Proper 17A

August 25, 2014

  • The Lectionary Gospel +

    Matthew 16:21-28

    Author: Scott Hoezee

  • Old Testament Lectionary

    Exodus 3:1-15

    Author: Scott Hoezee

    Sample Sermons

    All of life has at least a little suspense to it.   Sometimes such suspense is a good and happy thing, the kind of thing a child feels when anticipating opening Christmas presents or awaiting the start of a long-anticipated birthday party. Few phrases can titillate a child as much as the two words, “You’ll see!”

    You pick the kids up from school and say, “I have a special treat for you waiting at home.”

    “What is it, what is it!?”

    “You’ll see!”

    “Awww! Just tell us!”

    Or we watch some mystery movie and we eagerly anticipate the climactic scene when “the other shoe drops,” when the mystery is solved, the murderer unmasked. The suspense of it all keeps us rapt or, in the case of a cracking good novel, keeps us turning those pages.

    But there is of course also such a thing as medical suspense, and that is not very fun or amusing at all. The lab results are due Tuesday, and so you find yourself staring at the phone more often than not as that day passes by so very, very slowly. Suspense like that generates a knotted feeling in the pit of your stomach the likes of which you can hardly find words adequate to describe. Most of the time, however, you don’t need to describe that anxious, suspenseful sensation. Once a person has had it him- or herself (and most all of us have at one time or another), no description is needed. “I feel kinda, I dunno,” you may say to someone else, who will then respond, “Yeah, I know exactly what you mean.”

    We’d probably all like to think that this kind of anxious suspense does not apply to the life of faith. At the very least we like to entertain the idea that however we may feel religiously and spiritually at any given moment, for sure the great saints of old, the heroes of the faith, the high-profile Bible characters we’ve learned about since Sunday school–they at least had a clearer vision, a firmer faith, a certainty to which we do well to aspire. But as we see in Exodus 3, even someone with as direct a line of communication with God as Moses could not escape the suspense dimension of faith. Despite all the assurances and signs of confirmation we may have in this present time, the simple fact of the matter is that to have faith is to live to a significant degree in the future tense.

    Maybe even Moses wished eventually that this wasn’t so. He wasn’t snooping around looking for any great calling in life. In fact, his life changed pretty much the way anyone’s life changes (if it ever changes at all, that is); namely, his life changed smack from within the context of just another ordinary day on the job. In his commentary on Exodus, John Calvin praises Moses for his great patience. For years and years, Calvin notes, Moses was living in Midian, tending sheep for his father-in-law. But all the while he was patiently waiting for the other shoe to drop, for God to summon him to active duty at last.

    Far be it for a man from Calvin Seminary to disagree with John Calvin but . . . I dunno about this one.

    The truth is that there is no evidence that Moses was waiting for anything. We as readers of Exodus may know that Moses was a man of destiny, God’s elect and select leader of Israel. But there is no evidence that Moses knew that. So far as we know, God had never before spoken to Moses. Sure, the story of how Moses escaped Pharaoh’s holocaust must have been something Moses knew about, but maybe he accepted it as just another fact about his own history. If you were born in the backseat of your parents’ Buick while the car was parked under an overpass during a fierce thunderstorm because your father just couldn’t get mom to the hospital in time, well then that’s an interesting detail of your life, and you have maybe re-told that story hundreds of times. But how large really does that loom on your mental horizon most days?  Probably not much.

    And so also for Moses: he may have deemed himself mighty lucky to have been discovered by the princess that day while he bobbed around in his little reed basket in the River Nile–and he may have really loved growing up in the splendors of Pharaoh’s palace–but none of that necessarily made him feel like a man of destiny. If anything, while living in Midian, Moses had no doubt long since concluded that he had messed up a good thing. He lost his temper one day, slipped a knife between that Egyptian’s ribs, and ended up fleeing Egypt to save his own skin. If Moses had ever entertained fantasies of greatness, they died a long time ago. His best days were behind him. He was a shepherd now and that was that. He had a wife, a family, a father-in-law who had given him a job. End of story.

    So far as Moses could see, Midian was his future, and a pretty predictable future it was at that. Maybe it even depressed him a little. Maybe some mornings he awoke hoping to see sunlight streaming through palace windows only to smell the mustiness of his tent. Maybe some days as he awoke he thought he heard the sound of the butler bringing him his glass of freshly squeezed juice only to realize with a sigh that it was just his wife spooning out mush into the baby’s bowl. However Moses felt about life in Midian, it looked for all the world as though it would be his lot forever.

    About the only good thing you could say about it was that it was predictable. It may have been a routine, vaguely humdrum existence, but at least it was stable. You fed the sheep. You sheared the sheep. You cleaned up after the sheep. And then you did it all over again. That’s life, right?

    Does it sound like even your life? At one time or another we all feel stuck. We’re stuck in a dead-end job. We’re stuck living in a house that is increasingly tattered but we can’t afford to fix it up, much less move somewhere else. We’re stuck in a relationship and the fire went out of the thing a long time ago. We suspect that maybe we are in the wrong place, the wrong career, the wrong church, the wrong everything. And we are just sure that God will not do a blessed thing to change matters anytime soon, if ever.

    Who knows whether any or all of that was going through Moses’ head. But I think John Calvin was almost certainly wrong: Moses was not biding his time in a laudable exercise of great patience. Instead Moses was doing what needed to be done to put bread on the table for his wife and kid. He was on the job, tending sheep. Today we might say he was just sitting at his desk, working on the assembly line, driving his bus, getting the groceries. He was doing the same things he’d done a zillion times before when suddenly he saw something out of the ordinary. A bush was on fire. That alone may not have been too unusual a sight to see in a desert environment. Usually, though, these thorn bushes would flame up and be consumed in seconds. This one was different. It kept burning but never lost its shape. No branches were falling in flames to the ground. No ash was building up.

    It seemed worth a second look, and it was that willingness to pause, to turn aside, to break with the routine that changed Moses’ life. The voice of God spoke to Moses and told him he was on holy ground (an amazing fact given that our work environments are generally the last place we expect to be holy in any sense!). But Moses was in the presence of God as it turned out, and God had a message that, at first, seemed to have nothing to do with Moses personally. God was concerned for Israel. Well fine, who wasn’t? They were being treated abominably by the Egyptians and no one knew that better than Moses. So God was concerned and was determined to get them out and into the Promised Land once again.

    But if Moses at first viewed this as no more than a news flash about events and things outside of himself, that soon changed. “And you, Moses, are the one who will do all this!” Moses says the only thing anyone could say, the very same thing any one of us would have said: “Who am I to do this?” It’s a good question, but did you notice God’s answer? Or rather, did you notice what God did not say?

    God does not reply, “Who are you!? Why, you’re gifted, man! You are strong, brave, bold, courageous. You’ve got leadership skills, an aptitude for influencing people. I’ve looked you over, Moses, and you’ve got the 12 habits of highly effective people down pat! I’ve passed you through a Meyers-Brigg inventory and you come out with precisely the combination of emotions that will propel you straight to the top! You, Moses, are the logical, the obvious, the natural choice!”

    God doesn’t say anything like that. “Who am I?” Moses asks. And God says in essence, “You’re nobody. But I will be with you.” That has to be enough for Moses. Meanwhile God bolsters all of this a bit more by proffering Moses a sign. “I will be with you, Moses, and here’s how you will know that this is true: some day you will have the Israelites in tow and all of you will worship me right on this very mountain.”

    Now I don’t know about you, but as confirmations go, this sign strikes me as a tad unhelpful. Suppose you go to the bank to request a $10,000 loan. The loan officer will almost certainly ask you, “And how do I know you can pay this back? What collateral can you show me?” But it will not cut any ice with the bank if your reply is along the lines of, “Well, you’ll know I can pay it back when I do. Right after I have returned the last red cent to you, then you will know that I am a reliable loan applicant.”

    No, that’s not the drill.  Not at the bank at least.   What good is a sign if it comes only after the very thing you want confirmed has already happened? Moses doesn’t think he can lead the Israelites out. God says he can because God will be with him. Moses wants to know right then and there how he can be sure of that, and so God says that he’ll know God is with him only after he has completed the very work that he is sure he cannot do.

    “You’ll see,” God as much as says. In other words, Moses had to move forward in the suspense of faith. That didn’t sit too well, and so Moses presses things a bit more. “OK, so you are sending me, you say you will be with me, and I’m willing to try to tell all that to the people, but they’re going to want to see some I.D. Who exactly should I say told me to do all this?” God’s reply is the famous “I Am Who I Am. Tell them that I Am sent you.” Moses must have been disappointed. The gods of the Egyptians had some really cool names, monikers that evoked flood and thunder, blazing sunlight and rainstorms, power and might. Compared to all that, “I Am” seemed a little nondescript. If someone known as Richard the Lionhearted invites troops to follow him into battle, the very name inspires confidence. But there may be a reason why in history there has never been a famous military general whose name was Gilbert Skinnypants or Eldon Knockknees! Names are important!

    Exodus 3 is, of course, the famous, first-ever revelation of the divine name “Yahweh” or “Jehovah” as it used to be rendered. Pick up any commentary you want, however, and you will find that to this day scholars still cannot agree on the precise meaning of that name. And if three or so millennia later we don’t have it figured out, you have to assume this wasn’t crystal clear to Moses that day at the burning bush, either.

    “Yahweh” means either “I Am Who I Am” or “I Will Be Who I Will Be,” or some combination of the two. In any event the name evokes constancy, faithfulness, steadiness. Whoever this God is, he will not change. Maybe that is why God immediately goes on to remind Moses that in addition to who he is right now and who he will continue to be into the future, he is also the God of the past, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. We have past, present, and future all coalescing around that odd-sounding name. “I don’t change, Moses. The Unchanging One will be with you.” And it had to be enough for Moses. He had to trust the past to secure the present, and he had to trust the present to bring him to that future time when the sign would be given.

    He had to live in suspense, in short.

    So, many times, must we.   But living with suspense is still different from living in total doubt. Moses may have had to leave Mount Sinai without every possible reassurance he might have wished for, but he did proceed, he did believe enough to move on. God rooted his “I Am” faithfulness in the covenant past. Through the Spirit of Pentecost he roots his constancy for us now in nothing less than the cross and empty tomb. The God who did all of that has promised to be with us. He has promised to prosper us in the work we do and leaves open the possibility that he is doing more now, and may call us to do more in the future, than we could possibly imagine.

  • The Lectionary Psalms +

    Psalm 26:1-8

    Author: Doug Bratt

  • Lectionary Epistle +

    Romans 12:9-21

    Author: Stan Mast