Last summer, millions of Americans took out their handkerchiefs and sat down to watch the final episode of Six Feet Under on HBO. I was among them. I confess to having been addicted for five years to that quirky drama set in California, a drama that told the story of members of the Fisher family, proprietors of a funeral home.
The eldest son in the family was named Nate. He was a mess, but a lovable mess; and his death at age 40 in the next-to-the-last episode broke everyone's heart including my own. And, then, in the final episode, Nate reappeared. He came back as a spiritual advisor, so to speak, to his friends and especially to his 20-something sister, Claire, who was kind of a mess in her own right and was torn between staying in California and following her passion and moving to New York to be a photographer. Nate speaks to her in his loving voice, "Claire, I spent my whole life being scared, not being ready, not being what I should be, and where did it get me?" In the next scene, Claire is driving across the desert, her red hair flying. She's on her way to Manhattan and to whatever life has in store for her next.
Here's a question for you: How do you decide about your life direction if you do not have a brother who comes back from the dead to tell you what to do?
Ethicist Andy Fleming at Emory's Center for Ethics suggests that you could ask yourself three questions:
- What do I like to do?
- What am I good at? and
- What needs to be done in the world?
Where those questions overlap is what Fleming calls your "sweet spot," the place where you and I are meant to be and where we are able to live out our destiny at its fullest.
That's a pretty good decision-making process when it comes to deciding what to do next, but in the Old Testament account of the commissioning of Moses, another decision-maker is obviously at work. The name of the actor in that drama is God. YHWH, the Hebrews call him, an early form of the Hebrew verb to be. You might think that God's name would be a noun. But, no, God's name is a verb, the verb to be. God is all about being and doing, and what God does to Moses is to put him in whatever is the opposite of his "sweet spot." God, in fact, drags Moses into the most conflicted moment of his life.
What a mismatch of skills, for example. Claire, in Six Feet Under, was a photographer and she headed off to pursue that which best used her skill set. Moses' skills lie in the area of shepherding, and that's exactly what he's doing, tending the flocks of his father-in-law in the land of Midian where he had fled from Egypt after killing an Egyptian overseer who had mistreated a Hebrew slave.
I don't want you to get lost in the plot. Let me review the family history. The heirs of Abraham and Sarah had included a man named Joseph who was sold into slavery in Egypt, but then Joseph became the Pharaoh's right-hand man when a famine hit. The Book of Exodus begins with the brief review of this family tree. We come to these haunting words, "Now a new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph." The new king oppressed the Israelites with hard, forced labor. Moses was an Israelite. You remember the great adventures of his early days-how he rode down the Nile in a basket made of bulrushes, how he was the object of a well-planned rescue and how he ended up in Pharaoh's palace. His golden life ended, however, when his anger got the best of him one day and he committed murder and had to flee. When we come across him today, he is away, far away, from all of that. He has gotten his life back together. He's married, he's had a baby, he's enjoying life. He has no ambition other than finding tender grass for his hungry flock.
Moses is simply going about his business when God appears to him out of the blue and says, "Son, I have a plan for you." God spoke to Moses from a nearby bush ablaze with flame. You might think the Almighty would choose something a little less ordinary than a bush to be the divine loudspeaker. But then, again, throughout the Scriptures, we find God using that which is close at hand, exactly where people are, to reveal divine presence and will.
I know what you're saying: "God's never spoken to me from a burning bush." "I'm still waiting to travel down my Damascus Road."
Well, I respectfully disagree that God has never spoken to you. I believe that there is not a single person listening to whom God has not spoken, some way, somehow, about where God's wants you to go, what God wants you to do in the next chapter of your life.
How does God speak? Sometimes, God's voice is heard in the form of an "A" in your favorite course in college. Sometimes, God can speak through the "F" as well. Here's the deal: God has not left you alone to find your way. The question is whether or not you and I are listening to the ups and the downs in our lives, listening to the people around us who believe in us, listening to the surprise developments that come, truly, out of nowhere.
I think about the disciples of Jesus and how they were each going about their own business and then came the voice, "Follow me." No command to go home and figure out your life plan. Just "Follow me." And gladly they responded. And, in doing so, they discovered the deepest gladness and meaning they had ever known.
God speaks if we will listen. Sometimes with a gentle word of direction. Sometimes using the tactic of an ambush, a la Moses.
"Moses, Moses!" the Lord called out to the young shepherd. Moses was so taken aback he answered as a school boy might: "Here!"
"Don't come any closer," the Lord warned from that burning bush. "Take your sandals off. Where you're standing is holy ground." Remember, just a second before the ground had been ordinary ground, just as the bush had been an ordinary bush, a reminder that we do not have to go away to a designated sacred place to have a divine encounter. You do not have to be standing on the rim of the Grand Canyon at sunset. You have to keep your eyes and ears open where you are.
God made sure that Moses understood that the voice Moses was hearing was the voice of the God who had guided his ancestors forever. And after he had established that ancestry, God got down to business, because clearly God was interested in more than Moses' individual destiny. The fate of desperate, suffering people was on God's mind.
"I have observed the misery of my people in Egypt," the Lord said. "I have come to deliver them from bondage and to bring them out to a land flowing with milk and honey."
I imagine Moses thought, "Well, isn't that good of you, God," when God went on to say, "So, now I'm going to send you to bring my people out."
"Me?!" Moses asked. "Who am I to do that?" Moses really did have an identity problem. Was he a Hebrew? Was he an Egyptian? He had married into a family of Midianites. It was hard for him to know who he was or where he belonged.
"Don't worry," said the Lord. "You belong to me. I'm going with you all the way."
That was no guarantee of success, but it was the assurance of God's unfailing providence and care. It sounds like enough to me, but it wasn't enough for Moses. He kept arguing with the Almighty.
"If the people ask me who sent it, what am I going to tell them?"
The Lord said, "Tell them I AM sent me to you."
Moses was not so sure that answer would satisfy. The conversation goes back and forth like this for a couple of chapters in Exodus. Remember who the participants are in this conversation-the Holy God, whose glory fills creation, and a man named Moses, who clearly has the most chutzpa ever recorded in human history.
On he argues, "What if they won't believe me if I tell them you sent me?"
"Well, then, I'll give you some signs you can show to them. And if the signs with the snake and the hand turning white with leprosy won't impress them, then just take some water from the Nile River and pour it on the ground and I'll turn the water into blood."
Still not enough for Moses. His heels are dug in deep against his destiny. "You have forgotten something, Almighty God. You have forgotten that I am a very poor public speaker. When I open my mouth, I sound as if I have marbles in there. I'm slow of speech. My tongue doesn't work well."
The Lord had only one nerve left, and Moses was standing on it. "Moses, you have forgotten that I am the one who gives speech in the first place? I will be with your mouth."
Moses presses on. "O Lord, please just send someone else."
Astonishingly, God answers, "All right. I'll send that silver-tongued brother of yours-Aaron, the Levite. He'll do your speaking for you. Now pick up your staff. The people are suffering. They're waiting for you. And only you. You are the one I have chosen."
Finally, Moses stops talking and starts moving. Finally, he pushes through the wall of his own self-doubt and sense of inadequacy. God knew Moses would be fine. The problem was Moses didn't know it. God intended to give Moses everything he would need to fulfill his mission. The challenge was in helping Moses get to the place where he could trust God to work in, through, and around his human limitations.
It's quite a story, isn't it? The commissioning of Moses reminds us that the God who calls also equips. Don't worry about it. The risk lies in whether we will allow our sense of inadequacy, our tendency to tread water where we are, whether we let those things hold us back. Jesus showed us a better way to live.
Do you remember the day that Jesus laid it all out for his disciples? "I know what I must do. I must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering and be killed and on the third day I will be raised." Jesus went on to do what he had to do, trusting that God would give him what he needed to fulfill his mission in life, which was not just about him. It was about the salvation of the world.
I do not know what you do in the world, whether you teach or work in an office, whether you are at the beginning of your career or whether you are retired, but I do know this about you: If your only goal is life is to get your needs met or to get the glory for yourself, then I will guarantee that you will miss out on the life God intends for you. The purpose of human life has always been about being a part of that which is larger and more enduring than one's self.
Was Moses' life a bed of roses after God got a hold of him? Actually, the day that happened was the day his real troubles began. Pharaoh's army tried to kill him. The people that he liberated complained and griped for 40 years; and when he and they finally arrived at the Promised Land, God decided that someone else, Joshua, should take them over to the other side. Moses died in the land of Moab without ever reaching the Promised Land. The people grieved for him for about a month and then went right on without him. But, oh, what a life Moses led, beginning with the day he left the house a shepherd and returned the deliverer of a nation.
Friends in Christ, the life you're living now-it is the only one you've got. Don't spend it being scared, not being ready, not being what you should be. The bush is burning. It burns for you.
God of grace, may we be open to hear your voice and to see your holy majesty. We offer our prayer in the name of Christ. Amen.