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Sunday, January 16, 2011

A Timely Birth (Exodus 2, Acts 7)

Sermon by: Robert Austell
January 16, 2011
Some Music Used 
Cong. Song: "Your Grace is Enough" (Maher
Anthem: "If You Search with all Your Heart" (Courtney)
Cong. Song: "Mighty to Save" (Morgan, Fielding)

A Timely Birth
Texts: Exodus 1:22-2:10; Acts 7:17-21

(download) **Sermon audio is also accessible as a free podcast in iTunes - search for "Good Shepherd Sermons or Robert Austell"**

Today we are continuing in the story of the Exodus. Last week we began in Exodus 1 and saw two themes which will carry through the whole study of Exodus. The first is that God’s purpose cannot be thwarted by human sin or disobedience, or by the forces of evil. If anything, the Exodus story surely puts that claim to the test, but God emerges victorious and faithful. The second theme, seen in the faithful actions of the midwives who feared God more than Pharaoh, is that even in the most oppressive and sin-filled situations, there is always a godly or faithful choice that can be made, though it may be a costly one.

We ended Exodus 1 with the Pharaoh issuing a decree that every son born to the Hebrew people was to be killed. And this is the context for the birth of Moses, which we will look at today. The questions this text will raise for us are these:

What does it mean for us today to talk about and seek “God’s purpose?”

What hope do we have that God will defend or help us when the world or life itself seems to be stacked against us?

The Promise to Abraham

Last week I described the covenant with Abraham. It’s something I can’t emphasize or repeat enough because that covenant is so central to understanding the Bible, Old AND New Testaments. If you want to read it for yourself, Abraham’s story is in Genesis, chapters 12-25. God promises Abraham land, descendants, and blessing to bless the world. And this was not a contract – “if you fulfill your part, I’ll fulfill mine.” It was a covenant – “till death do us part” language; and in God’s case, it was everlasting because God is everlasting. So even after Abraham’s death, God was fulfilling the covenant promises, to Abraham’s children and their children.

I noted last week that though Joseph’s brothers meant evil to Joseph, God used it for good and blessed Joseph and his household along with many Hebrew and non-Hebrew people of his time. God blessed Joseph to come to power in Egypt so that the devastation of a famine could be averted. That was God keeping one of His covenant promises. And then the Hebrew people grew from 70 male relatives to almost two million while in Egypt. Despite horrible suffering and persecution, God kept His covenant promise to multiply Abraham’s descendants.

The text you heard from Acts 7 comes from the first martyr, Stephen, who is recounting the story of God’s faithfulness that was fulfilled in Jesus Christ. Stephen summarizes what was happening in Exodus 1 by also explicitly linking it to the covenant with Abraham: “As the time of the promise was approaching which God had assured to Abraham, the people increased and multiplied in Egypt.”

And though God had blessed Joseph and his family and had multiplied Abraham’s children, the persecution and suffering had also increased, surely raising the question for the reader, not to mention the people living through it: would God provide a Deliverer after all?

Stephen tells us in v. 20, “It was at this time that Moses was born…” But what a time it was. By any human reckoning it was long-overdue and against all odds and powers. But the message of Exodus and Stephen in Acts was that it was God’s timing, which was the right timing.

A Protected Purpose (note 1)

Remember the big theme from last week? God’s purpose cannot be thwarted by evil or human sin or disobedience. If any scenario would put that to the test, it was the birth of Moses.

The persecution and oppression of the Hebrew people was at an all-time peak. The Pharaoh had just ordered a purge – selective genocide – of all the male infants born to the Hebrews. Besides the murderous implications of that, it also meant that a generation of Hebrew girls would grow up with two alternatives and probably no choices: either be childless or bear children with an Egyptian. Within a generation, the distinct Hebrew people (for whom distinctiveness was primary as God’s covenant people) would disappear.

But look what God does. He raises up a priest – a child born to a man and woman of the house of Levi, the priestly tribe. Tuck that detail away, for later he will be mediator and lawgiver for God’s people. They hide the baby as long as they can – for three months – but then are not able to hide him any longer… perhaps the crying or the need for food or the inability to sustain the secret. So they put him in a wicker basket, cover it with tar and pitch, and put it among the reeds of the Nile (v. 3). And the older sister waits and watches to see what will happen.

Now I don’t know how they came up with that plan – the story doesn’t tell us. But I know they didn’t surrender the baby to the Egyptians who would have been enforcing the Pharaoh’s decree. That was a faithful choice. My best guess is that they prayed with all their heart and used their best parental wisdom absent any direct instruction from the Lord, trusting that God’s will would be accomplished. Sometimes, that’s just the best you can do when you are at the end of your choices.

I hesitate to mention this, because I don’t want to overemphasize it; but it is fascinating enough to share with you. The Hebrew word that is translated as “basket” (tabah) is only translated that way in this one place, probably because of the word “papyrus” (i.e. ‘wicker’) before it. The other 26 times it appears in the Old Testament, it is translated ‘ark’… as in, Noah’s Ark. Again, I don’t think the parents thought, “we are going to build a tiny ark like Noah built”; but I am amazed at the parallels in terms of God’s protection of His people and His purpose. Noah and his family built the Ark, trusting in God’s promise to deliver them through the waters of judgment. The baby’s parents built the tiny papyrus Ark, trusting or hoping in God’s ability to save their son, if that was the Lord’s will.

And you heard the story. The Pharaoh’s daughter found the baby, recognizing that he was a Hebrew baby. The baby’s sister stepped up and offered to arrange a Hebrew nursemaid. And the Pharaoh’s daughter not only agreed, but paid the family until she was able to take him in as her own son.

Now I have intentionally not called the baby by his name because we are not given his Hebrew name. Rather, we read that the Pharaoh’s daughter named him after the event of drawing him out of the water. She named him Moses.

And we are left hanging again. What a story! In only ten verses, with all the power and obstacles thought possible stacked against God keeping his covenant promises, we see God miraculously deliver a child of the house of Levi and preserve Abraham’s line in the face of genocide. And yet at the end of this miraculous story we are left with significant questions. Yes, baby Moses lived, but has he not been taken into the house of the enemy? How much influence or teaching could his family bring to bear before he is fully weaned? Did not his Egyptian “mother” even name him? If Moses is to be God’s deliverer, has he not been captured by the very ones who are arrayed against God’s purpose? Tune in next week… 

What Hope for Us?

I would draw several applications from this story for us.

If one were reading it on your own, you’d probably read through at least a few chapters, if not until the end, to see what happens. But Exodus 1-12 covers 400 years! And even Exodus 2-12 covers half a lifetime.

We must be careful about applying 400 years unfolding to a day or event in our life. Rather, I think studying the story in small sections more closely mirrors our own experience with God’s purpose. We come up against disappointments, obstacles, and suffering, and we pray and struggle with having to wait on God. But even when we do finally seem to get some kind of answer or deliverance that satisfies us, it just seems like the next thing pops up before we know it.

On this weekend, in particular, I am mindful of Martin Luther King, Jr., who knew and lived the Exodus story in so many ways. Called of God, he experienced ups and downs, deliverance and obstacles, time and time again. And yet, God was accomplishing His purpose through all of it.

In that sense, I find the Exodus story helpfully realistic. For God’s own reasons, He doesn’t just snap His fingers and fix everything all at once. I can’t claim to have my mind wrapped around that one, though I can condense that line of thinking far enough beyond my own needs and wants to see that if God had done that in the nanosecond after Adam and Eve sinned, that the results would have been catastrophic and deadly as they were in the Flood. I trust God enough to trust that He is a better God than I could ever be; and perhaps that is one of the basic realizations of faith and one of the basic struggles of non-faith.

Anyway, that’s another topic. We’ve already seen in last week’s text these two things: 

1. God’s purpose cannot be thwarted by evil or human sin/disobedience

2. Even in the midst of the worst struggle or oppression, there is a faithful choice, though it may be costly

What I take away from today’s text practically are two things:

1. I need to seek what God’s purpose is: to not confuse it with MY plans, but to seek it through prayer, study, counsel of others, and humility

2. God’s purpose is long and broad and as it relates to my own life encompasses my whole life. Today’s answers and outcomes are not the end of God’s story; God’s glory is the end/purpose of God’s story.

Though it is in a slightly different context here, I think our key mission question is a helpful way to help orient and redirect our thoughts and prayers in line with these takeaways.

What is God doing in and around me (His purpose) and how can I be a part (Thy will be done)?

That God is bigger than whatever I am facing is Good News. That I struggle to align myself with what God is doing is the challenge. I am thankful for the Church, and for this church, because we are privileged to struggle together for God’s glory. Amen.

Note 1: I have chosen not to use the word ‘plan,’ not because God doesn’t have plans, but because we hear that and think of a simple, non-flexible, one-way-only, blueprint. Using “purpose” to talk of God’s will gets more at the drawn-out, complex, and creative nature of His plan – perhaps more like a piece of music than an outline. This is not to say that God is not in control or is “in process”; it is simply to try to help us not confuse our plan for what God is doing.

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