LESSON: from Joshua 23 & 24
In our survey of the Old Testament, we come to the story of the Exodus –the story of how God led his people out of slavery in Egypt and gave them his law at Mount Sinai in the wilderness. Most of this story comes in the first twenty chapters or so of the book of Exodus, but includes other passages as well.
For instance, our lesson from Psalm 105 summarizes these chapters. But look at how it ends. We go through all these verses telling about the great things God did, and then in verse 45 we get to the moral of the story. Why did God do all these things? ”That they might keep his precepts and observe his laws.”
God freed his people from Egypt so they might become a people of the law, and serve him instead of Pharaoh. So today, I’d like to look at the meaning of God’s law. We’ll see that the law serves three functions: It acts as a curb, a ruler, and a mirror.
(1) First then, God’s Law is a curb. As we go driving down the road of life, if we swerve too far to one side or the other, we bump up against God’s law, and it pushes us back onto the road.
We like to make fun of lawyers. Lawyers are generally not held in very high respect. The general impression is that lawyers are greedy, nit-picking, and leeches who capitalize on the misfortunes of others.
Fair or not, the law itself is the cornerstone of human civilization. Without the law, we would be nothing but Stone Age savages, not much different from any other animal.
The law is what allows us to live and work peacefully with others. The law allows us to define our relationships—our rights and responsibilities. It tells us what we should do and perhaps more importantly –what we should not do. It shows us how we can resolve our disputes peacefully.
Without the law, we’re back to the law of the jungle—the survival of the fittest. We become animals, programmed to follow our instincts—instincts that can be savage and bloodthirsty. Set a bowl of dog chow in front of two mutts and watch what happens. It’s not as though the first dog to the bowl will eat half and then step aside to share the rest with his partner. They’ll push and shove, and may well get into a fight.
And so, God gave us his law, so that we can be more than animals. In Romans 2, verses 14 & 15, Paul says that “When Gentiles who do not have the law do by nature what the law requires…They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or perhaps excuse them.” In other words, Paul says that God’s law didn’t just drop down out of the blue one day and hit Moses on the head. God wrote his law first into the human heart. The voice of conscience is the voice of God himself, and our human laws reflect that divine law inside us.
It may not always seem that way. According to Judges 21:25, one of the darkest times in the history of Israel was when there was no law—no civilized means of enforcement. It says, “In those days there was no kin in Israel; every man did what was right in his own eyes.”
Yet how many today would agree? How many would agree that it’s up to you to decide for yourself what’s right and wrong? Some people seem to believe that they’re above the law, and should not be held accountable for their actions. The rich man thinks he can simply buy his way out of any trouble. Throw enough money at the problem and it will go away. The rest of us may just think we won’t get caught. We steal stuff from work, we borrow from our neighbors and don’t return, we cheat our bosses and our customers and employees, and convince ourselves that’s all just good business.
But if the author of the book of Judges were here today, he’d tell us that we bear the marks of a civilization unraveling. God’s law is meant to give us a uniform set of standards for living with one another—a way to be civilized. The law is a curb that restrains our worst instincts, our savage behavior.
(2) Secondly, the law is a ruler. The traditional term here is “covenant.” The Law defined the covenant relationship between God and his people. A covenant is a two-sided arrangement, like a contract. Both parties have rights and responsibilities. God defined this covenant relationship in Exodus 19. He says to the people gathered at Mount Sinai: “You have seen what I did to the Egyptians and how I bore you on eagle’s wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you will obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my own possession among all peoples…”
The Exodus from Egypt is the central event of the Bible; certainly the central event of the Old Testament. Everything we read before this is a prelude to it, and in a sense, everything we read after it is a postlude, the follow-up. For instance, when the great prophets, like Isaiah and Jeremiah, rail against the misbehavior and disbelief of Israel, the standard is the standard of the covenant at Mount Sinai. The people have deserted the law of God!
The imagery of the Exodus even spills over into the New Testament. In 1 Corinthians 5:7, Paul calls Jesus “our Passover lamb, sacrificed for us.” In Galatians 5:1, defines the Christian life this way: “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand fast therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” But those words can make sense only against the backdrop of the Exodus. To “submit again to a yoke of slavery” would mean to undo the Exodus.
And so, as we have said, the Exodus is the central event—but it doesn’t stand alone. God didn’t haul his people out of Egypt just to turn them loose again, and do whatever they want. He did it so that he could give them his law. And by the rules of the covenant, as long as Israel kept the law—kept their end of the deal–God would keep his end of it. He would continue to be on their side.
Thus, the law is a ruler, the guide that helps us draw a straight line. How does God want us to live? Here is his law. He even boiled it down to a handful of precepts—the ten commandments—simple enough that Sunday School-aged children can memorize them, and clear enough that there shouldn’t be any confusion.
God gives us his law as a guide for living up to his standards. Whenever we are faced with choices in life, the choice is really very simple: What would God think? Not—what do I think, what do my friends think, what do the polls say? We should follow those initials WWJD: If we would be comfortable with our choice in front of Jesus, it’s right. If we would be ashamed to have Jesus watching, then it’s wrong. God’s law is the ruler that defines our relationship with him.
(3) This leads us to the Law’s third function: If the law defines our relationship with one another, and if it defines our relationship with God, then it also serves as a mirror. If it allows us to see ourselves and measure our lives against the ultimate standard.
The story of the Exodus begins in Exodus 3, when God says to Moses at the burning bush, “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”
The trick is that once God got his people out of there, they spent the next forty years trying to go back. In Exodus 16, just six weeks after leaving, it says “In the desert the whole community grumbled against Moses and Aaron, ”If only we had died by the Lord’s hand in Egypt! There we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted!”
So God gave them manna, but they they got tired of that. In Number 11, they complained again: “If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we ate in Egypt at no cost—also the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic. But now we have lost our appetite; we never see anything but this manna.”
The moral of the story is simple: Too often, we prefer the creature comforts of slavery to the risky life of freedom. We’d rather serve Pharaoh and get a good meal than work for God and maybe have only manna to show for it. Remember the flow of the story: God frees his people from slavery, and then gives them his law. True freedom means the freedom to serve God, not to be a slave, whether you’re a slave of others, living the way others tell you, or a slave to yourself, addicted to your own impulses.
If you want to see what you look like; that is, if you want to see yourself as others see you, look in the mirror. If you want to see the truth about your behavior toward others and toward God, look in the mirror of his law. Are you living the life of freedom or are you living like a slave, living as your master tells you? If you’re following God’s rules, you’re free. If you’re following some other set of rules, you’re a slave. You’ve reduced yourself to a packhorse or a watchdog chained outside a building. You’re just a steer in the pasture, grazing through each day only to become a steak for someone else. But unlike the slaves of old, you’ve chosen this slavery for yourself.
What do you see in the mirror of God’s law? If you see the face of a slave, under someone else’s control, then Jesus has the key that will unlock your chains and set you free. At the last supper, he held the cup and said that it was the “new covenant in my blood.”
Today, we renew that great sacrament. Just as the blood of the Passover lamb protected Israel from the angel of death and became their ticket to freedom, the blood of Christ shields us from the natural consequences of our sin and opens a window of opportunity to run to freedom –the freedom of living right, the way of happiness that God himself has prescribed; through Jesus Christ our Lord.