A sermon on Exodus 5 to 11 by Rev Richard Keith on Sunday 15 November 2020
They say that ignorance is bliss, but seriously, what you don’t know can hurt you. If you don’t know what lies round the corner on the freeway, if you don’t know to turn the power off before changing the light bulb, you can be seriously hurt. What we learn today from the book of Exodus is that at the heart of sin and in the heart of every sinner is a deep and almost wilful ignorance. And what God sets himself to do is to remove that ignorance by making himself known.
Moses said to Pharaoh,
This is what the Lord says, “Let my people go, so that they may hold a festival to me in the desert.”
And Pharaoh replied,
Who is the Lord that I should obey him? I do not know the Lord and I will not let Israel go.
This opening exchange between Moses and Pharaoh clarifies three things. Firstly, it that Israel is not Moses’ people and he is not their saviour. No, the Lord says, “Let my people go.” Israel belongs to the Lord and he will save them from their slavery.
Secondly, these chapters in Exodus aren’t about a conflict between two men, Moses and Pharaoh, but between two gods, the Lord, the God of Israel, and Pharaoh, the god of Egypt. It’s a contest to see who really controls Egypt’s land and life.
And thirdly, it clarifies the true nature of sin. It is ignorance and unbelief. Listen again to Pharaoh’s reply.
Who is the Lord that I should obey him? I do not know the Lord and I will not let Israel go.
He does not know and so he refuses to obey. This is chapter 5 in Exodus. By chapter 11, Pharaoh will know who the Lord is and he will let Israel go.
What happens in between is a series of 10 plagues. They are 10 answers to Pharaoh’s question, “Who is the Lord?” These 10 signs reveal who the Lord is. He is not just Israel’s God. He is the God of Egypt. He is the God of the Nile. He is the God of the weather. He is the God of creatures. And he is the God of Pharaoh. And that is why he should obey him.
The first plague comes like a loud clap of thunder that warns Egypt of the approaching storm. The Lord sent Moses and his brother Aaron to meet Pharaoh by the river Nile. The river was the heartbeat of Egypt. We imagine Egypt as the country in the atlas with big square boundaries reaching west and south into Africa. The truth is that Egypt was a thin sliver of land, 5 to 10 kilometres either side of the river Nile. Where the river’s floodwaters did not reach, that was where the desert began. And in the years when the rains failed far to the south and the river did not rise, people died. If there really was a god of Egypt, a life force that created and sustained its people, it lurked within the waters of this river.
The Lord said to Moses,
Tell Aaron, “Take your staff and stretch out your hand over the waters of Egypt and they will turn to blood.”
And so he did. The fish in the river died and the Egyptians could not drink its water. No deaths are reported and this is because the Egyptians could dig beside the river and the water that filtered through was fit to drink. However, the Egyptian magicians could do the same things. They turned water into blood. And Pharaoh’s heart became hard.
It reminds us that there is real power in evil. The devil is not God. He can’t be everywhere and he can’t read our minds. But he is a spirit with real power to harm and to destroy. But he can only mimic and distort what God has made good.
This first plague rang like a loud alarm to wake Egypt from its sleep. Their king could not control the water of the Nile, but the God who spoke through Moses could. After this plague there seems to be a gradual escalation of power and devastation in the rest.
The second plague was frogs. Inconvenient and slimy, but not deadly or poisonous. But the magicians did the same things by their secret arts. And Pharaoh hardened his heart.
The third was gnats, little stingy bity insects. Painful, yes, but not deadly, unless you are allergic. But this time the magicians tried to produce gnats, but they could not. They said to Pharaoh, “This is the finger of God.” There is a real power to evil, but it is limited and cannot match the power of the creator. Pharaoh had said, “Who is the Lord that I should obey him?” Well, the magicians now knew. He was a power greater than them. But Pharaoh hardened his heart.
The fourth plague was flies. Not poisonous, but potentially carrying disease. And this time, the Lord made a distinction. The flies did not plague all of Egypt, because they were kept from the land of Goshen, the part of Egypt where the people of Israel lived. There was a God for Israel who is a force to be reckoned with, whose authority should be acknowledged. He was not punishing the Egyptians for their ignorance. I mean, how can you know that you don’t know what you don’t know, unless someone tells you? God was not punishing Egypt for their ignorance. He was punishing them for enslaving the Israelites, and he was acting to take away their ignorance.
Pharaoh said to Moses, “Hold your festival to your God here in the land.”
Moses said, “We must take a three day journey into the desert as the Lord commands us.”
But Pharaoh hardened his heart.
The fifth plague came on the livestock so that they died, except the livestock of Israel. Pharaoh even sent messengers to the land of Goshen to investigate, to see if the claim was true. But his heart was unyielding and he would not let the people go.
The sixth plague was boils. Hard, painful sores all over the bodies of people and animals. The sores were so painful that the magicians abandoned their posts in front of Pharaoh. But the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart and he would not listen to Moses.
The seventh plague was hail. A storm of deadly force. It came, as many of the plagues did, with a warning and with time to prepare. This is what the Lord says,
Let my people go, so that they may worship me, or this time I will send the full force of my plagues against you and against your officials and people, so that you will know that there is no one like me in all the earth. Give an order now to bring your livestock to a place of shelter.
And some of Pharaoh’s officials did. Not all of them. Maybe not even most. But some, some had come to know the Lord, and they knew to disobey him was to feel his wrath. The hail destroyed the flax and barley, but not the wheat or spelt which had not yet come to a head.
The eighth plague was locusts. Which was too bad for the wheat and spelt. What green plants the hail did not destroy, the locusts consumed. Pharaoh’s officials started to panic. They said to their king,
How long will this man be a snare to us? Let the people go, so that they may worship the Lord. Do you not yet realize that Egypt is ruined?
Don’t you see? Don’t you know? Don’t you realize that Egypt is ruined? Pharaoh’s ignorance was becoming not only dangerous, but wilful. He refuses to learn. He refuses to know. Who is the Lord? Why should I obey him? Some in Egypt were beginning to learn.
Pharaoh said to Moses,
I have sinned against the Lord. Forgive my sin once more and pray to the Lord to take the plague away.
The next day, a westerly wind blew the locusts away. But the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart and he would not let the Israelites go.
The ninth plague, the second last, seems harmless. The sky was dark for the three days. It seems a bit of a letdown after hail and locusts. Unless, of course, you live in a country that worships the sun and you believe that the king is the child of the sun. Ra, the mighty god, who rides his chariot each day across the sky. For three days it did not shine. And of course, darkness never hurt anyone as long as it goes away eventually and the sun returns. But how many times have you laid awake at night in the dark and it feels like the dawn will never come? Well, imagine a dawn that never comes. And another. And another. Three sunless days in the land that worships the sun. Who is the Lord? Why should I obey him? This is the Lord’s reply. I am the God of the river. I am the Lord of the frogs. I am the heart of the storm. I ride the chariot of the sun. I am the God of Egypt. I am the God of Pharaoh. And this is why you should obey me.
If the heart of sin is ignorance, an ignorance that promotes wilful disobedience and unbelief, then realizing that should lead us to four things. Firstly, it should lead us to understanding. The wicked do what they do because they do not know. They do not know God. They do not know his ways. They do not know his purpose of love. By this ignorance they are enslaved. And by it they enslave others.
But God is the one who breaks every chains. He is the one who sets the prisoners free. Even if their chains are made from their own ignorance. As the apostle Paul said,
I was once a blasphemer and a violent man. But I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief. The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly, along with faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.
Paul wasn’t punished for his ignorance. He was saved from it.
Secondly, it should lead us to compassion. If we are any better than the wicked, if we know right from wrong, if we know what’s really important, it is only because our ignorance has been taken from us. How can we know that we don’t know what we don’t know, if nobody ever tells us? We know who God is, we know who we really are, we know the best kept secrets in the world, only because we have been made to know.
Thirdly, it leads us to realisation. We realise that the purpose of God in Jesus is to expose that ignorance and to make us know. When the world was lost in darkness, enslaved and enslaving others, God shone the light of his truth and grace in the life and work of Jesus Christ. It was as much by who Jesus was and what Jesus did, as by what he said. How he shows who God really is, how he shows who we really are, how he shows what we can be in him.
Christ came in power with the Holy Spirit. He calmed the storm. He walked on water. He changed the water into wine. But it wasn’t just the power of frogs and flies and hail and locusts. It was how he made things better. He made people better. Healing the sick. Feeding the hungry. Calming the storm. Raising the dead. Taking our sin. Giving his life. In the cross of Jesus we not only see the storm against our sin, but we also see the shelter from the storm, when it struck him instead of us. For he is not just the God of Israel. But he is the God of Egypt too. And the God of Australia. And the God of every single person, punishing sin in Christ, but having mercy on the ignorant. So that we might know him and that we might know ourselves. Who is the Lord that I should obey him? Well now you know. He is Jesus.
So fourthly and lastly it reveals our true purpose in life. I mean, isn’t that all we want in life? Purpose. A reason to live. Aren’t we just drifting like a ship without a rudder without a purpose? Our purpose is to know God and to make him known. In our worship. In our fellowship. In our practical love. In our sharing of our lives. In our prayers for our neighbours. And in sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ with those who are ignorant and lost without him.
Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance. Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the worst. But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me Christ Jesus might display his unlimited patience as an example for those who would believe on him and receive eternal life. Now to the king eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honour and glory for ever and ever. Amen.