Exodus 1:1-7:7

Sun, 10/01/2010 - 11:30 -- James Oakley


“… and they all lived happily ever after”.

We like stories that end like that. They’re lovely. At least – they’re lovely if you live in that period called “ever after”. The trouble is: That is only the ending because the rest of the story is somewhat more complex and somewhat less happy. That’s what makes “… and they all lived happily ever after” newsworthy.

For the people of God, the Bible is a story that ends “and they all lived happily ever after”. The trouble is that before we get to “ever after”, things don’t feel happy. In fact, it often doesn’t feel that we are living in a story that is going to end with the words, “and they all lived happily ever after”.

In real life, the fact of the matter is, the difficulties and pressures of daily life easily seem far more real to us than the promises and purposes of God. And the danger is that we end up with a mismatch between Sunday and Monday to Friday. On Sunday we come to church, and what we hear is that it all ends happily ever after. We hear about God, what he promises, and how he will look after us. Then we go out into Monday to Friday, and we wonder if it all makes any difference at all. What we see before us for six days of the week are not the fine statements we heard on Sunday, but the often cruel details of life.

That’s why we read Psalm 88 together this morning. It’s not the nicest Psalm in the Bible, but it is exceptionally honest. And the fact that there’s a Psalm like that in the Bible gives us permission to be honest with God. Most of the Psalms tell us, at some point, how the story ends. Psalm 88 is there to recognise the fact that we’re not always thinking about the ending. There is a place for a Psalm that doesn’t say “and they all lived happily ever after”.

Actually, the fact that life’s daily pressures can feel more real than the promises and purposes of God is nothing new.

God is working his purpose out

The book of Exodus opens by looking backwards into Genesis. It starts by calling to mind the promises and purposes of God from Genesis, and reminding us that God has been steadily at work, ever since Genesis closed, to bring his plans about. You’ll remember that God made a covenant with Abraham, and that covenant featured a three-fold promise. God promised to make Abraham’s offspring very numerous; God promised to be the God of Abraham and his descendants, and that they would be his special people; God promised to give the land of Canaan to them as an inheritance.

Chapter 1 and verse 5 tells us that seventy of them came to settle in the land of Egypt. And then verse 7 tells us that “the people of Israel were fruitful and increased greatly; they multiplied and grew exceedingly strong, so that the land was filled with them.” God’s been at work, blessing his people, causing them to grow in number beyond their wildest dreams. 120 years later still, there would be 600,000 of them. And that was just the adult men.

God had been working his purpose out, as year succeeded to year.

Pharaoh wants to work his purpose out

But there’s a problem, and problem has a name. Pharaoh. To be exact, there’s a new Pharaoh. The Pharaoh at the time of Joseph liked Jacob and his family; Joseph was the best Prime Minister he had ever had. This new Pharaoh didn’t know Joseph. He didn’t care for that history. He just felt threatened by this growing people. Pharaoh doesn’t want them to multiply and become numerous. And he doesn’t want the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob to be their God either. He wants to be their god, and he wants to use them for his own ends.

The result is vicious. First, he subjects them to harsh labour. Many of Egypt’s greatest ancient cities were built by Hebrew slaves. But they just multiply all the more. So he tries plan B. Genocide. Ask the Hebrew midwives to kill all the baby boys at birth. And when they don’t do it, Pharaoh figures that his own people will, so all Egypt is asked to drown any young Hebrew boys that they find. Atrocious!

All of which made the people ask: What has happened to God and his purposes? It feels more like Pharaoh is working his purposes out as year succeeds to year, and God seems to have vanished from the scene. What’s gone wrong?

God hasn’t gone away. His answer is Moses, one particular baby boy. Our minds fill with questions: How many babies did get killed? How many managed to survive? But our writer focuses down on one boy: baby Moses. He is saved from death on the Nile by Pharaoh’s own daughter.

And then… nothing happens. 40 years more passes. More slave labour. More babies killed. And after 40 years, Moses, who knew he was a Hebrew, decides to take things on all by himself, and it fails and he has to flee to the land of Midian. Where another 40 years passes.

That’s 80 years now since baby Moses was born. God doesn’t seem to be in our kind of a hurry. His purposes seem to be taking a very long time to get anywhere.

God remembered and came down

But then the crucial turning point happens. It is recorded in chapter 2, verses 23 to 25: “During those many days the king of Egypt died, and the people of Israel groaned because of their slavery and cried out for help. Their cry for rescue from slavery came up to God. And God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. God saw the people of Israel--and God knew.”

The people groaned in their slavery, and they cried out for help. Only this time, their cry got God’s attention. And then we get four wonderful verbs that tell us what happened from God’s perspective: “God heard their groaning,… God remembered his covenant… God saw the people of Israel… and God knew.”

When it says that God remembered, it doesn’t mean that he had ever forgotten. Although it’s a good word to use, because that’s exactly how it felt to the people of God. It means that God recalled his covenant; he deliberately brought his promises to mind, so that he can act on them. God is about to act on his covenant. And about time to!

So God calls Moses. He appears to him from the midst of a burning bush and asks him to go to see Pharaoh. Moses is a bit reluctant. Reasonably enough really. Who is Moses to take on Pharaoh? But God talks to Moses and shows him that God is the one who will deliver the Israelites. He tells Moses who he is, what kind of God he is. And he explains that Moses will just be the mouthpiece. So he goes.

It’s a bit like the first Christmas. We’ve had a long period of waiting. God’s made many promises in the Old Testament. The Old Testament ends with a 400 year silence. And then, finally, God remembered that promise, and he came down in the person of Jesus. Pharaoh was a cruel tyrant, but our sin is an even worse slave-master. There is nothing worse than being a slave to sin, but Jesus said that everyone who sins is a slave to sin. But he also said that if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed!

God remembered, and God came down.

Pharaoh doesn’t know about God

As a result of which, off goes Moses to see Pharaoh. The trouble is, the great Pharaoh is not unduly troubled by this upstart asking for the Hebrews to go. The LORD says, does he? Well I don’t know the LORD. He didn’t know Joseph, but that was the least of the problems. He doesn’t know Joseph’s God either, so he won’t be bossed around by him.

In fact, he concludes that the people are lazy. That is why they want to go. So he ups their workload. He tells them to make the same number of bricks as before, only now they have to gather their own straw. Twice as much work per brick, but the same quota as before. If hard labour was a big part of their problem, the hard labour just got tougher still. The foremen go and see Pharaoh to point out that this is all very unreasonable, but they just get beaten for not making their quotas.

So the foremen turn on Moses and Aaron. Chapter 5, verse 21: “The LORD look on you and judge, because you have made us stink in the sight of Pharaoh and his servants, and have put a sword in their hand to kill us.”

So Moses turns to God: “O LORD, why have you done evil to this people? Why did you ever send me? For since I came to Pharaoh to speak in your name, he has done evil to this people, and you have not delivered your people at all.”

Things got worse, so Moses is really fed up. God finally remembered his covenant, he came down, and he stepped into the arena to act. And things got worse rather than better. It’s like when I do some DIY to try and fix something: It was generally better off before I started to meddle.

It is often the case that things get worse for the people of God. You trust your life to Christ, and then lose your job the next week. Being a disciple of Christ does not give us any kind of immunity from grief or pain. We Christians have down-turns in life just like everybody else.

Take the tyranny of our sin. I’ve already said that sin is the cruellest slave master there is. But is it not often the case that, the longer you are a Christian, the bigger your sin seems to be?

Think, for a moment, of the state of Christianity in the Western World. Most Western governments are becoming increasingly hostile to Christianity. Numbers in church on a Sunday are shrinking, and Islam is spreading fast.

How easy it is to look at the difficulties in our own lives, or to look at the West, and to say to God: “You sent your Son at Christmas to keep all your wonderful promises and to deliver us. But why did you ever send him? You have not delivered your people at all.”

Take a second look at me

God is incredibly patient with Moses. We might have written the story so that God tells Moses off. Instead, God effectively says to Moses: Come and have another look at me. Let me show you again who I am. That was the Bible reading that we had from Exodus. Let’s look at what God says to Moses.

The first thing God does is remind Moses of what he’s done in the past. Verse 2: “I am the Lord. I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob… I also established my covenant with them. Moreover I have heard the groaning of the people of Israel whom the Egyptians hold as slaves, and I have remembered my covenant.” He’s a God who makes himself known, who makes promises, who hears when his people cry to him, and who does not forget his promises.

I appeared. I established. And now I have heard and I have remembered.

On the basis of all of that, Go and speak to the people, Moses. Go and tell them who I am, and tell them what I will do. Verse 6 starts: I am the LORD. Verse 8 ends: I am the LORD. And in between God says what he will do. I am the God who is committed to you, and part of who I am is my commitment to you. Here’s what I will do:

Say therefore to the people of Israel, I am the Lord and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will deliver you from slavery to them. God will give them a double rescue. He will lift the burden from their shoulders by freeing them from the slavery that gives them that burden.

I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great acts of judgement. I am the God who has a very strong arm indeed, and I will stretch it out and get you out of this situation myself.

I will take you to be my people, and I will be your God, and you shall know that I am the Lord your God who has brought you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians. I am a personal God, who wants to live amongst my people. I will live with you and look after you, and you will be my special people.

And then, lastly, verse 8: “I will bring you into the land that I swore to give to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob. I will give it to you for a possession.” I am a generous God. I will give you your own land to live in, and I will bring you into a new future where you have your own home, your own security, and where I’ve kept all of my promises.

That’s what Moses had forgotten – he had forgotten who God is, so God graciously reminded him. And it’s what Pharaoh had forgotten too. They had forgotten who God is.

So how do they respond? Well Moses takes it on board. He believes God. He allowed God to remind him who he is, and his spirit was revived. We know that, because Moses took this message out to the people.

The people, however, were not able to hear this. Verse 9: They did not listen to Moses, because of their broken spirit and harsh slavery. They couldn’t hear. Their spirit was broken. Their slavery was too harsh. They couldn’t hear what Moses was trying to say to them.

Light in the darkness

Exodus is a book for the people of God when they are in the darkness. When we are in dark and hard times, God gently speaks to us to reassure us as to who he is. He is the God who is committed to his people, and to his promises, the God who speaks to tell us what he will do, the God who promises that he will bring us out from our oppressions, take us to be his special people, and then bring us into a future where all his promises are fulfilled. To reassure us that he is in control.

The trouble is, it is all too easy for us to fail to hear him because of our broken spirit and because of our harsh slavery. But God hasn’t changed.

So where will we look? Will we focus on the Pharaohs, on the straw, the pyramids, the cities to build, the whips and the pain. Will we look at the tyrants in our life, at the sin, at the sickness, at the grief, the pain and the death.

Or will we allow God to lead us to a fresh look at him. Today, just as back then, God wants to say to us: I appeared, I established my covenant, I’ve heard your groaning, and I haven’t forgotten. I am the Lord. And that means I will, without fail, bring you out, deliver you, redeem you, be your God, and bring you into everything I have promised.

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