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|"The Call of Moses"
| Last week I preached on
the birth of Moses; but even moreso on the wretched conditions of the
children of Israel into which he was born. Conditions had changed
drastically since the time of Joseph, and his descendants had become
slaves in their new land.
Now, one might wonder: if God was so good as to take care of Joseph, and to take care of his whole family in a time of famine, why is God not, years later, likewise taking care of all of his family’s descendants? How could he allow this to happen?
It is not for us to know God’s schedules. But we do know that scripture tells us, in the closing verses of the second chapter of the book of Exodus, that “After a long time the king of Egypt died. The Israelites groaned under their slavery, and cried out.
“Out of the slavery their cry for help rose up to God. God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God looked upon the Israelites, and God took notice of them.”
Now, I don’t believe that God forgets us. But, for better or worse, God puts us on a VERY long leash. That is, God pretty much lets us behave as we wish. And it’s possible for us to put ourselves out of touch with God. But God is always listening.
And for me, the key words in that passage I just read are, “their cry for help rose up to God.” These folks are in serious prayer. They are in deep need and letting God know about it.
And about this time, “Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and come to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed.”
Now, too often we tend to personify angels, to make people out of them. Not in this passage. God is simply sending a message. God is attempting to get Moses’ attention, by causing a bush to burn without getting burned up.
We don’t know how large the bush was, or how large the blaze was, but Moses is facing a contradiction. The bush blazes away, but does not change in spite of the fire.
“Then Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.”
Now, God has Moses attention, but God has even more than that. God has Moses’ curiosity. Moses is asking questions. Moses is looking for something. And I think this is important. We preachers can yell at you and get your attention, but that is of little value. Nothing is gained unless we arouse your curiosity, get you to ask questions, prompt you to be looking for something.
I like those words that Moses uses: “I must turn aside.” He admits to being distracted. And it is only when we are distracted that change enters into our lives. It is only when we are distracted that conditions are prepared for us to learn something.
“When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.”
God called. I’ve known pastors who have wished that their call to ministry had been this clear. Or they’ve wished for something like Paul’s Damascus road experience. They wish for a “dramatic” call. And yet, it has seemed to me that the ones who have the most doubts, who ask the most questions, who are the most distracted by the burning bushes in their lives, are the ones who are most likely to have been called.
I think God made it easier for Moses. And I think he makes a lot of the rest of us work at it.
“Then God said, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.”
I think that this is marvelous statement of God’s presence. Of how God is present to us and for us. Why would God say, “Come no closer”? Does God want to keep us away? No, I don’t think so. But there is a necessary distance between us and an infinite God.
The God of the universe is necessarily BEYOND us. And God might have told Moses, “it is not possible for you to come any closer.”
And then we need to ask about the sandals. What is the big deal about removing the sandals? Would they profane holy ground? No, and this removal of the sandals is not a negative instruction; it is a positive one.
Moses bare feet are put in direct contact with the holy ground. Moses is put in direct contact with the presence of God.
“God said further, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.”
Now, this is the first that God has identified Godself to Moses. Moses did not originally consider the burning of the bush to be a divine act. And when he was told that he was standing on holy ground, we have no idea what he made of that. But when he hears references to his ancestors, he knows that this encounter is something special. Moses parents were Levites, descendants of Levi, son of Jacob, son of Isaac, son of Abraham.
“Then the Lord said, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings.”
Again, I think there are at least two dimensions of God presented here: both the transcendent and the immanent. The transcendent God is the God of the universe to whom we cannot come closer, the God who says “I have observed the misery.”
But the immanent God is the God with whom we can be in touch, who brings holiness and wholeness to us, who invites us to remove our sandals or anything else that distances us from him, the God who knows our sufferings. And when we hear God say, “Indeed, I know their sufferings,” we can almost hear God say, “I knew those sufferings before they ever cried out to me.”
And then God continues, in a verse of promise that should have absolutely blown Moses away:
“I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the country of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites.”
I think the Israelites would have been perfectly happy with God simply saying “I have come down to deliver them.” But no, God will be with them on their journey away from Egypt. Not only that, but God has a spot picked out for them, and he describes it, and brags about it, and tells them the tribes that currently occupy it.
“The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.”
And God gets down to business in a big hurry. Not only has Moses been called, but he has instantly been given a very specific, very large task.
It’s almost as if God feels a need to make up for lost time.
I don’t think most pastors are called this way. I suspect that most of us muddle around for awhile, trying to figure out if we really HAVE been called. And then we talk to friends and family, and then to other pastors. We dip our toes in the wading pool. We don’t dive into the deep end of the pool. And this can go on for months. And then, by the time we’re ready for a specific project, it’s usually a far cry from what Moses was called to do.
Now, this morning we are not going to cover all of this conversation that God has with Moses. But during that conversation, Moses tries to back out of the task to which God has called him about five times.
And I must confess that in the past, in my teaching and preaching, I have belittled Moses for this. But I have changed my mind. For one thing, this task is HUGE.
Even the pastors of the largest churches in this country did not BEGIN with responsibilities for large congregations. They started small. Or, they started as assistants to other pastors.
And, a second consideration. I do not think that it was a bad thing that Moses questioned his call. Questioning one’s call, whether it be in the religious or the secular world, is evidence of depth of spiritual introspection.
To NOT question one’s call, to NEVER question the components of one’s faith, is to slide along the surface of our existence and to never enter into dialogue with God.
A Baptist chaplain once told me--and I imagine that it could just as easily have been a Methodist, a Presbyterian, a Lutheran, or whatever--that he thought there were too many folks with visions in the heavens of giant letters PC, and believed that to be a call to Preach Christ, when it really meant to Plant Corn.
So, what does Moses do with this HUGE task?
“Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?”
“He said, “I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain.”
“Who am I...” And God doesn’t really answer Moses question! Moses wants to know, “How am I qualified? Why me?” And God avoids the issue. God only says, “I will be with you.” Or maybe that does NOT avoid the issue. Maybe NO ONE would be qualified for this job. Maybe the only way that it CAN get done is for God to accompany someone. And maybe that someone could be anybody.
“But Moses said to God, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, “The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,” and they ask me, “What is his name?” what shall I say to them?”
Now, on the surface here we are dealing with names and labels. But I think that there is something deeper here. The deeper question that Moses expects the Israelites to ask is, “By what authority are you acting? Who gave you the right?”
Today we talk about credentials, about experience, about education. Or we have witnesses who attest to competence.
But if Moses has been sent by God, the Israelites will want some evidence that Moses has had a divine encounter with God.
So “God said to Moses, “I AM who I AM.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, I AM has sent me to you.”
In my Bible, and perhaps in yours, there is an interesting footnote to this verse. I am who I am might also be read as I am WHAT I am or I will be what I will be.
“God also said to Moses “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, “The Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you”: This is my name forever, and this is my title for all generations.”
And for a God who is truly BEYOND naming, I am who I am is the only answer God could give.
Is this enough for Moses? No, it isn’t. He and God have an extended conversation, before he finally agrees to the job. But it is important to note that the most important thing he needed to hear from God, he has already heard. In the twelfth verse of this passage, God said, “I will be with you.” Amen.
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