January 19, 2014 “Peeking into the Promised Land” (Exodus 3:1-12)

The Text Says:

            Today’s scripture lesson is from the Book of Exodus describes the vocation of Moses and his call to lead the people of Israel out of Egypt. When it begins Moses is a shepherd in the middle of nowhere. When it ends, he’s headed for Pharaoh’s court to liberate his people. The writer notes Moses is on holy ground because of a burning bush that would not be consumed. From the encounter, God’s name is revealed, “I am,” the one who is. The rest of the reading consists of a dialogue between God and Moses about whether he will accept his call to lead the captives to the Promised Land. On the basis of unworthiness or inadequacy Moses resists several times. But God won’t take “no” for an answer. Finally, armed with the reassurance of the name of God, Moses obeys, and the world has never been the same.  

Hear the sermon.

The Preacher Says:

            A long time ago a beautiful young woman in Arabia was taken by a sultan as 1 of his harem. This guy had a nasty habit, of keeping his wives for only a one-night stand.  Then he wasted them killed the next day.  Unlike her unfortunate predecessors, this gal had the wit to go with her looks. On her first and soon-to-be last night, she persuaded the sheik to let her to tell him a story. And just when he became engrossed in it, she stopped in the middle of it! So he let her live another day, to learn how the story ended. The next night she finished the story.  But, she immediately began another one.  And another and another.  Until she continued for 1001 nights. Thus she kept death at bay by telling the stories that eventually became known as “The Arabian Nights,” about a captive who captivated her master with stories. They have a way of being redemptive.

            I feel a kinship with that woman. It’s been my privilege for the past eight years, to tell the stories of Jesus to the people of God for 16,790 nights! And because it’s Sunday morning, I’m about to tell you another one. You and I are involved in an on-going story of First Baptist’s days and nights, “in season, out of season.” Underlying our story lies a common need: to make sense out of our lives, including the good times and the bad. Each Sunday we’ve opened ourselves to the scriptures to provide us with “a lamp unto our feet and a light unto our paths.”

            Perhaps Moses’ story in the wilderness can speak to us on our journey in these remaining days.  Landmark occurrences come in each of our lives, usually around some unexpected event. In modern terminology, we might say God sent a fax from heaven to Moses in the form of a bush on fire that wouldn’t be extinguished. There he encountered a God who cares about oppression and suffering. And he’s willing to get involved in the stream of human history to do something about it, to reach the larger goal of his redemptive purpose.

            That’s where Moses comes in. This bush not only burned, it could talk! “Looky-here son, I’ve got something for you to do!“And what would that be?” “Ah nothing much, just pilfer Pharaoh’s slaves out from under his nose, and teach them to be ‘a light to the nations.’” God saw something in Moses that qualified him to set people free.  His Hebrew heritage and Egyptian training obviously prepared him. But he was overwhelmed by the enormity of his mission. So what authority would he cite when he confronted Pharaoh? And God said, “I am, who I am,” would do just fine.

             And Moses wasn’t satisfied with that. And neither would Pharaoh be. So he started making excuses. He’d be ridiculed. He’s a poor public speaker. And besides, and he liked his pastoral life of shepherding in the desert just fine. Going up against Pharaoh was the last thing he wanted to do! Finally God just said, “If he wanted a perfect leader, he wouldn’t have asked Moses in the first place!”  It seems odd that God chose someone as incompetent as Moses to do his work. But God can make experts out of any of us, if we’re willing to let him.

            The biblical writers allow us to look in on Moses’ struggle with a new vocation. God needed someone with his sensitivity and guts. Moses felt for the Hebrew slaves, sacrificing his palatial background, foregoing a life on easy-street. God likes stuff like that in a leader. He was by temperament, a defender of the underdog. After whacking an Egyptian guard for mistreating one of his kin, Moses fled for his life to the anonymity of the Sinai wilderness.  But changing locations didn’t change his skills.  There too he was a sensitive defender. When he arrived in Midian, he came upon some guys bullying Jethro’s daughters by a well. Instinctively, Moses stood up for them. And as fate would have it, one of them became his wife. This was his natural inclination, to alleviate injustice. And God goes off: “That’s what I’m looking for!”

             But when he got diverted into a life of looking after the sheep, it seemed to be such a waste. Then one day Moses stumbled across the fiery theophany. And to his everlasting credit, he “turned aside.” Only then did God speak. Maybe if we “turned aside” more often God would speak to us with more clarity. Isn’t “turning aside” what we do here every Sunday?  So God goes “What’s it gonna be?” Will you spend the time you have left shepherding sheep?  Or telling Pharaoh to “let my people go?” 

             God’s job is to get us to a place where we can put our skills to the best use. Our job is to be genuinely ourselves, and utilize our gifts.  Because the questions are the same for us as they were for Moses. What do I enjoy doing? Is this something I’m good at? Or something that needs to be done in the world? That’s the “sweet spot,” we’re all looking for, where we can live at the fullest.  Will I, and how can I, make the best use of the talents God has given to me?

            The story of the Exodus took 40 years to complete. There was some dead wood to shed. So they took the long road to Canaan. Along the way were plenty of ups and downs.  And Moses got so frustrated with the stubborn Israelites that he blamed God. And that disqualified him from entering the Promised Land! It’s not wise to get on God’s bad side!  But settling down in the land wasn’t Moses’ gift anyhow. So his story ends with him, poised at the verge of the Jordan, up on Mt.Nebo. But he never made it in. The best he could get was a glimpse of it’s splendor.  There he died; his mission accomplished. God used him up. But he was one of two Old Testament heroes, who, like Jesus, didn’t need a grave! The other was Elijah the prophet. These two showed up later at the Transfiguration, but that’s another story.

            Like Moses, we all have our Jordans that we’ll never cross.  “Too Late,” gets stamped on a lot of plans, made when we’re young bucks. And before you know it, you’re 70! Moses never got to enter the Promised Land. But he learned to accept God’s “speak no more to me about this matter.”  And gracefully came to terms with the unspeakable will of God. What do you do when you’ve reached your limits? That’s when Moses stood tallest of all! And we see why God chose him. This time instead of “turning aside,” he “stepped aside!” So Joshua could finish the job. In any important human endeavor, there’s always a successor. For Moses; for Jesus. All leaders are interims. Time sees to that. Some last longer than others. The time had come for Moses to step aside, so Joshua could step-up. The Deuteronomist wrote, “Charge Joshua and encourage him, for he shall go over this Jordan to lead my people.” It seems pretty harsh to me, after all Moses went through; for the Lord to leave it to somebody else to complete what he started. But God has his reasons known only to him.

            Moses’ story shows how serving the Lord is like running a relay in track. First one, then another advances the baton. Each participant advances it, then passes it to the next one; who carries it briefly; then hands it to a different team mate. They all know, it’s a team victory. In football, the quarterback gets most of the attention, but it’s all about the team. Peyton Manning can’t play in the NFL forever. Eventually time catches up and someone will take his place. In our families, believe it or not, kids eventually grow up and leave home. That’s what we’re training ‘em to do. In our jobs, people move around. In our schools, students graduate and move on. In our churches, pastors come and go, but the church remains. All of us are responsible for maximum effort during the span allotted to us on our laps in the race of life. We all have a modicum of power along the way. But sooner or later the time inevitably comes to relinquish it to somebody else. It is the natural evolutionary progression.

            I have immensely enjoyed the privilege of carrying the baton for these ten thousand days and nights among you. It’s almost sinful to have such fun in church! But I will not hold onto the baton after I leave. Even now I am preparing to pass the baton onto #37, whoever is blessed to occupy this special spot. That person will have my total support.  So it fell to Joshua to lead the people across the Jordan. It wasn’t in-the-cards for Moses to take them in. There’s sadness in that. But Moses got a glimpse at the future of his people. He got to see the “promised land flowing with milk and honey.” 

            It’s all about the promise, not just of land, but of a place, where we can put our gifts to their best use.  You know and I know, this Meeting House is such a place for us; where we too can be used of God in our time. God keeps his promises by using who he has to do it. The cause of God is way too big for one man or woman. And that includes Jesus, who said to his disciples “You will do mightier works than I have done.”

            I am extremely hopeful that what began here on College Hill way back in 1638, will continue to thrive and bless the people of Providence in its unique and caring way. This is church at its best folks! When you and I can be a part of something like that — much bigger than we are, by helping to advance it along in our time, whatever future God has in store for The First Baptist Church in America, we too can have our “peeks into the promised land.”

            “I am” is just God’s proper name. Transcendence isn’t God’s only way of being. He went on to say: “Tell the Israelites, “I am,” the Lord God of your ancestors, who is behind all this.” Think of it! God attaches his name to human names! He’s the “God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” And Sarah, Rebekah, Leah and Rachel. And Mary Magdalene and Martin Luther King. Even the Sign Guy, #36. And there’s always a blank space for you to add your name to God’s!

            Based on this text from the Torah, the Jews think God’s name is too holy to pronounce. But maybe it’s for another reason. Could it be that God’s real name includes so many of our names, that it’s impossible to verbalize it?  Mystery and revelation. Majesty and earthiness. Immortal, invisible, most Holy name of God, attached to our names!  And if one fine day, WE should “turn aside to see,” God will call to us. It’s enough to give you goose bumps! Or at least stoop down and take off your shoes! And like the great Moses, we too can know that we have lived as fully as we can. So may it be.  Amen.


Providence Prayers: (1/19/14)

            Lord, what we know about you is far beyond what we can say.  Because He who is the Word, lies beyond all words; who offers a hope, beyond all wisdom, and a love from which none of us can be separated.  We find your name on our lips because you’ve placed it in our hearts. We bless Thee for the past and the promise of a promised land. And we sense in the inmost citadel of our souls that we have no future, save the future we have in Thee. For minds that can think; hearts that can feel; and hands that can do, we thank Thee. For large purposes that call us, for causes that unite us and grace that restores us, we thank Thee. In a time when the problems we face seem more than we can handle, open our eyes to the resources you provide for us through the church and make us grateful. Reveal to us when we must stand tall, like you did with Moses.  And lend us the courage to know that we can.  Grant us the grace to know when to bend.  And inspire us with the passion to dare to do so. Be with those whose souls and bodies need your healing touch.  Where there is hatred, let us sow love…where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light and where there is sadness, joy. And in this way may we likewise be creators with you in life and conquerors with you in death.   Through Christ our Lord… 


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