5. God with his people - 24th February 2013 - Geoffrey Firth

Exodus 19

God with His People

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Let me tell you about a former neighbour of mine.  It’s not his real name, but I’m going to call him Len.  Len and his wife were converted in their late sixties, shortly before I became their neighbours.  It was a wonderful testimony: he had been seriously ill and in many ways he was very fortunate to be alive.  In fact it was very telling: Len viewed the reason that he had survived was so that he could hear the Gospel.  He was acutely conscious that if he had died with his illness he would have died apart from the Lord.   

I was in my mid-twenties at the time, and having grown up with the privilege of being a Christian, the thing that most struck me was Len’s comment that, prior to his conversion at age 67, his whole life had been wasted.  Just think about that for a moment; it was an astonishing thing to say.  I have to say, that I think to this day it is a remarkably honest thing to have said.  And yet however, honest and true it is, is still astonishing.  Here was a man happily married for over 40 years, with a large and loving family.  What Len wasn’t saying was that those things weren’t important, but he was saying that without Christ, his life had been without meaning or purpose. 

It was a wonderful testimony.  It was always an encouragement to chat to talk to Len and his wife.  Everything about the two of them pointed to the absolute work of God’s grace.  They lived with a delighted astonishment at what the Lord had done for them. 

On one occasion, Len gave his testimony: it was powerful stuff.  And yet there was one line that he said, that I know what he meant, but I wished he hadn’t said.   The line was this: “I just hope that I’ve done enough to please the Lord.”

What Len was trying to say was that he was so bowled over with what Jesus had done for him, he just wanted to try and please him in everything that he did. 

The problem is that isn’t what was actually said.  I know I’m being nit-picky, and overall I really want to emphasise that Len was very clear.  But that one line can feed a lie.  It can leave us with the impression that Christianity is all about earning your way to heaven. 

Now Len’s line could sound like this: “just try hard enough and maybe the Lord will let you into heaven.”  I think Len would be horrified if that’s what someone thought he meant.  But it can sound like that can’t it? “I hope that I’ve done enough to please the Lord”, can very easily be understood as, “try hard enough and God will let you into heaven.”

And if that’s what we think Christianity is about we’ve got a very faulty view of it.  You see, if you think that Christianity is about earning God’s favour or approval then we have got it all the wrong way round.  (It’s like putting the cart before the horse.)  Worse still we’ve got a depressing view of God.   

If we view God as monitoring our performance, then he’s like the referee or the manager assessing our ability before deciding whether we should be allowed into heaven.  Or alternatively if we think of God as only interested in the balance of the scales, a God who is measuring whether we’ve done enough to tip the balance in favour of entry into heaven, then essentially God is like an old-fashioned shop keeper, weighing our merits before announcing his verdict.  In either case, we don’t know who he is.

Think what we’ve already learned in the previous weeks: a couple of weeks ago, the Big Bible Words were ‘grace’ and ‘covenant’.  The word grace is a word that speaks of God’s underserved kindness.  It’s a word that speaks of extravagant generosity. 

The word covenant speaks of promise.  God enters into a covenant relationship with Abraham and later with his descendants Israel.  The promise, the covenant is, is the pledge of God to be with the people he has chosen.  The Lord makes very specific promises, about being a great nation, about being blessed and being a blessing, about a land, but common to each is the Lord’s pledge of himself for his people. 

That doesn’t sound like a God who’s only interested in monitoring performance or measuring the scales.

More than that, the covenant relationship is seen in how the Lord works for his people.  Last week we looked at how the Lord works to save his people.  With Israel persecuted by Pharaoh down in Egypt, God has wonderfully worked to save them.  Even when their backs are against it and Pharaoh and his army was pressing in, the Lord, parted the sea so that his people could safely leave Egypt. 

This is a God who takes very seriously his promise to be on the side of his people.  This is not a God who saves his people because they’ve tried hard enough.  This is not a God who saves because he owes anyone anything.  This is a God who loves, who is interested, and who desires the very best for his people.  

The Lord saves his people out of Egypt, and the promise of a land lies ahead of them.  But on the way to the land the people stop of at Mountain at Sinai.  It’s not a mistake, a wrong turning or an afterthought.  It’s what’s been planned all along. 

And that’s where Exodus 19 brings us.  Chapter 19 comes as the people have been saved and are on-route to the land.  They are a people who are on the way to the place of the Lord’s blessing.  But this stop-off is an important marker on the way.  What follows is the content of the law (beginning with the ten words, or commandments as we know them), but the stage for the law comes here in chapter 19 of Exodus. 

The first thing to say is that the Law is not given to a people in order to earn the approval of the Lord.  The law is not about earning the right to enter the land.  Israel, as they are camped around the mountain, are a people who have been saved and are accepted because the Lord has chosen them.  They won’t get the land because they’ve tried hard enough, or fulfilled the terms of some contract.  They are getting the land because they are already approved, they are already saved. 

The people are getting the law because the law reveals the character of the God they are in relationship with.  More than that, the people are getting the law because it tells them how they are to love the Lord and how he wants them to love each other now that they are accepted by him.  The law comes to a people who have already received the Lord’s favour. 

Big Bible Word: Holy: living a distinct, separated life.  When the Bible commands the Lord’s people to be holy it is call to live as a people who belong to the Lord and not to the world.  It is a call to live in the likeness of Lord.

I’ve a few things I want us to think about in the time we have remaining.  The first is simply this:

  • The Lord calls his people to live obedient holy lives.

Look with me at Exodus 19: 3-6:

Then Moses went up to God, and the Lord called to him from the mountain and said, “This is what you are to say to the descendants of Jacob and what you are to tell the people of Israel: ‘You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. 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.’ These are the words you are to speak to the Israelites.”” 

Here’s the scene: the people are gathered at the foot of the mountain, and Moses ascends to speak with the Lord.  

Notice how the Lord begins; he doesn’t begin by saying ‘if the people expect to get anything else from me, they better start bucking-up their ideas.’ 

The Lord begins by telling Moses to remind the people of the grace that they have already received.  He begins by saying, “You’ve seen what I’ve done, and you’ve seen what you mean to me.  You’ve seen how I rescued you and have brought you into relationship with me.”  

It’s only with that truth clearly stated that the call to live obedient holy living comes.  The Lord calls on his people to obey him fully and to fulfil their part of the covenant.  The Lord desires the people of Israel to be his ‘treasured possession’.  Out of all the different groups of people, the Lord has chosen just this one group to be his people – not because they are inherently worthy, not because they are better than anyone else, not because they are more loveable, or more impressive.  It’s none of that.  The Lord has chosen them simply because he desires a treasured possession. 

And we’re told something of why the Lord desires a treasured possession: down in v.6 “‘you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ 

What the Lord wants a people who are an example to the world around them, to be a people who proclaim the truth of God to the other nations and for them to be a people who intercede for the rest of the world. 

Israel, chosen by God and saved by God, a people who are heading for a promised land, are told to live obedient holy lives for the benefit of the rest of the world.  In the way they were to live, the people were to be obedient and holy, testifying to the Lord who saves.  That’s the plan, that’s the idea, that’s what the Lord is wanting. He wants a people who live like him in the world. 

The call to the Lord’s people today is in many ways exactly the same.  Live obedient holy lives to the Lord.  Jesus himself says, “let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.” (Matt 5:16)  Live in obedience and holiness, live in such a way that the world sees a difference, sits up, takes notice, and praises the God who has saved you. 

How you doing?  Would the other people look at how you live and see that there is a difference about you?  Would others know that you are a Christian by the way you live your life?   

I know it’s hard.  In my own experience, I know it’s hard.  Living as I do as a Christian with very few others around, I regularly feel exposed.  I regularly feel the pressure to give in and to become like others around me.  When people ask me how can they pray for me, the thing that is at the top of the list is my godliness.  In effect I’m asking people that I might live an obedient holy life.  Not because I think I’m earning God’s approval, but because I want to please the Lord who has saved me, and because I want my light to shine before others that they might praise my Father in heaven. 

And people around you do notice how you live.  Forgive the self-testimony, but just before Christmas I was cornered by a slightly drunk airman who I had first met out in Afghanistan.  To be honest, I barely could remember meeting him.  But he said something that reminded me that it really does matter how we live.  Apparently he had been watching the way I had been engaging with others that I met, and he had seen something in the way I was that marked me out from others around me.  It’s leading him to want to know more.  How we live our lives for the Lord, matters.  I’m slightly uncomfortable sharing that story, but I want to simply offer it as example of how we live making a difference. 

So how you doing?  Would people want to praise your Father in heaven, because they can see in how you live an obedient holy life?

  • The Lord calls his people to live obedient holy lives.

But that’s not the only thing that goes on in Exodus 19.  Almost immediately we see that there’s a problem. 

  • The Lord’s people can only draw so near to the Lord because their sinfulness means they cannot fully live obedient holy lives.

The people say “yes, we’ll do what the Lord has said”.  Moses heads back up the mountain, to bring the people’s reply to the Lord.  So far so good.  The people express their willingness to live obedient holy lives. 

But it’s not that simply.  There still exists a gap between the people on the one hand and the Lord on the other.  While the people desire to live as a obedient holy people, their holiness, even with the high point of keen willingness, is insufficient for them to enter the presence of the Lord.  They are not by nature a holy nation.  So there is this extraordinary elaborate three day preparation that needs to take place.

vv.10-11 “10 And the Lord said to Moses, “Go to the people and consecrate them today and tomorrow. Have them wash their clothes 11 and be ready by the third day, because on that day the Lord will come down on Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people.”” 

But even then people can only come so far.  As verses 12-13 go on to show, even when the people have made all the preparations, there is to be limit put in place, beyond which the people cannot go.  In fact it’s more than that: if they do go further forward, they are to be put to death.  In fact so serious would a breach of the limit be, that on Moses third visit to the mountain he is again told that people cannot come further forward without it resulting in death. 

So we are left with this problem: despite the Lord’s call for obedient holy living, and despite the Lord’s people willing desire to do as the Lord commands, they still can only come so far into the presence of God.  The gap is a holiness gap.  The Lord wants his people to live like him, and for him and as a witness to him, but they are never going to live with sufficient holiness that they can fully enter the Lord’s presence.  Yes, the Lord is with them, yes they will see something of his majesty, yes they will hear his voice, but they can only stand at the base of the mountain and they need to rely on Moses going into the Lord’s presence on their behalf.   

And if it’s bad enough at this point, the subsequent history of Israel only serves to show how far short the people fall.  The gap between the holiness of the Lord and the holiness of his people seems insurmountable.

It’s why it’s foolish to think that you can earn your way into heaven.  It’s why we need to insist that if you think it’s what you do that counts, if you think you can gain entry to heaven on the basis of obedient holy living you will be sorely disappointed.  Yes, how you live matters, but you think you are earning your way into the Lord’s presence by how you live, you will be sorely disappointed. 

  • The Lord’s people can only draw so near to the Lord because their sinfulness means they cannot fully live obedient holy lives.

You see that is the conundrum that Exodus 19 leaves us with.  We’re left with a holiness gap, the size of which will only seem to get bigger as the story of the Bible unfolds.  The question becomes, how do you plug that gap?  How are the Lord’s people ever going to be the Lord’s treasured possession if they can’t enter the Lord’s presence?   

Finally, wonderfully let me take us further toward in the Bible story.  Let me take us to Jesus.

The thing I want us to consider is this: 

  • The Lord, comes to his people in his Son, bears the people’s failure and lives the obedient holy life.

You see what we need is not so much to go up the mountain, but someone, as it were, to come down the mountain.  Jesus does that.  

Very striking to me are the words in Matthew 5:14-17:

14“You are the light of the world.  A city on a hill cannot be hidden.  15Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house.  16“In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.  17“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them.”

As much as Jesus calls the Lord’s people to let their light shine before others, as much as he reminds the Lord’s people that they are to live obedient holy lives, he doesn’t leave the people there.  Jesus goes on to say that the holiness gap has been plugged.   

Jesus does what the Lord’s people can’t do.  Jesus fulfils the requirement for obedient holy living perfectly.  More than that, in his own body he bears the penalty of the people’s failure to live as they ought.  He is the one who is punished for the absence of obedient holy living, not for his failure, but for ours. 

Yes we are called to obedient holy living, but our failure is met by Jesus, who keeps the requirements perfectly on our behalf.   

And with Jesus we don’t stand at the bottom of the mountain with God at a distance, unapproachable in his holiness.  In Jesus God has come down the mountain to meet us.  In Jesus the gap is closed.

In his death and life Jesus does what our life can’t, with his death and life Jesus closes the gap between a sinful people and holy God.  With his death and life Jesus brings us to God. 

I want to leave you with a couple of coffee questions.  The great joy for those of us who are the Lord’s people in our own day, is that we don’t need to earn the Lord’s favour and that the penalty for failure is more than met in Jesus.  But the question is still worth asking:

1. Do our lives show obedient holy living?

2. How might we better help each other obedient holy lives?

Let’s pray

  • The Lord calls his people to live obedient holy lives.
  • The Lord’s people can only draw so near to the Lord because their sinfulness means they cannot fully live obedient holy lives.
  • The Lord, comes to his people in his Son, bears the people’s failure and lives the obedient holy life.