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First Presbyterian Church, Nashville

Dr. Todd B. Jones

August 31, 2014

 The God Who Calls

Exodus 3:1-15; Matthew 16:21-28

  

            Today we turn to one of the most important encounters, not simply in the Bible, but arguably in human history. Moses became the great Liberator and Law Giver of the world, and as Bruce Feiler put it in his book on Moses, “Wherever freedom is spoken, it is always spoken still with a Hebrew accent.” The name of Moses is invoked whenever freedom is at hand.

             Yet Moses’ life looked like anything but a world-changing one that day in Midian on “the mountain of God.” Moses had settled into a more domesticated life in Midian, tending his father-in-law’s herds, raising his boy. You will recall how it came to this for Moses … you know, the “old bulrush boy”! Pushed out as an infant by his mother in a basket, he was found in the reeds of the Nile River by the house of Pharaoh, and raised there as a child of privilege. But Moses must have never forgotten his roots, because one day when he saw one of his own people, a Hebrew slave, being beaten by an Egyptian, something primal rose up in him, and Moses killed the Egyptian, burying him in the sand. Fearing that Pharaoh would kill him for this act of passion, Moses fled to Midian. There he found a wife, Zipporah, and a settled existence looking after the flock of his father-in-law Jethro’s sheep. Things looked like they were set for Moses.

             Then along came God! Actually, Exodus tells us that it was “an angel of the Lord” who appeared to Moses out of a “bush that was burning, yet it was not consumed.” It was as simple, and as utterly mysterious as that for Moses. Just as Moses thinks his whole life is all but over, settled in for the long-haul (like most of us sadly assume when we reach middle age), God comes to him in inexhaustible mystery. And God calls Moses. He calls Moses by name. He calls Moses, in other words, to be Moses. I am not called to be Moses or Jesus or Mary or Gandhi or Lincoln or Mother Teresa. I am called to be Todd Jones. We remember this every time we baptize a child or an adult. God’s call is mysterious, unpredictable, inexhaustible – I have heard folks tell me of calls more mysterious and astounding than the call of Moses – but it is always personal. It is first of all always a call to being. The call of God is simply the call to be what we were made and meant to be. While God called Moses to free the Hebrew people from Pharaoh’s oppression, and Jeremiah to speak a harsh word of judgment, and Mary to give birth in her womb to God as a baby, and Abraham Lincoln to bear in his melancholy, tortured soul the awful pain and burden of slavery, God first called them. And God did not call them to be or to do anything other than who they were and what they were supposed to do.

             God’s call is first a call to being, because if we get our being right, if we figure out who we are, our doing will follow. It has a way of taking care of itself. But this is not to minimize or reduce at all the challenge and fearful nature of God’s call. Because God here was calling Moses to be his true self – his full self, the best self he had it in him to be. Irenaeus was an early church father I have read and loved. I only wish the Church had saved more of his sermons and writings. But Irenaeus said once, “The glory of God is a human being fully alive.” Our real failure is not because of the evil within us – God is more than a conqueror over our measly, cowardly, mostly selfish sins. Our real failure is in denying or ignoring or in hiding from the goodness in our lives that calls to us. God was calling forth Moses’ full humanity. Most of us are afraid to dare our full capacity. So we try to shrink and squeeze God’s call into something more suited to our egos – forgetting that the smallest package in all the world is a person all wrapped up in themselves. Or we try to reduce it into something that feels safe. Remember the question asked about Aslan in the Narnia Tales? “Is he safe?” “Safe?” said Mr. Beaver; “don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ’Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the king, I tell you.” Why else did Jesus say, “For whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses his soul?” God isn’t as into our safety as God cares about our souls. God calls us by name because God wants to save our souls, and because God knows only too well how easily in this life we can lose our souls.

             Note please that God’s call is almost always a fearful thing, because who wants to be held accountable for their full capacity, their real potential? Walter Brueggemann points out that Moses offers five objections or reasons of resistance to God’s call. “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh…?” is the first and the main one. Note that God does not answer this by telling Moses how great he is, or by listing all his outstanding qualifications. He doesn’t try to build up Moses’ self-esteem! This is not all about Moses! All God says is “I will be with you.” For “if God is for us, who can be against us?” And if we go where God calls, God always is with us.

             Jeremiah said, “I am only a youth.” Mary said, “How can this be, for I do not have a husband.” God’s call is the unapologetic call for us to be fully alive – to dare our full capacity – and as such, God never stops calling us. Our call at twelve or sixteen might be different from our calling at twenty or thirty or sixty or eighty or one hundred and four! But God always calls us by name, and always calls us to be ourselves – our full and truest selves. God hates counterfeit versions, or ego-driven versions, or fearful, shrunken-down versions of who God created and called us to be. And God never stops calling us to grow and to who we were made and meant to be.

             God was calling Moses from being half-alive to being fully alive. And this life could only come by going to Egypt. We sometimes take Jesus’ words and twist them. We take Jesus’ promise to be with us always as some sort of guarantee that no matter what we do, God will be with us. While I do believe that God’s grace is larger and more powerful than any of our sins, I would not want us ever to be smug or presumptuous about God’s presence. God is present by grace only. I am not so sure that Moses would have ever become Moses if he had stayed in Midian. Just as I am utterly certain that Lincoln would not have become Lincoln if he had decided to stay in Springfield and make money and support his family, which had to be a terrible temptation for someone born as poor as Lincoln was. And I am equally certain that Martin Luther King Jr. would not have become who he was if he had said, “I am only twenty-seven. Let someone else stand up for Rosa Parks. I’m just at the start of a promising career.”

             Moses had to go to Midian to become Moses, because when he went Egypt, Yahweh went with him, and “one person with God on his side is always a majority.” Sometimes we think that God will always be with America. This is a dangerous assumption. We think somehow that God cannot do without America. America cannot do without God. This is the moral opposite of the arrogant assumption that God will always be with us, which is arrogant patriotism – the very worst kind.

             Could Jesus have been the Christ had He not agreed that there were some things so all-important to God that they were worth dying for? But of course, being comes first – doing follows – and Jesus was utterly true to His calling. Remember God’s call to Jesus in His baptism? “Thou art my Beloved Son; with Thee I am well pleased.” Jesus knew that pleasing His Father was the whole purpose of His life. Do you know this? God did not put you here to pursue your own pleasure. God put you here to please Him. And nothing short of your true self – your real self – your God-given self will do.

             And please do not miss this, either. The call of God is deeply embedded in the cry of human pain. “I have seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt, and I have heard their cry….” God’s call is always a call to love, to join people in their suffering and pain – and this is true if your calling is a call to be a doctor or a lawyer or a teacher or a husband or a wife or a father or a mother or a salesperson or to run a business. God’s call is the call to love, to care, to take the pain and aspirations of others seriously.

             God’s call is a call to be our own true and full selves, and it is always a call to love, not to hate, a call to care deeply, never a call to indifference or apathy. It is a call to be fully alive – to care about the things God cares about. It is a call to give, “for it is (only) in giving that we receive.”

             “Moses. Moses.” “Mary. Mary.” “First Presbyterian Church of Nashville. First Presbyterian Church of Nashville.” The air is full of calls, coming to us at all times, in unexpected places. How many times have you heard it? And which of us, tired of hanging back in Midian, will find the imagination and the courage and grace to say, “Here am I, Lord.”

                                                                                     Amen.

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