August 2020: Covenants for an Apocalypse

Today we’re going to talk about a people going through something terrible and unprecedented together. And then, later, we’re going to talk about us, also going through something terrible and unprecedented together.

Usually, in a sermon, you hear real-life examples illustrating the message you hear – the lesson we’re learning – but I don’t have much for examples today. And that’s because the story from Scripture is so rich and the real-life example I’d love for us to think about is the one we’re living through together, right now.

But first, let’s hear from the Israelites, who went through something like what we’re experiencing today. In the book of Exodus, we hear about the Israelites’ journey out of Egypt, where they had been enslaved for over 200 years.

For over 200 years, their society existed under someone else’s heel. Their wages, their children, and their futures were taken from them. And suddenly, they won their freedom. 

At first, freedom was exhilarating. It was unlike anything they’d known before. But for many, freedom was terrifying. Some of the Israelites asked Moses why he brought them out to wander through the desert. They would rather have died enslaved in Egypt, they said, than die of thirst in the wilderness.

I’d imagine that, after 200 years without choice, without life or liberty, a people can forget how to be in relationship with each other. When you get the chance to build your community from the ground up, from scratch, what do you do? How do you even begin?

Well, the Israelites tried some ideas while they were in the wilderness. First, for three months, they relied on their leader, Moses, for everything from water, food, and battle expertise to spiritual and relational advice. They relied on their leader’s connection to God for their own well-being, not trusting that they could have his kind of spiritual authority, themselves.

So, understandably, Moses was exhausted. His father-in-law, Jethro, saw how the Israelite people were trying to create community, and he said, “This isn’t going to work out, Moses. They’re going to kill you!”

After three long months of journeying through the desert, the Israelites come to Mount Sinai. Here’s a description of their arrival according to chapter 19 of the book of Exodus.

The Israelites entered the desert of Sinai on the day the third new moon appeared after the Israelites left Egypt. After departing from Rephidim, they entered into the desert of Sinai and set up camp out in the desert. The entire community of Israel camped right in front of the mountain of God. Moses climbed the mountain to meet with God, and the Eternal spoke to him from the mountain.

The Eternal One says: This is what I want you to say to the house of Jacob—to all the people of Israel: “You are eyewitnesses of all that I did to the Egyptians. You saw how I snatched you from the bonds of slavery and carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to Myself. Now if you will hear My voice, obey what I say, and keep My covenant, then you—out of all the nations of the world—will be My treasured people. After all, the earth belongs to Me. You will be My kingdom of priests, a nation holy and set apart.” Tell the Israelites exactly what I have told to you.

“My kingdom of priests, a nation holy and set apart.”

This, out of a people who had only three months ago escaped from slavery. Who had just left behind over two centuries of trauma and who were still experiencing the hardship of being nationless, homeless, and with little idea about how to belong to themselves and each other.

  • It’s in the midst of this that God asks Moses to come up the mountain and take down to the people the Ten Commandments. 
    • You are not to serve any other gods before God.
    • You are not to make any idol or image of other gods. 
    • You are not to use God’s name for your own idle purposes.
    • You and your family are to remember the Sabbath Day.
    • You are to honor your parents.
    • You are not to murder.
    • You are not to commit adultery.
    • You are not to take what is not yours.
    • You are not to give false testimony against your neighbor.
    • You are not to covet what your neighbor has.

A Blueprint 

The gift that God gives to the Israelite people is a foundational blueprint for not just a livable society but the kind of nation they could be: a nation of priests, a nation that is holy, and that is about what God is about.

That means a community of people spiritually empowered and disciplined to go to God with their burdens, to go to God with their hopes. A community of people with a common set of aspirational rules.

I think that this experience at the foot of Mount Sinai has a lot of lessons to teach us. We could talk about them all day if we had the time. But let’s just start with these two:

First, God called all of the people – all of the Israelites – to consecrate themselves, which means to make themselves holy, sacred, set apart and ready to experience God. God wants all the people to not only be in right relationship with each other but also with God.

But second, the Ten Commandments were given to the Israelites to protect them from themselves and each other. They were covenants – promises – that the Israelites made as they strove to be a community. 

Again: this is the story of a people who came out of a collective traumatic experience that seemed endless, and we find them now dazed by the frightening prospect of freedom before them. 

Our world is also going through a collective traumatic experience that seems endless, but maybe that’s too big to comprehend. So, let’s try and make this more personal. Our church is going through a collective traumatic experience. Your neighborhood is. Your school is. Your family is. 

And the story of the Israelites receiving the Ten Commandments – this story asks us to consider, first:

  • What can God do in and through us if we consecrate ourselves – if we spend the time in communication with God, at the foot of the mountain, in the midst of God’s presence? 
  • And second, what promises can we make to each other – what covenants – so that we can be a nation of priests, a people purposed for God’s purposes? What vows can we make to one another so that our families, our schools, our neighborhoods, our church, and our world can be something better, something holier, than what was?
    • In what ways do we need to constrain our souls and our desires?
    • What inside us needs to be curbed? Greed, bitterness, or cynicism?
    • And then in what ways do we need to be set free?

When they were thrust out from slavery and into the wild, the Israelites came to understand the importance of their covenants. They began with no idea about how to be a society, and they were given their covenants as a blueprint. They learned that they no longer belonged to their enslavers, and in their absence, they had the chance to belong to God and to each other. 

A Covenant

I think that “covenant” gets a bad rap among progressive Christians. We’re proud to have abolished some of the rules that weigh down “other” Christians, like not having friends of different genders, not watching R-rated movies, or not throwing away LGBTQ youth. And we should be proud of that. 

But that doesn’t mean that we should exist without covenants. We are what we stand for. And we are revealed not by the promises we make but by whether we break or keep them. Wearing a mask during a pandemic, for example, is a covenant for now – a simple vow to keep one another safe. As is minimizing our time outside and limiting our visits with each other, even and sometimes especially with loved ones.

But after this time, after this collective traumatic experience, we will have a new world that demands new rules. 

What do we want them to be? How will we hold ourselves accountable to love God and to honor our siblings? What covenants could form the foundation of a nation of priests?

My friend has been teaching English in the Navajo Nation for many years. She’s devoted to her craft, but this year, she’s thinking less about whether everyone reads Beowulf in time. Her students are far flung across a rural nation where many families don’t have internet, and once a week, she gets to send them a packet on a school bus that drives from house to house. So this year, she’s about her students’ safety and mental well-being. 

Maybe in the world to come, we can make a promise to keep protecting our young people’s safety and mental well-being.

And when this pandemic began, the world came to recognize the value of its teachers, service industry professionals, custodial staff, and other essential workers.

Maybe in the world to come, we can vow to protect those whose professions have been maligned or overlooked, and we can follow that vow with adequate compensation and agency.

What covenants could form the foundation of a nation of priests? Some Christians think that we’re living through the end times. I don’t think we are. But I do believe we’re living in apocalyptic times. 

The word “apocalypse” comes from the Greek word “apokaluptein,” which means “to uncover or reveal.” And whether we’re ready to accept what we find, these days have uncovered and revealed us. 

And the call of the Eternal One is this: let us meet these days and those to come as a nation of priests: a people that is about God’s kin-dom as demonstrated through the life of Jesus the Christ. That means we must be prophets or truth-tellers, evangelists or those who share good news, and disciples or learners hungry for wisdom.

We are wandering through the desert for now, and we are coming to the foot of the mountain. We can leave this experience tied to our old loyalties, afraid to approach our Creator, or we can be consecrated, empowered, ready to make and keep courageous covenants.

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