A Safe Place for God
By The Rev. Dr. Andrew Stirling
Sunday, January 17, 2021
Reading: Exodus 5:1-21
“You're lazy” screamed Pharaoh at the Israelites who were working as vassals in Egypt. “Let go of your sacrifices” he says to them. He wants to stop them from worshipping God. The bully had spoken, the demagogue used his ad hominem arguments against the Israelites, who were living in penury in Egypt. Subservient, vassals, workers, he looked down upon and was cruel to. But Pharaoh was not only Pharaoh but, in many ways, epitomised capricious leaders who do not care about the consequences of their actions, who feel that they can do anything because they have power. He changed the rules on the people of Israel, and he made life hard for them. He was also a leader who showed how easy it is to disrespect God. It started out by questioning his who he is, and by saying that he didn’t know Him, sowing the seeds of dissention. He built the foundations of tyranny and established the flames of disunity. Pharaoh had acted out of passion. The problem with Pharaoh was that he considered money and power to be more important than people or God. Pharaoh was driven by the power to maintain control of Egypt and the growing number of Israelites living there. He was frightened that his power base was being eroded by them. He also wanted to make sure that the Israelites not only could not continue to grow but remained subservient.
He also wanted money. He wanted them to be more productive, to make more things for him, so he and the Egyptians could become wealthier; power and money, not concern for people, and certainly not concern for God. So, the people of Israel were terrified and confused because they wondered if their God was safe in the midst of all this. They wondered if God would leave them because they were not able to give sacrifices due to all the restrictions Pharaoh put in place, or if God would jettison them into the hands of this tyrannous Pharaoh. It was a tough time, but so often when we feel uncertainty, when we feel that God has been pushed to the periphery of life, rather than its centre, we have a crisis of faith and we wonder if God is with us when everything around us is crumbling.
Pharaoh was Pharaoh. But Pharaoh represents the different tyrannies in our lives; the things that cause us to question God, because we’re facing a challenge. Many of us right now are facing great challenges and those challenges can make us feel like the Israelites in the presence of a powerful Pharaoh, unable to see God at the centre of things, but to think of Him more on the periphery.
Our text today is one of the classical passages of the Old Testament. There were two actual sources for our information about this time in the Old Testament, sort of like the two gospels that gave a picture of Jesus. Well, there were four, but different pictures of the same event. The different sources also had different views, but they're very clear that these come together. It starts with Moses and Aaron going to Pharaoh and declaring that he must let the people go, that they must be free to worship their God. All that transpires afterwards is a result of that.
Pharaoh practices a revenge. Having had the ignominy of Moses and Aaron saying, “Set my people free so they can worship their God,” Pharaoh then decides to oppress the people. He does so by through brick making. Bricks were made with straw, mud, and dung in biblical times, and maybe some clay, then they were dried. But straw was an essential ingredient. The Israelites were told to make bricks, but now they had to go and scythe their own straw. Not only that, but you need the firm stubble that is left after the scything has come along, and that’s highly labour-intensive, very difficult and slow. The Israelites were forced to go and get that stubble, as well as the straw to make the bricks. Pharaoh, knowing that they would not be able to do that in a timely manner set them up to fail, to take away their time, so that they could not go and worship their God.
He also beat the foremen overseeing them, even some of the Egyptian foremen, who were not cooperating. This was a bully bent on revenge. He then questions whether the people should be able to have time then to go and make their sacrifices to God. So, the Israelites are upset. But who are they upset with? With Pharaoh? Well, yes, but also with Moses and Aaron, who started all this by saying, “Let my people go.” They say to Moses and Aaron, “Why are we like a stench, a stink, in the nose of Pharaoh? We are like this, because you wanted to set us free, and you went in God’s name to the Pharaoh, and this is why we’re suffering this terrible misery.”
How did Moses respond? He responded by bringing God back into the centre of the discussion.
Now, I feel for Moses. It must have been incredibly difficult to be a leader in a time such as that, a time of uncertainty, tyranny, and pain. There were many stressors on Moses’ life. One of the stressors was being called by God. No less than God Himself had called him to go to the people, and to Pharaoh and declare this news that the people should be set free to worship God. So, Moses is asking “God, you called me to do this, and I'm trying to be obedient but it’s just not working out.” Moses also loved the people. Over the time in the book of Exodus, he calls them some horrendous things. He gets fed-up with them, even when he delivers good things, they get mad at him. Even after the exodus, they're not satisfied but he still loved them. They were his people and he was called by God to serve them. But the stress of seeing the people you love hurting, is profoundly difficult.
He also had to grapple with Pharaoh, who was a polytheist, someone who believed in many gods. He allowed the worship of Heket, Khnum, Isis, Osiris and many other gods who are represented in the plague, which is a fascinating thing. Pharaoh was hiding behind the worship of many gods by saying, “I don’t know your God.” He used his belief in many different gods, not because – let’s be honest here – Pharaoh worshipped any other god. Pharaoh was only into the worship of himself and his own people, but he used this kind of panoply, so he didn’t have to be obedient to the one God. He believed in a multiplicity of gods, as an excuse for not addressing the God of Israel, the one God. He dismissed this God by saying “I don’t know him.”
Moses has to come to Pharaoh to say let my people go so they may worship their God, and Pharaoh hides behind his polytheism, and really, his atheism and says, “I don’t know this God.”
How often that happens. People pay lip service to believing or ascribing to a belief in many different gods, in order that they don’t have to obey, follow, or adore the one God. So, poor old Moses, the stress that he is under is enormous. But one thing Moses had going for him, and the only thing that could save him in this situation, was his faith in God.
John Calvin, in his commentary on this passage, puts it very eloquently and brings it right to our doorstep. He says this:
“The same thing often occurs to us, that the doctrine of faith and hope, which in peaceful times shines brightly in our hearts and echoes from our tongues, is altogether lost when we come to serious conflict. Wherefore we ought to devote ourselves with greater goodwill to its study, that even in the most trying circumstances, the recollection of it may be our support.”
What Calvin is saying is, our faith and hope in God might seem very nice when everything is running along smoothly, but when times are tough, he argues, even more so, should we be reminded of our faith and our hope. Not because times are tough, but because God is sovereign in both good times and in bad. Moses knew that. Moses understood that. What incredible stress he was under.
James Merritt, in a lovely book called Still Standing, has a definition of stress. He says, “Stress is the gap between ought to do and cannot do.” The gap between what we ought to do and what we cannot do.
There are many things that we think we ought to do, but we cannot do them, and that causes stress. Lord knows, that’s a definition of how people are feeling right now. We feel that we ought to do a lot of things, and we cannot do them, and that is stressful. I think particularly of families who, right now, are dealing with the stress of wanting to care for loved ones, but they cannot do it, because of the constraints of COVID-19. I think of those who want to serve their fellow human beings, but they cannot do it. Those who want to gather in the House of the Lord and worship the Lord God Almighty, but they cannot do it. It’s a source of stress. Believe you me, as clergy, we know that source of stress in our lives.
Stress is a difficult thing. Recently I was reading a CAMH report, which here in Ontario, is the great think tank when it comes to matters of mental illness, and the problems of mental health. The statistics are astounding: 24 percent of people feel mild or moderate anxiety right now; 23 percent feel loneliness, 21 percent feel mild or extreme depression, and 33 percent of people between the ages of 19 and 39, especially women, feel moderate to severe anxiety. We are under stress, and so we can identify with Moses; we can understand that the ought(s) are subjugated by the cannot(s). Moses felt that with the power of the people of Israel, and he felt it with the power of Pharaoh.
How did he address it? By sharing his concern with Aaron. He was fortunate not to be completely on his own in this. God had wisdom in bringing Aaron along for the ride, because Aaron was the one who stood with him and gave him the guidance when needed. I love the relationship between Moses and Aaron. Moses is wondering – and I mentioned this in a sermon in the fall – whether Aaron would be the better one to lead the people of Israel and deliver the news, because he was more articulate. But at least Moses was able to share his burden. Moses also could share his concerns with God. He was not alone in the situation that he found himself in. Maybe it was tense at times between Moses and God, but nevertheless, God was his sanctuary.
Now remember, all of this is occurring before the Ten Commandments and the law were given. This is generations before the building of the great temple in Jerusalem, or the great Davidic period. This is centuries before then, and so there are no temples, no synagogues, no places of worship per se. There is just the command to give sacrifices to God, to follow and to believe in God, and to live your life in accordance with that; that’s it. For Moses, that was enough. But he also needed something more. He needed to be able to bring his concerns to the feet of God, and to do so in a passionate way. In the text right after today’s passage, when we move into Chapter Six, I love the account of the back and forth between Moses and God.
“Then God said to Moses, ‘Now you will see what I will do to Pharaoh, because of My mighty hand, he will let them go. Because of My mighty hand, he will drive them out of his country.’ God also said to Moses, ‘I am the Lord, I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob as God Almighty, but by My name, The Lord, I did not make Myself fully known to them. I also established my covenant with them, to give them the land of Canaan, where they resided as foreigners. Moreover, I have heard the groaning of the Israelites, whom the Egyptians are enslaving, and I have remembered my covenant.
Therefore, say to the people, I am the Lord and I will bring you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians. I will free you from being slaves to them and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with mighty acts of judgment. I will take you as my own people and I will be your God.’”
This was God’s response to Moses when Moses wondered if things were going as they ought. The story, as we know, of the exodus unfolds and God keeps His covenant. But throughout it all, Moses had a hard time and had to get through that hard time with faith for God to act in God’s good time. Had Moses not started the process by going obediently to Pharaoh and saying, “Let my people go” then it is quite possible that things would not have unfolded the way that they did.
The people had to suffer first, before they could have the final victory and redemption. A word to Pharaoh: “Pharaoh, you thought you were clever. You thought that your capricious, selfish, greedy, power-hungry self was sufficient but you learned a lesson. You learned that you might not believe in God, but don’t mock God, because God is the sovereign Lord.”
In that hope, my friends, and in that conviction, you and I will get through this stressful time. We, as a people, will get through this stressful time. The world will get through this stressful time, because as God said to Moses, “You will be My people and I am your God,” and Moses got it: There’s always a safe place for God in our hearts. Amen.