That was a great prayer with which to open up the Bible as we dive back into our Great Rescue series in the book of Exodus. "Speak, O Lord, till your church is built…" So let me ask you church: Are you ready to hear God speak? Are you hungry and expectant to hear what he might have to say to you? Or does the thought of God speaking to you make you anxious? Worried about what he might put his finger on in your life that might have to change? When God speaks to you do you welcome his word with open arms or do you desperately do whatever you can to keep God's will from having an impact on you?
I don't know if you followed the Olympics when it was in London back in 2012, but I got so swept up in "Olympic fever" that I ended up watching some sports that I had never previously had an interest in… like the Dressage.
I don't know if you've ever seen Dressage – I'm no expert – but to the untrained eye it looks like the aim of the game is basically to get Horses to walk sideways to a medley of hits from Phil Collins or the Blackeyed Peas. Like I say, I'm no expert… but I have to say when I see that I find it a bit surreal as they take these massively powerful, majestic beasts and get them to mince around like fairies in a paddock to "I Got A Feeling."
And folks as we come to one of the most famous bits of the Bible this morning I think we're going to see that this is a bit like what Pharaoh tries to do with God.
It's a few weeks since Ben walked us through Exodus chapters 5 and 6 – we saw then that as God's people, the Israelites, called out in anguished slavery in Egypt that God heard their cries and sent Moses and his brother Aaron to tell Pharaoh to let them go.
Pharaoh's response was: "And who on earth is God? I'm not going to let Israel go."
So over the next five chapters, God answers Pharaoh's question in quite stunning style – by sending ten earth shattering plagues on Egypt which make it perfectly clear exactly who he is. Through it all Pharaoh doesn't try to get God to dance to Blackeyed Peas – but incredibly he does try to control and manipulate him as if he could get a grip on the all-powerful, majestic God of heaven and earth.
But God is not a horse or pony that we can control him by bit and bridle. If we're tempted to think that we can – to think that we can ignore God's word and keep him at arm's length – that we can take God on and win… then like Pharaoh we are in for a massive shock.
Before we get carried away thinking that God sending plagues is exactly what's wrong with God in the first place – Please note that isn't where he starts. As firstly he speaks:
1. God Speaks Subtly
Check out Exodus 7.1:
"And the Lord said to Moses, 'See, I have made you like God to Pharaoh, and your brother Aaron shall be your prophet. You shall speak all that I command you, and your brother Aaron shall tell Pharaoh to let the people of Israel go out of his land...'"
So God wants the Egyptians to know who is boss. But he doesn't start by firing a truckload of plagues at them. No, God's not malicious. He would rather folks listened to reason rather than reprimand. So He begins with a quiet word.
I try to do that with my kids – if they disobey my instructions I don't march straight in and say "Jamie, why are you pushing your sister around. I'm afraid I'm going to have to kill you. Mother – fetch the axe." No, he gets a gentle warning first. Then we use the axe. No, let me be clear: We never use an axe on our children. But before we go through our arsenal of more drastic disciplinary measures we usually try to have a quiet word first.
That's what God does here. He sends Moses and Aaron back to Pharaoh with these instructions in Exodus 7.8:
"Then the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, 'When Pharaoh says to you, "Prove yourselves by working a miracle", then you shall say to Aaron, "Take your staff and cast it down before Pharaoh, that it may become a serpent."'"
So Aaron throws down his staff and it becomes a snake – and I wonder if you can imagine the gasps from the courtiers? As suddenly this snake takes off. But Pharaoh's not impressed – verse 11:
"Then Pharaoh summoned the wise men and the sorcerers, and they, the magicians of Egypt, also did the same by their secret arts."
These sorcerers are not like magicians that you see on the TV who are clever with an illusion and can do tricks. No! They have real demonic power at their command. That's what's happening. Perhaps they laugh at Moses and Aaron: "Oh! It's the old 'snake to stick' spell, is it? Dear oh, dear Moses, anyone can do that one! Is that all you've got?!"
Well the laughter would soon die down in verse 12:
"For each man cast down his staff, and they became serpents. But Aaron's staff swallowed up their staffs."
The demons must submit to God's power. They cannot overcome him. But Pharaoh will not submit – verse 13:
"Still Pharaoh's heart was hardened, and he would not listen to them…"
So having not listened to the gentle warning, now…
2. God Speaks in Judgement
Through the plagues. And as he does so we must see each one is a means of Pharaoh knowing that the Lord is the only Lord and you don't front up to him. In Exodus 12.12 God says:
"… on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgements. I am the Lord."
You see the plagues are a battle of the gods! And just like the Egyptian sorcerers' staffs – the false gods of Egypt will be swallowed up. As each one targets a different Egyptian God:
So the first plague in Exodus 7.17 – the Plague of Blood targeted Hapi, the god of the Nile. Egypt with no Nile is a desert. You take the Nile away and Egypt dies. So they worshipped the Nile because of its life-giving properties.
But Moses and Aaron raise the staff and strike the water and a fitting judgement is brought to the Nile which was made bloody with the death of the Hebrew babies back in chapter 1! Israelite babies were thrown in the Nile by the Egyptians… and now the whole Nile is a river of blood!
And so it goes on… Each plague shows up how powerless the gods the Egyptians worshipped are. The Plague of frogs takes down "Heqt" – the frog-headed goddess of fertility. It's the same with the gnats, the flies, the livestock, the boils, the hail and the locusts – all show the Egyptian gods of cattle and health and crops to be useless. All the way down to the plague of the darkness, which targets the god "Ra" – The god of public schoolboys. Nah! Not really, he was the sun god.
But the message from all these plagues is there in Exodus 9.13:
"Then the Lord said to Moses, 'Rise up early in the morning and present yourself before Pharaoh and say to him, "Thus says the Lord, the God of the Hebrews, 'Let my people go, that they may serve me. For this time I will send all my plagues on you yourself, and on your servants and your people, so that you may know that there is none like me in all the earth. For by now I could have put out my hand and struck you and your people with pestilence, and you would have been cut off from the earth.'"'"
You see the early plagues are in some degree a mercy. They are a warning shot across the bows. These are just partial judgements… they are not final. As God is holding back his hand saying: "Repent! Repent! Turn back to me… before it's too late."
I sometimes wonder if some of the hardships we go through might be sent by the Lord as a wake-up call for us too. If we like Pharaoh are in danger of drifting through life thinking "Who is the Lord? Why do I need him? I've got a great job and a lovely house and good health – life's great!" Then it may be possible that God in his loving mercy derails our self-sufficiency for a while to bring us back to him. Not all hardship is a warning shot from God – but some may be.
If it is, then the question is: Will we listen?
I heard a radio interview a while back with a man who'd come back from the brink of death from cancer. He'd been through prolonged treatment – surgery, radiation and chemotherapy. And his last words in the interview were these: "Yes, I nearly didn't make it at all. For a while, there, I really thought my days were numbered. But now I've had chemotherapy – I feel immortal again."
We are not good listeners. C.S. Lewis, the author of the Narnia books wrote this:
"Pain insists on being attended to: God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks to us in our conscience, but he shouts in our pain. It is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world."
So, will Pharaoh and the Egyptians listen… as this megaphone of ecological disaster is unleashed on Egypt? Will he turn back?
Well sadly, Pharaoh's response is pretty clear. As:
3. Pharaoh Hardens His Heart To God
You get that all throughout these plagues. So...
- Exodus 7.13: "Still Pharaoh's heart was hardened, and he would not listen to them…"
- Exodus 7.22: "So Pharaoh's heart remained hardened…"
- Then again in Exodus 8.15…
- And Exodus 8.19 – Even when Pharaoh's own magicians say to him after the plague of Gnats: "This is the finger of God." You've got to listen to this! "But Pharaoh's heart was hardened, and he would not listen to them…"
- It's like a broken record! Exodus 8.32…
- Exodus 9.7…
- Exodus 9.35.
God sends plague after plague as a warning shot across the bows of Pharaoh and the Egyptians – But seven times Pharaoh hardens his heart…
Until we get to Exodus 10 – where with Pharaoh's officials try to step in saying: "Do you not realise that Egypt is ruined?" – We read these chilling words in verse 27:
"But the Lord hardened Pharaoh's heart, and he would not let them go. Then Pharaoh said to him, 'Get away from me; take care never to see my face again, for on the day you see my face you shall die.' Moses said, 'As you say! I will not see your face again.'"
You see there comes a point when if you keep rejecting God… keep trying to hold him at arm's length – he will respect your decision. He will say, "Alright, if that's what you really want, that's what I'll give you." God never takes us by force!
You see our hearts are like clay. So they start off all soft and flexible – and you can make anything with soft clay, can't you? A pot, or a star, or a cat, or a life-size model of Rafa Benitez for your lounge. OK that would be a weird – even though Rafa is a legend!
But clay is soft and easy to change its shape… until you bake it in an oven or leave it in the sun to dry out and then it becomes solid as a rock. Which incidentally is exactly what it looks like no matter what you've tried to make – or at least it always did for me after my art lessons at school.
But you get the point. Your heart is like that – you start life with a soft, flexible heart. And God is the great potter. With his loving hands, he seeks to mould and shape our hearts into something beautiful – something worthy of his name. If we respond in repentance and faith and say "Yes, Father do your will. I trust you" – He will make something incredible out of our lives.
But if you reject him or put him off – if you close your ears to his life-giving word, then sooner or later he will say: "OK. Have it your way." And you will find your heart baked hard as stone.
Before I took on this job, I worked with teenagers and students for many years and as I talked about Christianity with them many of them said: "I'll think about it when I'm older" or "I've got too much going on in my life right now, I'll get round to it later."
But then later never comes! There is always some reason to put it off. Something that seems more important to us than taking God and his word seriously.
So it shouldn't surprise us that when I was speaking to a mate of mine who works as a doctor caring for people who are dying a few years back and I asked him how many great opportunities he got to talk about God with his patients – he replied: "Hardly ever."
I actually was so surprised by that, that I just blurted out: "So how many death bed conversions have you seen?" I was imagining all these shaking old people reaching out to tug on his doctor's coat whispering "get me a priest". But he said: "Never. When people spend their whole lives ignoring God and what he made them for – by the time they get to their dying days all too often they have lost hope and forgotten all about him."
Which is why the Bible keeps saying – as we heard in that reading from Hebrews 3 earlier on: "Today when you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts..." – As tomorrow may be too late! God never says, "I'll save you tomorrow." He says, "I'll save you today."
So when any of us finds God speaking to us, challenging us – pricking our consciences over an issue – now is the time to act! Today. Not tomorrow. Repent. Don't let it drift. Whatever God is speaking to you about… respond to it straight away – while you're still soft and changeable.
For those of us who think there is absolutely no danger of us hardening our heart to God – let me finish by showing you two phrases that Pharaoh uses from Exodus chapter 8 which look like he's on the right track, but underneath them is a heart that is cold to the Lord:
The first is in Exodus 8.8 – as after the second plague Pharaoh summons Moses and Aaron and says: "Plead with the Lord to take away the frogs from me and from my people, and I will let the people go to sacrifice to the Lord." Which sounds promising, doesn't it? Pharaoh is asking for prayer.
But he's one of these people who only pray in a crisis.
You know how it goes… when we come across things we can't handle by ourselves, we not only pray – but we start making all kinds of promises to God: "Dear God, if you just get me out of this mess I promise I'll start reading my Bible more, I'll start listening in church, I'll stop looking at porn, I'll give some money to the church, I'll help little old ladies across the road, I'll...I'll...I'll change. If only you'll sort this out. Please sort this out. Amen."
But afterwards when the panic is over… we don't change. We pray. But it's only a flirtation. As we then find it too inconvenient and humbling to repent and change. Because we were only trying to get God to dance to your tune. Like a horse in a dressage paddock.
Then the second phrase is in Exodus 8.28 – as after the fourth plague Pharaoh says: "I will let you go to offer sacrifices to the Lord your God in the desert, but you must not go far." Don't go far. Don't go anywhere I can't keep an eye on you. I want to keep control. I reserve the right to change my mind. Even a child of ten could see through that! As he lays down conditions for his obedience.
Do you ever do that? Do you say: "I will follow you, but only if you give me a girlfriend/boyfriend, husband /wife, babies, a satisfying job, a lovely home, enough money." "I will obey you if only you don't ask me to do this or that or the next thing."
Pharaoh did. Repeatedly. You see it doesn't matter that Pharaoh believed in God. The Bible tells us that even the demons believe in God (James 2.19).
But the difference between a Christian and a non-Christian is not belief in God… It is in trusting him. Trusting him enough to submit to his word… and obey. And in confessing our inability to do that obeying… without his son Jesus and his Holy Spirit.
Why don't we do that right now? Let's turn to the Lord in prayer.
Today when you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts – Father God thank you so much for the forgiveness of Jesus. We thank you that we relate to you through his performance not our own, but Father we cry out to you to help us to change, to not play games with you – and to do that today, and not put it off to tomorrow. Amen.