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Sunday, January 30, 2011

The God Who Sees and Hears (Exodus 3.1-12, Acts 7.30-34)

Sermon by: Robert Austell
January 30, 2011
Some Music Used 
Cong. Song: "I Lift My Eyes Up" (Doerksen)
Choir: "Hold us, Jesus" (deSilva)
 Special Music: "I Have a Shelter" (Cook, Kauflin)
Choir: "Let God Arise" (Tomlin, Cash, Reeves)

The God Who Sees and Hears
Texts: Exodus 3:1-12; Acts 7:30-34

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

Today we are continuing the story of Deliverance in Exodus. We have seen several overarching themes, chief among them that God is not thwarted or sidelined by evil or by human sin or disobedience, but is accomplishing (as He ever has) His holy purpose in the world, for His glory.

We have also seen that whether we face immense struggles, obstacles, or evil, or whether we feel protected and blessed, we can make faithful choices or we can make unfaithful choices. Moses did this in the text we read last week, turning His face away from God and seemingly putting the whole Exodus deliverance at risk.

But we also saw that God does not write us off or forsake us when we sin or turn away. Rather God pursues us and can redeem the worst of situations. So last week we left off with Moses having a second chance to act faithfully, in which he defended some women who were being harassed at a well. He was taken into the family of those women, married, and had children. Clearly, God did not abandon him.

The question remained, “What of God’s plans? What of deliverance?”

We pick that question up this week, and continue to see what this story has claimed all along: 1) God’s purpose to deliver His people and lead them to the land He promised Abraham is intact; and 2) God chooses to further redeem and call the exiled Moses into service.

Redeemed in Exile

At the beginning of Exodus 3, Moses was pasturing the flock of Jethro his father-in-law. This is basically where we ended last week, and I don’t want you to miss the significance of this. Moses had committed a crime – he murdered an Egyptian man. Though Moses felt justified, his actions were rejected by his fellow Hebrews, a capital offense for Pharaoh King of Egypt, and an act of sin and disobedience against God. Moses fled Egypt for his life to live in exile in Midian.

We talked last week about how we tend to think of sin and disobedience in one of two ways. Either we minimize and rationalize it, and miss the seriousness of it. Or it is too great to do that and we figure God is done with us. The glorious good news last week was that nothing and no one in this life can legitimately claim “God is done with you.” And God was not done with Moses. He had a second chance to act faithfully and God redeemed him in exile and blessed him with a family, a home, and a life. And so, we find Moses tending the flocks of his father-in-law, Jethro. We also will read in chapter 7 that Moses spent 40 years in Midian, so that he was almost 80 years old at this point!

This was really the message of last week – but I don’t want you to miss it. Though you may understand that you have failed God in some way, know that God has not forgotten you and is able to redeem your life. He did for Moses, granting him much that he would have thought he lost in fleeing into exile.

God’s Continuing Purpose

But this is not the end of Moses’ story; there is much more. Interestingly, the heart of the Exodus story as well as the heart of today’s text, is not about Moses at all. Rather, it is about God. God’s purpose has remained all along, not overturned or undone by Moses’ personal failures. And so the middle section of today’s text reminds us that the Lord’s purpose continued. Starting in verse 7, we read that the Lord still sees and hears, and has come down to deliver His people from slavery and into the land of promise.

This also is a significant declaration of good news. You may not have identified with Moses, but rather with the people suffering in Egypt. You may be suffering, or feel enslaved and trapped, or be laboring under a heavy weight. God is not indifferent, nor is He sidelined by evil and sin. Rather, God sees and hears – and this is the great declaration of Scripture: God has acted! God has come down to deliver us from sin and into His promises and purpose.

So whether you may feel like your own decisions have shut you off from God or whether you may feel like life itself – the evil of the world around us – has silenced God, know this: God sees you; God hears you; and God has come down!

Redeemed from Exile

Now here is the really amazing and (to me) unnecessary part. I could see redeeming Moses in exile, helping him to understand the mercy and grace of God. I could understand acting to answer the cries of my people. But I would not have gone back to Moses for a deliverer.

But that’s how God’s glory shines the most – in human weakness! For God’s own reasons, He chooses to call Moses out of Exile to be the human deliverer and go to Pharaoh. This is the ex-con, exiled, ex-Prince, ex-Hebrew, and OLD MAN Moses… and God is going to use him nonetheless. Talk about redemption.

No wonder Moses said, “Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh, and that I should bring the sons of Israel out of Egypt?” (v. 11) You’re not kidding, Moses…

But there is a truth that is even more glorious than the one last week. Though each of you has failed and fallen and turned our faces away from God, and more than once, God loves you still. That is amazing. But it’s more than that: God loves you and WANTS you to be part of what He is doing in the world.

Implications for Church-People

Last week, in so many words, I said that many places that go by the name “church” are places that know neither sin nor grace.

And yet Moses’ story illustrates what we are to be. Not only did God follow Moses into exile and redeem his life there. God invites Moses back into His holy presence in this scene with the burning bush. He calls Moses’ name, He invites Moses to shed his shoes and come into the holy place, and He invokes the covenant name and promises. And then… and then… God calls Moses into service!

This process was not quick – it took 40 years.

It was not automatic – Moses had to listen to God’s voice and he responded with, “Here I am.”

It was neither cheap nor shallow – Moses didn’t just get a note by carrier pigeon, but had to come before the holy presence of God. You’ll read that he “was afraid to look at God.” Whether that was God’s holiness or Moses’ shame or likely both, Moses was not taking God casually or lightly.

And Moses had to respond and obey. In verse 10 God said, “Therefore, come now, and I will send you to Pharaoh, so that you may bring my people, the sons of Israel, out of Egypt.” God had a mission and Moses’ participation was another opportunity to make a faithful or an unfaithful choice.

God is still at work in the world. And He has invited – more than that, He CALLS ON you – to be a part.

We miss that purpose and calling if:

1. We overestimate ourselves and don’t hear God very well; or

2. We underestimate God’s love and live as permanent exiles

But we won’t miss it if:

3. We face our disobedience, believe God’s faithfulness, and respond to His call.

God’s intent for US – the church – is that together we face our disobedience, hear and believe His faithfulness, and together respond to what He is doing in the world around us. Anything less is not a healthy or true church.

God’s intent for YOU is to use you in all your unique made-in-His-image ways, that you might join in His purpose and bring Him honor and glory in your life.

What is God doing and will you be a part?

Monday, January 24, 2011

Taking Matters into Your Own Hands (Exodus 2, Acts 7)

Sermon by: Robert Austell
January 23, 2011
Some Music Used 
Cong. Song: "All Creatures/Give Glory" (arr. Austell, Dawson)
Cong. Song: "Everlasting God" (Brown)
Choir: "We are Not Alone" (Choplin)

Taking Matters into Your Own Hands
Texts: Exodus 2:11-25; Acts 7:22-29

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

Today we continue our study of Exodus and find baby Moses grown up. In past weeks we have seen several overarching themes for Exodus that we will see reinforced and lived out in today’s text.

First, we saw that God is not thwarted or sidelined by evil or by human sin or disobedience. Rather, God is able to accomplish His purpose in the world in His own timing and for His glory. We saw that in the specific life of Joseph and in the 360-year history of the Hebrew people in Exodus 1, and we are seeing it in the life of Moses and the coming deliverance of God’s people from slavery in Egypt.

Second, we saw that even in the face of and midst of unimaginable evil and suffering, it is possible to make a godly or faithful choice, though sometimes that choice is costly. Given today’s story, I’d also add that even under the hand of God’s blessing, it is possible to make an unfaithful choice and turn one’s face away from God’s purpose.

A third point from last week is that God’s purpose is just that – a purpose. God’s plans have a long and broad timeline and are more like an impossibly rich music composition than a momentary trumpet blast.

Related to that, then, is the fourth point – that to seek God’s will means that we must not let our own will get in the way. There is a godly yielding, humility, and obedience that is involved in turning our face towards God’s purpose in our life. But it is one that God delights to help us with if we will earnestly seek Him.

All those points come to bear in the story today, because we begin with a 40-year-old Moses whom God delivered from death as a baby, brought into Pharaoh’s house to be educated, sheltered, and raised, and who has come to recognize himself as the Deliverer for his people. And yet, Moses makes a catastrophic choice to take matters into his own hands, sins egregiously, and flees for his life.

Taking Matters into His Own Hands

So you heard the story. Moses has grown up in the household of Pharaoh, the king of Egypt. He is out observing his brethren hard at their labor, and he sees an Egyptian beating a Hebrew man. He steps in, making sure he is not seen, and kills the Egyptian, then burying him in the sand to hide the body.

This week we heard again part of the sermon of Stephen in Acts. Stephen offers us some additional commentary on the event. He notes that Moses was educated, and powerful in words and deeds. He also knows where he came from: he is Hebrew. Stephen narrates the same event but adds the detail that Moses “supposed his brethren understood that God was granting them deliverance through him.” (Acts 7:25) Both the Exodus and Acts accounts tell us that the next day Moses saw two Hebrew men fighting, and again he steps in to intervene. They reject him as ruler or judge, being repelled by the murder he committed the previous day. Realizing that word has gotten out, Moses flees Egypt since the punishment for his crime is death.

Simply looking at the Exodus passage, it is clear enough that Moses sinned. He committed murder, even if doing on behalf of his fellow Hebrew. The dialogue the next day demonstrates that even the other Hebrews recognized the illegality and sinfulness of his action. He was not the law and that was not God’s way. He had claimed authority where none was given.

Stephen only adds a few details, but indicates that Moses knew of his role in God’s plan: he was to be his people’s deliverer. That suggests an additional layer of explanation to what happened. It does not excuse Moses’ action; rather, it brings it even closer to home for me. Moses took matters into his own hands. God’s mission was to free His people, and to use Moses. But this was neither God’s way nor God’s timing.

But isn’t Moses’ solution just what we do, in big and small ways? We either become impatient or unsatisfied with God’s answers and God’s Word and we decide to do it our way? Ceasing to listen to God and wait on God is dicey enough, but if doing so involves blatant sin, then the results can be tragic.

And so it was with Moses. He fled for his life. And again God’s plan of deliverance seems undone. Who would deliver God’s people now? Who would end the slavery and confront the injustice?

It is so easy to forget that the answer to those questions was always GOD… not Moses.

God’s Purpose and Faithful Choices

So this is a good time to remind you of some of those big points again:

God is not thwarted or sidelined by evil or human sin or disobedience… even that of Moses; even yours.

There remains a faithful choice for those who would choose it, regardless of what is stacked against you. Notice I didn’t say “a way out” or a “get out of jail free card” but a “faithful choice.” Sometimes consequences must be paid; sometimes the suffering continues. But we have the choice to be faithful.

And God’s story is longer and broader than one wrong action, as devastating as it may have been. God’s purpose continued, though Moses had turned his face away.

We will not get much further in Moses’ story today. Things are not yet set right and we really are left hanging with the question of what God will do now. But look what happens while Moses is in exile, far from Egypt and the enslaved Hebrew people. He encounters some shepherds giving a group of women a hard time and preventing them from drawing water. Interestingly, it is a similar situation to what he fled and the manner of his sin. Will he become enraged? Will he justify his actions as the deliverer? Will he slip away, ruined forever as God’s man and destined for failure apart from God?

He makes a faithful choice. Remember that, if you find yourself questioning whether God is done with you because of personal failure or sin. There is always a faithful choice and a new start. So he chases off the shepherds and helps the women. The women turned out to be sisters and their father invited the refugee Moses to come stay with them. Eventually, Moses married one of the daughters, Zipporah. And there, a “wanderer in a foreign land” (Exodus 2:22) he had children. So yes, Moses’ unfaithful choice cost him and his people much. But as he began to make faithful choices, God began to redeem his life. It will remain to be seen what God’s longer purpose for Moses would be.

Taking Matters into Your Own Hands

Today’s text has a powerful application for us. It’s claim is not only that God cannot be thwarted by human sin and evil, but also that those who have disobeyed or turned from God are not irredeemably or irretrievably lost. We won’t see that fully demonstrated in the story until next week, when God calls an exiled Moses back into service. But we get a glimpse of it in Moses’ ability to choose the right thing in Midian after the murder, the flight, and the exile. He is not written out of God’s plan or purpose.

My guess is that 100 out of every 100 Christians know what it is to disobey God. I have, and I am pretty sure you have. But here’s what we’ve done with that reality. We’ve separated some sins into “not so bad” and others into “way too bad” and we’ve pretty much written God out of the equation. Many of us that are still here (in the Church) have found ways to rationalize or minimize our sins and figured they are no big deal. But listen – they are a big deal. They are us turning our face away from God.

Worse yet, we’ve found that some sins can’t be rationalized or minimized and our conclusion is that God is done with us. I say ‘us’ but likely most folks who have turned from God in those ways have not found their way back or been welcomed into the Church. They are truly in exile.

And then there are a precious few who have known or been close to those kind of big sins and yet have experienced or seen what God can do even in the most lost and dark places: REDEMPTION. Often those folks don’t make their way back to church because church people just don’t get it – the true scope of God’s grace.

Listen… whoever you are, whatever you’ve done, and EACH one of you here today. You have taken matters into your own hands and turned your face from God and you’ve done it more than once. I have taken matters into my own hands and turned my face from God, more than once.

God’s purpose in the world is not thwarted, nor is God sidelined, sidetracked, or put off guard. Even more personal than that glorious truth is that God is not done with you and me. Each of you and I can still make faithful choices today and turn our faces toward God, by His grace. And it is by His grace.

There is more… and Moses’ story will continue. As I’ve said before, God doesn’t just forgive sinners; He calls them into service! But that’s next week and I think this point is a good point to pause… to soak in the Good News declaration in Exodus that for exiled sinners, it is not too late. Like Moses defending the women of Midian at the well, we are given another chance to do things differently. We can make faithful choices and honor God.

Do you understand the significance of that? God wants you; God loves you! And God doesn’t just want and love the made-up Sunday morning version of you, but the dirty hands, dirty feet, unkempt version of you that few people ever see. Isn’t that glorious? Doesn’t that draw you? That’s what draws me to this God and worship… not singing one more Jesus song or reciting one more creed, but drawing near to the one who knows me and loves me most. That’s God – and God is good! Amen.

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.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

God Meant it for Good (Genesis 50.15-26, Exodus 1)

Sermon by: Robert Austell
January 9, 2011
Some Music Used 
Cong. Song: "Let God Arise" (Tomlin, Cash, Reeves)
Anthem: "Great is Thy Faithfulness" (Runyan, Arr. Martin)
Cong. Hymn: "Come Thou Fount - We'll Feat" (Arr. Austell)

God Meant it for Good
Texts: Genesis 50:15-26; Exodus 1

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

Today we are starting a series that will take us all the way to Easter. In addition to looking at the specific text in Exodus 1, I also want to give you a sense of the story arc of Exodus 1-12, the big picture of Israel’s need and God’s deliverance.

This larger story isn’t just a major chapter of history in the Bible. It IS that, but it’s much more. Some have called Exodus the “5th Gospel” – because so much in that story parallels the human story of sin, need, divine response, and salvation. In addition to the circumstances being so parallel, so is God’s method. Moses is born a baby, helpless except for God’s protection and intervention. He goes out into the wilderness and returns as an adult, carrying the message of God’s salvation and deliverance for all who will listen. I will try to connect the dots where I can, but I hope you will hear all the points of comparison between Moses/Exodus and Jesus/Gospel.

I chose to begin the scripture reading this morning at Genesis 50 because it both explains why the Israelites are in Egypt at the beginning of Exodus and it has a powerful declaration of God’s sovereignty that will overarch all the events and history of Exodus. So, we’ll start there, then look at the opening of the drama in Exodus 1, and end with a few applications as we look forward to the full story that we will follow in coming weeks. 

Joseph’s Story: God’s Providence and Purpose

The verses from Genesis 50 are the end of Joseph’s story. He’s the one whose brothers tried to kill him and then sold him to traders because they were jealous of his coat of many colors and their father’s love and favoritism. (He also seemed to egg this on by sharing his dreams that one day they would bow down to him.) In Genesis 50, he is in Egypt, where he ended up as the #2 ruler under Pharaoh. He has already forgiven his brothers once, and provided for them. In this chapter, their father Jacob dies and they again come to Joseph in fear for their livelihood. But Joseph has truly forgiven them and continues providing for them in this foreign land. In these verses, Joseph says two notable things that I want to highlight.

The first comes in verse 20, when the brothers again come asking forgiveness. Joseph says, “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good in order to bring about this present result….” If you know or read the Joseph story, you see how at each turn God provided for Joseph. His brothers conspired against him; Potiphar’s wife tried to frame him; he was jailed; each time, God used his circumstances to accomplish His purpose until finally he interpreted a dream for Pharaoh and was able to prepare the Egyptians for an extended famine. He then was able to take care of his extended family when the famine struck. It’s an amazing story and it is amazing to see God at work, despite human betrayals and weakness. I highlight that and start the Exodus story there because what God did in one person’s life (Joseph), He did on a large scale with the people of Israel in Exodus. Now we must be careful not to say that God CAUSED evil to accomplish His good. Rather, notice that the grossest disobedience, evil, and harmful human behavior – even the full power of the Pharaoh of Egypt (one of the greatest powers in the world) – will not be able to thwart God from His plan and promise to Abraham. God does not cause evil, disobedience, or sin, but REDEEMS it for His own purpose and glory. That is the great overarching theme of Exodus, even as it was in Genesis (remember the Garden?) and will be through all of redemption history as Jesus comes to redeem the world.

I said there were two notable things at the end of Genesis. The first is God’s redemptive power and character. The second is less important, but is a key part of the narrative or story arc. The broad story arc is that God promised Abraham land, children, and blessing, so that his people might be a blessing to the world. With Joseph becoming established in Egypt, his father Jacob dying, and his brothers and their families moving to Egypt, it would seem that God’s promise is getting sidetracked. Note what Joseph asks of his brothers as he nears death. He asks them – more than that, he makes them swear an oath to take his bones to the land of promise. Though Joseph has been taken far from home, he still has his sights and faith on God’s covenant promise. We will see, however, that the family does not follow through on the vow and it will be 400 years before his bones are carried to the Promised Land.

Let’s move on to Exodus 1, then and we’ll begin this next chapter of the story of God and His people. 

400 Years: Disobedience or Oppression?

Exodus starts off with a bunch of names (my apologies to the lay readers!). Notice verse 5 – how many Israelites were there at the beginning? There were 70 (plus women and children), not including Joseph, who now has died. Remember the big theme about redemption? Though being in Egypt resulted in slavery and almost 400 years of horrible oppression, one way God redeemed that time was by accomplishing the first of the great covenant promises to Abraham. Verse 7 tells us that they were “fruitful and increased greatly, and multiplied, and became exceedingly mighty, so that the land was filled with them.” By the time Moses led the people out, the Israelites were almost two million in number.

In chapter one, we also get the basic setup to the Exodus story. The Israelites have become enslaved, and have multiplied so much that they have become a threat (or perceived threat) to the Egyptians. The more harshly the Egyptians treat them, the more they seem to multiply and spread out (v. 12). Finally, the Pharaoh decides to act against them and instructs the Hebrew midwives to kill all the male children at birth. This fails as well – I’ll say more about that in a moment. And then Pharaoh expanded the law so that any male child would be killed. This is the first of many parallels between Moses and Jesus. Somehow Moses had to be born into this world and survive the earthly power set against him. You may recall that Joseph, Mary, and the baby Jesus had to flee their country shortly after Jesus was born because King Herod passed a similar order in an effort to kill the prophesied king.

What I want to lift up at this point is the question of why the Israelites were in Egypt – why they were suffering and “off the path” towards the covenant promises. Remember, that is the big premise going on here – that God is not thwarted by human disobedience, sin, or evil; but God can redeem even the situations those things cause for His purpose and glory. So what exactly had happened here?

On one hand, it seems like the people of Israel made some poor and even disobedient choices. Certainly the original family of brothers had done evil to Joseph. On top of that, their best chance to leave Egypt was probably at Joseph’s death. After all, he made them vow to take his bones to the Promised Land. But the very last verse of Genesis tells us that they gave him an Egyptian burial, embalmed and put in a coffin. Neither the location nor the method was the Hebrew way. So the decisions of those fathers seemed to have been passed down to the children. Rather than Egypt being a temporary respite during the famine, they made their homes there and never left.

On top of that initial disobedience was added human oppression and evil. A new Pharaoh came to power, one who didn’t know of Joseph (v. 8). And as the children of Israel grew and multiplied, this Pharaoh saw a threat and began doing evil against the Hebrew people.

As we get further into the Exodus story (generations later), we will also get a sense of the faith or lack of faith of those of Moses’ day. But for now, our explanation of how the slavery came about seems to be that human evil and oppression were mounted on top of disobedience and the early deceit of Joseph’s brothers. 

Faithfulness Against Faithlessness

I want to end with a detail in this story worth highlighting. The Hebrew people were not all deaf and disobedient to the Lord. A shining witness in the midst of the horror of ordering the death of Hebrew infants was the courage and faithfulness of the Hebrew midwives. Initially Pharaoh told them to kill the male children in childbirth, but they would not do it. They “feared God” (v. 17), and put their own lives at risk for disobeying the Pharaoh. In a time when very few women were named, we are given the names of two of these courageous midwives: Shiphrah and Puah. Their prominence is testimony to their faithfulness; the evil Pharaoh is not named, but these women’s names are remembered thousands of years later!

In addition to their faithfulness and courage, which speaks for itself, I also would point out that faith and faithfulness can survive and even thrive in oppression or under persecution. The growth of Christianity in China is modern testimony to that!

So, I see at least two major takeaways for today. Even when times are dark, when we are struggling, or even when we have made our own bad decisions, this story reminds of of two things: 1) those situations do not surprise, shut down, or keep God from accomplishing His purposes and His glory; 2) it is possible for us to choose faithfulness even in the midst of faithlessness, suffering, or evil surroundings.

We will continue to see those truths demonstrated as the story unfolds in the coming weeks. That is good news truth for all of us when we struggle or feel like we have wandered from the way. Amen.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

A Shattered Worldview (John 3.1-17)

Sermon by: Mark Ashbaugh
January 2, 2011
Some Music Used
You Alone

A Shattered Worldview
Texts: John 3:1-17

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