What is God’s favorite kind of cheese?
Swiss cheese. Because it’s hole-y.
We’re made for ____ (community) – but, by nature, we’re community _____ (crashers). But that’s okay because God chose Abraham and made a _____ (covenant). And at the heart of that covenant is God’s desire to use Abraham’s descendants to ____ the entire world (bless).
Well, as we all know, Abraham’s descendants became slaves in Egypt – that is until one day God handpicks a stuttering, runaway shepherd to set His people free. And that’s where our story picks up tonight – with Moses, the Israelites, and God together in the desert – and so the Israelites are free at last. Or, are they?
You see, when the people of Israel enter the desert, they quickly notice a problem. On the one hand, they know they were created to be in perfect community with God. But on the other hand, at least for the moment, they can’t have the communion for which they were created. They quickly learn that their community-crashing nature meshes with God’s perfect nature about as well as fire meshes with paper. And as we all know, when fully exposed to fire, the paper will be destroyed. And does God want the Israelites to be destroyed? Of course not – which is why time and time again God tells them the exact reason He’s brought them into the desert. And here’s the verse that’s repeated like 20 times in Exodus and Leviticus. “Consecrate yourselves and be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.”
Do you see what this verse implies? God is perfectly holy. We are not. God is Perfect Community. We are community crashers. The bible describes God as a Consuming Fire. We, in our current state, are paper. You may be wondering - why are you telling me this? Here’s why – because if we’re going to understand the law – which is our goal tonight – we have to understand the law in the context of this greater story we’ve been telling. Remember, God didn’t rescue the Israelites for their sake alone but for the sake of the entire world. In other words, God’s desire is to take these ex-slaves and to use them to change the entire world.
But do you know what God has to do first? He has to change the ex-slaves. If the world is going to be transformed, the messengers have to go first. The paper has to become like the fire. The community crashers have to learn about perfect community. The not so holy people have to become holy. And so as a means to this end, God gives Israel the law.
Now, it’s important that we understand that God really is holy, because if we don’t, the bible just won’t make any sense. And so to help us understand God’s holiness, I’m going to introduce a pretty loaded word into the mix – and that word is purity. By definition, something is pure if it’s totally free from anything that contaminates or pollutes it. And so to say that God is holy is to say that God is pure – that God is the standard for moral excellence – that there is nothing that contaminates or pollutes God’s character. And, in the same way, to say that we’re not holy isn’t to say that we’re not good or that we’re not valuable – it’s just to acknowledge the self-evident truth that certain things do contaminate or pollute our character. In other words, to say that we’re not holy is to say what we’ve all said at one point or another – that “no one’s perfect.”
And so we have to understand that God is pure or holy and we are not. But not only that, it’s also important that we understand that you and I desire purity. Our heart wants things to be pure. As an example, consider the Food and Drug Administration – the FDA. As a nation, we’ve assigned the FDA the task of making sure that our food is pure – that it’s not contaminated or polluted. And I have to say, the FDA’s standards for purity are so low that they’re frightening. For example, did you know – if you buy 15 grams of mushrooms, they’re OK as long as they have fewer than 20 maggots? 20 or more maggots and the mushrooms can’t go on the shelf – but 19 maggots? 19 maggots are good enough to meet the FDA’s standard for purity with regard to mushrooms. As a coffee addict, I have to say, it wasn’t very encouraging to discover that coffee beans are only withdrawn from the market if more than 10% of them are infected by insects. 9% insects – ship it to Starbucks. 10% or more, we have to send it back.
Here’s what I’m trying to say – when it comes to our food and beverages and just about everything else – we all want purity. But what about our own lives? We tend to give ourselves a lot more wiggle room. The standards we have for our own lives are about as frighteningly low as the FDA’s standards for mushrooms. After all, we have “maggots” of our own, and they contaminate and pollute our hearts – anger, gossip, greed, revenge, laziness, and apathy to name just a few. And I have to say, we’re really quick to downplay these character flaws. But here’s the problem – our idea of purity is a far cry from God’s definition. We might not think it’s a big deal. But God values us so much, and took such delight in creating us, that to God – it’s a huge deal. Our God is holy, and God wants his image-bearers to be holy as well.
Now let’s go back to our story of the desert slaves. We’re at the foot of Mount Sanai. And here we see a ragtag group of frightened, grumbling, fugitive slaves. They have no real sense of identity yet, and to be honest, no clear knowledge of God. And in reading Exodus we quickly see that they are thoroughly impure and unholy. But here’s what’s so amazing – God is banking his whole hope to redeem the world on these very people. Remember – God’s desire is to bring a world full of community crashers back into community with Himself. And so here’s the question – how can God possibly get them to appreciate how high the stakes are? What does God have to do to get them to see that their little lives matter so much?
Well, in an effort to help the Israelites see the magnitude of his plan, God speaks to Moses in Exodus 19: 3-6.
Then Moses climbed the mountain to appear before God. The LORD called out to him from the mountain and said, "Give these instructions to … the people of Israel: 4 'You have seen what I did to the Egyptians. You know how I brought you to myself and carried you on eagle's wings. 5 Now if you will obey me and keep my covenant, you will be my own special treasure from among all the nations of the earth; for all the earth belongs to me. 6 And you will be to me a kingdom of priests, my holy nation.' Give this message to the Israelites."
Imagine hearing these words. Imagine being told that God wants your community, of all people, as his own special treasure. Seriously, I want you to imagine being told that God wants to make you holy like himself as part of this greater plan to bless the entire world. Put yourself in the shoes of these ex-slaves – or perhaps put yourself in their sandals. Your leader, a stuttering runaway shepherd, tells you that you’re at the very center of God’s purposes. Would you believe it? Would you accept it? Would that scare you? Excite you? Confuse you? And if he gave you a law and told you that this law is the key to God’s plan – that this law will teach you about holiness – would you obey it?
And so with the time we have left, let’s talk about the law. Now, most people in our world think that the Ten Commandments, to use an example, are God’s list of do’s and don’ts – more like a list of rules that have to be followed to be “right” with God more than anything else. Let me be very clear – That is not what the law is. The law isn’t God’s list of do’s and don’ts – it’s not primarily a list of rules at all.
Now, I know this may not be what you learned as a child. Perhaps you’ve even heard something along these lines in a sermon – the Old Testament is about the law, the New Testament is about grace. In the Old Testament, people are saved by keeping the law. But in the New Testament, people are saved by faith. These people may have the best intentions in the world, but they’re dead wrong. The law – including the Ten Commandments – was never given to Israel so that they could earn God’s favor. “Earning” has never been God’s way of dealing with human problems. The idea that we can earn God’s favor by keeping the law makes about as much sense as the idea that we can become the president of the United States by paying our taxes. And so if the law wasn’t given to help us to earn God’s favor, why did God give Israel the law in the first place? In other words, how can the law – which doesn’t make us “right” with God – still be part of God’s plan to bless the world?
And in one word, the answer is covenant. The law is God’s way of entering into a covenant with Israel. You see, it was only after God saved Israel from the Egyptians that He gave them the law. God didn’t say “obey these rules and then I’ll save you.” But rather, “now that I’ve saved you, here is an expression of my heart – here is how you can be more like me. Here is a way of living that will burn out some of those impurities that contaminate and pollute your hearts – the anger, the gossip, the greed, the revenge, the laziness, the apathy. I the Lord your God am holy. And because I want to bless the world through you, it matters to me that you’re holy too. And so here – this is what holiness looks like.”
Do you see the difference? For example, let’s say you’re a father and your son spends all day drawing you a picture and then he gives it to you, somewhat scared, explaining that the reason he worked so hard is because he wanted the picture to be good enough for you to love him. Pretty sad, isn’t it? But now imagine a different scenario where your son feels so loved and so unconditionally embraced and so special that he spontaneously decides to draw the best picture that he can, just because he feels loved. There’s a huge difference.
Or perhaps an example for the ladies – suppose you’ve been dating this guy and things are getting pretty serious. How would you feel if one day he looked deep into your eyes and said something like this? “This is my final offer. Wash my clothes, cook my food, clean the house, and rub my feet and if you do these things well enough, assuming that I’m happy with your performance, then I will marry you.” What would you say? NO.
Right, because a healthy marriage begins with mutual love and care, and then the graceful actions on both sides flow out of this love. God’s covenant with Israel, and God’s covenant with us, is like that. It begins with grace. And this was as true for the people of Israel as it was for you and for me. The law is about grace – it’s about being saved from Egypt to travel to Canaan; about being saved from our lives as community crashers in order to learn a better way. Ultimately, the law is about the transformation of our hearts. It’s about God teaching his people how life was meant to be lived from the start.
Now, some of you might be thinking. I’ve read Leviticus and Deuteronomy and frankly, I don’t see it. Yes and no. Yes, because there were different types of laws. For example, there were civil laws that guided national policy. The civil laws of Israel are obviously no longer binging for 21st century Americans. All denominations, including the non-denominational denomination, would agree on this point. And then there were ritual and ceremonial laws – laws that dealt with worship and the sacrificial system. Well, as Christians we believe that the whole sacrificial and ritual system of the Old Testament was fulfilled in Christ, and so these ceremonial laws are no longer binding.
But what I’m talking about are the moral laws – the Ten Commandments, the commandment to love one another, and so forth – and these moral laws give us an image of what it means to be in a Covenant Relationship with our creator. And it’s really important to realize why we should obey them in the first place. And so remember – we never obey the law to get God’s favor. We obey the law because we already have God’s favor. We don’t draw our heavenly Father a picture hoping that he’ll love us. We draw him one because He already does.
And so in closing, I want you to imagine what life would be like if, even for one day, everyone had the law of God written on their hearts and followed it with joy because they knew that they were free. What if for one day no life was ended through random violence; there were no acts of terrorism; nobody was killed, struck, or even cursed at in anger; not a single lie was told; everyone spoke the truth to one another; every father and every mother were honored all day long, and the hearts of the parents were turned toward their children, and the hearts of the children were turned towards their parents; nothing was stolen; and not one greedy thought or action took place in all the earth?
What would it be like if God’s magnificent law were written on our hearts and we lived them out in our lives? What if we lived the kind of life Jesus did right in our home, our work place, our school, our church?
Well, we’d be right back in the garden running around naked with God.
But we’re not quite there yet. In fact, we have a long, long way to go. Because the story, at this point, isn’t about going back to Eden – it’s about moving forward to Canaan. But moving forward takes courage and it takes faith – it takes a willingness to trust that you’re at the very center of God’s purpose to save the world. Moving forward takes a lot of faith. Do the Israelites have the faith required to move forward? Do we? Come back next week and we shall see.
NOTE ON SOURCES
This OMEGA series “OT Greatest Hits” is inspired by a 32-week Christian Education program put out by Willow Creek called the “Old Testament Challenge.” Some Omega talks will rely on this resource more heavily than others. Some will not even be based on it at all. However, if you have specific questions please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more info on the OT Challenge, see http://www.willowcreek.com/resources/courses/otc/.