When I was growing up in Indiana, one of the places I really enjoyed visiting was Conner Prairie. Conner Prairie is located in Fishers, IN, just northwest of Indianapolis. It is a reconstruction of a settlement as it would have looked in Indiana in 1836.
As you walk in to the settlement area, there is a sign that says, “You are entering 1836.” All the buildings fit that time period. There are residents in the settlement who are all dressed in period clothing and all are carrying out activities that were part of everyday life in that year. They are all “in character.” They always ask visitors about who the president is right now. And when the person says “Barak Obama” the Conner Prairie resident will say that, no, it is Andrew Jackson.
Everything in Conner Prairie is set in 1836. And every time I visited, one thing always grossed me out – it made me glad that I lived in the modern era. There was a house where a woman would always be baking and cooking. It was fascinating to see her using her wood burning oven in order to make things, and it did smell good.
However… surrounding the baked bread or soup that she had made were flies. And not just a few flies – there were a lot of flies, swarming all around. They crawled all over the food. As the woman talked she would periodically wave her hand over the food and make them take off. But they would just swarm right back. They flew around the food. They flew around the people. It was just nasty.
Every time I hear our Old Testament lesson, those experiences at Conner Prairie always come to mind. We hear in our text this morning the third and fourth plagues that God sent upon Egypt as he worked to prompt Pharaoh to allow the Israelites to leave. Ultimately this is a contest between the true God and false gods. As we see God working to free his people, we are reminded that God has freed us in Christ. And at the same time the challenge of false gods continues for us each day.
When the book of Genesis ends Joseph is second in charge over all of Egypt. His father Jacob and all of his extended family have come down to Egypt and have been settled in one part of Egypt, Goshen. This was somewhere in the time period of about 1800 years before Christ. It was the time of the Middle kingdom in Egypt and things were good.
However, if you fast forward about one hundred and fifty years things have changed. Around 1650 B.C. a rather mysterious group called the Hyksos – sometimes also called “the Sea People” – came into Egypt from the north. The Middle kingdom had already come to an end and Egypt was in a period of weakness. The Hyksos took advantage of this and they ended up ruling Egypt for about one hundred years.
And then, around 1540 BC the Egyptians finally drove out the Hyksos and Egypt re-emerged as a strong power. It emerged as a strong power – but as a power that had just had a century long bad experience with a foreign people in their midst. They looked around and realized that there was another foreign people in their midst – the Israelites. By around 1400 B.C.the Israelites had been in Egypt for four hundred years. And God had blessed them. We hear at the beginning of Exodus, “But the people of Israel were fruitful and increased greatly; they multiplied and grew exceedingly strong, so that the land was filled with them.”
This background helps us to understand what we find in Exodus chapter one. There we read: “Now there arose a new king over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. And he said to his people, ‘Behold, the people of Israel are too many and too mighty for us. Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, lest they multiply, and, if war breaks out, they join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.’” You know what happened. The Egyptians enslaved the Israelites and used them as forced labor.
The end of Exodus chapter two says, “During those many days the king of Egypt died, and the people of Israel groaned because of their slavery and cried out for help. Their cry for rescue from slavery came up to God. And God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. God saw the people of Israel—and God knew.”
God knew. And the time had arrived for God to act. He called Moses as his servant through an encounter at Mt. Sinai in which a bush was burning but as not consumed by the fire. God announced to Moses, “I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters. I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey.”
God gave Moses powerful signs such as the ability to turn his staff into a snake and then back into a staff. And he sent Moses to Pharaoh with a message. He told Moses, “Then you shall say to Pharaoh, ‘Thus says the LORD, Israel is my firstborn son, and I say to you, “Let my son go that he may serve me.” If you refuse to let him go, behold, I will kill your firstborn son.’”
Moses and his brother Aaron went before Pharaoh. The Egyptian leader challenged them to prove themselves with a miracle. Aaron threw down the staff and it became a snake. So Pharaoh summoned his sorcerers – his magicians – and they did the same thing. And Pharaoh hardened his heart when he saw it.
God then turned the water of the Nile into blood through Moses and Aaron. But the magicians of Egypt came and did this as well. And Pharaoh remained hardened in his heart. Next God had Moses and Aaron bring frogs upon the land of Egypt. But the magicians of Egypt came and did this as well. And when God relented with the frogs, Pharaoh hardened his heart.
Then in our text, God used Moses and Aaron to send gnats upon the land. Once again the magicians of Egypt stepped forward to duplicate the feat. But we hear in our text, “The magicians tried by their secret arts to produce gnats, but they could not. So there were gnats on man and beast. Then the magicians said to Pharaoh, ‘This is the finger of God.’” Despite their statement, Pharaoh's heart was hardened and he would not listen to them. And then God used Moses and Aaron to send flies upon the land of Egypt – except for Goshen were the Israelites lived. The magicians had already been defeated – this time they didn’t try to reproduce the miracle. And when it was done, Pharaoh again hardened his heart.
Our text today describes the contest between the true God and the false gods of Egypt. That’s what the ten plagues are all about. It’s important to understand that in the ancient world in general, the gods, the leaders and nations went hand in hand. Wars between leaders and their nations were really contests between the gods of those leaders and nations. If you won, your gods were stronger. If you lost … well maybe you needed get in line with the gods of the other side.
Egypt and their gods hold Israel in bondage. Moses and Aaron are dealing with Pharaoh who is himself considered to be a god. Yahweh, the true God, the God of Israel calls Israel his son and tells Pharaoh the false god to let Israel go. Pharaoh refuses. What is more even after his magicians can’t duplicate the miracle and announce to him “This is the finger of God,” he continues to become more hardened in his opposition to God.
And so finally God defeats Pharaoh. He kills the firstborn son in all of Egypt – including Pharaoh’s – in the Passover. Pharaoh sends Israel away, until later he reconsiders and pursues Israel into the Red Sea where God drowns hard hearted Pharaoh and all of his host. Yahweh shows that he is the true God as he redeems Israel – as he frees them from slavery.
Our text reminds us this morning that God has redeemed us. He has freed us from slavery – slavery to sin, death and the devil. He did it by sending his Son into the world. Jesus Christ came to bring the reign of God – the power of God that was turning back those evils as he freed people and creation.
In our Gospel lesson Jesus has been doing just that. He has cast out a demon. And when challenged about this – when he has been accused of being in league with the devil, our Lord says: “But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.” The most powerful action of this reign occurred when Jesus died on the cross and rose from the dead in order to forgive our sins.
Now, we have been freed. But the struggle is not done. Lent is a time when we emphasize this fact. The devil is still that roaring lion prowling around, seeking someone to devour. He still uses false gods as he seeks to re-enslave us. These are not the false gods of Egypt like Ra and Pharaoh. Instead they are the gods that are a perfect fit for our own time. They are the gods of intelligence, choice, and pleasure; the gods of wealth, entertainment and career; the gods of popularity, acceptance and prestige. In various forms these are the things that guide our decisions. These are the things we value most. And in the quest for these things there is always the temptation to harden our heart. There is the temptation step by step to embrace and conform ourselves to these things as we reject God and his claim upon us as his redeemed people.
The season of Lent calls us to examine our own lives and honestly assess where and how these forces are at work. It calls us to repent – to confess where we have embraced the false gods of our world and culture. But it does this in the confidence that in the death and resurrection of Christ the kingdom of God has arrived. It does this in the knowledge that through water and the Word of Holy Baptism we have been forgiven; we have been set free. It does this in the expectation that the kingdom will come in all of its glory on the Last Day – and that the false gods will be destroyed forever.