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Exodus #4: Waiting for God

Exodus #4: Waiting for God

Reading: Exodus 4:24-26; 5:1-23

Introduction: In 1980, Anne and I were living in Portland, Oregon, just 50 miles south of Mt. St. Helens, a beautiful 11,000-foot snow covered mountain in the Cascade Mountain range. Seismologists had begun monitoring earthquakes around the mountain just before some small gas vents appeared near the top of this volcano that had been dormant for more than 100 years. There was actually great excitement as helicopter film crews hovered around the mountain each day, showing us the steam vents. It was incredible to imagine that we might be living that close to an active volcano, one that would start spewing molten lava out its top any day. The forest service put up perimeter roadblocks to protect campers and hikers just in case the mountain blew. You couldn’t get within a 3-mile perimeter at first; then they decided to move it out to nine miles because the intensity of the earthquakes kept increasing. It was an otherwise beautiful Sunday morning when everything changed. There was no molten lava show; just an explosion that took the top third of the mountain off. The couple that lived across the street from us were avid campers. They were camping that weekend 12 miles away from Mount St. Helens. They were killed instantly by the blast.

At about the same time, actually just prior to that in fall of 1979, the church we were attending also blew apart. There were some people who had been spiritually camping with us when all of that happened who likewise were never seen again after the explosion. Then there was that couple that we went to graduate school with—Don and Susan. He had served as a youth minister for four years before returning to school to pursue his Ph.D. in New Testament. It was just a couple of years after the eruption of Mount St. Helens that their marriage blew up, leaving three small children in its aftermath.

“We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” I’ve heard this verse all of my life, I suppose. Always liked the idea expressed in it. But the truth is that there have been plenty of times when it didn’t seem relevant. Plenty of moments when all things were NOT working together for good, times when really bad things were happening to good people, times when I wondered if the problem was we just weren’t called according to his purpose. I’ve seen too many circumstances in which catastrophe and crisis in life—in individuals and in whole communities—made it difficult to find any good. People had to work too hard to put a smiley face on terrible tragedy and suffering.

Anyone who has lived through a church split; anyone who has lived through the break-up of a marriage, or catastrophic illness, or ‘natural disaster’ as we call tornadoes and hurricanes and floods and volcanoes, knows that some verses don’t fit. When someone is killed by a drunk driver, or a high school shooting leaves helpless students dead, Romans 8:28 seems irrelevant. War is like that; church wars are like that.

In our story from Exodus this morning, Moses doesn’t know anything about that verse, but he does know what happens when one begins to assume that we humans know very much about God and how he is going to act. Last week, you remember, Rubel talked about the lessons of discipleship that Moses had to learn before God could call him back to Egypt to deliver Israel from Bondage. The burning bush episode is one of the great moments of humility and calling in his life. When Moses finally doesn’t believe he can do anything himself, God tells him to go lead the people out of Egypt. Moses is so hesitant that God shows him miraculous signs, and even agrees to let Aaron be his spokesman before Pharaoh. So Moses agrees to return. I want to pick up the narrative in verse 18 of chapter 4: 18 Moses went back to his father-in-law Jethro and said to him, “Please let me go back to my kindred in Egypt and see whether they are still living.” And Jethro said to Moses, “Go in peace.” 19 The LORD said to Moses in Midian, “Go back to Egypt; for all those who were seeking your life are dead.” 20 So Moses took his wife and his sons, put them on a donkey, and went back to the land of Egypt; and Moses carried the staff of God in his hand.
21 And the LORD said to Moses, “When you go back to Egypt, see that you perform before Pharaoh all the wonders that I have put in your power; but I will harden his heart, so that he will not let the people go. 22 Then you shall say to Pharaoh, ‘Thus says the LORD: Israel is my firstborn son. 23 I said to you, “Let my son go that he may worship me.” But you refused to let him go; now I will kill your firstborn son.’ ”

Remember these verses; they function to tell Moses and us that there is much in store when Moses returns to Egypt. But Moses couldn’t possibly have anticipated what happens next.

“24 On the way, at a place where they spent the night, the LORD met him and tried to kill him. 25 But Zipporah took a flint and cut off her son’s foreskin, and touched Moses’ feet with it, and said, ‘Truly you are a bridegroom of blood to me!’ 26 So he let him alone. It was then she said, ‘A bridegroom of blood by circumcision.’” I read those verses because I didn’t want you to think I made it up! How could this be? God just got through that torturous conversation of convincing Moses that he was the chosen one to lead Israel, and now God tries to kill him? Ah, the key is “God tried to kill him.” There are obviously a number of things going on in this story, not the least of which is Moses being saved yet again by a woman! I don’t know exactly why God tries to kill him; surly if God wanted to kill him, he could have done better than that. The point of the story seems to be the incorporation of Moses’ family into Israel. The circumcision and the shedding of blood all have to do with Moses the outsider becoming an insider again. We readers are also warned not to take lightly the power and promise and presence of God.

God then sends Aaron to meet his brother in the wilderness: “27 The LORD said to Aaron, ‘Go into the wilderness to meet Moses.’ So he went; and he met him at the mountain of God and kissed him. 28 Moses told Aaron all the words of the LORD with which he had sent him, and all the signs with which he had charged him. 29 Then Moses and Aaron went and assembled all the elders of the Israelites. 30 Aaron spoke all the words that the LORD had spoken to Moses, and performed the signs in the sight of the people. 31 The people believed; and when they heard that the LORD had given heed to the Israelites and that he had seen their misery, they bowed down and worshiped.” So the scene is set. Moses has made his triumphal return; he and Aaron have brought the news of salvation to all of the people. The stage is set for them to march into the throne room of Pharaoh and convince him that God has heard the cry of his people. “Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, ‘Let my people go, so that they may celebrate a festival to me in the wilderness.’ ” 2 But Pharaoh said, “Who is the LORD, that I should heed him and let Israel go? I do not know the LORD, and I will not let Israel go.” 3 Then they said, “The God of the Hebrews has revealed himself to us; let us go a three days’ journey into the wilderness to sacrifice to the LORD our God, or he will fall upon us with pestilence or sword.” 4 But the king of Egypt said to them, “Moses and Aaron, why are you taking the people away from their work? Get to your labors!”
The meeting doesn’t go as planned. Rather than acquiescing to their demands, Pharaoh looks as these two guys and says, “Who do you think you are? I don’t have a clue who this LORD of yours is.” It is apparent that Pharaoh believes he is a match for any God of Israel that these guys represent and he sends them back to work. He also decides to stop this freedom talk before it gets started. He immediately orders the work loads increased among the Israelites. 6 That same day Pharaoh commanded the taskmasters of the people, as well as their supervisors, 7 “You shall no longer give the people straw to make bricks, as before; let them go and gather straw for themselves. 8 But you shall require of them the same quantity of bricks as they have made previously; do not diminish it, for they are lazy; that is why they cry, ‘Let us go and offer sacrifice to our God.’ 9 Let heavier work be laid on them; then they will labor at it and pay no attention to deceptive words.” You can guess the rest of the story. Rather than Moses and Aaron being the bearers of deliverance, they are the instigators of hard labor, beatings, and an enormous increase in the suffering of the people. The Israelite supervisors even make a direct appeal to Pharaoh, asking them why they are being treated so harshly. Again Pharaoh tells them how lazy they are. When they leave Pharaoh’s court, they run into Moses and Aaron.
No, Romans 8:28 is not what they say next. I feel certain that we have a condensation of the actual conversation. “The LORD look upon you and judge! You have brought us into bad odor with Pharaoh and his officials, and have put a sword in their hand to kill us.” Rather than bringing deliverance, the appeal for freedom has led to cruelty and punishment and brutality against Israel. It also leads Moses to say some amazing words to the LORD: “O LORD, Why have you mistreated this people? Why did you ever send me? Since I first came to speak to Pharaoh to speak in your name, he has mistreated this people, and you have done nothing at all to deliver your people” (5:22-23). Why have YOU mistreated this people?
As readers, we know, that this is only the beginning of the story. Moses himself was already told that he would perform miraculous signs and that Pharaoh’s first-born son would die before this was over. But somehow Moses didn’t imagine that life would get worse before it got better. Rather than being the hero, once again he is the enemy of his own people. And think of how different Moses is when he then turns that hostility on God.
Exodus 6 recounts God calmly explaining himself once more to Moses. God never tells Moses not to talk that way to the creator of the universe. He first responds with this very odd explanation about his name. I am the LORD, he says. I appeared in the past as El Shaddai, God almighty. I didn’t make myself known to them like I’m revealing myself to you. He then recounts the covenant with Abraham and the promise of the land of Canaan. He has heard the cries of the people and he is going to redeem them from bondage. When Moses relays all of this to the people, of course, they reject the message because of their broken spirit and their cruel slavery. When God tells Moses to go talk to Pharaoh again, he says, “What’s the use? The Israelites won’t listen to me; why would Pharaoh? I’m such a lousy speaker.” Listen to these words: 10 Then the LORD spoke to Moses, 11 “Go and tell Pharaoh king of Egypt to let the Israelites go out of his land.” 12 But Moses spoke to the LORD, “The Israelites have not listened to me; how then shall Pharaoh listen to me, poor speaker that I am?” Never mind that Moses has been told before he ever came back to Egypt that certain things had to occur in this process. The naïve optimism that so easily convinced the people to begin with now has been buried in pessimism, anger against God, and self-doubt.

I wonder if God’s plans and promises and redeeming acts ever get sidetracked that way in our time?

You know it is an amazing thing, 20 years later, to go back to Mount St Helens and see the redemption that has come to all of that devastated land. God even managed out of that church split to create two congregations that are quite healthy these days. Oh yes, there are places and people who never recovered. But God does have his ways. Some days, rather than quoting Romans 8:28, we may need to quote Exodus 5:22. But here is the promise of God this morning: Whenever we need to yell at him, he won’t yell back. He calmly begins again to tell us of his promises. He reminds us of whom he is so that we can try once more to become who he made us to be.

Delivered at Woodmont Hills, March 25, 2001.


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