Saturday, March 11, 2023

Lest You Be Like Pharaoh

 Exodus 8: 16-24

Then the LORD said to Moses, "Say to Aaron, ‘Stretch out your staff and strike the dust of the earth, that it may become gnats through all the land of Egypt.'"  And they did so; and Aaron stretched out his hand with his staff, and struck the dust of the earth, and there were gnats on man and beast. All the dust of the earth became gnats through all the land of Egypt.  And the magicians tried with their secret arts to bring forth gnats, but they could not; so there were gnats on man and beast.  Then the magicians said to Pharaoh, "This is the finger of God." But Pharaoh's heart was hardened, and he did not listen to them, as the LORD had said.

Now the LORD said to Moses, "Rise early in the morning and present yourself before Pharaoh, as he comes out to the water, and say to him, ‘Thus says the LORD, "Let My people go, that they may serve Me.  For if you will not let My people go, behold, I will send swarms of insects on you and on your servants and on your people and into your houses; and the houses of the Egyptians shall be full of swarms of insects, and also the ground on which they dwell.  But on that day I will set apart the land of Goshen, where My people are living, so that no swarms of insects will be there, in order that you may know that I, the LORD, am in the midst of the land.  And I will put a division between My people and your people. Tomorrow this sign shall occur."'"

Then the LORD did so. And there came great swarms of insects into the house of Pharaoh and the houses of his servants and the land was laid waste because of the swarms of insects in all the land of Egypt.

Sermon for Oculi -- The Third Sunday in Lent                   3/12/23

Lest You Be Like Pharaoh

My Brothers and Sisters in Christ:

Our Old Testament lesson this week deals with the Pharaoh of Egypt.  In a way, the Pharaoh was a very modern sort of man.  He was a man who did not believe in God.  That is surprising modern.  Many today do not believe in God - even, I am sorry to have to acknowledge, many in the churches.  Pharaoh believed in something, but what that "thing" was is beyond telling from the text of Scripture.  What he did not believe was "in God".  How very modern and current of him.

Pharaoh was confronted in our text, and beyond, by God's signs and wonders, as God showed forth His glory in rescuing His people from bitter bondage in Egypt.  God showed Pharaoh His presence and power as He has rarely demonstrated His presence and power, and, for a time at least, Pharaoh yawned and hardened his heart and ignored God.  He paid the price for that hardness of heart in the lives of his people and his soldiers.  And God reports it all to us through Moses as a warning.  Our theme, this morning is, Lest You Be Like Pharaoh.

The account of the ten plagues on Egypt is probably pretty well known to most of you.  This is just a short piece of that account.  It was chosen to be the Old Testament lesson, I think, because it uses the phrase "the finger of God", as Jesus also does in our Gospel lesson.  Both lessons involve hard-heartedness and rejection of what God is doing.  In both cases, they ought to have known better, but their own agendas and their own hardness of heart blinded them.  They just didn't care about God or truth or anything like that.

We look at the Pharaoh, and we wonder how the man could have been so stubborn.  Here God was working great signs and wonders in his presence, and he would not believe, and would not relent, and would not allow the servant of God to do what he was commanded by God to do.  That he would not let God's people go makes some sense in terms of economics and labor force allocation and so forth, but to ignore the signs God was doing through Moses seems incomprehensible.

In fact, the only way I can understand it is to take seriously the words of Scripture that tells us that God hardened the heart of Pharaoh.  That is a difficult thought!  We are accustomed to the thought that there is always a chance – but if God is hardening your heart, there is no longer any chance.  Pharaoh was one of those men whose unbelief and hostility toward God and all that is His – brought the judgment of God on Him even while he lived and breathed.  It was over for Pharaoh, in terms of the final judgment, while he still lived.   God had a plan to use the wickedness and unbelief of this man, but there was no longer any hope of salvation for him.

That is a spooky fact!  What can we make of it?  What use can we put that
truth to?  

The answer is, we can be warned by it.  Whether there are men and women today who have already been condemned, even though they still walk among us, we cannot tell.  We must faithfully continue to hold the gospel of forgiveness and salvation before all people at all times.  We dare not assume that God is done with anyone!  God has called us to faithfully confess, and there is no use for this truth about the Pharaoh in terms of our work of confessing Christ and sharing the Gospel.

But there is a warning.  It is possible to go too far.  Some people call it "grieving the Spirit."  It is mentioned in Hebrews, in chapter 10, where the warning is spelled out for those early Christians, "Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful; and let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more, as you see the day drawing near.  For if we go on sinning willfully after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a certain terrifying expectation of judgment, and THE FURY OF A FIRE WHICH WILL CONSUME THE ADVERSARIES.  Anyone who has set aside the Law of Moses dies without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses.  How much severer punishment do you think he will deserve who has trampled under foot the Son of God, and has regarded as unclean the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has insulted the Spirit of grace?  For we know Him who said, "VENGEANCE IS MINE, I WILL REPAY."  And again, "THE LORD WILL JUDGE HIS PEOPLE."  It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God."  Lest you be like Pharaoh!

On the one hand, none of us could be just like Pharaoh.  We are Christians.  There is no evidence that this Pharaoh ever knew the true God or worshiped Him.  He was a hardened unbeliever!  No true Christian can be a life-long unbeliever.

We can do something worse: we can turn our back on God.  Some Christians do.  Some have!  Sometimes our own agendas - or our own egos - or our own desires will cause some of us to behave just as the Pharaoh behaved.  Such people cannot see beyond themselves or their own thoughts – or the pressures of the moment – to God.  They hear His Word and choose to regard it as merely the opinion of the pastor.  They see God at work, and they just don't care.  Their fun, or their success or their agenda – whatever it may be – is so compelling to them that they simply do not respond.

Pharaoh had the prophet Moses.  We have our pastors.  Pharaoh had the Ten Plagues.  We have the Sacraments and the Church.  He had God working and speaking – and so do we.  Now it is true, the scope is different.  Pharaoh was dealing with a nation and the issue of letting millions of slaves go free, and we are usually dealing with far fewer people and a much smaller scope - such as our personal lives.  But the importance of the task is just as great.  God was working to rescue Israel from bondage in Egypt, God is at work through us to rescue men from bondage in sin.  Israel was off to the promised land.  We are dealing with resurrection from the grave and everlasting life in glory – a true promised paradise, and not merely some earthly real estate!

We are called to hear the Word of God, called to the fellowship of the saints, called to faith in the heart – and faith in the life.  We need to hear God's Word and consider what He would have us to do, lest we be like Pharaoh.  God's Word needs to be our guide, not the feelings of others, or our own feelings about others.  We cannot allow our love for someone - or our dislike of them - form our response to the things to which God calls us.

Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience.  Those are words from our Epistle today.

Remember, it was the heart of Pharaoh that was hardened, not his head or his ears.  He heard the Word of God.  He saw God at work.  There was no reasonably denying that it was God.  Pharaoh simply would not let it move him.  He had decided upon a course of action and he was not going to let anything or anyone – not even God – change his mind.

The Christian faith is not about actions.  It is legalism when your religion says you must do this or that to be God-pleasing, or that you cannot do that and still be a Christian – unless, of course, God's Word explicitly says so.  It is called "pietism" which says that we must feel this way or think that way – unless God's Word commands us as to how we are to think or feel.  The heart of our faith is forgiveness.  It is centered in Jesus upon the cross, dying for our sins.  This forgiveness is received by trusting the good will of God toward us and taking God at His Word and believing His promises of forgiveness, life, salvation - and of blessings, guidance and love here and now.  

Your sins are [ † ]forgiven.  It is not so because we like to think it is so, it is so because God says so!  You live every moment of your life in the radiance of the love of God – and I can say that because God's Word says it, and not because it necessarily feels like it or looks like it.

Our lives are to be lived in faith.  We are to love one another, not because we or they are so lovable, but because God loves each of us, and has commanded that we love one another.  

We are to forgive each other.  Forgiving someone else doesn't usually feel as good as holding a grudge or getting even.  It is, however, simply what God would have us to do.  He has forgiven us, and He expects us to forgive one another.  He has demonstrated His love toward us, and He wants us to walk by faith, and demonstrate our love toward Him by acting on the basis of that love toward one another.

The Pharaoh ignored the finger of God – the direct action of God – in his presence.  We cannot, lest we be like pharaoh.  When God speaks, we want to listen.  When God acts, we want to respond.  And God speaks every week in the preaching of His Word.  And God acts among us when He baptizes and when He feeds us with His body and gives us to drink of the blood of our Savior in Holy Communion.

We are not challenged to ‘let His people go', or any extraordinary work.  We are challenged, instead, to be His people.  We are challenged to hear His Word, to participate in the fellowship of His family - the Church, to eat and to drink the Holy meal He serves to us, and to live every moment of our lives as those who have God on their side.  We are called to forget our guilt, for our sins have been forgiven, and to give thanks instead.  We are called to live without fear about what may be coming, but to know that God is caring for us.  We are called to do what we know is right whether it is popular or pragmatic or not.

And we are called to confess Christ.  We cannot hide Him under the bushel-basket of silence.  We need, now more than ever, to make Christ known and to make Him real to the world around us by living and speaking as those who know Him and love Him and depend on Him for life and salvation and everything.

Our text gives us the example of the Pharaoh – lest you be like the Pharaoh.  We are to be God's people: those who walk in love, in faith, and those who know that God is with them.  We are to be those who give thanks for all things, for we know that God has given us all things.  For God's child, God is first.  We don't want to assume that we can ignore His Word and still be safe.  God gives safety to His faithful people - and life everlasting - so you want to be faithful, lest you be like Pharaoh.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.             
 (Let the people say Amen)

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