A sermon delivered by David Hughes, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Winston-Salem, Nc., on August 28, 2011.
Exodus 3: 1-15
In his book, Callings, Greg Levoy writes, “Calls (from God) are essentially questions. They aren’t questions you necessarily need to answer outright; they are questions to which you need to respond, expose yourself, and kneel before. You don’t want an answer you can put in a box and set on a shelf. You want a question that will become a chariot to carry you across the breadth of your life.”
If you grew up in a Baptist church, you were likely exposed to ministers who spoke of being “called” by God into ministry. But if you were a “mere layperson” “a butcher, a baker, a candlestick maker”—you probably didn’t think of yourself as being called.
But as Greg Levoy suggests, every person ever born faces fundamental questions that will not go away: “Who made me? Who am I? What I am here to do, really?” These are the questions “to which (we) need to respond, expose (ourselves), and kneel before” in the presence of God.
I have concluded that a great many people choose to ignore these questions all their lives. They simply go with the flow, following some predetermined script their parents or society in general dictates to them. They go to school, get a job that pays the bills, get married, have children, take their vacations, retire, eventually get sick and die, right on cue. And they die not having a clue about who they are and why they are here. They may have everything money can buy—except a sense of true identity, and a calling that can carry them across the breadth of their lives.
Others, out of choice or necessity, do the necessary soul work of wrestling with the key questions of life, and living out their calling in ways that can even alter the course of history.
Moses was one of those people.
Most of us know something about the famous story of Moses. We know his fellow Israelites lived peacefully and prosperously many years in the land of Egypt because of the influence of Joseph who served as Pharaoh’s second in command and helped Egypt avoid the ravages of a seven year famine. We know that after Joseph died a new Pharaoh eventually rose to power “who knew not Joseph,” a Pharaoh who became so threatened by the flourishing Israelites that he began to systematically subject them to cruel oppression. The Israelites were forced to build cities and monuments and tombs using bricks with no straw. Eventually, they were nothing more than downtrodden slaves subject to ruthless masters.
Meanwhile, the God of the Israelites was nowhere to be found. God’s chosen people groaned under the heavy burdens of slavery for centuries, and God seemingly turned a deaf ear.
Eventually the Pharaoh opted to defeat the Israelites by ordering that all infant Israelite boys should be drowned in the Nile River. That should have been the end of a young lad named Moses. But Moses mother, desperate to save him, hid her baby in a basket among the reeds of the river. As it happened Pharaoh’s daughter was bathing in the river, and discovered the baby. She took pity on the boy, and adopted Moses as her son. And so it was that Moses, a Hebrew by birth, spent his first forty years as a member of the royal Egyptian family, receiving the elite training and education afforded to a man of such high station.
Meanwhile, Moses was surely wrestling with the fundamental questions of life. “Who am I?” “Am I Egyptian or Hebrew?” “With whom do my loyalties lie?”
Without any warning, Moses had the opportunity to work through his identity crisis in dramatic fashion. One day Moses saw an Israelite being beaten by an Egyptian. In a fit of rage Moses killed the Egyptian. When word got out, Moses was forced to flee his home.
Moses settled in a land called Midian and spent the next forty years of his life as a shepherd. He married a Midianite woman and together they had a son named Gershom which literally meant, “I have been an alien residing in a foreign land.” A once proud nobleman of Egypt had been reduced to a humble shepherd in exile who spent hour after tedious hour tending his flocks in the desert of Midian, still not clear about who he was or what he was supposed to do with his this apparently meaningless life.
Meanwhile, the people of God continued to suffer under the merciless hand of Pharaoh, and God was nowhere to be found.
Then again….maybe God was active in a way not obvious to the naked eye, active in the soul of Moses.
To be honest, the author of Exodus spends all of six and a half verses describing these forty years of Moses’ life, and we know very little about them. On the surface they look like four wasted decades, four decades when Moses could have been doing something productive like using his influence as the adopted son of Pharaoh to help his native people.
But in her book Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership, Ruth Haley Barton reminds us that God had lots of work to do in Moses’ soul before he approached Moses about his life calling. And God accomplished this soul work through the spiritual discipline of solitude.
Moses literally spent thousands of hours alone over forty years tending his sheep in the desert. Over that time, he had to let go of the many ambitions that had driven him his first forty years. And then, he had to reckon with the temper that had gotten him into so much trouble. It was good that Moses was anxious to defend his people against oppression. But it was not good that he flew off the handle and murdered a man in the process. God had lots of work to do at the soul level in Moses, and lots of time to do it.
But why forty years? Isn’t that a long time to be engaged in soul work when God’s people are suffering?
Recently, I performed a funeral for a member of our church named Earline King. Earline was an interesting person to me, not just because she was such a gifted sculptor, but because she didn’t discover her true calling until she was fifty! That discovery took a long time, didn’t it? And don’t forget that Jesus himself required thirty years in the carpentry shop before he was ready for the three years of ministry that would change the course of history.
Finally, when the Israelites had languished in Egypt for four hundred years and Moses had labored in the desert forty years, when God was ready and Moses was ready, God arranged a meeting with Moses. Moses was tending his flock one day at the foot of Mt. Horeb, also called Mt. Sinai. In other words, it was another day’s work for Moses.
And then in the midst of the ordinary, the extraordinary happened. The angel of the Lord appeared to Moses in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed.
It was not unusual to see an acacia bush burning in the desert—after all this was the desert, and brush might catch fire for all kinds of reasons. What was unusual about this fire, of course, was that the enflamed bush was not consumed.
Who was this “angel of the Lord” that appeared to Moses? We don’t know. It was probably the Lord himself.
How did the bush burn without being consumed? Again, we don’t know. Clearly, this burning bush qualified as a miracle.
Now notice how Moses notices! Then Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.” At the risk of belaboring the obvious, Moses sees the burning bush, acknowledges that something extraordinary is happening, and turns aside to look more deeply. Then God notices that Moses notices, and only then does God speak from the burning bush.
So why belabor the obvious? Because many of us race through our days and our deserts without noticing the presence of God. We are too busy accomplishing our to-do list to notice, turn aside, acknowledge, and look more deeply. We are skimming through life, giving God no quarter, no chance to break through our ordinary routines. And had we been Moses, we might have missed the opportunity to hear directly from Almighty God.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning takes note of our failure to notice in her famous poem that says,
“Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God.
And only he who sees takes off his shoes—
The rest sit around and eat blackberries.”
When God calls Moses by name, Moses responds, Here I am. Then God instructs Moses to remove his sandals because he is on holy ground. Moses not only takes off his sandals. He hides his face because something tells him he canot look at the Lord God almighty and live to tell about it.
Then God announces why he has called this meeting. He tells Moses he has heard the cry of his people as they suffer under the hand of their taskmasters. And he has every intention of delivering his people from their bondage into a land flowing with milk and honey.
What is God’s plan for the liberation of his people? I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt. Moses is flabbergasted!
“Who am I,” asks Moses, “that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?”
Like Gideon, and Isaiah, and Jeremiah, and Jonah, Moses questions his own qualifications for God’s calling. And don’t forget—Pharaoh was no pushover. In fact, he was considered a divine being. God was asking the impossible.
God’s response to Moses’ legitimate question is so telling. He doesn’t praise Moses for his many leadership traits, or reveal any secret plan to unseat Pharaoh. He simply says, “Moses, I will be with you, and that’s all you need to know.”
“Well,” responded Moses, “now that you mention it, who are you?” Again, this is a fair question. For one thing, people of that day believed in a host of gods—gods of rocks and trees, and lots of other things. For another thing, God had become a stranger to Israel over the last couple centuries.
God’s response, I am who I am, has been the source of more commentary than you could read in a lifetime. God seems to be saying, “I’m the one who makes things happen, and I will be with you always. And that’s really all you need to know.” If and when Moses answers God’s call, he will learn more about this mysterious God as he goes.
You read on in Exodus, and Moses continues to resist God’s call. “What if they don’t believe me? Don’t you know I can’t speak before a crowd? I’ll fall flat on my face!”
But God will have none of it. God offers an answer to Moses’ every question. And finally, with many questions still unanswered, Moses says yes to God’s call.
You know the rest of the story. Moses tries to convince the Pharaoh to let his people go but to no avail. God sends the plagues, and a defeated Pharaoh finally releases God’s people. But not without trying one last time to recapture the Israelites. So God parts the Red Sea to allow his people to escape, and the same Moses who should have drowned in the Nile River watches Pharaoh’s soldiers drown in the Red Sea.
What should have been a fairy tale ending for Moses then turns into a forty year nightmare. For forty years the disobedient Israelites wander in the wilderness, and Moses wanders with them. In fact, Moses never makes it into the Promised Land because of his own disobedience—that old anger problem bites him one more time.
Nevertheless, Moses dies a satisfied man, content that he wrestled with the key questions of his life—“Who made me? Who am I? What am I supposed to do?” And confident that his calling had carried him across the breadth of his phenomenal life.
My friends, God is calling you to do something special for him. If you have yet to deal with those big questions, it’s time. And while you are at it be on the lookout for your burning bush, because God is on the lookout for you!