Burning Your Bridges Exodus 2:11-25

Original Date: 
Sunday, April 17, 2016

Exodus 2:11-25 From Slavery to Salvation: Burn the Ships!

In 1519, the Spanish explorer and conquistador Hernando Cortez arrived on the shores of the Yucatan peninsula with 11 ships. This was the age of discovery and conquering. Europeans believed that North and South America were uncivilized lands and free for whatever European powers had the guts to take them. Of course, this was untrue. There were thriving nations already in place all over the Western Hemisphere. In particular, Mexico, where Cortez had just landed was under the control of the Aztec empire, which had been the undisputed power in Central America for 600 years.

Cortez landed with just 500 soldiers and 100 sailors under his command. And yet, his plan was to conquer the Aztecs.

Some of his men were unconvinced of success, and attempted to seize some ships and sail to Cuba. Cortez got wind of the plot, and captured the ringleaders. Then, to make sure that the remainder of his men were completely committed to his mission and quest for riches, he did something that seemed completely insane: he gave the order to sink the ships.

His men resisted, wondering how they would even get home, and his answer was: “If we are going home, we are going home in their ships!”

The path forward was clear for Cortez – All or nothing, 100% commitment. The option of failure was gone – Conquer, or die.

Legend has it that the ships were burned. In actuality, history suggests that the ships were stripped of their masts and tackle and then scuttled to the bottom. But the result was the same. Cortez wrote: “we're all in and there's no turning back.” After dismantling their ships, each man, as he reports, “then had nothing to rely on, apart from his own hands, and the assurance that they would conquer and win the land, or die in the attempt.”

Also, it should probably be pointed out that while Cortez was brave on behalf of his men, he was not necessarily all that brave where his own safety was concerned. One ship was not sunk. Ostensibly, this was reserved to carry the king’s share of any plunder found back to Spain. But many historians have pointed out that in case of a defeat, this ship was available for Cortez and other high ranking members to make an escape—leaving the common foot soldiers and sailors to fend for themselves. Please understand, I’m not trying to paint Cortez as a hero.

But the incident has been popularized with the phrase “Burn the ships.” It’s a way of saying that you are fully committed to a decision. That there is no turning back. As I saw it on a couple of different blogs this week: Retreat is easy when you give yourself the option.

Another way of saying this is “Burn your bridges.” When you burn your bridges with a job, it means you leave in such a way that they are probably not going to take you back again. When you burn your bridges with a relationship, it means that you are probably not going to be friends anymore. When you burn your bridges, it means that you have made a decision that—for better or for worse—you are going to stick with.

And there is a correspondence to the Christian life. When you become a follower of Christ, the Bible wants you to burn the ships. When you choose to accept the gift of salvation, you are supposed to burn your bridges with your old way of life. I’ll put it like this, our big idea for this morning: The decision to follow Jesus is a choice to value the rewards of faith more than the promises of sin.

My friend Matt says: “Faith means choosing Jesus DECISIVELY over a life-style of sin. Faith is getting off of the fence…God does not abide fencesitters! Faith means getting off of the fence and decisively choosing Christ over a life-style of sin.” (Matt Mitchell, “Burning Your Bridges” January 9, 2005, unpublished sermon)

We’re going to see that illustrated today in the next part of the story of Moses. Last week we started a series in the book of Exodus, and we learned about Pharaoh’s evil intention to cleanse all of Israel off the earth. But we saw that God is still at work, even when things look bleak, and that He provided a savior in the birth of Moses and his ironic rescue from a basket in the Nile.

Now, today, we are going to see Moses make a choice. He has to choose if he is going to identify with God (and the people of Israel) or the world (and the people of Egypt.)

Our text is Exodus 2, starting at verse 11. And what we are going to do is run through the story in Exodus, and then we’ll turn to the Bible’s own sermon on this passage in the book of Hebrews.

Buried in the Sand
Let’s look at the text. Exodus 2:11:

11 One day, after Moses had grown up, he went out to where his own people were and watched them at their hard labor. He saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his own people.

If you remember the story from last week, you know that Moses was discovered in the Nile by the daughter of Pharaoh. When she decided to adopt him, his clever sister suggested to the princess that she would need a Hebrew wet nurse. Thus, for the first years of his life, Moses was raised by his biological mother Jochebed, and after that he was raised as a prince of Egypt.

So, it is not too hard to imagine Jochebed whispering to him again and again how special he was, how he was meant to be a leader in Israel, how God was preparing him for something big. And now, Exodus tells us that when he had grown up—Acts, chapter 7 suggests that he was 40 years old at this point (acts 7:23)—he goes out to watch “his own people” at work.

And notice that phrase: “his own people.” This verse repeats it twice. There’s a definite point being made here. Even though he has been raised as Egyptian royalty, he is identifying with the Israelites. “He saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his own people.”

Verse 12:

12 Looking this way and that and seeing no one, he killed the Egyptian and hid him in the sand.

Now, any way you slice this, it is homicide. It may have been justifiable. The Hebrew word for “killed” here is the same word translated as “beating” up in verse 11. So it is possible that the slave driver was beating the Israelite so badly that if he had not been stopped, he would have killed him. In that case, Moses just saved the slave’s life. It is also likely that, as a member of the royal family Moses had the right to take the life of any Egyptian he chose.

But the real clues that this was the wrong thing to do are in the actions Moses took: first he looked around to make sure there were no witnesses, then he tried to cover it up by burying the body in the sand.

Acts 7 gives a little insight into what Moses was thinking. The suggestion there is that “Moses thought that his own people would realize that God was using him to rescue them.” (Acts 7:25) When Moses saw that Israelite suffering so cruelly, all the nursery stories came rushing back to him, and he decided that he was going to do something about it. He thought that by striking this slave driver he was striking the first blow of a revolution. He thought his people would rally around him. But that’s not what happened. Verses 13-14:

13 The next day he went out and saw two Hebrews fighting. He asked the one in the wrong, “Why are you hitting your fellow Hebrew?”
14 The man said, “Who made you ruler and judge over us? Are you thinking of killing me as you killed the Egyptian?” Then Moses was afraid and thought, “What I did must have become known.”

When Moses sees two Israelites fighting, he tries to intervene. After all, they should be fighting the Egyptians—revolution!—not squabbling with one another. But the Israelites are cynical. They’ve heard about what happened the day before—perhaps from the man whom Moses saved—and they’re not interested in having this self-appointed judge, jury and executioner tell them what to do.

The cynical Israelite is correct, in a way: Moses is going to be ruler over them. But not yet.

So now, Moses faces a tough choice. He can go back to Pharaoh, explain what happened with the slave driver, reaffirm his commitment to Egypt, and probably get away with the crime. After all, he is a member of the royal household.

Or, Moses can remain loyal to his own people. He can stand by the choice he made when he struck the slave driver, the choice to identify with the suffering of the Israelites. To do that, means he leaves Pharaoh’s household forever.

It says here, in verse 14, that Moses was afraid. Later, in Hebrews 11, it is going to say that Moses did not fear the king’s anger (Hebrews 11:27). You’re tempted to say: which was it? Was he afraid, or not?

Clearly, he was afraid. But by making the choice to leave Egypt, he was making the choice that was certain to arouse his adoptive grandfather’s wrath. By leaving Egypt, Moses was identifying with the people of Israel and giving up his place in the royal family forever. He was burning his ships. Verse 15:

15 When Pharaoh heard of this, he tried to kill Moses, but Moses fled from Pharaoh and went to live in Midian, where he sat down by a well.

Again, it’s not just that Moses killed a man that has Pharaoh upset. It’s that Moses is identifying as an Israelite. By killing that guard Moses was declaring war on Egypt. Moses flees to save his life, but he made the choice that said he was not afraid of Pharaoh. Like the midwives of chapter 1, he feared God more than he feared man.

Moses Finds a Wife
So Moses ends up in Midian. Midian is not a specific place so much as it is a wandering band of Nomads who lived to the east of Egypt. There are quite a few connections back to Genesis here. The Midianites are descended from Abraham, through Abraham’s second wife Keturah (Genesis 25:1-4). It was also a caravan of Midianites who bought Joseph from his scheming brothers and delivered him to Egypt (Genesis 37:25-36). And Moses ends up by a well, which served as the social center of rural communities in that day, which is a reminder of where both the wives of Isaac and Jacob were found (Genesis 24 and 29). Which is a foreshadowing of what is going to happen to Moses: Verses 16-22:

16 Now a priest of Midian had seven daughters, and they came to draw water and fill the troughs to water their father’s flock. 17 Some shepherds came along and drove them away, but Moses got up and came to their rescue and watered their flock.

18 When the girls returned to Reuel their father, he asked them, “Why have you returned so early today?”

19 They answered, “An Egyptian rescued us from the shepherds. He even drew water for us and watered the flock.”

20 “And where is he?” Reuel asked his daughters. “Why did you leave him? Invite him to have something to eat.”

21 Moses agreed to stay with the man, who gave his daughter Zipporah to Moses in marriage. 22 Zipporah gave birth to a son, and Moses named him Gershom, saying, “I have become a foreigner in a foreign land.”

Drawing water for the flock is hard work. When these girls do the hard work of filling the troughs, some rival shepherds come along and drive them away so that the water can go to their own sheep. Moses witnesses this. And Moses has a hard time with injustice. So he draws his Egyptian sword and drives them away. Then he goes the extra mile and draws more water for them.

The girls are grateful, but they forget their manners. When they tell their father Reuel (also known in scripture as Jethro) he tells them to go back and invite him in. So, Moses stays with the family, and eventually one of these seven girls becomes his wife. She gives him a son, and Moses names him “Gershom”, which basically translates as “alien.”

Do you see what’s happening here? Moses is further severing his ties with Egypt. He’s settling down. He’s making a family. When he names Gershom he says “I have become a foreigner in a foreign land.” You might think he is talking about his new situation in Midian; he is a foreigner there. But some scholars think he might be talking about his new status in Egypt. He has become a foreigner there as well (Ryken, p. 72).

Moses is truly burning the ships. There is no way he can go back to Pharaoh’s palace as a prince. All this is God’s doing. He is in exile, sure. His people are still enslaved. But God has Moses right where he wants him to prepare him to lead his people out.

Verses 23 and 24:

23 During that long period, the king of Egypt died. The Israelites groaned in their slavery and cried out, and their cry for help because of their slavery went up to God. 24 God heard their groaning and he remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac and with Jacob. 25 So God looked on the Israelites and was concerned about them.

Acts 7 tells us it was another 40 years that Moses spent in the desert. During that time, the Israelites continued to suffer in their slavery. And God heard their cries for help. And He remembered his covenant with Abraham.

Now, this doesn’t mean that God was deaf to their cries before. It’s not like He forgot His people were in Egypt, and then all of a sudden an alarm went off and his memory was jogged. He’s heard every cry. He never forgot. But when the Bible says “He remembered” here it means He is now leaning into action.

This is the beginning of God’s war on Egypt.

God is getting ready to rumble.

God is rolling up His sleeves. He is rehearsing His promises to Abraham, Isaac, and
Jacob and He is getting ready to redeem His people.

This, by the way, might be a clue as to why the Israelites did not rally around Moses after he killed the guard up in verse 11. That was Moses acting on his own. That was Moses trying to redeem the people in his own strength.

But that’s not what God wanted. He is, indeed, going to use Moses to set His people free. But He’s going to use Moses in such a way as to leave no doubt that God is at work. God’s purpose is not just to lead His people out of slavery, but to lead them to Himself. He is going to get the glory.

The last verse here, in the original language, says simply: “God saw the Israelites and God knew.” That’s it. Just: “God knew.” It doesn’t tell us what God knew. But the implication is obvious: God knew it all. God knew everything. He saw what has happening to His people and He knew exactly what He was going to do about it.

Hebrews 11
So that’s our story today. Exodus 2:11-24. And the lesson we are supposed to learn from this story, as I said earlier, is that: The decision to follow Jesus is a choice to value the rewards of faith more than the promises of sin. When we follow Jesus, we are making a decisive choice to burn our bridges with sin and not look back.

Now, you might ask: where did he get that from the story? For one thing, there’s nothing about Jesus in the story. Nothing about faith. The word sin never gets mentioned. So, where do I get this lesson?

And I’ll tell you. This was actually a pretty easy sermon to put together because this is an occasion where the New Testament explains the text for us. This is an occasion where the sermon on this story is already written in the Bible. It’s Hebrews 11:24-27. Part of the Bible’s great Hall of Fame of faith. And it tells us about this specific incident in Moses’ life. Here’s what it says:

24 By faith Moses, when he had grown up, refused to be known as the son of Pharaoh’s daughter. 25 He chose to be mistreated along with the people of God rather than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin. 26 He regarded disgrace for the sake of Christ as of greater value than the treasures of Egypt, because he was looking ahead to his reward. 27 By faith he left Egypt, not fearing the king’s anger; he persevered because he saw him who is invisible.

Do you see now why I say that the decision to follow Jesus is a choice to value the rewards of faith more than the promises of sin? Do you see why I talk about sin?

Because in the Bible, Egypt begins to be used as a symbol of temptation and sin. That’s the way the author of Hebrews sees it. Egypt equals temptation and sin, but Moses chose faith. He chose God and God’s people (and by extension, Hebrews said, he chose Christ). He chose Christ over sin.

He burned the ships. He burned his bridges with sin. And he put Christ first.

Have you done that? Are you doing that? It’s a choice we make when we first decide to follow Jesus and it’s a choice we need to keep on making as we exercise faith.

Have you burned your bridges with sin?

I don’t mean: are you sinless now? None of us are. I don’t mean: are you free from the struggles and temptations of living in this fallen world? We won’t be until Christ comes again or takes us home.

But I do mean: do you see Christ as better than sin? Do you truly have a desire to make a break with sin and are you seeking, every day, to put him ahead of the desires of your sinful nature? Or are you still sitting on the fence? Are you still hanging around waiting to see if sin has a better offer than Christ? Are you keeping retreat as an option?

It can’t be done. Burn the ships.

But it is hard. I’ll grant you that. Look at what the author of Hebrews says about sin. Sin promises a lot. Look at the way this passage describes sin. It says sin is pleasurable, treasurable, and visible. Sin makes you feel good. Sin seems like a good thing. Sin is tangible and real.

Look at verse 25: “[Moses] chose to be mistreated along with the people of God rather than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin.” Sin is pleasurable. It promises to feel good right now.

Think of what this meant for Moses. I read this week that slaves in Egypt were considered to be subhuman. There are ancient texts that compare slaves to donkeys and call them the “living dead.” They worked slaves hard and mistreated them because they weren’t considered to be of any value.

On the other hand, the Egyptian ruling elite were entitled to a life of ease. One text says about them: “You call for one; a thousand answer you. You stride freely on the road…you are in front of others.”

That was the life Moses had. A life where nothing was denied him, where he was a god on earth. And he traded it in to be mistreated along with God’s people.

Or, again, look at verse 26: “He regarded disgrace for the sake of Christ as of greater value than the treasures of Egypt.” Sin is treasurable. In earthly terms, it is worth something. It has value.

If Moses had been selfish, if he had been looking out for himself and himself only, he never would have left Egypt. Consider the treasures archaeologists have found in King Tut’s tomb. All the gold and jewelry they buried beneath their pyramids. If that’s what they were willing to stick in the ground with their dead, how much wealth do you think they had? But Moses walked away from it.

Or, again, look at verse 27: “By faith he left Egypt, not fearing the king’s anger; he persevered because he saw him who is invisible.” It says here that God is invisible, you can’t see him. But the implication is that sin is visible. It’s tangible. It’s right in front of you. You can see it and touch it and engage with it right now, whereas God is much more difficult to get a hold of.

The promise of sin, for Moses, was that he could enjoy it right where he was. He knew what he had, and he could keep it for as long as he was on earth. But instead, he traded it in for the hope of something greater. Something even more permanent.

Sin is pleasurable, treasurable, and visible. Sin promises a lot. We often choose sin because it looks fun, it looks worth it, and because it meets our desires right now.

But there’s one more thing we need to know about sin. A clue about why sin might not be as good as advertised. It’s up there in verse 25. That one word: “fleeting.” Sin is temporary. It is only for a short time. It only lasts for a season.

On the surface of it, you ask: why would Moses ever make that trade? Why would he give up so much? But you have to see that Moses was making a long-term investment. The promises of sin were short, but the rewards of faith were long.

The key is verse 26. Here’s why Moses made the trade he did: “He regarded disgrace for the sake of Christ as of greater value than the treasures of Egypt, because he was looking ahead to his reward.”

Christ had greater value than the treasures of Egypt. Moses was looking ahead to his reward. Verse 27 says that he could see the one [God] “who is invisible.”

Christ is so much more valuable than sin is.

You have to see it by faith. It’s not always obvious. But it’s always true.

Jesus is greater long term investment than sin will ever be. The one who is invisible is so much better than what is immediately in front of your face. He’s the one “who rewards those who earnestly seek him.” (Heb. 11:6)

Moses saw that, and he believed. And because he believed, he acted. He burned his ships with sin. Turned his back on Pharaoh. And chose to be mistreated with his own people for the cause of Christ.

Christians are people who have burnt their bridges with sin.

Not perfect people. Not sinless people. Not people who are above sin.

But people who have made a decisive break with sin and fight against temptation–not hang around it on the fence.

We need to burn our bridges and throw in our lot with Christ–by faith.

Does that describe you?

Perhaps you have never turned your back on Egypt and sided with God’s people. Today can be your day. I invite you to give yourself over to Jesus Christ and ask Him to be your Savior and Lord.

Perhaps you are playing with fire. Trying to sit on the fence. Trying to live as a prince of Egypt and a son of Israel. It won’t work. Today God is calling you to burn your bridges and throw your lot in with Christ alone and His people.

Maybe there is a sinful habit that you have not yet decided to wage spiritual war against. Today God is calling you to kill it and bury it in the sand. Maybe there is a relationship that you are engaged in that you know is wrong or unwise. Today, God is calling you to break it off and choose Christ over the treasures of Egypt.

Maybe its something else. You know what it is. And God knows what it is. And God is calling you today to make a decision.

Can you see Him? Can you see Christ? He’s invisible, but can you see Him by faith? He’s calling you today to make a decision. Can you see Him who is invisible? He is calling you, by faith, to burn your ships with sin