This sermon is offered by the CRCNA as part of our Reading Sermons series.
A young man, barely 18, is sitting there talking to his local recruiter. He is excited. He is going to serve his country! He pictures himself in a fine uniform like the one the gunnery sergeant on the other side of the desk is wearing, parading in the streets, standing at attention in front of an American embassy, or valiantly saving the very life of the President of the United States from some would-be assassin. He tells the recruiter that he can't wait to serve in the United States Marine Corps and he firmly believes that, in him, they have found one of the few good men they say they're looking for. He signs the form and, a few months later, takes the oath every member of the US armed forces must take. "I will preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic…" And he says those words "United States of America" with a special pride.
God has brought Israel here, to Mt. Sinai. Although the local Marine recruiter is by no means in the same class as God, God has essentially invited Israel to enlist in his service. He told them what they would have to do if they signed up - in general terms, to be sure, but he told them. He has also shown them some of the benefits of enlistment - manna, water, protection from foreign enemies, and the like. Israel said "Yes." As one voice, they answered "yes, we will do all that the Lord commands." Remember, they've been out of Egypt for almost 3 months now. They've had some foretaste of what it means to serve God and keep his covenant. Veritably dragged out of Egypt, they were hours from being utterly crushed by Pharaoh's army at the Red Sea, then, crossing the sea, nearly died of hunger and thirst in the wilderness, and finally, they have come here, to this mountain on the wrong side of the wilderness from the Promised Land.
And in all of this, they have not exactly been the most enthusiastic adherents to God's plan and his call to leave Egypt. Almost every other chapter before Exodus 19 has the Israelites moaning that they'd have been better off to stay slaves in Egypt. And God had the audacity to send this Egyptian-trained, cowardly Moses who couldn't even talk right as the one to lead them out of Egypt. Moses begins on the right foot by just waltzing up to Pharaoh and saying, "Let us go." Just like that. Of course pharaoh veritably laughed in his face. Instead of leaving, things got tougher and the people went nowhere. Oh, the people complained then, didn't they!
"Look, God, they're just getting harder on us! Leave well enough alone, God. Don't meddle any more, OK?"
And at the Red Sea, "Look! They're getting closer! We're gonna die here between Pharaoh and the sea! Great. Just great, God. We should have stayed in Egypt – we were slaves, but we weren’t dead!."
And once across the Red Sea, after breathing a sigh of relief, "Look, we don't have any water or food! We were stupid to have listened to this Moses freak and leave Egypt. At least we had food and water there. Let's just go back, explain to Pharaoh this was all a big misunderstanding and we don't really need straw to make bricks anyway."
But God pulled them out of Egypt, pushed them across the Red Sea, gave them food and water in the wilderness, and finally, brought them here to Mt. Sinai. And God said, "You have seen all that I have done for you and how I bore you up out of Egypt as on eagle's wings. If you will obey me and keep my covenant, you will be my special possession. Even though all the nations are mine, you will be special to me - a kingdom of priests, a holy people."
You'd think that, given their past experience, they'd remember that although God takes care of them, he is not easy on them. You'd think they would remember and be a little hesitant, have a few reservations about this - something before they signed up. Nope. They're ready. They're eager. They probably had grandiose ideas about how wonderful it would be to be God's special people, like our young man about to enlist in the Marine Corps. They were thinking, maybe, about how the girls would look at them admiringly, or how much clout they'd have as God's special people - in good with the big man. Maybe they were picturing themselves in front of the pearly gates decked out in nice white "holy-people" uniforms or that bit about being a holy nation attracted them. You know, the thing about holy nations is that they get to wage holy wars, and holy nations fighting holy wars don't ever lose! Watch out world, here comes Israel! "Sure, God." As one they answered, "No problem, Lord, where do we sign?" These people said "YES"!!
We once were in Egypt, people of God. Maybe some of us are still there. We have been sorely oppressed by our masters - sin, evil, rebellion. Forced to look at our own sin, shown no escape, we became even more rebellious. Then Jesus came and promised us peace, eternal life, heaven, living in the very presence of God himself. We looked at God's promise of covenant in Jesus Christ and we said "yes." We enlisted, signed up, joined the corps of God’s army.
We have promised to accept Jesus as Lord. We said "yes." Jesus has done it, we're saved. We're heaven-bound. It's wonderful! We are God's own people, a kingdom of priests, a holy nation! We aren't mere Dutch or German or Irish or Navajo or Canadians or Americans - no, we're God's people. We are a nation God has made out of all the peoples of the earth to be his special treasure. Doesn't that make you feel good? Doesn't your heart sing for joy to know that? If it doesn't, it should, but remember, we said "yes" to more than that.
The young man in our story, so confident that the Marines have found one of the few good men they claim to seek, after he signed up, got poked and prodded in the physical, and took the oath, proudly boarded the bus going to ...... where? The White House? An embassy in some foreign country? The photographers? No. This young man was headed for either hot, humid Parris Island in South Carolina, or hot, humid Camp Pendleton in California. No land of milk and honey for him, at least not yet, but a land of shouting drill sergeants, 10-mile marches in full pack through the heat of the day, 5-mile runs on soft beach sand with a sergeant yelling at you the whole way, and finally a three-day field exercise called “The Crucible”. This young man was going to boot camp. He had not been lied to, nor was he misinformed. He had been told more than once that being a Marine meant difficult, demanding work and maybe even death - and yet he was unprepared for the rigors of basic training. It is often so with God's people. Captivated by the thought of eternal life, focusing exclusively on future glory, we are caught unawares by the stringent demands of our newly accepted Lord and Master. We enlisted, but we ignore a significant part of what we signed up for. Like many a Marine recruit, we might be tempted to complain that our “recruiter” lied to us, but he has not.
We agreed to obey God and keep his covenant. If you wonder what that means, specifically, read the next 5 or so chapters of Exodus. You will notice that there is very little in those chapters by way of what is called cultic regulation - they aren't concerned with the hem on Aaron's priestly robe or the precise way to slaughter a lamb. What's there is summed up by Jesus as "Love the Lord, your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself." Love God, care for his people, indeed, his entire creation - this is what we agreed to.
We said yes, for instance, to having no other gods before our God who sent his son to save us. But money comes knocking at the door, Satan rears his attractive head and promises us social standing or security, alcohol or other drugs promise to ease our troubled souls in the waters of forgetfulness, or we have a chance to grab power and fame if only we will...... Which god is first then? Who is our god? It isn't always so easy, keeping this covenant. We are told to honor our parents, as well. But dad wants us to stay home and mow the lawn or work on the house Saturday when we were hoping to do other things. Or mom says we can't use the car Friday because she's got to make a run into town. Or we just realize that parents are human, make mistakes, and don’t always have the right answers – but they still have the authority of parents. Honoring them in those times is not natural or easy.
Obedience is required at inopportune times and often means we have to sacrifice our own hopes, our own plans, even our own selves on occasion. We agreed to being ridiculed, maybe to being beaten or other forms of abuse - all for the sake of Christ. We said "yes" to death itself - and maybe even the most painful death, not of ourselves, but of someone we love. We said "yes" to giving what we have to those who need it, whether it be time, food, a place to stay, clothing, or whatever. We said "yes" to things infinitely more difficult than any mere boot camp. We said "yes" to God, and God demands perfection.
Which means we are in trouble. We can't keep that promise any more than our brothers and sisters in Israel could. If you read on in Exodus you find that, no sooner had they agreed to the covenant and heard its terms, then they were building golden calves to sacrifice to. Joshua tells the people at the end of the book bearing his name "You are not able to serve the Lord. He is a holy God, a jealous God. He will not forgive your rebellion and your sins...." The books of Judges, Kings, and the latter prophets are further testimony to their failure - our failure. We are in deep, deep trouble.
Just a minute, though. Exodus says that if we obey God and keep his covenant then we will be God's treasured possession - that we will be a holy nation and a kingdom of priests. But if we read Peter's first letter, chapter 2, verses 9-10, we find not that we will be, but that we are a chosen race, we are a holy nation, a royal priesthood, God's own people. It isn't that we will be if.... but that we are. What happened to the "if" part of Exodus 19?
A God-man, Jesus, came to us. He kept the promises we made. He loved God first when we were unable to. He honored his parents when we could not. He suffered the abuse, the beatings, the death which were too much for us. Jesus did in fact do everything which God had commanded. Just as Adam and the rest of us since have not done what we promised, Jesus has done all of it. What is more, Jesus did all that the Lord commanded for us. We who believe in Jesus are in him and he is in us. Through his blood, the penalty for our broken promises has been paid and now we are considered to have kept those promises. The "if" of Exodus 19 has been taken care of. That young man who enlisted in the Marine Corps is not allowed to even be called a Marine until he finishes the Crucible. Until that time, he’s merely “Recruit”. He has to earn the right to be considered in the same breath with people like Pappy Boyington or Fernando Garcia, just two of the many U.S. Marines awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. We get to be called “Christian” right away, for Jesus endured the Crucible for us.
Does this mean we can now ignore the promises we made to God and his will for our lives? Jesus did it all, now we don't have to do anything at all. As Paul asks in Romans 6, "Shall we sin more that grace may abound?" If we say think that's the way it works, it's like saying, "These shirts are $5 off each. If I buy 2 I only save $10, but if I buy 20, why, then I'll save $100!!" If that's the way we think, we miss the whole point of what Jesus did. Jesus didn't humble himself and become obedient unto death that we might be free to sin, but that we might be free from sin.
We are freed from a law we could not fulfill - a law which was a great weight around our necks. Before Christ, our inability to keep our promise only increased our frustration and desire to rebel against the law. But now that law has been fulfilled. We are no longer weighed down and dragged under the raging torrents of the law, rather we are freed to keep the law as a song of praise and thanksgiving sung to God in our daily walk. Because of Jesus we are freed from the burden of the law and freed to joyfully keep it. This is what Peter is getting at when he says we are "to declare the wonderful deeds of him who has called us out of darkness into his marvelous light." The wonderful deed is that, in Jesus, we have done everything the Lord has commanded and now we are God's treasured possession, a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. Now we are God's own people. And we are a holy nation so that we may proclaim to the world how we once were not a people - just wanderers in a wilderness, like our father Abraham - but now we are a people. We are a kingdom of priests so that we can now declare the praises of God. We are a treasured possession so that everyone may see in the lives we live how, though once without mercy, we have now received mercy, to God's greater glory.
If we think it is sufficient to simply make these declarations by saying a few words here and there or singing a song once in a while, we are mistaken. The crucible Christ endured changes us. We are born again, new creatures in Jesus, and the declaration of our God’s marvelous deeds – the testimony to his mercy and grace – must be made in deed, too. Once we were oppressed slaves to sin and the law, but now we have been freed by Jesus Christ - freed to serve God and so keep our promise. Once our "yes" was a witness against us, but now it is a beautiful testimony to the mercy of God, to whom be all glory and honor forever and ever. Amen.
Prayer of response
Father in heaven, we thank you for your word. We thank you that we are the new Israel in Jesus Christ. You have delivered us. You have enlisted us. May we go forth boldly by your grace as we keep our eyes firmly focused on him. In Jesus name we pray. Amen.
Order of Service
WE GATHER IN GOD'S PRESENCE
Welcome and announcements
Call to Worship: Psalm 95: 6, 7
Silent Prayer concluded with “Lord, Listen to Your Children Praying” PsH# 625
Votum: “Our help is in the name of the LORD who made the heavens and the earth.”
Prayer for God’s Greeting, “May God’s grace, mercy and peace be ours in the name of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.”
Opening hymn: “Now with Joyful Exaltation” PsH# 95: 1-3
SERVICE OF RECONCILIATION
Prayer of Confession
Assurance of Pardon: Psalm 130: 7-8
Hymn: “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded” PsH#383
God’s Will for our Lives: Exodus 20: 1-17
WE HEAR THE WORD
Hymn: “How Shall the Young Direct Their Way” PsH#584
Scripture Reading: Exodus 19: 1-9; 1 Peter 2: 9-10
Sermon: “We’ve Enlisted”
Prayer of Response
Hymn: “And Can It Be” PsH#267
WE DEPART WITH GOD'S BLESSING
Prayer for God’s Blessing, “May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God the Father, in the
Doxology: “By the Sea of Crystal” PsH#620