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The Leaders God Chooses: Moses

July 19, 2009

Sermon: 7-19-09

Text: Exodus 3

Clare and I have just returned from a wonderful trip to Pawley’s Island for our regular week of vacation.  As many family members as possible join us for this time together.  I have found it is less expensive for me to cook for everyone during the week than it is for me to take everybody out to a restaurant.  

So before we left Saturday morning, I loaded my little electric grill in my pickup-truck, along with hammocks, lawn chairs, and all the other supplies needed for a vacation at the beach.  When it was time to head out, I went back inside the house to check on a few last minute details.  Clare waited for me in the truck with all those items stored in the back. 

While I was inside, a fellow in his own pickup truck pulled into our driveway.  His truck was pretty disreputable-looking with its many dents and different colors of paint.  Duct tape actually held the headlights in place.  I did not see the man, but Clare described him as tall, thin, and gaunt.  He had a somewhat toothless smile and a full beard.  He was chewing tobacco.  Clare told me later, “The minute he spoke, I had the feeling that he was from somewhere up in the mountains.” 

The man asked Clare, “Ya’ll goin’ to the dump?”

Now, I must admit that the truck did look somewhat like the one on Sanford and Son.  If Clare had been in a rocking chair smoking a pipe, we would have looked exactly like the Beverly Hillbillies.

Before Clare could answer the man, he explained, “I’m in the ir’n and metal business.  I’d be glad to haul that stuff off fer ya if you’d like.”

Clare answered, “No thanks, we already have it loaded.  We’re on our way.” 

Clare never told him we were on our way to the beach, not the dump.  It is almost an insult that he would think the load of gear on that truck was junk!  That is the way our trip started. 

Yesterday as we were coming back home, apparently a bad accident had occurred on I-26 somewhere in the vicinity of Clinton.  Traffic was stopped at a dead standstill between Clinton and Newberry.  We pulled off the interstate at the nearest rest area, which was absolutely filled with weary travelers.  Lines for the restroom went out into the parking lot.  The same was true for the refreshment machines. 

I removed a couple of lawn chairs from the back of the truck and set them up in the shade of a tree.  Clare and I sat there for forty-five minutes to an hour, eating an apple and reading until the traffic cleared.  A truck driver and his son passed a football back and forth, with a bunch of teens joining in on that fun.  Young children ran around the grounds, collecting pine cones and leaves.  We had a very interesting experience at the rest area, watching people interact with one another.  Our time spent there will be something worth writing about one day. 

Early in the week, I listened to a small portion of the opening session of the confirmation hearing for Judge Juanita Sotomayor.  I listened to just a few of the senators ask questions and make comments, and I was especially pleased with Senator Lindsay Graham’s forthright honesty.  Graham said to her, “I fully expect that you are going to be confirmed unless you have a complete meltdown.”  He added, “I have not decided whether I am going to vote for you yet.  I want to see how these hearings go.”

As I was listening to this session, I was thinking, What are the qualifications to be a judge?  I am certainly not the one to determine the qualifications to serve on the United States Supreme Court.  Others do that.  We can, however, read about the lives of leaders that God chooses to be the judges of His people in the book of the Bible called Judges.  What qualifications does God look for in the lives of these leaders?  As I started deliberating about that question, I realized this topic would be an appropriate sermon series here late in the summer as we prepare to begin our fall schedule.  It gives us the opportunity to think again about the traits God looks for in the people He calls to be leaders.

If you turn to the back cover of the worship bulletin, you will see at the bottom of the page the heading “Church Staff.”  Underneath that heading, we see that the ministers at Morningside are identified as “All Members of the Congregation.”  Every single one of us is a minister at Morningside.  Everyone who claims membership in this particular body of Christ, everyone who assists in any kind of ministry, has been called by God to serve as a leader.  This series of sermons is not just for a few.  It is certainly not just for clergy.  This sermon is for all of us. 

The more I thought about the series possibility, the more I decided that I could not begin with the book of Judges.  I felt I needed to go back further than that because, in a very real sense, Moses is the first judge of the people of Israel.  He serves as a transitional figure between the Patriarchs in the book of Genesis and the Judges we read about in books of the Old Testament.  Moses’ story, which is very long, is included in at least five books of the Old Testament, books we call the Pentateuch.  As his life unfolds, we see the leadership qualifications God requires in those who guide others.

I want to read just a few verses for your hearing.  Exodus 3:1-6:

Now Moses was tending the flock of Jethro his father-in-law, the priest of Midian, and he led the flock to the far side of the desert and came to Horeb, the mountain of God.  There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in flames of fire from within a bush.  Moses saw that though the bush was on fire it did not burn up.  So Moses thought, “I will go over and see this strange sight – why the bush does not burn up.” 

When the Lord saw that he had gone over to look, God called to him from within the bush, “Moses!  Moses!” 

And Moses said, “Here I am.” 

“Do not come any closer,” God said.  “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.”  Then he said, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.”  At this, Moses hid his face, because he was afraid to look at God.

I keep coming back to this passage in Exodus 3 with some regularity.  I often find this story throughout my own devotional life and throughout the ministry of preaching.  It is one of those chapters in the Bible that draws me back because something here is so important:  in the middle of nowhere, God surprised Moses, calling to him from a burning bush to do a particular task, a tremendous task, a mind-boggling task. 

Will Campbell, one of those eccentric Baptist preachers from East Tennessee, always seems to be in trouble with someone in the denomination.  He is a real scholar, a gifted writer.  Now quite an old man, he spends time in overalls, plowing with a mule.    Putting the story of Moses into his own context of East Tennessee, Will Campbell says, “There are a lot of fox hunters in the area of Midian.  Those hunters make a camp, build a fire, and sit around listening to their hounds chase the fox.  I guess if Moses saw a fire, he might just assume it was at the campsite of another group of fox hunters.”  Out in the wilderness of Midian, fires burned from time to time.  What if Moses had not paid attention?  It would have been easy for Moses to have ignored it; but something about this particular fire, this particular bush that was burning but not consumed, caused Moses to turn aside.

I have been reading a book by Barbara Brown Taylor entitled Altars in the World.  She says that God speaks to us, not only within the four walls of a church, a chapel, or a cathedral but that God also speaks to us in the world.  The first night at the beach, I sat out on the deck and looked at the night sky.  I gazed into that magnificent site, even before the moon rose, and saw the constellation Scorpio all across the southern sky.  The handiwork of God is an altar in the world.  The burning bush is an altar in the world.  God called Moses, not in a synagogue, not in a place encapsulated and deemed holy, but smack-dab in the middle of the wilderness.  The place was holy because God was present in the bush that was burning but not consumed.  God speaks to us in a variety of ways. 

The first characteristic Moses possessed that God requires of a leader is that he knew how to pay attention.  Can you imagine if he had just assumed the fire belonged to another fox hunter?  What if Moses had not turned aside?  Because Moses stopped and paid attention, he had a life-changing experience with God. 

If you are going to be a leader, one of God’s leaders, you must be alert.  You must listen and concentrate.  God has a message to deliver, and I grant you that He may deliver it right here.  I hope He does.  This is not the only place where He can convey His message though.  It is far from it.  It could happen in many other places because God has created a world filled with altars. 

You will notice that Moses was very reluctant to accept this call.  He was eighty years old when God asked him to assume this responsibility.  My guess is that if God had called Moses forty years earlier, when he was so self-confident, he might have been eager to accept God’s request.  Now after forty years of tending sheep for his father-in-law, Jethro, in the wilderness, Moses was not as confident as he once was.  The first forty years of his life were charmed.  Having Pharaoh as his adopted grandfather, Moses grew up with a silver spoon in his mouth, receiving everything he could ever possibly want. 

Moses was fully an Egyptian by adoption.  He was also fully Hebrew.  From the very time he was pulled from the bulrushes by Pharaoh’s daughter, his own mother became his wet nurse.  As he took in her milk, Moses took in the faith of Israel.  As he took in his mother’s milk, he also took in his identity as a Hebrew. 

Moses’ great weakness was his hair-trigger temper. One day when he saw an Egyptian persecuting a Hebrew slave, that temper flared.  He rose up and killed that Egyptian.  In this moment of anger, his Hebrew identity overcame his identification as an Egyptian.  Afraid for his life, he fled into the wilderness of Midian. 

Thank goodness Moses encountered Jethro, who became not only his father-in-law but also his mentor, his instructor.  He saw that Moses, who had been so privileged, needed, most of all, a deep piece of humble pie.  Jethro gave Moses the menial task of tending sheep in the wilderness.  Moses’ time at this task seems like a waste of good talent, but I can assure you that God was preparing him to fulfill a task in a special way.  God was using this menial task to prepare Moses, a man who could not even make a straight sentence because he stuttered.  God was preparing this man, who cared for sheep in the wilderness of Midian for forty years, to lead an entire nation through the same wilderness for another forty years.  Moses, who was both Egyptian and Hebrew, would be performing a task that required both knowledge of the Egyptians and strong identification with Hebrews. 

Moses objected to God’s call, labeling himself a “man of halting speech” (Exodus 4:10).  He told God, “I can’t do what you are asking me to do.”  Moses’ refusal made God angry.  He responded, “Moses, take your brother Aaron.  Let him do some of the talking.”  Aaron was actually a priest, while Moses was only a layperson, a shepherd.  As a candidate said in a recent ordination council, “For a man of halting speech, Moses sure had a lot to say.”  He did.

You will notice that Moses’ encounter with God was one that he was not going to win.  His reluctance was no match for God’s persistence.  God was going to badger Moses, hound him, until he relented.  Moses did relent.  He became obedient to God and, indeed, served as a judge.  I would like you to look with me at Exodus 18:13-15:  

The next day Moses took his seat to serve as judge for the people, and they stood around him from morning till evening.  When his father-in-law saw all that Moses was doing for the people, he said, “What is this you are doing for the people?  Why do you alone sit as judge, while all these people stand around you from morning till evening?” 

Moses answered him, “Because the people come to me to seek God’s will.  Whenever they have a dispute, it is brought to me, and I decide between the parties and inform them of God’s decrees and laws.”

Jethro took exception to this explanation and said, “Moses, you are overburdening yourself.  You are not using the resources around you.  Appoint other people as judges.  Delegate.”  

The fourth characteristic of a good leader is that they know they are not the Lone Ranger.  Jethro taught Moses that other people around him could take up the burden.  Moses became a collaborative person, not only allowing Jethro to be his mentor but also allowing others to get under the burden with him and help carry the load.

The fifth characteristic of people God calls as leaders is that they are not perfect.  Moses was far from perfect.  He had a terrible flaw – his temper.  Look briefly at Exodus 32:19 where Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the Ten Commandments.  Remove from your mind the movie image of Charlton Heston stumbling down the mountain with two tombstones.  Instead, think of those tablets as about the size of a large postage stamp.  Tablets from the ancient Near East were small and made of soft clay that hardened into stone.  Also consider the fact that the Ten Commandments can be written in ten Hebrew words.  That is why they are called the Decalogue – ten words.  Each verb in Hebrew has three letters.  If you want to make the statement negative – “Thou shalt not” – add one more letter.  These two tablets contained ten words, consisting of four letters each.  When Moses came down the mountain and saw that the people of Israel had made a golden calf, he did the unthinkable.  He flung those two stone tablets against the rocks, shattering them into pieces.  With that act, he broke all Ten Commandments at once.

Moses’ quick temper also caused him trouble later in life, as we see in Numbers 20.  At a place called Meribah, people were complaining about the bitterness of the water.  God directed Moses to speak to a rock and call water from it.  Instead, Moses whacked the rock with his staff.  Sure enough, water flowed from the rock, but God punished Moses for his act of disobedience.  According to the Scriptures, God did not allow Moses to cross over into the Land of Promise.  God used Moses to lead the people right to the threshold, but He never allowed Moses to enter the Promised Land.

The sixth characteristic that served as an example for the people of Israel is Moses’ relationship with God.  In my Bible, the subtitle following Exodus 34:28 reads, “The Radiant Face of Moses.”  Look at Verse 34:  “But whenever he entered the Lord’s presence to speak with him, he removed the veil until he came out.  And when he came out and told the Israelites what he had been commanded, they saw that his face was radiant.”  Moses went into the Tent of Tabernacle, into the section called the Holy of Holies, where he encountered the living God.  The people of Israel, seeing in Moses’ life that radiant countenance and his special relationship with God, acquired deeper levels of maturity.  

God expects the same from a Christian leader.  He expects people to have a regular encounter with God.  That is, first of all, the life of prayer.  Exodus 33:11 tells us about the depth of Moses’ life of prayer: “The Lord would speak to Moses, face-to-face, as a man speaks to a friend.”  That life of prayer is so important in the leaders God chooses.  This is the seventh characteristic of a leader that Moses possessed.

Individuals selected to serve as a deacon at Morningside are assigned a group of members.  Please, deacons, pray for those people every day by name.  Sunday School teachers, please pray for the members in your class, those present and those absent.  Pray for the visitors.  If you work in the nursery, teach a choir, or lead a missions group, please pray for the children under your care and for their families.  The single most important act Christian leaders can do is to have a relationship to God in which we speak to the Almighty as a friend speaks to a friend.  If we are too busy, if we do not have time, it will never get done.  Having that kind of relationship with God requires time. 

God seeks to find leaders who possess these characteristics.  He desires that all of us who are called to be ministers of God possess these traits.

The example of a potter and the clay is one of our best known illustrations of God’s role in every human life.  We sing, “Have Thine own way, Lord!  Have Thine own way!  Thou art the potter, I am the clay!  Mold me and make me After Thy will, While I am waiting, Yielded and still.”  We are all lumps of clay that God molds and shapes in order that we become the vessels He has called us to be.  God is at work in every single life.  Though each one will have a different ministry, no one is excluded.  God is preparing each one of us for some leadership responsibility in His kingdom.

The Scriptures tell us that Moses died at age 120, with eyes that were not dim and natural strength that was not abated.  Moses climbed to the top of another mountain, one with two names – Pisgah and Nebo.  From there, he could see the completion of his work.  He could view the Promised Land across the Jordan.  He had led the people of Israel to the threshold of that Land of Promise, but God did not allow him to enter it.  Moses died there on that mountain, without a marker, without a monument, possibly without a tomb.

Rabbi Liebowitz and I were talking about the fact that nobody knows where Moses is buried.  He explained, “It is good that the burial place for Moses is unknown and that no monument has been placed on the mountain.  If a place had been designated, tourists would flock there.  Moses himself would be adored.  He would be memorialized.”

Though Moses slipped unnoticed into obscurity, his life points to the glory of God and to the mighty acts of God.  Moses’ accomplishments are not important.  What is important is what God did through Moses.  We do not serve as a leader to get a gold star on our chart.  We do not serve to receive the praise.  One of the most important characteristics of leaders that God chooses is that they do it for one reason and one reason only – for the glory of God.

Do you know that God has called you to be His minister?  Do you know that He has called you even though He has spotted your imperfections?  Moses had many flaws.  He could not even make a straight sentence.  He had a terrible temper and was wanted for murder.  One of my college professors commented, “God can take a mighty crooked stick and beat a straight path.”  God did that with the life of Moses. 

God wants to do the same with your life and with my life.  It begins when we commit ourselves, when we surrender to do His will, when we say, “Jesus Christ died for me.  I give my life to him.”  We pray the words of a song, “Mold me and shape me after Thy will.”  We must yield to the work of Christ in our lives.  If you have never made a decision to accept Christ as your Savior, could I invite you to commit your life to him?

 Kirk H. Neely
© July 2009

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