Hand To God - Exodus 9
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Hand To God – 08.07.2022
Charles Swindoll, writer of the book “Stress Fractures”, once found himself with too many commitments in too few days. He got real nervous and tense about it, and it affected his home life. He was snapping at his wife and yelling at the kids. Choking down his food as quickly as he could, and always getting really irritated at the unexpected interruptions throughout the day. He said, “Before long, things around our home started reflecting the patter of my hurry-up style. It was becoming unbearable.” And then one evening, after supper, their youngest daughter Colleen approached her father. She wanted to tell him something important that had happened to her at school that day. And she began by talking really quickly, “Daddy, I want to tell you something and I’ll tell you really fast.” Now as a father, Charles realized how his attitude was affecting his daughter, he saw her frustration with the “hurry up” style, and so he answered, “Honey, you can tell me – and you don’t have to tell me really fast. Go ahead, take your time, say it slowly.” He says, “I’ll never forget her answer.” She said, “okay Daddy, but then you have to listen slowly.”
Today we are jumping in with part of three of our sermon series called Plagues – following the story of Israel and their quest for freedom from Egypt. Most of the time when we hear about the ten plagues of Egypt, it’s a very passing reference and they’re all lumped together. But true to form we have been walking through them one chapter a week, and I have been surprised by the richness of what there is to learn. First we saw that God is being dramatic on purpose, the point of the plagues is not just freedom – but also to show God’s power and glory. Then last week we saw the difference between a true, loving relationship with God and a transactional relationship where we are just trying to manipulate the divine for a desired result. And so here we are in chapter nine, introducing the next three plagues.
Now, if you remember – the plagues we have dealt with so far are blood, frogs, gnats and flies. And there’s a couple different ways they are measuring how bad things are. First is the magicians. Can Pharaoh’s little magic men copy the miracle? And they could do it for the first couple plagues, but as we go they are losing power. They don’t know how to do the things that God is doing. The second measure of God’s power is who is getting hit by the plagues. As we go the plagues stop affecting the Israelites. Only Egyptians are plagued, not the places where Israelites live. And that brings us to chapter nine. [read v.1-4]. The next plague is the livestock, and we are continuing a lot of themes from the previous plagues. 1.) They want freedom so they can worship God. And 2.) the Israelites are not getting hit by the plague, they are set apart. It continues, [read v.6-7]. So the key message here is very simple – God’s people are set apart. He has singled them out, they are different than the Egyptians.
Have you ever wondered about some of those Old Testament rules? Like, you know how the bible, specifically the Old Testament, is full of really strange laws – like don’t trim your beard, don’t wear certain color threads and how about that bacon thing? No eating pigs. Jewish people had a LOT of dietary restrictions. No shellfish, can’t eat meat WITH dairy. Can’t let your fork touch the meat and the dairy at the same time. It’s all very confusing - and have you ever wondered – why on earth do we have all these strange rules in the Old Testament? Now there’s a lot of reasons for the various old testament laws, some are about health and safety, some are social – but my point here is that there’s a whole big chunk of laws in the old testament that were specifically designed to make the Israelites stand out. Some of the laws are just universal moral codes – like don’t murder each other. Of course. But some of the laws were designed to set them apart. Oh those guys? Yeah, those are God’s people – and you know they’re God’s people because they do these things. Circumcised, won’t eat certain foods, dress a certain way, act a certain way – there’s a whole picture of what God’s people were meant to look like, and it started before the legal codes ever came. God has a habit of setting his people apart. Here’s why this matters – some scholars actually give a definition of holiness that is, “to be set apart.” What is holiness? Holiness is to be set apart for God. That’s going to come up later, but let’s move on.
[read v.8-9]. The next plague is boils, and they do it – by taking handfuls of soot and throwing it into the air. And I read that, and all I could think was – “gross, what on earth was in that furnace.” But again the magicians are not able to replicate it. Now before the next plague shows up, God takes a pause to explain everything to Pharaoh. In case Pharaoh’s not getting the message. [read v.13-14]. God tells Moses to tell Aaron to tell Pharaoh that all of this stuff – all of it is happening so that Egypt would know that there is no one like God on the whole earth. We talked about this with the first plague, we are being dramatic on purpose to demonstrate so that there will be no doubt. He keeps going, [read v.15-17]. God is telling Pharaoh, I could have obliterated you. Which I feel like it’s not the nicest thing to say, but it’s also super important for Pharaoh to get it through his thick skull. If the goal here was to wipe you out – we could do that, but my point here is “to show you my power and to make my name known on the whole earth.” God tells Pharaoh, I am literally letting you stay alive so you can witness what I’m about to do. And then he gives Pharaoh another warning.
[read v.18-19]. Plague number 8 is hail, the worst hail that has ever occurred. But I want you to see something vital – God invites Pharaoh to avoid the plague. God tells him, the only thing you’ve got to do is listen to me and you will be fine. You ever do that thing, where you’re driving down the road in a subdivision and a squirrel runs out into the road? You’re not going very fast, and you’ve got plenty of space, and so you slow down and the squirrel can’t make up it’s mind. It runs a little bit this way, a little bit that way. And you find yourself yelling at the squirrel from inside your car. “Just pick a direction, get to the side so I don’t run you over.” I wonder if that’s what it’s like for God watching us make decisions in our lifetime. Plague number 8 – hail from the sky – is the first plague where God is actually inviting Pharaoh to avoid the plague. To be one of God’s chosen, all Pharaoh had to do was listen. [read v.20-21] Listening to the voice of God is the key to holiness. There’s a bit of confusion in the Old Testament – with the phrase “fear of Lord” in the modern world we think “scared of God.” But the fear of the Lord back in that context was far more tied to ideas of respect and obedience. I’m not scared of God, but I am aware of his power and I listen when he speaks. Pharaoh’s officials who “feared the word of the Lord” – they were the folks who understood, “God is all powerful and when he says something, I should pay attention.” Fear of God is an old testament concept that is tied to listening to God.
So the hail shows up, [read v.23-26]. Epic, lightening, hail – it’s even shattering trees. And this time, when Pharaoh puts it out there – there’s almost a hint of repentance, [read v.27-28]. This is the first time, with all the stuff that’s been happening, all these plagues, this is the first time we’ve seen Pharaoh admit wrongdoing. In the past it was just, “make it stop, I’ll do what you want.” But here Pharaoh says, “I have sinned.” It’s like this demonstration of power has shifted things in Pharaoh’s heart and he’s realizing that going against God was a bad idea. At least verbally, he admits to his mistake. I messed this up. But true repentance, true holiness, true fear of the Lord comes from the heart – not just from our lips. And Moses calls him on it, [read v.29-30]. We end the chapter exactly how you’d expect. Moses says, “I know your heart.” He lifts the plague, they detail the damage, and then Pharaoh hardens his heart again. His repentance was empty – it didn’t cause any changes in his actual life. True fear of God comes when you listen to what he says and obey. True holiness is found in the heart, not just the words of our mouths.
There’s an old story from South Africa about a young Dutchman who church and God laid his hand on the young man, and convicted him of his sin. The next morning he went to the home of a friend and said to him, “Do you recognize this watch?” And the friend said, “Why, yes. Those are my initials. That is my watch. I lost it eight years ago. How did you get it, and how long have you had it?” And the first man said, “I stole it.” Well, wait – what made you bring it back now? And the first man replied, “I was converted last night. God came into my life and showed me that what I did was wrong. I brought it back quick as I could this morning. If you had been up, I would have brought it last night.” You see that’s real repentance. True holiness is found in our hearts, when we listen to what God is telling us and then do what he says.
The good news for us this morning is that God is speaking, calling us to holiness. These plagues are not just a big list of ways that God is being mean to Egypt. It’s very intentional, designed with a specific purpose and right in the middle God takes a break to clarify for Pharaoh what’s going on. There is a difference between the people who listen to me and the people who don’t. The warnings that God gives shows us something about his character. People might be fickle or false – to say things with their lips that they don’t really mean. But God is faithful and steadfast. He always does what he says he will – he operates with integrity and honesty.
Some people think of God as a mean judge. Some people think that the old testament and stories like the plagues give us a picture of a vengeful and angry God. You know, we’re all standing on a trap door above the burning fires of hell and God’s just hoping we mess up so he can pull the lever and drop us into eternal torment. But if you actually read the stories, you see that God is speaking the whole time. It’s a little bit like God is a teacher who handed you a test, and then he wrote all the answers on the board and starts pointing at it. There’s no surprise attack in Egypt. There’s no ambush or double-cross. God is speaking to them the whole time. Most of the time God sends Moses and Aaron to announce what is coming ahead of time. Hey, the hail is coming, you should get inside. And then they ignore God, and the hail starts falling on their heads and they say, “ugh, why is God being so mean to me?” [gesture wildly] Can you imagine how exasperating that is for God. God is speaking, he has given us everything we need to live a life close to him. Everything we need for salvation, for a life of holiness. There’s no trick answers, there’s no pop quiz. God WANTS you to succeed, God WANTS you to win and get the answer right. The good news is that God is speaking, and if we listen we will find holiness.
Now I hope that the application for today, the challenge I want you to take with you this morning is very obvious. My challenge for you is to be holy. In our lives we need to be set apart for God. Now that is not really a useful challenge. I tell you “be holy” and what are you supposed to do with that? Put some extra bleach in the laundry and then sit around trying to think pure thoughts? “Be Holy” is too general. But remember that being holy, being set apart is connected to the fear of God. And in the Old Testament, fear of God is connected to LISTENING to God. The goal is to be holy, and the way we do that is that we LISTEN when God is talking! God is speaking – all throughout this story and in each and every one of our lives, God is speaking. The actual challenge for us today is to listen up.
Do you remember back in the day when adjusting the radio station was a knob on the dashboard that you had to turn? Nowadays we just push the digital “seek” button – but it used to be a scroll knob that you would twist back and forth and it would be all fuzzy and crackly until it hit the perfect station number. Robert Herron once said, “Good listening is like tuning a radio station. For good results, you can listen to only one station at a time. Trying to listen to my wife while looking over an office report is like trying to receive two radio stations at the same time. I end up with distortion and frustration. Listening requires a choice of where I place my attention. To tune into my partner, I must first choose to put away all that will divide my attention. That might mean laying down the newspaper, moving away from the dishes in the sink, putting down the book I’m reading, setting aside my projects.” I think his point is that in order to truly listen we have to tune in to God. My wife learned this the hard way in the early days of our marriage. I watch the television the same way my 6 year old watches the tv. Slack jawed, glazed eyes, completely oblivious to all the stuff happening all around us. If there is a screen on in the room, and you want MY attention – you have to make the screen be NOT on. I’m so bad at multi-tasking in that way. I’m not a good double listener. Pause the movie, give my wife my full attention.
And I think it’s the same way in each of our lives. Pause the movie, give God our full attention. God put the answers on the chalk board. [hold up the bible] He has given us guidance and instruction – and yet still we walk around wondering why the hail keeps hitting us in the head. In order to be holy we need to listen up and in order to listen up we need to tune in to God. Put away the distractions and focus on God. We do it every week for worship on a Sunday, but we can also do it every single morning. Open your bible before you open your phone. Grab a devotional before you grab the tv remote. Be intentional to connect with God through prayer and reading the bible every single day. God is speaking. We just need to turn off the distractions and tune in to what he’s saying in our lives.
Once upon a time there was a man who was hurrying his way through life. His little daughter was picking up on that stress. And when he realized that he was rushing his daughter, he stopped and said, “take your time, tell me slowly.” And she replied, “then listen slowly.” Exodus chapter 9 had a lot to show us, but the dominant theme is that God wants what is best for us. God IS what’s best for us, and he wants us to understand that. He’s practically whacking the Egyptians on the head trying to help them. And so I’ll leave you with this. May you remember that God has been speaking, giving us the answers all along. May you pause the movie and give your full attention to the one who loves you. I don’t know about you, but I think it’s time we started listening. Amen
 Robert W. Herron, Homemade, June, 1987.