God’s Covenant with Moses
Yesterday, Saturday, March 1, 2014, was an important date. According to the KWWL meteorologist, it marked the first day of meteorological spring. For some reason in science, there is a meteorological spring (March 1) and an astronomical spring (March 21). I am not an expert in science, in fact I can hardly pronounce ‘meteorological’ and ‘astronomical’. What I do know is this. I am very tired of winter. So yesterday, to celebrate the meteorological first day of spring, I decided to go shopping. I know that with all the stores in Waterloo and Cedar Falls, if you look hard enough you can find it. So yesterday I began my shopping quest, to purchase a tomato plant. Why? I desired something (very reasonably priced) that would remind me of gardening and spring; a tomato plant does that for me. With the snow flying yesterday morning, I began my search. I went to Walmart. You know what? The entire garden center was closed off. There was a small round table near the locked doors, with about a dozen or so plants, but not one of them was a tomato. A helpful employee came to me with a smile, and asked if she could help me. I told her I wanted a tomato plant. She started to take me over to the seed department; but that was not what I desired. She then took out her computer, informing me of the first date tomato plants would be arriving. I asked her where I could find a tomato plant now. She shrugged her shoulders. I figured that going to Blaine’s Fleet farm or Menards would be a waste of my time. Then the thought came to mind; go to a store that specializes in plants, Earl May’s. I went to Earl May’s. You know what? They don’t have any tomato plants. They have seeds …. They have catalogues, but no tomato plants. My meteorological spring shopping trip was a bust. I want to use the metaphor of a tomato plant as an object lesson for my message today. I could not get the real thing, so the next best thing was to have a picture projected on the screen. A tomato plant is planted for a very important purpose: that it produces nutricious and tasty fruit.
As we have, this past month or so, searched the scriptures, and seen God at work, we have had revealed to us the following through the Spirit: God is the loving creator of the earth, creatures, humans; and that God’s purpose for creating us was that we might love God, as well as love and care for the fullness of the earth and one another. God’s loving purpose for this world was blighted by sin. In an attempt to ‘be like God’, humans rebelled against God, and desired to be in control, ‘to themselves be the masters of good and evil’. Sin turned humans away from God, the earth, and others, to be self-centered; producing the poison fruits of brokenness: God, marriage, family, nations. The condition spread to all humanity, and all seemed to be lost and hopeless. But God’s love and devotion did not change. God decided to make a way where there was no way. God started anew with an unconditional promise to a man named Abraham through the call, “Go to a new land in which I will direct you, and through you and your offspring all the nations of the world would be blessed”. Abraham, sometimes strong in faith … sometimes faithless, believed the promise, and it was reckoned onto him as righteousness.
Abraham’s offspring, over the years, multiplied. But a time came when the promise was threatened to be snuffed out. An unjust Pharaoh made slaves of the children of Israel in the land of Egypt, holding them in the grip of bondage and slavery. God heard the cry, God saw the pain and injustice, and God acted. God revealed himself to Moses, and through Moses God showed the power of his mighty arm as he led the children of Israel out of bondage into freedom and the destination of the Promised Land.
It is at this point in God’s salvation history that we pick up the story today, as read from Exodus 19. On their way to the Promised Land, God orchestrated a ‘stop’ at the base of Mount Sinai where God was intent on doing a momentous thing. Here at Sinai God was going to give another covenant … a covenant through which the holy God would bind himself to a sinful people, for the sake of making this people ‘holy’ and ‘set apart’.
As the children of Israel are gathered on the foothills of Mount Sinai, God declares to the children of Israel through his spokes-person, Moses, “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. Though all the world is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ It was here God took tribes-men and tribes-women, and formed a deeper bond; they would now be ‘his people’; with the God-given identity of being ‘God’s treasured possession, a holy nation, a kingdom of priests (royal priesthood).’ With this covenant, there was a condition. If the people obeyed … they would live up to this calling and fulfill God’s purpose. If they disobeyed, there would be severe consequences.
A point that needs to made clear before we move on. This ‘new thing’ that God was doing did not annul the earlier promise God had given to Abraham.
When Dorothea and I moved to Cedar Falls, we updated our wills. A will is not a covenant. A will is a contract. A part of the contract of a new will is that all previous wills are considered ‘null and void’. This action that God took on Mount Sinai did not annul God’s earlier unconditional promise to Abraham. That promise and purpose remains … for all time; Abraham and his offspring would be blessed to be a blessing to all nations.
We could say in God, the holy one, binding himself to Israel (weak and sinners), and declaring he would work to transform them into God’s prized possession, a holy nation, and a kingdom of priests; what God was doing was handing off the baton of his promise to them: You are richly blessed to be a blessing to many. If you are on board with my promise and my command, there will be blessing; if you distort my promise and my command, there will be a curse…. You will not be the people of promise and purpose I created you to be.
Imagine how those people felt at the base of Mount Sinai. They were given an identity. God made them feel important. God opened their eyes and their lives to move on into the future with hope. It would not be unlike what we witness in the aftermath of weddings; as the bridegroom and bride exclaim, ‘the wait is over; imagine this: we are husband and wife … bonded together to walk hand in hand into the future’. With this identity comes great responsibility. Would the bond be kept strong through faithfulness, or be broken?
God did a mighty thing on Mount Sinai. God did yet another great thing on yet another mountain, that has impacted you and me. This mountain was the Mount of Transfiguration. In the account that we heard read from the Gospel of Matthew, we hear that even though it was over 1000 years after Mount Sinai, Moses is present. Along with Moses, another key Old Testament personality, Elijah, the greatest of the prophets, appeared. As spectacular and strange as this was, it was not Moses and Elijah who are center stage. The one ‘glorified’ is Jesus. Jesus shines so brightly, the disciples, Peter, James, and John, could hardly look upon him, for he ‘shined like the sun’. As all of this was happening, the voice of God declared from the sky, “this is my beloved Son, listen to him”. Elijah and Moses disappear, and the only one the disciples can see, is Jesus, God’s Son, the fulfillment of the law and prophets.
The reaction of Peter, James, and John to this event is amusing. Initially, as they see the appearance of Moses and Elijah in the light with Jesus, they declare, “How good, Jesus, it is that we are here. Let’s begin a building plan … and make a shrine for Moses, a shrine for Elijah, and a shrine for Jesus, to stay in the moment for all time! But before they could lay a stone, God’s voice brought them to the ground. God had much higher purposes for Peter, James, and John than to build three shrines! God wanted their attention to be fixed on Jesus; in order that they go where he led them, and do what he taught them. Once the transfiguration event was over; Jesus walked over to his terrified disciples, laying on the ground, and touched them, saying ‘get up, do not be afraid. Come down the mountain with me as I set my face toward Jerusalem. The verb translated ‘get up’ literally means ‘be raised’. It is the same word, used by the angel on Easter, to describe the resurrection. Jesus touches them and calls them to ‘be raised and to shed your fear, for I am going to send you forth into a life of restoration and renewal.
These words are not only spoken over Peter, James, and John. They are for you and me, and all connected as living stones to the cornerstone of life and faith, Jesus Christ. Today through the Spirit Jesus touches you and me, calling us to be raised, to shed our fear, for Christ is here to transform us through his gifts of restoration and renewal. How does Jesus have the authority to do this over us? Jesus, the glorified Son of God, walked the path we will follow during Lent to the cross, where he freely laid down his life for you and me, and taught us, ‘it is in giving up of ourselves that life and fruit abounds’.It is through Jesus, we hear from God, ‘you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God (where have we heard these words before? Exodus 19 at Mount Sinai!) Why has God transformed us in Christ to be ‘a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God’? The purpose is clearly spelled out … that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wondrous 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. It is clear: God has redeemed, transformed, and restored us in Christ that we might be the vessels through which his Gospel is brought to others …. A people of promise blessed to be a blessing to all nations!
God’s purpose of creating the bond through which Israel of old; and we as Christ’s redeemed, are declared ‘holy’, was never for selfish purposes.
Tomato plant’s purpose is not its own appearance. A gardener does not place tomato plants in a garden ‘just so the vegetation looks good’. We want the plant to give of itself to produce fruit. Holiness cannot be self-centered. When holiness becomes ‘self-centered’, the devil has his way among us. The devil has churches fighting between each other for the bragging rights , “We are the most faithful, we are the most holy’. The devil loves to create factions in the body of Christ, where one group or ministry boasts ‘we are more important, we are more holy, than you are’. The devil really likes it when self-centered holy faith communities in fear build thick walls between themselves and the world … and refuse to be Christ’s light and salt. We do not want to look like this ……. (tomato plant with only leaves) God has transformed us in Christ to look like this (tomato plant with much good fruit). We are created, redeemed, and transformed, and called to God’s purpose …… his holy and beloved people blessed to be a blessing to others; his holy and beloved people, who in obedience to Christ, give up ourselves for the sake of others that God might produce in us and through us the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, faithfulness and hope. Through these fruits others will be led into an experience with the Lord. Through these fruits the seeds of faith will be planted for future generations.
This is the One who meets us here today
Not on a mountaintop
But in a piece of bread and a sip of wine
And lifts us up – bidding us not to be afraid
And who calls us to follow him
Down the hill to Jerusalem.
Don’t be afraid.
Come, take his hand,
Follow where he leads
And catch a glimpse of the infinite God
Who embraces all in a love
That surpasses all we can ever hope or dream.
Check out what’s happening at Naz in Cedar Falls.