The reluctant prophet

St Barnabas & St Michael’s, June 28th 2015

Readings – Exodus 4:1-17; Mark 5:35-43

[audio https://stbarnacles.files.wordpress.com/2015/06/lynda-exodus-4-28-june-2015.mp3]

What’s the best excuse you ever heard?

Several years ago, I was driving on the M25 one day, on my way to a conference, when I took the wrong turning off the motorway. The slip road took me up to a roundabout and it was at that point I realised I was in unfamiliar territory. So I hesitated for a moment as I decided what to do, but the oil tanker behind me saw there was no traffic coming and accelerated onto the roundabout … taking me with him, knocking me right across the traffic lanes on the roundabout, in the process wrecking the back end of my car.

The tanker driver helped me push the car to the side, and leant me his mobile phone to call the RAC, but in the course of conversation said simply that he hadn’t seen me because he was watching a bird he thought was a buzzard flying over the fields to the left!

Common Buzzard in flight over farmland in mid Wales, UK

Excuses. We’ve all heard them, and I dare say we’ve all made them.

Last week, we read Exodus chapter 3, the story of Moses and the burning bush. Moses saw the wonder and went over to take a look … God called to him from the bush that burned but was not destroyed … Moses, take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground! (3:5)

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Tim focussed his sermon last week, on what we can learn about God in Exodus 3 … that he is not only a holy God, but also a personal God and a saving God. If you weren’t here, you can read it on the website, or ask Tim for a copy.

There was one other characteristic of God we see in Exodus 3 that Tim didn’t have time to explore last week … that our God is a sending God.

When God spoke to Moses from the bush, he told Moses that he, God, had heard his people’s cry for help, and would act to rescue and bless them. And to Moses’ astonishment, God tells Moses he is the man for the job, 3:10 …

So now, go. I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt.

Look how many times in the rest of the chapter God says ‘Go!’ or I am sending or have sent … these are just a few …

So now, go. I am sending you to Pharaoh (3:9)
This is the sign I have sent you … (3:12)
Say … I AM has sent me … (3:14)
Go … (3:16)
… go to the King of Egypt … (3:18)

Moses is in shock, v11 … Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt? (3:11) He must surely have remembered his one attempt to protect one of his own people, the Hebrews, when he killed the Egyptian and buried him in the sand. You can look back at that story in Exodus 2, let’s go there for a moment and read from Exodus 2:13f …

The next day (Moses) went out and saw two Hebrews fighting. He asked the one in the wrong, “Why are you hitting your fellow Hebrew?” The man said, “Who made you ruler and judge over us? Are you thinking of killing me as you killed the Egyptian?” Then Moses was afraid and thought, “What I did must have become known.” (Exodus 2:13-14)

So he fled … and here he is now, 40 years later, and God appears to be sending him back to complete the job.

Moses said to God, “Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what shall I tell them?” (3:13)

Years ago, a Hebrew slave had asked Moses, ‘Who made you ruler and judge over us?’ … after being rejected all that time ago, it’s not surprising that his first thought was to wonder if anyone would take any notice of him? Moses knew who God was – at least by reputation: he was the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob (3:15), the God of our Fathers, but that wasn’t enough … that was distant knowledge, historical knowledge. Moses wanted more … he wanted something personal, and that is what God gave him, ‘I am who I am … ‘ (3:14)

God’s answer to the Hebrew slave who challenged Moses ‘Who made you ruler and judge over us?’ is simply, I AM has chosen you, Moses, to lead your people, and last week Tim explained to us why such a strange name was, and is, so significant.

God goes on in the rest of Exodus 3 to tell Moses precisely what to say, and exactly what will happen as a result. But Moses is still not convinced … that’s where we join our reading today, Exodus 4:1 …

Moses answered, “What if they do not believe me or listen to me and say, ‘The LORD did not appear to you’?

This time, instead of telling Moses what to say, God gives him something to do … at God’s command, Moses throws his staff to the ground and it becomes a snake. What would you do if a snake suddenly appeared on the ground in front of you? I’d run … and so did Moses. But listen to what happens next, v4 …

Then the LORD said to (Moses), “Reach out your hand and take (the snake) by the tail.” So Moses reached out and took hold of the snake and it turned back into a staff in his hand. (4:4)

If ever you were to try and catch a snake, the one thing you would not do would be to take it by the tail … if you grab a snake’s tail it will simply whip round it’s head and bite you. To catch a snake, use a forked stick and pin it down behind the head at the neck. Living in the desert as he did, Moses would know that. Yet he did exactly as God commanded him … and it must have taken great courage! This is the first glimpse we have of the reason God chose Moses for the job … Moses was both brave, and obedient. He might not know it himself just yet, but Moses was exactly the right man for the task God had in mind.

God gives Moses two other signs he can perform to prove he is sent by God (and remember, at this stage we are talking about persuading the Hebrew elders to support and follow Moses, before Moses ever arrives on Pharaoh’s doorstep).

The snake is the first sign, the second is leprosy and the third, turning river water into blood. All three are specifically chosen to represent God’s power over Egypt … the snake – a cobra – was the symbol or image of the great Sun god, Ra … and most probably, Pharaoh wore a head-dress in the image of a cobra. Moses had only to reach out his hand to subdue the snake.

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Leprosy was considered unclean, but was widespread throughout Egypt at that time … by turning his skin leprous, but then healing it again, Moses would reveal that God not only sent leprosy as a judgement, but also had the power to heal … to make clean again.

And finally, the river Nile was essential to the Egyptians … it supported all their crops and animals, so they worshipped the River as all powerful, the giver of life. But Moses’ God had an even greater power … turning the water (and as we shall see later during the plagues, the entire river) into blood, was a sign of death and judgement.

So God gives Moses these specific tools for the job, both to reassure Moses himself and the Hebrew elders that he is more powerful than any so-called god the Egyptians might worship … and we’ll see later in the story what effect they have, on both Hebrews and Egyptians.

But Moses still isn’t satisfied … 4:10 …

Moses said to the LORD, “O Lord, I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor since you have spoken to your servant. I am slow of speech and tongue.”

His excuses seem to me to trip off his tongue smoothly enough! But what a gracious, loving reply he receives, v11-12,

The LORD said to him, “Who gave man his mouth? Who makes him deaf or mute? Who gives him sight or makes him blind? Is it not I, the LORD?
Now go; I will help you speak and will teach you what to say.”

Each time Moses has made an excuse, God has met each one with faithfulness, understanding and patience …

  • When Moses said, ‘Who am I? I am nobody, not fit to send’, God replied, ‘I will be with you’ (3:12)
  • When Moses said, ‘I don’t know enough – who are you really?’, God replied, ‘I AM who I AM … ‘ and told him exactly what to say.
  • When Moses said, ‘They won’t listen to me’, God gave him wonders to perform.
  • When Moses said, ‘I’m no good at talking to people’, God replied, ‘I will help you speak and tell you what to say’.

Every time God has been patient, faithful, understanding … each time revealing more of his character, of his plans, and of his power.

But Moses said, “O Lord, please send someone else to do it.” (4:13 NIVUK)

Well, at least that’s how our church Bibles translate it, as do many other modern English translations. But the Hebrew of this verse actually says something rather different, something like, ‘Send whoever you will send’. Well, it’s clear that God has chosen to send Moses, so we might understand it better in our modern language as if Moses is saying to God, ‘Have it your own way!’

Have it your own way! It’s not exactly a willing attitude, is it? And it seems to me that is why God is angry … God had answered Moses’ every question, he had been faithful and understanding, patient and forbearing, but Moses’ obedience is grudging and dutiful.

But see what happens next …

Then the LORD’s anger burned against Moses and he said, “What about your brother, Aaron the Levite? I know he can speak well. He is already on his way to meet you, and his heart will be glad when he sees you. (4:14)

God may have been angry, but he still understood … and had already taken steps to reassure Moses, to provide what Moses considered he lacked, with a welcome back to the family thrown in … Aaron was already on his way even though God was angry with Moses’ reluctant obedience.

For all his reluctance, Moses had the integrity to be honest with God … and I suspect that might be the most important factor in this encounter. God knows all about us … we can’t pretend with God. Sometimes I think that’s why we find it hard to pray … but Moses just kept right on going … and God knew that he would be scared, and reluctant and evasive, but God was ready to meet Moses exactly where he was.

So Aaron was to become Moses’ mouthpiece … the mission was still Moses’, but God told Moses to … listen to this … God told Moses he was to be like God to Aaron …

You shall speak to him and put words in his mouth; I will help both of you speak and will teach you what to do. He will speak to the people for you, and it will be as if he were your mouth and as if you were God to him. (4:15-16)

Not only to Aaron … as we read later on in Exodus 7:1, as Moses approaches the confrontation with Pharaoh …

… the LORD said to Moses, “See, I have made you like God to Pharaoh, and your brother Aaron will be your prophet.

Moses was a reluctant prophet … his past experiences had taught him that he was someone of no account, and he failed to trust God when God called him to a task he considered beyond him. He made excuse after excuse, but he persisted with God and God was patient with him, even when God considered that he had probably gone too far … even then God knew and understood and made provision for Moses to complete the task he had been given. And as the story goes on, we see Moses grow in confidence and faithfulness and obedience …

But what about us? Our God is still a sending God … we may not have to face Pharaohs or challenge kings, but when God sends us – and he is always sending us to someone – will we go willingly, speaking willingly for him?

Or will we make excuses? I can’t go, I’m too busy. I can’t say anything, I’m too shy and never know what to say. I don’t know enough. No one will listen to me ….

Just as God knew and understood Moses, and was patient with him, helping him to know what to say and what to do … so it can be with us. In Matthew 10:19-20, Jesus said,

… do not worry about what to say or how to say it. At that time you will be given what to say, for it will not be you speaking, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.

Just as God prompted Aaron to speak for Moses in the Old Testament, so today Jesus provides the Holy Spirit for us, that we might speak for God whenever we have opportunity.

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