September 11, 2016
Rev. John Watts
Nampa First UMC
FOLLOW THE LEADER: MOSES
The first in a series of seven.
I don’t know if you’ve heard, but this is a presidential election year. It has been in the news some, but I understand if you’ve missed it. We’re going to be electing a new leader. Election Day is November 8.
Some of us have actually been following all this and are quite concerned about who that new leader might be. Some of us have elevated blood pressure over it. And yes, probably for most of us, it would do us some good to turn off the television and go outside, take a deep breath, and think about something else.
But when you come to church today and for the seven Sundays of this sermon series, fair warning, you’re not going to be able to get away from it. This will be your Election 2016 headquarters. But not in a way that will raise your blood pressure even more. I’m hoping to offer you a perspective on things here in worship that I think you’re going to welcome and that I’m pretty sure you won’t be getting anywhere else.
In seven sermons, we will be talking about seven leaders. You’ll be glad to hear that these seven leaders do not include Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton. There won’t be a single sermon on either one of them. I promise. In fact, I don’t think you’ll even hear me say their names in this series again. Not sure I can keep that promise, but I’ll try. The leaders we’re going to be talking about are Bible leaders. Beginning today with Moses.
You read the Bible and you learn right away that God cares about leadership. God doesn’t come down to earth and take charge of things all by himself. God works through people. And the only way it ever really works is for God to work directly through certain people who we call leaders. It’s not that God plays favorites. We are all loved and valued by God just the same, but it’s simply true that nothing ever seems to get done without a few leaders mobilizing a lot of followers to work together on a common goal.
There are all kinds of leaders. You can see that by going through the list of presidents who have served this country. Very different people, very different personalities, and with a few exceptions, very effective in leading our country.
You can also see that by looking at the people God raised up as leaders in the Bible. As we will see in the coming weeks, Bible leaders are not carbon copies of each other. They are all different. With a single exception, they are all flawed. What they have in common is that God used what was unique in each of them to accomplish great things.
That was true of Moses. I’m going to begin with two verses of scripture that at first glance would seem to disqualify him. If God had read the Bible first, maybe God would have chosen someone else. First, let’s look at Numbers 12, verse 3:
Now the man Moses was very meek, more than all men that were on the face of the earth.
Somehow the words “meek” and “leader” do not seem to belong together. If I did a word association right now and asked you to name the first word that pops into your head when I say “leader”, what would it be? “Strong”. “Forceful”. “Fearless”. But not “meek”. And yet this verse from Numbers not only describes Moses as meek, it says there was no one “on the face of the earth” who was more meek.
The second verse is from the scripture we read for today. Actually it’s just part of a verse. Just three words. They are found in Exodus 3:11. God has spoken to Moses out of the burning bush and Moses says: “Who am I?”
Again, not exactly what you might expect from a charismatic leader all charged up and raring to go. Not exactly what we will expect to hear in the closing statement of either presidential candidate at the end of their first debate. (Although some of us will remember that very question being asked by a candidate in the vice presidential debate a few years ago.)
“Who am I?” One would think that maybe Moses would have figured that out by now. Meek Moses. “Very meek, more than all men that were on the face of the earth.” God tells him he’s been hand-picked. He’s the one, out of all the men on the face of the earth, to set his people free. And all he can say is, “Who am I?” ??
He wouldn’t have asked that question 40 years earlier. He knew who he was 40 years earlier. That’s when his leadership juices were flowing, his confidence was at a peak, he was ready to run through a brick wall if that’s what it would take to set his people free. But that was 40 years ago. Moses is no longer a fiery 40-year-old. He’s 80 now. He’s retired. And tired. And meek. And pretty sure God has the wrong man.
The life of Moses can conveniently be divided into three blocks of forty years. He was born a Jew at a bad time to be born a Jew. At that time all male Jewish newborns were being put to death. He was hidden in a basket next to the Nile River and the daughter of Pharaoh found him there and raised him as her own.
(Pharaoh, by the way, spelled P-h-a-r-a-o-h. “American Pharoah”, that horse with the misspelled name, has not helped the spelling bees of America one bit.)
So Moses was raised as royalty. As he grew up, he discovered that Pharaoh’s daughter was not his real mother. He was not Egyptian. Everyone thought he was, but he knew the truth. He was Jewish. His people were slaves. This bothered him to no end. But now he could do something about it. He was living in the seat of power, Pharaoh’s palace. Surely God had planted him there so he could set his people free.
But Moses got out ahead of himself. He couldn’t wait. He was so enraged over the mistreatment of his people that he killed a man. He killed an Egyptian who had just beaten a Jew. That wasn’t a very meek thing to do, but Moses was not a meek man at age 40.
He carefully buried the body so no one would know, but then he learned that he had not been careful enough. Pharaoh didn’t know what he had done. Not yet. But his own people did. They said something that must have really hurt. They said, “Who made you to be a ruler over us?” (Exodus 2:14) His own people, the people he was trying to help, wanted nothing to do with him.
So Moses started the second forty years of his life. He made a new beginning far away in the land of Midian. Where is Midian?
It’s maybe 400 miles from where he had been living in Egypt. He had to get that far away, where nobody knew or cared who he was or what he had done.
And now 40 years later, God is speaking to him from this burning bush, calling him to do now what he had felt called to do but had failed to do 40 years earlier. The calling was right but the timing was wrong. He was off by just about 40 years.
God’s timing is always right on. Our timing is often way off. You can see in this story what God was up to. As a young man, before Moses was meek, he had tried to answer God’s calling without God. He took matters into his own hands. And he had failed miserably. So Moses needed 40 years of “meekness lessons”. 40 years as a humble shepherd living out what he must have thought were the last of his days, never to be heard from again, in the remote outer regions of Midian.
He spent 40 years in the schools of Egypt training to be something. Then he spent 40 years in the isolation of the desert learning that he was nothing. That’s why he says to God, “Who am I?” He is no longer the “full of himself” Moses. He is now ready to be the “filled with God” Moses. He was something, then he
became nothing, and then for the final 40 years of his life — yes he lived to be 120 — Moses learned how God can take nothing and turn it into something. Turn it into one of the greatest leaders the world has ever known.
It was important for Moses to reach the point in his life where he was able to say, “Who am I?” It’s a good question to ask, but it’s not the most important question.
We all have answers to the, “Who am I?” question. Some of us have an opinion of ourselves that is way too high. Some of us have an opinion of ourselves that is way too low. And of course other people have opinions about us, too. Some of us concern ourselves too much with those opinions. Some of us, too little. Some of us obsess way too much over trying to figure out who we really are.
But as Moses discovered, “Who I am” doesn’t matter nearly as much as “Who God is”. Because notice here that God doesn’t bother with whatever opinion Moses has of himself. God doesn’t take time either to build him up or to bring him down. God simply says, “I will be with you” (3:12). God will be with Moses. That’s all he really needs to know.
When God calls us to do something, it’s not a matter of how qualified we are, how strong and wise and gifted we are. It’s a matter of whether we are willing to allow God to use us, just as we are, to do what God wants to do through us.
One of my favorite all-time quotes comes from Madeleine L’Engle. She felt God tugging at her heart to do something, but she also felt this powerful wave of inadequacy. Here’s what she said:
Slowly I realized that I don’t have to be qualified to do what I am called to do. I just have to go ahead and do it, even though I may not do it as well as I would like to have it done. That is the most liberating lesson of my life.
It’s not who we are that matters; it’s who God is. It’s not that we are able; it’s that God is able. Eventually Moses was able to figure this out. First, he had to run through a few reasons that God might want to reconsider his choice. But God had chosen the right man. And 80-year-old Moses had a job that would take him the last 40 years of his life to complete.
Meek Moses. “More [meek] than all the men that were on the face of the earth.” That verse from Numbers is so contrary to everything we think we know about leadership. I don’t think we’ve ever elected a meek president of the United States. And I don’t think we’re about to this time either.
This verse about Moses being so meek comes as he is well into his leadership assignment. His people have already left Egypt. They are well on their way to the Promised Land. It’s been a long journey already. There is a long journey still ahead. People are getting restless. And grumpy. Even his siblings, Miriam and Aaron. They are tired of being bossed around by their brother. So they challenge his authority. They say, “Has the Lord indeed only spoken through Moses? Has he not spoken through us also?” (Numbers 12:2). And God descends in a cloud to set them straight. “Moses is my man. So don’t you say bad things about him.”
Now of course, leaders often do need to be challenged and corrected. That’s coming up in this series. Especially in the David sermon next week. But in this case, the criticism was out of line. God speaks up for Moses. Which is a little odd, don’t you think? Don’t you think Moses might have been able to speak up for himself?
That’s where we find this verse. “Now the man Moses was very meek, more than all the men on the face of the earth.” So what is that? An admission that even as great a man as Moses had a weakness. He was meek. Too meek even to defend himself against his own sister and brother. Or was that an insight into why Moses was such a great leader? He was meek. Not weak. Meek. That’s why God could use him. He was a great leader not in spite of that, but because of that.
Jim Collins wrote a book a few years ago called Good to Great. It was a study of some of the great companies in America and the leadership that made them so. Here is one of his findings. He admitted that it surprised him. He wasn’t expect this, but as he did the research it was impossible to miss.
The CEO’s of these good to great companies all possessed at the same time two personality traits in tandem — personality traits we often think of as contradictory. They were humble and they were also driven. They were outwardly humble, even shy in their personal lives. But they also had a ferocious, fanatical resolve to make their companies great. They had ambition. Tremendous ambition. But it was ambition for the organizations they had been called to lead, not ambition for themselves.
I think Moses was that kind of a leader. He was that kind of a CEO. He was humble. But he was also driven. He was meek. But he was also strong.
Remember that day on the mountain when he broke the stone tablets on which were engraved the Ten Commandments? He wasn’t meek then. He was mad. I’m pretty sure there were days when the humble CEO’s Jim Collins is describing got mad. Sometimes that’s what it takes to be a leader. And Moses was a leader.
One more thing and we’ll close. The last verse of the scripture we read today is most interesting. God says this to Moses:
But I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you, that I have sent you: when you have brought forth the people out of Egypt, you shall serve God upon this mountain (3:12),
So what mountain is God talking about? Mt. Horeb. The same Mr. Horeb, also known as Mt. Sinai, on which Moses would be given the Ten Commandments.
It’s a little controversial. Not everyone agrees on the location of Mt. Sinai. But it’s hard to make sense of this verse without the route of the Exodus being something like this:
Moses leads his people out of Egypt, across the Red Sea, and ends up right back where God spoke to him out of that burning bush.
“This will be the sign,” God had said. “If you do what I have called you to do with the final 40 years of your life, you will end up right back here. That way you’ll know I am with you. That way you’ll know this is of me. You left this mountain and now you have returned to this mountain because of your meekness. Meekness, not weakness. Because I have made you strong.”
Dear God, only Moses was called to lead his people from slavery to the Promised Land. We don’t expect a big, grand calling like that. But all of us are called. And all of us feel inadequate. Those of us who don’t, should. Because it is only in you, never in ourselves alone, that we can do what you have called us to do. So humbly, God, and yet at the same time boldly, we offer ourselves to you. We are no longer our own. We are yours. Yours for a purpose far greater than ourselves. In Jesus’ name, Amen.