Exodus and the Call to Worship

D. Brent Laytham

Seeing movie trailers of Christian Bale playing Moses as action hero is a reminder that cinematic special effects will always distort the real heart of the story — worship. In the first twenty chapters of Exodus, first Moses and then all Israel are called, commissioned, and commanded to worship.

The story begins with calling Israel to worship. All the way back at the burning bush, God told Moses that Israel would worship Yahweh on this holy mountain (3:12). Seven times amidst the ten plagues, God tells Moses to say to pharaoh: “Let my people go, so that they may worship me.” This reiterated refrain should be an indication to us of just how serious God is about summoning the people of God to worship. God will allow no one — not even a mighty pharaoh — to keep God’s people from their appointment with him. So pharaoh negotiates for worship that serves his own interests — worship here and now in Egypt rather than a three-days’ journey to God’s mountain. “No,” God says, “worship will be on my timetable and terms, not yours.” Then pharaoh suggests that the men go to worship while the women and children stay behind. “No,” God says, “worship is the work of the whole congregation.” So finally pharaoh says the people can go, but commands that their animals remain in Egypt. “No,” God says, “worship is a total commitment; you shall love me with all your heart, soul and strength.” Hold nothing back, leave nothing behind. In the end, nothing in all creation can prevent these people from answering God’s call to worship. Israel’s calling is ours, too. As Christians we are baptized into the eternal sonship and vocation of him about whom the Lord said, “Out of Egypt I have called my son” (Matt 2:15)

The story continues with a commissioning for worship. In Exod 19, God prepares Israel for worship. For two days the people prepared so that they would be consecrated for worship on the third day (19:10-15). Yet the most important preparation for this event is not how carefully they washed themselves and their clothes. Not the people’s consecration, but God’s commissioning is the most important preparation. God commissioned Israel with a new identity: “you shall be for me a priestly kingdom” (19:6). That is, Israel’s very identity is to be a community of worship. This is ours, too, for 1 Peter applies this same identity to the church when it says “But you are … a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called out of darkness into his marvelous light” (2:9, NRSV). Israel and the church have been commissioned — call this an ordination, if you want — to a priestly ministry.

Finally, the story arrives at commanding Israel to worship. I believe that all the commandments are oriented toward worship. Luther suggested this in his Small Catechism, where the meaning of each commandment begins “we should fear and love God….” But let us concentrate on the first of these Ten Words. Note how it begins: “Then God spoke all these words: I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Exod 20:1-2, NRSV). For Jews, this is the first word or first commandment. Here God speaks directly to Israel. Israel stands here because of what God has already done. Those are the two fundamental presuppositions of Israel’s worship and of ours. Worship only happens because (1) God is here speaking revealingly, and (2) God has already won the victory that brought us here.

Notice, finally, how the first command then frees us to worship God. The first commandment, “you shall have no other gods,” frees us from the worship and service of other deities, and frees us for worship of God alone. The commanding word enables what it requires. The first task of the church is to be a people whose worship is sufficient to the God of this first commandment. But this task is enabled by the gift of being church. And it is this word of God spoken here and later sent in the flesh that forms us as God’s people. We can see that in the singular “you” of the “you shall have no other gods.” The singular you is not each individual listener any more than it is the United States of America. The you is this one people of God — Israel (or for us, this one body of Christ, the church). God says “you shall” and the church is born. You shall have no other gods, you shall worship no idols, you shall hallow God’s name, and you shall sanctify time. You shall be a people who have no other gods, because I, the living God, have you, and hold you, and set you apart to be a priestly kingdom, a people of praise.

That’s where the real action is, despite what Hollywood thinks.

Posted Jan 19, 2015

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