Monday, March 07, 2011

Ninth Sunday after Epiphany: Exodus 19: A Mountain on Fire with Love

The arrival at Mt. Sinai is the fulfillment of Yahweh’s promises. Given the challenges that Israel has faced, it is also a sign of God’s great grace and favor.

The Wedding
This scene portrays this covenant renewal scene as a wedding: Moses is the “minister” going between Yahweh and Israel, His bride (19:3, 8, 20). This covenant renewal is the renewal of the covenant made previously with Abraham (Gen. 15). The basis for the covenant relationship is the fact that Yahweh has destroyed Egypt and kept His promises (19:3-4). He has brought Israel to Himself on eagles’ wings (19:4, cf. Dt. 32:11). Though foreign armies will later be described as eagles (e.g. Dt. 28:49, Jer. 4:13, Ez. 17:3ff, Hos. 8:1), in this instance it refers to Yahweh’s host, His glory cloud army of men and angels (13:18-22, cf. Ez. 1:3-14). This Exodus-Salvation is the basis for the “Therefore if…” (19:5). This is the way real love works and is displayed in a wedding. No bride or groom suspects the other of legalism for taking vows. Nor does anyone think anyone is earning anything when they take or keep their vows. That’s just what love looks like.

Precious Treasure and Kingdom of Priests
If Israel obeys Yahweh and guards the covenant, Israel will be His “precious treasure” (19:5), and this is repeated when the covenant is renewed (Dt. 7:6, 14:2, 26:18, cf. Ps. 135:4, Mal. 3:17). This call to “guard” the covenant reminds us of Yahweh’s call for Adam to “guard” the garden. The covenant is not something earned; the covenant is the gift of God’s love, the gift of a holy fellowship, a marriage bed (Dt. 32:11). David and Solomon both refer to their “precious treasures of kings” (1 Chr. 29:3, Eccl. 2:8). Israel is Yahweh’s treasure, His royal plunder, His inheritance. In the Septuagint, this word is translated as “elect,” and the NT writers pick up this language: Christians are God’s elect, His chosen ones, “holy and beloved” of God (Col. 3:12). Our English translations get closest to this where Paul says that Christ gave Himself for us to “redeem” us and to “purify” us for Himself, His own “special people” (Tit. 2:14), and Peter does this as well (1 Pet. 1:2, 2:4, 2:6, 2:9). In the immediate context of the Old Testament, Melchizedek and Jethro form the most concrete examples of priests: both are foreigners who bring the blessing of God and share bread with God’s people. And a kingdom of priests is to be a “holy nation” (19:6, cf. 19:10, 14, 22), and this means to be in a safe place, in a secure relationship to their God, one another, and the nations around them: plenty of bread and blessing for all.

The Mountain
The scene itself seems so surreal and strange: a mountain covered in a thick cloud of smoke and fire (19:18), thunder and lightening (19:16), the threat of death to those who cross the boundaries (19:12-13), the long winding of a horn (19:13, 16, 19). It feels intense, overwhelming, even confusing (19:20-25). But this seems to be the point: Israel is not dealing with a distant deity in the far reaches of the universe; Yahweh is God Almighty, Creator, Redeemer, and therefore Lord of Israel. It is His great compassion and love and mercy that redeemed and saved His people, but it is a fierce mercy, a terrifying love, a deep, black darkness of compassion. This is not to imply that God is fickle or schizophrenic. It means that God is high and lifted up. But God is also putting Himself on the line, bestowing all that He is, and calling Israel into His love, into His glory, into His fellowship. And the only reasonable response is fear and love and glad obedience. To obey is to walk in that glory, in that love.

In the New Covenant all of this is heightened: But this time the fire of God has fallen not on a mountain that can be touched but on God’s people at Pentecost (Acts 2). We have come to Mount Zion, the city of the living God, and the warnings are just as fierce: see that you do not refuse Him who speaks for our God is a consuming fire (Heb. 12:18-29). But this is not a menacing threat from a distance. This isn’t a command to keep a bunch of impersonal rules. This is because our Kinsman-Redeemer has come for us and delivered us from Egypt and every Pharaoh; Jesus the Mediator of the new covenant has brought us to Himself on eagles’ wings: He has “loved us and washed us from our sins in His own blood, and has made us kings and priests to His God and Father…” (Rev. 1:5-6). Which is proof once again that God keeps His promises (e.g. Is. 40).

“Comfort, yes, comfort My people!" Says your God. Speak comfort to Jerusalem, and cry out to her, That her warfare is ended, That her iniquity is pardoned; For she has received from the LORD's hand Double for all her sins. The voice of one crying in the wilderness: "Prepare the way of the LORD; Make straight in the desert A highway for our God. Every valley shall be exalted And every mountain and hill brought low; The crooked places shall be made straight And the rough places smooth; The glory of the LORD shall be revealed, And all flesh shall see it together; For the mouth of the LORD has spoken…

O Zion, You who bring good tidings, Get up into the high mountain; O Jerusalem, You who bring good tidings, Lift up your voice with strength, Lift it up, be not afraid; Say to the cities of Judah, "Behold your God! Behold, the Lord GOD shall come with a strong hand, And His arm shall rule for Him; Behold, His reward is with Him, And His work before Him. He will feed His flock like a shepherd; He will gather the lambs with His arm, And carry them in His bosom, And gently lead those who are with young…

To whom then will you liken Me, Or to whom shall I be equal?" says the Holy One. Lift up your eyes on high, And see who has created these things, Who brings out their host by number; He calls them all by name, By the greatness of His might And the strength of His power; Not one is missing. Why do you say, O Jacob, And speak, O Israel: "My way is hidden from the LORD, And my just claim is passed over by my God"? Have you not known? Have you not heard? The everlasting God, the LORD, The Creator of the ends of the earth, Neither faints nor is weary. His understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the weak, And to those who have no might He increases strength. Even the youths shall faint and be weary, And the young men shall utterly fall, But those who wait on the LORD Shall renew their strength; They shall mount up with wings like eagles, They shall run and not be weary, They shall walk and not faint.”

This coming week we begin Lent. During Lent we don’t pretend to be lost and unsaved or despair of our salvation. Lent is an annual reminder of what is always true of the Christian life. It is an annual reminder that we must press on. Because of the wonderful gift of Christmas and because of the first Easter in Christ, we must press on toward our own Easter. Because we have been born again by the Spirit in our own Christmas-covenant, our own Exodus-salvation, we must fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfector of our faith. We must not doubt in the dark what was true in the light. Remember who you are, remember the glory of the Lord, remember God’s love and grace. Remember God’s promises. Because God has not forgotten.

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