Just before I left for Monhegan, we spent some time with Moses, yet another one of those reluctant prophets. We discovered that mostly he was just a murderer on the run from the law. He was living in Midian, he got married and had at least one son. He spent 40 years in that country earning a living as a shepherd. But really, he was still on the run, thinking nothing about his fellow slaves in Egypt. Even if he did have an occasional thought about his fellow Israelites back in Egypt, he certainly didn’t do anything about it. And knowing Moses a bit, I’m pretty certain that even if his conscience twanged him some, he had no plans to respond. Moses was out of Egypt and glad of it.
It turns out, though, that God sometimes has plans for us that are different from the comfortable ones that we have adopted for ourselves, and that is certainly true for Moses. God’s plan is for Moses to go back to Egypt, so that ultimately, he can leave it again, with a whole lot of people on his backside.
But first God needs to get Moses’ attention. Last time, we saw that God did that with the burning bush. It was an odd sight, to be sure, blazing away in full flame, but not being consumed. And wonder of wonders, this “sight” aroused Moses’ curiosity.
As Moses came near to the burning bush, God began to speak to Moses out of it. And at first, it is God who is doing all of the talking, and Moses who is doing all of the listening. And quite frankly, whether Moses realized it or not, that’s the best way to approach God. Too often we assault God with a barrage of our own words, spelling out our needs, demands and requirements in prayer with nary a thought to listen for God’s word to us.
But at least for now, Moses is listening, and he’s learning about himself and about the plight of his people. And God is saying, I have not forgotten my people. I have heard their cry. I know how miserable their lives are. I know the pain that they are enduring, and I know the helplessness and the hopelessness that they struggle with everyday. And I’m going to deliver them from out of their bondage in Egypt, and I’m going to bring them into a good land; a broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey.
I tried to think some this week about what it must have been like for the Israelite slaves living in Egypt, but I had a tough time doing it. And I think that is because sometimes we all have a difficult time genuinely identifying with someone else’ pain. It’s especially difficult for us to understand someone else’ pain or struggle when we don’t have any pain or struggle, and life is going really well for us. Sometimes, We get judgmental about the pain and struggle of others, and sometimes, as a coping mechanism, we just insulate ourselves from it. There’s so much trouble and sorrow in the world that we end up refusing to engage with it.
But God understands pain, and God is big enough to understand not only national pain, but also personal pain. God understands the pain of the people in Texas, God understands the pain of the people in Mexico, and God understands the pain of the people in Florida, even if we find it difficult to do so. And God understood the pain of the Israelites in Egypt. God knows and cares about the predicaments that we all find ourselves in.
Some of the strongest words in the Hebrew language are used in this passage to describe how absolutely awful life was in Egypt. Words like “misery”, and “suffering” and “oppression” and “cry”, tug at our own heartstrings, because we have felt some of this ourselves. Life for the Israelites in Egypt was about as hopeless as hopelessness can get. They were trapped, and they’d been trapped for a long, long time. And the irony is that the Israelites had initially come to Egypt for a very good and godly reason. But things had certainly deteriorated over time.
But God heard their complaint, and God had a plan, and that plan involved Moses. God says to Moses, “So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.”
And suddenly, things are getting awfully personal for Moses. God is telling Moses to leave his comfortable life in Midian and to go back to Egypt, and to bring the Israelites out of Egypt. And Moses has not the slightest clue as to how he is to accomplish this great feat. He doesn’t have an army, he’s not a tactical operations specialist, he’s just a shepherd. (Ponder that one though, we’ll get back to it). But how this great event of deliverance can possibly be pulled off hasn’t even crossed Moses’ mind yet. What has crossed his mind is that God has picked the wrong guy for the job.
Moses has zippo interest in going back to Egypt. He left Egypt forty years ago for a very good reason. He was running for his life. And so in a moment of incredible daring, Moses says to God, hey God, perhaps you’ve forgotten just why it is that I’m hiding out here in Midian, shoving sheep around for these 40 years. Perhaps you need to pick someone else. The recorded words of Moses are these: “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?”, but they mean exactly the same thing.
Who are you? Why, you’re Moses! You grew up in the Pharaoh’s household. You speak Egyptian as fluently as you speak Hebrew. When you first met your wife, you didn’t even bother to correct her when she most naturally assumed that you were an Egyptian. Because you grew up in the Pharaoh’s house, you know the political system in Egypt. You know how it works, and you know it well.
Who are you? Why, you’re Moses! Someday, some scholars will boldly insist that you were responsible for the creation of the first five books of the Bible! Who are you? You’re the most revered prophet, except for Jesus Christ, in all of the Bible! You are the salvation figure of the Old Testament. Who are you? You’re the giver of the law! You will be quoted by Jesus and the writers of the New Testament more than any other person. Your presence, when you appear on the mount of transfiguration, will so awe and humble the Apostle Peter, that he will spout nonsense for a few moments.
Who are you? Why you’re Moses! To this day the angels and citizens of heaven sing your song! John the revelator heard them singing it.
Who are you? Why, you’re Moses, that’s who! You did lead the people of Israel out of Egypt, and you did it with multiple miracles and awesome signs and wonders.
Now God didn’t tell Moses all that stuff at once. It would have driven Moses nuts overblown all of his circuits. Poor old Moses couldn’t have handled it. What God did say to Moses was, “I will be with you.” And that’s all God really needs to say to Moses right now. And it’s really all that God needs to say to us: “I will be with you.”
Right now, in his relationship with God, Moses is feeling completely inadequate. Moses looks at himself, and he sees a man riddled with inconsistencies, failures and short-comings. Fundamentally, he sees himself as a runaway murderer who’s been killing time for forty years and who’s grown quite accustomed to that life-style. And, as far as Moses is concerned, he could easily spend the next forty years of his life doing very much the same thing.
But, as we have seen, Moses’ vision of himself is radically different from God’s vision of him. The only thing that I can see that might be shared in these two visions is the business of sheep shoving. Up till now, Moses has been shoving four-legged sheep. Later, on in the desert, he’ll be shoving sheep that have only two legs. Unique preparation? Perhaps. Moses will discover, however, that the four-legged sheep are far more cooperative.
Which is all to say, how radically different are our own visions of ourselves, and God’s vision of us. What does God see us doing in his Kingdom that we can’t possibly imagine, at least not yet, until God gets hold of us? What glorious things lie in wait for us on the horizons of our faith that we do not yet see? Could it be that there’s a Moses, or a Peter among us? Is there someone who can pray, or who can teach, is there someone who can be generous and liberal in their giving? Is there someone who can bring hope to the hurting and peace to the troubled? Is there someone who can reach out to the homeless and the needy and the hungry? Of course there is.
There is a strong biblical tradition of folks telling God to buzz off when God comes calling, and Moses is chief among them. It is far easier for us to imagine that we are simply nobodies in God’s Kingdom, than it is for us to imagine what God might be calling us to do.
And so we’ve got to ask ourselves the question that Moses asked: “Who am I?” But when we do that, we’ve got to set aside our own quick answer to that question, and listen for what God’s answer might be. God’s answer will probably be very different from our own. But along with God’s answer will come God’s promise: “I will be with you.” That promise eventually got Moses moving, and God’s vision for Moses was fulfilled, and he learned who he truly was. We will too.