After a bittersweet communion service during the week, a friend asked me what I’d like prayer for, my request was this: wisdom to know what are my battles to fight and what are the ones in which I am to keep still.
Moses knows he is going into battle but that it is not his battle to fight. As God instructs Moses and Aaron on what they are to do and what is going to happen, he’s a bit sketchy on the precise details. He promises that he will lay his hand upon Egypt and bring the Israelites out of there, out of slavery and that all of Egypt will know that he is the Lord. Then he tells Aaron that, when Pharaoh asks for a wonder, he is to throw down his staff and it will become a snake. At this point, if I was Aaron, I would have two questions for God. Number one, are you sure it must be a snake and that it can’t be a Labrador puppy? And number two, please could we just have a practice of this? I’ve never done a wonder before, I’ve not got great throwing technique, I just want to make sure I know what I’m doing.
That is not what Moses or Aaron do. They trust God, they do as he says. They go to Pharaoh, he asks for a wonder, Aaron throws down his staff and it becomes a snake. What God said would happen, did happen. Moses and Aaron were obedient, trusting, and incredibly brave, but it was God’s power that did the heavy lifting.
Pharaoh’s response to this wonder from God is to call in his own wise men. They copy the stick to snake trick. But Aaron’s staff, transfigured out of the power of God, swallows up the staffs-turned-snakes of the Egyptian wise men. It’s not the last time the wise men try to rival God. After the first plague where God turns the Nile to blood, the Egyptian wise men did the same. They copy the second plague of frogs all over the land. By the third plague, this one of gnats, ‘the magicians tried to produce gnats by their secret arts, but they could not.’
The cosmos is complex; it is not a two-player game between God and us, there are other powers and forces at work. But what the signs and wonders of God in the plagues of Egypt reveal are that other powers are just facsimiles of power. They won’t prevail because they are merely pale imitations of what it means to be powerful, usually manifested as abuses of power – and they cannot compare to God’s power.
The plagues aren’t just any old plagues, they’re not chosen at random. They are signs and wonders that prove again and again, that God is who he says he is: he is the Lord. The basic message of the plagues is that God exposes the gods of Egypt and Pharaoh for what they really are: illusions of proper power. At the same time, these signs and wonders show the Israelites that they are his chosen people and that he will rescue them. The Egyptian wise men can do some magic tricks, but the nature of plagues as acts in control of creation show that God has the cosmos at his command. Pharaoh might be mighty to oppress, but God is mighty to save. It’s very easy to oppress people. It’s far harder to free them.
But God does free his people. It is a public rescue with a two-fold purpose: to both free his people from slavery but to also point to his power over all things. And Pharaoh knows his limitations, but his hubris always outweighs his humility. When frogs invade, Pharaoh calls to Moses and Aaron, ‘Pray to the Lord to take away the frogs from me.’ When hail and thunder fill the land he cries, ‘This time I have sinned; the Lord is in the right, and I and my people are in the wrong.’ His contrition doesn’t last long and as soon as God removes the thunder and hail, Pharaoh reneges his promise and won’t let God’s people go. Pharaoh’s hardened heart is in stark contrast to his wise men. As the third plague hits and they realise the extent of their power they say to Pharaoh ‘This is the finger of God!’ And if that’s what God can do with just a finger, imagine just how much more spectacular power is within him.
In Chapter 11, God more actively begins preparing his people for their release. He warns of a final and most terrible plague that he will bring upon Egypt and tells his people that they are to ask their neighbours for objects of silver and gold. They celebrate Passover for the first time, paint their doorposts in the blood of a slaughtered Passover lamb, and as Egypt is plunged into grief-stricken agony from the final and terrible plague, they take their unleavened bread and their objects of silver and gold, and walk out of Egypt and into freedom.
In war, one of the ways you demonstrated that you really were the victorious side was you plundered the opposition. There was no time for being gracious in defeat, you showed that you had won by ransacking your opponent, taking their objects of silver and gold. The Israelites walk out of Egypt proudly carrying the spoils of war. They maybe carrying the spoils of war, but they carry nothing of being spoilt by war. They emerge without a scratch, holding God’s victory for them in their hands. In the battle that has taken place, the Israelites have not fought. God has done all the fighting for them; yes, he’s used Moses and Aaron as his hands and feet, but it was God’s power and God’s strength and God’s might which has saved his people. They’ve not had to do any fighting. No plague has touched them, they have left without opposition, and now freedom is theirs. God fought, they are free, end of story.
Of course, it’s not the end of the story. Because the Israelites may not have fought in that battle, but they do not emerge without a scratch. They are an oppressed people, kept as slaves, dehumanised, subjected to infanticide, treated as less than, subjected to a slavery of not just their physical freedom, but of their hope, imagination, trust.
God keeps his newly-freed children safe; a pillar of cloud leads them by day and a pillar of fire leads them by night. These pillars never leave their place guiding the Israelites. And then come the Egyptians. In great fear the Israelites cried out to the Lord. They said to Moses, ‘was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us, bringing us out of Egypt?… It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness.’
What they are essentially saying is, it would be better to be slaves than to be free. It’s a mindset that seems utterly bizarre. Why would anyone choose slavery over freedom? Are the Israelites dumb, are they really that ungrateful? How can they have forgotten so quickly what their lives were like under oppression? And have they forgotten so quickly all that God did to bring them out of slavery and into freedom? All I had to do was Google image search plague of frogs and the memory of that is now forever seared in my mind, how can you live through it and forget? They are holding silver and gold, tangible signs of God’s power, wonder, and victory in their hands and yet they desire the chains they had over the treasure they hold.
When God leads the Israelites out of Egypt, he takes them to Succoth, a place where nomadic people, pilgrims gather, they camp at Etham. And God is with them in the pillars of cloud and fire. It’s an image which foreshadows something to come. Over Christmas, we hear those amazing words from the beginning of John’s Gospel, how ‘the Word became flesh and lived among us’ a literal translation of which would be ‘God pitched his tent among us.’ The Israelites leave with the gifts of God’s victory, gold and silver in their hands, and in just a short while, we too will hold the signs of God’s victory in our hands, bread and wine.
Like the Israelites in Egypt, we did not fight in the battle for our freedom, for our salvation. In the greatest victory of the history of the universe, God came to earth in the person of Jesus Christ, he was crucified, descended to the dead and on the third day he rose again, defeating sin and death and darkness, breaking every chain that has ever bound the children of God into slavery and releasing them into God-given freedom. We don’t fight. We emerge without a scratch. And now we wait, for the God who is mighty to save will one day fight another final battle and we will on that day, be children in our Father’s arms.
Except, we haven’t quite emerged without a scratch, much like the Israelites before us. Things happen to us in our lives that wound us, make us afraid, make us sad, make us angry, make us confused. Things happen which enslave us, sometimes without us realising that they are enslaving us.
Enslaved people want freedom, but slavery is a trick of the enemy to make us believe that freedom is only real if it is a freedom that we ourselves fought for, otherwise we don’t believe it is freedom because it requires us to put our trust in someone else. After years of slavery, the Israelites still don’t fully trust God even though they have seen his signs and wonders and hold tangible victory in their hands. They are still slaves to fear, still unsure if God is really with them, and not living like they are loved by the God of the universe. I don’t think the Israelites aren’t dumb or ungrateful, I think they’re just really scared. And scared people are even more scared of freedom than they are of slavery.
We intimately know the things we are slaves too, we understand our fears in a way that means we think we have a power over them. But like the wise men of Egypt with their magic tricks, our power over our fears and slavery is a facsimile of power. We might understand it, be able to predict it, but it just means we know the chains that bind us, it doesn’t give us power to break those chains. We end up engaged in a battle with our own slavery fighting for a freedom we cannot win by ourselves.
We cannot win our own freedom, but God can. As is spoken over the Israelites, ‘the Lord will fight for you, you need only be still.’ What God offers us, through his genuine and unrivalled power, is complete freedom. We do not need to fight for it, we need only be still. The victory we hold in our hands as we come to the Lord’s table is the replacement for our chains, we cannot hold onto both.
To be free is to learn a whole new language, a whole new way of living. And it’s incredibly hard. Channel 4 had a documentary series where they spent a year in different secondary schools around the country filming what goes on. At one school in Greater Manchester, they operated a no exclusion policy. This meant that stroppy, difficult, naughty, badly-hurt, neglected, teenagers could be the very worst versions of themselves and the school would never give up on them. In one case, the same student was causing problems every single day, hitting self-destruct mode on her education. When she angrily asked her teacher why he wasn’t letting her just quit school, he replied ‘because I care too much.’ She didn’t transform overnight. She didn’t transform in a week or even a term. But very slowly, she stopped fighting out of fear and settled down into the freedom of being cared for.
God frees us but he never will force us to live like we are free. He also operates a no exclusion policy. What Jesus did on that cross was not for a select few, but for every single one of us. He knows we haven’t emerged scratch free from what life’s slavery has wrought upon us, but he wants to save us from further harm by having us stop fighting a battle that is his and not ours to fight, and to rest in him instead. The God who came with signs of faith and words of hope, who touched untouchables with love and washed the guilty clean, has come to set us free, to place his victory in the palm of our hands.
The Israelites walk through a sea split in two by the power of God, still clutching their gold and silver. For some of them, they never do learn to live in the freedom God fought and won for them. As they wait in the desert to be brought into the promised land, they will continue to hold gold on their hands. For some of them, they will melt their gold into a golden calf to worship over God. For others, they will put it into making the Ark of the Covenant. Some will keep fighting their slavery for their freedom, for others, they will rest in God’s power as free people.
There are battles that we are called to fight. God will call us to things he wants us to fight for, but to fight for in his name and under his power and out of our freedom. When we are overwhelmed by fear and frustration and pain and confusion, we are not called to deal with it ourselves, but to rest. The Lord will fight for us, we need only be still.
We are not called to fight, but we are called to make a choice: slavery or freedom? Chains or treasure? God will never force our hand either way, but he was won the victory. At our most unsafe moments he is still mighty to save. And whilst God’s freedom leads to an unknown whereas our slavery is something we know, God knows us perfectly and absolutely. What happened on the cross, in the grave, and at the empty tomb is not the sign of a God who has only a passing interest in us. Rather, it is the sign of a God who made us, who knows us, who loves us, desires us, whose heart is overflowing for us and whose face is turned towards us. It is the sign of a God who used his power to shout a cosmos-shattering ‘I love you!’ over each and every one of us. We have to choose: chains or treasure? But long, long ago, God made a choice, and it was to choose you. To love you, comfort you, champion you, fight for you, rescue you… Will you let him free you?