4Rev Dr Edgar Mayer; Living Grace Toowoomba Church; Message on Exodus; Date: 19 July 09

For more sermons and other writings check the following homepage: www.livinggracetoowoomba.org

 

 

Fear God

 

Something strange is going on in the book of Exodus. God cannot seem to get any respect. No matter how scary he becomes – in plagues of judgement and glory presence – no one really takes much notice of him. Neither the greatest hailstorm nor the worst plague of locusts made a lasting impression. How can this be? Reading the book of Exodus makes no sense. With all of the action that was going on – how could people – both: friend and foe – always feel safe ignoring God?

It is only in the first chapter of the book that some women modeled what should have been the natural response to God for everyone. I read – Exodus 1:15-17: “The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives … When you help the Hebrew women in childbirth … if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, let her live.’ The midwives, however, feared God and did not do what the king of Egypt had told them to do; they let the boys liveThe mightiest man in the nation – the king of Egypt – wanted to decimate the growing numbers of his Hebrew slaves but the midwives feared God – feared God more than the king – and therefore did not kill the Hebrew boys. This was good thinking and it pleased God – Exodus 1:20-21: “So God was kind to the midwives … And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families of their own

Right now – as we are sitting in church – do we fear God – like the midwives? What goes through your head when you hear the word “fear”? Have you ever trembled in God’s presence? How do you feel about facing him in worship? Does the fear of him determine what you do? Right now I am feeling relaxed. Are you relaxed? Good – but – and we will expand on this – if you are always feeling nothing but relaxed in church, chances are that we are missing God – the true worship of him – like so many others in the Bible book of Exodus.

Moses was God’s chosen leader but at their very first encounter he ended up insulting God – provoking him to anger. The Bible says – Exodus 4:14: “Then the Lord’s anger burned against Moses … ” What went wrong? Moses failed to be impressed by God. At first – when God spoke to him from a burning bush that was not consumed by the fire and told him from within the bush – Exodus 3:5: “Do not come closer … Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground” – Moses – at that time – showed a healthy reaction. I read – Exodus 3:6: “ … At this, Moses hid his face, because he was afraid to look at GodSeeing the bush burning but not being incinerated, hearing the voice of God and then standing there without shoes on holy ground – all of that was unsettling and unnerving for him.

Then, God introduced himself, explained the mission to deliver his people from slavery in Egypt and he explained the part Moses would play in the mission. Moses responded by saying – Exodus 3:11: “ … Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of EgyptGod said – Exodus 3:12: “ … I will be with you … ” Moses asked for further confirmation and God complied by revealing his name to him.

There was further talk on strategy but Moses needed more assurance, saying – Exodus 4:1: “ … What if they do not believe me or listen to me … ” God then said – Exodus 4:2-9: “ … ‘What is that in your hand?’ ‘A staff,’ Moses replied. The Lord said, ‘Throw it on the ground.’ Moses threw it on the ground and it became a snake, and he ran from it. Then the Lord said to him, ‘Reach out your hand and take it by the tail.’ So Moses reached out and took hold of the snake and it turned back into a staff in his hand. ‘This,’ said the Lord, ‘is so that they may believe that the Lord … has appeared to you.’ Then the Lord said, ‘Put your hand inside your cloak.’ So Moses put his hand into his cloak and when he took it out, it was leprous like snow. ‘Now put it back into your cloak, ‘ he said. So Moses put his hand back into his cloak, and when he took it out, it was restored, like the rest of his flesh. Then the Lord said, ‘If they do not believe you or pay attention to the first miraculous sign, they may believe the second. But if they do not believe the first two signs or listen to you, take some water from the Nile and pour it on dry ground. The water … will become blood on the ground.’”

Put yourself into Moses’ shoes. How would you take to these miracle demonstrations? A wooden staff became a snake which made Moses run away from its poison. This was a scary experience which was not made better by having to pick up the snake by its tail before it became a staff again. Then, seeing your hand covered with incurable leprosy was also confronting – a shock to the system – and water turning into blood was not a feel-good phenomenon either. Moses had asked for authentication as God’s messenger and God provided him with these three power miracles involving a snake, leprosy and blood. What would we now do in Moses’ situation? Would we be satisfied? Would we have learned anything?

God is not to be trifled with. If you know how to run away from the miracle snake, you better watch your step around the God who made the snake in the first place. Agreed? Moses did not think so but continued arguing with God – Exodus 4:10: “ … O Lord, I have never been eloquent … I am slow of speech and tongueGod answered him – Exodus 4:12: “ … I will help you speak and will teach you what to sayBut – all of this – to no avail. Moses felt safe to keep resisting God and ignoring all of God’s demonstrations. He said – Exodus 4:13: “ … please send someone else to do itThen the Lord’s anger burned against Moses.

Why was Moses not afraid of God and of his possible anger? Why go to the limit of his patience? Why are we doing it? Moses only saw the circumstances and his fear of them – the skeptical slave people, a hostile Pharaoh, the supreme fire-power of Egypt. Moses never saw beyond what he thought was impossible and therefore ended up ignoring God. He neither trusted his assurances nor feared crossing him. But – what blindness! How can a man standing in his socks before a burning bush – being confronted by a snake, leprosy and blood – not get a sense of God’s majestic – fearsome – presence? Moses’ sense of panic because of Pharaoh was misplaced because even Jesus pointed out that the most serious threat for all of us would come from God himself. Luke 12:4-5 – I read from the Bible – Jesus said: “ … my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more. But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after the killing of the body, has power to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him [– fear God].”

Are we coming on board with this or do we keep thinking that we worship a God that is always in a good mood – always positive around us. He won’t mind any of our backchatting because – after all – he is so loving with inexhaustible grace. Yes, he is. God is extremely loving but there is also a side of him that is to be feared. Moses was risking judgement – we are risking judgement – when we keep objecting to God’s plans for us.

A Christian teacher writes [abbreviate and retell in your own words]: “ … I have a board member who is a dear friend and pastors a thriving church in the southeastern part of the United States. He started the church in 1991 with twenty-two people and is now pushing four thousand members. It is one of the easiest churches to preach in because of the hunger of the people. Multitudes have been saved and discipled in this church.

The church grew rapidly through much prayer, strong preaching, and hard labour, and they built a beautiful building to accommodate the large numbers of people. After several years, my friend observed a distinguished white-haired gentleman, always well dressed, attending the services. He also noticed that this man would sit in service after service and watch with tears running down his face. However, the pastor felt these weren’t tears of joy.

Finally, this gentleman approached one of the associate pastors and shared that in 1981 the Lord spoke clearly to him that he was to start a church in this city. A few days later he had a dream of the building this church would meet in that he was to pastor. The dream was so vivid that he got a professional to draw a rendition of the building he saw in his dream. He then said that he ran into some resistance and backed off from starting the church. After a while, he traveled and ministered in other cities for a short time and eventually ended up back in the business world.

He then opened up a carefully folded paper and told the associate that it was the artist’s rendition of the building he had drawn up on 1981. When the associate looked at the drawing, he almost went into shock. It was the exact building my friend had built years later in which they were now meeting. My friend has since ministered comfort to this man, but the gentleman has shared the difficulty he’s had in getting over it … ” (John Bevere: Driven By Eternity, New York: Faith Words 2006, p203-204).

Moses was close to suffering the same fate as the white-haired gentleman. He was afraid of Pharaoh. He feared his own people – as the gentleman feared the opposition to starting up a new church – and therefore he struggled with obedience – but – it is God that is to be feared the most. He may not immediately throw us into hell – we don’t always face the ultimate judgement for disobedience – but he may simply move on – use someone else – with the consequence of us missing out. How tragic would it have been for Moses never to see the freedom of his slave people? The white-haired gentleman was grieving for a very long time. Here at Living Grace we don’t want to miss our calling and therefore we are careful that our worship knows something about the fear of God.

The next person in the Bible book of Exodus, who never seemed to learn, was Pharaoh. The plagues kept coming – God kept carrying out his threats of judgement against him and his nation – but he kept thinking that it was safe to ignore God and what he wanted from him. How could he? Listen to what he experienced – how bad it became –Exodus 7:20-21: “ … the Nile and all the water was changed into blood. The fish in the Nile died, and the river smelled so bad that the Egyptians could not drink its water. Blood was everywhere in Egypt.” Exodus 8:6: “ … frogs came up and covered the landPharaoh pleaded with Moses to pray for an end to this plague. He would now let the people go. Therefore – Exodus 8:12-14: “ … Moses cried out to the Lord … and the Lord did what Moses asked. The frogs died in the houses, in the courtyards and in the fields. They were piled into heaps, and the land reeked of themHowever, the Pharaoh learned nothing from the reeking smell and – instead – established a pattern. Moses would do the praying but he – Pharaoh – would keep breaking his promises after each plague was overcome.

This is what God then did to him and the nation – Exodus 8:17: “ … gnats came upon people and animals … ” Exodus 8:24: “ … Dense swarms of flies poured into … the houses … throughout Egypt the land was ruined by the flies.” Exodus 9:3: “ … a terrible plague on … horses and donkeys and camels and on . cattle and sheep and goats.” Exodus 9:10: “ … festering boils broke out on people and animalsHow much more does God have to do for even the most stubborn people to give him some respect?

God warned Pharaoh about the next plague, saying – Exodus 9:18-22: “ . ‘at this time tomorrow I will send the worst hailstorm that has ever fallen on Egypt from the day it was founded till now. Give an order now to bring your livestock and everything you have in the field to a place of shelter, because … [otherwise] they will die.’ Those officials of Pharaoh who feared the word of the Lord hurried to bring their slaves and their livestock inside. But those who ignored the word of the Lord left their slaves and livestock in the fieldEven after all of the previous evidence of plagues happening – precisely – according to the announcements of Moses, some officials were still not fearing the word of God and ignored the warning.

Yet, the plague was devastating – Exodus 9:24-25: “ … It was the worst storm … hail struck everything … beat down everything growing … stripped every treeFinally, Pharaoh called for help again. Yet, Moses said to him – Exodus 9:29-30: “ … I will spread out my hands in prayer to the Lord. The thunder will stop and there will be no more hail, so that you may know that the earth is the Lord’s. But I know that you and your officials still do not fear the Lord God

How can this be? How could Pharaoh fear all of the plagues but not the one that caused the plagues – God? Exodus 9:34-35: “When Pharaoh saw that the rain and hail and thunder had stopped, he sinned again: He and his officials hardened their hearts … he would not let the Israelites go … ” Yes – some of the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart was caused by God – which more easily accounts for the king’s self-destructive behavior – but Pharaoh himself was also responsible. Given the opportunity – he chose to harden his own heart against the God of the plagues and – against all common sense – refused the request of setting God’s people free.

Are we by any chance the same? The plagues keep coming and the worst plague is the suffering in hell (and there is the evidence of present-day suffering and countless testimonies) but we somehow – against all reasonable thought – dig in against God. Why? Because we are less governed by the brain than we think. Pharaoh loved his slaves – the comfort of cheap labour – the self-pampering which slave ownership afforded to him. He was not willing to give that up – the life-style of a king (and he was not willing to give up the pride of being Pharaoh – being the most powerful person around) – and therefore – driven by more primitive desires and emotions (such as pride, cf. Exodus 10:3) – he chose to shut down his brain (or – and this is more likely – made his brain serve his emotions and come up with a case supporting his desires). You and I – test your thinking. If we live without any fear of God, we are not terribly smart.

There is more. This goes deeper still. In the end God achieved what he set out to do and rescued his people from slavery. Then they came to a mountain (in the desert of Sinai) where he met with them – his congregation – his church – as had been his intention from the beginning – for worship. Yet – even at this time (after the rescue mission from Egypt) – the climax of the entire book – the most awesome – powerful – appearance of God made no impression on his people – at least won him no lasting respect. Why?

Listen to the account – I read excerpts from Exodus 19:10-20:21: “ . the Lord said to Moses, ‘Go to the people and consecrate them today and tomorrow. Have them wash their clothes and be ready by the third day, because on that day the Lord will come down on Mount Sinai in the sight of all people.’ … On the morning of the third day there was thunder and lightning, with a thick cloud over the mountain, and a very loud trumpet blast. Everyone in the camp trembled … Mount Sinai was covered with smoke, because the Lord descended on it in fire. The smoke billowed up from it like smoke from a furnace, the whole mountain trembled violently, and the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder. Then Moses spoke and the voice of God answered him. The Lord descended to the top of Mount Sinai and called Moses to the top of the mountain … And God spoke all these words …

When the people saw the thunder and lightning and heard the trumpet and saw the mountain in smoke, they trembled with fear. They stayed at a distance and said to Moses, ‘Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die.’ Moses said to the people, ‘Do not be afraid. God has come to test you, so that the fear of God will be with you to keep you from sinning.’ The people remained at a distance, while Moses approached the thick darkness where God was

This is what went wrong. The people became scared of God’s powerful presence – the smoke, the dense cloud, the fire, the trembling mountain and the trumpet blasts – which made them choose Moses as a go-between – as some sort of buffer person – between them and God so that they would not have to face God themselves. But they acted on the wrong kind of fear and therefore ended up losing the right kind of fear.

I repeat one verse – Exodus 20:20: “Moses said … , ‘Do not be afraid. God has come to test you, so that the fear of God will be with you to keep you from sinning.’” The whole exercise of God coming close to his people was not meant to harm them. No one had to become afraid but – at the same time – and this goes also for us – God meant to test them. God means to test us. God means to make us uncomfortable – confront us with what is hidden in our hearts (the resentment and unforgiveness and pride) – so that we get a fright about our sin in his presence and this is healthy. The fear of him will keep us from sinning because we have learned that it is a most scary experience to have your life tested by God – as will happen for everyone on the day of judgement (2 Corinthians 5:10: “ … We must all appear before the judgement seat of Jesus Christ … ”).

Yet – when Moses became a buffer person for the people, they felt safe again to ignore God. Before they disobeyed a specific command of God, they were mulling over what Moses was doing – not God. I read from the Bible – Exodus 32:1: “When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain … they said, ‘ … As for this fellow Moses who brought us out of Egypt, we don’t know what has happened to him.’”

Even for us it is easier to set up mediators – buffer people – between God and us because then it is far safer to grumble against them and contradict them – rather than God himself. When they are gone for a long time – like Moses – (when no one seems to visit or chases after you) then they are to blame for what happens next. When they point out sin, we can argue with them and even choose to be offended, saying: “Who does he think he is? He’s not God and he’s not better than meAnd then the flaws of our human leaders can also keep us at a safe distance from God. We feel so justified saying: “I have walked away from God because I got so hurt by my pastor

This is not good. Meet God for yourself. Come to the prayer meetings – get deeper into worship – encounter God for yourself – so that he may test you and the fear of him keeps you from sinning.

At the foot of the mountain the people of God employed one last strategy to avoid any fear of God. It was effective but also extremely sinful. The very first instruction that God gave on the mountain top was this – Exodus 20:1-7: “ … I am the Lord your God … You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath … You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God … ” When Moses ascended the mountain a second time, God immediately repeated his instruction – Exodus 20:23: “Do not make any gods to be alongside me; do not make for yourselves gods of silver or gods of gold

But the people did not want to listen. I read to you what happened – Exodus 32:1-6: “When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, they gathered around Aaron and said, ‘Come, make us gods who will go before us … ’ Aaron answered them, ‘Take off the gold earrings that your wives, your sons and your daughters are wearing, and bring them to me.’ … He took what they handed him and made it into an idol cast in the shape of a calf … Then they said, ‘These are your gods … ’ … the next day the people rose early and sacrificed burnt offerings and presented fellowship offerings. Afterward they sat down to eat and drink and then got up to indulge in revelryI read you again the last bit in the Message translation: “ … The people sat down to eat and drink and then began to party. It turned into a wild party

Right. The golden calf was not intended to be a substitute for God. The people did not want to worship an alternative god but they were more comfortable with shaping their own version of what God was like [and it was not even cheap – personal jewelry was sacrificed; they rose early to sacrifice]. The truth is that we are the same. The temptation is there. The real God is fearsome. On top of the mountain was smoke and fire, tremors and trumpet blasts. For many of us this is too full-on. We want our worship a little more accessible – nice and peaceful. We want to be confirmed in our habits and therefore – at least in some quarters of the church – we have shaped our ideas about God accordingly, saying: “God is not going to do anything weird – or noisy. And God is always loving. There is no eternal judgement because God understands your sin. Don’t worry. If you feel that you cannot obey his commands – if it is too hard (and sometimes it is hard to love each other despite the hurts) – then don’t feel too bad. God loves sinners

Do you recognize the talk? How full-on do we allow God to be? Could it be that our version of God is also one of our own making – an idol? Do we find our version of God in the Bible? Maybe this is how we find out: Do you fear your version of God? If there is no fear, then – almost certainly – it is an idol.

At this point many Christians feel like objecting because we like to relax in worship and we like a less fearsome God and what about the one Bible verse that is saying this  – 1 John 4:18: “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment … ” If the Christian faith is about love and if – according to this verse – there is no fear in love, then – so we may be tempted to argue – we may avoid all the mistakes of others – like Moses, Pharaoh and the people – but at the same time join them in being – always – comfortable around God.

However, this kind of logic is not better than anyone’s in the book of Exodus and misunderstands the Bible verse. Yes – “perfect love drives out fear” but “perfect love” is also perfect in obedience to God. Whoever is absolutely in love with God does not want to go against any of his wishes and therefore is absolutely committed not to sin. My guess is that none of us is enjoying this level of perfection yet and therefore we better learn something about the fear of God.

Then – chances are that when we talk about perfect love, we don’t even include pleasing the one that we love. A Bible teacher writes: “I will never forget the time I visited a famous evangelist who was serving his last year of a five-year prison sentence. His case was made known to the world and brought much reproach on the kingdom. However, in the first year of prison he had a genuine encounter with the Lord. When I walked into the prison four years later, one of the first things he said to me was, ‘John, this prison wasn’t God’s judgement on my life, rather his mercy. If I would have kept going the way I was living, I would have ended up in hell for eternity.’

He now had my attention. I knew I was speaking to a broken man of God, a true servant of Christ. I knew he started out in the ministry very much in love with Jesus. His passion was evident. I wondered how he ended up so far from the Lord while still in the height of his ministry.

So I asked him, ‘When did you fall out of love with Jesus?’ He looked at me and answered without hesitation, ‘I didn’t!’ Very puzzled, I replied, ‘But what about the mail fraud and adultery you committed in the past seven years, all that you’re in prison for?’ He said, ‘John, I loved Jesus all the way through it, but he wasn’t the supreme authority of my life.’ (He didn’t fear God.) Then he said something that riveted me, ‘John, there are millions of American Christians just like me. They call Jesus their Saviour and love him, but they don’t fear him as their supreme Lord.’ … ” (John Bevere: Driven By Eternity, New York: Faith Words 2006, p133-134).

The evangelist’s love fell short. He loved Jesus but not enough to please him because he also loved his sin and therefore needed to relearn the fear of God to stop sinning. According to the traditional teaching of the church we are all the same. We need to be confronted by the holiness of God – by his holy standards and his judgement (his holy wrath on anything unholy). Martin Luther writes: “ … the chief function or power of the law [the pure nature of God in holiness] is to … show people to what utter depths their human nature has fallen and how corrupt it has become … Thus he is terror-stricken and humbled … This function of the law is retained and taught by the New Testament. So Paul says in Romans 1:18, ‘The wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of people,’ and in Romans 3:19,20, ‘The whole world may be held accountable to God, for no human being will be justified in his sight.’ Christ also says in John 16:8, ‘The Holy Spirit will convince the world of sin.’ This, then, is the thunderbolt by means of which God with one blow destroys open sinners and false saints. He allows no one to justify himself. He drives all together into terror and despair … This is what the beginning of true repentance is lie … ” (Smalcald Articles, II The Law & III Repentance).

There is a function in the nature of God which leaves people terror-stricken. This is a strong word but for any sinner this is where the encounter with God – the Christian life – begins. Even the most mature Christians among us – like the most mature people in the Bible – need assurances when God comes close to us. For instance, when the apostle John had a vision of Jesus, he fell at his feet like a dead man. Then – according to his testimony in the Bible – Revelations 1:17: “ . Jesus placed his right hand on me and said, ‘Do not be afraid. I am the First and the Last … ’” When an angel greeted Mary, she was greatly troubled at his words but immediately the angel said to her – Luke 1:30: “ … Do not be afraid … ” This is also what Moses said to the people of God at the foot of Mount Sinai: “Do not be afraid

The truth is that all of us begin by being terror-stricken but then the fear of God matures into loving reverence and respect (while being very careful not to offend God with sin and to approach him in the right way). We learn that God loves us (he only came to his people because he wanted to rescue them from slavery in Egypt) and we learn that God has made provisions for us to be blessed in his presence – even on the top of the smoking mountain – without being consumed by him. [Blood sacrifices would atone for the people’s sin and now the sacrifice of Jesus atones for all of us.] In the Bible book of Exodus God was clear about his intentions, saying – Exodus 29:45-46: “Then I will dwell among the Israelites and be their God. They will know that I am the Lord their God, who brought them out of Egypt so that I might dwell among them. I am the Lord their God.” Exodus 33:14: “ … My Presence will go with you … ”

When God appeared to Moses at first, Moses – Exodus 3:6: “ … hid his face because he was afraid to look at GodBut later – after experiencing so much of God’s goodness – he became bold in his growing appreciation of God. He asked him – Exodus 33:18: “ … show me [more of] your gloryAt this later stage Moses could not get enough of God. There were no longer any scared feelings. He had submitted. He was humble and obedient and – finally – so taken by God that now God had to warn him not to look, saying – Exodus 33:20: “ … you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live

God is going to grow on us and our fear of him will mature. Moses became so enamored with God that his own face began to glow with the glory of God. God remained awesome to him and fearsome but he was not one little bit afraid of him. He progressed so far that others even shied back from his face because it reflected the presence of God – Exodus 34:30: “When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, his face was radiant, and they were afraid to come near him

I close with pointing to the cross of Christ. When we understand that his tortured body suffered the wrath of God on our behalf, we understand something about the fearsomeness of God. He is holy and he judged sin in the body of his son – for us. God is not be trifled with. Yet – at the same time – the cross also explains to us that God made provisions for us to come near to him. He loved us so much that he did not spare himself – for us. The Bible teaches – Ephesians 2:4: “ … because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ … ” Ephesians 1:7: “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace … ” [The cross unleashed more power than the ten plagues in Egypt combined. The suffering was worse. The victory was greater – over Satan.]

We give God some respect.[1] Much happened on the cross. In the beginning Moses feared the circumstances more than God. Pharaoh refused to think – clearly – because he did not want to give up on his desires. The Israelites chose a buffer person to keep some distance between them and God and then – from a distance – they shaped their own version of God (an idol). This morning we are not following them but give God some respect. We fear him – in worship – for obedience. We are not exactly scared – he loves us (forgiveness is a free gift to the humble – not earned) – but we know enough about our sin to fear his holiness. Amen.

 

 



[1] One Bible book contemplates the meaning of life and then finishes up by saying – Ecclesiastes 12:13: “ … here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments …” Another Bible book begins by saying – Proverbs 1:7: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge … ”