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Holy Nation: Holy God & His Holy Things

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“And you shall make response before the Lord your God, ‘A wandering Aramean was my father. And he went down into Egypt and sojourned there, few in number, and there he became a nation, great, mighty, and populous. And the Egyptians treated us harshly and humiliated us and laid on us hard labor. Then we cried to the Lord, the God of our fathers, and the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. And the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great deeds of terror, with signs and wonders. And He brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. And behold, now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground, which You, O Lord, have given me.’ And you shall set it down before the Lord your God and worship before the Lord your God” (Deuteronomy 26:5-10).

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!

Tonight, we continue our series, “Holy, Holy, Holy,” based upon our Old Testament readings during Lent. To be “holy” means to be set apart for a unique purpose. The One who is Himself “holy, holy, holy” is set apart from us as infinitely as heaven is above the earth. Yet, surprisingly our holy God wishes to be with us, to be close to us, and to that end He has set us apart as a people for Himself.

Moses gave instructions to the Israelites for the day when they settled in the Promised Land. At a place that the Lord would choose, the people were to bring the firstfruits of the land and give it to the priests. Right up front, the Lord wanted His people to give back to Him the first and best of what He’d given them, in anticipation of further providence and blessing down the road. Although Moses described them as “some of the firstfruits,” it was to be a widely distributed sample, some of the firstfruits “of all that you produce”—not just of fruits and vegetables, but also of sheep and cattle.

The Israelites will not have acquired this land by accident, nor by their own genius or military muscle. The covenant-Lord had spoken an oath to their fathers that He would give them this land, and He would do what He promised. This new land was an inheritance, something that belonged to them as His gift. It didn’t matter to God that there were still many other nations living in the land who didn’t wish to give it up. In the Lord’s eyes, and in the eyes of Moses, the land was already Israel’s inheritance, they were His holy nation.

It may seem out of place to have this reading during Lent. Lent is a time when we think of the dangers and perils to which we are exposed on our journey to the “promised land.” This text tells what the people of God are to do after they are safely settled in the Promised Land. But it’s always good when you’re on the journey to be reminded of the blessings ahead, what it will take to get you there, and the appropriate response when you finally arrive there.

The brief recital of Israelite history in verses 5 through 10 is similar to a creed or liturgy. As the Israelites offer the firstfruits of the land, they are to remember their ancestors, who had been landless and suffered countless hardships in Egypt before the Lord finally delivered them.

The men and women and children of each new generation could adopt these verses as their own confession of faith. Even though they hadn’t yet been born when the Lord had rescued His people from Egypt, they could identify with their fathers and grandfathers who’d seen the Lord’s mighty miracles and received the gift of the land.

God set had apart Israel as a holy nation from the time of Abram. “From [that] one man, and him as good as dead,” (Hebrews 11:12) God had built His people. They came from humble beginnings among the nations. They were few in number, homeless, and oppressed. It was only by God’s grace that they survived and became strong and numerous.

“A wandering Aramean was my father” refers to the patriarch Jacob who had lived for a while in the region of Aram (or Syria). He left Canaan because he had to flee for his life from his brother Esau (Genesis 27:41-45), lived in Aram until his uncle Laban came after him (Genesis 31:17-30), and finally relocated to Egypt to escape the famine (Genesis 46:1-7). Jacob’s extended family numbered only 70 sons and grandsons when they left Canaan (Genesis 46:27), but the Lord multiplied them into a people so large and powerful that the Egyptian pharaoh enslaved them because he feared they might join Egypt’s enemies (Exodus 1:6-14).

The Egyptians mistreated them and made them suffer with hard labor. It wasn’t only physical pain, but also humiliation that made their lives miserable. In their suffering they cried out to the God of their fathers.

When they cried to God for help, He brought them out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great terror, and with miraculous signs and wonders. The miraculous signs and wonder included all the plagues the Lord inflicted on Egypt. Throughout the plagues, He made a distinction between His people and the Egyptians (Exodus 8:23), spearing the Israelites from the plagues of flies (Exodus 8:22), death of livestock (Exodus 9:4), hail (Exodus 9:26), and darkness (Exodus 10:23).

In the tenth and final plague, the Lord dealt differently with Israel in the most dramatic way. While He struck down all the firstborn in Egypt, “from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sat on his throne to the firstborn of the captive who was in the dungeon, and all the firstborn of the livestock” (Exodus 12:29), the Lord rescued all firstborn of Israel through the blood of the Passover lamb. “For the Lord will pass through to strike the Egyptians,” Moses told Israel’s elders, “and when He sees the blood on the lintel and on the two doorposts, the Lord will pass over the door and will not allow the destroyer to enter your houses to strike you” (Exodus 12:23).

This last plague caused such a great terror among the Egyptians that they “were urgent with the people to send them out of the land in haste. For they said, ‘We shall all be dead’” (Exodus 12:33). The Lord carried out these miraculous signs and wonders to bring judgment on all the gods of Egypt (Exodus 12:12), so the Egyptians would know that He was the Lord (Exodus 7:5), and so His name would be proclaimed in all the earth (Exodus 9:16).

The Lord would bring the people of Israel into their own land flowing with milk and honey. He would make them into His holy nation, not because of their merit or worthiness, but because of His mercy and grace. As Moses explained earlier in Deuteronomy:

For you are a people holy to the Lord your God. The Lord your God has chosen you to be a people for His treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth. It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the Lord set His love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but it is because the Lord loves you and is keeping the oath that He swore to your fathers, that the Lord has brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt” (Deuteronomy 7:6–8).

The Lord would bring His people out of the misery and oppression of Egypt, through the wilderness, and into His Promised Land, a land filled with good cities they did not build, a houses filled with things they did not work for, cisterns they did not dig, vineyards they did not plant, a land flowing with milk and honey. And the people are encouraged to believe this, even as they wander in the wilderness. And they are cautioned, that when they do receive all these things, not to forget this. In response to their deliverance, they are to bow before the Lord and bring Him the firstfruits of the land.

Ultimately, the greatest gift the land will provide is the Messiah. The prophets of the Lord are clear. The Messiah must be born in the Promised Land. Thus, we see how important this small piece of property becomes. Its true value is in the gift of Jesus, who will provide His blood and very life to endow all people with forgiveness and everlasting life for His children.

St. Peter reminds us that, like Israel, God has set apart us Christians as a holy nation as well: “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for His own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9).

Like the Israelites, we are also of unremarkable origin among the nations of the world. Paul tells the Corinthians:

“Not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God” (1 Corinthians 1:26-29).

This has been true throughout history. There is nothing special in us that caught God’s eye or earned His favor. He saved us solely out of His goodness and mercy without any merit worthiness on our part. He called us to be His people, His holy nation. He did it all! The Lord’s outstretched arm, signs, and wonders set us apart from the sinful world as holy.

We are set apart as holy by the forgiveness Jesus earned when He literally stretched out His arms on the cross to save us. In His resurrection, Christ gives us the greatest of His miraculous signs, proof that He is the Son of God, that His Word is true, that the Father has accepted His sacrifice for our sins, and that we, too, shall rise.

God’s mighty acts continue through His ministers and means of grace: The Gospel proclaimed and carried out is powerful beyond any earthly might. In Holy Baptism, God gives us His Holy Spirit, He delivers us from the bondage of sin, promises us an inheritance in God’s heavenly land, and declares us saints even now. The Lord sustains us in holiness as He gives us His very body and blood for the forgiveness of our sins and the strengthening of our faith.

As the people of God, we do not live with amnesia about the past. The remembrance of God’s saving acts gives us our identity. Because this identity is a gift, we live lives of gratitude expressed in acts of worship and obedience. Our thankful recollections for God’s saving acts compel us to bring gifts to Him. These gifts will also be of benefit to the Church and to the needy.

In response to God’s deliverance, we bring Him gifts and worship Him. Truth be told, we give Him what was always His in the first place. We are simply stewards of His creation and gifts. The worship we bring is simply receiving His Word and speaking it back to Him. The good works that we do for our neighbors were prepared by Him beforehand.

Go in the peace of the Lord and serve your neighbor with joy. You are forgiven for all your sins.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.