Sermon on Exodus 8:16-32 – “That They May Serve Me”

Sermon for Sunday, May 2nd, 2021 at First Presbyterian Church at Unionville, NY (BPC)

Old Testament reading:

[Exo 8:16-32 ESV] 16 Then the LORD said to Moses, “Say to Aaron, ‘Stretch out your staff and strike the dust of the earth, so that it may become gnats in all the land of Egypt.'” 17 And they did so. Aaron stretched out his hand with his staff and struck the dust of the earth, and there were gnats on man and beast. All the dust of the earth became gnats in all the land of Egypt. 18 The magicians tried by their secret arts to produce gnats, but they could not. So there were gnats on man and beast. 19 Then the magicians said to Pharaoh, “This is the finger of God.” But Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, and he would not listen to them, as the LORD had said. 20 Then the LORD said to Moses, “Rise up early in the morning and present yourself to Pharaoh, as he goes out to the water, and say to him, ‘Thus says the LORD, “Let my people go, that they may serve me. 21 Or else, if you will not let my people go, behold, I will send swarms of flies on you and your servants and your people, and into your houses. And the houses of the Egyptians shall be filled with swarms of flies, and also the ground on which they stand. 22 But on that day I will set apart the land of Goshen, where my people dwell, so that no swarms of flies shall be there, that you may know that I am the LORD in the midst of the earth. 23 Thus I will put a division between my people and your people. Tomorrow this sign shall happen.”‘” 24 And the LORD did so. There came great swarms of flies into the house of Pharaoh and into his servants’ houses. Throughout all the land of Egypt the land was ruined by the swarms of flies. 25 Then Pharaoh called Moses and Aaron and said, “Go, sacrifice to your God within the land.” 26 But Moses said, “It would not be right to do so, for the offerings we shall sacrifice to the LORD our God are an abomination to the Egyptians. If we sacrifice offerings abominable to the Egyptians before their eyes, will they not stone us? 27 We must go three days’ journey into the wilderness and sacrifice to the LORD our God as he tells us.” 28 So Pharaoh said, “I will let you go to sacrifice to the LORD your God in the wilderness; only you must not go very far away. Plead for me.” 29 Then Moses said, “Behold, I am going out from you and I will plead with the LORD that the swarms of flies may depart from Pharaoh, from his servants, and from his people, tomorrow. Only let not Pharaoh cheat again by not letting the people go to sacrifice to the LORD.” 30 So Moses went out from Pharaoh and prayed to the LORD. 31 And the LORD did as Moses asked, and removed the swarms of flies from Pharaoh, from his servants, and from his people; not one remained. 32 But Pharaoh hardened his heart this time also, and did not let the people go.

New Testament reading:

[2Co 6:14-18 ESV] 14 Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness? 15 What accord has Christ with Belial? Or what portion does a believer share with an unbeliever? 16 What agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God; as God said, “I will make my dwelling among them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 17 Therefore go out from their midst, and be separate from them, says the Lord, and touch no unclean thing; then I will welcome you, 18 and I will be a father to you, and you shall be sons and daughters to me, says the Lord Almighty.”

Gospel reading:

[Mat 23:16-24 ESV] 16 “Woe to you, blind guides, who say, ‘If anyone swears by the temple, it is nothing, but if anyone swears by the gold of the temple, he is bound by his oath.’ 17 You blind fools! For which is greater, the gold or the temple that has made the gold sacred? 18 And you say, ‘If anyone swears by the altar, it is nothing, but if anyone swears by the gift that is on the altar, he is bound by his oath.’ 19 You blind men! For which is greater, the gift or the altar that makes the gift sacred? 20 So whoever swears by the altar swears by it and by everything on it. 21 And whoever swears by the temple swears by it and by him who dwells in it. 22 And whoever swears by heaven swears by the throne of God and by him who sits upon it. 23 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. 24 You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel!

Introduction

Sometimes newspapers run a retraction. Well, I need to retract a factual error I made in last week’s sermon. I had mistakenly said that the request of Moses and Aaron (from God) to Pharaoh was merely that the people could go worship in the desert for three days. That’s actually wrong. Their request—God’s request—is the full “let my people go.” Not just “go and come back” but really “let them go free.”

We saw God’s full request a number of times.

He said,

Exodus 7:2 – “You shall speak all that I command you, and your brother Aaron shall tell Pharaoh to let the people of Israel go out of his land.”

Previously God had said,

Exodus 6:6-8 – “I am the LORD, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will deliver you from slavery to them, I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great acts of judgment. I will take you to be my people, and I will be your God, and you shall know that I am the LORD your God, who has brought you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians. I will bring you into the land that I swore to give to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. I will give it to you for a possession. I am the Lord.”

These are promises to bring them out—entirely out—of Egypt.

And Moses now says, “We must go three day’s journey into the wilderness and sacrifice to the LORD our God as he tells us.” (8:27) This is so that they can worship apart from the Egyptians. Because their worship is an abomination to the Egyptians and they would be stone. But there is no indication from Moses that they would return. The “three days” is the length of journey; the amount of separation needed for them to worship without the influence of Egyptian ways and practices.

So now — and this is what I’ve been getting at — Pharaoh provides a compromise. It is Pharaoh who says “I will let you go to sacrifice to the LORD your God in the wilderness; only you must not go very far away.”

Pharaoh’s is a half-way measure. A compromise with the commands of God.

Moses and Aaron spoke as God told them. But Pharaoh makes the change. The worship of God is supposed to be pure, separate, at least three days journey out of Egypt. But Pharaoh says “you must not go very far away.”

This is an important fact to remember, and we’ll get to its importance later in this sermon. God makes his own rules for worship, and they are not to be tampered with as Pharaoh has done.

But before we get to that we have the third and fourth plagues. That of gnats and of flies. Two pesky pests.

I. The Plague of Gnats

First is the plague of gnats.

This time there is no seven-day reprieve as between the plague of the Nile turning to blood and the plague of frogs. Now, we see it is just “Then.” “Then the Lord said to Moses…”

And this time God gives Pharaoh no warning. By a miracle of God, Aarons stretched out his hand with his staff and struck the dust of the earth, and there were gnats on man and beast. God showed his power over water by turning the Nile into blood; now he shows his power over the land by turning the dust of the earth into gnats.

And surely you’ve been somewhere where the bugs were just intolerable. Where waving them away is of little use, and where DEET is of no effect. And gnats are some of the worst because you can hardly see them and they are persistent. I’ve noticed they like human breath and so put themselves in orbit around your face. A friend of mine in seminary who was from Alabama told me that in his state people would not fence in their back yards, but NET them in. They have bug nets not only on every side of the yard, but above like a ceiling, so that you’re in a bug net cage, with the gnats hopefully outside. And maybe that works, but you know how persistent gnats are and it seems that they would eventually find an opening through which to invade your space.

So of course the Egyptians didn’t have netted-in back yards. They were fully at the mercy of these gnats. And the gnats were in great number.

We’ve seen in the previous plagues that the magicians (those wise men) of Pharaoh are said to have reproduced the effect. But this time it says the magicians “tried by their secret arts to produce gnats, but they could not.”

This time the magicians have failed. They appear perhaps exhausted and ready to give in. They say to Pharaoh, “This is the Finger of God.”

Pharaoh is not about to listen to them though.

As we’ve seen time and time again, the text tells us, “Pharaoh’s heart was hardened.”

This plague of gnats gets just a short paragraph and then we’re on the plague of flies.

II. The Plague of Flies

This time there is a warning. Moses again gives God’s command to Pharaoh saying, “Let my people go, that they may serve me. Or else, if you will not let my people go, behold, I will send swarms of flies on you and your servants and your people and into your houses.” (Exodus 8:20b-21a)

We don’t know to what extent the previous plagues impacted the Israelites, but here we find that God promises to keep them clear of the flies. The land of Goshen where they dwell shall have “no swarms of flies.”

God is making it clear through this sign (as the text calls it) who His people are.

The plague comes. Flies abound. And only then does Pharaoh respond.

Like with the plague of frogs, Pharaoh wants to strike a deal for his advantage, but does not plan to follow through with his side of the deal. In this we always see God’s character —as trustworthy— and Pharaoh’s character as a deceiver.

The “divine” Pharaoh is covered with flies and gnats. He is not boss even of the smallest creature. He rules only at the permission of the true Lord God.

God fulfills his promise and removes the swarms of flies, but Pharaoh again hardens his heart.

Pharaoh doesn’t let the people go.

III. Worship is not to be Compromised

What then I want to focus on today is verse 28:

There we read,

28 So Pharaoh said, “I will let you go to sacrifice to the LORD your God in the wilderness; only you must not go very far away.

God has command very specifically how he wishes to be worship; that they must go out three days journey from Egypt.

But Pharaoh compromises, and wants it his own way, saying “you must not go very far away.”

Like Pharaoh, our world today doesn’t mind Christianity if we “don’t go very far away” from their own views. We are acceptable in their eyes if we compromise the Word of God and follow what they say.

But if we say “Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life, no one gets the Father but through him” the people of the world are in an uproar.

And if we defend the Biblical view of worship—that we must worship according to God’s commands—many also are in an uproar.

This is a main point: God commands specifically how he is to be worshipped. We don’t need to invent our own ways, or compromise with His word.

In Deuteronomy 12:32 God says – “Everything that I command you, you shall be careful to do. You shall not add to it or take from it.”

We are not to make changes to God’s commands for our worship of Him, nor to compromise with God.

The Scriptures tell us how to worship God.

There are many commands of God in the Scriptures for how he is to be worship. I want to focus on four of them.

1. Do not forsake the assembly of the saints.

2. Remember the Sabbath Day and Keep it Holy

3. Make no idols or images of God.

4. Do not add to God’s commands for worship.

1. Do not forsake the assembly of the saints.

First, do not forsake the assembly of the saints. This is God’s command from Hebrews 10:25

While it is good and right to have family worship at home, and indeed to worship God at all times, it is a command of God that we also worship together, as the body of Christ. And there are no dismembered members of a body. We must assemble together.

There are many people who do not attend church, and say “I worship God in my own way.” Does this sound more like they are listening to God’s command or to Pharaoh?

There are others who say they worship in nature; that nature is their church. But they are reinventing the meaning of the word. A church is an Ekklesia in Greek, a gathering of people. Being alone in nature is the exact opposite of that.

The Bible is clear: “Do not forsake the assembling of ourselves together.”

God commands this. We ought not to compromise on it, like Pharaoh demands.

Incidentally, I’ve known a lot of people to say “I worship God in my own way.” But I’ve never known them to actually worship the Lord; to actually set aside time for reading the Bible, for prayer, and for singing hymns. Maybe some do. But God commands that we gather together. We are not to forsake this.

2. Remember the Sabbath and Keep it Holy

God also commands us in the Scripture to remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy.

Ever since the resurrection of Christ on the first day of the week, Sunday has been the Christian sabbath. And because Jesus Christ rose from the dead on that day, it is called in the Scriptures the Lord’s Day. And it is a day of celebration, of worship of the Lord.

It was on the first day of the week that the disciples came together to break break. (Acts 20:27)

And so we gather together on the first day of the week to worship our Lord.

3. Make no idols or images of God.

Another command of God for our worship is to make no idols or images.

In Exodus 20:4 God says, “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.”

For almost 400 years in the Presbyterian church we’ve had the catechism which tells us that the sins forbidden in the second command include “the making any representation of God, or all or ANY of the three persons.”

It is therefore to the credit of this church that we obey the Word of God and do not have images, of any of the three persons of the trinity in this place. We are not to compromise with the Word of God.

4. Do not add to God’s commands for worship.

The Scriptures tell us what is to be included in our worship. Worship is to have prayer, reading of the word, preaching, the sacraments of communion and baptism, and the singing psalms and hymns.

We are not to invent our own ways of worship. In the worship service we are not to play movie clips, adds various ceremonies with smoke and incense, nor have a time of interpretive dance.

We should be careful not to add to what God has prescribed. We should seek God’s will in the Scriptures. Ask this: what does God want? How can I worship God as he commands?

Against all of these commands of God sinful man revolts.

Man’s desire from the beginning has been to be a god unto himself. “Did God really say?” That was Satan’s line. “Did God really say?”

Pharaoh’s reaction is “Did God really say that you need to go three days journey into the wilderness?” How about you stay nearby. That should suffice.

But no it won’t suffice! It is disobeying God.

Worshipping in Egypt is a half-way measure. We are to be warned against half-way measures. We are to worship God as he demands, not in some form of compromise between what God wants and what one person wants and another and another.

Our Westminster Confession says this:

WCF 21:1 But the acceptable way of worshipping the true God is instituted by Himself, and so limited by His own revealed will, that He may not be worshipped according to the imaginations and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representation, or any other way not prescribed in the Holy Scripture.

It is pride and arrogance when people oppose the commands of God.

Rather than God being the standard, they make themselves the standard, the judge.

This is what Satan promised to Adam. If you eat of the fruit, you will be able to determine, for yourself, what is good and what is evil.

Did God really say?

As if a constant reminder to us, the Old Testament constantly says “And God spoke to the prophet.” Or “Thus sayeth the Lord.”

Here in Exodus he Lord speaks to Moses. But Pharaoh’s response is “Did God really say?” “How about we do things MY way?” Pharaoh doesn’t want to give up his claim to be God.

When we go against God we do the same, we claim to be gods, we claim to make judgments of right and wrong for ourselves. But pride goeth before destruction. It was the pride of Adam that led to the fall. And the pride of Pharaoh that brought the continued plagues. Let not our pride so distance ourselves from God.

We, on the contrary, are to seek the counsel of God. Not our own ways. But his ways.

Did God really say, “do not forsake the assembly of the saints.”

Did God really say …we should gather on the Lord’s day.

Did God really say, “Make no idols or images of God.”

Did God really say “do not add to my commands.”

Yes. Emphatically Yes. God said all of those things.

And the purpose for all of this is that we may worship God.

Conclusion – That they May serve me.

This is the title of the sermon, and the purpose of this passage. ‘Thus says the LORD, “Let my people go, that they may serve me.” This is the purpose of all that God is ordaining in the Exodus – that His people may serve (or worship) Him, and worship him rightly.

Worship is not only the ultimate purpose in the Exodus, it is God’s ultimate purpose for us. He redeems a people to himself so that we will worship him. Worship is our natural reaction to God who has saved us. Worship connects us with God and it connects us with one another as the people of God.

And while we may err in the way we worship —not focusing our minds on God’s word, or not well following His commands for worship—yet our worship is acceptable to God because of Jesus Christ. He lived the perfect life that we are unable to live. And He worshipped God perfectly as we are unable to do. Because of Christ —and nothing of ourselves—our worship is acceptable to God. And thus God’s purpose is fulfilled; His will is done. He has rescued us so that we may serve Him. Praise be to God. Amen.

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