First Mennonite Church
August 24, 2014
A Nation Like No Other
Texts: Exodus 19:1-6; Numbers 23:9
The Exodus event, as we have been studying, has rich symbols and casts bright flashes of light on the Christian faith and life. Many elements within this great event transcend the life of Israel. Take for instance the institution of the Passover Feast, which clearly anticipates and helps interpret the sacrificial death of Jesus. Take for instance the crossing of the Red Sea in relationship to Christian baptism. Take for instance Israel’s deliverance from slavery to our very own redemption from the bondage of sin.
But today and in anticipation of the upcoming presentation of Mennonite History next month, I want to give particular attention to one aspect about the identity of Israel, which is mentioned during the exodus journey. Therefore, before we go to our passage let me ask, what is history? Who determines its narrative? And in the end, who will validate its truth?
When we think of history we generally think of two major centers of attention. The first is the individual. We see the individual as the one who has the capacity to have faith, or who may choose to remain alienated from God. The individual is the one who acts and does things, good or evil, thus we can talk about his intentions, guilt, or signs of repentance. John of Patmos, Mother Teresa, Hitler, and Martin Luther King Jr, among many others remind us of individual stories or histories.
The second center of attention is the collective human trends or movement and so we speak of nations, governments, civilizations and cultural development. Within this larger picture of history we can talk about the Western Empire, the Chinese Dynasties, Mayan Civilization, or American influence in the world.
These two ways of looking at history have been the way school books of history, the media, and our culture have taught us. These shaping-forces deeply condition the way we look at history. Therefore, we see history either as centered on the individual or within the broader scope of events in the world. And every so often we as Christians find ourselves struggling to figure out what our relation should be as individuals to the larger social structures. We find it difficult to figure out how our individual history fits or should affect the larger history. Every so often pastors and church leaders try to guide, nurture, and accompany the believers on how to live faithfully as God’s people in this world. But, is there an alternative way to look at history? Are the individual and broad scope of history the only ways to look at history? I want to tell you that there is a third line of history according to the Bible. The God of Abraham and the God, whom Jesus called the Father, has worked and is working a third line of history, within which you and I are called to be part. What is truly amazing is that from Genesis to Revelation the Bible gives us another vision of history. From the calling of Abraham, to the exodus, to the Israelite exile and its return, to the Early Church, and all the way to the countless multitude bowing down around the one “who sat on the throne” in Revelations, God had working and is still working for Himself a different people. These people are the ones who would give witness of a different story line of history. These people are called to live as a unit and therefore embody within itself a new humanity. These people are to live in such a way that its very lifestyle would become an alternative way compared to its surroundings. And the story of this people will be engraved in the scroll that will decide the fate of all other human histories. This is what Paul says in Romans 2:16: This will take place on the day when God judges people’s secrets through Jesus Christ, as my gospel declares.
Shortly after the Israelites left Egypt they came to the Mountain of God—Sinai. And God revealed his heart to His people through Moses. Thus, God said:
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[a] will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words you are to speak to the Israelites.”
The mighty works of God against Pharaoh and the Egyptians had two purposes. The first was to demonstrate to Pharaoh and his people that Yahweh is the Lord of heaven and earth. The plagues that came upon Pharaoh were meant to convince him that God is indeed the God of the Israelites. But the second purpose of those mighty acts of God was to sustain the faith of Israel along the long journey. The mighty acts of God were intended to convince Israel that the same Almighty God who devastated Pharaoh was mighty enough to deliver them until the end. By trusting God and believing God was mighty enough to bring the Israelites to the Promised Land, they were to give witness of their unique identity among all other nations. Their faith and trust in God should have set them apart to become a holy nation and a kingdom of priests to Yahweh. But as we have seen in this series, Israel including Moses stumbled along the way. Almost all along the exodus journey God was not pleased with the people he delivered from Egypt. Many along the way died due to various instances disobedience. Yet amazingly as Israel drew closer to the land of Canaan, God still regarded Israel as his chosen people according the words of Balaam.
In Numbers chapters 22, 23, and 24 we find a rather interesting story. It is interesting in many ways, including the fact that it is there that we read of a talking donkey. As Israel journeyed towards the Promised Land it needed to cross inhabited territories. Two kingdoms which opposed Israel were defeated under God’s deliverance. Therefore by the time Israel arrived at the plains of Moab, another kingdom along its way, the king of Moab and his elders had heard of Israel’s victories against two neighboring kingdoms. Moab and his people were filled with fear. The sheer number of the Israelites was terrifying enough. But the fact that they were the people whom God had delivered from an even more powerful king—the Egyptian Pharaoh, caused Balak, the Moabite king to faint. So Moab conferred with the elders of his people as to what they should do. They hired Balaam, a seer to bring a curse upon the Israelite camp. Balak took Balaam to four different locations from which Balaam could see the camp of the Israelites so that he would curse them. However, at every location Balaam could only come up with an increased blessing toward Israel.
Numbers 23, verse 9 is part of what Balaam said about the Israelites. And there we find a beautiful description of Israel which reveals the heart of God for his people.
9 From the rocky peaks I see them, from the heights I view them. I see a people who live apart and do not consider themselves one of the nations.
They were a people intended to live apart and never to consider themselves as any of the other nations. They were to be God’s holy people and a kingdom of priests if they fully obeyed and kept the covenant with God. These people were supposed to fulfill God’s intention when He called Abraham. They were to be that great nation…to become a blessing to all the nations of the world (Genesis 12:2-3). God desired his people to remain his treasured possession. But once Israel settled the wanted to be like the other nations. They asked for a king like the other nations (1Sam. 8:15). They wanted to have an army and be led to wars like the other nations (1Sam. 8:20). And they eventually became like all the other nations (Hosea 8:1-10).
Paul realized that the church embodied the uniqueness Abraham’s children were supposed to have. And so in Galatians 1:7-9 writes:
Understand, then, that those who have faith are children of Abraham. Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: “All nations will be blessed through you.” So those who rely on faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.
This is the same message the apostle Peter wrote about according to our New Testament passage for today. But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.
Implicit in the words of Jesus, Paul and Peter is the fact that those who are called to follow Jesus are called to follow, live, and witness not merely as individuals but as a people—a nation. The Gospels give testimony about this. When Jesus called his disciples and when he instituted the church, He did not call individuals and sent them out on their separate ways to be different or to affect their world, once their heart and mind have been changed by the gospel. No! He called them, taught them, and commissioned them to go and make disciples. In the words of Peter, that they may declare the praises of him who called them out of darkness into his wonderful light.
My dear brothers and sisters, God has called us to himself, not to a denomination, not to a local parish—and not even that we may go our own way to figure out the meaning of following Jesus. God has called us to be his people living an alternative vision of what it means to be God’s people. God has called us to be a nation like no other nation. We are called to have that distinctiveness Balaam saw when he saw the Israelite camp in the plains of Moab: I see a people who live apart and do not consider themselves one of the nations.
This means that above all we should desire to live out the words of Jesus. This means that our claim that Jesus is Lord is not only a religious or pious confession, but an actual commitment to obey his words. Our claim that Jesus is Lord is a message that we do not have other lords or loyalties. Our claim that Jesus is Lord means that each of us are simply and truly his servants and fellow servants to each other in this fellowship.
John of Patmos saw this vision about the end of history:
Then I saw a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain, standing at the center of the throne, encircled by the four living creatures and the elders….7 He went and took the scroll from the right hand of him who sat on the throne. 8 And when he had taken it, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb. Each one had a harp and they were holding golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of God’s people. 9 And they sang a new song, saying:
“You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased for God persons from every tribe and language and people and nation. 10 You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reignon the earth.”
My dear brothers and sister, we are God’s chosen people, His royal priesthood, God’s holy nation, and His special possession, that we may declare the praises of God who called us out of darkness into his wonderful light through Jesus his Son. Amen!