Sunday, January 15, 2017

Ready: Sermon on Moses, Gideon, Jeremiah, Me, and You

You know, when you read the Bible, you find out that God doesn't always recruit willing volunteers. Oh sure, there are some – Noah, Abraham, now those guys said yes right away. But then there are the others. Like Moses – now there's a character. Born into mortal danger, adopted into the royal court, raised in the awareness that his people were oppressed, he thinks nothing of killing a native Egyptian he sees abusing a fellow Hebrew. But his cover-up is less successful than he thinks, and he's wanted on a capital offense. He flees Egypt in guilt and shame, goes to the desert to the hospitality of a local Midianite priest named Jethro. In his time of hiding, he grows forgetful of God's commands – don't we all, though? But then one day, while shepherding Jethro's sheep, he leads them to the foot of Mount Sinai and sees an odd sight: a bush on fire. And it burns, and it burns, but it doesn't burn up. And Moses swings by to see what's up – and then he hears a voice, the voice of God – and he's scared.

And that's when God gives him a job. God explains that he's not just any God, like the plethora of animal-faced freaks the Egyptians worship. He's the God of Moses' ancestors, the God of Moses' people, the God they cry out to from their aching chains and bruised bodies. And now he's here, and he wants to set them free and take them to a land of their own, the place where many tribes now live: the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites. And the agony of the Israelites, turned into fervent prayer, is too much for God to ignore any longer. The time to act is now (Exodus 3:7-9). And so, he says to Moses, it's time for you to do something: “Come, I will send you to Pharaoh, that you may bring my people, the children of Israel, out of Egypt” (Exodus 3:10). Moses is God's pick for the job, whether Moses likes it or not.

As it turns out, Moses is more on the 'not' side of the scale. He explains to God all the reasons why he's the wrong choice. First, it's “Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the children of Israel out of Egypt?” (Exodus 3:11). In other words, Moses says, he's not up to the task, because he's got no credentials: he's nobody special; he's just a lonely exile, a persona non grata, with nothing to his name but a distant childhood and the stench of unworthiness. He's a simple shepherd with no authority, no reason for anybody to listen to a thing he says. He's not up to the job. But God doesn't accept that excuse: “But I will be with you” (Exodus 3:12). God says Moses doesn't need worldly credentials to do this. Having God for an ally will be enough.

Moses isn't satisfied. He has another excuse: “If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, 'The God of your fathers has sent me to you,' and they ask me, 'What is his name?', what shall I say to them?” (Exodus 3:13). Moses is running the scenarios in his mind. He's catastrophizing, thinking of all the ways this could go wrong, all the ways he could embarrass himself, all the opportunities for failure. He's thinking, “What if somebody asks a tough question, and I don't have an answer? What if I don't know what to say, or how to explain it?” That's his new excuse: he's liable to get caught in a question he can't answer. But God doesn't take that excuse either: “Say this to the people of Israel: 'Yahweh, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.' This is my name forever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations” (Exodus 3:15). God equips Moses with an answer to the toughest question he feared he'd face. And now Moses can't say he isn't ready for it.

Moses still isn't satisfied. He's got another excuse. “But look, they won't believe me or listen to my voice, for they'll say, 'Yahweh didn't appear to you'” (Exodus 4:1). There goes Moses, catastrophizing again – thinking of how things can go wrong. His new excuse is that he's got no proof. Nobody will believe him; they'll think he's just some lunatic. And who wants to be looked at as crazy? No, no, better if he just not bother; better if he keep this story to himself. But God doesn't accept that excuse either: God shows him miracles, then and there – turns the staff into a snake, the snake back to a staff, gives Moses leprosy and then heals it – because God is more than capable of giving reasons to believe (Exodus 4:2-9).

Moses still isn't satisfied. He's got another excuse. “Oh, my Lord, I'm not eloquent, either in the past or since you have spoken to your servant; but I am slow of speech and tongue” (Exodus 4:10). In other words, Moses says, he's just not much of a talker. He isn't good at it. Speeches aren't his forte. He's liable to get tongue-tied, and there's just no getting out of it. Whether it's public speaking or just one-on-one, Moses isn't the man for the job. It doesn't line up with his skill set. His mouth isn't up to the challenge, you see. But God doesn't accept that excuse either: “Who has made man's mouth?”, God shoots back (Exodus 4:11). Can't the God who crafts our mouths in the first place loosen up Moses' tongue and give him the words to say? “Now therefore go, and I will be with your mouth and teach you what you shall speak” (Exodus 4:12). In other words, enough with the excuses, Moses; it's time to get moving.

All Moses' excuses are stripped away. Finally, he has to come to what he really means: “Oh, my Lord, please send someone else” (Exodus 4:13). Now he's being honest: “I hear you, Lord, but, the thing is... I just really would rather not. Thanks, but no thanks.” And now God is pretty ticked: “You want somebody else? Oh, fine, you can have a buddy – your brother Aaron, and he's a good talker. But you are not getting out of this, not for a moment. You can talk through him, but you are going, whether you like it or not. Now get going” (cf. Exodus 4:13-17). And so, at long last, he does (Exodus 4:18-20). And all Moses' excuses were needless; you know how the story turns out.

And then, a long time later, the people of Israel are living in the land, and things are going haywire. The people have forgotten God. And the Midianites – Jethro's people, but the pagan sort – have power over them for seven years, ruling ruthlessly over the Israelites, just like the Egyptians once did (Judges 6:1-5). And so finally, “the people of Israel cried out for help to the LORD (Judges 6:6). And so God sends a prophet to explain to them why they were suffering (Judges 6:7-10). And then God sends the Angel of his Presence to an obscure village in the territory of Manasseh, six miles southwest from Shechem, and to the property of a local man named Joash the Abiezrite (Judges 6:11).

And so God has a chat with Joash's youngest son, Gideon, a fearful man trying to do his chores in secret so the Midianites won't catch him and steal the family's food away. And he says to him, “Go in this might of yours and save Israel from the hand of Midian. Do I not send you?” (Judges 6:14). And just like Moses, Gideon has excuses. “Please, Lord, how can I save Israel? Look, my clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my father's house” (Judges 6:15). In other words, Gideon says, “I'm not up to this. I'm too weak. I'm too unimportant. I've got no leadership skills. I'm not up to this.” But God doesn't accept his excuse: “But I will be with you, and you shall strike the Midianites as one man” (Judges 6:16).

Like Moses before him, Gideon isn't satisfied. He has another excuse. “If now I have found favor in your eyes, then show me a sign that it is you who speak with me” (Judges 6:17). Gideon wants proof. He asks for it again, and again, and again. And God supplies it again, and again, and again. Fire from a rock eats the meal Gideon cooked up (Judges 6:19-21). The fleece of wool gets wet while the ground stays dry (Judges 6:36-38), and then the opposite happens the next night (Judges 6:39-40). Gideon's plausible deniability is gone.

But Gideon has one more unspoken excuse. He never quite says it out loud, but it's there. God tells him to pull down the local altar of Baal and the pole of Asherah – critical items in idol worship – and replace them with the instruments of true worship, and offer a sacrifice to the LORD, Yahweh, the true God (Judges 6:25-26). And to his credit, Gideon does it... “but because he was too afraid of his family and the men of the town to do it by day, he did it by night” (Judges 6:27). That's Gideon's last excuse: fear. He'll do what God says, but he'd rather do it in secret, out of fear. But Gideon gets found out, and it's only his dad coming to his defense that saves him – thanks be to God (Judges 6:31). And when the real danger breaks out, and the Midianites and Amalekites come near, “the Spirit of the LORD clothed Gideon, and he sounded the trumpet,” and he leads the tribes into battle and rescues his people (Judges 6:34f.). Gideon's excuses were, in the end, needless. He didn't have to look down on himself as too weak, he didn't have to get lost in his doubts, he didn't have to hold back in fear. He just had to surrender to God's call.

The centuries passed. The tribes united into a kingdom, the kingdom split, and there were good kings and bad kings. And in the closing days of a very bad king, King Manasseh, there was born a baby in a little village near Jerusalem – so near, you could see Jerusalem from there, from Anathoth. And that little baby began to grow, and soon was a young man – maybe fifteen years old. And in the year 627 BC, just like the Angel of the LORD came to Gideon, the Word of the LORD came to Jeremiah, child of a simple village priest. And in that pivotal year, as Judah's 21-year-old king Josiah watched the great Assyrian Empire begin to come undone, young Jeremiah heard what the Word of the LORD had to say. “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you; and before you were born, I set you apart; I appointed you a prophet to the nations” (Jeremiah 1:5).

Jeremiah had a ready-made excuse, like Moses and Gideon before him: “Ah, Lord Yahweh! Look, I don't know how to speak, for I am only a youth” (Jeremiah 1:6). In other words: “God, do you know who you're talking to? You can't possibly mean me. I mean, I'm just a kid! What do I know about being a prophet? I'm too young for this job! I'm too young to know what I should even say. You'll have to find somebody else. I'm unqualified.”

But God didn't accept Jeremiah's excuse. Jeremiah had been chosen before he was born, after all! We heard that last week. And maybe you've heard the saying that God doesn't call the qualified; he qualifies the called. That was true here, too. God says to Jeremiah, “Don't say, 'I'm only a youth.' For to whomever I send you, you shall go. And whatever I command you, you shall speak. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you” (Jeremiah 1:7-8). And then the LORD – the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; the God who thundered at Moses from a burning bush; the God who sat beneath Joash's terebinth tree to talk to Gideon; the God whose robe packed the temple and overwhelmed Isaiah with his glory; the God who one day would walk the dusty roads of Galilee – that LORD reached out his hand and touched Jeremiah's lips, to fill them with the word of God (Jeremiah 1:9). And you know the rest: how Jeremiah's excuse was torn away, how he prophesied in the face of constant danger, but had God's presence with him to deliver him.

Moses, Gideon, and Jeremiah were all reluctant in the face of God's call on their lives. All three had excuses why they couldn't do it. All three gave reasons why God should just go ahead and pick somebody else. But all three were God's choice. And to all three, God gave them the gift of ripping their phony-baloney excuses to shreds. God equipped them with what they needed – and above all, the divine promise: “I will be with you.” All three learned the lesson that God's call isn't exactly a suggestion.

I learned that the hard way, too. I know how Moses, Gideon, and Jeremiah felt. I went through it, too. I still remember the day when the Word of the LORD came to me, to me personally, with a call. I was no older than Jeremiah. Younger, actually. I'd only been a believer for a couple years, at the most. I remember that day. I lived in Akron, at the time. That was my Anathoth. And I was standing outside, out in the backyard, beneath a tall tree. And I lifted up my eyes toward heaven, and I started to pray. The future was on my mind. I knew I wanted to serve God – I knew I wanted to give God my life, to help his church, to further the mission of his kingdom. I knew he was tugging at my heart to do that. But patience has never exactly been my strong suit, you know? So I wanted to know how I was going to do it. I wanted to know what God wanted me to do, what career path God was asking of me, how I could best serve him.

And the Word of the LORD came to me. I didn't see anything. I didn't feel any fingers brush my lips. I didn't hear an audible voice. But I heard the Word of the LORD. And his message was short and simple. Really, just one word: “Pastor.” That was the call of God. That was my appointment. That was what he was sending me to do, eventually. That was where he saw my future. And that's when the excuse factory cranked into business. I couldn't be a pastor. It wasn't in my temperament. I'm no good with people. And while I wasn't sure what skills you needed to be a pastor, I was pretty sure that I didn't have them, and that I had an abundance of others that would just go to waste in the pulpit. I was in love with God's work in creation – fascinated by the intricate way he'd made every little piece of matter, enraptured by how he held it together with the word of his power. I wanted the world to know that there is a God, that there are reasons to believe, that the great mysteries explored by modern science only amplified the declaration of God's glory from the tiniest quark to the grandest galaxy supercluster. And so I suggested to God – actually, 'suggested' is too mild a word – that I had improved on his plan. I wasn't meant to be a pastor; I was meant for a God-honoring career as a particle physicist. That was my excuse – and when it came to pastoral ministry, I said, “Please send someone else.”

And then, well... here I am. So you can see how effective it is to make excuses in the face of God's call! But the truth is, we're all more in Jeremiah's shoes than we'd care to admit. Maybe you haven't been called to a specific career. But you have been called. We all have been called, with the same calling. And what God said long ago to a boy in Anathoth, he's said to each of you and to me, and to all of us together as the church of God.

To whomever I send you, you shall go.” That's what he said. Not just to Jeremiah, but to us. We don't have the option of not going (hence the word 'shall'), and we don't have the option of being picky about where or to whom we're sent (hence the word 'whomever'). That lesson, Jonah learned the hard way! There's no running away from God's call, and there's no rearranging it. So to whom are we sent? “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation” (Mark 16:15). Jesus said, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19). We're sent into all the world.

Now, before you sell your house, remember that right here, Salisbury Township (or wherever you live now), is part of that world. Maybe God really does want you to go to a different part of it. Ask him. But for most of us, we're geographically where he wants us – almost. God is calling us to go into our neighbors' lives – be involved, be the flesh-and-blood presence of Jesus there, bearing the word of God to heal and transform. That's not just a bunch of pretty words. That's our genuine job description. That's what God is calling you to do. Have you done it? Have you gone into your neighbors' lives, bringing the word of God to where they're lost or needy, discipling them for Jesus? God has called you, just the same as he called Moses, Gideon, and Jeremiah.

And whatever I command you, you shall speak.” Again, that's what he said. We don't have the option of polite avoidance – pretending that 'religion' is something 'private,' something meant to be kept to ourselves, and that we're better off keeping our mouths shut when the time to speak rolls around. We don't have the option of subtracting from it, turning his message into something less, lowering God's call for us to live pure lives or to welcome the stranger as Christ welcomed us or to meet together faithfully. But we also don't have the option of burdening people with our extra opinions – how they should dress, how they should talk, what they should be doing or feeling or thinking, beyond what God has actually said. As we go, as we make disciples, we're “teaching them to observe all that [Jesus has commanded us]” (Matthew 28:20) – not leaving anything out, not adding to it more than Jesus has said through his prophets and apostles, as received by the living witness of his church.

Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you.” Again, that's what he said. That's the promise that ties it all together. And what the Word of the LORD said to Jeremiah, that same Word-Made-Flesh said to his disciples, in whose shoes we stand: “And behold, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). The same promise that went with Moses, the same promise that went with Gideon, the same promise that went with Jeremiah, the same promise that went with Peter and Andrew and Matthew and Thomas and Simon and the Jameses and John and Philip and Bartholomew and Jude Thaddeus – that promise goes with you, too. God is with you always to deliver you, so do what he says and don't be afraid.

But maybe, when you think about that, you've got one of Moses' excuses: you have no credentials, you wouldn't know what to say, you've might get caught in a question you can't answer, you're bad at talking, you just don't want to do it. Maybe you've got one of Gideon's excuses: you're too weak for the job, you're not convinced, you're scared. Maybe you have Jeremiah's excuse: you're the wrong age, and you're too untrained to give the message. Maybe you've got my old excuse: there's something else you'd rather do. Or maybe you've got one of the other excuses we can come up with: You're too busy. You don't have time. You don't have the energy. You don't know anybody who needs to hear it. You're just not ready. “Please, Lord, send someone else.”

But you can count on this: You're ready. And you can get readier along the way. We are ready and readying here. So “gird up thy loins; arise, and say to them everything that [God commands] you” (Jeremiah 1:17). This week, by God's grace, let's turn our excuses over to God, lay them down at his feet, and do what he's called us to do – be intentional about going out and sharing his word with somebody this week. Don't be afraid – God is with us. Hallelujah. Amen.

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