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Signs

We left off last week in the middle of the conversation that Moses has with God speaking out of the burning bush — and I introduced you to the concept of “call reluctance,” a term widely used in the field of sales, which has a great deal of resonance for me when I consider the fear of the unknown that answering God’s call stirs up in most of us. This morning, in chapter four of Exodus, we pick up that conversation where we left off, and we find that Moses, in spite of God’s promise to be with him, is still not over his “call reluctance” yet.

He is still afraid of rejection from the people he came from; his old story is haunting him.

For many, going back home is a matter of facing demons. It is coming back to confront old expectations, the way you were defined “back when.” They may be the expectations that others have placed on you, or (even more likely, perhaps) the identity and expectations you once placed on yourself. And that can stir up a lot of anxiety. (Think: “Thanksgiving dinner” in some families!) And in Moses’ case, there is more baggage than usual. He is not a fellow who would receive a hero’s welcome — not by a long shot. So he says: “What if they don’t believe me? What if they don’t listen to me?” After all, who would expect God to be speaking to a guy like this one?

He doesn’t ask for any “signs” — as many people do, when confronted with a daunting call by God — however, that is what he is given. But they are odd signs, indeed — and they both start from Moses’ hands.

“What is that in your hand?” God says first.

What is that in your hand…? Do you suppose that God says that to you when you experience “call reluctance?” In other words, what has God already given you that will help you to faithfully carry out the daunting task in front of you? That “thing in your hand” may be a talent you didn’t know you had, that is just waiting to be discovered, exercised and developed. That “thing in your hand” may be an experience that you didn’t realize, at the time, would have relevance later in your life, or a connection almost forgotten that God calls back to your mind.

What do you have in your hand?

In Moses’ case, it was his shepherd’s staff — the tool of his trade, a thing that represented the new life he’d made for himself in the desert of Midian. On the one hand, it was a humble sign, a symbol of his working class status, in comparison to his upbringing in the house of the king of Egypt — but on the other, in comparison to the status of his fellow Hebrews, it was a sign of his freedom, for with it he worked for the welfare of his wife and family, and not as a slave. The staff was a reminder of where Moses had come from, and of how far he had come.

What is that in your hand …? There are times when I look back over my life, and I notice the threads of a great tapestry — experiences I had that have come back to serve me in ministry: piano lessons and singing in school and church choirs; school plays and college dramas; jobs — from babysitting to teaching music, to working in a nursing home, to cashiering and cleaning offices and tour guiding, and doing data entry and maintaining open space trails; a cross-cultural educational experience in Los Angeles and a hospital chaplaincy on the Arizona-Mexico border; and my farming grandparents and college in a small farming town in the Midwest. All these things, and more, have come back into play at one point or another in my ministry. Many gave me more confidence when I was sent to serve in a new and unfamiliar place. And practicing “graced history” (a prayer exercise I mentioned in this pulpit two weeks ago) helps me to see the signs — that God has been preparing me all along, giving me the tools and skills to cope with the challenges ahead.

That doesn’t mean it isn’t still scary. When he throws that staff on the ground and it becomes a snake, I’m sure it took a lot, on Moses’ part, to pick that thing up by the tail. I would have thought twice about putting it down on the ground again! And when he follows the second instruction, and puts his hand in his cloak and takes it out, and finds it leprous, I would likewise have been terrified.

And this is how stepping into God’s signs works for me. Even when I come to realize that God has already given me what I need to move forward in faith, it still takes faith to step forward. Exercising those gifts requires me to stretch, overcome my fear, even as I am given some measure of confidence by the recognition that they are there inside of me, as I witness the reactions of others and watch the consequences unfold — for not all of those are positive, and the road isn’t always easy, even when I find myself in the joyful “flow” that happens when my gifts are meeting needs and making an impact.

Now to me, there’s something rather charming about this series of exchanges between the Almighty God and this very human Moses. “Who am I?” “I’ll be with you?” “Give me some credentials” — to which God supplies a name. “What if they don’t believe me?” “What is in your hand? (I’ve been with you all along, providing you with what you need.)” “But I’m not eloquent” — “I will teach you.” And then Moses just breaks down and says, “Please just send someone else!”

Has that ever been your response? Does this exchange sound a little bit like your prayer life? I have to admit, it sounds like mine!

The scripture says God’s anger (onscreen: show Ex 4:14) was kindled against Moses at that point — and that may feel a little harsh, but I can feel the vexation between the lines.

And yet God doesn’t give up, doesn’t “smite” Moses in that frustration. Instead (and I imagine a big sigh here): “How about a wingman? I’ll send your brother along with you — but take the staff, too.”

The Serendipity Bible (a kind of “light” Bible study resource, which uses Bible stories as a jumping-off point for helping people share their own stories with one another, in order to build relationships between people in small groups; it’s a Bible I use at Brookdale) poses this question for this passage: “What was the point of the miraculous signs?” In “multiple choice” style, it suggests these answers (and there’s never a “wrong answer” in Serendipity Bible study). First, “God was answering Moses’ objection about people not believing him.” Second, “God was demonstrating [God’s] power to Moses.” And it suggests this third intriguing possibility: “God was transferring … power to Moses.”

What do you think of that? Does God, in opening our eyes to the gifts that are already inside of us and already embedded in our experiences, transfer power to us, which makes us able (onscreen: show Eph. 3:20) to do far more than we can imagine, for God’s sake and in God’s name?

Controversial pastor and author Rob Bell suggests that we ask of the scriptures: “Why was this story written down and why has interest in it persisted for so many hundreds and thousands of years?”

How unusual this God of ours is. The picture of God painted in this Bible of ours is not of a God who is distant or uncaring … and yet this God calls human beings into difficult, soul-stretching, justice-making efforts that change the course of human history.

We might say, “Well, I’m no Moses. I wasn’t rescued from some catastrophic circumstance and put in just the right time and just the right place to do something great. I wasn’t given amazing signs and gifts and talents and resources that could be used by God to work for freedom for the oppressed. God doesn’t speak to me in amazing ways, and God doesn’t put power in my hands to carry out great things, and God doesn’t give me companions to help me do these things, in spite of my stubbornness and in spite of my stumbles.”

Really?

Might the very opposite not be just the point — the very reason this story has continued to spark the imagination and disturb the consciences of countless listeners and readers over the generations?

Maybe I need to feel the vexation that God expresses in this story; maybe I need to get a little stirred up by the resistance that Moses is clinging to. Maybe then I’ll start to work on my own resistance … and maybe then I’ll see the signs God has been trying to show me. Amen.