Sunday, August 31, 2008

Slightly Beyond - Exodus 3:1-15

Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came 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, but it was not consumed. Then Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.” 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.” Then he said, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” He 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.
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, and 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 Perizites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. 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.” But 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.”
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?” 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.’” God also said 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.

Have you ever done something you didn’t think you had the ability to do? My grandfather grew up in coal country in West Virginia, where his father was a mine safety inspector. He used to tell the story of two miners who were walking through the mine one day when a large slab of rock fell out of the ceiling and pinned one of the men. The other instantly picked up the slab and threw it 20 feet down the corridor, and the injured man lived. A few days later, he was walking through the same spot, and came across the slab of rock. He was unable to push it across the floor, let alone pick it up and hurl it 20 feet. Sometimes, through forces yet unexplained, we all accomplish extraordinary things.

In our text this morning, we see a very important episode from the life of a man named Moses. Mosesyou did some extraordinary things, there’s no doubt about that. After we’ve rattled off the list of his accomplishments, we may invite him as a guest speaker on Biblical leadership. But if we examine his story a little closer, we may surprised. Moses has lessons to teach us, all right, but it’s nothing that you’re going to learn in a seminar at the American Management Association or the Center for Creative Leadership. May we pray.

God told Moses, “Take off your shoes, Moses, and approach the burning bush.” Moses did, and burned his feet. And God said, “Ha! Third one today!”

Moses was having a very ordinary day. Let’s recall for a moment where he has been. He was born Hebrew, but raised Egyptian, a prince in the king’s household, as a matter of fact. Moses killed an Egyptian slave-driver who was beating a Hebrew slave, but afraid of this being discovered, fled to Midian. He’s a man with a past.

Moses was now a shepherd, taking care of his father-in-law’s sheep. The text says he had taken the flock out beyond the wilderness, which, from everything I can tell, is somewhere beyond Creston. He was just minding his own business, or at least, he was minding his father-in-law’s sheep. He comes across a rise in the landscape, and off to his side, a bush is burning. Now, Moses seems to be astonishingly disinterested in this sight. After a well-thought and reasoned debate with himself and a look through his appointment book, he decides he does, in fact, have time to turn aside and investigate.

A voice calls out from the bush. “Moses. Moses.” Twice his name is called, and this is significant. When God calls us, it’s never just once. God calls over and over again, simply waiting for God’s people to respond to the call. The call from God is like an alarm clock that only has a snooze button but no off button. Sure, you can hit the snooze button and get snug back in bed, but don’t get too comfortable. In another nine minutes, that sucker’s gonna go off again. And again. And again. You can ignore the call from God all you want, but God keeps calling.

Moses responds a little bit hesitantly. “Yeah, it’s me. I’m here. Ummmm, whaddya want?”

“Moses, I have seen the suffering of my people, and it grieves me deeply. I feel their pain. I know their hurt. I’m going to do something about it.”

Moses nodded thoughtfully, indicating that he was paying attention. “Sounds good to me, God. You go for it. I support and affirm your decision to do something about it, God.”

“Good. You’re going to help. I’m going to send you.”

It seems odd that God needs help from anyone, especially someone as inept as Moses. It’s odd for God to pick Moses, and this is certainly something he recognizes. He lodges five complaints and reasons why God should probably recruit someone else. He’s not good at public speaking, or politics, or theology. He doesn’t really have any of the skills required for liberating leadership. “God, I don’t mean to be disrespectful or anything, what with you being the God of my ancestors and the creator of the universe and having the ability to smite me and all, but I think you’ve made a mistake. I’m a very bad public speaker. When I open my mouth, it sounds like I’ve got marbles in there. And words don’t come easily to me. Oh Lord, please just send someone else.”

Quite an inspiring response to a call from God, isn’t it? But it’s not that unusual. Throughout history, those whom God has called have responded with any number of reasons why God must have made a mistake. Sometimes people haven’t felt up to the task, and sometimes people just really don’t want to be bothered. Abraham said, “I’m too old.” Jeremiah said, “I’m too young.” Isaiah said, “I am a man of unclean lips.” Gideon said, “I am the least of all people.” Peter said, “I’m too opinionated.”

It’s interesting that so many of us have such strong opinions on the type of person that God can and cannot use. Quite frankly, I think it’s because our society is insecure with God’s love. Some people are insecure in the knowledge that God loves them, and others are insecure in the knowledge that God loves people other than them. Let me explain. There seems to have been a lot of teaching that God is an angry, vengeful, wrathful God. People are so scared of incurring God’s wrath that they find it difficult to trust God’s love. But our relationship with God is so often likened to that of a parent and child. Loving parents love their children no matter what. They are grieved by things we do, but they still love us just the same. The love of a parent is not contingent upon a certain set of behaviors from their children. And the love of God is not contingent upon certain behaviors that are pleasing to God.

I know that my mom loves me no matter what. No matter what I do, no matter what I say, no matter who I am, she still loves me. I am 28 years old, and my mom is still my mom. When I am 58 years old, she’ll still be my mom. She tries not to interfere, but she’s still part of my life. Whether by phone or in person, she needs to be in touch. Back in June, my parents came to visit for 10 days. 10 days. That’s right, 10 days! I love my parents dearly, but it was 10 days! But here’s the thing; she needs to be mom. Even when she’s giving me advice about things I already know and have already done, and I roll my eyes so far back that she can see them 700 miles away and sigh real loud, “Okaaaay, Mom!” she says, “I’m sorry, you know I still have to be mom.”

I also know that God still has to be God. And a big part of that means God loves me no matter what. I also know that God loves you no matter what. I happen to think this world would be a much better place if every person not only knew that God loved them, but were secure in that knowledge. God cares what happens to us. God cares about every one of God’s creatures. God didn’t make any of us and then turn to an angel and say, “Whoops, I made a mistake.” No, what God said when he made you was, “It is good! It is very good!” Even when God made the humans who would betray him. Even when God made the humans whom the other humans seemed to hate, God still said, “It is good.” Even when God made those of us who have faults and failures and brokenness and hard hearts, God said, “It is good.”

Back in our text today, God looked at Moses with all his shortcomings and said, “Yes, you’re the one I want.” Moses protested. “I can’t. I shouldn’t get involved. I couldn’t do the job. I don’t want to.” Finally, God said, “Moses, this is not about you! Did it ever occur to you that what I’m doing is bigger than you?” And friends, that’s the danger in responding to a call from God; you will find yourself caught up in something larger than yourself.

For Moses and for us, it is in very mundane, ordinary circumstances that God chooses to reveal God’s self. Throughout the Scriptures and throughout our own lives, we find God using very ordinary things to be revealed to us. God is using things close at hand, things familiar, and using them with people where they are, to reveal divine presence and will. In baptism, God uses ordinary water to reveal remarkable truths to us and to make us part of a great and wonderful story. Every time we bring another person to the baptismal font, we proclaim the very real truth that, even in the midst of a world which forgets and devalues too many people—this person, and every other person, is a child of God. We declare that God knows us before we know ourselves, and that God is committed to us despite the outcome of life yet to be lived.

Despite his protests, God knew that Moses was going to be fine, but Moses didn’t know it. God was going to give Moses everything he’d need to fulfill his mission. The challenge was in getting Moses to trust God enough to work in, through, and around his shortcomings. The challenge was in getting Moses to realize that it wasn’t all about himself. The call from God draws us to a place slightly beyond ourselves, and our own traditions, and our own politics, and our own theological perspective, and our own understanding.

It is when we insist on understanding that which is infinite that we get ourselves into trouble by blundering into the mistaken notion that we have it all figured out. Trouble that caused the crusaders to slaughter Greek Christians. Then later, trouble that caused Inquisition Christians to burn other Christians. And then trouble that caused Catholics to kill Protestants, and Protestants to kill Catholics, whomever was in power at the time. Every time, it was because each thought their own position to be absolutely right and the other to be absolutely wrong. It is when we insist on defining God’s love or God’s anger that we blunder into anti-Semitism, or join rigid sects that promise us all the easy answers.

But God did not give easy answers. God gave a call, an invitation into relationship, and a commitment and promise to be with us despite our shortcomings. God gave a call, to be swept up in something beyond ourselves, to be part of a community of mutual love, forgiveness, and support. God gave a call in which each of us realized it wasn’t all about ourselves. If your only goal in life is to get your needs met or advance your own cause or exalt yourself at the expense of others, you’ll certainly miss out on what God intends for you. The purpose of human life has always been about being a part of that which is greater and larger and more enduring than one’s self.

In fact, when God calls, something of ourselves needs to be given away – our self will, our predisposition to think more highly of ourselves than we ought, our egotistical judgments about other people’s sins. Whenever I do that, I can just hear God telling me to look at my own sins. The call from God is an invitation from self-centered living to God-centered living. The call from God is a reminder that we are part of the great story of God’s salvation of the world, and that God’s faithfulness is not dependent upon us for its beginning or its end. The call from God is an invitation to be integrated into the community of faith, a community whose heart breaks for the world God loves, a community who proclaims God’s love for every one of God’s beloved children.

Friends, that’s a big task. It’s almost an impossible one. But if God is going to call us to participate in this great work, God will also equip us. The bush burned for Moses, and he responded to God’s call, and with God’s help, accomplished some extraordinary things. The bush burns for you and me, and with God’s help, we can accomplish some extraordinary things as well. That is, if we’ll respond to the call.

1 comment:

  1. I think you're right; people limit God's love and are insecure in it. And we don't like to be asked to do hard things. "No, not me... I'm not ____." And then if we do try to do hard things which God calls us to do, other people tell us that we can't. It's hard to believe in God's love more than our own limitations sometimes.

    What do you think we can consciously do to help ourselves stop limiting God?

    How much should we try to understand God?

    (Do you read these comments? ;-) )