Sunday, February 27, 2011

Mission Setbacks (Exodus 5)

Sermon by: Robert Austell
February 27, 2011
Some Music Used 
Prelude: "Be Thou My Vision/My Shepherd Will Supply My Need"
(arr. Adams; Susan Slade - flute)

Hymn of Praise: "When Israel Was in Egypt Land" (GO DOWN MOSES)
Song of Praise: "I Have a Shelter" (Steve and Vicki Cook, and Kauflin)
Anthem: "This Lonesome Valley" (arr. Besig)
Offertory: "In the Valley" (Kauflin)
Hymn of Sending: "It is Well With My Soul" (arr. Austell)

Partners in Mission
Text: Exodus 5

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

Sometimes the actual sermon varies significantly from the printed manuscript.  This is one of those cases.  I commend the audio to you in this case.

We left off last week at the end of Exodus 4. Moses had finally undertaken the mission to Egypt. He and Aaron had delivered God’s message and signs to the elders of Israel, and they had believed and bowed low in worship of Yahweh.

In chapter 5, Moses and Aaron go to see Pharaoh, the king of Egypt. And they are there, not yet to ask for the people to be set free, but simply to ask that they be allowed a few days of worship to their God in the wilderness. From there, things start to go terribly wrong and we end the chapter with the elders and people of Israel, as well as Moses, questioning where God is and what, if anything, He is doing.

So today, we will consider the topic of “mission setbacks” – that is, what sorts of things stand in the way of our trusting and obeying God, and how will we respond when we have setbacks.


Belief and Worship (Ex. 4:31)

I won’t repeat last week’s sermon, but will simply note that the elders and people of Israel received Moses and Aaron and the message and signs of the Lord with faithful worship. It was a high point and an answer to long, long prayers.

I imagine many of you know both that experience and what followed. You have cried out to God for help and it finally seems to come – you find new work, or a relationship is mended, or your health improves; and then… it doesn’t last. In fact, sometimes things get worse.

And as encouraging and faith-building as seeing prayers answered was, it is all the more devastating to see things unravel and reverse.

This is common in the human experience. Said another way, once one becomes a Christian, life does not become an unbroken series of ever-increasing blessings. Christians experience highs and lows just like any person, and even our prayers are not answered with an unending series of ‘YES!’

That is one of several explanations of what we experience, that sometimes God says ‘no’ or ‘wait’ to our prayers. But what happens in today’s text is another situation that I believe is also common to our experience. Sometimes there is opposition to God’s purpose in our lives. Let’s look at what that opposition is in the story, and we’ll also consider forms of opposition that we encounter.


Conflict and Opposition (vv. 1-5)

Moses and Aaron come to Pharaoh in verse 1. They name Yahweh (the Lord) as the “God of Israel” and ask for the people to be released from work to go observe a feast in the wilderness. Pharaoh immediately objects and opposes them and this idea. Initially, his response is “Who is Yahweh?” – in other words, Egyptians had and worshiped many gods, and Pharaoh had not heard of this god. His response reminds me of Moses’ early objection, “Who am I (for anyone to listen to me)?” God’s answer to Moses was that it would be God’s name and reputation at stake, not Moses’, and so it is.

But Pharaoh doesn’t pause before saying, “…besides, I will not let Israel go.” It didn’t really matter if he had heard of Yahweh or not; he wasn’t going to let them go. The more basic conflict here was that Pharaoh thought of himself as a god, and no concern of any other (lesser) god was going to inconvenience him.

Moses and Aaron pressed further in v. 3 to say that there might be bad consequences for Israel if they couldn’t observe the feast (this would have been a common understanding of feasts to please the gods). Pharaoh is unmoved; if anything, his subsequent reaction may have been to demonstrate that his pleasure or displeasure was greater than this Hebrew God’s; perhaps the Hebrews should have paid more attention to what Pharaoh wanted – their labor and productivity for his cause.

There are multiple sources of this Pharaoh-like opposition that you and I might face. The first is other people who might actively oppose God’s purposes. Mind you, I’m not talking about people who simply annoy or trouble you. I realize those are not hard to find either. But I’m talking specifically about opposing God and His will in your life. This would be a kind of persecution and of the kinds of faith-related opposition you and I face in this country, this may be the least common. Certainly elsewhere in the world, this is more common.

What may be more common in our experience is what I would describe as “spiritual opposition.” Scripture points to one called the Accuser or Adversary, or Satan, as being like a lion prowling and waiting to devour. Satan is called the prince of the power of this world and actively works against God’s purposes. In many ways, Pharaoh reminds me of Satan, viewing himself as the king of this realm and actively opposed to God’s intrusion into it. Just as Satan is known to accuse believers falsely, Pharaoh accuses the Israelites of being lazy rather than faithful in wanting the time away to worship the Lord.

In this story, I think Pharaoh’s opposition most closely aligns with the spiritual opposition of Satan, but I want to mention one other spiritual obstacle that we also commonly face. That is ourselves. When we view ourselves as little kings and queens of our own realm, and come to see God’s Word or Will as inconvenient or contrary to our own plans, we set ourselves up to be Pharaoh, standing against God’s purpose in our life. It is entirely possible to be our own Pharaoh and our own worst enemy.

Whatever the particular form of spiritual opposition is, the result can be real trouble and suffering.


Trouble and Suffering (vv. 6-19)

Pharaoh gave the order to do the impossible. The Hebrews would no longer be provided with straw to make their bricks, but would have to scrounge on their own to find ‘stubble’ to help hold the bricks together. But their daily quota would remain the same. Impossible! There was something godly, or pseudo-godly, about the order. And no one questioned the impossibility of it. I remember the line from the old movie, “So shall it be written; so shall it be done.” No one questioned Pharaoh, even if the command was impossible. And so the taskmasters and foremen passed the word down and the people labored to do what was demanded.

There is an interesting parallel here. God gave Moses signs to show that he spoke for the Lord. Moses was do demonstrate these “impossible” or miraculous signs. And Pharaoh gave an impossible order to demonstrate his authority and power. This is just the beginning of what will become a huge showdown between the power of this world and the power of God. Later Pharaoh will try to match plague after plague with demonstrations of his own power, but eventually he will fail.

While today’s topic is not the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart, recognize that this is not God unfairly turning an average nice guy against him. This is God confronting one of the major powers of this world and demonstrating that power, evil, and oppression will not overthrow or undo His purpose in the world.

The people of Israel had already been oppressed and crushed prior to Moses showing up in the first place. Then they had responded with so much hope and faith to the news that the Lord had heard their cry and was going to deliver them. Seeing that promise seemingly destroyed and being pressed even harder by the accusations and power of their earthly opponent produced a further crisis of faith.

I know many of you have been there before. Finally, a light at the end of the tunnel, then darkness. Where is God now? Where is faith?


Doubt and Discouragement (vv. 20-23)

The Israelites turned on Moses and Aaron, pronouncing a curse: “May the Lord look upon you and judge you!” (v. 21) Can you really blame them? As one who is seen as speaking for the Lord, I have heard and felt that anger before. And I understand it. Know, too, that I have played the part of Moses, who takes that disappointment and frustration to the Lord: “O Lord, why have you brought harm to this people? Why did you ever send me?” (v. 22)

Again, we will stop here with the text, because that’s how life feels sometimes. We don’t get to rush ahead to the next chapter and see what happens next. We are stuck in the trouble and suffering, in the doubt and discouragement, for a season. But my hope is that hearing someone else’s story – Israel’s story – and having some inkling of God’s larger story, can give you a glimmer of hope and faith as to what God is doing in your own life.

Remember the overarching theme of Exodus? God has a purpose for His people and for the world and is not sidelined, undone, or thwarted by sin or evil, whether that of human beings, earthly powers, or even spiritual powers like Satan, the Accuser. What we will see is not just that Pharaoh won’t win in the end, but that in the unfolding of the story, from suffering to hope to disappointment to conflict and showdown to deliverance, that God will be glorified through each part of that. Against Pharaoh’s power and stubbornness we will see all the more how patient, powerful, and faithful God is to His people.

So, what can you and I learn in the midst of this unfolding story, particularly if we are in a place of trouble, suffering, doubt, or discouragement? For one, that if you are not there yet, it may come, for until Jesus comes, Satan will oppose God and accuse His followers. And, we are prone to making ourselves into mini-gods and undermining our own part in God’s purpose. But know, too, that if and when the trouble and suffering come, if and when it results in doubts or discouragement, know that God is not done and is not overcome, but is still at work in the world and in your life to accomplish His purposes for His glory.

God can handle your anger and doubts; that even lets me know that you are still thinking of and perhaps talking to God. But guard against indifference or unbelief. Keep talking and praying, for God hears your prayer and sees your suffering. And know that today is not the end, nor does the Accuser or the powers of this world have the last word in your life. That is Good News, even in the midst of the shadows. Amen.


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