Thursday, March 8, 2012

Beyond Failure - Exodus 5

He was a young man at the top of his game - a star athlete, a top scholar, tall and good looking.  Then, God called him to be a missionary.  At this point in his life, being a missionary was the farthest thing from Jerry’s mind.  He went outside to a lake to talk with God in private.  He told God the long list of reasons why he shouldn’t be a missionary.  Slowly, God answered all his objections.  
At last he had one more complaint - the heart of his worries: “God, I can’t be a missionary.  I’m no good at that kind of stuff.  I’ll fail for sure.”
Then, he felt like God answered him very clearly: “OK, then, will you fail for me?”  That was the heart of the issue.  Was he willing to be faithful to God even if it meant failing?  
That question is the first main point of our Exodus text today.  God called Moses to lead Israel out of Egypt.  Moses and Israel put their faith in God.  They took a radical step of faith and obedience.  They went to Pharaoh and asked him to let them walk out of Egypt.
(Don’t get distracted by the details of their request.  This is an example of Middle-Eastern bargaining.  The opening offer is to go into the wilderness to worship, but hidden inside that, both Moses and Pharaoh know that Israel is really asking for freedom.)
So after taking this radical step of faith in God, we would expect God to reward their faith and to set them free.  Not exactly.  Instead of freedom, they get more oppression.
Pharaoh’s response is really shrewd here.  By making the Israelites work harder, he does three things.  First, they are now so tired they don’t have any energy to fight for change.  Second, they will now be happy simply to return to the old levels of oppression.  (At least, it was better than this!)  Third, he turns the Israelites against each other.  The Israelite foremen attack Moses and Aaron and call on God to judge against them!  Epic fail!
Sometimes faithfulness leads to failure.  Sometimes obeying God makes our lives harder.  Don’t be confused by all of the beautiful promises in the Bible.  They are true.  Being a Christian is awesome.  Following God is absolutely the best way to live.  ...  But sometimes it really sucks!  Sometimes we suffer because we do the wrong things.  Other times we suffer specifically because we do the right things.
So here is the first main point of Exodus 5.  Will you follow God even if you fail?  Will you be faithful even if it makes your life harder?  Will you value obedience over success?

In Daniel chapter 3, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego are three young Hebrew  men in captivity in Babylon, the most powerful nation in that part of the world.  King Nebuchadnezzar builds a huge golden statue of himself and commands everyone to bow down to it in worship.  Everyone - all the leaders, all the governors, all the judges - everyone bowed down ... except for Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.  
Nebuchadnezzar flew into a rage and threatened to throw them into the roaring furnace in the palace, but they responded: “O Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you.  If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God whom we serve is able to save us.  He will rescue us from your power, your Majesty.  But even if he doesn’t, we want to make it clear to you, your Majesty, that we will never serve your gods or worship the gold statue you have set up”  (Daniel 3:16-18).  
God has the power to protect us, but even if he chooses not to use that power now, we will still be faithful to him.
Will you be faithful even if it means going into life’s furnace?
That’s the first question, the first point of this text.
The second point of Exodus chapter five isn’t actually in chapter five.  In Exodus chapter five, God is invisible.  God does nothing.  God says nothing.  God seems to be totally inactive and unsupportive.
But if you read Exodus chapter four and chapter 6, you’ll see that God is actually working in the midst of the problems.  God knew that Pharaoh was going to resist at first, and God is still working on behalf of the Israelites.  It’s just going to take longer than they thought.  If you read the whole book, you’ll see a larger story in which God is deeply, amazingly faithful.  In chapter 5, God is silent and invisible and irrelevant, and the people give up on God.  But in chapter 6, God comes storming out of the shadows ready to work miracles and drop plagues on Egypt to set Israel free.  By chapter 15, Israel is singing hymns of praise on the other side of the Red Sea.
The second point of chapter five is: Don’t get stuck in chapter five.  Read the whole story.  See the larger context.   
We are all going to have dark spots.  Sometimes we’ll make mistakes.  Sometimes we’ll be punished for doing everything right.  Sometimes other people will hurt us for no reason at all.  Sometimes it will feel like God doesn’t care or like God isn’t there.  Don’t get stuck in that part of your story.  See the larger context.
In the larger context of our story, God loves us completely.  In fact, God loves us so much that God forgives our rebellion.  God became human in Jesus and died for our sins, so that we can live with his goodness and freedom.  Whatever our current darkness is, the cross shines a bright light over it, giving us the rest of the story.  We have come from God’s love.  We are sustained by God’s love.  One day, the world will be made right, and we will be brought home to God’s love.  
Economists say that “the Great Recession” of recent years was primarily the result of short-term thinking.  A whole lot of people with power and money wanted to make today’s results better without considering the long-term effects.  The result of this short-term thinking was disaster - a nearly total economic meltdown.  
Magazines and blogs, executives and politicians - people from across the political spectrum are now calling for a return to some simple, fundamental virtues: patience, foresight, discipline.  Basically, they are calling the world to learn from our mistakes and to give up our focus on short-term results.
This is essentially the unspoken message of Exodus five.  If we want God to lead us out of Egypt, we have to give up our focus on short-term results.  If we only look at chapter five, then God’s plan for redemption was a failure, and we should ditch Moses and God and make our peace with Egypt.  But if we look at the larger story, God is faithful.  God will lead us where he calls us.  Our task is to follow God - even if it means following through the valley of short-term failure.  
Trusting God can have all kinds of negative short-term consequences.
  • If you trust God more than anything else, you might get fired because you refuse to cheat.
  • If you really trust God, you might get passed over for a promotion for no particular reason.
  • If you trust God more than anything else, you might have increased family conflict because you insist that your children go to church.
  • If you really trust God, you might not publish as many papers because you’re spending more time with your family.
  • If you trust God more than anything else, your boyfriend might leave you because you won’t have sex.
  • If we really trust God, we might have conflict in our church because things are growing and changing.
  • If you trust God more than anything else, people might say all kinds of unkind things about you because you are different.
  • If you really trust God, your kids might not get quite as good of grades - if they are home resting on Sunday instead of at hakwons.
  • If you trust God more than anything else, you might have problems at work because you refuse to play the power games.  
  • If you really trust God, you might have more problems than you started with.
... in the short term.
In the long term, I have found Psalm 37 to be amazingly true and encouraging.  Listen.
1 Don’t worry about the wicked or envy those who do wrong.
2 For like grass, they soon fade away.  Like spring flowers, they soon wither.
 3 Trust in the LORD and do good.  Then you will live safely in the land and prosper.
4 Take delight in the LORD,   and he will give you your heart’s desires.
 5 Commit everything you do to the LORD.  Trust him, and he will help you.
6 He will make your innocence radiate like the dawn,  and the justice of your cause will shine like the noonday sun.
 7 Be still in the presence of the LORD,  and wait patiently for him to act.
   Don’t worry about evil people who prosper or fret about their wicked schemes.
 8 Stop being angry!   Turn from your rage!
   Do not lose your temper—  it only leads to harm.
9 For the wicked will be destroyed, but those who trust in the LORD will possess the land. ...
 16 It is better to be godly and have little than to be evil and rich.
17 For the strength of the wicked will be shattered, but the LORD takes care of the godly.
 18 Day by day the LORD takes care of the innocent,  and they will receive an inheritance that lasts forever.
19 They will not be disgraced in hard times; even in famine they will have more than enough. ...
 34 Put your hope in the LORD.  Travel steadily along his path.
   He will honor you by giving you the land.  You will see the wicked destroyed.
 35 I have seen wicked and ruthless people flourishing like a tree in its native soil.
36 But when I looked again, they were gone!   Though I searched for them, I could not find them!
 37 Look at those who are honest and good,  for a wonderful future awaits those who love peace.
38 But the rebellious will be destroyed; they have no future.
 39 The LORD rescues the godly;  he is their fortress in times of trouble.
40 The LORD helps them,  rescuing them from the wicked.
   He saves them,  and they find shelter in him.
God is faithful.  God will care for you.  No matter what troubles you are going through now.  Continue to be faithful to our faithful God.  “Put your hope in the LORD.  Travel steadily along his path.  ... The LORD rescues the godly; he is their fortress in times of trouble.”  (Psalm 37:34, 39).
Remember that young man by the lake, the one God had called to be a missionary.  God asked him if he was willing to fail for God.  That young man said yes.  He said yes, and he kept saying yes to God for a very long time.  But he didn’t fail.  God blessed his radical willingness to obey, and he succeeded beyond his imagination.  His name is Jerry Porter, and he’s one of the General Superintendents for the Church of the Nazarene.
If you obey God, there is no guarantee for success.  You may fail in the short-term.  You may even fail for most of your life - by the world’s standards.  But if you obey God’s call on your life no matter what, you will probably experience God’s blessings in the long term.  But even if you don’t, then some day, you will experience the eternal long-term success of being welcomed into God’s heavenly home with the beautiful words, “Well done, my good and faithful servant”  (Matthew 25:21).
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