Exodus 19:1-6; 1 Peter 2:9-12
(This sermon is adapted from C Wright, The Mission of God’s People, chapter 7)
Many years ago I remember doing pre-marriage preparation with a couple. I didn’t quite put it this way, but I asked the question about the meaning of life: What are we here for? What’s life all about? I was intrigued that the woman of the couple couldn’t even give a simple response because, according to her, she’d never thought about it.
We can ask a similar question: Who are we and what are we here for? Our answer to that will be shaped by the story within which we live. For example, if the story in which we lived is shaped by the story of western culture it might look like this (in very broad terms):
- If it’s shaped by the consumerist story of the western world, our answer will be along the lines of we are consumers and the point of life is to accumulate as much as we can because the person who dies with the most toys wins.
- If it’s shaped by the individualism of the western world, in one way or another, and to one degree or another, the answer will revolve around me: I am an individual who is ultimately accountable only to myself and life is about me and for me.
What if we ask the same question of the church: Who are we and what are we here for? You will recall that one of the reasons we’re doing this series is to help us to understand the biblical story so that we’re shaped by that and not the story of the western culture in which we live. So in seeking to answer it, we need to be alert to the potential infiltration of western culture stories and tuned in to the biblical story.
What then is the answer? Our usual practice would be to go to the NT and see what happened in Acts or what Paul had to say but, because the story is very big and is one whole story, we can go way back to the OT to find the answer.
Context of Exodus 19
Exodus 19 is a transition point between two parts of the story of God’s dealings with Israel. The setting is the people at the foot of Mt Sinai after escaping Egypt, with Moses on the mountain talking to God.
Looking back, God had rescued the people from slavery in Egypt. They had seen and experienced all his signs and wonders and had seen his mighty hand at work bringing them out of Egypt on eagle’s wings . God was the one who’d taken the initiative; he’d exercised his sovereign power and had acted out of love and compassion in line with what he’d previously promised their ancestors.
Looking ahead, God was about to give them the 10 commandments and the law, and give them instruction regarding the tabernacle and his presence with them. He was moving them on to the land he had promised their ancestors where he would be present with them and they would have peace and all they needed.
So what was happening in the present? A lot of things had happened in the three months since they’d left Egypt. No doubt there’d been significant times of urgency, fear, uncertainty and confusion. There’d also been times of grizzling. They had now arrived at Sinai and Moses had gone up the mountain to talk with God who instructed him what to say to the people.
Here’s how I picture it:
Over my 12 years of teaching, I taught in three schools, including 9 years at Bevan Crescent Primary school in Whyalla. Bevan Crescent had a (deserved) reputation of being one of the toughest schools in the city and the kids could be fairly scatty. With a 6/7 class I had one year, each time they came in from a lunch break I would get them all to sit down around our carpeted area and we would talk through whatever needed to be talked through at the time. Lunch time would often bring issues, so by sitting them down for a while I tried to get them to calm down and focus. I’m picturing the situation with Israel as being something similar. This was the first occasion when God spoke with the people as a whole after leaving Egypt. The worst was now over; they were out of danger, and I can almost picture God sitting them down, getting them quiet and preparing to speak to them through Moses. It was now time for him to tell them who they were and what they were to be on about i.e. to give an answer to our original question.
Kingdom of Priests and a Holy Nation
Let’s consider a few brief things out of the Exodus passage.
Treasured Possession Verse 5
As the people of his covenant, Israel would be God’s treasured possession—not because of anything they’d done but simply because God chose it to be that way. But the fact that they would be his people was never going to be exclusive because all the nations belonged to him. He was going to bring salvation to all the nations of the world; it just so happened that his intended means was through Israel.
Once again, here’s how I picture God saying it to the people. You are a people special to me because I’ve chosen you to be the means whereby I bring salvation to the whole world and bless all the nations. So don’t get too big for your boots and keep me to yourself. I have chosen you for a purpose.
How was that going to work out? Through two things: the people would be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. It’s here we find the answer to the question.
Kingdom of Priests
What does it mean for the nation to be a kingdom of priests i.e. their corporate role as priests? Priests stood in the middle between God and the people. They had three primary responsibilities:
- To teach the law to the people and to make known God’s ways. God would be known to the people through the priests.
- To bring the sacrifices of the people to God, sacrifices which would atone for their sin and restore them to covenant fellowship with God.
- To bless the people in the name of the Lord.
Who are we and what are we here for?
The people of Israel were to be to the nations what the priests were for them.
- The means by which God—his person and character—was made known to the world.
- Being the means through which the world is blessed and brought to acknowledge God.
We heard another passage this morning from 1 Peter, a passage which says of the church pretty much exactly the same as God said of Israel: a chosen people, royal priesthood, holy nation, a people belonging to God. In other words, what applied to Israel also applies to us. We are a priesthood, a people representing God to the world and being God’s means through which the world is both blessed and brought to acknowledge him.
The means by which Israel’s priesthood was to be worked out was through being a holy nation. The Hebrew meaning of the word was different or distinctive, so something was holy when it was set apart to fulfil a distinct God-given purpose. That meant Israel was holy by definition because it was called apart by God to be a distinctive people among all the nations and to be priests to God and the people. They were to stand out from the other nations, to be and act like the Lord rather to be and act like everybody else.
Who are we and what are we here for?
They were to be who they were called to be, living with integrity, love and compassion—reflecting the very character of God himself.
In the same way, we too are called to be a holy nation. I suspect that we have a natural aversion to the word holy, possibly for a couple of reasons:
- We recognise our own lack of holiness.
- Our thinking about holiness probably has more to do with moralism (right behaviour as defined by the behaviour police) that it does true holiness.
I have the feeling that our usual understanding of holiness has to do with piety, right living, and is quite moralistic and dour, focusing on what we do or don’t do. The problem is that we do those things thinking they will make us holy. But we are already a holy people, set apart to fulfil God’s calling in this world, so we live in a way that reflects his character because we already are holy. Living in a holy way is not about keeping to a set of rules, but it’s about being fully human; being the people God has made and called us to be. We are a holy people, set apart by God and called by him to live in such a way that reflects who he is.
A Few Comments
Let me begin the comments by summarising what I’ve said so far in answer to the question Who are we and what are we here for?
- We are God’s people.
- We are the means by which God makes himself made known to the world.
- We are the means by which the nations of the world will be blessed.
- We are the means by which people are brought to acknowledge God i.e. to be witnesses to him.
- We are called to be a distinctive people who as the community of the people of God live in a way that reflects his person and character.
You may have noticed that what I’ve said today has been far more general than specific. I’ve deliberately done that for a couple of reasons:
- If we focus on specifics, we’re at risk of falling into a moralistic understanding and approach.
- If we focus on specifics we’re at risk of losing sight of the big picture.
We work out the specifics as we go, and that’s something we do together as the people of God.
Notice how I can speak into our own situation out of something that happened centuries ago but is just as relevant today as it was then. God says the same thing to the church today as he said to the people of Israel at a crucial point in their living out their calling. We too are to be priests to the world through serving God and serving the world. We too are a holy people because we we’ve been set aside by the Lord to fulfil that calling—and there will be many and varied ways in which that happens.
Finally, just as God spoke to the whole nation of Israel and gave them their calling, so what we’ve said today applies to the whole church i.e. we, the church corporate, are called to be a priesthood and holy nation. What that means in terms of day to day on the ground application is something we work out together. It is our life together as the people of God—an imperfect, flawed community seeking to live an authentic, integrated faith within community—through which we represent God to the world and draw the world to acknowledge him.