Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Sermon for the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

Fifth Sunday after Pentecost (June 15, 2008)
“God's Treasured Possession” (Exodus 19:2-8a)

Do you have a "treasured possession"? On this Father's Day, dads, I'm sure you would say your family is your “treasured possession.” Or all of you children out there might consider your dad to be one of your “treasured possessions.”

What else might you call your “treasured possession”? It's probably something you hold very dear to your heart. Maybe you keep it in a safe place. Maybe you put it on display because it reminds you of a special person or a special moment in your life.

Did you know that, as a member of the Holy Christian Church, you are the Heavenly Father's “treasured possession”? He holds the Church very dear to His heart. He holds you very dear to His heart. He watches over you with His guarding and protecting hand. And like a treasured possession, He puts His Church on display. People are always looking to the Church, not always for answers ... sometimes to mock and criticize. But they are looking nonetheless, and it gives us an opportunity to proclaim the love of Christ.

The Old Testament Church — Israel — was “God's Treasured Possession.” Today's OT lesson brings us back to the time when, after their rescue from Egypt, Moses and Israel were gathered at the foot of Mt. Sinai. Moses went up the mountain, and there the Lord said to him: "You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation."

After 400 years of slavery, the Lord had rescued the Israelites from captivity in Egypt. The Lord told Moses to tell them, “I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself.”

During the process of learning how to fly, young eagles get pushed out of their nest by their mothers. If the eaglet cannot yet fly and is plummeting to the ground, the mother eagle will dart beneath her young one, receive it again on her wings, and bring it back in safety to the nest.

That's how the Lord described Himself as taking care of His people. As an eagle trains, leads, guides, and even saves her young when they fall, so the Lord lovingly dealt with Israel. Saved by grace, brought into a new life as God's own through the waters of the Red Sea, God's Israel now had arrived at Sinai. Here God would reveal to them His will in His Law and in the worship of the tabernacle. Here God would make His presence dwell. Here God would reveal the means by which the sins of the people would be covered over ... through sacrifice for the forgiveness of sin.

The Lord wanted them to stay in this relationship with Him, and so He instructed them to obey Him fully and keep His covenant. They were to listen very carefully to His voice, to His Word, and in faith hold fast to the promises He was making to them. Then, the Lord said, they would be His “treasured possession.” They would live as He wanted them to live, obeying the commandments which He was about to give to them. And as God's treasured possession, they would be put on display ... a kingdom of priests and a holy nation, called to reflect the love and the mercy of God to the nations around them.

How did the people respond to this? They answered with a resounding “Yes!” “All that the Lord has spoken we will do,” they declared. God's gracious call formed a new people who were willing to do His will.

For a moment, they got it right! But it didn't last long. Their good intentions were soon tarnished by the golden calf episode. At other times along the way, before and after this moment, the people grumbled and complained ... “Egypt was better! At least we had food there! Now, Moses, you've brought us out in this wilderness to die! ... There's no water here! ... We have nothing to eat! ... Manna? What in the world is this? ... More manna? We're sick of manna! We've been eating this junk for 40 years!” And so on and so forth. They grumbled and complained because they were not satisfied with being God's chosen people. Although they had been saved by God's grace, nothing was good enough for them. They didn't seem to be happy unless they were complaining about something.

Ultimately, the people of Israel strayed from faithfully hearing God's voice. They rejected His prophets. They turned away from following the Lord in faith and turned to obeying the letter of the Law apart from faith and trust in God.

But the Lord intervened when He sent His Son to “re-create” His people Israel, to call them once again to be His “treasured possession.” Just as there were initially 12 tribes in Israel, Jesus now called 12 of His disciples to go to the “lost sheep of Israel,” as He called them in today's Gospel. As the core leaders of the New Israel, the 12 were not yet to go to the Gentiles or to the Samaritans, but to the people of Israel, who were like “sheep without a shepherd.”

This didn't mean that the message of the kingdom was not to be preached to Samaritans and Gentiles. After it was taken initially to the lost sheep of Israel, the message was proclaimed to the lost sheep among the Samaritans and Gentiles, too ... and to the lost sheep that you and I once were. There is now no distinction between Jew and Gentile in God's Church, in God's New Israel. We are all one in Christ.

And in God's Holy Church, we are His “treasured possession.” We have seen His salvation at the cross and the empty tomb of Jesus. He has carried us “on eagle's wings” ... training, leading, guiding, and lovingly dealing with us. Saved by grace ... brought into a new life as God's own through the waters of Holy Baptism ... we have come to His Holy Mountain, Mt. Zion, the Holy Christian Church. Here God reveals Himself to us in His Word. Here Christ makes His real presence dwell in His Holy Supper. Here God reveals the means by which your sins and mine are covered over ... through Christ's sacrifice on the cross.

Like Old Testament Israel, we – His New Testament Israel – respond with a rousing “Yes!” We go through the Rite of Confirmation, and we promise to be faithful to God. Right along with the Israelites, we declare, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do.” God's gracious call to us creates faith and a willing heart to obey God’s commands.

For a while, we get it right. But soon, our good intentions are tarnished by our own golden calf episodes, the times when we look elsewhere for satisfaction in life. At other times along the way, you and I grumble and complain. “I hate getting up on Sunday morning ... that old liturgy is boring ... I don't like the hymns ... those pews are so hard ... it's so noisy in the sanctuary ... the kitchen is too small ... I wish they'd stop calling me asking me to serve!” Believe it or not, your pastor sometimes grumbles and complains, too: “Why is attendance down? What’s everyone’s problem? Don’t they realize what blessings they’re missing out on? ... I wish we could get more people to volunteer for things ... I've visited that family over and over again, and they still won't come to church!” And so on and so forth. We sometimes grumble and complain instead of simply being satisfied with being God's chosen people.

To get beyond our grumbling and complaining, we must once again hear the voice of our Great and Good Shepherd and abide in His Word. He is the One who came down not only in fire and cloud on Mt. Sinai, but also in the person of Jesus. He is the One who not only spoke the Word through Moses, but who came as the Word Incarnate, God in the flesh. We abide in His Word which says: “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us,” and He forgives us for our dissatisfaction, for our grumbling and complaining.

Philippians 2:14-15 says, “Do all things without grumbling or questioning, that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, holding fast to the word of life.” As members of God's Holy Church, we are a kingdom of priests ... God's people called to intercede on behalf of the world and one another, with an office of the ministry focused on the means of grace. We are a holy nation, “church” rather than “state” ... although we have something to say to the nations around us, for God did say “all the earth is mine.” We are a people belonging to God. When you are tempted to grumble and complain, reflect on that. When you are anxious about your circumstances, remember that. Reflect ... remember ... rejoice ... that you are God's “treasured possession.” He holds you dear to His heart. He guides and protects you “as on eagle's wings.” He puts us on display to “shine as lights in the world.” How glorious then, for the people of God to respond “We will do everything the Lord has said,” displaying the treasured possession which He has given to us ... His Word of Life in Christ.


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