In 1962, two American scientists named David Bernays and Charles Sawyer were hiking in an isolated mountainous region of Peru. While there, they visited a glacier and in so doing made a surprise discovery. What they recognized was that the pressure of the glacier had caused a large slab of rock to become very unstable. Their conclusion was that the rock’s stability was so tenuous that if it were to move even a few inches, it would easily slide off the side of the mountain and down into the valley below causing major destruction with the result being significant loss of life.
After coming down off the mountain, the two men alerted the locals knowing that something needed to be done. Surprisingly, the response to Bernays and Sawyer was that they were deemed alarmists and threatened with imprisonment because of the unnecessary panic their worries could cause.
In the end, Bernays and Sawyer were vindicated but not right away. It was 8 years before the two Americans and their assessment were proven accurate. In January of 1970, that very rock did break apart and hurl down the mountain just as the two scientists had predicted killing 20,000 people. To this day, that tragic event is considered the deadliest avalanche in recorded history. (“Yungay, Peru” entry in wikipedia.com)
In essence Bernays and Sawyer did two important things. First, they paid attention to the signs that presented themselves in terms of the glacier and rock that they studied. Second, their attentiveness caused them to take heed and to warn others. Yet, despite their warnings most people dismissed them.
From Exodus chapter 7 through 12, God brings 10 plagues on the land of Egypt. Hail, blood, frogs, gnats and darkness among other things are used by God in an attempt to get people’s attention. These horrific disturbances of the natural world culminate with the most severe plague of all which was the passover. In this tenth plague, God passed over the homes of Israelites while bringing death to the first born of all Egyptian families as well as the firstborn of all Egyptian livestock. This 10th plague was so bad that the Egyptians dismissed the Israelites from their land that very same night. In essence, the Egyptians couldn’t get rid of the Israelites fast enough.
Now, when we think about these plagues collective, one would assume that these events captured the attention of the Israelites and the Egyptians and that what they learned through these experiences changed their lives forever.
After all, these 10 plagues were not just for the Egyptians they were for the Israelites too. For the Israelites, the plagues were a reminder that God had not forgotten them and also a strong reaffirmation of God’s power and superiority over the Egyptian Gods. For the Egyptians, the plagues were also a sign of the God’s power and of God’s desire for the Israelites to be set free. (I am influenced here by the writing of Philip Yancey in his book Discovering God, Zondervan Press, 1993, pg. 34)
But, if we sit back and think about it, we come to the conclusion that neither the Israelites nor the Egyptians were affected long term by the plagues as they should have been.
Yes, maybe the Israelites and the Egyptians paid momentary attention to the plagues but neither group paid lasting attention. For the Israelites, despite experiencing these ten plagues up close and personal, they quickly fell back into their doubts about God, the questioning of God’s ways, their sense that God had abandoned them and their temptation to worship other God’s during their years in the wilderness. For the Egyptians, even though the plagues individually and collectively initially got their attention, they eventually dismissed them too. Ultimately the Egyptians even dismissed the final plague, the passover event, as they charged after the Israelites and chased them into the Red Sea.
This is the human experience. If we are honest, we have to admit that on lots of occasions, life, people, circumstances and God offer us warning signs that if we are watchful and attentive give us every chance to amend our behavior, change our ways or reorder our lives. The question isn’t do moments like the ten plagues come our way in our lives but rather are we any better than the Israelites or Egyptians at fully taking note of them and allowing them to have not momentary but lasting affect on us?
Back a couple of weeks ago on the Sunday afternoon before Labor Day, our family went up into the edge of North Carolina to buy apples and to enjoy that picture, perfect afternoon. One of the stops we made was at Pearson Falls just south of Saluda. If you have never been there I highly recommend it. It is a very easy, short hike to a beautiful little waterfall. As we walked the trail toward the waterfall, I noticed signs in a specific area asking people to stay off the rocks and out of the water at that particular spot. When we walked back past those same signs just a short time later, there was a family playing in that very stretch of water, on those very rocks. If I had taken a picture of that moment with a camera, you could have seen the signs in the foreground and the family in background doing exactly what the signs warned against.
This is our human nature. We tell ourselves all sorts of things to ease our minds. “Let’s not over react,” we say. “Surely, they don’t mean us?” “That may happen to some folks but it won’t happen to me.” Or, just as bad is our momentary recognition that the warning is for us and that we do need to take heed only to have our good plans and intentions fade away with the passing of time. Again, it is this later response that seems most in keeping with what the Egyptians and Israelites collectively do in the midst of the plagues. The power of God seeks to get their attention in different ways and does for a moment yet God’s power repeatedly fades away for both the Egyptians and Israelites the further they walk away from those attention grabbing moments.
This in-between time that we are living through right now is a season for signs and wonders too. I strong believe that God wants to use these days to get our attention about all sorts of things. Our job is really threefold: to be watchful, to recognize that God is trying to teach us and most of all to really listen with all of our being. Our tendency will be just like that of the Israelites and the Egyptians by either ignoring altogether what is being said or by letting God’s words fade away with time no matter how powerful they are in the moment. What is God trying to say to us right now? And, what will we do with God’s activity in our lives in these days? Amen.