At the third new moon after the Israelites had gone out of the land of Egypt, on that very day, they came into the wilderness of Sinai. They had journeyed from Rephidim, entered the wilderness of Sinai, and camped in the wilderness; Israel camped there in front of the mountain. Then Moses went up to God; the LORD called to him from the mountain, saying, “Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob, and tell the Israelites: ‘You 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 obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation.’ These are the words that you shall speak to the Israelites.”
Most of us get our identity, the sense of who we are, from our families, our jobs, our money or lack thereof, our special talents and abilities, and sometimes the labels people put on us. It is not in Egypt or the Promised Land that the Children of Israel learn who they are; nor is it in Egypt or the Promised Land that they learn the high dignity of their calling. Into the Wilderness the Israelites have carried the heavy baggage of having been in slavery for 400 years. Attitudes learned in slavery die hard. It is one thing for God to get His people out of slavery and quite another to get a slavish mentality out of them. They will have to forget how they think of themselves in bondage in order to hear God’s high calling for them.
In today’s text the Israelites come to Mount Sinai with all its special effects of thick cloud, fire, smoke, quaking, and trumpet (Exodus 19:16-23). These effects serve to enhance God’s message to them: “I …brought you to myself”. This mountain has not been their destination, but the journey has been to God Himself. It is far more than a journey through time and space, but a journey beginning with God and leading to God.
While the memory of quarrelling and testing God at Massah and Meribah is still fresh God declares their identity and value to Him. Away from the false gods and mythology of Egypt they discover who they are: “you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation”. Serving as a whole nation of priests they are to represent God and His salvation to the world. In this God declares ragamuffin people to be “holy”, (Hebrew: qadosh), that is, “set apart”, “devoted” to the Lord for His mission of world redemption. Set free from having served mortal Pharaoh they will serve the God of heaven and earth. Their identity and calling is not just about them, but the whole world. At Sinai the Israelites learn to begin listening to God in order to hear their identity in Him.
The nineteenth century writer and preacher George MacDonald once said:
I would rather be what God chose to make me than the most glorious creature that I could think of; for to have been thought about, born in God’s thought, and then made by God, is the dearest, grandest and most precious thing of all thinking (quoted by Linda Dillow in Calm My Anxious Heart).
As I ponder my false self versus my God-given identity, I am often encouraged by the thought: “It’s never too late to be what you might have been” (quote popularly attributed to English novelist George Eliot).
- Remarkably, it is in the Wilderness times that many people discover who they really are and what God wants them to do with their lives. Have difficult times helped you clarify who you are and what God wants you to do? If so, how?
- Almost 1,500 years after the Exodus the Apostle Peter rereads today’s Scripture text and applies it to all Christians. Take some moments to ponder Peter’s words and the implications for your special identity and calling: “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into marvelous light” (I Peter 2:9-10).