Let me ask you a question: What would it be like to actually meet God? Have you ever wondered? To actually stand in God's presence? Let's say you knew for sure that in three days' time you were going to meet with God. What would that be like? And how would you feel about that?
Well that is the position God's Old Testament people – the Israelites – find themselves in here in Exodus 19. They've been rescued from slavery in Egypt, they're about to be given the Ten Commandments, but before God does that he reminds them how is it possible for them to meet with him.
I guess they – just like us – must have had a whole lot of mixed emotions as the faced up to the prospect of meeting God. But I'm hoping that we would be excited about that prospect. In fact, I suspect that most of us would love to meet God face to face. As we know how life-transforming such an experience would be. We would expect blessing from such a meeting, wouldn't we?
So let me highlight three surprising things that happen as God prepares his people to meet with him here in Exodus 19:
1. God Meets and Blesses His People in the Most Unpromising of Places
We often romanticise spirituality, don't we? We go out into the beauty of nature – up a mountain, or to an impressive Cathedral or a Monastery, or we even come here to church – and we think that we are closer, we feel that we are closer to God here than anywhere else. But look at where God meets and blesses the Israelites? Verse 1:
"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."
Ever since Exodus 3 God has basically been saying to Israelites – time and again: 'Trust Me. I am going to rescue you and take you to the promised land – to Palestine – a wonderful land flowing with milk and honey.'
But here they are in the "wilderness of Sinai."
Now I don't know what you got in your Middle Eastern Geography GCSE – But Sinai is actually further away from the Promised land than Egypt. The direct route is northeast but they're heading south!
So God has led them in almost the opposite direction from where he said he was going to take them. And instead of a land "flowing with milk and honey" – a prosperous, fertile land – he takes them into a wilderness, a mountainous desert. Far worse than where they've come from. Far worse than even Egypt.
In other words God says, 'I'm going to take you over here – farther away than there and worse.' And that is where he meets them – and says, 'So… do you trust me?'
And folks, it is often so. You give your life to Jesus – you make him Lord – you say: 'I'm putting everything in your hands. I'm trusting you with my whole life...' And then you watch things go downhill from there! Weeks, or months, or years later you might find yourself asking: 'What happened? I gave myself to the Lord and everything's only got worse and worse.' And if you admit it, you wonder if God is taking you in the opposite direction from where you hoped to be.
So often for God's people, the story of the journey to blessing follows that pattern, doesn't it? You know the story of Joseph and his technicoloured dream coat? In his dreams God promised him blessing – but then took him through betrayal, slavery and unjust imprisonment – Before the blessing finally came. And you could say something fairly similar about Abraham, Jacob, Esther, Ruth & Naomi, David – and many others. 'But why?' We might ask, 'Why didn't God just bless them there and then?'
Well in Joseph's case I think it was because he was well on his way to being an utterly spoiled brat and he was tearing his family apart through his pride and entitlement. God needed him to see the depth of his sin and repent.
'But couldn't God have just shown up and told him that?!' Well have you ever tried to tell someone they're a sinner? It's like telling a teenager to tidy their bedroom – They don't often react well!
The reformed slave trader and great hymn-writer John Newton once wrote in a letter: "No one ever learned that they were a sinner by being told. They have to be shown."
Folks, the pathway to blessing runs through the desert – It takes you through difficulty and trial. Often that's where God meets us and works his grace into our lives – and purifies us. So are we ready for that?
We need to be, but I suspect many of us probably aren't! Which is why we also need to see how…
2. We Obey God Because He First Rescues Us
Have a look at verse 3:
"…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.'"
It's striking how God speaks of his people's rescue there, isn't it? He took them out of Egypt "on Eagles wings." Do you know what that means? It means that the Israelites didn't fight their way out, or negotiate their way out. They didn't tunnel their way out – It wasn't "Escape to Victory" if you remember that film! No, what God is trying to get across is that when an eagle brings you out – you don't do anything. The Israelites salvation – your salvation – had nothing to do with you. You did nothing to earn it. It is a gift – by sheer grace.
The first of the Lord of the Rings films shows this beautifully. I don't know if you saw the film or read the book – But there's a moment when one of our heroes Gandalf is betrayed and captured and kept prisoner on top of a tall tower, with no hope of escape. But he catches a moth and whispers a message to as a cry for help. And a short while later just as Gandalf is about to be killed for refusing to join the bad guys – this awesome, gigantic eagle swoops in over the tower and picks him up and flies him to safety. Now who is the major player in that rescue? The eagle of course. Where would Gandalf be without the eagle? He would be dead! All he did was whisper 'Help!' to the moth – and the eagle arrives.
And so it was for the Israelites – they cried out to the Lord and he swooped in to save them. And for us too – we call on the Lord to deliver us from our sin and he sends Jesus to the cross for us. We contribute nothing at all to our salvation – other than our sin, other than our need to be saved. So God says to the Israelites – and to us too: 'Never forget, that you are only here because I have rescued you. You can only obey me because I rescued you. You can only receive my blessings because I've rescued you.'
And please note that order here in these verses – It's:
- The Saving Acts of God,
- Then our Response of Obedience,
- And the Blessing that our Obedience Brings.
And the order in which those things come is massively important for understanding the whole Bible – and ultimately for our faith. God saves you by sheer grace and then he says, 'Now because I saved you… obey me.' It's not, 'Obey me… and I'll save you.' No, no! 'I've saved you now obey me. And if you do, then you will find blessing in that.'
Nothing in your mind must ever upset that sequence. Why? Why is that so important. Well just imagine two people: Let's call the first one Larry the Legalist – He's flipped the order and says: 'I obey… therefore I am accepted by God.' And then there's Gloria the Grace Reciever – Who is following the order and saying 'I am accepted by God therefore… I obey.' On the surface they both look like they're trying to keep God's law and follow him. But Larry is motivated by fear – as his salvation depends totally on his own performance. While Gloria will be motivated by love, gratitude and joy – because she gets how her salvation is a totally unmerited gift. She couldn't earn it, she can only delight in it. Larry is essentially stuck in his sin – he is operating self-centredly. I mean it's self-centred to say, 'If I obey, if I do all the right things – God will bless me and answer my prayers and take me to heaven.' Why is he obeying God? Simply to get things! But Gloria knows that she already has everything she needs in Jesus Christ – She's already been saved by grace – So why does she obey? She obeys not to get things from God... but to get... God.
If you understand his rescue, if you understand what he's done for you – You obey God to love him and please him and delight in him and resemble him and honour him. You will do anything for him!
Do you see? Utterly different inner dynamics. And an utterly different outcome too.
Larry's obedience is almost always conditional. By which I mean that as soon as Larry gets to the wilderness – he's moaning and thinking 'I've been really pretty good, I've been doing all the right things... praying reading my Bible, exercising sexual self-control, I've been giving to the poor – and my life isn't going very well... and yet others are happier... What's going on? This isn't what I signed up for!' He either gives up or trudges on resentfully. But either way, the effort to obey and save himself will crush his joy – and take him further and further from God.
Folks, can I say, if you ever feel like that, if you've ever felt like Larry – you've probably got the order wrong. It's always rescue first, then obedience – it never works the other way round.
So for those of us who are Christians here – Our first thought as we wake each morning should not actually be, 'How can I live to please God today?' Let's face it – it would be great for most of us if we actually did have that as our first thought each day. But it wouldn't be good discipleship. You and I need to start each day by praying, 'Thank you God that you're pleased with me. Thank you that you love me. So much so that you rescued me – that your son died to take away my sin.' We thank God for Jesus before we begin to try and live for him. We start from something God has done for us, which we did not deserve. It all begins with him!
So I want to ask you if you are a Christian here this morning – have you done that yet today? Have you thanked God for loving you?
We can only live for him – if we remember and delight in him… and what he's done for us. We obey God because he first rescues us.
3. God Blesses Us and Others Through Our Obedience
Did you see the blessings in verses 5 and 6? God says "…you shall be my…"
i.) "Treasured Possession" – The entire universe belongs to God, so for his people to be called his "treasured possession" is for them to be the apple of his eye. He delights in them. If that doesn't give you confidence that you are loved and valued – and that God wants to meet with you and bless you... then nothing will.
But it should also make you ask: 'Why me? Why me and not all the other nations? Why me and not all these other people?' The answer to that question is in the other two blessings – As God also says, "you shall be to me a…"
ii.) "Kingdom of Priests" – Now a priest is a representative. And so for Israel to be a kingdom of priests – it means that they are to represent God to the world. And…
iii.) "A Holy Nation" – To be holy means to be "set apart" for God's service. And so the Israelites were to be distinct from everyone else around them. So that they might represent God – they might serve him… without distraction or compromise.
So do you see? If you're a Christian – God has saved you not simply for your own good. The privilege of being God's people is not just for us to delight and rest in. No! God always sends his people out into his world to share his blessings.
Which is why the Apostle Peter writing to the early Christians told them: "…you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood (which I guess is another way of saying a Kingdom of priests, isn't it?), a holy nation, God's special possession…" Why? So… "…that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light."
Why did God rescue Israel? So that through his people the nations might know that he is the Lord.
Why did God rescue you? He rescued us so that through the church… others might know that he is the Lord.
Which is why Peter goes on a few verses later to say: "Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us." God wants us to obey so that folks might see the difference that gospel motivated obedience makes. And folks, this requires us to live distinctive lives.
We so often want to make connections and fit in with the people around us. But what will attract people to the message of salvation is not our similarities with others but our distinctiveness. It is the difference the gospel makes to our community life that will provoke their questions.
Let me try and paint you picture of how that works…
When the gospel gets your ego sorted – so that you're not constantly whiplashing back and forth – thinking too much of yourself or thinking too little of yourself. When the gospel gets the ego kind of demoted, decentred – By humbling it into the dust with the knowledge that you're a sinner and then affirming it to the sky by telling you that you're now a son or daughter of the King – (His treasured possession!)… That just shuts up the ego. That just says to the ego: 'Just shut up! Stop all the whining!'
When you are in a group of maybe even only five or six people who have had that kind of gospel surgery done on your egos – so that you're not too down on yourselves and not too up on yourselves – as C.S. Lewis once said: "You don't think less of yourself or more of yourself, you just think of yourself less." – if you do life with folks like that, what a beautiful community you can have. What remarkable transparent relationships you will have amongst each other. Such honesty. Such comfort. No pecking order. No need to prove yourself. No biting and devouring – imposing your wills on one another to get what you want OR scrambling for supremacy.
Of course when the ego is put in its place that doesn't just mean good relationships – it also means money, sex and power operate completely differently in your life too. They get given back to God to use for his glory and others good.
So therefore a godly Christian community that has gospel changed hearts – is going to be a community that shows the world something amazing, something incredibly rare, something different. And that's what Jesus calls us to be as a church.
Jesus said to his disciples: "You are the light of the world!" If we lived anything like the way he taught them to live – we really would be the light of the world. We really would.
Folks, don't fail to ask the question: 'Why me? Why did God save me?' Because he saved you for a purpose, he saved you because he wants to bless you, and you will never fully experience his blessings if you don't learn first to trust him and then to obey.