Saturday, October 29, 2016

The Excuses of Moses

You know the story of Moses: Exodus 1 sets the scene—a “Pharaoh who knew not Moses”, combined with the increase of Jacob’s family, “the Children of Israel”, led to a situation in which the Israelites provided slave labour for the Egyptians. Life is hard, and the more the Israelites increase the worse their lives get.

In chapter 2 we read about the birth of Moses. In a setting where the Egyptians are trying to kill all baby Israelite boys, a Levite man and woman get married and have a baby boy—Moses. His mother hid him for three months, but finally tried an unusual adoption process. She put him in a basket in the river, where Pharaoh’s daughter found him and took him in. So the slave baby grew up in the king’s house, to all intents and purposes a brother to the man he will later challenge to “let my people go”.

But then the story takes a dark turn. Moses grew up. We are left to infer that his mother (who was hired to be his caregiver) told him about his real parentage, so that when he saw an Egyptian fighting with a Hebrew slave, he intervened—and killed the Egyptian. As a result he fled to the land of Midian, where he found a wife and started his family, living with his wife’s family in Midian. Notice that her family thinks of him as an Egyptian.

Chapter 3 moves the action to a climax. The angel of the Lord, who turns out to be the Lord, called to him from a burning bush as he watched his father-in-law’s flocks. The Lord told Moses that he had seen the Israelites’ misery and was ready to set them free. He called Moses to do his work: “So now, go. I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt.” Moses protested that he was not important enough for such a task, and in response God revealed himself to Moses more fully.

This passage—with the divine name and the connection to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—is worth a separate session, so I pass over it this morning. God also promised clearly that the venture would be a success, because the Lord would do it. “I will make it happen.”

All of this sets the stage for Moses’ response to God’s call in the passage we heard this morning, which we can lay out simply as a series of excuses, combined with God’s assurance of help for each problem—real or imagined. The point is fairly simple: When God calls, the only acceptable response is yes. You remember the way that Isaiah responded in Isaiah 6:8, “Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?’ And I said, ‘Here am I. Send me!’” Moses does not “Send me.” Instead, he makes a series of excuses, ending with “send someone else.”

The Excuses of Moses
Moses says: They won’t believe me.
·         God gives him instructions for a series of miracles: Moses’ staff turns into a snake, then back into a staff; Moses’ hand turns leprous, then clean again.
·         Now Exodus does not give a further protest from Moses, but I have a hunch that the writer was just saving space. Clearly Moses is not convinced, because God gives him instructions for a conclusive miracle when he gets to Egypt: “If they do not believe you or pay attention to the first sign, they may believe the second. But if they do not believe these two signs or listen to you, take some water from the Nile and pour it on the dry ground. The water you take from the river will become blood on the ground.” You would think that Moses should be impressed by now. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of his fathers, the God who controlled all of nature demonstrated his control before Moses—from the bush that burned without being consumed, to sticks that turn into snakes. So what does Moses do?

Moses said to the Lord, “Pardon your servant, Lord. I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor since you have spoken to your servant. I am slow of speech and tongue.” His basic excuse is: I’m not a good speaker. He sounds like someone trying to get out of a Homiletics class.
·         The Lord’s response is briefer this time. One can sense a divine impatience: “Who gave human beings their mouths? Who makes them deaf or mute? Who gives them sight or makes them blind? Is it not I, the Lord? Now go; I will help you speak and will teach you what to say.” Although God’s response is brief, I am impressed with the divine humility expressed. I think that God actually acts this way with us many times. God calls us to say or do something, and we feel inadequate. We can express our inadequacies and our fears to God, because God gives us whatever we need to do what God calls us to do.

But Moses brings out his clincher: “Pardon your servant, Lord. Please send someone else.” This is the only real excuse Moses has. This is the only excuse God will not accept.
·         Then the Lord’s anger burned against Moses and he said, “What about your brother, Aaron the Levite? I know he can speak well. He is already on his way to meet you, and he will be glad to see you. You shall speak to him and put words in his mouth; I will help both of you speak and will teach you what to do. He will speak to the people for you, and it will be as if he were your mouth and as if you were God to him. But take this staff in your hand so you can perform the signs with it.”

God provides for the previous excuse, while brushing aside this final excuse. Ironically, the Egyptian court will be faced with a strange scene—a herdsman from Midian will enter the premises with a despised Hebrew slave as his spokesman. But when the herdsman opens his mouth, they will hear the voice and accent of the Egyptian royal family. If they listen carefully, they might also hear the laughter of God somewhere in the recesses around them.

Our Calling—Our Excuses
As others have spoken about God’s calling, we have observed a variety of ways that God’s call operates in our lives. I am talking about the way that God calls us to various tasks throughout our lives. As students approach the end of your UC or seminary experience, you may wonder what exactly God calls you to do. I doubt that you will find a sign as clear as a bush burning on campus, without being consumed, and a voice speaking from within the bush. Instead you may follow Moses’ example of finding a place where you can get a job and start a family, but in all that you do God is working to prepare you for something. Most often we make our choices and discover afterwards that God was at work throughout.

I have found myself in situations that I wonder why I am the one God called. I have been a “missionary” (although I am not sure what that word necessarily means). I have been a pastor, not that I understand “pastor” much better. Now I am a teacher. I am also a husband and father, and a member of my church in Steinbach. In each of these places I have a job to do, a part to play—God’s person for the moment. Often I find I am out of my depth and helpless, but that’s okay. God calls and we respond.

We may wonder why God calls us to do the tasks we find in front of us. In Moses’ life, God prepared him over many years for the task of leading the Children of Israel out of Egypt. It may also be in our lives that God prepares us for a specific task for the benefit of others, but it may also be that God prepares us for our own sake. God acts in us what God wants for our own good. An important theme in Moses’ life was intimate conversation with God. When we meet him at the beginning of Exodus, Moses is impulsive and hardworking. By the end of his life, Moses wanted to see God and know God more than anything else. The account of the transfiguration in the gospels lets us know that Moses received what he wanted most: not only did he enter the Promised Land and talk there with Elijah, but he engaged in intimate conversation with the Son of God. God made Moses into what God wanted him to be, and wants to do the same with us.

A hundred years ago Brethren in Christ people used a particular image to describe God’s call. They talked about meeting Jesus, who was carrying a bag or a box containing all of the events to come in their life. My Aunt Arlene, married to my Dad’s older brother, Uncle Arthur, told how she had a dream in which Jesus told her not to worry, because all that would come in her life was in the box that he held out in front of her. I remember Arthur telling about his life with Arlene, and the way that she trusted God to …
·         Arthur told how her test to find out if God was calling her to Africa or to India involved him. When he asked her if she would date him, she herd, “God just called me to Africa.”
·         Each step from then on—it’s all in the box: As they moved from California to Zimbabwe, to Pennsylvania, to Illinois, and finally back to California.
·         He told how in their time at Wheaton, she was overcome with loneliness. He offered to move back to California; she replied, “It’s all in the box. We’ll stay and finish your work.”
·         Then they moved back to California, and their joy of being back was cut short by her cancer, Hodgkin’s Disease. She learned what it means to say, “It’s all in the box.”
·         He told of their last drive together into the hills around Upland, California. She said, “Arthur, 52 is so young to die, but as I look back, I wouldn’t change anything. It’s all in the box.”

In my own life the hardest call to follow was God’s call to stop doing something. I remember when our time living and working in Zimbabwe came to an end. I was resisting it, when the preacher in a service started to sing, “Mayenziwe intando yakho.” [From the Lord’s prayer: “Your will be done.”] Whether God leads you into exotic places or to work a lifetime in Steinbach, keep listening for God’s voice—or watching for a burning bush—and when God calls, he accepts only one answer: You can make any excuse you like, but then you say, “Yes!”

Exodus 4: 1-17
Community Chapel
26 October 2016

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