Sermon for 07-11-10: “Can You Hear Me Now? Part 1”

Scripture Text: Exodus 3:1-15

The following is my original manuscript.

Today is part 1 of our new six-part sermon series on hearing the call of God in our lives as disciples. I first got the idea for this series last year when I was teaching a Sunday school class on Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. What impressed me in that letter was the apostle Paul’s confidence of his calling to be the apostle to the Gentiles. He knew that what he was doing with his life was what he was called by God to do. And he knew it in spite of all the trouble that he got into—not simply from the Romans or from people of other religions—but from many of his fellow Christians, who disagreed with his strong conviction that non-Jews did not first have to become Jewish in order to be Christian.

He knew his mission; he knew his calling; and it guided his life’s work. I asked the Sunday school class: “Have any of you ever been called by God?” And they looked at one another and shrugged… And no one raised their hand! I was surprised. Because if we are disciples of Jesus Christ—which we are by virtue of our faith and baptism—then we have been called and we are being called now to use the gifts God has given us in ministry to the world. It’s not just something that happens to professional ministers like Don, Larisa, or me.

But you know this already… even if you don’t think about it as a calling. Did you read what Don wrote in last week’s E-News article? He was talking about how this church sent about 2,000 packages of Oreos for the troops in Afghanistan. He wrote, “You are the most roll up your sleeves, get busy and get it done congregation in all of Christendom.” See, the work that we do—whether we realize it or not—is a part of answering God’s call.

We begin this series considering God’s call to Moses. You may recall that the Hebrew people were enslaved in Egypt by Pharaoh. Moses was himself Hebrew—ethnically—but he grew up a child of privilege and wealth in the Pharaoh’s household. Perhaps he spent much of his young life oblivious to the conditions in which his people were living. When he was a young man, however, he witnessed an Egyptian mistreating a Hebrew and he intervened by killing the Egyptian. He tries to cover up the crime by hiding the body. The next day, he tried to break up a fight between two of his fellow Hebrews. One of them said to Moses, “Who made you a ruler and judge over us? Do you mean to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?” So Moses is afraid that his crime has been found out, and he runs away, far away, to place called Midian, where he marries, raises a family, and lives for decades tending his father’s livestock.

Moses was a fugitive from justice because of a mistake, a crime, a sin… But think about why he did what he did. What he saw awakened within him a strong desire for justice. He was righteously indignant. He wanted to fight injustice. In his own misguided way, even as a young man, he was striking a blow for the liberation of his people Israel. And it failed—badly. And his own people, instead of looking to him for deliverance, turned against him. “Who made you a ruler and judge over us?” Don’t you know those words stuck with him, haunted him, even as God was telling him in today’s scripture that Moses was just the person who would set God’s people free?

Is it any wonder that Moses responds to the call with these words: “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” Moses felt unworthy and unqualified to fulfill the call. Moses would later strenuously object that he wasn’t a good or eloquent enough speaker to fulfill his role as spokesman for God. This sense of feeling unworthy or unqualified to do what God calls us to do is a common theme for people who are called by God in the Bible. God calls Gideon in the Book of Judges: “Are you sure about that? I’m the youngest child in a family of nobodies!” God calls Isaiah, “Are you sure about that? I’m a man of unclean lips who comes from a people of unclean lips?” God calls Jeremiah: “Are you sure about that? I’m too young! Who’s going to listen to me?”

Feeling unworthy and unqualified is so common in the Bible that it should be thought of as one sign that God could be calling you! There will always be perfectly good reasons why you shouldn’t be doing the thing that God calls you to do. Just last week I was talking to Bruce Johnson about his experience heading up the Paraguay mission trip, which he’s done for the past couple of years. Mostly, the people from our church who go to Paraguay work on construction projects. Bruce said, “The thing is, I’m not like Mr. Handy or anything. But I guess I have some skills when it comes to organizing people. I don’t know… Somehow the work gets done, and we’re able to successful.” That sounds about right! He could have said, “No. I don’t think this kind of work is for me.” But he had just the skills to make it successful. God knows us better than we know ourselves!

Well, I’m sure that many of you who have answered God’s call in some way have struggled with feelings of unworthiness or inadequacy—whether in your career or vocation, or in your work in church. Do you feel unworthy or unqualified. You’re in good company! It’s part of the deal of being called by God.

Lisa and I are fans of this show In Plain Sight. Have you heard of it? Mary McCormack plays a U.S. Marshal responsible for relocating people in witness protection. These are people who have innocently witnessed or criminally taken part in a crime and have agreed to testify against dangerous mobsters who, in turn, want them dead. So the government gives these witnesses new names and new identities. All connections to their past life are supposed to be completely severed. Lisa and I had a neighbor in Tucker whom we suspected of being in witness protection. By all appearances he seemed completely normal and respectable, but the details of his history and career never seemed quite clear—and his story seemed to change. He was either in witness protection or he was a spy. That’s what we decided.

Anyway, the point is that on the show the main recurring theme—for both the people in witness protection and for Mary and her screwed-up family—is that you can’t escape or run away from your past… even if you are given a new name and biography and career. The past has a way of following us around and coming back to us, whether we like it or not.

Think about Moses. He was 80 years old when God appeared to him through this burning bush experience and gave him this call. Decades earlier, he ran away from his past—who he was in Egypt, an aristocrat, a member of Pharaoh’s household. He ran away from his crime, his sin, and his shame—the failure of his attempt to help his fellow Hebrews… Left it all behind. He took up a new life tending his father-in-law’s livestock. All that unpleasant business back in Egypt was a part of his past. But of course it wasn’t. Moses carried around baggage—and it didn’t magically disappear when God called him.

But… God used and transformed the things that happened in Moses’ past to be successful in the present. Don’t you think, after all, someone with Moses’ background in the royal family would be well-suited to stand up to a king? He knows how these people operate. His past had instilled within him a commitment to justice—had made him a person of bold action. And don’t you think he learned and grew from all of his early mistakes?

All of us have a past. Maybe it’s mostly good, but there are probably also some very painful, shameful, and sinful things in our past, too. Things we’ve done, things we’ve left undone, and things that have been done to us. Things we might just want to forget about. Things that might make us feel inadequate, unworthy, or unqualified to do what God wants us to do. When God calls us, he doesn’t hit the reset button on our past—and that’s a good thing.

All the things that have happened to us—whether good or bad—have played a part in making us who we are today. Maybe some things have happened to us that we wouldn’t wish on our own worst enemy, but if they had happened any differently, we wouldn’t be the same people that we are. Mostly, I like who I am. How about you?

As I hope you know by now, we are in the midst of a major renovation of our chapel. It’s going to become a mostly dedicated, state-of-the-art contemporary worship space when all this construction is through. And then they’ll renovate Trinity Hall. While the construction is going on, it’s going to be messy and at times inconvenient. Carol Smith, our communications director, asked some people to choose the wording for a sign that she’s going to post around the church during the renovation—to say to members and especially visitors, “We know this is ugly and messy and inconvenient, but bear with us. Something good is waiting on the other side.” One choice said, “Pardon our mess—God at work.”

And one person commented, “Let’s not put God on the sign in case something goes wrong during the construction.” Presumably, if God were at work, then what? Everything will be smooth sailing? We won’t encounter any problems? No way! Nothing about Moses’ experience of answering God’s call suggests that life will be easy once we say yes to God, or we won’t suffer setbacks, or we won’t endure heartache or failure. Moses endured 40 years wandering in the wilderness during a trip that shouldn’t have taken nearly that long. He has to put up with constant complaining and ingratitude on the part of the people. He has to put up with people constantly turning away from God. Before all is said and done, his own failure and sin prevents him from actually entering the Promised Land. He only gets to view it from a distance. And yet—in spite of all the messiness, all the ugliness, all the problems, all the failures—Moses is considered the greatest of all prophets, up until Jesus at least.

When God called Moses, Moses asked, “Who am I that I should do this?” That’s a great question—because all of us in one way or another are unworthy, inadequate, unqualified, not up to the task.

But here’s some good news: When we answer God’s call, it’s not about who we are. It’s about who God is. Our job is say “yes” to God and let God worry about everything else.

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