Sunday, September 13, 2015

This Week's Sermon: "Moses: 80 Years"

Exodus 3:1-12, 4:10-13

Moses was taking care of the flock for his father-in-law Jethro, Midian’s priest. He led his flock out to the edge of the desert, and he came to God’s mountain called Horeb. 2 The Lord’s messenger appeared to him in a flame of fire in the middle of a bush. Moses saw that the bush was in flames, but it didn’t burn up. 3 Then Moses said to himself, Let me check out this amazing sight and find out why the bush isn’t burning up. 4 When the Lord saw that he was coming to look, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” Moses said, “I’m here.” 5 Then the Lord said, “Don’t come any closer! Take off your sandals, because you are standing on holy ground.” 6 He continued, “I am the God of your father, Abraham’s God, Isaac’s God, and Jacob’s God.” Moses hid his face because he was afraid to look at God.

7 Then the Lord said, “I’ve clearly seen my people oppressed in Egypt. I’ve heard their cry of injustice because of their slave masters. I know about their pain. 8 I’ve come down to rescue them from the Egyptians in order to take them out of that land and bring them to a good and broad land, a land that’s full of milk and honey, a place where the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites all live. 9 Now the Israelites’ cries of injustice have reached me. I’ve seen just how much the Egyptians have oppressed them. 10 So get going. I’m sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.” 11 But Moses said to God, “Who am I to go to Pharaoh and to bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” 12 God said, “I’ll be with you. And this will show you that I’m the one who sent you. After you bring the people out of Egypt, you will come back here and worship God on this mountain.”

10 But Moses said to the Lord, “My Lord, I’ve never been able to speak well, not yesterday, not the day before, and certainly not now since you’ve been talking to your servant. I have a slow mouth and a thick tongue.” 11 Then the Lord said to him, “Who gives people the ability to speak? Who’s responsible for making them unable to speak or hard of hearing, sighted or blind? Isn’t it I, the Lord? 12 Now go! I’ll help you speak, and I’ll teach you what you should say.” 13 But Moses said, “Please, my Lord, just send someone else.” (Common English Bible)

“From 40 Days to 84 Years: Waiting on God’s Word,” Week Three

It really was a fairly tale conversion story: a notorious slaver, a captain of three different slave ships, who was, at the age of only 18, once enslaved himself after being captured by the Royal Navy, tried to desert, was caught, flogged, and contemplated suicide, had one of those profound God moments that can genuinely turn someone—and their life, wretched however it may be—completely around.

He was 23 at the moment of his conversion to Christianity, and he would go on in his 82 years of life to write well-known hymns such as “Glorious Things of Thee are Spoken,” and most famously by far, “Amazing Grace,” the very same hymn we sing from page 107 of our chuch’s hymnals.  And along the way, he would even campaign against his former industry, slave trading, as an abolitionist.

John Newton was a remarkable man, and a remarkable Christian.  And his life’s story as we tend to tell it in our Protestant hagiography of sorts is exactly what I called it from the very beginning: a fairy tale that, like most tall tales and stuff of lore, has truth mixed in with bits of legend.  And one of the great, terrible pieces of truth we forget about John Newton was that he did not become an abolitionist as a result of his conversion to Christianity—it was, in fact, after his conversion that he worked as the captain of three different slave-trading vessels, and it was not until he was in his sixties that he came out publicly for abolition and worked towards its enactment.

But, his public pronouncement began with these words: “(This is) a confession which…comes too late…It will always be a subject of humiliating reflection to me that I was once an active instrument  in a business at which my heart now shudders.”  Newtown had recognized his past for what it was, and as he also said, “I cannot consider myself to have been a believer in the full sense of the word until a considerable time after (slave trading).”

It took John Newton nearly forty years to fully repent of his slave trading, despite his original conversion.  And, as it turns out, it takes Moses even longer in the Bible to likewise fully recognize his own past for what it was—as the prince of an empire that enslaved the Hebrews—and to disown it and in so doing, become the first abolitionist, as it were, whom God called.

This is a new sermon series, just in time for the fall season of school years and football seasons alike starting, and that’s in fact very important for us to remember right now.  This series is really about the passage of time and the effect that this passage can have upon our faith.  It was grown, in fact, out of an idea from one of our elders, Alisha Hayes, whose seed of a suggestion that she made to me for a sermon on having to wait for God to speak grew into a full-blown six-week series, and the thrust of that series simply is: what about people who sometimes have to wait years, even decades, to understand God’s will for their lives?  What about them?  And what happens when God finally acts in our lives, always on a divine timetable rather than our own human timetable?  And why do some of God’s favorites, even figures as revered as Abraham and Moses, have to wait as long as 75 or 80 years before God reached out them and called them by name?

Two weeks ago, we began this series by talking about one of those two chaps—Abraham—and last week, we met the Hebrew Bible exilic prophet Ezekiel.  Today, we’ll continue this series today by talking about one of the bare handful of other Hebrew Bible characters who can match Abraham for stature and persona—Moses.

Moses did not start out as the Israelite savior, though.  Far from it.  His own name lends a hint to the ambiguity of his origins, for Moses is not a Hebrew name but an Egyptian name, which means “son.”  It makes sense considering the verse in which Moses is plucked from the river by Pharaoh’s daughter, for it says he became her son—he became, as it were, her Moses.

But Moses is not only the son of a princess, he is a son of God, but that identity takes a long time to surface.  First, per Deuteronomy 34:7, Moses spends the first forty years of his life in the palaces of the Pharaoh (believed to have been Seti I, but we cannot say for sure).  Then, according to Exodus, he kills an Egyptian whom he sees brutalizing an Israelite slave—a foreshadowing to the switch in his allegiance and identity to come—buries the Egyptian’s body in the sand, and goes into exile.

Now, we like to remember Moses as the ennobled servant of God, returning to Pharaoh to triumphantly declare to the Egyptian king to let God’s people go, but in doing that, we would be forgetting that like John Newton, Moses spent the better part of forty years between his old life of exploiting slavery (as a prince in Moses’s case, as a slave trader in Newton’s) and his new life of trying to free a people from slavery.

Moses spends another forty years in exile—it is only when he is 80 that we pick up with today’s passage out of Exodus 3 and 4, and even now, rich in years and life experience, he is ever the reluctant servant.  Whereas Abraham and Ezekiel responded immediately to the revealing of God’s word in their lives, Moses takes some serious convincing to get on board.

In 3:6, Moses hides his face because he is afraid to look at God—an action that foreshadows his own glimpsing of God but only from behind because, as God will explain to Moses later, nobody could look upon the full glory and wonder of God and hope to live.

And there’s that word—afraid.  Moses doesn’t hide his face out of humbleness or humility, he hides it out of fear.  Moses is afraid.  And we might well be too, were we in Moses’s position—why do you think Gabriel said to Mary, “Be not afraid?”  Why do you think the angels said to the shepherds on Christmas, “Be not afraid?”  It is because while our inclination may be to come to God out of fear, that is not in fact what we are supposed to do, or were ever meant to do.

We are not, were not, will not ever be meant to come to God out of fear.  That’s not how faith works.  Faith does not deal in fear, in fact, faith is the opposite of fear, much, much more so than it is, or could ever be, the opposite of doubt.

Rather, we are meant to come to God out of reverence, out of awe, out of faith, and out of humility.

Fortunately, Moses finally gets around to actually expressing that last one by verse 11 when he asks God, “Who am I to go to Pharaoh and to bring the Israelites out of Egypt?”

This is why faith cannot be the opposite of doubt—Moses doubts himself, but he does, in the end, eventually accede to God’s will and puts his faith and his life in God’s hands.

Even though his piteous reply to God’s exclamation that it is God who made man’s mouth, who made humanity deaf and mute, seeing and blind, was to say, “Oh God, please send somebody else.”

Full disclosure: Exodus 4:1-12 was the Scripture passage read for my ordination service four years ago, so this passage—and sermon—mean a lot to me.  I had the passage stop at verse 12 because, for pretty obvious reasons, verse 13 should probably never, ever be read at any ordination service.

But that is the level of intransigence from Moses is in truth what God has come to expect from us.  God has come to expect us to try to pass the buck on being called, to weasel our way out of what is asked—no, demanded—of us, even if we may in fact be completely sincere and genuine in doing so, and our own reluctance has led us into a world where there is far more pain and hurt than needs to exist.

Imagine if Moses had never led the Israelites to freedom.  Their entire culture, civilization, way of life, would likely have died in the cradle.

Imagine a world where we would always say no to God instead of yes—how much more death and hate do you think there would be?  We would see even more September 11’s, not fewer, even more Iraq invasions, not fewer.  We would see more of the wrong and less of the good.

And so on a day when we choose to dedicate a new life to God, we are not afforded such luxuries.  Because we are dedicating a life that is born into a family of love, but also into a world of hurt.  And if God is calling out to you from the burning bush, it will not do for you, or for me, or for any of us to whimper out, “Oh God, please send someone else.”

Because it is indeed God who made us who we are, who made us speaking, deaf, mute, seeing, blind.

And God made you who you are to be ready to say yes when you are called—whether it is as a slave trader or an eighty-year-old prince in exile, God will not wait for forever to call you by name.

God will burst forth, eventually.  Maybe not as a burning bush, maybe not even as something that you can see or hear.

But God will indeed make God’s divine presence known in a mighty and wondrous way.

Are you ready?  Are you read to say yes to that?

May it be so.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
September 13, 2015

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