Let me start with some facts about the persecution of Christians last year. Over 3,000 were killed for their faith. 215 million lived where Christianity is illegal, forbidden or punishable. And the worst persecutor was, again, North Korea – where over 50,000 Christians are in prison or labour camps. (Figures from Open Doors.) In this country, we have it easier, for now. But, as Peter Hitchens, the Christian journalist, says: a new state atheism and morality is being forced on us through the Equality Act – which is being used to make people accept the whole LGBT agenda. And Christians will fall foul of that, if they don't conform.
For example, one Christian last year was removed from being a school governor simply for quoting the viewpoint that sex is for heterosexual marriage only. One letter written against him apparently said, "It concerned me that a parent governor has these views." In other words, he's not fit to influence a school. So how long before they decide we're not fit to influence children at all – and not only remove us from public office, but remove our children from us as well?
Oh, sorry. I forgot to begin by saying, 'Happy New Year!'
But it's not, is it? Because the calendar change has done nothing to make the world happier or newer. It's still the same, horrible, old world that doesn't want to know God, and doesn't want God's people reminding it of God, and where God's people are not immune from suffering.
And that's the world we learn to live in, as we start a new series today in the Old Testament book of Exodus. So would you turn in the Bible to Exodus chapter 1 and look down to verse 1:
"These are the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob, each with his household:
[And if you know Joseph And His Technicolour Dreamcoat, you can sing this bit:]
Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah, Issachar, Zebulun, and Benjamin, Dan and Naphtali, Gad and Asher. All the descendants of Jacob were seventy persons; Joseph was already in Egypt."
Now over Christmas, you've probably come in part way through something on TV, and asked, 'So what's happened?' And that's what we need to ask here, because Exodus is book 2 of the Bible and we need to know what happened in book 1 – which is Genesis – and especially about the three beginnings in Genesis. So turn back to page one and Genesis 1.1 for the first beginning:
"In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth."
So that's the beginning of everything created.
Now turn over to Genesis 3. You'll see it's headed 'The Fall' – which is the translators' heading, not part of the text of the Bible, but it sums up what Genesis 3 is about – namely, how the human race 'fell' from living in relationship with God, to saying, 'We don't want to relate to you. We want to run our lives our own way.' And that's the second beginning – the beginning of sin, of us being fallen, and deserving God's judgment.
And now turn on to Genesis 12, and the third beginning. Because Genesis 3-11 shows how sin wrecks the world. But in Genesis 12, God promises to rescue the wreck. So this the beginning of rescue. Look at Genesis 12.1:
"Now the LORD [God] said to Abram, 'Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you. And [here comes God's 3-part promise… Part 1:] I will make of you a great nation [in other words, you'll become a people], and [Part 2:] I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonours you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.'"
In other words, instead of judging you as your sin deserves, I'm going to bless you by having you back in relationship with me – and through you that blessing will reach people of all nations. Skip to verse 7:
"Then the LORD appeared to Abram and said, [Part 3:] 'To your offspring I will give this land.'" [In other words, you'll have a place to belong.]
And you can sum that up by saying it's the promise of: God's people, living in God's place, under God's blessing.
And the rest of the Bible is about God keeping that promise. So, Abram, renamed Abraham, had a son called Isaac. Isaac had a son called Jacob. Jacob, also renamed Israel, had twelve sons including Joseph (of Technicolour Dreamcoat fame). Joseph was then sold into slavery in Egypt, thanks to his brothers being thoroughly evil. But it turns out: that was part of God's plan to save the whole family. Because Joseph rose to become assistant to Pharoah, king of Egypt. And he ran a famine relief program which brought the rest of his starving family down to Egypt. And so they survived, and were reunited. Which brings us back to Exodus 1.
And reading the Old Testament story anywhere 'downstream' of Genesis 12, the question to ask is: 'Where have we got to in the story of God keeping that 3-part promise?' So look at Exodus 1.6:
"Then Joseph died, and all his brothers and all that generation. But the people of Israel were fruitful and increased greatly; they multiplied and grew exceedingly strong, so that the land was filled with them."
So, Part 1, the promise of God's people gets a big tick. But they're not living in God's place, the promised land of Canaan. And it doesn't look like they're living under God's blessing, because, as we'll see, Egypt for Israel was like North Korea for Christians. Which is why my headings are three questions we'd have been asking, had we been God's people back then. And you'll have asked them in difficult times – or be asking them right now. And the first is:
1. Where is God in all this?
Look on to Exodus 1.8:
"Now there arose a new king over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. And he said to his people, 'Behold, the people of Israel are too many and too mighty for us. Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, lest they multiply, and, if war breaks out, they join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.'"
So here's Pharaoh's Plan A, verse 11:
"Therefore they set taskmasters over them to afflict them with heavy burdens. They built for Pharaoh store cities, Pithom and Raamses. But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and the more they spread abroad."
So skip to verse 15 for Pharaoh's Plan B:
"Then the king of Egypt said to the Hebrew [in other words, Israelite] midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, 'When you serve as midwife to the Hebrew women and see them on the birthstool, if it is a son, you shall kill him, but if it is a daughter, she shall live.' But the midwives feared God and did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but let the male children live."
So finally comes Pharaoh's Plan C, verse 22
"Then Pharaoh commanded all his people, 'Every son that is born to the Hebrews you shall cast into the Nile, but you shall let every daughter live.'"
So where is God in all that – in labour camps and brutality and infanticide?
Philip Yancey is a popular Christian writer – though not recommended in all he says. And his book Disappointment With God struck a real chord with people. It's subtitled, 'Three questions no-one asks aloud' – and the first is, 'Why, if God wants relationship with us, does he seem so distant?' And here in Exodus 1 God actually looks absent. But in fact, look carefully, and he's present and active. For example, you can see him in verse 12:
"But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and… spread abroad."
Which isn't obvious, supernatural intervention. But it is God, invisibly working behind the scenes to foil Plan A. And then look at verse 17:
"But the midwives feared God and did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them."
And again, God isn't zapping Egyptians. He just uses these faithful women to foil Plan B. Which illustrates the saying that often, 'God works through a person, not a plan' – in this case, through these godly women. Because with God's people in such a position of weakness, there wasn't any plan they could hatch against Pharaoh. Instead, God just used faithful people who feared him more than all the other people and pressures around. And maybe being like them is all we can do in our position of weakness, in a society and a denomination moving away from God. But God will use that.
And then, God foils Plan C. Look on to chapter 2.1:
"Now a man from the house of Levi went and took as his wife a Levite woman. The woman conceived and bore a son, and when she saw that he was a fine child, she hid him for three months. [So she, also, feared God more than Pharaoh.] When she could hide him no longer, she took for him a basket made of bulrushes and daubed it with bitumen and pitch. She put the child in it and placed it among the reeds by the river bank. [Which was desperate – but at least gave the child some chance, rather than no chance.] And his sister stood at a distance to know what would be done to him.
Now the daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe at the river, while her young women walked beside the river. She saw the basket among the reeds and sent her servant woman, and she took it. When she opened it, she saw the child, and behold, the baby was crying."
And if you don't know the story, this is where your blood should run cold. Because if she's anything like her Dad, you know this child's had it. But amazingly,
"She took pity on him and said, 'This is one of the Hebrews' children.' Then his sister [remember she's watching and waiting, stage left] said to Pharaoh's daughter, 'Shall I go and call you a nurse from the Hebrew women to nurse the child for you?' And Pharaoh's daughter said to her, 'Go.' So the girl went and called the child's mother. And Pharaoh's daughter said to her, 'Take this child away and nurse him for me, and I will give you your wages.' So the woman took the child and nursed him. When the child grew up, she brought him to Pharaoh's daughter, and he became her son. She named him Moses, 'Because,' she said, 'I drew him out of the water.'
And the word 'God' doesn't even appear in those verses. But that's to teach us that when he looks absent, it doesn't mean he is. Look closer and you can see him working out his plan – and not just despite Pharoah, but (this is the brilliant bit) through Pharaoh. Because he uses Pharaoh's own daughter and Pharaoh's own home to save and protect and bring up Moses – and, as our Acts 7 reading said, to
"instruct [Moses] in all the wisdom of the Egyptians" (Acts 7.22)
So, he gets Prep school, Eton and Oxford – all at Pharaoh's expense. Brilliant.
The point is: Pharaoh stands for all opposition to God. But because God is sovereign, the opposition can only serve his plan.
And isn't that ultimately the story of the cross – that the combined opposition of Judas, the Jewish leaders, Herod and Pontius Pilate could only serve God's plan that Jesus should die as a willing sacrifice, for the forgiveness of our sins?
Often we won't be able to see how, but everything and everyone is somehow serving God's plan. They can't do otherwise. That's what the sovereignty of God means.
So where is God in all this? He's present and active. And even at the worst of times, Exodus 1 and 2 encourage us to look for the signs – however small – that he is still with us and for us.
Then second question:
2. What is God going to do about all this?
It's all very well recognising that he's with us in all this – but what is he going to do about it? And the answer of chapter 2 is: he's preparing a Saviour. That's what he's doing about all this.
We've already done verses 1-10, where the Saviour is saved. So now look on to chapter 2.11:
"One day, when Moses had grown up, he went out to his people and looked on their burdens, and he saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his people. He looked this way and that, and seeing no one, he struck down the Egyptian and hid him in the sand."
What does that say about Moses? It says that even though he grew up Egyptian, he identified with Israel as his people. And it says he had some sense of his destiny to save them. But it also says he was headstrong and rash. Because what is one dead Egyptian going to achieve – unless he thought it would rally the Israelites around him? Well, dream on – because look at verse 13:
"When he went out the next day, behold, two Hebrews were struggling together. And he said to the man in the wrong, 'Why do you strike your companion?' He answered, 'Who made you a prince and a judge over us? Do you mean to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?'"
And in our Acts 7 reading Stephen quoted those words twice:
"Who made you a ruler and judge over us?" (Acts 7.27, 35)
In other words, 'What makes you think we need you to save us, or want you to lead us?'
And in Acts 7, Stephen said: that's a picture of peoples' attitude when they reject Jesus. Because by nature, we look at Jesus and what he did for our forgiveness on the cross, and say, 'I don't need saving. I've always tried to live a good life. I've never done anybody any harm. I'm OK, thanks very much.' And by nature, we hear his claim to be our rightful Lord and say, 'I don't want that. I'll run my own life and decide for myself what's right and wrong, thank you.' And maybe that's what you're saying to Jesus, right now. And it'll take a step of humility to say, 'Actually, I do need forgiving; and actually he should be running my life.' Which is the truth.
So Moses the Saviour was rejected – and became a picture of how Jesus the Saviour is still rejected. Read on, chapter 2 and halfway through verse 14:
"Then Moses was afraid, and thought, 'Surely the thing is known.' When Pharaoh heard of it, he sought to kill Moses. But Moses fled from Pharaoh and stayed in the land of Midian. And he sat down by a well.
Now the priest of Midian had seven daughters, and they came and drew water and filled the troughs to water their father's flock. The shepherds came and drove them away, but Moses stood up and saved them, and watered their flock.
So once again he 'plays Saviour', and once again, it seems, rashly – because there was only one of him and several of them – and shepherds would have been right up the 'hard' end of the spectrum in a fight. Verse 18:
When they came home to their father Reuel, he said, 'How is it that you have come home so soon today?' They said, 'An Egyptian delivered us out of the hand of the shepherds and even drew water for us and watered the flock.' He said to his daughters, 'Then where is he? Why have you left the man? Call him, that he may eat bread.' And Moses was content to dwell with the man, and he gave Moses his daughter Zipporah [in marriage]. She gave birth to a son, and he called his name Gershom, for he said, 'I have been a sojourner [a stranger] in a foreign land.'"
And Exodus 3 says Moses became a shepherd for his father-in-law. And Acts 7 says that was for the next forty years. Which puts verse 23 into perspective. Look at verse 23:
"During those many days the king of Egypt died, and the people of Israel groaned because of their slavery and cried out for help."
So they prayed for forty years, and nothing happened. How many of your prayers are instantly answered? How many of your prayers, as far as you can see, have never been answered? Forty years. And not least because Moses was not yet ready to be a Saviour –because he needed humbling from being the headstrong prince who took matters into his own hands, to being the servant of God who would do things God's way.
Because with spiritual leadership – so I'm talking especially to myself, the staff, small group leaders, youth and children's leaders, CU leaders – the key question isn't, 'Are you able enough to be used by God? – but, 'Are you humble enough – dependent enough – to be used by God?' And can I say that especially to younger leaders, knowing that new university CU leaders are chosen and asked at this time of year. And it always troubles me when students are unhesitating about saying 'Yes' to a position, confident that they're the man or woman for the job and even confident to prove themselves the right one for the job. No, the key question isn't, 'Are you able enough to be used by God? – but, 'Are you humble enough – dependent enough – to be used by God?'
And so the Israelites had to wait for Moses to return and save them. And then for the rest of the Old Testament, God's people had to wait for the Saviour that Moses pointed forward to – the Lord Jesus. And now here we are, as God's New Testament people, having to wait for Jesus' return. One, long waiting game.
The point is this: it's easy to read parts of the Bible – like the miraculous rescue of Israel from Egypt, or the angel Gabriel visiting Mary – and to think that's the normal life of faith: seeing God 'wham, bam', miraculously at work. But those moments in the Bible's story are the exception to the rule. Because the rule is: God's people plodding on, living patiently by faith in God's promises, taking encouragement from how they've been kept so far, and waiting for him to keep them fully. As someone said, 'Most of the Christian life is a matter of… waiting.'
So, what is God going to do about all this? The answer is: he's preparing a Saviour, and God's people are going to have to wait for him. And we still are.
3. Has God forgotten us?
Is that the explanation of what they were going through here – or what you're going through right now? No. Look at verse 23:
"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."
Which doesn't mean God had forgotten and that their prayer jogged his memory. It's the Bible's way of saying, 'Of course he hadn't forgotten! Of course he remembered his own promises and his own commitment to his people.'
So why the delay over the next part of his promise – which was to take Israel out of Egypt and into Canaan? Well, back in Genesis, God actually told Abraham that the Israelites would spend 400 years in Egypt. And he explained why. He said that when he did let his people take over Canaan, it would be a judgment on the Canaanites for their godless living. But he said he wanted to show his patience by giving them time before judgment. Which is always his way. That's why Jesus hasn't returned yet. It's to give the world more time to hear of him and turn to him.
So there's part of the explanation for the delay. But that only begs the question, 'Why did they have to spend it in slavery?' And part of the explanation is that God planned his rescue of Israel from slavery to be a visual aid of the ultimate rescue from sin, through Jesus. But that only begs the question, 'Why did God's plan include sin and the need for rescue, in the first place?'
At which point we have to back off and say: God hasn't told us. He doesn't explain himself fully to us in the Bible. And lots of things happen to us which the Bible doesn't explain, and are therefore a mystery to us. And it's massively important to take that on board. Because some Christians make it sound like there's a clear explanation for everything – every sadness, set-back, injury, accident, you name it. You know, 'If only you think about it Biblically and hard enough you'll see what God's doing and why things are happening and what God is wanting to teach you through it.'
Not true. Because the Bible, says we will go through things that are either a partial or total mystery to us – and even looking back from heaven, maybe we won't understand everything that puzzles us now. Because whereas God's knowledge of what he's doing is like the complete picture of a 5,000 piece jigsaw, our knowledge (even if we could understand the whole Bible perfectly) is maybe like having just 15 or 20 pieces. And a few of them fit together and make sense to us, while others make no sense to us at all.
So by the end of Exodus 2, we haven't understood everything about what's happened, and why, and the timescale. But we have seen that when God looks absent, he is in fact present and active, working out his plan. And we've seen that our part is to look for the signs that he is still with us and for us, and to wait – to wait for him to keep his promises more fully in our lifetime, and ultimately when Jesus comes again.