Nineteen Comes Before Twenty
“Nineteen Comes Before Twenty”
Over the next four Sundays I want to focus our worship on the Ten Commandments as Christians tend to refer to them. The Law of Moses is what the ancients called them. Modern Jewish scholars refer to them as the “Words.”
As children many of us were encouraged—some may say forced—to memorize them. They are on the walls of many court houses, historical monuments and buildings, and the basis for many laws not only in America but globally. For instance, it is illegal in most civilized nations to commit murder, or to steal, or to commit perjury, among others.
But before we can understand the Ten Commandments, we must first understand them in their context.
The Hebrew people, descendants of Abraham and heirs to the promises God made to their ancestor, had just spent a few hundred years as slaves under the tyranny of Egypt’s Pharaoh’s. Under the leadership of Moses, they had witnessed the awesome power of God as he brought plague upon plague upon plague upon the Egyptian people in his skirmish with the Pharaoh.
Finally, Pharaoh released them from their bondage and allowed them to leave. Once again, they witnessed God’s power when at the Red Sea, God parted the waters allowing the people to pass through on dry land.
It was in the wilderness of “Rephidim” where the people complained because there was no water there, so Moses struck a rock and water flowed miraculously (Exod. 17:1-7).
Three months have passed since they departed Egypt. They now find themselves in a place where God will begin to mold them into the community that he desires them to be. Camping at the base of Mt. Sinai looking up at the jagged peaks of a mountain range with an elevation ranging 8,600 feet. The summit hidden by massive, angry storm clouds. They watched as Moses climbed up into the clouds. It was there that God Spoke with him.
It is in chapter nineteen that God creates the covenant with our ancestors. One of my favorite professors is quick to remind us that “Nineteen comes before twenty.” The point is that the relationship God establishes with the chosen people comes first -- it is literally primary. The law, with its ethical demands on our behavior, comes second -- it is literally secondary. In Exodus 19 God says, “I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself.” God first establishes the relationship with us. Only then does God make a claim on our behavior.
This relationship which God establishes with the chosen people is called a covenant. Several times God creates covenants with his people at different stages of their relationship. He made a covenant with Abraham to make Abraham the Father of many nations. He made a covenant with David that one of David’s descendants would be on the Throne of Israel. In Christ, God made a new covenant with those who believe. This morning we are looking at the covenant God made with Israel through the Prophet Moses.
In modern times we define a host of relations by contracts. These are usually for goods or services and for hard cash. The contract, formal or informal, helps to specify failure in these relationships. The Lord did not establish a contract with Israel or with the church. He created a covenant. There is a difference. Contracts are broken when one of the parties fails to keep his promise.
If, let us say, a patient fails to keep an appointment with a doctor, the doctor is not obligated to call the house and inquire, "Where were you? Why didn't you show up for your appointment?" He simply goes on to his next patient and has his appointment secretary takes note of the patient who failed to keep the appointment. The patient may find it harder the next time to see the doctor. They may receive a bill for the appointment missed. He broke an informal contract.
According to the Bible, however, the Lord asks: "Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you!" (Isaiah 49:15) The Bible indicates the covenant is more like the ties of a parent to her child than it is a doctor's appointment. If a child fails to show up for dinner, the parent's obligation, unlike the doctor's, isn't canceled. The parent finds out where the child is and makes sure he's cared for. One member's failure does not destroy the relationship. A covenant puts no conditions on faithfulness. It is the unconditional commitment to love and serve.
The terms that are used to describe this relationship are very vivid. “You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself.” God’s side of this relationship is one of defense, protection, and deliverance.
Some years ago, the great Christian, Rufus Jones, was devastated by the sudden death of his seven-year-old son. The staggering blow left him in the depths of despair. One day while out for a walk, he came to a beautiful estate. He saw a little girl, about five or six years old, come running out an iron gate. She closed the gate behind her, but suddenly realized she had locked herself out. She began to cry and beat on the gate hysterically. Quickly, her mother came running to the little girl, opened the gate, took the little girl in her arms, carried her back inside and comforted her saying, "Everything is all right, Honey. You know I wouldn't leave you out here all alone. You know how much I love you. You knew I would come, didn't you?”
As Rufus Jones saw that young mother coming to rescue her daughter, he remembered that God is like that...and no matter what the situation is, even at the place of death, He is there for us"...and Rufus Jones said, "In that moment, I saw with my spirit that there was love behind my shut gate also."
If that is God’s side of the equation, a position of love, comfort, and protection, then what is our side? Who are we in this covenant relationship? Too many times, in responding to that question, we turn to the Ten Commandments and ee obedience, blessing or curse, boundaries, work. We see all of these “don’ts” and “do not’s” and see our side as one as if we traded in the tyranny of the Pharaoh for the tyranny of God. However, if nineteen comes before twenty, we find a different picture.
If we enter this covenant, God will transform us from a people of bondage, a landless, homeless people, into something more glorious and purposeful. We will be his treasured possession. I do not think this needs much explaining. We all have those possession that are priceless and for which we would trade nothing or sell at any price. We will be his treasured possession.
We will be for him a “Priestly Kingdom”. This one needs a little thought given to it. Normally, when we think of priests we see church professionals who are responsible for leading worship, performing weddings, burying the dead, or baptizing newborns or new converts. One of my seminary professors used to joke that every preacher needed one good suit or outfit. One to be worn when hatching, matching, and dispatching.
However, when God creates us to be a priestly kingdom, or using the words from First Peter, a priesthood of believers, we must consider a deeper meaning. A priest, in the line of Aaron, or the Levitical priesthood of the nations of Israel were more than officiants over the rites and sacraments of the church. The priest represented the people before God, and the priest represented God before the people. The priest was the mediator between that which was of the earthly realm with that of heavenly realm.
The challenge to be “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” represented the responsibility inherent in the original promise to Abraham in Gen 12:2–3: “You will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you … and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” Priests stand between God and humans to help bring humans closer to God and to help dispense God’s truth, justice, favor, discipline, and holiness to humans. Israel was called to such a function. How? The answer is not spelled out in the present context, but it surely was to take place in three ways:
(1) Israel would be an example to the people of other nations, who would see its holy beliefs and actions and be impressed enough to want to know personally the same God the Israelites knew. The church carries that mantle as well. When the world looks upon the church they are to find there an earthly representation of God. Have you ever considered the church as the earthly image of God? Are we not called the Body of Christ? In the words of St. Theresa of Avila
Christ has no body now but yours
No hands, no feet on earth but yours
Yours are the eyes through which He looks
Compassion on this world
Yours are the feet with which He walks to do good
Yours are the hands with which He blesses all the world
Yours are the hands
Yours are the feet
Yours are the eyes
You are His body
Christ has no body now on earth but yours
When the world looks upon the church do they see God?
(2) Israel would proclaim the truth of God and invite people from other nations to accept him in faith as shown by confession of belief in him and acceptance of his covenant. With integrity we are to speak the truth of God’s love, peace and justice in a world lacking the awareness of God’s will. As the people of God, we are to speak God’s word with boldness. that is not just the role of the pastor, but of every baptized believer.
(3) Israel would intercede for the rest of the world by tithes and offerings, and prayers. Each day we are to take the brokenness, the hatred, the corruption, the sinfulness of the human community to God. We are to pray for others, and not just our family. We are to pray for those in power to make wise decisions. We are to pray for our enemies, yes and to do them good. Is there someone who causes your blood pressure to rise, to clinch your jaw, to furrow your brow. That is the one you need to lift in prayer. It is hard to hate or be angry with someone when you are asking God to love them. As he hung on the cross, our Lord prayed for his persecutors, his betrayers, and for those who sought his death — Father, forgive them. Forgive them.
Nineteen comes before twenty because God’s love is the foundation for what comes next. The ten commandments will show us how to live as God’s priestly kingdom and as a holy nation. Over the next three weeks we will explore this wonderful, time honored, and precious text known as the Ten Commandments. Until next week, God bless us all. Amen.