Grace to you and peace
from God our Father
and the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, amen.
Sandringham House sits out in the flatlands of East Anglia about a hundred and fifty miles northeast of London. It is owned by the Queen and is the sit of family gatherings during the fall and the royal family’s Christmas celebrations. If you are in England during June and July, as we were once, you can visit the house. Unlike Windsor Castle or Hampton Court Palace or Buckingham Palace which are owned by the British people, Sandringham House is the personal possession of Queen Elizabeth. Personal photographs, her phonograph, her “things” are all over the house. It is hers, a private possession, her own treasure.
In our first lesson for today, the same word is used to describe God’s relationship with Israel—a private possession of the Lord’s. God singled out Israel to be God’s private treasure. The people of Israel are God’s own people, a kingdom of priests, a holy nation. When God assembled the people at Mount Sinai, God told them that of course “the whole earth is mine,” yet Israel was to have a special relationship with God, a covenant relationship with God. God had delivered the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt : “You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings, and brought you to myself.” God saved the people and then called them to respond to His grace by committing themselves to obey the Word of God. The people respond as one with a great “yes” to God. They agree to be God’s people, a nation of priests, a holy people hearing God’s voice and obeying God’s commandments.
In classical theology, the Law always comes before the Gospel. The purpose of the Law is to restrain evil-doers—that is the civil use of the Lord, the sword of the state. We can understand that. We have rules for the road so we don’t run over people and we don’t get hit ourselves by other cars. It is why there were so many monuments to the Ten Commandments in our courthouses and government buildings—without law and order, a society will fall apart. We are glad to live in a nation of laws not arbitrary rule by men and women in power, that we as a people and community have a say in passing laws and helping enforce those laws for the sake of peace and justice and good order.
But there is a greater use of the Law and that is its religious use. The Law is given us that we might follow God and be part of God’s covenant community. The Law is God’s holy will that we, like the Israelites of old, may obey God’s voice and keep God’s covenant. We, like the Hebrews, may be to God a treasure out of all the peoples, a priestly kingdom, a holy nation.
The Law is also a problem for us. We can not do what the Law demands. In fact, knowing what we should do often makes us do the opposite. Even St. Paul had our problem when he said,
“I do not understand my own actions,
for I do not do what I want,
but I do the very thing I hate….
I delight in the Law of God in my inmost self,
but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind,
making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.
Wretched man that I am!”
We can understand Paul. We often do the wrong thing, the disappointing thing, that which we would not do, is just what we end up doing. We can not do what the Law demands. C. F. W. Walther wrote in his great book, Law and Gospel, that the Law
“tells us what to do, but does not enable us to comply;
it increases the lust for sinning.
The Law uncovers our sins but offers us no help,
but hurls us into despair.
The Law produces contrition
conjuring up the terrors of hell, of death, of God’s wrath
but the Law can produce nothing else.”
The Law is God’s holy will—not to save us because we cannot keep the Law—but to drive us to our knees in repentance and to accept God’s free offer of a Savior. The Law is a mirror to show us as we really are—people created to love and serve and obey God, but also sinful and in need of a Redeemer. The greatest use of the Law is to show us that we cannot save ourselves.
But as St. Paul says in our second lesson, “God proves His love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” And “since we are justified with faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” We are not left in our sin, but God has sent us a Savior in Jesus Christ.
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Being justified by faith, we can then respond to God with prayer, praise and thanksgiving. Being justified by faith in Jesus, we can do the works of loving-kindness that proclaim to the world that we are God’s people. As the old Gospel song goes, “They will know we are Christians by our love, by our love. They will know we are Christians by our love.” We are called to do the works of love that show the whole world what it means to be close to God.
God’s people gathered at Mount Sinai were called to be a special treasure, a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. Even in the Old Testament we see that it was God’s grace in saving the people that established the covenant relationships. Obedience was the response that God wanted for saving the people from slavery in Egypt. God brought the people out of Egypt, through the Red Sea, through the desert to the mountain. God bore the people up “on eagles’ wings” to bring them to this place. God salvation did not come to them because they were better than all the other peoples of the world, but because of God’s love and grace.
The Jews in later centuries developed stories to supplement the Bible record. One story—a Midrash—dealt with the issue of why God should love Israel so much to make them a Chosen people, a special treasure of the Lord. The story went that somehow God offered the Ten Commandments to all the nations of the earth but none of them would follow God’s commands; only Israel would obey.
But if we read the real record of Scripture, God’s people rarely obeyed. They were certainly enthusiastic at Sinai—the whole people answering as one, “Everything that the Lord has spoken we will do,” but it wasn’t long before they were worshiping a golden calf. The whole history of Israel is a tale of God’s faithfulness and Israel’s unfaithfulness. Like all the other nations, they were not so special or priestly or holy. They too were sinners who needed a Savior.
There is another Midrash which expresses better God’s grace and love to Israel and us. It is a Hasidic story about Mordecai who would not study Torah, God’s Law. Mordecai’s parents loved him very much but were at their wits end because he would not learn God’s Word. So they took him to the great rabbi of Carlin. They explained their problem—”You understand, Reb, that we love Mordecai very much, but he will not study Torah”—and decided to leave the boy with the old man. When they had gone, the rabbi lay down upon his couch and motioned Mordecai to lie beside him. He put the boy’s head on his chest and so they lay there for a long time, the boy listening to the beating of the great teacher’s heart. The next day the parents took Mordecai home, and after that he studied Torah. Years later, when he had become a great rabbi himself, someone asked Mordecai how he came to love God’s Law. “When I was a boy, the great rabbi of Carlin taught me the meaning of Torah,” he replied.
God wants us to hear God’s voice and follow God’s command. God wants us to be a special treasure, a priestly kingdom, a holy nation. St. Peter tells us,
“You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood,
a holy nation, God’s own people
that you may declare the wonderful deeds
of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light.
Once you were no people,
but now you are God’s people.
Once you had not received mercy,
but now you have received mercy.”
We are people of faith. We are God’s people. We listen to God’s voice tell us the good news of Christ our Savior. Through Him we are God’s special treasure, a nation of priests, a holy people. Amen.
—Copyright 2005, James D. Kegel. Used by permission.