"The Case Of A Reluctant Messiah”

Sermon Delivered By Reverend Richard E. Stetler – August 28, 2011

Centenary United Methodist Church

Exodus 3:1-15; Psalm 105:1-6, 23-26


    This morning we are going to continue our review of the early years of Israel’s history as we consider a number of parallels to the way we live.  We will discover that the cast of characters has changed, that the scenery and the circumstances have changed but the spirit of humanity has uniquely remained the same – vulnerable and prone to embodying fearful thoughts.

    Four hundred years had passed since Joseph brought Jacob’s family to Goshen and the Israelites had grown in number to approximately two million people.  A Pharaoh rose to power in Egypt that had never heard of Joseph.  Egyptian officials were growing uneasy about the sheer size of the Hebrew population.   In an effort to control them, Pharaoh placed taskmasters over their laborers. Finally, their concern grew to such an alarming level that Pharaoh issued a decree that all male Hebrew babies must be destroyed by throwing them into the Nile River. 

    This order forced a Hebrew mother to place her son in a water-tight basket that she floated along the shoreline reed beds of the river. Her baby was discovered by one of Pharaoh’s daughters who later adopted him into the royal family and named him Moses.

    When Moses decided to visit the people of his heritage, he made a disturbing discovery. Moses had lived a very sheltered life as did many of Egypt’s elite families. He was immune to the heart-wrenching social conditions being borne by the Hebrews.

    Upon witnessing an Egyptian killing one of his people, Moses used his skills as a warrior and killed the Egyptian.  One of the Hebrews happened to see what Moses did and the story spread everywhere forcing the prince to flee for his life.  Even Pharaoh wanted Moses brought to justice.

    After leaving Egypt, Moses traveled north where he encountered the seven daughters of the priest of Midian as they watered their flocks.  In time, Moses married the oldest daughter of the priest.  Moses, who had been a prince of Egypt, contented himself by settling down and tending the flocks of his father-in-law, Jethro.  Zipporah conceived and Moses and his bride soon became parents of a son, Gershom.

    This brief summary of the Hebrew’s history from the time of Joseph brings us to our Scripture lesson.  The Jews were still languishing under the lash of Egyptian taskmasters while Moses was tending Jethro’s sheep and goats.  An angel appeared to Moses from a bush that only appeared to be on fire.  During this experience, God spoke to Moses and asked him to return to Egypt and liberate the Israelites.

    Before we consider Moses’ response, we should pause here and ask ourselves, “Why did God wait for 400 years before responding?”  When we read the scriptures, it sounds as though God had heard the cries from his people for quite some time and had remained idle.  Was the condition of the Hebrews God’s responsibility?  Jewish scholars asked this very question during World War II when Hitler’s regime was exterminating millions of Jews.

    What happened to the Hebrews during those 400 years happens within every culture, even our own. Changes occur so slowly that people seldom become overly concerned that a few of their freedoms are being taken away. 

    For example, we are being told that terrorism will now remain a permanent aspect of our lives, so screening at the airports is essential.  We are being told that computer hackers are interested in stealing our identities so now we have user names and passwords to protect every account we have.  We are told that our food is unsafe so now we have to read the labels on everything we buy, noting particularly the percentage of sugars, cholesterol and saturated fats in our products.  Because guns are now on the island, we are being warned to remain acutely aware of our surroundings.   

    The reason we do not become irritated by these inconveniences is that many of these responses sound like common sense.  However, if we project these seemingly minor losses of freedom into the future, will they eventually lead to curfews?  Will restaurants have to close at 11:00 p.m.?  Will the budget for Bermuda’s Police Service jump from its current 58 million to 120 million?  All of us say, “Well, this is a different world we are living in.”

    My point is that the Jews had grown accustomed to the Egyptian culture.  They would not have known how to behave had they returned to Canaan.  As more of their freedoms were being taken away, they simply adjusted until the time came when they were looked upon as being second class citizens.  They had become like the slaves in America who could only sing about another spiritual reality as they picked cotton for their owners. 

    The Hebrews also had grown less careful of their religious practices during their sojourn in Egypt.  Remember that today’s high holy days for the Jews did not exist during these years. There was no Passover.  There was no Yom Kippur – the Day of Atonement. There were no Ten Commandments.    

    Think about this – what happens to people who become so accustomed to the ways of their world that they completely lose their God Consciousness.  Suppose God was being patient waiting for a leader with whom God could work, while the Hebrews were looking for God to act, for God to rescue them and for God to perfect their communities and environment? 

    The line becomes blurred theologically between what is humankind’s responsibility and what is God’s when it comes to issues of a culture’s social environment. Suppose God is not in the business of liberating people?  Suppose only inspired people become our saviors?  It was Jesus who reminded us that if branches are no longer connected to the vine, they cannot become nourished and inspired.  

    If you read the article in yesterday’s Religious Section of the newspaper, you saw the study by Duke University that discussed how countless people have gradually started to walk away from their communities of faith.  The Hebrews had made this same journey hundreds of years before Pharaoh issued orders to enslave them. 

    As we return to Moses and the burning bush, we learn that he did not know God.  God had to introduce himself.  (Exodus 3:6)  Being a product of his cultural setting, Moses quickly distanced himself from God’s request.  He told God, “I am nobody.  How can I face Pharaoh and demand that he grant the Israelites their freedom? (Ex. 3:19).  These excuses are quite similar to what was said by Dr. Martin Luther King prior to his involvement in the Civil Rights Movement.

    God confronted Moses’ hesitancy, “You will not have to worry about a thing,” God told him.  “I will create a number of disturbances in Egypt that will force Pharaoh to release my people.  I want you to instruct the Israelite women to go to their Egyptian neighbors and ask for their clothing, gold and silver jewelry.  The Egyptian women will be more than happy to honor their request just to get rid of the curse that the Hebrews had brought upon Egypt.  In this way the Israelites will carry away much of Egypt’s wealth.”  (Ex. 3:20f)

    In spite of these words, Moses continued to argue with God, “But suppose they don’t believe me?  Suppose they will not listen to what I say?”  After God put Moses through a series of experiences of God’s power, Moses still resisted, “No, Lord, do not send me.  I have never been a good communicator.” 

    God said, “Who gave you your mouth?  Who gave you the ability to see?  I did!  Now, go and I will help you speak.  Not only that, but I will tell you what to say!” (Ex. 4:11f)  Moses became even more obstinate and stubborn, “No Lord!  You must send someone else.”  God countered with a compromise.  God said, “Ask your brother, Aaron, to go along with you.  He will speak to Pharaoh.  I will tell you what to say and you will tell Aaron to repeat it.”  (Ex. 4:16).

     Hearing God’s voice and listening as God promised to make Moses the savior of his people, he was still not convinced enough to act.  If there was ever a clear call, this is it! What would cause such resistance?  This was a sure thing!  Where did this lack of courage, belief and trust in God come from?

     One explanation is that Moses may have been bullied in the royal court because his brothers and sister knew that he had no royal blood flowing through his veins.  We can almost hear their laughter and ridicule:  “You really belong to the Hebrew slaves!  Your mother had even disposed of you!  She threw you into the river!  She did not want you, Moses, and neither do we!  You were one of those throw-away babies!  In fact, all your people are the scourge of our great nation.   Why don’t you go and live with them?” 

    For whatever reason, Moses’ faith was nothing when compared to that of Joseph.   Moses said to God, “I am a poor speaker.  I am slow and very hesitant.” (Ex. 4:10)  People are never born with such self-defeating images like this.  Children have to be taught such identity-markers through the words and attitudes of others.

    If he felt that he was an awkward, embarrassing appendage to the royal family, Moses compounded his feelings by knowing that he was now a murderer.  In spite of the thoughts that Moses may have had about his own inferiority, God knew that Moses was a giant of a man who was asleep in a fear-ridden prison of his own creation.   

    One wonders how many people we may know that are poor in spirit while sleeping on a strata of gold ten feet thick.   They have countless gifts, abilities and talents that are never used because they do not know that such qualities exist within them.  Like Moses, they remain content to believe, “I am nobody.” Like Moses they say, “I am not a good public speaker.  I am slow and very hesitant.” 

    The truth that so many people miss is that all of us are well-equipped to become extremely successful but we often sabotage ourselves by believing what other people have said about us.  We often sabotage ourselves by following the money trail rather than our passion for doing something we enjoy. 

    God could have been screaming at the Hebrews from every available entry-point of life but no one was listening.  Like Moses, most of them would have thought, “Are you serious? Me? Please, God, send someone who can do something!”

    It took quite some time before Moses grew confident that God had called him for a very specific purpose. God did not do Moses’ inner-homework for him. God will not do that for any of us either. As we read the story in Exodus, Moses slowly awakened from his reticence to become the commanding presence that stood before Pharaoh and declared, “Let my people go!”

    There have been a substantial number of people during my 45 years in ministry who demonstrated extraordinary promise.  Their spiritual gyroscopes were providing them with balance, emotional stability, curiosity and a desire to serve and make God’s love visible. However, living in the world of things proved too costly to their spiritual well-being. 

    For today’s generation, it happens when they enter the world of social networking, video-games, I-Pods, I-Pads, I-Tunes, and ear-buds, dating, starting a family and work responsibilities. Many of them eagerly embraced their external world and teach themselves that the issues of spirit are not as relevant as they once thought.  A truth that requires no belief for it to be true stands ready to direct the destiny of every human being -- “What we do not use, we lose.”

    When we consider that in 400 years, God could find only one person among two million people, was it because there was only one or was it because all the rest were asleep?  Moses was in possession of all his leadership capabilities since his birth.  His problem was that he had never been given the opportunity to polish those skills by using them.  

    Humankind has always cried out for God to save them, when God’s created order proclaims, “You have been given all the skills of spirit that you will ever need.  Use them and they will grow.  Ignore them and they will return to dormancy.  You are my children, but like all children, some choices are yours alone to make.”