ALL THESE WORDS
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The word had come to Moses early in our story, when God first called the shepherd. God said “I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain.” Now here they are. Sinai. We don’t know what day it was, which is good because the story is timeless really. “On the third new moon, after the Israelites had gone out of the land of Egypt, on that very day, they came into the wilderness of Sinai. They had journeyed from Rephidim, entered the wilderness of Sinai, and camped in the wilderness; Israel camped there in front of the mountain.”
We have seen deliverance. We have seen provision. We have seen protection. We have heard calls for Israel to obey statutes and commands – laws if you will. These things are all mixed together. They’re all interrelated. We have seen Israel on the move, and now they have stopped. They’re going to spend 11 months camped at the foot of Mount Sinai. God is going to make an appearance before the entire nation! God is going to speak. It’s often when we stop that we hear most meaningfully from God, isn’t it? Just. Stop. Be still. Be still and know that I am God. What would God have to say if we did?
The giving of the law. This is what’s going to happen at Sinai. It’s important to look at the details of the story to see what they tell us about God, about the nature of God. About the nature of grace. The thing is, this story has always been primarily about grace. Sometimes you hear things like “The OT is all about law and the NT is all about grace” or “The OT God is all about wrath and the NT God is all about love.” We need to be sure that we are getting this right. We need to be sure to know that this story has always been about grace.
We need to be sure to realize that the law is given in the context of a story. This is unusual, to say the least. It was unusual in its day, in ancient times. Legal codes were legal codes. They weren’t stories. It’s much the same today, isn’t it? Our legal codes do not contain stories. The giving of the law is framed by the story within which it is contained – which is a story of deliverance. “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” This is the way the 10 commandments start. They’re never called the “10 commandments” as such in the Hebrew Bible by the way. In Hebrew, they’re known as “the sayings” or “the words”. The debate through the years has been “Which one is first?” – and the answer has often been not “You shall have no other god’s before me” but rather “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt.” It’s a kind of self-introduction. Remember the story. The laws are framed by a story of deliverance.
This is a key thing, I think. As someone has said, thinking of the law in terms of a story keeps us from sliding into legalism – “Experience has shown how easy it is for law to become an impersonal matter, manifested especially in a debilitating legalism. It can become, as it were, a ‘law unto itself,’…” When Supreme Court Justice (then-nominee)Neil Gorsuch was being confirmed, a story was shared about a decision he had made regarding a truck driver. This truck driver was going through Illinois in the winter back in 2009. The brakes of his trailer failed. He sat at the side of the road after calling dispatch for help. When no help came after 3 hours, the freezing driver unhooked his cab and drove it to a nearby gas station. He was fired. The law says you can’t abandon a trailer. Judge Gorsuch upheld the decision and this is a quote from his decision – “It might be fair to ask whether TransAm’s decision was a wise or kind one. But it’s not our job to answer questions like that. Our only task is to decide if the decision was a legal one.” In legal terms, this is known as “textualism” – an unwavering commitment to what the law says.
I don’t believe we’re called to slide into such legalism when we look at the Bible. The law is given by God in the context of a story and it is lived out in the context of our stories. There are 613 laws counted in the Torah. They won’t cover every aspect of life through the years. They’re summed up like this – “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind, and your neighbour as yourself.” What does love call for here? This is the question we must always ask. This is the question we must be asking of God and of each other. They’re not called “the sayings” in Hebrew for nothing. They are given in the context of a story of deliverance – a story of re-creation or re-order, or redemption. The story has God as the subject – both as deliverer and giver of law. The law is not given to stifle us, but to point the way toward what it means to have life and blessing. Our good. What God intended for us all along. We’ve said throughout this series that God’s will for the world is life and blessing. We are created to take part in this.
I’ve talked about God’s self-introduction with “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt.” Note though that the law does not establish a relationship here between God and the people of Israel. God has already used the term “my people.” God is not saying “If you do these things you will be my people.” They are already God’s people. The relationship has already been established. Deliverance has already taken place. A covenant will be established at the end of this episode in chapter 24. The covenant does not establish, the relationship. The relationship had already been established.
Let me just pause for a moment and consider the word covenant. It’s not one we hear a lot these days and it seems we mostly use it at weddings. It’s a loving agreement between two parties. It binds them together. In the ancient world, it was often based on actions that one party had taken on behalf of the other. This makes since when we think of it in terms of a marriage. We generally enter into a wedding covenant with someone that we already know partly based on actions that have been taken – assurances and displays of love. This covenant of law which the Israelites are about to enter into is based on what God has already done for them. The law sets out what is a good and fitting and proper response in light of who God is and what God has done. A parable is told in Jewish writing from the early days of the church that goes like this:
“Why didn’t the Torah begin with the Decalogue? A parable will explain it: A man entered a country and said, ‘Make me your king.’ The people replied, ‘What have you ever done for us that we should make you our king?’ So, he built the walls, made them water-works, fought wars on their behalf. Then he said to them ‘Make me your king,’ and they said, ‘Yes, indeed!’ Thus God liberated Israel from Egypt, divided the sea for them, gave them manna from heaven, provided them with a water supply, provisioned them with quail, fought Amalek on their behalf, then said to them, ‘Make me your king,’ whereupon they replied, ‘Yes, indeed!’”
Before we talk of what we must do, we must always start with what God has done. This is where God starts. “You have seen what I did to the Egyptians.” You have seen how your cries for help were answered. We have looked over these last weeks at how God heard, remembered, saw, and knew. “..and how I bore you on eagles wings…” What a beautiful image of God as an eagle. Protecting. Nurturing. Listen to these words from Deut 32:11-12a – “As an eagle stirs up its nest, and hovers over its young; as it spreads its wings, takes them up, and bears them aloft on its pinions, the LORD alone guided him.” These words from the Psalmist – “He will cover you with his pinions, and under his wings, you will find refuge.” “…and brought you to myself.”
Look at how personal this language is. I bore you. I brought you. This is what God has done. The good and fitting and proper response is commitment. “Now therefore if you obey my voice and keep my covenant…” This is our invitation friends. Why? Because we have been delivered not only from something but to something. To life. “You shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples.” This word for treasured possession was generally used for things one had acquired rather than inherited – extra special in other words. But before we go around thinking we’re that special, God reminds us – “Indeed the whole earth is mine.” This salvation plan which God is enacting is for the whole world – indeed all of creation. The whole earth is mine, but I will work this deliverance through you, my treasured possession. “You shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation.” Not a kingdom based on power and military might and oppression all the things that kingdoms of the world have been built on through the ages but on service. On sacrificial love. A kingdom of mediators between God and humanity. Isaiah picks this language up in chapter 61 – “but you shall be called priests of the Lord, you shall be ministers of our God”. One writer describes it like this – “…a people set apart, not simply from other peoples/nations but for a specific purpose. Israel is to embody God’s own purposes in the world.”
God’s own purposes are life and blessing. God’s own purposes are to bring all things back to himself. The law is not to be seen as a burden but as a gift. The law is to be seen as a fitting and proper response to God’s delivering work. It sets out how humans are to be involved in God’s recreating work.
Is it any wonder that Jesus said he came to fulfill the law? The one in whom the law and all the law implied – gift, guide to life, response to what God has done for us in Christ, human involvement in God’s delivering work – found completion. The new covenant. The new loving agreement which would bind us to God. We read at Sinai the whole mountain shook violently when God appeared. We read that the LORD descended upon the mountain in fire. We read that when Christ died the earth shook. We read that when the Holy Spirit came down he came down like tongues of fire.
Things got shook up.
Is it any wonder that Peter uses the same language we hear in this passage in his letter – “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people” the same mission given to followers of Christ as extension of the people of Israel. Why? “In order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light.” The one who called us, who calls us to life. While God was once heard in thunder and seen in fire and smoke, we have seen with our eyes (as John puts it), what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life, this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us.
This is the fellowship with which we stand as we share in the cup of the new covenant friends. The people of Israel declared their intention in v 8 – “Everything that the LORD has spoken we will do.” They didn’t know what it entailed. They have yet to hear the laws after all. They signal their intention to commit themselves to God who has committed himself to them. We don’t know fully what it means either. As we travel along together we’re coming to know. In a dialogue with God and with one another asking what it means to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength and our neighbour as ourselves. As we gather around this table friends, God grant that the answers are becoming ever more clear to our hearts.