By Rev. Eugene Stockstill
Called out of Egypt
Purpose: To recognize that God calls us, like Moses, to realign our lives to act within God’s liberating purposes.
Bible Lesson: Exodus 3:1-12
Key Verse: “So now, go. I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt.” — Exodus 3:10
A group worshipped together recently at a nursing home in Tupelo, and during worship they sang the famous hymn Rock of Ages. Someone had made a special request for it. Everyone chimed in with lots of gusto. After worship, one of the residents came to the preacher of the morning and told him about a trip she had made to Wales, across the Atlantic Ocean. While there, she did some sight-seeing and came across a choice image: A rock with a huge hiding-place in it. Water, she learned, had created the gap. That rock also inspired the words the group had just sung — “Rock of ages, cleft for me, let me hide myself in thee.”
Inspiration comes in all sorts of places and in all sorts of ways. In the case of Moses, it came in the desert while he tended some sheep for his father-in-law. Not exactly a thrilling place to be, and yet it was where he encountered that burning bush. They’ve spilled lots of ink trying to discover what exactly Moses saw and heard that day, and we should spend time trying to interpret biblical things like the burning bush. But there’s something more important than figuring out whether to interpret the burning bush literally or figuratively. Don’t forget that Moses left his experience inspired to make a difference in the world.
The real test of our inspiration: Whether anything good and helpful comes out of us because of it. Good for the world. Helpful for those who need help. “I don’t care how strange your spiritual experience may have been,” one preacher said, “as much as I care whether you bear witness to the spirit of Jesus Christ following your experience.” Don’t waste time trying to conjure up special experiences for yourself, and please don’t waste time trying to recreate experiences that were extra-special to you. Instead, keep your eyes, your ears, your nose and your other senses open to ways that inspiration may be coming to you right now.
If you are wondering if the inspiration comes from God, you might ask yourself: How will the world be a better place if I act on this? Or, how will the world be worse off because I decided not to act on a moment of inspiration? We probably wouldn’t have heard much more from Moses if he hadn’t used his “burning bush” experience to help the slaves in Egypt.
What about you and me? What are we being inspired to do today?
Moses and Aaron Respond
Purpose: To be confident that our saying “yes” to God’s call will always be accompanied by God’s empowering presence.
Bible Lesson: Exodus 4:10-16, 27-31
Key Verse: “Aaron told them everything the Lord had said to Moses. He also performed the signs before the people.” — Exodus 4:30
A retired preacher in the Mississippi Conference once told a group of young preachers about an early preaching experience he had. He got up to preach one Sunday, and he said that it felt like the longest time he had ever spent in the pulpit in his life. Everyone looked bored. Some slept. He had no energy in his preaching. He said he couldn’t wait to finish that his sermon. When it ended, an older man came to him, shook his hand and said, “You know what the problem was, don’t you? There was too much of you, and not enough of God.”
In this passage, Moses worries that he can’t do what God is calling him to do. He doesn’t think he has what it takes. In fact, the whole fourth chapter narrates his excuses for why he can’t do what God wants him to do. The great prophet Moses says things like, “I can’t speak.” He says, “The people won’t believe me.”He says, “Lord, make someone else do it, please!”Sound familiar? It gets so bad that God finally changes the divine mind and picks someone else — Moses’ younger brother, Aaron. There’s not enough space here to discuss what it means for God to change God’s mind, but you know that we sometimes miss golden opportunities, don’t you?
One of the important lessons to take from these verses: Spend more time listening to your heart and less time listening to your circumstances. “The heart is devious above all else; it is perverse – who can understand it? (Jeremiah 17:8). Yet what a beautiful thing is the human heart, loved and nurtured by God. “Your teacher will be right there, local and on the job, urging you on whenever you wander left or right: ‘This is the right road. Walk down this road.’” (Isaiah 30:21, The Message.)
What can we take from Moses and his reluctance? We can sometimes do a whole lot more than we think we can do. Experts tell us that we only use a small portion of the brain given to us. My wife and I spent some of our vacation time thinking up adjectives from A to Z (this is one of the things geeky people like us do to pass the time). When we finished about two hours later, she said, “You know what we were doing? We were exercising our brains!”
Try to let God work on you in some new ways. Look to things in your past that were always important and exciting to you but that you never pursued. Pay attention to opportunities in your present that are presenting themselves to you. “Redeem the time, because the days are evil (Ephesians 5:16, KJV). It may be that God wants you to be some kind of mouthpiece, earpiece or maybe even some channel of peace.
Pharaoh Ignores God's Call
Purpose: To recognize and accept that God’s authority takes precedence over all competing authorities.
Bible Lesson: Exodus 5:1-9, 22-6:1
Key Verse: “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel says: ‘Let my people go, so that they may hold a festival to me in the desert.” — Exodus 5:1
Pharaoh, the powerful Egyptian king, became angry because Moses and Aaron told him what to do. “Afterward Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and said, “Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, ‘Let my people go, so that they may celebrate a festival to me in the wilderness.’”(v.1) It made him especially angry because they said that God had told them to tell him what to do, and Pharaoh thought that he was in charge, not God. As a result, Pharaoh took out his anger on the people Moses and Aaron wanted to help, and he made their lives more difficult than they had been before Moses and Aaron started preaching to him.
Why did he respond the way he did? Exodus says the king did it because he had a hard heart. One of the great biblical controversies is whether pharaoh hardened his own heart or whether God hardened it for him. One explanation is that God causes everything to happen, so God hardened Pharaoh’s heart. In Jewish theology, this is sometimes called the “doctrine of all-causality.” God makes everything happen, good, bad and in-between. Another explanation is that God gives human beings freedom, and that God responds to our free choices. This has always been the typical United Methodist explanation for these kinds of problems. Whatever explanation you accept (and there are other theories), you will notice that the problems really started when Pharaoh was forced to confront his own issues. In this case, it was a very serious issue — mistreating a whole nation of people.
What does this have to do with us in the 21st century? Pay attention to the things that make you angry. Pay attention to the things that are true and real in your life and that make you angry deep down. Make you angry with yourself. Angry with those around you, angry with those you care about. Angry at the world. Eugene Peterson wrote, “Anger is most useful as a diagnostic tool. When anger erupts in us, it is a signal that something is wrong. Something isn’t working. Diagnostically it is virtually infallible, and we learn to trust it.” The anger in your life may be “righteous indignation” against some injustice in the world, but your anger also may be a sign that something in your life needs to go; that you need to take out some trash.
The trash guys pick up our trash on Friday mornings. For some reason, I have developed a mental block about the Friday trash pick-up, and if I don’t remember to take the trash out Thursday night, the trash usually doesn’t get taken out or picked up. That means that next week, there is twice as much trash and it smells even worse than it did the week before. One of the important questions from this controversy with the Egyptian king is: Do you have some trash in your life that needs to go? Is it stinking up your life or the lives of those around you?
God Calls the People Out of Egypt
Purpose: To step out of fear into a robust faith in God who guides, protects and delivers.
Bible Lesson: Exodus 14:15-25, 30
Key Verse: “That day the Lord saved Israel from the hands of Egyptians.” — Exodus 14:30
The movie Bruce Almighty, which came out a few years ago, grabbed a few headlines. It is the story about a man who gets to be God, by special dispensation. Some liked the show because it made the spiritual life practical and earthy and more than a little bit funny. Some hated it because they felt like it was disrespectful to God. In the movie, there is a final confrontation between God (Morgan Freeman) and Bruce (Jim Carrey). God tells Bruce that he and other human beings tend to think of miracles in the wrong way, “You keep looking up, and that’s the problem. You need to look around you for the miracles.”
What does the first verse in today’s passage tell us? “Then the LORD said to Moses, ‘Why do you cry out to me? Tell the Israelites to go forward.’”They are at the edge of the Red Sea (actually, the Sea of Reeds). They’ve broken out of slavery in Egypt, and Pharaoh’s troops are licking at their heels. Enemies to the rear; water in front, and God says to them., “What are waiting for? Get going.”
The philosopher Soren Kierkegaard popularized the notion of the existential leap— taking a leap of faith into the dark. He wasn’t the first one to think it, of course, as today’s text proves. But Kierkegaard said everything in this life hinges on the way that we make our decision. “Decision is the eternal protest against fictions.” God, waiting for human beings to decide. “He saw that there was no one and was appalled that there was no one to intervene.” (Isaiah 59:16, NRSV)
What was Kierkegaard trying to say? What is this passage trying to say? The Chinese word for crisis is also the word for opportunity. That means that every crisis is also an opportunity. That is an easy thing to say. It is not always an easy thing to do. The crisis for the Israelites was whether to go back to slavery in Egypt or go forward into an uncertain future, and it would continue to be their problem for 40 years in the wilderness. The crisis and the opportunity: Whether to move forward or go back to where you came from?
God will not make us do anything. That is beautiful, but it is also frightening. Beautiful because it shows the great reverence and respect God has for human beings. Frightening because it involves the unknown. Shakespeare called death the “undiscovered country.” Yet there are huge swaths of uncharted territory for us in this life. Old age. Adolescence. Unemployment. Cancer. Where do we turn then?
This passage says a beautiful and upsetting thing to us. It says that we are supposed to go forward. Those in 12-step programs say that the trick is not living day to day. The trick is living hour to hour, and sometimes living minute to minute. Not all of us know about that kind of challenge, but all of us have challenges staring us straight in the face. And the question for us is the same as it was for them back then: Are you ready to move?
Stockstill is the senior pastor on the Tremont Charge.