Christ Episcopal Church

Hear the Word. Eat the Bread. Change the World.

March 24, 2019

He was a liar, a deceiver, a coward, and a murderer.

No, I’m not referring to anyone whose name might have appeared in the paper this week. I’m talking about Moses, the one who was called by God to lead his people out of oppression and slavery in Egypt, into the Promised Land where they would once again worship God as their ancestors did.

But to understand Moses as we encounter him in the reading from Exodus today, we first need to back up a bit. You may remember the story of Joseph, the dreamer, the great-grandson of Abraham. Joseph was sold into slavery by his brothers, and was taken into Egypt, where he rose to power during the brutal famine that starved all the countries in that region for seven years. His foresight allowed Egypt to plan ahead, so that they had food when no one else did. The famine brought Joseph’s brothers to Egypt, desperate for food to take back to their families. Joseph recognized his brothers—although they didn’t recognize him—and after playing a few tricks on them, he finally revealed himself for who he was. His brothers brought their father and the rest of their families into Egypt, where Joseph set them up in the land of Goshen. When we leave the book of Genesis, things look good for the descendents of Abraham. Remember last week when we heard how God promised Abraham more descendents than all the stars in heaven? At the end of Genesis, the “sky” is already filling up.

And then comes Exodus, and the story is drastically changed. The Pharaoh who knew Joseph and was grateful to him for helping Egypt become a superpower died off. New pharaohs came into power, and only remembered that Joseph had been a slave, and they treated anyone affiliated with the people of Joseph as slaves, as well. And their lives grew hard. As it says in Exodus, the Egyptians “made their lives bitter with hard service in mortar and brick and in every kind of field labor.”

But they were numerous, and strong. And the Pharaoh felt threatened. So he commanded all the midwives to kill any boy born to the Israelites. (It always strikes me how short-sighted this is; he might solve his immediate sense of feeling threatened, but he would decimate his future labor source!) The midwives resisted, obeying God instead of Pharaoh.

This sets the stage for Moses. I’m sure you remember this story, but just in case…When Moses’ mother gave birth to her baby son, she hid him for three months. Eventually, it was impossible for her to hide him any longer, so she made a basket of reeds, placed her son in the basket, and put the basket in the river. Was it an act of supreme faith? Or an act of desperation and hopelessness?  Did she expect her son to drown? Or did she know that if she timed it right, she’d leave Moses just as Pharaoh’s daughter was nearby?

Pharaoh’s daughter finds the basket, and the baby, and adopts him—even though she knows it is “one of the Hebrew’s children” and assuredly must know this baby boy should have been killed. She raises the boy, naming him Moses (which is similar to the Egyptian word for ‘drawing out’) and engaging a nursemaid from the Hebrew slaves…a nursemaid who just happened to be Moses mother.

Moses grows up in Pharaoh’s household, treated as one of Pharaoh’s own grandsons; but apparently knowing that he was not Egyptian but rather one of the Hebrew children. He “passed” as an Egyptian for a while; but then one day he saw what was happening to the Hebrews, what was happening, he realized, to his people. He saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, and—perhaps for the first time—recognized himself not in the Egyptian with all the power, but in the Hebrew slave. And deep within him, something woke up. A desire for justice for his people.

Now this first attempt at seeking freedom for his people did not go well. We are told, “He looked this way and that, and seeing no one he killed the Egyptian and hid him in the sand.” A typical but not excusable response.

He is found out (by one of the Hebrews, incidentally), and he flees Egypt so that he will not be punished for killing the Egyptian. He flees, rather than face the consequences of his actions.

He settles in the land of Midian, eventually marrying into the family of Jethro, the priest of Midian. He settles into the quiet life of a shepherd.  A far cry from the court of Pharaoh (and interestingly, the vocation of his forbears, Jacob’s sons).

And the one day…We heard the story of that “one day” in today’s reading from Exodus. He is out with the flocks, and sees an inexplicable sight—a bush that is burning but not consumed. So he turns aside to see.

That turning is everything. In his turning he encounters the living God, the God of his forefathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The God who still cared for the Hebrew people. And that same God, who gives the name “I AM WHO I AM”—or perhaps more properly, “I WILL BE WHO I WILL BE”—this God calls on that place in Moses where passion for the Hebrews had once burned. And God re-lit that passion, only this time making it a fire that lights up but does not consume him.

That fire drives Moses to confront Pharaoh with his injustice and demand freedom for his people, the Hebrews. That fire gives Moses courage in the face of the plagues, and strength to draw his people out of Egypt, when the moment is right. We will remember the story of the Passover in a few weeks, on Maundy Thursday, the story of how the angel of death passed through and took the firstborn of Egypt but spared those who spread the blood of the Paschal lamb on the lintel of their doors.  Moses led the people out of Egypt, at God’s command he lifted his hands and the Red Sea was parted so that the people could pass through on dry ground. He led his people into the wilderness, where they learned how to be the Israelites, the people of God descended from that promise made to Abraham so long ago.

It was not easy. He watched the people turn their backs on the God who had JUST led them out of slavery into freedom, he punished them for worshiping the golden calf instead of the living God. He was responsible for figuring out how to feed the people—a huge crowd—and God provided the manna and the quails. When the people were thirsty, God instructed Moses to strike a rock, and water flowed out. The time in the wilderness was the time when the people learned to trust God, to follow where God led and do what God asked them to do. It took them a LOOOONG time to learn. 

Moses had occasions when he seriously messed up. On several occasions he begged God to just kill him and release him from the burden of leading and caring for the people. In one very unfortunate moment, he took credit for something that God did. And God showed that even those that are chosen as leaders will be held accountable for their actions. Moses would not be allowed to enter the Promised Land. The last we see of Moses, he is standing where he can see the Promised Land, and God reassures him that the people will live into the promise made, all those generations ago. All this, because he turned aside to see how a bush could be on fire yet not consumed.

What is the burning bush in your life? Where are you hearing the voice of the living God, calling you to a task that connects with your deep passion but requires complete submission to and dependence upon God to be fulfilled?

And what will you do, when you find that burning bush? Will you turn away from the flame? Or will you step aside to see, removing your shoes and falling on your face because you discover yourself on holy ground?  Will you allow God to take your passion and light a fire in you that burns brightly but does not consume? Do you dare?

Moses was a liar, a deceiver, a murderer and a coward. And then he had an encounter with the living God, who lit a fire in his soul and used him to change the world. What might God do with you?

Amen.

Christ Episcopal Church, Norway, Maine | A member of The Episcopal Diocese of Maine, The Episcopal Church, and the Worldwide Anglican Communion