(Sermon preached at Cromer on 7th January 2018)
This evening we begin a series on ‘The Great Escape’, looking at the way God saved the children of Israel from slavery in Egypt, and brought them out of Egypt, through the sea, across the desert to Mt Sinai to meet with him there. It centres around one man, Moses, whom God called and equipped to lead his people on this journey – despite his weaknesses. It is the story of the birth of a nation; more than that, it is a story that demonstrates how God deals with people, through revelation, judgement, salvation, and new life. It anticipates the greater salvation brought by Jesus Christ, and sheds light on what he did: we could never really understand why Jesus is called the Lamb of God if we did not know the story of the passover. The deliverance from Egypt is a fundamental pillar of the whole Old Testament, and therefore of the New Testament as well; and, since we too are the people of God, it is a fundamental pillar of our own story.
We begin, naturally enough, with chapter 1. This sets the scene for the Great Escape – what was it that the children of Israel was escaping from? It begins where Genesis left off, with the Israel (Jacob) and his family in Egypt. It tells how that little tribe became a large people group – so large that the Egyptian population became afraid of them. ‘There are too many foreign migrants in our land!’ Familiar cry? But instead of saying, ‘Get them out of here’, they said, ‘We don’t want any more of them. They might join our enemies and fight against us. They might be a breeding ground for terrorists! But neither do we want them to leave – we need them!’ The Pharaoh at the time did not know about Joseph. That’s not surprising – Joseph lived about 4 centuries beforehand. Pharoah felt no obligation towards the children of Israel, and so decided that the best way to protect his own people against this threat was to enslave the israelites and put them to forced labour. The chapter goes on to tell of the ruthless oppression, and how that failed to stop the population explosion – the more the Israelites were oppressed the more they multiplied. The rest of the chapter tells of the attempts to control the population by killing any baby boys born to the Israelites, first by asking the midwives to do the dirty work, then by telling all his people to do it.
That’s the story of chapter 1. Let’s step back and look at the big picture. Remember, the children of Israel were the descendants of Abraham, whom God had promised to make into a great nation and had promised a land of their own to live in. Here they now were, a large population, but not yet a nation; and far from having their own land to live in they were slaves in a land not their own, with no rights or dignity. What did God think he was doing? The answer is not hard to find. In Genesis 15 we have the story of God making a covenant with Abraham by walking between the halves of sacrificial animals – God was represented by cloud and fire, in the form of a smoking fire pot and a blazing torch. During that covenant ceremony God said to Abraham, Genesis 15 v13, “Know for certain that your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own, and they will be enslaved and ill treated four hundred years. But I will punish the nation they serve as slaves, and afterwards they will come out with great possessions… (v16) In the fourth generation your descendants will come back here, for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure.” So we see that what was happening to the Israelites in Exodus 1 was exactly what God had foretold. His promise to Abraham had not been forgotten. But the time for its fulfilment had not yet arrived – the sin of the Amorites who lived in the land God promised Abraham, had not yet reached the point where God had to deal with them by giving their land to Abraham’s descendants.
None of that seems to be in the forefront of the Israelites’ minds. When God delays fulfilling his promises it is all too easy to forget them – we see the same thing with the promise of Jesus’ return. As far as the Israelites were concerned, things were only going from bad to worse.
The story of the midwives is a glimmer of light. They refused to obey Pharaoh’s command to kill the baby boys at birth, and God rewarded their disobedience by blessing them with families of their own – and by naming them in Scripture. So we see that in the middle of great suffering God gives comparatively minor blessings, to these two families. We often see similar things in our own lives: God answers some minor request in an amazing way while seeming deaf to our most important and urgent prayers. In this church it seems that the devil is attacking us and making life as difficult as possible, and yet we see God blessing some of our activities, such as our Christmas services. It’s as if he’s hiding from us, but at times reminding us that he hasn’t forgotten us. Here in this chapter of Exodus, the story of the midwives reminds us God was still there and willing to bless; but it didn’t really help meet the greatest need, the need for deliverance from evil. Indeed, it seemed to make things worse, as the response of Pharaoh is to command all his people to kill Israelite baby boys.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing. We know what happens next – the story of the baby in the bulrushes, and all that. We know that if there had not been this genocidal edict from Pharaoh, Moses’ parents would not have needed to resort to such desperate measures: Moses wouldn’t have been put in a basket in the Nile, and Pharaoh’s daughter would never have brought him up, and the story of deliverance would never have happened. God was working all things together for good, even then. But at the time, that would have been difficult to believe. Despite the story of Joseph.
You know that story – how Joseph was sold as a slave into Egypt by his brothers, and how he rose from slavery through much suffering and delay to become the viceroy of Egypt and the saviour of his family from famine. After their father died, his brothers thought he would get revenge. But he said, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.” (Gen 50:20). He had been harmed, grievously; and in his darkest days he must have wondered what God was doing, despite the fact that God was blessing his work even while his circumstances were only getting worse. But God worked all things together for good.
So what is God saying to us through this story at the beginning of 2018?
I think simply this: God is working his purpose out as year succeeds to year. That includes his purpose for each one of us as individuals; his purpose for the church; his purpose for our communities and town; his purpose for the nation; and his purpose for the world.
His purpose for the world is escape from evil and sin. That is the great escape. Only sin can separate us from God – suffering can’t, though it might be a consequence of evil doing. Separation from God means death with a capital D, eternal damnation; bondage to sin is the worst bondage ever, far worse than slavery in Egypt. Jesus said that a person who sins is a slave of sin; but goes on to say that if the Son sets us free, we shall be free indeed. We shall be seeing in our studies in Galatians that Christ has set us free, and Romans 8:21 tells us that the whole creation waits for the time that it too will be brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God. That is God’s purpose for the world. That day is coming, and may come sooner than we expect. So, even if everything in the world seems to be going from bad to worse, and the devil seems to be winning, be assured that this is only the darkness before the dawn.
What is God’s purpose for the nation and our local communities? Many of us hope and pray that he is planning revival. In history it seems that revivals often come when people who have already experienced it are longing and praying for it to come again; and also revivals often come when his people are in despair at the evil they see around. Let’s not be discouraged, but keep praying in faith for our Lord to act in mighty power.
What about God’s purpose for the church, and for us as individuals? It seems to many of us that the church is suffering oppression, that things seem to be going from bad to worse even though we see glimpses of God’s grace and blessing. Several members of the church feel that they are in that position exactly. Where is our good Shepherd? Why does he keep quiet when evil flaunts itself? You know exactly how Joseph must have felt in prison in Egypt, and how the children of Israel must have felt in Exodus 1. We know that the promised land awaits; but we fear that it is being kept in heaven for us, and that we won’t see it here on earth. After all, many saints and martyrs have died without seeing great blessing.
If that is how you are feeling, I have a word for you from Scripture. It is for you who see no hope on earth, and also for those of you who, like me, have been given promises or words from the Lord which have yet to be fulfilled. This is Psalm 27:13; I’ll read from v11:
‘Teach me your way, Lord; lead me in a straight path because of my oppressors. Do not hand me over to the desire of my foes, for false witnesses rise up against me, spouting malicious accusations. I remain confident of this: I will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.’
So what should we do? I suggest not abc, but bcd:
Believe God. Believe he is good. Believe he is almighty. Believe his word. He has said in his word, ‘And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.’ ‘In all things’, even in hard times. ‘For the good of those who love him’ – not just for the good of his kingdom.
Commit to pray for a great escape for our nation, our church, ourselves and those on our hearts. Pray in faith, with praise and thanksgiving. God is good. I appeal also for prayer for our brothers and sisters who like God’s people in Exodus 1 are suffering persecution of one kind or another.
Decide to keep going, whatever happens.