Monday, March 7, 2011

Missing God (Exodus 6)

Sermon by: Robert Austell
March 6, 2011
Some Music Used 
Prelude: "'Tis So Sweet to Trust in Jesus" (Kirkpatrick/Courtney)
Hymn of Praise: "Love Divine, All LOves Excelling" (BEECHER)
Song of Praise: "Blessed Be Your Name" (Redman)
Offering of Music: "O Sacrum Convivium" (Biery)
Song of Sending: "Amazing Grace/My Chains Are Gone" (Tomlin, Giglio, et al.)

Missing God
Text: Exodus 6

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


We pick up today in the middle of a story. I continue to be struck by the way this drawn-out story speaks into our lives. I appreciate the fact that these are not short little verses that wrap everything up in a nice little bow. I appreciate that we end some parts of the story full of faith and promise and others struggling with doubt and disappointment. I appreciate this story because it feels like real life; it reminds me of my own story, struggles and all.

At the end of Exodus 4, Moses and Aaron were received with open arms and hearts by the elders of Israel, who believed and bowed down low in worship to Yahweh, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. By the end of Exodus 5, Pharaoh had not only denied the request to let the Hebrew people have three days to make offerings to their God in the desert, Pharaoh defied their God and issued an impossible work decree for his laborers, as if to prove that there was no god above Pharaoh. And the people were left crushed and defeated, full of doubt and discouragement.

The story continues today. In many ways, it appears to get worse! But hang in there – there is a thread of hope, a thread of promise, rooted in the name and reputation of Yahweh, who ultimately will show Himself to be the one and only God, and the Deliverer for His people. We will not see it today, but listen, for sometimes the most valuable lessons can be learned in the depths of despair.

Missing God (vv. 1-9)

The first part of the story today is in verses 1-9. Basically, God recaps all that He has already said He would do. This is virtually the same content as we read earlier in chapter 3. What is noticeably different is the response of God’s people. God’s message hasn’t changed: Yahweh is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; He has seen and heard His people’s suffering; and He will deliver them out of bondage and into the Land which He promised to Abraham in the covenant.

In chapter four, the people received this news with belief and worship. Now, after Pharaoh’s impossibly difficult decree withholding straw for the making of bricks, the people do not “listen to Moses on account of their despondency and cruel bondage.” (v. 9)

One might be tempted to think that the first time around they believed because life was going well, and now it wasn’t. But really, Pharaoh’s decree just introduced a new level of horrible. In chapter four, God’s people were already enslaved and had been for generations. More likely, I think their reaction was more of a “I don’t want to get my hopes up again.”

I get it; don’t you? I’ve been there myself. But they are also missing God speaking into their lives. Tuning out God’s words doesn’t help them; it is a tragic choice to shut their eyes and ears to God, even in the midst of pain, perhaps especially in the midst of disappointment and doubt. Remember what I said last week? Doubt and discouragement are okay; they presuppose faith, even if it’s a faith that’s struggling. But guard against unbelief and indifference, for then you are missing God altogether.

More Impossible! (vv. 10-13)

The next part of the story comes in verses 10-13, and it’s a little mind-boggling. I think we miss that because many of us have heard the broad Exodus story before. Realize, though, what has already happened. Moses asked Pharaoh to let the Hebrew people go into the desert for three days to worship God. And Pharaoh came down impossibly hard on them in withdrawing the straw but maintaining the required quota of bricks. And now the Lord tells Moses to go back to Pharaoh and ask for more… impossibly more! He was to TELL (not ask, but tell) Pharaoh to release the entire Hebrew people so that they might “go out of his land.” (v. 11) This was the whole enslaved work force of Egypt. It is as if God was trying to out-impossible Pharaoh.

And Moses only emphasizes the impossibility of the task, saying, “Behold, the sons of Israel have not listened to me; how then will Pharaoh listen to me, for I am unskilled in speech?” (v. 12)

I say it that way because I think that was, in a sense, what was going on. One helpful way to understand what is going on between Yahweh and Pharaoh is as a conflict or showdown between world powers. I said last week that Pharaoh’s claims to earthly power were similar to those of Satan. In the way Pharaoh talked, ruled, and challenged Moses’ words, he was establishing himself as “god of this world.” And Yahweh was challenging Pharaoh’s authority on those very terms. As we start next week into the plagues and see the way Pharaoh responds to them, I think that “cosmic showdown” framework will help make sense of much of it.

I am reminded of a song lyric by David Wilcox, a favorite folk musician of mine, whom I heard in Charlotte last weekend. In the song, “Show the Way” he writes:

Look, if someone wrote a play just to glorify
What's stronger than hate, would they not arrange the stage
To look as if the hero came too late he's almost in defeat
It's looking like the Evil side will win, so on the edge
Of every seat, from the moment that the whole thing begins

As I read Exodus and we move through it slowly, I do find myself on the edge of my seat, thinking that it looks more and more like the Evil side will win. Where is God? Where is the hero and the Deliverer? Is He almost in defeat? I recognize, too, that those are thoughts we sometimes have as we ponder where God is in our own lives.

A Brief Excursion (vv. 14-27)

Well time for a short excursion. I left verses 14-25 out of the reading because they are a bit of a side note to the main narrative. But they do serve an important function. These verses are a bunch of names and we tend to skip over those when we see them. But genealogies are provided in the Bible with purpose. In this case, the genealogy is there to authenticate Aaron as a Levite and priest. This is important because he speaks for Moses and the Lord in the dealings with the people of Israel and with Pharaoh. And as the Exodus story unfolds, he and his sons play an important role as the priests of Israel.

So, if you have your own Bible and are inclined, you might circle these names, which trace Aaron’s lineage back to Levi, father of the priestly tribe: Levi, Kohath, Amram, Aaron. Aaron is the great-grandson of Levi, and Moses is his brother. You’ll see, then, that the story picks back up by saying, “This was the same Aaron and Moses to whom the Lord spoke…” (v. 26).

Even Moses? (vv. 28-30)

So this same Aaron and Moses, chosen and authorized by the Lord, are now being told by the Lord to go back to Pharaoh with an even more impossible task. The people of Israel aren’t listening. Pharaoh isn’t listening (and is openly hostile and oppressive). Will Moses show faith?

Moses repeats, for the second time in this setting (vv. 12, 30): “Behold, I am unskilled in speech; how then will Pharaoh listen to me?”

Not only have God’s people moved from belief and worship to doubt and discouragement, God’s deliverer has returned to his questions and excuses.

And again, we pause in the story. Not only are things not wrapped up nice and tidy, they aren’t even improved from last week. God is asking more, things seem more impossible, and doubt and discouragement are the order of the day.

Let me repeat what I said last week.

It is okay to doubt and even be discouraged. Both of those things require faith and hope that someone is there and things could be better. But guard against unbelief and indifference. And hear again the Good News of Exodus, declared by God at the burning bush and staked on God’s reputation and power: God has a purpose and it is not undone by evil or the sins (or doubts) of human beings.

I think David Wilcox said the same thing rather beautifully in his song. Listen to how the verse I already quoted moves into the chorus.

Look, if someone wrote a play just to glorify
What's stronger than hate, would they not arrange the stage
To look as if the hero came too late he's almost in defeat
It's looking like the Evil side will win, so on the edge
Of every seat, from the moment that the whole thing begins…

It is Love who makes the mortar
And it's Love who stacked these stones
And it's Love who made the stage here
Although it looks like we're alone
In this scene set in shadows
Like the night is here to stay
There is evil cast around us
But it's Love that wrote the play.
For in this darkness Love can show the way

Do not shut your eyes, ears, and heart to God, because you will miss God speaking and acting. And it is God who can and will show the way. Amen.




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