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Exodus 19 – 5th March 2006, am

The evening was almost over. I had spoken just a little earlier, explaining how God
paid for our sins through Christ’s death on the cross, and now offered us free and total
forgiveness – all we have to do is ask. The meeting had ended and I was just finishing
my cup of tea and thinking about heading for home when an animated figure loomed
into my view.

“Its all too easy” she said. “This talk of free forgiveness, of grace, of God’s love and
mercy. What about obedience? What about obeying rules? The way you put it, it
sounds like I could just ask for God’s forgiveness now and then go off and lead my
life as I want. I want no part of a religion like that.”

Her accusation is well taken. Sometimes we talk extremely loosely about God’s
forgiveness and grace and love and mercy, when the Bible everywhere talks about
obedience too. Where does obedience fit into a Christian’s life?

This is a key issue which faced the Israelites after they had escaped from slavery in
Egypt. At the beginning of chapter 19 they arrive in the Sinai Desert and camp at the
foot of mount Sinai. The rest of the book is set at this point and consists almost
entirely of God’s instructions to them. Chapters 19-23 especially are devoted to
instructions about their daily life. This morning then, we are going to begin to look at
what God says to Israel about their obedience and especially what place it has in the
life of faith.

The first thing that we must notice is that salvation is not earned by obedience.

Salvation is not earned by obedience

Exodus could have been written differently. These laws could have been given to
Israel while they were still in slavery. God could have given them these laws, and
then said “If you obey me I will come down and deliver you from Egypt”. But he

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He told us back in chapter three why he had come down to deliver them.

Exodus 3:7-8
7 The LORD said, “I have 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

He rescued them because of their misery, because they cried out to him, because he
was concerned for them. He rescued them, not because by their obedience they had
earned their rescue, or made themselves acceptable to him, but because they were
poor and helpless and enslaved and cried out to him for mercy and deliverance.

Chapter 19 here gives a beautiful picture of what God had done.


Like a great eagle scooping us up and setting us on his back as he soars over the earth,
so God lifts us up out of our desolation and carries us to himself.

Our obedience will never save us, only God’s grace will. That is absolutely central
for us to understand. You may be here thinking that you need to do a whole number
of things to get your life in order before you could ever ask God for forgiveness. The
Israelites didn’t. They just cried out to God – and he delivered them.

It is a shocking message. I was not surprised that young woman came up to me and
protested – she had seen how disconcerting God’s grace is. The New Testament is full
of people who are angry about grace and for understandable reasons.

Everywhere he went Jesus was mobbed by prostitutes, and swindlers, and outcasts
and he offered them free forgiveness. The respectable people who prided themselves
on their obedience hated it. In fact they hated it enough to murder him.

But obedience is not irrelevant for Christians. Indeed both the Old and the New
Testaments make it plain that a pattern of disobedience in someone who claims to
belong to God reveals that claim to be a lie. In a couple of weeks we are going to see

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how the Israelites were in fact disobedient and some of them are struck down.

But that must wait for another day. The next few chapters explore what obedience
looks like. They set out the fruit, the dynamic, and the scope of Christian obedience.
And this morning we must look at the first to of those, and then come back next week
to explore it further.

First of all the fruit of obedience.

The fruit of obedience.

As they settle by Mount Sinai they are promised some extraordinary things if they
obey. They are promised a special relationship with God.


Of course the whole world, the whole universe belongs to God. But we will be
special to God. Like the crown jewels in the midst costume jewellery, like an original
Rembrandt in an Athena shop, like one of Juliet’s gloriosa lilies amongst daisies, we
will be special – God’s treasured possession.

And we will have a glorious role.


A priest in the bible has a mediating role. He has unique access to God. But also has
the role of mediating the presence of God to others. Israel’s role was to be a priestly
nation. They were not saved from Egypt simply to privately enjoy that salvation.
They were saved as part of God’s great plan for the whole world. His purpose was to
forge a nation that knew him, that obeyed him, and would therefore be so attractive to
other nations that they too would come and find him and he would become the God of
all nations.

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The sad truth historically is that Israel failed in that role, but that great purpose was
not lost. In 1 Peter 2 God’s church is described as “a royal priesthood” formed to
“declare God’s praises” and

Live such good lives among the pagans that… they… glorify God

That is the fruit that we can expect to see – indeed that we are seeing in the world.
God’s church is enormously in our world at the moment. In China there is a massive
and continuing growth in the number of Christians. In African and Latin America the
church is growing. As in every age God’s people are often weak and sinful and
stories of embarrassing failure abound, but the goodness and passionate faithfulness
of his church is the dominant theme – and people want to know their God. They are a
kingdom of priests.

In this country too, though the remnants of our old cultural Christianity continue to
decline and fade, there is a growing movement of passionately faithful believers
across the denominations whose lives together and as individuals draw people to

And here? Well once again, though I know the failures in myself, and there are
sometimes failures amongst us which must grieve God, I also see wonderful
faithfulness and humble obedience, sometimes at great cost. And it is those things
which will determine our real fruit – not our evangelistic strategy, not our social
action policy, not the quality of our building, or the strength of our staff team, or the
depth of our bible knowledge, or the quality of our public teaching. It is our humble
daily obedience.


The rest of chapter 19 explores what we might call the dynamics of obedience.

The dynamics of obedience

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By that I mean what drives our obedience, what empowers it, and motivates it. The
bible has a lot to say about that. We could talk about our love for God empowering
obedience, or thankfulness to God for his grace, or our eager desire for treasure in
heaven. But Exodus 19 explores another thing which drives us towards obedience. It
is the awesomeness of coming into God’s presence.

God announces that he is going to visit them in a new way on the mountain top. His
presence will be so powerful that his voice will be heard.


The sheer awesomeness of this visitation of God requires urgent obedience. Note that
the first thing they have to do is obey some rituals associated with forgiveness.


In other words it is expected that God’s people will not be perfect. The Old Testament
sets up an enormous array of rituals to train the people that they need constantly to be
turning away from their sins, and seeking God’s cleansing forgiveness. Washing their
clothes was part of that. Sin makes us dirty. We need to be cleansed.

They needed as well to be deeply aware that coming near to God is dangerous
because of our sin.


An when God did come it was awesome.


Imagine the sight. A terrible thunderstorm with lightning flashing at the top of the
mountain. And over it all to make it absolutely plain that this was not natural
phenomenon – a trumpet blast. Everyone trembled. Then a solemn procession head
towards the terrifying sight. Imagine the children crying and pleading to be allowed
to run back into their tents. Imagine tender souls trembling with heads lowered as

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they try to hide in the crowd. Imagine others with their eyes riveted in awe as they
feel themselves irresistibly drawn towards the mountain. There is smoke, the earth
trembles and that trumpet just keeps sounding louder and louder.

This is what it means to enter the presence of God.

The writer to the Hebrews makes it clear that in some ways our experience as
Christians has superseded this Old Testament experience.

Hebrews 12:18-22

18 You have not come to a mountain that can be touched and that is burning with fire;
to darkness, gloom and storm; 19 to a trumpet blast or to such a voice speaking words
that those who heard it begged that no further word be spoken to them, 20 because
they could not bear what was commanded: “If even an animal touches the mountain,
it must be stoned.” 21 The sight was so terrifying that Moses said, “I am trembling with

But you have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living

God. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly,

In other words there is a joy, a fullness and a liberty for Christians that these Israelites
just did not have as they quaked at the bottom of the mountain. But there is still a fear
says our writer just a couple of verses later.

Hebrews 12:25-26

25See to it that you do not refuse him who speaks. If they did not escape when they
refused him who warned them on earth, how much less will we, if we turn away from
him who warns us from heaven? 26 At that time his voice shook the earth, but now he
has promised, “Once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens.”

One day we will face the God who will roll up the heavens like a scroll, who will
cleanse the whole earth with fire, who will judge every human being who has ever
lived, who has eyes of fire, and a sword for a tongue. The sight of whom - at least for
those who have refused him – will be infinitely more terrifying than the sight for
those Israelites on that cold morning by a mountainside.

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Should there not be awe in hearts? A little fear perhaps? Shouldn’t we feel that
urgent need to wash our clothes. Shouldn’t we fear lest we thoughtlessly blunder over
the fence around the mountain and stumble unprepared into the presence of the living

I have to confess I don’t see much of that attitude in today’s church. I see lots of
celebrations of joyfully assembly which of course is entirely appropriate. God’s
church has been greatly enriched by a rediscovery of the sheer abandoned joy which
is found in the New Testament. There is a wonderful freshness and depth of delight in
so many of the new songs we sing which I love and I think is deeply biblical. But by
and large you have to go back a couple of hundred years in British hymnody to get
hymns of deep awe. Is it a coincidence that by and large they came out of the greatest
Christian revival that these islands has ever seen – the evangelical awakening of
Wesley and Whitfield.

A few years ago many churches were seeing spiritual experiences in which people fell
to the ground and were gripped with holy laughter sometimes for long periods. I
don’t doubt that sometimes the joy of the Lord sometimes does overwhelm us. In the
great revival of the eighteenth century – especially as it manifested itself in America –
people were regularly struck down in awe and fear of God. I hear of none of that
today. Is it any wonder then that divorce, and immorality and greed and spiritual half-
heartedness dogs God’s church today?

Similarly I see a lot of well taught and well organised churches today. They know
their bibles. They know the gospel. They know how to organise good evangelistic
events. They know how to do church. But do they know the fear of the Lord?

And us? We must surely be deeply aware of the poverty of our experience of God as
we meditate on this chapter. Perhaps there are a few of us with a morbid fear of God,
an obsessive fear of sin which needs to tempered by that glorious sense of New
Testament joy and liberty which Hebrews speaks of. But it is much rarer than it was a
generation ago in evangelical circles. Today the dominant theme is a blithe light-
heartedness, which actually cuts the root of true humble awe-struck heart-ravished

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The clothes we choose to wear reveal what we want to say about ourselves to the
world. Most of us want to present ourselves as relaxed and casual these days. We
want to cultivate an air of quiet confidence. We are not perfect but hey that’s cool –
the jeans may be a little frayed and faded but actually we bought them like that – it’s
the fashion didn’t you know? The collar may be unbuttoned but that is because we
don’t need to impress. Spiritually we want to present ourselves as not perfect but at
ease with God.

Now imagine God dressed you as you really are spiritually this morning. What is that
stain that you have so casually left all over your shirt? How could you wear trousers
like that in public? I am not the smartest of dressers as my family reminds me
regularly, but for me at least it is a horrific thought to be dressed with clothes that
match my spiritual state. God says “wash your clothes”.

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