A Declaration of Dependence
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On the third new moon after the people of Israel had gone out of the land of Egypt, on that day they came into the wilderness of Sinai. They set out from Rephidim and came into the wilderness of Sinai, and they encamped in the wilderness. There Israel encamped before the mountain, while Moses went up to God. The Lord called to him out of the mountain, saying, “Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob, and tell the people of Israel: ‘You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. 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.’ These are the words that you shall speak to the people of Israel.” So Moses came and called the elders of the people and set before them all these words that the Lord had commanded him. All the people answered together and said, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do.” And Moses reported the words of the people to the Lord. And the Lord said to Moses, “Behold, I am coming to you in a thick cloud, that the people may hear when I speak with you, and may also believe you forever.” When Moses told the words of the people to the Lord, the Lord said to Moses, “Go to the people and consecrate them today and tomorrow, and let them wash their garments and be ready for the third day. For on the third day the Lord will come down on Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people. And you shall set limits for the people all around, saying, ‘Take care not to go up into the mountain or touch the edge of it. Whoever touches the mountain shall be put to death. No hand shall touch him, but he shall be stoned or shot; whether beast or man, he shall not live.’ When the trumpet sounds a long blast, they shall come up to the mountain.” So Moses went down from the mountain to the people and consecrated the people; and they washed their garments. And he said to the people, “Be ready for the third day; do not go near a woman.” On the morning of the third day there were thunders and lightnings and a thick cloud on the mountain and a very loud trumpet blast, so that all the people in the camp trembled. Then Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God, and they took their stand at the foot of the mountain. Now Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke because the Lord had descended on it in fire. The smoke of it went up like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain trembled greatly. And as the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses spoke, and God answered him in thunder. The Lord came down on Mount Sinai, to the top of the mountain. And the Lord called Moses to the top of the mountain, and Moses went up. And the Lord said to Moses, “Go down and warn the people, lest they break through to the Lord to look and many of them perish. Also let the priests who come near to the Lord consecrate themselves, lest the Lord break out against them.” And Moses said to the Lord, “The people cannot come up to Mount Sinai, for you yourself warned us, saying, ‘Set limits around the mountain and consecrate it.’ ” And the Lord said to him, “Go down, and come up bringing Aaron with you. But do not let the priests and the people break through to come up to the Lord, lest he break out against them.” So Moses went down to the people and told them.
Scripture: Exodus 19:1-25
Text: Exodus 19:5-8
Sermon Title: A Declaration of Dependence
Gray Psalter 533: Church of God, Elect and Glorious
Brothers and sisters in Christ, I am guessing that many of us took the opportunity to celebrate the 4th of July or Independence Day. We take this day to commemorate the Continental Congress’ passing of a declaration of independence from Great Britain on July 4, 1776. The founding fathers of this nation reached a point that they viewed as necessary to, “dissolve the political bonds which connected them with another, and to assume…the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them.” In the document, they laid out their issues out, but in summary they declared the King of England to have a “history of repeated injuries and usurpations,” which were all directed towards establishing “an absolute Tyranny over the states.” The colonies and their leader faced plenty of oppression and difficulty, and their attempts to work with the monarchy across the Atlantic Ocean revealed that this setup was not feasible. They dissolved their political allegiances and connections, and declared themselves “free and independent States…[with] full power to levy war, conclude peace, contract alliances, establish commerce, and to do all other acts and things which independent states may of right do. And for the support of this declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.”
Out of this, the country in which we live and which many, if not all of us take pride in, became a new nation. This was a new start for those that were fleeing persecution and hardship in their native countries, a place for those seeking opportunity in a land that had not previously been gone through by their countrymen or anyone to their knowledge. As governmental structures and laws took shape, the founding fathers and citizens desired for this to be of the people rather than any particular ruler or governing body. Government was needed, because order and peace allow for a civil society, common rules for travel and trading goods ease and keep relationships working between the states, but at heart of what founded this nation was the people and their working together. Throughout the last almost two and a half centuries, we can see how that unity and power in the people has developed in different way as the country has grown in space and population, working through issues of race and gender.
The account in our passage this morning takes us back several thousand years, and we find an earlier story of a people finding their independence, but things happened just a little differently. Exodus tells us the story of a people who has been enslaved in the country of Egypt for over four hundred years until God called a man named Moses to lead them out. Moses was an Israelite though not well connected to the larger Israelite community, maybe even despised because he grew up with the royal family. Yet God called him to be his spokesman to Pharaoh as well as to the Israelites and their elders. God told Moses that he was working this for the end of their slavery, but the request Moses is to bring is simply that the people may go have a festival, a time to worship over three days in the desert.
Throughout the earlier chapters, we see how God gave him the ability to perform signs and set plagues into motion to show everyone that the God of the Hebrews is the only true God. Most of us know what happened, over the course of the ten plagues affecting humans and animals, some which were annoying and others disturbing their livelihood, God’s people are eventually set free. It is with the last one, the killing of the firstborn child and animal of all who do not have blood on their doorway, that Pharaoh gives the declaration “Up! Leave my people, you and the Israelites! Go, worship the Lord as you have requested. Take your flocks and herds, as you have said, and go. And also bless me.” It is the oppressing ruler who gives a declaration of separation comes from the oppressing ruler. Of course, he quickly realizes he has lost all of his slave labor, and sends an army after them, but God destroys them after his people have walked through the Red Sea on dry land. For several weeks, this massive community of freed slaves traveled east from Egypt, and the God of their ancestors provided all that they needed to sustain life and be victorious in battle.
Now they come to this mountain, most likely the same mountain on which Moses had encountered God in the burning bush, and they are here is to worship God. Worship is not simply singing praise songs to God, but for the Israelites this worship session included God giving them his laws for how he desired them to live in communion with him and with one another. God was entering into a covenant relationship with this particular people, a new nation that he was leading to land he promised their father Abraham long before. We watch as a people whose independence is defined by dependence in something greater.
Our text, our focus this morning, in verse five and following, we find God offering a promise to this community, “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, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” God has put it simply for these people, “Obey me fully and keep my covenant,” that’s all they had to do, and they would be held as a “treasured possession,” “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” To this promise, the elders and the whole community answer, “We will do everything the Lord has said.” The descendants of Jacob, Isaac, and Abraham confessed a declaration of their dependence on God. They have declared that it is not about what they will choose to do, it is not about who or what they might aspire to be in and of themselves; they will depend on God to fulfill these promises, and in so doing give their commitment of life.
Let’s take a moment and consider what each of those promises meant, and it’s important that we understand because as you may expect or as we will see in a few moments, these promises are ours as well. First, God promises that they will be a treasured possession. In the original Hebrew, this is actually one word, and it is found eight times throughout the Old Testament. Six of these eight references are focused on Israel, similar to what we see here, and the other two are in Ecclesiastes and 1 Chronicles, and they come in reference to gold and silver, the precious stones that belong to kings. When God uses this language, he is telling Israel that they can be that precious gem among all the other rocks; everyone belongs to God, but they are going to stand out. Another aspect that this promise brings out comes in considering that this is a people traveling through a wilderness, they do not have a home, and probably no more than 2 months ago were slaves. Now they are being given an opportunity to be treasured, to be cared for and looked after, I think we can see what God offered as something far beyond what this group thought they might deserve or think possible.
The next one that comes up is “kingdom of priests.” In using this language of priests, God is speaking generally, not just to Levites who will be the tribe of priests. To be priests, meant that all of them would be able to minister on behalf of God, all were tasked to try and bring others to the knowledge of him. Here God also continues to suggest that they are not going to just be a random grouping, trying to figure out their way, but they were going to be a kingdom. They would be organized and have a home. Some also make note of the kingly office that believers rule with God over his creation.
Finally, the third promise, “a holy nation.” God has offered these promises based on some conditions; there are things he wants them to obey, covenant laws he wants them to follow. In the chapters that follow after our text, laws were given which gave guidance to all areas of how these people were to live, work, worship, and relate. God set the dimensions, the decorations, and the furniture of their worship space; he prescribed festivals that they were to celebrate at different intervals. All these things might seem rather restrictive, like there was no freedom, but that was not God’s intent. God did this because he wanted his people to recognize that they were a holy people, he set them apart from others. Other cultures and other countries were going about life with their idols and seeking their own ideas of the best way to live; other countries sought after how to have the biggest and best and to be the most famous. This was not how it was to be for God’s people. God’s laws were instructions so that these people and their descendants would know they were sacred, set apart in all areas of their lives.
In considering God’s Old Testament people, we also note that being holy was not only for their sake. God gave them these regulations and guidelines in hopes that those other nations, those other peoples would take notice that something was different about Israel. If the Israelites were faithful, they might be seen not doing things the way everyone else did them, and yet they were experiencing blessing. When they followed God wholeheartedly, other nations could look on and see they believed in one God, not many gods, and things went well for them. If the Israelites were living up to the covenant standard, they would not just care for themselves but they could also bless others; why would anyone do something for another country, even an enemy, without demanding a tribute or a reward. Being holy was not just for the Israelites’ sake, but God intended this for their neighbors also.
While that generation of the Israelites gave their word that they would follow-through, they did not fully depend on God. Likewise many generations after them would follow the path of disobedience and not living up to the covenant’s laws. Throughout the Old Testament record, we do catch glimpses of this community of people living as set apart from what the rest of the world was doing, though it seems quite infrequent. The Israelites often did not live as if they were God’s treasure, God’s priests, God’s holy nation to bring good news to others. Yet, in Christ, we profess that God’s grace is not only for us who live with the knowledge and belief that God sent his Son Jesus Christ to live, die, and rise again, but his grace will be for the repentant of Israel who put their hope in God as their Savior.
The reason why we need to hear the words as they were first spoken is because, as I made mention, they are spoken anew for all of God’s people. In 1 Peter 2:9-10, the apostle Peter wrote, “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of the darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” A royal priesthood and a holy nation are so similar in meaning, and they get book-ended by this declaration that we, God’s people, are chosen by him and we belong to him. We, brothers and sisters in Christ, have the same promises given to us, that we would be set apart, that others would notice something different about us, and we can tell them, “It is because God has chosen me and I have received his mercy, can I tell you about that?” It is because in professing our faith, we can join in giving a declaration of dependence, not on any person, any system, any nation but solely dependent on the one who has called us out of darkness into wonderful, marvelous light!
That’s the good news, people of God, and the blessing that we have the opportunity to possess right now and in an even purer form when Christ comes again. In thinking about the Israelites, we find a community that was able to link themselves with the Almighty as no other nation up to that point was given the option to and no single nation following would be given the opportunity to again. As Americans, we do well to remember that; to hear God’s promises, to hear his blessing as intended for all of his people around the whole world. We have much to be thankful for, much to look back to the founding fathers of this country and each of our ancestors who came here at some point, and be thankful for the opportunity to live in a country where we experience so much blessing and freedom. While some of the founding fathers had Christian ties and we find language pointing to a Supreme Being in the birth records of the United States of America, let us remember that our ultimate allegiance is to God’s kingdom, and our identity be first and foremost dependent on the wonderful promise that God has chosen us and treasured us, made us a royal priesthood, and calls all of his people as his holy nation. I hope that when we consider the celebrations that take place in our lives, we look not only to our earthly nation’s independence and things like that as bringing great enjoyment, but that we would consider celebrating in an even greater way our holy dependence on God.
In a moment we’re going to sing “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” and as we do, I invite you to especially pay attention to verse 4, “In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea, with a glory in His bosom that transfigures you and me; as he died to make men holy, let us live to make men free, while God is marching on. Glory! Glory! Hallelujah! His truth is marching on.” Brothers and sisters in Christ, may we rest assured that we are saved, we are being made holy, and we also have the opportunity by God’s grace and with his Spirit to share him with so many others in our nation and in many nations. Amen.