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Sunday, March 20, 2011

A Top Ten List from the Plagues (Exodus 9-10)

Sermon by: Robert Austell
March 20, 2011
Some Music Used 
Prelude: "Father, I Adore You" (arr. Bock)
Hymn of Praise: "Sing Praise to God Who Reigns Above" (MIT FREUDEN ZART)
Song of Praise: "Beautiful One" (Hughes)
The Word in Music: "Deliver Us" (A. Peterson)
Offering of Music: "Holy, Holy, Holy" (Dykes/Bock)
Hymn of Sending: "I Sing the Mighty Power of God" (ELLACOMBE)

The Word through Drama
"Remember" (featuring Juliette Tillery; by Kathy Larson)

A Top Ten List from the Plagues
Text: Exodus 9-10

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

Bulletin Cover Drawing by Kaitlyn Hetterly
Today we continue in Exodus, the story of God Delivering His people. Technically, we are looking at plagues 5-9, but I want to look at these in a little bit different way today. There is so much going on in each of these, and then so many to look at, I have tried to organize what we need to know in a way that will be more helpful than simply surveying the details of each one.

This turned into a longer list than I originally intended, so I’d like to offer you a “top ten” list of what’s going on in the plagues, with an effort to apply each of these in some way to our own understanding and life. While it’s hard to rank these precisely, these are more or less in order of importance. So, we’ll start at #10, at more of the detail level, and work our way to more overarching truths and applications.

#10 DRAMA: Miraculous Signs

As a starting place, let me remind you of something I’ve said the past two weeks. We tend to call these ‘plagues,’ but it would be more accurate to simply call them “miraculous signs.” The point of them isn’t to torment, but to serve as a sign or a pointer, highlighting God’s power and authority. These are meant to accompany the Word of the Lord, spoken through Moses and Aaron. And that Word is that God has seen His people’s suffering, has heard their cries and prayers, remembers his covenantal promise to Abraham, and is acting to deliver them. That message is for both Israel and for Pharaoh. And the people of Israel, the people of Egypt, Pharaoh, and even Moses, must and do struggle with belief and unbelief, with obedience and disobedience, with worship and with rejection of Yahweh.

These signs are not just miraculous; they are also dramatic. Many times either Aaron’s rod or Moses’ staff is used to call forth the sign. Several times (as with the gnats and boils), additional gestures accompany the sign, like taking handfuls of soot and throwing it toward the sky. These gestures are not ‘magic’ but serve dramatic purposes to further point to the God and the power behind the signs.

For you and me, understanding these plagues as signs is a reminder that at the end of the day, the answered prayer or the silence, the beautiful sunset or the dreary rain, waiting for a miracle or even seeing one, is not the bottom line of faith. Faith is not in the things we see, but trust in the One who creates, sustains, and redeems, the One who sees and hears, the One who has spoken, and the One who saves. This is not the story of the Ten Plagues; it is the story of the mighty God who saves.

#9 HOLINESS: A Holy People (whether they know it or not)

One of the interesting details we see in several of the miraculous signs is a distinction made between the people of Israel and Egypt. In one case, flies only afflicted Egypt and stayed away from Goshen, where the Israelites lived. In today’s text, the Israelites were explicitly protected from the death of the livestock and from the hail. You can read in 9:4, “The Lord will make a distinction between [Israel and Egypt].”

While this just seems like a logistical feature of the story, it is also a theological or spiritual one. The concept of holiness runs throughout the Bible and at its root means “set apart” or “separate.” God was not just sparing His people from the devastating plagues; God was also identifying them as the chosen or set-apart people He named them to be in the covenant with Abraham.

The New Testament describes the Church – US – as a holy or set-apart people in the same way. We are set apart, not because we are better than anyone else, but because we belong to God through Jesus Christ. That is the purpose of baptism: to mark us and our children as set apart for God. Clearly, we can take that notion of being set apart and withdraw and cut ourselves off from the world. But Jesus makes clear that being a holy people doesn’t mean withdrawal, but engagement with the world around us as salt and light, witnesses to the mighty God who saves.

I will remind you that this was not new with Jesus, but was even present in Exodus. God would use His people and even this Exodus event to bear witness to and bless the world.

#8 AUTHORITY: The Absolute Authority of Yahweh

Another interesting detail that we see several times during the ten miraculous signs is Moses telling Pharaoh when the particular sign would begin or end. For example, in Exodus 9:5 we read: “The Lord set a definite time, saying, ‘Tomorrow the Lord will do this thing in the land.’” In one case (8:9), Moses even asked Pharaoh when he’d like to see the frogs leave, and Moses prayed and God answered. The point of all this was to demonstrate that these signs were not coincidental – it wasn’t just a bad case of frogs, perhaps driven to land by what happened with the water, which Moses was using to his advantage. Rather, their beginning and their ending were the doing of Yahweh, whose power and authority was absolute.

This is one specific reason why we cannot and should not take an event like the earthquake and tsunami in Japan and claim that it is God’s judgment or punishment or some such thing. That is simply taking wrongful advantage of a natural event. That’s not what Moses did. God spoke to and through Moses, announced these signs – start and finish in some cases – and included His Word.

More positively, based on these signs in Exodus we might be tempted to ask God for specific timing for answers to prayers. Indeed, we can ask, but the more important reminder in Exodus is that God’s timing is the best timing and God’s power and authority absolute. We can do no better than pray as Jesus did, “Father, your will be done.”

#7 IDOLATRY: Pharaoh’s control issues and the showdown

I’ve mentioned several times in past weeks that this part of the Exodus story is very much a confrontation or showdown between Yahweh and Pharaoh. That is a helpful dynamic to keep in mind as you read or hear this story. Pharaoh very much understood himself to be the “god of this world.” He had not heard of Yahweh and did not care to hear about Yahweh. He not only committed evil toward the people of Israel by enslaving them and treating them harshly, he also intentionally set himself against them and their God. I have noted the several points of correlation between Pharaoh as a human “god of this world” and Satan as a temporary and self-proclaimed “god of this world.”

Nonetheless, one of the difficult things to understand in this narrative is the language of the Lord “hardening Pharaoh’s heart.” Does that mean Pharaoh never had a chance? Does it mean that I might never have had a chance? Does it mean that someone I know or love might never have a chance with God? That’s the hard question underneath the question.

I don’t claim to have the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart all figured out, but I can speak to the other questions. Pharaoh’s hard heart is a difficult part of the story and I readily admit that. But here’s where I start if you want to pursue it further yourself or follow up with me.

The hard and shortest answer is that God can do whatever God wants to do, even if that looks to us like the wrong thing to us. We can’t understand the scope of God’s wisdom. It is possible to affirm that God is good, loving, just, and wise, and trust that if God chose to harden Pharaoh’s heart, then that is God’s right and it is not necessary that we understand completely. We can note that Pharaoh understood himself to be God’s enemy. We can note that the purpose of hardening Pharaoh’s heart was to demonstrate the Lord’s true God-hood over the claims of Pharaoh and all the gods of Egypt. We can and will note the parallels to God’s confrontation of Satan, sin, death, and evil through the work of Jesus. We can note that Pharaoh was an unusual, if not unique, case. But, it remains a difficult thing to understand.

I would note that Pharaoh is mentioned in the New Testament in Romans 9, which as a theological passage speaks more directly to this question than the narrative of Exodus. In reading Romans 9 one must also take into account all of Romans, which begins in chapter one with a description of God “giving over” those who are set against him to their own self-rule. This might help explain the language of “hardening” in Exodus. Pharaoh was clearly set against God from the get-go. And we even see some variation through the accounts of the miraculous signs. Early on, you’ll read more frequently that Pharaoh’s heart “was hardened.” That can also be read, “his heart was hard (or strong).” (as in, already hard). Later in the story, you’ll read, “The Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart.” This is not unlike the process described in Romans 1, where the Lord eventually gives those who stubbornly turn from Him over to what they want.

Even so, Pharaoh did certainly see himself as a god and an enemy of any God of the Israelites. It may even be that God’s revealing of His power and authority was itself the thing that hardened Pharaoh’s heart. What is remarkable is that God could even use the stubborn hard-hearted rebellion of Pharaoh – redeem it, even – to accomplish His plan of delivering Israel.

For us and closer to where these questions really intersect our lives, the message need not be one of fear. God will not turn away any who seek Him. More than that, the Biblical story, including the Exodus story, is of a God who relentlessly pursues and bears self-witness to the world of His character and saving power. The invitation of the Gospel is to ALL who will come to and through Jesus Christ.

#6 MERCY: Even in the Midst of Judgment

I will keep this point brief. Even in the midst of these miraculous signs that seem so destructive, God demonstrates mercy. He includes His Word, for all who might listen and obey, like the instruction accompanying the hail. Any who listened, Egyptians included, would have been spared. And this is not theoretical. We read in Exodus 9:20 that (at least) one among the servants of Pharaoh “feared the Word of the Lord” and made his servants and livestock take cover. And in the next verse (21), we read of another (or many) who “paid no regard to the Word of the Lord” and left his servants and livestock in the field.

This story gets at a very difficult truth echoed in the New Testament, where the same Gospel is a “fragrance of life” to those who believe, but a “fragrance of death” to those who do not. The Lord gave Pharaoh and the Egyptians many chances to yield, to listen. Through Moses, the Lord gave instructions about how to live and be safe and avoid damage and destruction, for those with ears to hear.

For us, it is not unlike being children all over again. In most cases, a parent’s instructions are the best for us. They will spare us extra misery, hurt, and pain. But we don’t always listen. So it is with God’s Word. It is infinitely more trustworthy than even a loving parent’s words. But we must also choose whether to listen, trust, and obey. If I don’t LIKE what I hear, will I nonetheless listen and obey? When I don’t, it is often that very Pharaoh-like desire for self-rule at work. Oh, that we might be quick to listen and look for God’s merciful Word and experience it in our lives!

#5 FAITHFULNESS: God Keeping Covenant and Achieving His Purpose

We are down to our top five. I’ve mentioned several of these in past weeks, so I’ll be more brief. One of the over-arching elements of the Exodus story is that of God keeping the covenant with Abraham and achieving that part of His purpose in the world. I noted early on that God’s purposes cannot be thwarted or undone by evil or by human sin or disobedience. We have seen that verified week after week, in spite of a Pharaoh that killed the Hebrew children, Moses taking matters into his own hands as a young man, the unimaginable suffering of the Hebrew people, or the stubborn tyranny of the Pharaoh in these recent chapters.

Bottom line, God is faithful, strong, and good. That is Good News! Especially when we feel powerless, overcome, and weak. The same God of Exodus who sees, hears, and delivers, is the same God whom we read about in John 3:16 who “so loved the world that He sent His son.” When you hear the Exodus story, I hope you hear the story of Yahweh, mighty to save, who is faithful and true.

#4 NAMES: Especially God’s Name

One of the recurring themes in the Exodus story (not to mention all of Scripture) is God’s name. The significance of names in biblical cultures was that they were more than names: they signified the character and reputation of the person named. Exodus 9:16 highlights the significance of this in the story: the miraculous signs are not just to show God’s power, but also “in order to proclaim [God’s] name through all the earth.”

Specifically, remember that at the beginning of the story Pharaoh said, “I’ve never heard of Yahweh… nor do I care what your God wants.” This series of signs is not just to confront Pharaoh’s claims as the “god of this world,” but also to demonstrate and declare to the watching world that Yahweh is God. Elsewhere in Scripture God’s name is declared through creation, through His Word, and through His works. Here the name is declared specifically through His confrontation with the tyrannical power of this world.

#3 WITNESS: among the Nations

The expansion of God’s blessing to the nations wasn’t an invention of the Apostle Paul in his 1st century ministry to the Gentiles; it was God’s original intent, expressed in the covenant with Abraham. That covenant promised Abraham many children and land, but also blessing. And Abraham’s children would be blessed in order to be a blessing to the nations.

Yahweh’s delivering His people from slavery is front and center in the Exodus story, but woven throughout you can see that more than Israel is in view. God is also interested in bearing witness to the Egyptians and to the watching world.

You can catch glimpses of this as the magicians and servants variously recognize the power and authority of Yahweh is behind what they are seeing. At one point (8:19) the magicians declare (to Pharaoh’s face!) that this sign must be “the finger of God.” At another point (10:7), Pharaoh’s servants plead with him to let the Israelites go “serve the Lord their God.”

For us, this broad theme serves as reminder that God’s Word and blessing is not just for the church huddled within its walls, but for the world beyond the walls. This is not only an explicit teaching of Jesus (to be ‘salt’ and ‘light’), but is one of the broadest biblical themes running through all of scripture.

#2 WEAKNESS: God Uses the Weak to Accomplish His Purpose

One of the truly mind-boggling truths of this story and the whole biblical story is that this faithful and mighty God chooses to use imperfect, human people to accomplish His holy purpose. That same purpose that cannot be thwarted, undone, or bound by evil, sin, or even death, is being accomplished through people like you and me. If God would use an old, ex-con, exiled, disobedient man like Moses… or Peter… or Thomas… or an outcast like Rahab, Ruth, or Mary Magdelene, believe the astounding news that God not only loves you, but wants you to participate in His work in the world!

#1 GOSPEL: a Demonstration of the Gospel

Finally, the Exodus story is a Gospel story. From beginning to end, it points to God’s saving power in the world. In Moses’ time, God saw and heard the oppression of His people and entered into the kingdom of the “god of this world” in order to confront and overthrow that power and save His people. In the same way, and once and for all, God entered into the kingdom of this world through His son, Jesus, and confronted Satan, sin, and death in order to confront and overthrow those powers and save all who would believe.

While the once-and-for-all Gospel would be almost 2000 years later, the Exodus Gospel was told and retold through the Passover meal. We still have to go through that last and most horrible sign, and the actual deliverance of God’s people from slavery and death. But know that we are moving toward that Passover event – and we will celebrate it here at Good Shepherd the week before Easter – as we look even further ahead to the Easter celebration of God’s victory over sin and death itself.

The mighty God who saves loves you, wants you, and has entered into the very kingdom of sin and death in order to deliver you. That is the Good News and God’s Word through Exodus to you, and through you to the world. May you have ears to hear! Amen.

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