St Michael’s and St Barnabas, 14th June 2015
Reading – Exodus 2
As I begin to write this sermon, the burning question amongst the Green Army is: who will be the next manager? So far, the thread on the supporters’ website has reached well over 70 pages and there have been more than 50,000 views. All kinds of names have been mentioned but no-one really knows who’s about to be appointed. It’s all been a matter of guesswork, rumour and the latest odds down the bookmakers, not that that’s prevented page upon page of speculation.
Well, whoever gets the job, there are certain things we can be reasonably confident about the next manager of Plymouth Argyle. He won’t be someone with a criminal record. He won’t be someone well on in years. And he won’t be someone who’s been out of the game for a long time, at least we hope not.
So what do we make of God choosing Moses to be the person to rescue the Israelites?
Let’s rewind a few frames in the story to Moses’ early years and remind ourselves who he was, and where he had come from.
As we learn from verse 10 in our passage this morning, Moses had been brought up as the adopted son of Pharaoh’s daughter. He was a member of the royal court in ancient Egypt, which at that time was the most advanced and sophisticated civilisation on earth. There was probably nothing Moses did not know about pyramids, and he had all the advantages you could imagine of wealth and status and education. Indeed there were no doubt many in the royal court who saw him as a future leader, and a man of real influence.
But there was another side to this up and coming royal protégé, and he was reminded of it every time someone called his name. His name, after all, was Moses, which as our Bible footnotes tell us sounds like the Hebrew for “drawn out of the water”. It was like a label stuck on him which he carried wherever he went, drawing attention to his rather unusual origins. Because, although Moses was legally the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, he was not an Egyptian. He was a Hebrew child who had been found floating in a basket in the river Nile. He was in reality an immigrant, from the nation of slaves the Egyptians both feared and mistreated.
So what was Moses doing floating in a basket? Well, if you were here last week, you will recall that thanks to Joseph the Israelites had ended up down south, at the invitation of Pharaoh. But despite the happy ending of the musical we all know and love the story did not have a happy outcome. The Pharaoh who welcomed Jacob and sons with open arms died, and new Pharaohs came along who saw the growing Israelite population as a threat. Soon the Israelites were forced into slave labour, building the great store cities for the harvest along the Nile. But despite every measure the Pharaohs took, the Israelites – otherwise known as Hebrews – kept increasing. In the end the king of Egypt took the drastic measure of ordering the death of every newborn Hebrew boy. It’s a totally horrific story of slavery, fear and genocide, which unfortunately 3500 years later we can still relate to.
And it was against this background that Moses was born (Exodus 2:1-4):
1 Now a man of the house of Levi married a Levite woman, 2 and she became pregnant and gave birth to a son. When she saw that he was a fine child, she hid him for three months. 3 But when she could hide him no longer, she got a papyrus basket for him and coated it with tar and pitch. Then she placed the child in it and put it among the reeds along the bank of the Nile. 4 His sister stood at a distance to see what would happen to him.
Of course even after doing all this, Moses’ mother had no guarantee he would be kept safe. So why did she go to such elaborate lengths to construct the original Moses basket? Well, we are told in verse 2 that she had a particularly fine child. There was something special about him that meant she took extra care to protect him from the slaughter going on all around. And by placing him in the basket on the river what she was actually doing was committing her baby to the Lord. She was placing him in His hands, and trusting Him for the outcome.
As the writer to the Hebrews puts it, in Hebrews 11:23:
By faith Moses’ parents hid him for three months after he was born, because they saw he was no ordinary child, and they were not afraid of the king’s edict.
So the tale of Moses’ rescue from the river is not some random event that makes a charming story even today. It is a lesson in faith rewarded, even in the most desperate circumstances. It just so happens that the Moses basket is found by Pharaoh’s daughter and instead of carrying out her father’s wishes, she has pity on the baby and spares his life. It just so happens that Moses’ sister has been standing watching all that’s been going on and is able to suggest Moses’ mother as nurse for the child. Although not mentioned by name at this point, the Lord is in control, even now.
Moses would have grown up, therefore, aware of his own origins and the plight of his own people who were been ruthlessly worked to death by the Egyptians around him. He lived a kind of dual existence, and in the end something had to give. Let’s read again verses 11-12:
11 One day, after Moses had grown up, he went out to where his own people were and watched them at their hard labour. He saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his own people. 12 Glancing this way and that and seeing no-one, he killed the Egyptian and hid him in the sand.
There was no suggestion Moses had planned to act in this way. It was a crime carried out in the heat of the moment, and Moses thought he could just cover it up and get away with it. But if there is one thing the whole of Scripture teaches us is that our crimes never stay hidden. One way or another the truth will out, and we have to face the consequences of our actions.
And that is certainly the case here with Moses. First of all, on the very next day, he comes across two of his fellow Hebrews fighting. As he intervenes to break up the fight, one of the Hebrews rounds on him and asks: Who made you ruler and judge over us? Are you thinking of killing me as you killed the Egyptian? (verse 14). Now you might have thought that the Hebrews would have been glad there was someone with power and influence on their side. But instead they see him as a threat, as someone to be feared, and they want nothing to do with him.
Later writers see in this exchange a lack of faith, of the Israelites rejecting God’s purposes for their deliverance. For example, when Stephen addresses the Jewish ruling council in Acts 7:25, he tells them: Moses thought that his own people would realise that God was using him to rescue them, but they did not. Yet was Moses really ready to deliver God’s people? And was the moment actually right to try and see them free? In reality there was little one person even so privileged as Moses could do to mount a rescue mission. But the reaction of this unnamed Israelite certainly does point us forward to one of the central themes of the book of Exodus, that even when God does come and save His people, our response is so often one of fear and unbelief.
But for now Moses has a more immediate problem. Because as might be expected Pharaoh hears about his crime and not unexpectedly demands his life. While Israelites are considered cheap and expendable, it’s quite a different story when it comes to Egyptians. So not surprisingly Moses flees for his life and he ends up in the country of Midian as an alien and a stranger, neither living as a Hebrew among his fellow Israelites or as an Egyptian among the court of the king.
And at this point it looks as if Moses’ life has quite literally run into the sands. Like some hero of a Western he ends up on a ranch in the middle of nowhere, quietly living out his days – at least until his past catches up with him. He ends up hitched to a lass called Zipporah, a daughter of the local preacher man, quietly spending his days looking after the herd. Years drift by, and you can almost see the tumbleweed blowing by in the wind, and hear the creak of the swing on the veranda.
So where exactly is the story going? Well, back at the main scene of the action, there’s change afoot. The old Pharaoh has died, but the new one is no better. In fact we read that by now the Israelites are groaning in their slavery. The weight of oppression has become just too much to bear. There’s a longing to be free, and a desire to escape from the land of Egypt.
And where is God in all this? Well, if you look really carefully, it is actually at this point He is first mentioned in the story. Listen again to verses 23-25:
23 During that long period, the king of Egypt died. The Israelites groaned in their slavery and cried out, and their cry for help because of their slavery went up to God. 24 God heard their groaning and he remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac and with Jacob. 25 So God looked on the Israelites and was concerned about them.
What does it mean to say God remembered? Well, first of all, let’s be clear what it does not mean. In English remembering is the opposite of forgetting. To remember where you have put your glasses means you have suddenly realised where they are. God never forgets where we are and what we are going through. As we shall see next week, when we move on to God’s call to Moses, He is thoroughly consistent in his nature. So if He promises to love and care for us today, we can be sure He will love and care for us always – even in those times when we think we have been forgotten by Him.
That is something that comes out if we were to translate verse 25 literally: God looked on the Israelites and he knew. He had known all along what they were going through. He had been listening to their prayers and their groans. He did not need to be informed about what was going on.
And we mustn’t make the mistake of thinking that up until now God was powerless or somehow too weak to rescue His people. In the Egyptians’ eyes the fact that the Israelites were enslaved and helpless would have been a sign that their God was a small and weak God, inferior to all their own gods. And isn’t the way people so often think about the God of the Old and New Testament today? That we only have a small God who only answers little prayers, but isn’t actually able to make that much difference.
The truth is, when God remembers, is when God decides to act. God, you see, is a God of His word and when He says He will do something, He will do it – but only in His timing. Why did God wait until Moses was an old man? Or until the Israelites were groaning in their slavery? We cannot fully know the answer from our limited human perspective. But maybe God wanted to wait until it became clear that the deliverance of His people would be His work and His work alone. After all, there should be no way a bunch of slaves led by an old man with a dubious past should be able to escape from their overloads. They didn’t have any resources of their own, and they were no match for the Egyptian army. Maybe it was precisely because the Israelites had reached the point of realising their own inadequacy that God decided it was the time to act.
As Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 1:26-28:
26 Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. 27 But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. 28 He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things–and the things that are not – to nullify the things that are.
Because the consistent message of Scripture is that we see God most clearly work in power when we find have no other option but to rely completely upon Him. Moses’ parents could only place their child in a basket and trust for his deliverance. The Israelites could only cry out to the Lord and hope He would hear their prayer.
I wonder, have you reached that point in your own prayer life when all you can do is simply wait upon the Lord? Or are you struggling to find your own solutions to the problems in your life, and holding on to the issues you think you can deal with? If our faith is genuine, then it should mean far more than believing the right things. It should mean a daily surrender to God of all that we are and all that stands before us.
And maybe that was a lesson Moses himself had to learn during those wilderness years in Midian. He had grown up surrounded by every advantage of wisdom, of status and of education. In a sense, God had to take all these away before He could effectively use him. What about us? What is there in our lives that stops us living by faith day by day, and waiting upon the Lord?
As we reflect upon this passage, let me read you some words from Psalm 130, which I invite you to use as your prayer this morning:
1 Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord;
2 O Lord, hear my voice. Let your ears be attentive to my cry for mercy.
3 If you, O Lord, kept a record of sins, O Lord, who could stand?
4 But with you there is forgiveness; therefore you are feared.
5 I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I put my hope.
6 My soul waits for the Lord more than watchmen wait for the morning, more than watchmen wait for the morning.
Lord, give us the faith to trust you completely. Forgive us when we seek our own solutions without thinking of you and teach us what it means to rely on you alone. Help us to live as Jesus taught us and look for your provision day by day. May we all learn to wait upon you, knowing that all things are in your hands and that you love and care for us always, in Jesus’ name. Amen.