In a Nutshell…
Read the passage here.
Today is going to be our last sermon in the book of Exodus. It actually wraps up the narrative section that we’ve been looking at for the past few weeks – the rebellion of the Israelites (golden calf) and the resulting reactions of God and Moses. Remember last time we talked about Moses’ plea to God on behalf of the Israelites and how God makes His promise that He will not take His presence away from the people.
Our section today essentially wraps up the narrative of this event and transitions us into the last section of Exodus – the exposition of Laws, particularly around the priesthood and the tabernacle. So again, after the rebellion episode, Moses’ pleads to God for the Israelites, and God relents. He tells Moses that His presence will continue to be with the Israelites. And he re-institutes the covenant with Israel – the covenant that the Israelites had forsaken.
So our passage today marks God’s re-institution of the covenant with Israel – He is re-making the covenant in light of Israel’s rebellion. In the next several chapters, through to the end of the book, we see a re-institution of the terms of the covenant, that is, the Law. For this reason, we see a lot of repetition in these chapters from previous chapters in Exodus. It’s important to note, though, that this isn’t just God being repetitive. In some way, it’s God announcing his steadfast faithfulness, even after the people’s failure.
We’ve spent a lot of time talking about covenant so I don’t want to go over old territory, but I do want to emphasize something that we’ve talked about before, but stands out (to me) here.
10 Then the Lord said: “I am making a covenant with you. Before all your people I will do wonders never before done in any nation in all the world. The people you live among will see how awesome is the work that I, the Lord, will do for you. 11 Obey what I command you today. I will drive out before you the Amorites, Canaanites, Hittites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites. 12 Be careful not to make a treaty with those who live in the land where you are going, or they will be a snare among you. 13 Break down their altars, smash their sacred stones and cut down their Asherah poles. s 14 Do not worship any other god, for the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God.
15 “Be careful not to make a treaty with those who live in the land; for when they prostitute themselves to their gods and sacrifice to them, they will invite you and you will eat their sacrifices. 16 And when you choose some of their daughters as wives for your sons and those daughters prostitute themselves to their gods, they will lead your sons to do the same.
These verse reiterate one of the themes that we see throughout the Pentateuch – a people set apart. The verses talk about the theme that Israel is supposed to be a different kind of people. They are called out of Egypt to be a different kind of people. And they are sent into the land of Canaan to be a different kind of people. Specifically, they are called to be the people of God, proclaiming the kingdom of God. These verses highlight this theme through the reminder not to make a treaty with the people. They are not to become like the people that they find in their new home. Or in more familiar words, they are not to compromise with the people.
As you might recognize, these verses give us a particular view of the question of Christ and Culture that we’ve talked about on a number of different occasions. In particular, they seem to support the view that says that Christians shouldn’t have anything to do with the world – that Christians should be completely set apart. Extreme versions of this kind of view have been demonstrated in communities like the Amish and in monastic communities throughout history. While we can’t go into it in too much detail, what I want to suggest to you is that this sort of view of the Christian community is not a biblical view of the role of the church in the world. Or at least, it doesn’t take into account the entire biblical witness.
In fact, I think we can safely say that the Christ Against Culture position would be a mis-reading of even this passage. Because if we take a closer look at this passage, we can see that the instruction isn’t merely to have nothing to do with the Amorites, Canaanites, Hittites, and etc. There is an injunction to not make a treaty with them – again, as we might say, to not compromise with them. There seems to be the sense that The Israelites are not to become like their neighbours. However, this instruction is set in the light of God’s promise (and command) that the Israelites will be set apart.
10 Then the Lord said: “I am making a covenant with you. Before all your people I will do wonders never before done in any nation in all the world. The people you live among will see how awesome is the work that I, the Lord, will do for you.
The point that is being made here is that the Israelites are to be set apart, but specifically, if we recall the story of God’s redemption of which this is a part, they are to be set apart to demonstrate and live out the redemptive purposes of God.
How we might understand this is that the setting apart is not in a negative way. In other words, being set apart is not merely about negating those things which are “not-God.” Rather, the Israelites are called to a positive setting apart. Their lives are to be so filled with the ways of God that there is no room for anything else. This is the purpose of the Law in their context. The Law is to give guidance for a way of life which is guided by, provided for, by God. Their lives are to be so saturated with God, so representative of the kingdom of God, that they are set apart – completely different from the ways of the world. They are called to be holy.
So how do we as Christians, and how do we as the Church, and as individual churches engage with and in the world of which we are a part. Now, for a variety of reasons, this is a complicated question. And there have been lots of opinions on this topic. One of the complications is that Christianity happens in culture. There is no expression of or experience of Christianity that isn’t affected by – or even part of – culture. Now on the one hand, what this means is that the gospel transcends culture. The gospel cuts across culture and, ultimately, redeems all culture(s). On the other hand, we often don’t know what we mean by “culture.”
Now another particular issue that is of interest is the notion of Post-Christendom. This is a questionable term, but essentially what we’re talking about is the trend in Western society (Europe, North America) towards de-Christianization. Various studies have shown that Christianity is “shrinking” as the dominant religion in Canada. That is, the percentage of Canadians who identify themselves as Christians is shrinking. Probably more revealing, the percentage of Canadians who regularly attend church (religious service) on a weekly basis is shrinking. Note that when I say “shrinking”, I mean “dramatically shrinking.” A related statistic, and probably a more concerning statistic, is that the percentage of Canadians who identify themselves as having no religion (“religious nones”) is growing rapidly.
Now there has been a fair bit of discussion among Christians regarding the affect of changing culture to the Christian-ness of society. We have talked a lot about, and are probably otherwise aware of, the fact that society has changed quite a lot in the last 50-60 years. Especially in churches, we talk a lot about the post-modern shift. Now the issue is a lot more complicated than it’s typically presented, but the gist of it is that people’s worldviews have changed and are changing quite a lot. So in short, many speculate that the changes in culture are making it harder and harder for people to become or to stay Christian.
There’s a lot more to be said about these things, but the point I want to make, or rather what I want to suggest, is that if Christianity if all expressions and experiences of Christianity are culturally informed, and if Christianity, or the gospel, is in fact supra-cultural, if it cuts across all cultures, and has the ability (so to speak) to redeem all cultures, then perhaps the problem isn’t Postmodernism, per se. What I want to suggest is that the problem is not that Christianity is unable to speak to a new generation, but rather that the older generations of Christians (for lack of a better term) are unable to speak to the new generations.
So let’s return to our passage today. What on earth does this have to do with God’s word to the Israelites? God tells the Israelites to not become like the Amorites, Canaanites, Hittites, and etc. But again, the point is less “don’t be like them” than it is, “be like me.” Peter, centuries later would say something similar.
2:12 Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.
So again, I think the point is not so much, find the right way to “be Christian” and make sure you do it right. But rather, live in such a way to allow the glory and grace of God to be evident in you.
So What Now…?
Lesslie Newbigin was a missionary to India for years and then did quite a lot of writing discussing, among other things, the relationship between Christianity and culture. One of the things he talked about was the power of the lived Christian community to communicate the gospel. He’s not talking about the programs and procedures as indoctrinating the next generations (in fact, to a certain extent, he’s speaking against that). He’s talking about a community that, though we live in the world, are distinctly part of another world – part of another kingdom. And he speaks about the power of that community to be a sign, an instrument, and a foretaste of the kingdom of God. He’s talking about the power and the possibility of the church. And I think that’s what’s going on in our passage today.
G. K. Chesterton famously wrote that:
My point is that the world did not tire of the church’s ideal, but of its reality. Monasteries were impugned not for the chastity of monks, but for the unchastity of monks. Christianity was unpopular not because of the humility, but of the arrogance of Christians. Certainly, if the church failed it was largely through the churchmen. … [T]he great ideals of the past failed not by being outlived (which must mean over-lived), but by not being lived enough. Mankind has not passed through the Middle Ages. Rather mankind has retreated from the Middle Ages in reaction and rout. The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.
I love that line. “The great ideals of the past failed not by being outlived, but by not being lived enough. The temptation is to follow the formulas and the patterns of church and life that are comfortable, familiar, and to an extent easy. The command of God, the invitation of God, is to instead live in the kingdom – to live out the kingdom. To live it fully, and to live it completely. And that’s the challenge that I’d invite all of us to as well.