Sermon by The Rev. Lisa Caine
Aug. 24, 2014
Exodus 3: 1-15
Choir performance of the Old Testament Reading:
Today we are celebrating Sunday School promotions and giving our third graders Bibles. These are two of the most important things we do. We do them because we want our children to become acquainted with their faith family, with their spiritual ancestors, those men and women of ancient times who are remembered for their faithful and not so faithful behavior, who are remembered for their questions and for their refusals as much as for their affirmations and agreements; who teach us something in their defeats as well as in their victories. We believe that in learning about these stories, we not only learn something about the ancient past, we also learn something about God and about ourselves, and about how we are to live as people of God.
Knowing these stories connects us to something larger than ourselves; larger than our clan; larger than our country. These stories connect us to THE STORY (in capital letters) which is God’s story. When we don’t know God’s story or who we are in that story, then we lose an essential part of our identity and our purpose. That’s why we give bibles to our children and encourage them to come to Sunday School; that’s why our teachers week after week prepare lessons for our children, that’s why I preach, that’s why the choir sings, that’s why we all come to church — so that the story won’t be forgotten, so that we won’t be diminished by our ignorance.
Last week we remembered the story of baby Moses who had escaped death at the moment of birth. Only seven days in our lifetime have passed since we shared that story. But in today’s story, approximately 40 years have passed since Moses was drawn out of the waters of the Nile by the Egyptian princess and into a new life. A lot has happened in these 40 years. In that time Moses went from being a child of privilege in Egypt to being a shepherd out in Midian, an isolated place far away from just about everything and everyone, and there in peaceful anonymity he tended his father-in-laws flocks of sheep. He probably thought that the most exciting, challenging, and dangerous times of his life were by then.
He had grown up enjoying the best the ancient world had to offer, a life of luxury and security; he had it all. But one day he’d gone out to see what was happening to his ancestral people, those who had been enslaved for several hundreds of years in Egypt, and whose fate he had escaped by his adoption into the royal family. And what he saw horrified him; he couldn’t look away. He saw an Egyptian taskmaster beating a Hebrew slave. And somehow in that action, it became clear to Moses that although he lived in the palace, he was kin to the slaves. So when he thought no one was watching, he killed the taskmaster and buried his body in the sand.
Well of course, somebody was watching; that’s always the way it is, then as well as now. So Moses hit the road before the news got back to the palace and the Pharaoh’s men could figure out what had happened. He ended up in Midian, where he settled down, married, and became a shepherd. It wasn’t the life of the palace, but it was a safe and secure life in its own way. He had a new identity; nobody asked any questions about his past, and he was content to live away from the spotlight of Egypt.
Until that day. It had started like any other; he’d gotten up, fed and watered the sheep and headed out into the wilderness to let the sheep graze near Mt. Horeb. That name Horeb is a clue that today is going to be a special day because Horeb is another name for Mt. Sinai—that mountain where God lives and where Moses years later received the Ten Commandments for his people.
Here Moses is at Horeb, a particularly holy place, and he sees a burning bush that is not consumed by the flame. Moses makes a decision to get a closer look at this miracle. Encounters with the holy are scary things; a lot can happen, your life can be changed. The natural tendency would be to run away, frightened what God might do. But for the moment, Moses’ curiosity overcame his fear, and caused him to draw closer to this holy spot.
And when he does, God speaks to him – calls him by name, in fact. “Moses,” God says. “Take off your shoes; you are standing on holy ground.” And then without further ado, God gets down to business. God has observed the misery of the Hebrew slaves, has heard their cry, and knows their suffering, and, has decided to do something about it. God has come down to deliver them, and to bring them out of slavery to a good land where they can live free and prosper. Moses might have thought, “Well, it’s about time. This situation has been going on for over 400 years.” Perhaps he was glad to hear that God had decided to intervene so decisively in the lives of God’s oppressed people.
Maybe he was looking forward to reading all about it in the headlines of the local Midian newspaper – banner headlines – “Slaves Freed in Egypt!”
God continues, however, with this magnificent plan, concluding by saying “So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.”Well, that changes everything; what seemed like a grand plan, has now gotten personal – God isn’t just going to do these things out in the world somewhere while Moses sits back and observes at a safe distance. God wants Moses to be the agent for the great escape! God wants Moses to leave home and family, risk his life, go back to the land where he’s a wanted man, rally demoralized slaves to participate in massive civil disobedience, confront the most powerful leader in the world, and not only get away with his own life, but the lives of thousands of others.
It is Moses who will do what God has planned. It is Moses who will run the risks God is ready to take. This heavenly plan will be accomplished by human enterprise. Moses will speak to Pharaoh; Moses will lead the people out of bondage; Moses will act on God’s behalf and in God’s place.
Naturally, Moses has some serious doubts. You heard all of those in the anthem a few minutes ago! He’s a nobody; he lacks authority; nobody will listen to him. He doesn’t even know the name of this holy being that is commanding him to go. What’s he supposed to do when they ask him who sent him. Nobody’s going to trust him; he’s an outsider and a wanted man. And besides, he’s not a good public speaker! Moses seems like a classic introvert. He’s not brash, not talkative, but quiet, a bit timid, not one, who would be prone to organizing great escapes from captivity or and holding forth in front of large crowds or important people.
But when God wants you, God wants you. And there’s no getting out of it, introvert or not. For each objection, God has a word of encouragement. “I will be with you; you will go but not alone”; tell them my name is Yahweh – I am who I am; I will be who I will be. God even pulls a few tricks out of his sleeve to convince Moses of his power, turning Moses’ staff into a snake for example and then back into a rod. And then God dismisses Moses’ final excuse, giving him Aaron, Moses extrovert brother, to go with him as his spokesman. Aaron will speak the words that the quieter Moses has chosen.
A lesson repeated throughout Scripture is that the great God of the universe, the Creator of heaven and earth, the God who made us, prefers to work in relationship with us and through us, rather than always doing things for us. There are times, when scripture records God acting alone in powerful and miraculous ways, and of course, that is always our first choice. Moses was perfectly happy for God to go down to Egypt and rescue the slaves, while he waited back in the safety of Midian. But God more often than not, requests and requires our help in making a miracle happen. And often, God’s plan hangs in the balance while God’s human partner decides whether or not to buy into the plan.
Moses is insecure and anxious; Jeremiah is too young; Isaiah thinks he’s too sinful; Mary is unmarried and a virgin. Her question, “How can this be?” is echoed throughout scripture.
John Claypool, one of my favorite authors, has written that there seem to be two kinds of people in the world, those who want to make the world a better place for everybody, and those who want to make it a better place for themselves and leave the rest as is. Moses was the former; and God could use him. In those years in the desert God was honing Moses for the work ahead. Moses kept his sense of curiosity and wonder and was drawn to the burning bush, but his youthful idealism and hot temper had been moderated through the years by the development of pragmatism and patience. Only after his time in the desert was he ready to return to do the work God called him to do.
I think God calls us today just as surely as he called Moses. I believe that every experience of our lives is something God can use to hone us into the partner God needs to accomplish a task at hand. There will come a time when some part of God’s grand intention for this world will become clearly our human responsibility. And at that God-chosen moment, our curiosity and our compassion will draw us to observe, to take risks, to be creative, to solve problems. It doesn’t mean that we’ll jump at the chance. We may have doubts, we may be able to think of a thousand excuses to put it off, and a hundred people who could do it better. But, for whatever reasons, God has called us to that place and despite our objections, our hesitation, our feelings of inadequacy, God promises that we won’t do it alone, and so we trust, just as Moses did, that God will go with us.
All of these stories from Genesis and Exodus this summer have shown us clearly that God works through unlikely people—not the one’s we’d choose– not the super heroes, not the greatly talented, or incredibly brilliant, and certainly not the morally upright and virtuous who have never failed, or sinned, or fallen short. Lying, cowardly, stubborn, self-centered, that’s ok; God can work with that because God sees more than the flaws, failures, and inadequacies that overwhelm us and hold us back. God sees potential; God sees promise; God sees the best in us that we can be.
God sees right now something in each one of us here that can be used for good. If you’ve already run into a burning bush, or you find one right around the corner next week, you can trust that God will not call you to be something you are not—although you might be led into endeavors and to places that are currently unknown to you, and you may be stretched a bit beyond the limits of your comfort zone. God will only call you to become who you truly are. And in that moment you might at first be tempted to say with Moses, “Not me, Lord” but from deep within you will come the unequivocal and resounding answer, “Yes, you.”