Exodus 20:18-26 - The Guardian

September 28, 2014 Speaker: Series: Exodus

Topic: Sunday Worship Passage: Exodus 20:18–20:26

[Exodus 20:18-26 - "The Guardian"]

Over the past ten weeks, we've covered a brief moment in time - the giving of God's Law. We've spent ten weeks on about two minutes of YHWH's speech (and for good reason). But because we've slowed down to consider the depth of his Law for so long it's easy to think of the Law as some sterile truth; it can seem detached from this world. But it came in time in thunder and lightning and thick darkness; it came assaulting the senses of Israel with the other-ness and weight of God. So now, as we enter back into Israel's story, we hear what happens to people who meet this God. If you hear his voice there is only one response - and there is only one hope.

[Pray - Almighty God, who is our Father through Jesus, our Lord, help us now to hear your voice. And may your words humble us in your presence and drive us to Christ our hope. We are not humbled unless your Spirit lays us in the dust. We do not hope unless your Spirit lifts our head to see the Savior. Come, Holy Spirit, and do both so that Christ is greater to us than he has ever seemed - and more beautiful. We ask this as those ransomed by his blood, bought by your Son, in whose name we pray. Amen.]

[Read Exodus 20:18-26]

Three points are going to help us understand this passage. We're going to consider 1) The Call to Israel, 2) The weight of the Call, and 3) The grace in the Call. This passage is mainly about the weight and the grace in the Call to the people of God. But in order to understand the weight and the grace, we have to start with the Call itself. The Call is the reason for the weight and the grace.

So, a little bit of recap might help us here. Because you might be thinking, "What Call is he talking about?" It's the Call we hear back in chapter 19. This Call is the context for what we see at the end of chapter 20.

In chapter 19, Israel arrives at Mount Sinai. Long before, YHWH promised Moses that he would lead Israel out of slavery to worship God on this mountain. And YHWH kept his promise. Through plagues and the parting Red Sea, YHWH had redeemed his people from slavery in Egypt. Through desert wastes and wilderness he carried Israel to himself, providing manna from heaven and water from the rock. And in chapter 19, YHWH tells them why:

He's calling Israel to be his "treasured possession," a "kingdom of priests and a holy nation" (vv.5-6). That's the Call - to be the people of God. The Call is for these people - covered by the blood of Passover lambs, rescued from death, brought into life with God - the Call is for them to live as the treasured people of God.

For Israel, to be called as the people of God is what their redemption from slavery was all about. God didn't rescue them from Egypt to become free agents in the world. He didn't rescue them to let them do whatever they wanted. He rescued them to win them for himself. He rescued them to turn them from slaves into his very own people. And as his people, Israel would experience true freedom.

Because to be the treasured people of God is to live and die in security. To be the treasured people of God is to live and die in peace. To be his people is to live and die in the hope that he always keeps his promises. He has promised to redeem this world broken by our sin. He has promised to restore it, making it the place where God and his people live together again forever. In this Call he invites Israel to make much of him as their Creator; their Redeemer. He’s calling Israel as priests into his service. And in this Call he invites Israel to enjoy him forever.

This is the Call that still goes out to all the earth. What belonged to Israel at Sinai is open to every tongue and tribe and nation. Because all who rest in Jesus, the Son of God, are brought into the people of God. And we are not saved to become free agents. We are saved in Christ to become the people who belong to God, who serve him in joy and freedom. And through faith in Jesus the Christ, we live and die in security and peace as the people of God with the hope that he remains faithful to keep his promises.

God's Call to us to be his people through Christ is why we gather here today. We come to worship him and give the only thing we have to offer - our thanks. With grateful hearts we worship him because when all we had to offer him was our sin, he called us to rest in Christ and become his people. God's call to be his people is why we work and eat and drink in such a way as to display his worth. God's call to be his people is why we find dignity in every task - as parents and machinists; painters and pastors; dental hygienists and diaper-changers - because we are defined not by our vocation but by our relationship to God. We are his people in Christ! What comfort in grief! What strength in weakness! What patience in trial! What hope while we wait for his return! To be called as the people of God is to live as God's treasured possession - not treasured because of anything good in us but treasured because we are in Christ and Christ is in us.

The people of God enjoy his favor, enjoy a special place in all the world - those called as the people of God truly enjoy God himself as our Creator and Redeemer. But then and now, when God calls people to himself, there is a weight to that Call, a sobering reality. We see it back in Exodus 19. With the Call, God tells his people back then how they will continue as his treasured possession. They must "indeed obey (his) voice and keep (his) covenant." (19:5) The Call to be the people of God is intertwined with these covenant demands. Because you can't be the people of God without obedience to God. You can't enjoy a relationship with him without listening to him. There is a weight to this Call.

So, in Exodus 19, Moses tells all this to Israel gathered at the foot of the mountain. He delivered all the words of the LORD about the call as well as the demands. And this is what Israel said in response - "All that YHWH has spoken we will do." (19:8) Moses, the mediator, tells God what his people have promised. God called them to be his people; they promised to listen and obey completely.

Have you ever promised to help a friend move? Moving day comes, you arrive to see the truck already in place. You've got your gloves; you're ready to move some boxes - but when you get inside nothing is packed. The kitchen looks completely intact. The DVD collection is still on the shelf. What should have been a couple of hours of carrying boxes turns into a day spent filling boxes. And two slices of pepperoni seems small thanks for the hours of packing you're putting in. You promised to help. But what you really want is to run away, because you promised more than you knew.

Israel knew what they were called to be. And they knew what they'd promised to do in chapter 19 - to do all YHWH says to his people. But here in our passage today they've heard the Ten Commandments, now they've experience "the thunder and the flashes of lightning and the sound of the trumpet and the mountain smoking," as the completely-other God spoke to them. What's their response? Verse 18 tells us - "the people were afraid and trembled, and they stood far off."

When Israel heard the voice of God, when they heard what was required for them to be the people of such a holy and good God - only then did they understand the weight of the call. And Israel realizes something - they've promised more than they knew. They want to be his people - his beauty and his goodness was so clearly displayed in the exodus. But now they know it is not in them to keep their promised end of the covenant. What God requires, they can't do. So, as soon as they hear the Ten Commandments, Israel's inability to keep them makes them afraid. And they stand far off, unable to answer the God who is calling them.

Paul explains why in Galatians 3, which we read earlier.

"But the Scripture [Paul is speaking of the Law here] imprisoned everything under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe. Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed. So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came... (Galatians 3:22-24)

In the ancient world, a guardian was one responsible for the child of the master. Though often a slave, the guardian was in charge of the master’s son until the boy came of age. The guardian would keep the child; guide the child - even discipline the child. The guardian's job was to prepare the child for life in the house of his father.

That is what the Law was for Israel - a Guardian. It impressed upon Israel the weight of their call to be the people of God. And the Guardian made Israel afraid. They stood far off because from the moment they heard the demands for the people of God, they were aware of their failure in it (see Romans 7 for more of how that works). Though called to be his people, to image his character as his obedient people, instead Israel became aware of the sin that lived within them - and it went deeper than they ever imagined. So, the Law was guarding them, guiding them, leading them to the truth - that sin always imprisons us. YHWH may have led them from slavery in Egypt, but his guardian showed them they remained captive to sin, held by chains of their own making.

Hear what that does to Israel. Look at v.19 - trembling they said to Moses, "You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, lest we die." Israel understands that they need someone to stand between them and God. The Ten Commandments has shown them they can't even bear the weight of hearing the voice of God. How can they hope to bear the weight of the Call to be his people? They need a mediator, someone to stand between rebels and the True King enthroned in heaven. They need a mediator, someone who can make peace between God and his people.

Do you feel the weight of the Call? Has the Guardian done its work in you, too? Because God's Law still confronts us today – Christian and non-Christian alike. It shows us sin is alive in us, running deeper than we can know or imagine, corrupting our hearts and wills and minds and desires. The Law still guides us, bringing us to the end of ourselves. The Ten Commandments still make us afraid, still make us stand far off from God like they did Israel's long ago because in them we see and hear the beautiful and good character of God and we see ourselves in that mirror. But what do we see but our rebellion, our weakness, our frailty? We see our inability to keep God’s Law in thought, word, or deed. So, the Guardian still does its work; it still makes us long for a mediator. Like Israel, we long for someone to bear the weight of the voice of God; someone who can shoulder the weight of the Call with its demands.

God's Law is supposed to have this effect on us. Through it we're supposed to feel the weight of God's Call to be his people. It's supposed to reveal our inability to live up to the demands of God, making us feel the weight of our disobedience. Why would God do that to his people?

Maybe he wants to expose our hearts and show us how deep sin really goes in us. Maybe he means to keep us from pride; he's willing to lay us in the dust of humility so that all we can do is look to him. Maybe he means to show us how great our need is before he comes and meets it more extravagantly than we could have dreamed. Maybe he means to drive us to Christ showing us that he is a much greater Savior than we've ever believed.

Because although the Guardian makes us fearful for a moment's time, the Guardian also prepares the people of God for his coming grace. Look at vv.20ff and see the grace in the Call because the grace Israel saw is the grace that has come in its fullness through Jesus, the Son of God.

[Read vv.20-26 again]

To fearful people who longed for a mediator, we see YHWH providing just that. Moses was chosen long ago by YHWH for this very role. And as their mediator he speaks hope into their fear, telling them that God hasn't come to kill them. YHWH means to test them, to prove their reverential fear and trust in him. Will they listen to him? Will they keep their promises? And when they fail, will they come back to trust him? Will they embrace not only his Law, but also the grace he offers to them in this covenant?

Because in this passage we see God gave them more than a mediator. God also gave them an altar. An altar was a place of sacrifice and here (v.24) two are mentioned. The burnt offerings are the sacrifices offered up because of sin. The people who break promises are covered with the body and blood of a sacrifice. The peace offerings are those offered up afterward in thanksgiving, in gratitude for YHWH's provision of forgiveness and life with him. Through these sacrifices offered on an altar of earth or stone, the people of God - failures and fearful though they would be on their own - through these sacrifices faltering and unfaithful people could live securely as the people of God. Because as the Guardian, the Law, showed them their sin the sacrifices assured them that God would deal graciously with them, forgiving sin. So, those who recognized their sin and turned back to God, trusting him at his word - they were truly the people of God. They were trusting him to keep rescuing them - not just from slavery in Egypt, but slavery to Sin itself.

But pay attention to what God rules out here. Just as important as what God provides for his people is what he takes away from his people. Because trusting in God and God alone is central to the Call for the people of God. So, God takes away human effort as a source of hope.

He says silver and gold gods (v.23) like those of the nations around them cannot be next to him. They are mere things made by human hands. They cannot speak God's word like the mediator can, like God himself. They cannot help his people bear the weight of God's Call.

And even for those who would embrace the sacrifices, God rules out any human effort to make the sacrifices more acceptable. In forbidding the stones of the altar from being cut with tools, he shows that he does not need the work of our hands. We humans love to beautify things and that is good. But it will not lessen the weight of God’s Call. Ornate altars carved by men cannot beautify what is already a display of beautiful, extravagant grace from God. Instead, attempts to better his grace deny the sufficiency of his grace.

Lastly, God forbids his people from going up steps to his altar. Now, that may seem a strange rule. But there have always been those who hear God's Law and see it as "steps" to be perfect. Here, God warns against trying to go up steps to him. It is a prideful heart that tries to get itself up to God. And it is an ignorant heart, one unaffected by the Guardian. Because the Law of God exposes our utter inability to raise ourselves up from the dust. Before God our sin and shame is laid bare with nothing to cover ourselves. To believe a few steps can get us closer to God is to fundamentally misunderstand the depth and heinousness of sin. Because if a few steps can get us to God, then what is the point of a sacrifice?

What do you do when you feel the weight of the Call, when the Guardian leads you to the end of yourself?

Do you run after the silver and gold gods called Approval or Comfortable Living or Control or Power or Security or Family or Entertainment to help you carry the load? They only add more weight to your shoulders.

Or do you better the grace of God by adding to it? If we have been humbled into the dust by the weight of God’s good Law, then is his grace enough to save us or not? Is the sacrifice alone enough for us or does it need help from the works of our hands? Does God need ornate, richly crafted sermons or is Christ crucified on the altar of the cross enough to save? I ask this because I am so tempted to believe I can add beauty to that which is most beautiful. But to add to his grace our efforts, our prayers, our giving, our charity, our devotions, our time, our understanding, our knowledge of the truth – to add to his grace our efforts is to deny the sufficiency of his grace altogether. To add to Christ is to despise the sacrifice he’s provided.

Or do you go up the steps and present yourself to God as one who deserves his grace? Even if we try hard to keep all the rules, even if we go up those steps sincerely, if we follow the law as steps toward perfection, then all we will find at the top is that our nakedness is exposed. Because we do not understand how deep sin goes in us. God says what goes on the altar is the body and blood of the sacrifice, not the one who needs a sacrifice. Here God would protect us from the pride that says we can get up to him.

Finally, if you feel the weight of God’s call, if you feel the weight of guilt, do you continue to stand far off like Israel, unwilling to answer the glorious Call to become one of God's people? God did not come down to keep his people at a distance.

No, God came down to be close to his people. And although at Sinai his presence was a terror to his people as they were confronted with the Law, in the Incarnation Jesus came full of “grace and truth.” (John 1) And on the cross, Jesus came to show us just how demanding and gracious our God is. God laid the full weight of our sin on the shoulders of his Son so that the mediator between God and men would also be the perfect sacrifice to take away sin. Christ satisfied the demands of God for the people of God so that the grace of God would always be ours.

What God would have of us is to do what his people have always been called to do – embrace the mediator he has provided and take comfort in the sacrifice that takes away sin. For Christ our final sacrifice has already been offered and accepted! We sinners who break promises are covered with the body and blood of Christ. And Christ our Mediator has been raised from the dead to continue to speak to the people of God saying, "Come to me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest...." (Matthew 11:28)

This is the promise Paul says has been revealed in Christ – that by faith in him, we are counted as faithful. His obedience to God is counted as ours not because of our works but because of his finished work in which we rest. Now that he has come and died and risen again we are no longer under the Guardian. No longer are we under the authority of the Law. By faith in Christ we are under his grace because he carries the weight of the Call for us.

As it is written, "...the law was our guardian until Christ came in order that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ." (Galatians 3:24-27)

This is why we don’t have to be afraid to be known as failures, as sinners who can’t live up to God’s Calling as his people; this is why we can confess our sin freely without shame - because God sent Christ to rescue sinners like us, to win us for himself when we were helpless. This is why we’re called to be gracious and forgiving toward one another – because God has been gracious and forgiving toward us in Christ.

For in Christ we have become the people of God. In him “…you are 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. Once you were not a people, but now you are God's people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” (1 Peter 2:9-10)

You who are confronted with the weight of the Call and the weight of sin, lift up your heads and your hearts – there is a Savior who carries it all for us. And by faith in Christ our Mediator, Christ our sacrifice, we are brought into the service of God – to tell of his weight and his grace we have seen in Christ. He does not need our works, but he does accept our praise through him. We may not add to his grace but we may tell others about it. We may not earn his love, be we may revel in it because he has lavished it upon us in Christ. May his Spirit help us to believe that although we were crushed beneath the weight of his demands and the weight of our sin, we now stand in the grace of Christ our Redeemer. May his Spirit cause us to walk as his people in Christ, rejoicing in the weight of his glory.

[Pray – Father, for the Call to be your people we praise you. What do we deserve from you? What could we add to what you have given to us in Christ? All we have is our sin. But from you we have Christ the perfect sacrifice! Christ our faithful Mediator! On his shoulders you laid all our sin so that we might become children in your house. What a faithful God you are! What wondrous love we have received! May we always confess our need. And if you show us how deep our sin goes, if you show us how much we need, may we always see the sufficiency of Christ. Help us to see ourselves truly and be humbled. Help us to see him truly and rejoice. Only help us not to remain the same. Father, by your Spirit’s work, conform us more and more to the image of your Son, so that even as he loved us we might love one other before the face of a watching world. And through that love may you draw others to yourself. Break others as you break us with your demands, raising us up in Christ to make much of you, our Creator and Redeemer. 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.

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