Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Sermon on Exodus 4:18-31

Life in the in-between

Moses has had the most significant encounter with the Lord at the burning bush. He has been commissioned to go back to Egypt in order to lead the people of Israel out from there. His initial response was to raise all sorts of questions and to protest his unsuitability for the job. His final reply is to ask God to send someone else, at which the Lord’s anger burns against him and he tells him he will allow Aaron to help him.

We might imagine that the next significant moment is going to be when Moses gets to Egypt but that is far from being the case. This section is an in-between stage in the story but it is full of meaning and relevance. I think the point is clear, that the times in life that we might see as ‘in-between’ and therefore lacking in some way may very well turn out to be times of great significance for us.

We might view the next few months as being ‘in-between’ times for ourselves as a church; in some ways they clearly are. But it would be foolish and wrong to conclude that the Lord had suspended his purposes; we need to be alert to all that says to us and ready to act upon it.

1. Moses going back (vv.18-20)
The first thing that might strike you about Moses here is that, having incurred the anger of God by his pleading for the Lord to send someone else, when he speaks to Jethro he doesn’t mention anything of what the Lord has said but simply says he wants to go and see if his people are still alive.

That seems quite odd because if they weren’t alive, why would the Lord be sending him back to them? Does he distrust what the Lord has said? Is he wary of what Jethro might say? Is it another example of Moses’ insecurity and lack of confidence?

The fact is, we aren’t told – the text simply raises the question without answering it. What we can say is that Moses doesn’t come across as someone supremely sure of himself and his commission. There is something rather fragile about him here.

But the Lord hasn’t given up on him. He had told him to go back, that those who wanted to kill him were dead. And in response to that, Moses has rather uncertainly spoken to Jethro and then goes and saddles up the donkeys and sets off with his family.

And despite the sense of fragility that there is about Moses, the last sentence in v.20 is very telling: “And he took the staff of God in his hand.” That staff was a reminder of his commission and a symbol of the Lord’s power. He may seem unsure but he’s going; he may not be thinking completely straight and have all sorts of questions and concerns but he is going and he is going with the staff in his hands.

I think that says a lot about Moses and is a real example to us. Low self-esteem, lack of self-confidence and previous failures are no reasons not to follow where the Lord leads. What matters most is not our innate wisdom and abilities but his wisdom and power.

We don’t have a staff to carry but we do have a message of a cross that speaks of the wisdom and power of God, even as it seems to be just so much weakness and foolishness to the world. It is with confidence in God and in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ that we can and must go forward.

2. God at work! (vv.21-23)
Moses is on the way back to Egypt. When he gets there, he is to perform the various signs not just before his own people but before Pharaoh – that is where the action is going to be. Moses was worried about how his own people would receive him but the Lord is moving things onto a different plane.

But the terms in which he does that might be quite unsettling to some. He doesn’t say that Pharaoh will oppose Moses but that he will harden Pharaoh’s heart with the upshot that Pharaoh will not let the people go.

What this ushers us into is the relationship between the sovereignty of God and human responsibility. When we come to the chapters where Pharaoh opposes Moses, we’ll see that he hardens his heart and that is followed by the Lord hardening it also. But the emphasis here is on the Lord taking the initiative to harden Pharaoh’s heart.
How are we to understand this? Does it make the Lord the author of evil? Does it remove Pharaoh’s responsibility and guilt?

I want to read a passage from a commentary on Exodus that reflects on this issue. I’m going to read a fairly lengthy section because I think it deals with the issue in a very wise way…..

(1) We must remember that election, or sovereignty, is never an abstract notion. Common arguments against election that I have heard include, 'I guess God predestined what kind of tie I would put on today,' or, 'Are you trying to tell me that God predestined that crack in the sidewalk and that I would trip over that crack!?' As the old joke goes: What did the Calvinist say after he fell down the stairs? 'I'm glad that's over with!' Of course, most of these objections are not meant to be taken wholly seriously, but the basic thrust remains: How does God's sovereignty actually, practically, play out in the details of our lives?

This is a question that the Bible does not address. The Bible is not concerned to reveal fully the mysteries of God's dealings with his creation. The notion of God's sovereignty in the Bible is always connected specifically to one issue: the deliverance of God's people. Although this raises a host of other concerns (e.g., are we saved by God's choice without any input on our own?), understanding the salvation context of sovereignty at least puts us on the proper starting point for discussing the issue and how it might affect our lives. Burdening our hearts and minds with abstract implications of sovereignty, something the Bible itself does not entertain, will unnecessarily detract us from the focus the Bible gives to the issue.

(2) However uncomfortable we all feel from time to time with election and its implications, we must remember that the biblical writers do not seem to share that feeling of discomfort. Though the issue is mysterious, it is not presented as a burden in the Bible. This is not to say that it is easily accepted. Paul's protracted argument in Romans 9 may indicate that not only his readers but perhaps Paul himself felt the need to engage the issue more closely. For Paul, the end result of any such internal struggle with sovereignty results in praise (11:33-36). For Job, it ends in humility (Job 42:1-6). Sovereignty is a blessing rather than a hindrance. I am not saying that understanding how sovereignty works is a blessing, but that it is a blessing regardless of how little we understand.

The Lord holds us in his arms. He is the truly loving Father who cares for us, his children in Christ. Can we really hope for anything better than this? What recourse do we have? Partial sovereignty? It is good to be under the Lord's care. What such an understanding of sovereignty engenders in us is actually a sense of freedom, the knowledge that we are God's children and that we are somehow under his sovereign gaze - no matter what. Sovereignty means that in our everyday lives, we can go forth and act boldly without fear that our constant missteps or imperfections will catch the Lord by surprise and tear us away from him.

(3) However much we try to make sense of sovereignty and incorporate it into our theological systems (as I have just tried to do!), we must remember that it is ultimately a great and humbling mystery. To understand how it works is to peer into the heart of God. I remember so little of my college years, which is no one's fault but my own, but one conversation stands out in my mind. An older classmate and I were discussing the issue of sovereignty and free will and I said, "At the very least we have to accept the basic notion that either one or the other is true. Both cannot be right." My wiser friend responded, "Why?" I blurted out a comment or two about God needing to be logically consistent, or something like that, but that response seemed as shallow then as it does now. We should not forget the tension that Exodus and other portions of Scripture set up. We should not assume that God conforms to our ways of thinking.

Is this not a recurring theme in the Bible that God's ways are not our ways? Perhaps part of the value of the tension between predestination and free will is not found in solving the problem, as if it is a riddle God put in Scripture to occupy our intellectual energy, but in our standing back in awe of a God who is so much greater than we can understand. The hope is that we would go forth with this knowledge (or better, lack of knowledge) and live humble lives, trusting in the Lord all the more because of the depth of the riches of his wisdom and knowledge.
(Peter Enns, Exodus, NIVAC, p.148f)

There is a lot of helpful comment there but the one thing I want to pick up and deal with is the point that is made about the context in which God’s sovereignty is spoken about. The context here is quite clear: we are dealing with God’s action to redeem Israel. And he will act to redeem Israel in order that his saving blessing might be known in all the world.

The Lord loves Israel but he also loves Egypt. In fact, his love is for the whole of his creation. His choice of Israel is for the sake of the whole world and, thus, his action in Egypt and with Pharaoh is not to be seen as hatred of Egypt but rather is to be set within that larger context of God’s love.

In terms of Pharaoh himself, again the text here is helpful. There is a clear conflict being played out between the Lord and all that stands opposed to him, symbolised here in the person of Pharaoh. The Lord will act to redeem his firstborn and in the process will slay the firstborn of Egypt. We are dealing here not with abstract theology and philosophical questions but the concrete action of the one true God to rescue his creation from sin. Pharaoh stands opposed to that as, in a sense, the spokesman for the kingdom of darkness, and he will be dealt with in power and might.

Whilst we may not be able to sort all the issues out (and Peter Enns is right to counsel us not to think that we need to) what we must get straight here is that the Lord is God and he is in absolute control. Sin will not win; Satan will not prevail; Pharaoh will not foil God’s plans.

There is great comfort for us in knowing that because we live in a world in which the same warfare is being fought. Our confidence is to be the same as that of Moses: the Lord of hosts.

3. God at work (vv.27-31)
The focus thus far has been very much on Moses and his work as the leader of his people but, as we know, the Lord agreed that Aaron could be his mouthpiece and in vv.27,28 he enters the situation and that is quickly followed by a meeting (vv.29-31) with the leaders of the people of Israel.

Maybe there are times when situations loom that we fear very much, that we are anxious about and that we imagine will be extremely complex and perhaps lead to very difficult problems. That’s how Moses had seen his return to Egypt and his meeting with the people. He thought they wouldn’t believe him, that they would reject him for a second time and so on.

When we are afraid and concerned, we might feel that we have history on our side – we’ve been here before and it was difficult, things were tricky. No doubt Moses also felt that way. But look what happens: Aaron tells them what the Lord has said to Moses, the signs are performed and the people believe. Not only so but they bow down in worship, knowing that the Lord has seen them and heard their cries. No fuss, no arguments, no strife.

God is at work. He is taking forward his plans and, while that does not mean there will be no dark days for Moses (there will be), it does mean that what Moses feared would not necessarily come to pass and that what the Lord promised could be believed.

William Cowper speaks of the clouds we dread being full of mercy and breaking in blessing upon our heads. That’s just what Moses discovered when he followed where the Lord was leading. And that is what we can also expect as we seek to walk closely with the Lord in obedience to his call to serve him in this our day.

May he grant us grace to believe and to do, for his name’s sake.

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