israel has made a promise they can't keep. And like Peter and the disciples, we who have promised to follow Jesus in obedience and service and holiness have each made promises we can't keep. We know what we're supposed to do, but we find that we can't do it. And that is terrifying.
Look at Israel. When Moses relays YHWH's word that they are to consecrate themselves but stay away from the mountain because God is coming down, the people are confronted with the reality that no matter what they do, they cannot purify themselves enough to come into the presence of this Holy God. In v.12, YHWH sets boundaries and the penalty for breaking through is death. There is no room for presumption, no room for a prideful heart that believes it is special or "good enough." YHWH is holy, but his people are not and in v.16 that begins to sink in. When the people saw YHWH coming down in "thunders and lightnings and a thick cloud on the mountain," when they heard "a very loud trumpet blast," it says "all the people in the camp trembled." A second warning not to approach God comes in v.21 as the Holy, Holy, Holy God stands on the mountain that burns with the presence of its Creator.
Like Moses at the burning bush, Israel was confronted with the burning holiness of YHWH. And they trembled like the mountain itself in his presence. That's what happens to people who see the holiness, the otherness, the set-apartness of this God. We tremble and despair of our obedience, our service, our holiness – even ourselves - because we are not enough to endure his burning presence. Because added to our problem of "doing" (which we can't "do"), we also have a problem of "being." We are not enough. And so our promises fail.
What does it look like to live with God? What does it look like for us to live with Jesus? It means being constantly confronted with the reality that like Israel and Peter and the disciples before us we've made promises we can't keep. But it also means being freed to say so out loud because we have a God who provided a Savior for people who break his covenant and their promises. He frees us to confess our failure and sin because in his death and resurrection he has provided a way to still live with him.
It was pictured for Israel after YHWH finished giving his law. In Exodus 24 (7-8) we see Moses reading the Law to the people. And again they said, “’All that the LORD has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient.’ 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.’” YHWH knew his people had promised more than they could deliver. And in the sprinkled blood of a sacrifice he showed them that he remained a God of grace who would have mercy on his willing but sinful people. He would provide a way for his people to live with him even though they – we – became promise breakers.
It's called faith in Christ. It's called giving up on trying to earn favor and trusting that Christ is your favor. It's called resting in the One whose blood still sprinkles and cleanses sinners like Israel and Peter and me. The Gospel of Jesus is good news, indeed, for the one who knows what it means to be a failure, because we hear that in him, we have become "a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light." (1 Peter 2:9) Those were the words of Peter himself - promise breaker though he was, Christ-denier though he was - because he understood what it meant for Christ to put on flesh and die and rise again and ascend into heaven. It meant that grace had come for failures, for people who didn't have it all together. Because by faith in Jesus, the Son of God, his once offered sacrifice wins not only forgiveness for sin, but righteousness. By faith in Christ we may stand unafraid in the presence of a Holy God, because he declares us justified in his sight - just as if we never sinned and just as if we've done everything right. By faith in Christ, his obedience, his service, his holiness is counted as ours and can never be taken away. By faith in Christ, we are counted as covenant keepers because he kept the covenant for us.
So, what does it look like to live with Jesus? It means repenting of our broken promise after broken promise and running back to the Savior who died for promise breakers. And relying on his Spirit, it means pursuing new obedience, new service, new holiness; it means seeking to live out what is already ours in Christ.
So, the Gospel frees us to step into life eager to obey the voice of our God. We follow him in obedience because he loves us and takes care of us. Gone are the days of obedience to earn his love. He already proved he loves us by dying for us! So, we can listen with new ears and full hearts to his word and follow it. And when we fail we can stand again trusting that he still holds us, his blood is still enough for us.
And the Gospel frees us to step into life eager to serve God and others in the mission we've been given. As evangelists and home-makers, as pastors and painters, as lawyers and laundry experts, we are freed to turn out from our inward curvature to serve as ministers of reconciliation between God and a lost world, telling others of what he has done for our souls while we show them what joyful service looks like. One pastor writes, "Because the gospel points us to the one who died for his enemies, it creates relationships of service rather than selfishness." Christ frees us to serve others because we have been served by him. We are even freed in Christ to love and serve those who hurt us, knowing that he loved us when our sin and broken promises nailed him to the cross.
And Christ frees us to pursue holiness like his because it is already ours. It is Christ who sanctifies and purifies you; he cleanses you and washes you and makes you clean in his sight. It is Christ who keeps you for himself as his spotless Bride in splendor (Ephesians 5:27). So, you may pursue a set-apart life, rejecting the loves of this world, this Vanity Fair (read Pilgrim's Progress), because you do not belong to this world. Your citizenship is in heaven, because Christ has come from heaven to make you his.
So confess with me, people of God. Say out loud that we are screw-ups and promise breakers one and all. Then come with me back to Christ in hope and joy and peace...
"For you have not come to what may be touched, a blazing fire and darkness and gloom and a tempest and the sound of a trumpet and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that no further messages be spoken to them. For they could not endure the order that was given, "If even a beast touches the mountain, it shall be stoned." Indeed, so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, "I tremble with fear." But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant...." (Hebrews 12:18-24)
You are not at the foot of Sinai, Church. You stand at the foot of cross; you stand at the mouth of an empty tomb. By faith you stand with Christ clothed in the righteousness of your High Priest. He promises that his blood is enough for you. He promises to finish what he began in you and in this world. And his promises to you will not fail.
[Pray – Ah, Lord God – Holy Father, Christ our Savior, Holy Spirit who gives us live in Jesus – who is a God like you? All the gods of this world demand promises from their people. They demand obedience without grace, they demand ceaseless service in temples made by men, they demand holiness won by our own efforts. But you give what you demand. You gave Christ to obey and to serve and to live in holiness. And his perfection you give to us when we confess our sin and trust him to save us. Who is a God like you, dying for rebels and promise breakers? You alone are God, Christ alone is a Savior, the Spirit alone makes us holy. And so we give you thanks, Father, for being more faithful than us. And we ask you to continue your work in us, helping us continue repenting and believing this good news. Father, may it free us more and more from needing to be well thought of, may we be free from the weight of wearing a mask or trying to have it all together. May we even be willing to name our broken promises out loud so that others will know they’re not alone. But then let us run together again to Jesus. And in the grace we have in him, may we follow hard after him once again into obedience, service and holiness. For the sake of his honor and glory, for the beauty of his Bride we pray this, asking you to hear us because Jesus died for us. Amen.]
[Benediction – from Number 6]
The LORD bless you and keep you;
the LORD make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you;
the LORD lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.
 A.W. Pink, Gleanings in Exodus, 153.
 Tim Keller.