Opening Talk – The Gathering 2018

Like most of us here tonight, I have read for years the story of Moses at the burning bush and his reluctance to return to Egypt and bring the people of Israel out of slavery and into the Promised Land. 

 “What if they do not believe me or listen to me and say, ‘The Lord did not appear to you’?” 

 Then the Lord said to him, “What is that in your hand?” 

 “A staff,” he replied.

 The Lord said, “Throw it on the ground.”

 Moses threw it on the ground and it became a snake, and he ran from it.  Then the Lord said to him, “Reach out your hand and take it by the tail.”  So Moses reached out and took hold of the snake and it turned back into a staff in his hand. “This,” said the Lord, “is so that they may believe that the Lord God of their fathers – the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob – has appeared to you.”

 Like many of us I have taken that to mean God intends for us to take what is in our hand and use it for his purposes.  I take this from a recent sermon: “Offer unto God what he has placed in your hand,  “What is in your hand” means whatever is in your care or control.  This could be money, possessions, influence, talents, abilities, and more.  What you withhold and retain in your hand reveals what is in your heart. Child of God, release what you hold.  Your Father is waiting to use what He has placed in your hands.”

 But, lately I have been rereading the passage and I don’t think it is about doing things for God with what is in our hand.  It is not about the humble offering of loaves and fishes that miraculously feed thousands.  It is not about God turning something as common as a shepherd’s staff into a miracle. It is about something else entirely that is important for us to hear.

 What was the question the people were sure to ask?  It was not about doing anything.  It was about the credibility of Moses and why they should believe him.  What did they really want to know?  They wanted to know who he had been with.  They wanted to know who had sent him.

 We know from the following chapters that many of the miracles could be reproduced by Pharoah’s wise men and sorcerers.  The world was full of magicians doing extraordinary things by their secret arts.  The world of the Israelites was probably full of well-intended saviors and others stirring up the people to revolt.  There were no doubt others, like Moses had been forty years earlier, who were outraged by the injustice endured by the people and while righting a wrong only made things worse for the people.  I can imagine the people saying, “We’ve had more than one coming to save us in 400 years.  There have been charlatans, hucksters, opportunists, do gooders and revolutionaries.  We have seen them all come and go…and we are still in slavery.  Why should we believe you are any different?”

 The question was not about miracles or justice.  It was something else entirely. It was about who Moses had been with – not what he could do with what was in his hand.  It was about why they should believe anything he had to say.  It was about the source of his credibility because the biggest obstacle to their freedom was their cynicism and disbelief.  Everyone else came on their own.  Why should he be an exception?

 In a way, we see the same in Luke 7.  “John’s disciples told him about all these things.  Calling two of them, he sent them to the Lord to ask, “Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?”  So, Jesus replied to the messengers, “Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor.”

 John’s question was the same as Israel’s in Egypt.  Who sent you?  Who have you been with? Why should be believe you are the one?

 Take what is in your hand is not about doing something for God.  The sign was not about what Moses could do for the people.  It was a sign that he had been with God and that he had come from God.  That is what all of us are looking for, aren’t we?  We are looking not for miracles but for a sign that someone has been with God and been sent.  It is not about what we can do with what little is in our hand but people believing that we have been with God. 

This is the question of the world today.  It is the question of the church as well.  “How do we know you have been with God?  Are you the one who can be trusted or are you only another one with good intentions and plans?”

 Too often the messenger becomes just another magician doing wondrous things and the sign creates ever increasing desire on the part of the people for even more.  Soon, the answer to the most important question, “Who have you been with?,” becomes “What more can you do for us?”  Paul says the Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom. We think our accomplishments and our wisdom will give us credibility but it doesn’t.  Only one thing alone will answer that most basic question people have for us today.  “How do we know the Lord has appeared to you?”  What is it in our character, our spirit, our demeanor and our actions that says to people who are cynical and hardened that we have been with the Lord?  What is our sign for today that will say to people we are not just another wave of do-gooders, opportunists, ideologues and partisans who have come on our own to do what we think is best.

 Chuck Colson said years ago after his experience with partisan politics in the Nixon White House: 

 “Christians should never have a political party. It is a huge mistake to become married to an ideology, because the greatest enemy of the gospel is ideology. Ideology is a man-made format of how the world ought to work, and Christians instead believe in the revealing truth of Scripture.”

 The pressing question for us today is not which ideology is right or how the world ought to work.  Rather, it is the one asked thousands of years ago by slaves and later by disciples and prophets.  “How can we know that you are the one?”  “How can we know that you have been with God?”

 ”Moses and Aaron brought together all the elders of the Israelites, and Aaron told them everything the Lord had said to Moses.  He also performed the signs before the people, and they believed.  And when they heard that the Lord was concerned about them and had seen their misery, they bowed down and worshiped.”

 What is in your hand?  That might well be the theme for this year and the question we all ask ourselves over the course of the weekend.  Not, what can we do for God or even for others.  Instead, before we do anything else how will people know that we have been with God?

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