Text: Exodus 13:1-3, 11-15 (Colossians 3:12-17)†††† †††† †††† †††† †††† †††† †††† †††††††††† W 1st Sunday after Christmas


A Redeemed People


††††††††† In the name of him called ďJesusĒ because he saves his people from their sins, dear friends in Christ: Iíd like to begin with a few questions for you to think about Ė questions regarding your self identity and the way you see yourself in the world.The questions are these:Who really are you?What are you?I donít mean what other people would say about you, or how you would explain yourself to them; no, I mean from your own point of view, at the most foundational level, how do you understand yourself in relation to everything and everyone else?And take it step further here:what for you is the reference point or center of gravity of your self understanding? Whatís the point of origin for the way you see yourself?If you could name an event in history or something that happened in your life that sort of anchors you and forms the frame of reference for how you see reality and understand your place in it, what would that be?I want you to chew on those questions a bit, because weíre coming back to them.But right now, if I were to hazard a guess, Iíd say that the answers that you have to those questions would be all over the place and that few of you would say the same things.


††††††††††† But if were to ask any Jewish person Ė provided he was one of the few who actually believes the Jewish faith and practices it Ė to answer those questions, Iím almost certain how he would respond. Heíd tell me that he was one of Godís chosen people.And if I pressed him to tell me what single event in the past he considers to be the foundational moment in history for Jews like himself, the event that made them the people they are and defines them even today, Iím pretty sure that the answer would be the giving of the Law by God to his people at Mount Sinai.For a Jewish person that episode is absolutely central to his or her self understanding.In their view, what took place at Sinai was the definitive experience for Israel, for there the Lord God came down in a fearful and visible way, and he met with his people, and he gave them his own Wordónot just the Ten Commandments, as is often supposed; but so much more than that.I mean the instructions and teachings that make up the bulk of what are the book of Exodus and the entirety of Leviticus Ė all those ordinances and decrees that were to shape and form every aspect of the lives of Godís chosen people: how they were to dress, what they were to eat, what was forbidden to eat, how they were to organize their families and society, whom they could marry, how they were to administer justice, how they were to handle questions of property and possessions and employees, what festivals they were to celebrate and when and how Ö all that and much more; but especially how they were to live as Godís chosen people and relate to him through the worship practices that the Lord himself prescribed.In the Jewish mind, itís all that divine instruction, that Torah as they call it, which makes them who and what they are.The way they see themselves, they are first and foremost the people of Godís Law or people of the Book Ė the one people chosen by the Lord above all others to receive and to live according to the Word that he handed down to them from heaven.


††††††††††† And that, my friends, is a pity; because thatís not how the Lord God intended for them to see themselves.No, instead, all those instructions might be thought of sort of like giving directions for how to get to a certain place.Itís like somebody calls you up with their cell phone from their car and asks you how to get to a particular location.And you say, ďOkay, proceed north for several miles until you come to a four way stop, then turn right, go two miles or so, take a left once youíre past a big white house, and then three more miles and youíre there.Ē Those instructions might be perfectóprovided, of course, that you knew for sure what the starting point was.If the person calling you was lost and misrepresented to you where he was to begin with, then your instructions wouldnít help him one bit.Thatís the way it was and still is today with the majority of practicing Jews.They donít know who and what and where they were to begin with, so all those directions the Lord gave them at Sinai donít get them where they hope to be.


And again, thatís because in a mentally foundational sort of way they begin their story with the giving of the Law Ė thatís anchoring point of their self identity.But itís the wrong place to start.You see, even before they got to Mount Sinai Ė in fact, even before they left Egypt by passing through the Red Sea, the Lord gave them specific instructions designed to impress upon them their true starting point.We see it in this morningís Old Testament reading where the Lord orders his people to begin a practice intended to reinforce upon their collective consciousness exactly who and what they are and what event in their history defines the way they should think about themselves.Itís not what happened at Sinai; but instead, itís the tenth and most terrible plague that resulted in their release from Egypt that he wanted them to focus on. And with that as their point of reference, what they were to think of themselves before and above everything else is that they were a people redeemed by God.


Thatís the message that comes through loud and clear in the passage we heard from Exodus.There the Lord says, ďI want you to remember this day in which you came out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; and how I brought you out by the strength of my mighty arm.And to cause you to keep this event foremost in your mind, you are to consecrate to me all the firstborn of men and animals.ĒGod told the people that they were to set aside the firstborn for him.The reason for this is thatís what the price of their redemption was.Recall that the Egyptians (and especially their Pharaoh) didnít want to release their grip on Godís people.And itís easy to see why.With the Israelites on hand the Egyptians had a cheap and subservient workforce at their disposal.They could be set to hard work, fed slops not fit for pigs, threatened and beaten if they fell short in their quotas, and they could even be put to death if they complained or were disobedient Ė and no one in Egypt would care.In fact, since the Israelites were breeding like rabbits, they actually took measures to decrease the slave population by killing off their infant boys.


Life for the Israelites in Egypt was no life at all.It was instead a miserable, prolonged death designed to extract as much effort from them as could be wrung out efficiently before they expired. And there was no foreseeable end to it.They were born slaves, they lived a slaveís hard, bitter existence, and they died prematurely as slaves, all the while helpless and without hope that their situation might improve.And thatís where they would have remained had not the Lord intervened to rescue them. But the Lord heard the cries of his pathetic and powerless people, he had compassion on them, and he reached down from heaven to save them.


Thatís what their redemption was all about.To redeem something means to buy it back or to ransom it from captivity.And you know the story:the Lord sent Moses to ask nicely for the peopleís release.The Pharaoh not only said no; but he increased their burdens in order to drive silly notions of going free out of their heads.The Lord responded by inflicting upon the Egyptians a series of nine plagues, each one successively more troublesome and costly than the one that preceded it; and though each new plague made the Pharaoh flinch and promise to set the Israelites free, as soon as the plague was over he changed his mind and tightened his grip.Finally the Lord said that he was through fooling around (thatís something of a paraphrase, by the way).He sent Moses to the Pharaoh to say, ďLook here:the nation of Israel is my beloved firstborn son.If you donít give me back mine, I am going to take yours from you.Ē


And that, of course, is exactly what happened.To secure the release of his people, the Lord extracted a terrible price from Egypt: the death of an entire nationís firstborn Ė both of man and beast.And thatís what the Lord is saying to his people in the passage we heard. Heís saying,ĒI purchased you and brought you out of living hell by the deaths of multitudes.The cost was enormous and caused untold anguish and suffering.I never want you to forget that.And to ensure that you wonít forget, you are to sacrifice the firstborn males of your livestock, and redeem by sacrifice the firstborn males of your children.ĒIt was to be ongoing memorial and a device for teaching future generations. The idea was that children would ask, ďWhy are we killing all these animals?Why not keep them and raise them?It seems to be a terrible waste.ĒAnd the answer was to be, ďBecause we are a people redeemed by God: thatís who we are.We were ransomed from endless misery by the death of a nationís firstborn.We sacrifice so that we donít forget who we are.Ē


††††††††††† At the beginning of this message, I asked you to consider who and what you are.And of course I canít read minds, but Iím willing to bet that many of you thought of your name, ďIím so and soĒ: but a name is only a label, ití isnít who you are.Maybe you thought of your place in a family, ďIím the son or daughter of these folksĒ or ďIím a father, a wife, a grandmother, a childĒ; but again, thatís simply how youíre related to others.Itís your placement in the social structure.Itís not who you are.Maybe you thought of defining yourself by an occupation: a student, a farmer, a businessman, a teacher; but thatís what you do.It isnít who you are.Now, maybe, since it was the pastor asking the question, you knew you should try to come up with some kind of religious answer because thatís what Iíd be looking for. And so maybe you thought, ďIím a Christian.Iím one who believes in Jesus and tries to live according to his teachings.I try to keep the commandments and the golden rule: doing unto others as I would have them do to me.ĒPerhaps you thought something like that; but if so, you made the same mistake that Jewish people who find their identity in the giving of the Law make.Youíre starting in the wrong place.


I wonít put you on the spot by asking for a show of hands, but I wonder how many thought, ďI am a person redeemed by God. Thatís who I am.And the event that anchors my identity is the crucifixion and death of Godís Firstborn Ė His Only Begotten Son Ė on my behalf.He did that to ransom me from my hopeless, futile life of sin and an eternity of misery in hell.By Godís amazing grace and his boundless love for me, thatís who I am.Ē


My friends, whether or not thatís what you were thinking, that is who you are.And the Lord wants you to remember it and keep that thought first and foremost in your mind at all times.And to help you keep your center of identity there, heís given us means to impress and reinforce it upon us Ė precisely so that we do not forget.No, we donít have to make sacrifices of our firstborn male livestock or redeem by sacrifice our firstborn children as he instructed his people of old to do as a method of remembering what was once done for them.He has a much better solution for us.Now he provides ways for us to receive again to ourselves the actual sacrifice he made for us.Thatís what happened to you in your Baptism.In the water and by the Word of God you were brought into Jesus Christ and made a participant with him in his death, burial, and resurrection.His sacrificial death that took place two thousand years ago for you was made present tense and applied personally to you.And in the water Jesus drew you into his arms and said, ďLet me tell you who you are:you are one that I have redeemed.ĒHe said the same thing to you earlier in this service when you heard me pronounce the words of his forgiveness.When I said, ďAs a called servant of the Word I forgive you all your sinsĒ, Jesus was saying to you through me, ďI gave my life to free you.You are redeemed from sinís power and oppression.ĒLikewise, a little later in this service, kneeling at this altar you will receive to yourself the sacrifice Jesus made for you.There he will say, ďThis is my body and blood Ė the body and blood of Godís Firstborn offered up for the price of your redemption. Take them.Consume them.And by touching, smelling, and tasting my sacrifice for you, know that you are free. Know that I have redeemed you.Ē


Ö And not just redeemed you, but also empowered you. Let me explain:God freed the Old Testament Israelites from slavery in Egypt; but by forgetting to place their redemption first and making the mistake of defining themselves by the Law, they made themselves slaves again. That is, I must obey the law and do what it commands in order to be a person of the law. If I donít, then I have to admit that though I have the Law, since I donít keep it, by definition I am a law breaker and under its curse. The same thing happens if I define my life as a Christian by what I do and how well I follow the teachings of Jesus.If thatís the way I think of myself, I have to admit that since I really donít love my neighbor as myself, or love my enemies as I ought, or keep the golden rule, then I must be no Christian.And no matter how hard I work at it, I never will be.


Ah, but if I start in the right place, if I start with Godís assurance that I am already a redeemed person and that sin and death no longer have power over me, then I understand that the teachings and instructions Jesus gives me are not given to make me one of his, but rather to guide me in his way since I am one of his.Itís in this light that we read a passage like todayís Epistle lesson, where Paul says, ďSince you are Godís chosen ones, holy and belovedĒ Ė because thatís what Christ made you when he redeemed you Ė ďput on compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and forgiving each otherĒ and so on.The instructions are only good and helpful if you start at the right place.


††††††††††† And since today is the eve of a new year, itís an especially opportune time for us to think about starting in the right place. So this time I will ask for a show of hands:raise your hand if youíd like to do better this year than last in your walk with the Lord Jesus. Good. Weíre agreed then.Letís make it a New Yearís resolution.And letís make it knowing that ability to keep it lies not in trying harder to be what we cannot make ourselves, but rather by knowing who we are in Christ Jesus:that is, a redeemed people, forgiven of sin, washed in his blood, and raised with him to a new and holy life.Each and every day letís begin there with the knowledge of who we really are, and he will empower us by his Word and guide us by his Spirit to live lives that show forth what he has made us. God grant it to us for Jesusí sake.In his holy name.Amen.


Soli Deo Gloria!

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