Near the end of the Book of Genesis, God allowed a terrible famine to sweep across the greatest empire in the world at that time: the Egyptian empire.
And as the story goes on, it becomes clear why God did this: he wanted to provide Egypt with a messiah, a saviour, a man who would rescue them from starvation.
So he took a young man named Joseph, sent him down out of his family’s mountain homeland, made sure he was sold into slavery among the rivers of Egypt, and even made sure that he was falsely accused and buried alive in an Egyptian prison.
Essentially, Joseph was dead. His life was over. All hope for him was lost.
But then, at just the right time, God lifted Joseph back up from death in prison and gave him the miraculous power to save Egypt. And this power impressed the king and the people so much that they seated Joseph upon the throne of Egypt and submitted to everything he said. They even insisted that Joseph send for his family — his parents and brothers and sisters — and bring them down from the mountains to live in peace and plenty beside the Nile river.
And because Egypt submitted to God’s messiah Joseph and blessed the messiah’s family, God blessed Egypt in return: the empire survived and even grew in power at a time when all the surrounding nations were starving.
And that is where the Book of Genesis ended.
But then the Book of Exodus began, and we found out that the blessing did not last. Oh, God’s blessing on Egypt lasted! That nation continued to grow in power and influence — but they did so, in part, by reversing their earlier policy and cursing their messiah’s family instead, the people called Israel. They forgot how Joseph had saved them in previous generations; they began to fear his power and the continuing power of the his family; and so the Egyptians enslaved them all, blessing themselves by forcing the Israelites to build their empire’s infrastructure.
And if you have been reading with us through the Book of Exodus, then you know that — until recently — it looked like the Egyptians were going to get away with it. For more than four centuries they have been cursing the family of God’s messiah, and nothing bad has happened to them. They have continued to enjoy the blessings that God first began pouring out upon them hundreds of years ago, during the time of Joseph.
But appearances can be deceiving. The truth is this: the moment Egypt rejected the rule of God’s messiah, a four-hundred year countdown to judgement began. No one could see it, but the foundations of that empire had begun to crumble, eaten away by the self-sabotage that comes from cursing and enslaving God’s people.
It has only been during the last few weeks that the rot has reached the surface and revealed how hollow Egyptian imperial power has become. God began gently, softly to pick apart the Egyptian system, to undo the blessings he had poured out upon previous generations. He proved that he is the true God over the rivers and the soil, he proved that he is the true Master of pestilence and disease. Last week he proved that he is the King of the heavens as he poured out a hailstorm upon the earth and destroyed the crops of early spring.
But all hope of God’s continued blessing is not yet lost. Egyptian land and Egyptian livestock lie devastated, but last week we learned that one harvest of wheat yet remains in the ground, untouched by any of God’s acts of judgement. Back in Joseph’s time, after the Pharaoh submitted to the rule of God’s messiah, Egypt was saved through the growing and the storing of grain. It could still happen again! Pharaoh could still submit to God’s messiah Moses, and Egypt would once again be saved through this last harvest of grain. Right?
But  then the Lord said to Moses, “Go to Pharaoh, for I have hardened his heart and the hearts of his officials…“
And this reminds us that…no, this Pharaoh was never going to submit to God’s messiah. There never was a chance that this one final harvest of wheat would grow to maturity and save the people from starvation, like what happened back in the time of Joseph. This verse reminds us that, way back in Chapter 4, when first God told Moses to go and perform these acts of judgement before Pharaoh, God also said, “But I will harden his heart so that he will not let the people go.”
And for many of us, this does not seem fair. We say, “Why didn’t God give Pharaoh a chance to soften his heart and repent so that his people would be saved from starvation?”
But the truth is, God has given Pharaoh every chance to soften his heart. Last week we heard how God said to Pharaoh, “I have raised you up, I have given you every advantage of education and social position, I have fully prepared and empowered you so that you can make the right decision here — but you still set yourself against my people and will not let them go.” So it is clear that God believes Pharaoh has the power to make the right choice. And it is clear, from the way Moses has been writing, that it is Pharaoh himself who has hardened his own heart, by his own will.
At the same time, we are right to say that God did not give Pharaoh a chance to soften his heart. Pharaoh hardened his heart. But God also hardened Pharaoh’s heart. This was a case where Pharaoh’s will and God’s will were perfectly aligned. If Pharaoh had asked Moses, “Hey, do you think that me being stubborn is God’s will for my life?” Moses would have had to say, “Yes, you are in the center of God’s will right now!”
But that is still troubling for many of us. Because the implication is that God could have forcibly taken out Pharaoh’s heart of stone and replaced it with a heart of flesh — but he chose not to. He could have redeemed Pharaoh, but he decided to let Pharaoh destroy himself instead. More than that! he decided to make sure Pharaoh destroyed himself.
And in our modern, global culture — a culture that is deeply committed to human rights, especially the right to choose — what God has done here sounds to us like a profound violation. We want to say, “But God, aren’t you supposed to be the God of Love and all that? Why would you purposely harden Pharaoh’s heart instead of breaking it so he might repent and save his own people from starvation?”
Well…let’s let God answer that question directly. Because he does, right here, beginning in verse 1:
“I have hardened his heart and the hearts of his officials so that I may perform these signs of mine among them  that you may tell your children and grandchildren how I dealt harshly with the Egyptians and how I performed my signs among them, and that you may know that I am the Lord.”
So…let’s make sure we understand what God is saying here.
We are asking, “Hey, why would you, as the God of Love and Human Rights, purposely harden Pharaoh’s heart?”
And his answer is: “A). so I get a chance to perform these signs; B). so you get a chance to tell your kids how harsh I was to the Egyptians, and C). so you may know that I am the Lord.”
Those do not sound like good reasons to us. Do they? It sounds like God just wanted a chance to show off how amazingly, terrifyingly powerful he is. If Pharaoh had softened too soon, God would have missed his chance to show off. So God made sure Pharaoh would not soften too soon.
And that just sounds petty, doesn’t it? I mean…look, okay: Pharaoh is a terrible guy. He and the Pharaoh before him have been throwing Hebrew babies into the Nile river. So if God decides to torture him to death little by little, we can understand that! But where is God’s compassion for the common people of Egypt? More than 400 years before this, God did soften a Pharaoh’s heart so that he would submit to God’s messiah Joseph, and the Egyptian people were saved from starvation. So we know God could do that if he wanted to. But this time he dowan! Why not? Because he wants a chance to perform these signs!
And to those of us who have been raised in this thoroughly modern society, that just seems wrong! And I want to be honest with you: many modern people, especially in the west, have decided that they just cannot forgive God for this, they simply cannot worship a God who would make this kind of decision.
…we are going to let that discomfort simmer while we finish the rest of today’s passage. We are going to proceed in faith that there is something more to this equation that we have not yet encountered:
 So Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and said to him, “This is what the Lord, the God of the Hebrews, says: ‘How long will you refuse to humble yourself before me? Let my people go, so that they may worship me.’”
So once again God makes it clear that he has given Pharaoh a real choice and the power to make the right choice. God has hardened Pharaoh’s heart, but at the same time it is Pharaoh who has refused to humble himself.
 “’If you refuse to let them go, I will bring locusts into your country tomorrow.  They will cover the face of the ground so that it cannot be seen. They will devour what little you have left after the hail, including every tree that is growing in your fields.  They will fill your houses and those of all your officials and all the Egyptians—something neither your parents nor your ancestors have ever seen from the day they settled in this land till now.’”
Then Moses turned and left Pharaoh.  Pharaoh’s officials said to him, “How long will this man be a snare to us? Let the people go, so that they may worship the Lord their God. Do you not yet realize that Egypt is ruined?”
Last week we discovered that Pharaoh’s court was divided: some of his officials feared God’s word and took steps to protect their property, but most did not. Now all of Pharaoh’s officials fear God’s word, and they beg Pharaoh to submit.
And Pharaoh listens to his counsellors. He brings Moses and Aaron back in and says, “Go, worship the Lord your God. But first: tell me who will be going?”
 Moses answered, “We will go with our young and our old, with our sons and our daughters, and with our flocks and herds, because we are to celebrate a festival to the Lord.”
And  Pharaoh said, “Oh, right! Yeah, the Lord will be with you—if I let you go, along with your women and children! Clearly you are bent on evil.”
Basically, he is saying, “How stupid do you think I am? If I let you all go without any strings attached, then you will definitely be boasting to the world that the Lord is with you.
 “No! Have only the men go and worship the Lord, since that’s what you have been asking for.” Then Moses and Aaron were driven out of Pharaoh’s presence.
So the plague of locusts happened, just as God promised.  They covered all the ground until it was black. They devoured all that was left after the hail—everything growing in the fields and the fruit on the trees. Nothing green remained on tree or plant in all the land of Egypt.
 Pharaoh quickly summoned Moses and Aaron and said — just like he did last week — “I have sinned against the Lord your God and against you.  Now forgive my sin once more and pray to the Lord your God to take this deadly plague away from me.”
Now, it is obvious that, just like last week, Pharaoh is still approaching God as a judge who can be bribed and fooled by momentary good behaviour: he does not really fear the Lord. But this time Moses does not bother to point out that Pharaoh’s repentance is not real repentance.
He just goes out and prays like he did before,  and the Lord changed the wind to a very strong west wind, which caught up the locusts and carried them into the Red Sea. Not a locust was left anywhere in Egypt.  But the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and he would not let the Israelites go.
So, just as we feared at the beginning of today’s passage — and just as God ordained from the beginning of this process — Pharaoh did not repent. And now that final wheat harvest God had so mercifully preserved from the hailstorm is gone. The economy of Egypt is completely devastated. No doubt Pharaoh and his officials will survive just fine, but the poor people of Egypt are in for a hard time.
And this brings us back to the problem we were wrestling with before: how could God be so uncompassionate to the helpless poor of Egypt? Pharaoh and his officials are obviously the real problem here. God could have just removed the corrupt government of Egypt while preserving the common people who never got a chance to hear God’s word and obey it. Instead, God has chosen this very harsh solution — and he even boasts about his harshness right here in verse 2!
What kind of terrible God is this?
Well…that is kind of the point, as we discussed last week. The whole reason God has allowed all these things to happen is so that he can show the whole world that he is terrible. Not terrible as in “bad” or “horrible” or anything like that, but terrible in the classical sense of the word: he is terrifying. As terrifying as a volcano, or a tsunami, or a cyclone with 200 km/h winds. But — as we discussed last week — God also wants to demonstrate how merciful he is, which is why he keeps on answering Pharaoh’s prayers even though he knows Pharaoh is not sincere. God is the terrifying Judge of all the earth, but he is also the merciful Father over all the earth, and that is why God has been hardening Pharaoh’s heart: so he would have a chance to perform these signs and stop these signs and in this way reveal his full character to all mankind.
And that piece of information changes things a little bit for us: God is not just showing off because he wants to show off, he is trying to communicate something about himself to everyone in Egypt — not just to Pharaoh, but also to the common people.
Now, this is where we might say, “Okay, sure. But is starving everyone really the best way to communicate that? Did he have to take it so far?”
But when we look back at what happened last week, we realize that…no, there was no other way to communicate this.
Because if you recall, last week we discovered that Pharaoh completely controlled the media. God offered mercy to the common people — but the message never arrived because Pharaoh refused to send out that social media blast. Until this point in the story, Pharaoh has made sure that his people do not get a choice. They do not get to hear God’s word, which means they do not get a chance to decide for themselves whether they are going to submit or not. So far, from the perspective of the common people, Egypt has been hit by wave after wave of ecological and spiritual disasters, each one worse than the last. But they have no idea why!
Well, through these disasters, God is making sure that Pharaoh’s media black-out is coming to an end. He is preparing Pharaoh’s people for the moment when they will hear the truth.
So this choice God has made to deliberately harden Pharaoh’s heart so that Pharaoh stubbornly starves his own people…this is not lack of compassion on God’s part! Quite the opposite: it is, once again, an act of profound mercy. Pharaoh has willed that his people do not get a chance to make a choice. But God has willed that the common people of Egypt are going to get a chance to decide for themselves whether to fear the Lord or not. At some point Pharaoh’s coverup is going to collapse under the mounting pressure of these plagues, and then God’s word will be preached to everyone in Egypt.
So, going back to the central problem: did Pharaoh stubbornly harden his own heart, guaranteeing his own destruction? Yes. Did God stubbornly harden Pharaoh’s heart, guaranteeing Pharaoh’s destruction? Yes. Was that wrong of God? No: God created Pharaoh, and raised him up, so God is perfectly within his rights to reverse that process and bring Pharaoh back down if he wants to. Was this unkind of God? Well, you tell me: if the hardening of this one Egyptian king’s heart results in salvation for thousands of powerless Egyptian citizens, isn’t that a very kind thing to do? After all — to quote from someone in the New Testament — “It is better that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.”
All right. So much for that topic.
But there is still a problem now, isn’t there: the Egyptian economy is gone. No harvest for at least a year. Most likely very little stored grain from last year. And no Joseph in government to take control of the situation and share out the stored grain fairly in any case. Pharaoh and his officials will eat it all; the poor will starve. So where is God’s practical compassion here? It is wonderful to realize that the common people of Egypt are going to get a chance to hear God’s word for themselves and obey it if they want to — but obeying God’s word does not put food in your mouth, does it!
…or does it?
Let’s pause for a moment and go back and think all this through very carefully:
The Egyptian economy is absolutely devastated. That much is clear. The crops that survived the hailstorm were wiped out by the locusts. The livestock that survived the disease were wiped out by the hailstorm — just a few animals have survived because some of Pharaoh’s officials feared God’s word and brought them into shelter.
But there is another local economy that has gone untouched by God’s judgements: the Israelite economy. They have collected their harvests of barley and wheat. They still have all their livestock. And we know this because Moses just said so today. When Pharaoh asked who would be going, Moses answered, “We will go with our young and our old, with our sons and our daughters, and with our flocks and herds, because we are to celebrate a festival to the Lord.”
So, basically, we could say it like this: Moses and his people intend to obey God’s word by leaving Egypt, and because of their obedience they are not going to starve to death like so many Egyptians are going to. In short, obeying God’s word is putting food in their mouths.
Now, let’s continue to think very hard about this:
It is clear by this point that God is acting harshly in order to bring all of Egypt to a place where they will all get a chance to hear God’s word and obey it. It is also clear that obedience for the Egyptians would mean letting the Israelites go. But it is also clear that this kind of obedience will not solve their starvation problem.
Is there, perhaps, another, greater kind of obedience the Egyptians could perform that would solve their starvation problem? For instance — go with me here for a moment while I speculate — since we know that God is merciful beyond imagining, could it be that, if the Egyptian people decide to follow the Israelites out of Egypt, God might actually accept them and adopt them into his people, and then they would receive a share of the barley and wheat and livestock that God has preserved for his people?
The answer is yes. This is God’s plan to save the Egyptian people from starvation. And we know this because God has already done this once before. More than 400 years before this, Egypt faced starvation. God sent them a messiah named Joseph. They submitted to God’s messiah, they obeyed God’s word, and they were fed. Well here, again, Egypt faces starvation. God has sent them a messiah named Moses. And if they submit to God’s messiah, if they obey God’s word, they will be fed.
The big difference between Joseph’s time and Moses’ time is this: during Joseph’s time, God saved the Egyptians without requiring them to give up their gods or their national or ethnic identities. This time, they are going to have to give up being Egyptian, become Israelites, and worship the Lord alone.
And when we compare Joseph’s time with Moses’, we see that, in one sense, God was more open back then: he saved them from starvation without requiring them to change their identity. But, then again, they all died as pagans: they never got to know God. They enjoyed God’s blessing of food for a few decades on earth, but then their spirits went down into eternal darkness.
This time, however, God is requiring a substantial committment: you want to be saved from starvation? Give up everything and follow my messiah! That sounds very costly — and it is. But, then again, in return they will receive not just God’s blessing of food during their time on earth, but the promise of eternal life in the light of God’s presence, the promise that they will truly know the Lord as their Heavenly Father.
And all of this is going to become more and more clear over the next few weeks.
But in the meantime, what does this have to do with us? I am not Egyptian. I don’t believe we have any Egyptians here today. Is there any kind of obedience we can do that might resolve our fear of starvation?
Yes, there is a connection from these ancient events to us. Because it turns out we are not very different from the Egyptians. Most people on earth have realized that we all have a problem with enslaving and abusing others; this happens on a national level, on an ethnic level, and even on a personal level — even within our own families. And the main reason we enslave one another is because we are afraid of starvation. We are afraid of becoming powerless, and losing the ability to support ourselves. And as a result all our human societies are build around our efforts to dominate and control one another; in our natural state we are all trying to climb up over one another to reach the top, where we think we can rest and be well fed.
Now, the bible tells us that the ultimate solution to our chronic fear of starvation is the fear of the Lord. As we learned last week, when we discover that God is actually a merciful Father, all other fears begin to fade away, replaced by a growing desire to continue in relationship with him. And guess what? We all understand — by instinct and by experience — that good fathers feed their children. So the more clearly we come to see God as our good Father, the more confidence we have that he will feed us. All we have to do is what comes naturally to all hungry children: we follow him! We stay close to him. When we are hungry, we tell him. And he feeds us.
This is the lesson Israel is beginning to learn here in the Book of Exodus, a lesson that Moses will speak clearly later on, while they are following God through the wilderness. In the Book of Deuteronomy, he says this: “The reason the Lord your God has led you all this way through the wilderness, causing you to hunger and then feeding you, is to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.”
This is the path toward salvation and rest, the path that the Israelites had to follow, the path that the Egyptians will be challenged to follow in the next few episodes; this is the three-step path that all of us must follow if we want to be saved from our slavery to the fear of starvation: first, God reveals himself to us as our merciful Father. Second, he asks us to obey his word by following him into the wilderness. He asks us to give up who we were, to give up all the abusive behaviours and identities we used to rely upon to feed ourselves, and to take on a new identity as his children. Third, we do it: we put our faith in action…and we discover that our Heavenly Father really is the Covenant-Keeping God who feeds us.
But perhaps you are sitting there thinking, “Oh, I don’t know if I can do that! You don’t understand just how fearful I am. All my life my society has taught me that the best way to survive is to dominate others. But now you are saying there is a third option, that I could just leave it all behind and simply trust God? I don’t think I can handle that level of uncertainty!”
We all feel that way before we start. Fear is, by its very nature, paralyzing. It keeps us from following God into the wilderness, into the unknown.
But God the Father is not content with that. So he sent his Son Jesus to prove to us that the path to salvation through the wilderness is not uncertain or unknown. At one point during his earthly life, Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. Satan came to him and challenged him to use his power to feed himself. And that is when Jesus replied with the words of Moses: “Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.”
And sentence became the defining mark of Jesus’ life: no matter how bad the situation got, Jesus refused to use his power selfishly, he refused to become the abuser and provide for himself. He trusted his Heavenly Father to provide life for him. And when his Father decided it was time for him to die, he even submitted to abuse and death believing that his Father would provide life for him on the other side. And that is what happened.
Jesus did all this to prove to us that the way of salvation is sure, that our Heavenly Father is trustworthy, that the road through the wilderness is not uncertain at all, that he will feed us.
So listen, if you are here today and you are not a Christian, but you have become aware of your fear of starvation, and the way that fear drives you to hurt yourself and the people around you, then this is what your Heavenly Father is calling you to do right now: pay attention to that reality. Realize that you really are facing starvation, not just of your body or your spirit, but — when you die — the eternal starvation of your soul. Realize that this fear, this starvation you are experiencing right now, is God’s way of breaking through the controlled media of this world to catch your attention.
And after you have realized that God is using these things to catch your attention, this is what you should do next: take the hand of the Father who is reaching out to you. Commit yourself to following Jesus into the wilderness. Commit to leaving behind all that he asks you to leave behind. It will sometimes feel like death and further starvation! But more and more as you go you will discover that on the other side of the wilderness there is life and freedom on a mountain that you just can’t see from where you are now. You will experience the blessings of God in this physical life; but even more, when it is time for you to die, you will pass into the light of your Father’s presence where you will experience his blessings forever.
But now, what about those of us who have already stepped out in faith and followed our Messiah Jesus into the wilderness? What is our Heavenly Father calling us to do in response to this passage?
He is calling us to press on.
Sounds simple, right? And it is! But just because it is simple does not mean that it is easy. And the reason it is not easy is because the wilderness is real.
And this needs to be said. We need to repeat this truth to one another again and again: the wilderness is real!
And the reason we need to keep repeating this truth is because most of us were pretty naive when we began this journey of faith. Some of us were given the idea that we could follow Jesus and continue to be fully Egyptian or Chinese or Indian or Malay or European, that following Jesus would not require any major sacrifices of our core identities. Some of us were given the idea that the mountains of paradise are just one prayer away, that all we have to do is accept Jesus and all our problems would disappear: we would never again go hungry in body or spirit; we were given the idea that every Sunday’s worship was supposed to be a profoundly emotional experience, that knowing God really means being profoundly aware of God’s Spirit within us day in and day out.
So we decided to follow Jesus out of Egypt into the wilderness — and then we discovered that the wilderness is dry! We discovered that worship is not always profoundly moving, that God’s Spirit does not always feel like he is always moving within us. We discovered that various aspects of our core identities were being burned out of us by the heat of the desert sun, that God actually wants to make us less Malaysian or American or Arabian or whatever we used to be.
And as a result many of us have come to wonder: is there something wrong with me? Is there something wrong with my faith?
Here is our Father’s answer: no! Dear child, there is nothing wrong with you. This is, actually, how I designed things to happen. The reason I, the Lord your God, have led you into this wilderness, causing you to hunger, is to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from my mouth.”
Brothers and sisters, when those doubts come upon us, this is what our Heavenly Father wants us to do: remember the Book of Exodus, and press on. Remember that our Father once led his people Israel into the wilderness and caused them to hunger so that they would learn obedience. Even more important, remember that our Father once drove his own Son Jesus into the wilderness and caused him to hunger so that he would learn obedience. Friends, that is a profound mystery, one that we cannot take the time to explore fully today. But the immediate lesson in all of this for all of us today is this: our journey of faith is Israel’s journey of faith; our journey of faith is Jesus’ journey of faith: we are often going to feel hungry and thirsty. That is the mark of true faith!
In fact — and here is a warning for all of us in this romantic age — if your Christian life is centered around the search for emotional experiences with God…that could be a sign that there is something wrong with your faith. That could be a sign that you are still living in Egypt, that you are still obsessed with pleasure and control, that you have not yet really taken up your cross and followed Jesus into the wilderness and accepted the hunger that he wants you to experience.
But now, here is an important question: why must the way of salvation lead through the wilderness? How does hunger teach us obedience?
This is how: when we are constantly over-fed, we become very selective about what we eat, don’t we? When we are in a place where there is a wide variety of foods, we learn to eat only what appeals to us. But when we are hungry, when we are starving, that is when we learn what foods are really essential for life. It is just as God has explained it: the reason I lead my people into the wilderness, ”causing you to hunger and then feeding you,” is to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from my mouth.
Basically, hunger refines our appetites and turns us back to what is really important. This is true of physical hunger, and it is even more true of spiritual hunger. And the two are bound together: because we are bodies as well as spirits, our physical hungers also teach us to value true spiritual food. Slowly we learn that thoughtful obedience is more nourishing than emotional experience. Slowly we learn that the Word of God is more important than music, more important than culture, more important that ethnic identity, even more important than food. Which is hard to believe, here in Malaysia.
So, does your spiritual life often feel dry? Do you often feel like you are strugging to get ahead in your career? Do you often feel like God has not provided the relationships you are longing for? Do you often feel like God has taken more from you than he has given? Then praise God! Because that means he loves you as much as he loved Jesus. That means he is still refining your appetites, teaching you to hunger and thirst for righteousness more than anything else.
I’m going to close with this: when God is our Father, he often asks us to give up more than we think we can bear. It has happened to me; it has happened to you. And it is about to happen again. In a few moments we are going to have a congregational meeting where I have to let you know that our Father is calling upon me and my family to give up more than we think we can bear. And that it is, apparently, his will for all of you, dear friends, to participate in our loss.
We do not know why, exactly. But we do know that, through this hunger, he is going to change us all. And we know that, after he has caused us to hunger, he is going to feed us; after he has driven us to the far side of the wilderness, we will come upon a mountain, and a river, and a Tree bearing twelve crops of fruit, whose leaves are for the healing of the nations, where we will never go hungry again.