A Kingdom of Priests and a Holy Nation Exodus 19:1-11

The turning point and high spot in the film Excalibur comes on the day when all the battles are won. There is one land and one king, King Arthur. And by the firelight Merlin the Wizard addresses the all knights gathered together in an eerie voice.
“Be silent. Be still. And look upon this moment. Savour it. Rejoice with great gladness. Remember it, always… for you are joined by it. You are one, under the stars. Remember it well then, this night… this great victory… so that in the years ahead you can say: ”I was there that night, with Arthur, the King. For it is the doom of men that they forget.”
The nation of Israel was build on the foundation of all the wonderful acts of salvation which brought Abraham’s descendants out of slavery in Egypt and ultimately gave them possession of the Promised Land. But from that point on, the sad history of Israel is of a nation who kept on forgetting the marvellous things God had done for them. For it is truly the doom of men that they forget. Indeed, Israel began to forget what God had done for them astonishingly quickly.
God’s intention for his people was that they would immediately take possession of the Promised Land, trusting in him to give them the victory. But even that did not happen. Next week we will see how, because of their lack of faith, the Israelites were condemned to wandering in the wilderness for 40 years until all of the unbelieving generation had died off. So we come to this series of sermons which I will call “the wilderness years”. There are many lessons we can learn for our own Christian life and faith the things which happened to Israel and the mistakes they made in those 40 years. But for today I want to start on a positive note by reminding us briefly of all the mighty acts of God which brought Israel came into existence, which we read about in the first 18 chapters of Exodus.
The story begins with the descendants of Abraham living in Egypt. More than 400 years after the seven years of famine struck the whole region and Abraham’s great grandson Joseph was the saviour of his family and everybody else as well. There came a time when there was a Pharaoh, a ruler of Egypt who had forgotten the debt the whole nation owed to Joseph. The Hebrews had become slaves of the Egyptians, exploited in hard labour and harsh conditions building the great pyramids. The Egyptians even murdered all the male babies, to stop the Hebrew people rising up in revolt. But God preserved one baby, Moses, and arranged that he would be brought up in Pharaoh’s household. When he was 40 years old Moses killed an Egyptian and escaped to the life of a shepherd in Midian. But then God revealed himself to Moses from a burning bush.
Exodus 3 6 Then he said, ‘I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.’ At this, Moses hid his face, because he was afraid to look at God.
7 The LORD said, ‘I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering. 8 So I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey …. 9 And now the cry of the Israelites has reached me, and I have seen the way the Egyptians are oppressing them. 10 So now, go. I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt.’
God chose Moses to bring salvation to the Israelites. Moses, with his brother Aaron as his spokesman, went to the new Pharoah who had inherited the throne of Egypt and delivered God’s message, “Let my people go.” But Pharaoh refused and treated the Hebrews as slaves even more brutally. So God sent ten miraculous plagues of judgment on Egypt, turning the river Nile to Blood; plagues of Frogs and of Gnats and of Flies; a plague killing all the Egyptians’ Livestock; a plague of Boils; a plague of Hail and lightning killing everything out in the fields; a plague of Locusts and a plague of total Darkness covering Egypt for three days. After each plague Moses gave Pharaoh the opportunity to let the Israelites leave, but each time Pharoah refused. So the tenth plague God sent on Egypt would be the worst, the angel bringing death to all the firstborn.
Exodus 12:12 “On that same night I will pass through Egypt and strike down every firstborn of both people and animals, and I will bring judgment on all the gods of Egypt. I am the LORD.” (Exodus 12:12)
Only the firstborn of the Hebrews were spared, because they had sacrificed the Passover lambs and sprinkled the blood on their doors.
Exodus 12 29 At midnight the LORD struck down all the firstborn in Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh, who sat on the throne, to the firstborn of the prisoner, who was in the dungeon, and the firstborn of all the livestock as well. 30 Pharaoh and all his officials and all the Egyptians got up during the night, and there was loud wailing in Egypt, for there was not a house without someone dead.
Finally after all these warnings Pharaoh agreed to let the slaves leave. Around six hundred thousand Hebrew men and all their families and livestock set out to leave Egypt, 430 years after Joseph and his family had arrived. And God instituted the Feast Unleavened Bread and the Feast of the Passover for the Israelites to celebrate every year, to help them remember how God had freed them from slavery in Egypt.
God led the people by a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. But Pharaoh changed his mind and decided to pursue the Israelites with all his chariots and horses, horsemen and troops. He caught up with them by the Red Sea and the Israelites were all terrified. But Moses encouraged them.
Exodus 14: 13 Moses answered the people, “Do not be afraid. Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the LORD will bring you today. The Egyptians you see today you will never see again. 14 The LORD will fight for you; you need only to be still.”
And God did indeed deliver his people from Pharaoh’s armies by an amazing miracle.
Exodus 14 21 Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and all that night the LORD drove the sea back with a strong east wind and turned it into dry land. The waters were divided, 22 and the Israelites went through the sea on dry ground, with a wall of water on their right and on their left.
23 The Egyptians pursued them, and all Pharaoh’s horses and chariots and horsemen followed them into the sea. 24 During the last watch of the night the LORD looked down from the pillar of fire and cloud at the Egyptian army and threw it into confusion. 25 He made the wheels of their chariots come off so that they had difficulty driving. And the Egyptians said, “Let’s get away from the Israelites! The LORD is fighting for them against Egypt.”
26 Then the LORD said to Moses, “Stretch out your hand over the sea so that the waters may flow back over the Egyptians and their chariots and horsemen.” 27 Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and at daybreak the sea went back to its place. The Egyptians were fleeing towards it, and the LORD swept them into the sea. 28 The water flowed back and covered the chariots and horsemen—the entire army of Pharaoh that had followed the Israelites into the sea. Not one of them survived.
29 But the Israelites went through the sea on dry ground, with a wall of water on their right and on their left. 30 That day the LORD saved Israel from the hands of the Egyptians, and Israel saw the Egyptians lying dead on the shore. 31 And when the Israelites saw the great power the LORD displayed against the Egyptians, the people feared the LORD and put their trust in him and in Moses his servant.
The parting of the Red Sea was the miracle which rescued the escaping Israelites from Pharoah’s armies. This is probably the most important event in the history of Israel and the nation looked back on it dozens of times through the Old Testament.
So this huge group of refugees went on through the desert towards the land of Canaan which God had promised to Abraham and his descendants forever. They were probably a couple of million people, but God sustained them all with manna, bread from heaven tasting like wafers made with honey, and with quail. God quenched their thirst with water which flowed miraculously out of a rock. And God kept his people safe and gave them a glorious victory over the Amalekites. These are all the wonderful events of salvation which brought all Abraham’s descendants out of slavery in Egypt and to the foot of Mount Sinai where we find them in our reading today. And there almost 1300 years before Jesus, God made the covenant with his people which brought the nation of Israel into existence.
3 Then Moses went up to God, and the LORD called to him from the mountain and said, ‘This is what you are to say to the descendants of Jacob and what you are to tell the people of Israel: 4 “You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. 5 Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, 6 you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” These are the words you are to speak to the Israelites.’
The slaves who came out of Egypt were descended from Abraham and Isaac and Jacob. Now all the promises God had made to the Patriarchs would begin to be fulfilled as their descendants became God’s treasured possession, a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. Out of all the peoples of the world, the Israelites would have a unique relationship with the Almighty God who had created everything.
“You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. God’s mighty acts of salvation had all been for the purpose of bringing Israel to himself and make them his chosen people and his treasured possession. Those were the promises God made. But the Israelites themselves would have responsibilities in this new covenant.
5 Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession.
All the privileges of being God’s chosen people carried responsibilities. To obey God fully and to keep the conditions of the covenant. Those conditions would be spelled out in the following chapters of Exodus. To live according to the Ten Commandments and all the Jewish Law which God would reveal to Moses. To worship God in the Tabernacle, with the priests God appointed offering the sacrifices God required, and celebrating the annual festivals to make sure that the people would not forget what God had done for them. We read in Exodus 24 how the people committed themselves to this new covenant.
Exodus 24 3 When Moses went and told the people all the LORD’s words and laws, they responded with one voice, “Everything the LORD has said we will do.” 4 Moses then wrote down everything the LORD had said.
He got up early the next morning and built an altar at the foot of the mountain and set up twelve stone pillars representing the twelve tribes of Israel. 5 Then he sent young Israelite men, and they offered burnt offerings and sacrificed young bulls as fellowship offerings to the LORD. 6 Moses took half of the blood and put it in bowls, and the other half he sprinkled on the altar. 7 Then he took the Book of the Covenant and read it to the people. They responded, “We will do everything the LORD has said; we will obey.”
8 Moses then took the blood, sprinkled it on the people and said, “This is the blood of the covenant that the LORD has made with you in accordance with all these words.”
This is how the descendants of Abraham became God’s chosen people, the nation of Israel. They should never have forgotten God’s mighty acts of salvation, the plagues on Egypt, the Passover and Crossing the Red Sea. But it is the doom of men that they forget. And the Israelites would often forget WHY God had saved them.
5 Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, 6 you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”
Time and again the people of Israel would forget that God had called them to be his treasured people. They would fail to keep the promises they had made to obey God completely and to live by the Law God gave to Moses. They would fail to keep their side of the Covenant. In the weeks to come we will see different ways in which Israel fell short of their calling as a kingdom of priests and a holy nation and ended up wandering around the wilderness for 40 years before they finally took possession of the Promised Land.
In several places the New Testament reminds Christians that the experiences of the Israelites are warnings for Christians of sins to avoid. Even from today there is one obvious warning. The Israelites were generally good at remembering what God had saved them from, and how God had saved them by the miracles of the events of the Exodus. But tragically they were good at forgetting what God had saved them to become, his treasured possession, a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.
Christians are usually good at remembering the lives God has saved us from. We are good at remembering how the death of Jesus on the cross saves us from our sins and saves us from death and hell. But sometimes we forget WHY God has saved us. God doesn’t forgive our sins just so that we can go back to our old wicked ways. God saves us so that we can have a relationship with him as his beloved children. We are now part of God’s chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation and God’s special possession, destined to share God’s glory forever. But this wonderful privilege of being saved comes with responsibilities. To follow Jesus in our daily lives. To put our trust in God and live for his glory. And to love other people in the same way God loves us. We should remember how God has saved us, but also how God expects us to live now as his children. Remember – because it is the doom of men that they forget.

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