Sunday, March 7, 2010

the perfect vessel

Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the LORD appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. Then Moses said, "I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up." When the LORD saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, "Moses, Moses!" And he said, "Here I am." Then he said, "Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground." He said further, "I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob." And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God. Then the LORD said, "I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the country of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt." But Moses said to God, "Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?" He said, "I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain." But Moses said to God, "If I come to the Israelites and say to them, 'The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,' and they ask me, 'What is his name?' what shall I say to them?" God said to Moses, "I AM Who I AM." He said further, "Thus you shall say to the Israelites, 'I AM has sent me to you.'" God also said to Moses, "Thus you shall say to the Israelites, 'The LORD, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you': This is my name forever, and this my title for all generations.

One of the curses of ordained ministry is that people assume that I have it all together – that because God called me to be a priest that somehow I must be special. They obviously don’t know me well. The truth is I get lonely and anxious. I’m sinful and stubborn and scared and fumble through life trying to balance serving God and managing my problems. But the assumption is that I’ve got it all together, that I’m a spiritual giant, that somehow I must be special. And logically, this makes sense. We live in a world where the best and the brightest have a competitive edge. In the Kingdom of the world, the more impressive our resume, the more likely we’ll get picked. That’s just how the Kingdom of the world works – but what about the Kingdom of God? Does God delight in calling the strong? Does God pick people who have it all together to do His work? Do we have to be special to do something great for God?

Tonight I want to tell you a story. It’s a story about God and about God’s work here on earth and about the people God uses to do that work. It’s a story that begins with a guy named Abraham and with a promise that God makes to him. “Through you and your descendants I want to bless the entire world.” That’s the promise. Now, in the context of this biblical story, humanity has fallen from grace, the world is out of joint, people don’t know God, they don’t love him, they’re not happy and so God draws up a rescue plan and chooses Abraham to be play a pretty key role. “Through you and your descendants I’m going to fix this mess. I’m going to use your descendants, your children, to bless the entire world.”

Well, by the time the Book of Exodus begins Abraham’s descendants – the Israelites – have been slaves in Egypt for four hundred years. And maybe a few of these slaves have heard about God’s promise, but I doubt they believe it because all they’ve known is slavery. Imagine being born in a prison cell and then hearing a story about your great, great, great, great, great grandfather who was promised by God in 1509 that one day you’d live in a palace. Would that story give you hope as you sat rotting in your cell? I seriously doubt it. And so as the book of Exodus opens, the situation looks hopeless.

Well, just when it seems things can’t get any worse they do. The Egyptian Pharaoh starts worrying about the Israelites because when God commands them to be “fruitful and multiply,” they’re like “heck yea.” These people have a lot of babies and pharaoh doesn’t want to be outnumbered – after all, that would be bad for national security – and so he gets Congress to pass a law – newly born Israelite boys will be killed and thrown into the Nile.

Well, one day an Israelite boy is born by the name of Moses and his mother can’t stand the thought of losing him. And so she hides him for three months, and when she can’t hide him anymore, she makes a little basket and sets baby Moses down to float along the Nile hoping against hope for a miracle. Well, in an ironic twist, Pharaoh’s own daughter finds Moses and decides to keep him, which means, that Moses – the Israelite – is now the adopted grandson of Pharaoh himself – the one that originally wanted him dead.

Well, baby Moses grows up to discover that he’s living in two different worlds. On the one hand, he’s concerned for his own people – after all, he is an Israelite. But on the other hand, Moses is educated, trained, and raised – not only as an Egyptian – but as Egyptian royalty. Remember, he’s the adopted grandson of Pharaoh. We can assume he lives in a palace. He has nice food, nice clothes – I’m sure he has a few slaves of his own. But, he’s not an Egyptian. He’s an Israelite. Talk about a messed up situation – Moses’ own biological family are slaves in his own Kingdom. Today’s Old Testament reading comes from Exodus 3, but listen to what happens in Exodus 2.

When Moses had grown up, he went out to visit his people, the Israelites, and he saw how hard they were forced to work. During his visit, he saw an Egyptian beating one of the Israelite slaves. 12 After looking around to make sure no one was watching, Moses killed the Egyptian and buried him in the sand.

Now, some preachers give Moses’ act a positive spin, but the Bible just doesn’t support this position. God doesn’t tell Moses to kill this dude. He murders him in cold blood. Well, the following morning Moses makes the front page of the Egyptian Post, and Pharaoh – his own grandfather – puts a price on his head. And so Moses – a convicted murderer – runs for his life and flees to the land of Midian.

And so fast-forward a couple years. Moses is now in the witness protection program. Moses gets a new wife – a cute little thing by the name of Zipporah. He’s gets a new career – deciding to enter the Midian shepherd training program. And finally, Moses has a son. And so Moses – the runaway killer – gets a “second chance at life.”

That’s enough background for tonight’s Old Testament reading from Exodus. Moses has been in Midian for forty years, he has a whole life behind him that no one even knows about, a life he’s ashamed of, but one day everything changes. God comes to Moses and says, “I’m choosing you – Moses I want you, of all people, to be the one to confront Pharaoh. I choose you Moses to set my people free.” Do you see why Moses’ response makes sense? Who am I? I’m not special. I’m not strong. I clearly don’t have my shniz together. Who am I to do this work?

And he’s right. I mean, could God have chosen a more dysfunctional person? Moses has never met his parents. He’s adopted. Ethnically he’s an Israelite but he’s raised an Egyptian. Moses has identity issues. He doesn’t know who he is. With one hand he enslaves the Israelites, with the other he avenges their abuse. Moses is impulsive. He kills a man in cold blood. He’s also a coward. Not wanting to be a man and own up to his mistake, Moses runs away to Midian and begins living a lie. And if all that weren’t enough, we later learn that Moses stutters – probably a nervous tick that developed from his dysfunctional life in the palace. Years of therapy couldn’t sort this stuff out. Moses doesn’t have it all together. He doesn’t feel very strong and God knows he isn’t special. And so when God calls him and says “I’m choosing you” Moses naturally objects. “You’ve made a mistake. You obviously don’t know about my past. Who am I?”

In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul writes: “Consider your own call: not many of you were wise, not many powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God.” In other words, God doesn’t delight in calling the strong. He delights in calling the weak. Why? Because they are the perfect vessel to display His strength.

Now, I know we were raised to believe that the people in the Bible were heroes. But I’m going to give it to you straight. Abraham was a creepy old man. Jacob was insecure. Leah was ugly. Joseph was abused. Gideon was poor. Rahab was immoral. David was an adulterer. Elijah was suicidal. Jeremiah was depressed. Jonah was reluctant. John the Baptist was eccentric. Peter was impulsive. Martha was anxious. The Samaritan woman couldn’t hold together a marriage to save her life. Zacchaeus was unpopular. Thomas had doubts. Paul was a cripple. Timothy was timid. And I think you know where I stand with Moses. These are the people our God has chosen to work through. They’re not strong. They’re not special. They don’t have it all together. And that’s precisely why God chose them. They were the perfect vessel to display His strength.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that there are two things about your life that I know are true. First, you don’t have it all together. If you’re anything like me, you get lonely and anxious; you’re sinful and stubborn and scared and you fumble through life trying to balance serving God and managing your problems. One way or another, I know the world’s taken its toll on you. You don’t have it all together.

Second, you are called to do great work for God. I don’t know what that looks like, but none of you are called to be a shepherd in Midian. You’re called to confront Pharaoh, to bring God’s people to freedom, to taste that freedom for yourself, to speak with God face to face like Moses did. I know there’s a burning bush out there for you too and the reason I’m preaching this sermon is because I don’t want you to miss it. I know what you’re thinking – who am I that I should go to Pharaoh? I’m not strong. I’m not special. I don’t have it all together. Who am I? You are the perfect vessel to display God’s strength.

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