St Barnabas and St Michael’s. 5th July 2015
Reading – Exodus 5:1-21
On Easter Sunday 1989 I was sitting on a log in the middle of an Austrian forest. I was at that time a student and like many students approaching the end of their course I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life and little experience of the real world. And being the shy, introverted type, rather than discuss my concerns with anybody else, I had gone for a walk with a head full of vague ideals and impossible dreams. But sitting there on that log, I sensed for the first time that the Lord had a plan for my future, and that He would eventually call me into the ministry. Quite why the Lord decided to speak to me then, or what He saw in me I really don’t know. But speak to me He did and sixteen years ago yesterday, on 4 July 1999, I was ordained as a deacon in Chelmsford Cathedral.
This is not to say that the ten years between that first sense of calling and my ordination were in any sense smooth or straightforward. Just because God has called you and claimed you for His own, does not mean that from now on life will become a whole lot easier. Indeed we may find if anything that the challenges become harder, the obstacles more difficult to overcome.
And if you want any proof of what I am saying, just look at the experience of Moses. We have seen over the past couple of weeks how he has had the most amazing encounter with God on Mount Horeb, the very mountain of God (Ex 3:1). There the Lord has appeared to him in a burning bush and called him by name. He has told him of His plans to save the Israelites and given Moses the news he is the one chosen to lead the rescue mission.
We can have no doubt this encounter with God turned Moses’ life right around. One moment he was a wandering shepherd, roaming far and wide to find pasture for his sheep. The next he is in the presence of a holy God who does nothing less than reveal His divine purposes to him.
The whole experience must have been totally and utterly overwhelming, and it’s not surprising, really, that Moses has all kinds of questions. But there on the mountain Moses discovered God was not only a holy God. He was also a deeply personal God who knew and loved Him, and, as Lynda so clearly showed last week, was more than willing to accommodate Moses’ questions and doubts.
So when Moses said, ‘Who am I? I am nobody, not fit to send’, God replied, ‘I will be with you’ (3:12)
When Moses said, ‘I don’t know enough – who are you really?’, God replied, ‘I AM who I AM … ‘ and told him exactly what to say.
When Moses said, ‘They won’t listen to me’, God gave him wonders to perform.
When Moses said, ‘I’m no good at talking to people’, God replied, ‘I will help you speak and tell you what to say’.
Every time God shows Himself to be patient, faithful, understanding … every time revealing more of his character, of his plans, and of his power.
But no matter how wonderful the experience, the time eventually had to come for Moses to leave the mountain top and put God’s plan into action. So he went back to Midian and left the sheep behind with his father-in-law. Taking his wife and children with him, he began the journey back to Egypt where on the way his wife circumcised their firstborn son. At the mountain of God, just as God had promised him, his brother Aaron met him and Moses told him everything the Lord had revealed to him. He then carried on into Egypt where he performed the signs the Lord had given him, so that the people of God believed his message and worshipped the Lord.
And so far, everything seems to be going so well. The Lord has spoken; Moses has acted; and all the pieces are falling into place. But that’s what happens when you trust in the Lord. You live in victory and, as one worship song puts it, all your problems disappear. Right?
Well, there’s just one minor issue left to resolve, and this is where our reading this morning begins. It’s the small matter of Pharaoh, the all-powerful ruler of Egypt, who is sitting very comfortably on his throne in his royal palace. Listen again to what happens when Moses and Aaron are granted an audience with him:
1 Afterwards Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and said, “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: ‘Let my people go, so that they may hold a festival to me in the desert.'”
2 Pharaoh said, “Who is the Lord, that I should obey him and let Israel go? I do not know the Lord and I will not let Israel go.”
Pharaoh has not been privy to Moses’ encounter with the Lord. He has never heard of the name of Yahweh. His gods are ones like Ra and Osiris and Anubis. Even if there is a god called Yahweh, as far as he is concerned, He can’t be much of a god if He’s one worshipped by a bunch of slaves. So his short answer to Moses and Aaron is “No”. But it’s not just Moses and Aaron he’s rejecting. He is also rejecting the Lord.
And this is where the story of Pharaoh, a story from so many thousands of years ago, starts to become real to us. Because, although we may not be called to appear before kings or political leaders, we too can expect that if we believe and trust in God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, we will encounter spiritual opposition from people who neither know or care about the Lord.
So how exactly did Pharaoh oppose the Israelites? Well, in the first place he put word about that he saw them as a threat to the national interest. To quote his words in verse 5: The people of the land are numerous or as we might say today, there are just too many immigrants! It’s always been the cry down the centuries that, whenever there is trouble or difficulty so often the first reaction is to blame people who are different from ourselves. After all, foreigners stand out as an easy target. We can easily recognise who they are and some of them indeed do attract justifiable criticism – although, it has to be said, most of them do not.
But actually the primary lesson of this story is not about how we treat foreigners, at least not directly. Because whenever we read the Old Testament, we always have to ask ourselves who are the modern equivalent of the Israelites, the people of God, today. And the simple answer is, it’s us – the church of Jesus Christ. We could read this story just as a tale about discriminating against immigrants, but there’s a deeper spiritual dimension to it as well. It is in fact an illustration of how, whenever we make a stand for our faith, we are likely to be viewed as a threat or a nuisance and treated accordingly. That’s what I mean when I talk about spiritual opposition. It’s about being singled out and picked on because we believe and trust in the Lord.
You see, those who do not know the Lord do not understand our need to worship Him. So, for example, in today’s world it is extremely unlikely that any employer will allow someone time off in order to go to church. We have well and truly lost the argument about keeping Sunday special, and our case has not been helped by those Christians who fail to see churchgoing as an important part of our faith. Then there’s the whole question of whether we can wear a cross or a Christian symbol when we are at work. A whole host of recent court cases seem to tell us that it is becoming increasingly problematic. And as for praying for a colleague, well, that appears now to be a sackable offence, even if the colleague asks for prayer.
The blunt truth is that if we love Jesus and make a stand for Him, there will be times when the world will hate us. Listen to what Jesus tells us in John 15:18-19:
18 If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first.
19 If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you.
Now I guess all this talk of spiritual opposition and hatred makes us feel more than a little uncomfortable, and it’s not something that we particularly want to focus on. But if we are serious about our faith making an impact in the real world, we have to be honest about the way the world will react to the good news of Jesus Christ. Yes, some will gladly accept the love of God into their lives, and others may applaud our faith. But let’s not fool ourselves. I don’t think there is a single person here today who doesn’t know someone who finds our faith peculiar, irrational or dangerous. That’s why it’s just so important we meet together, encourage another and share the very real life challenges that we face together.
Mind you, whatever challenges we face are as nothing to the challenges Pharaoh imposed upon the Israelites:
6 That same day Pharaoh gave this order to the slave drivers and foremen in charge of the people:
7 “You are no longer to supply the people with straw for making bricks; let them go and gather their own straw.
8 But require them to make the same number of bricks as before; don’t reduce the quota. They are lazy; that is why they are crying out, ‘Let us go and sacrifice to our God.’
Or as no doubt the headlines in the daily papyrus read the next day: Pharaoh orders crack down on migrants! New measures to make foreigners work for their benefits!
The truth was, of course, that the Israelites were already working long and hard for their Egyptian overlords. This wasn’t a case of making a few mud-pies by the banks of the river Nile. It was about making bricks in their thousands under hot African sun, with little respite for breaks, and little mercy shown to those who were ill. Each brick required days of kneading with your feet, shaping into moulds and then baking in the full heat of the day. It was boring, back-breaking work that dulled the mind and sapped the body.
And now on top of that the Israelites had to go and gather their own straw. How could they keep up the same rate of production and yet find the time to collect their own materials? The obvious answer was, they couldn’t. As verse 14 tells us: The Israelite foremen appointed by Pharaoh’s slave drivers were beaten and were asked, “Why didn’t you meet your quota of bricks yesterday or today, as before?” This whole story is a shocking tale of cruelty on an industrial scale, and sadly one that is still repeated in so many parts of the world today.
So where is the Lord in all this? After all, as we have seen, the Lord has recently appeared to Moses as the great I am. He has told him of his great plan to deliver the Israelites. He has graciously answered all Moses’ questions and He has given him signs and wonders to perform before them. And, as we read back in chapter 4, verse 31: when they heard that the Lord was concerned about them and had seen their misery, they bowed down and worshipped.
Yet from that point on the Israelites’ life has become considerably worse, and their suffering increased. It’s no surprise then, that they angrily return to Moses and Aaron and say: May the Lord look upon you and judge you! You have made us a stench to Pharaoh and his officials and have put a sword in their hand to kill us (Exodus 5:21). As far as they are concerned, all this talk about deliverance and salvation has been just talk, and Moses and Aaron only have themselves to blame for the current situation.
And what about Moses and Aaron? Well, let’s read on from our passage this morning to verses 22-23:
22 Moses returned to the Lord and said, “O Lord, why have you brought trouble upon this people? Is this why you sent me?
23 Ever since I went to Pharaoh to speak in your name, he has brought trouble upon this people, and you have not rescued your people at all.”
Now I guess it would be very easy to criticise Moses. We could say, for example, that having met with God on the mountain of God he should have had more faith. We could say he should have perhaps prayed before opening his mouth, or shown a little more humility. But actually I have a lot of sympathy with Moses. I guess we can all think of times when we believed we were carrying out the Lord’s will or trusting His promises and life has got harder, not easier, when the obstacles we faced grew a little bigger, and our resources to tackle them a little less.
So listen carefully to how the Lord replies in chapter 6, verse 1:
Then the Lord said to Moses, “Now you will see what I will do to Pharaoh: Because of my mighty hand he will let them go; because of my mighty hand he will drive them out of his country.
There are, you see, two things that the Lord wants Moses and Aaron and the Israelites to understand. First of all, the deliverance He will bring will be by His hand and His hand alone. Sometimes the Lord brings us to the end of our own resources to remind us that it really is only His power that can save us. That’s one reason we sometimes come up against so many obstacles in our faith. It isn’t that God has stopped loving us, rather He is teaching and training us as a father teaches and trains his son.
And this leads on to the second point that when we go through difficult times, God allows this to happen so that we really do learn to live by faith. The Lord could have sent Moses on an instant rescue mission, but the Israelites would not have learnt what faith and trust was really all about it. They needed to learn to rely on God’s promises even when all the circumstances were against them. Because actually that’s what faith is – not just believing in the Lord when times are good, but trusting in His love and His power when times are hard.
But how do we sitting here today know that God’s plans and purposes will ultimately prevail? Well, for us, unlike the Israelites we have the cross and the empty tomb. They remind us that ultimately Jesus has already won the victory over whatever spiritual opposition is against us. You may have a Pharaoh in your own life, someone who does not know the Lord and does not care for Him. You may be experiencing spiritual opposition and you may be going through tough times. You may indeed be wondering if you really want to carry on with the challenge of following Jesus with so much stacked against you.
If that is the case for you, then let me leave you with these words from Hebrews chapter 12, verses 2-3:
2 Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.
3 Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.
And my prayer for you is that the Lord give you also the faith and the courage to persevere, whatever you face, so that you too may overcome and not lose heart. For His name’s sake. Amen.