Time for a pop quiz! (this can be open book if you like) After having just spent four weeks studying the book of Jonah, do you remember how it ends? It ends abruptly with a question that God asks of Jonah: “Should I not be concerned about the great city of Nineveh?” This got me to thinking about other questions that God has posed to others in scripture. It happens more frequently than you might think. I wonder why God even needs to ask questions, he is, after all all-knowing. I know we ask a lot of questions of God, most of which start with, “why”! So why does God ask questions? Here are some possible reasons: 1) to confront people with himself and his nature; to make us think and ponder; 2) to keep up communication with humanity even as we continue to rebel; to stay connected; 3) to invite people to be honest with him, to urge people to be honest with themselves; and 4) to instruct us. And there are probably other reasons. So God has plenty of reasons to ask questions. What do some of those questions look like? Here are just a few of the questions from Scripture that God asks: “Where are you?” (God asks of Adam and Eve in Genesis); “Why are you crying out to me?” (God asks of Moses as he and the nation of Israel stand on the edge of the Red Sea with the Egyptians breathing down their neck.) “What are you doing down on your face?” asked of Joshua. “Can these bones live?” God asks of Ezekiel in the Valley of Dry Bones. “Is it right for you to be angry?” This is one of the questions asked of Jonah. And there are many others. Over the next few weeks we will look at a few of these. Some of the material we will look at comes from the LifeGuide Bible Study, “Questions God Asks”. Today we take a closer look at Exodus 4 and a question God asks of Moses, “what is that in your hand?”
Now, Moses is an interesting character, isn’t he? He is born to Hebrew slaves in Egypt during a time in which Hebrew male babies are tossed into the Nile and drowned. The Egyptians do this because they are alarmed at how large the crowd of Israelite slaves has become. Moses, however, is placed in a basket (coated with pitch so it will be waterproof) and placed strategically among the reeds on the bank where Pharaoh’s daughter bathes. He is discovered, rescued and raised as the son of Pharaoh’s daughter. As an adult, he tries to intervene for his people. He kills an Egyptian and makes everyone angry. He has to flee into the Sinai desert, where for the next forty years he works as a shepherd, tending his father-in-law’s sheep. Quite a difference I would imagine from the life in the Pharaoh’s palace. Yet, it is in the desert that Moses encounters God in one of the most memorable scenes from scripture. God calls to Moses from a burning bush and commissions Moses to return to Egypt to lead his people out of slavery. God outlines his responsibilities, he tells how he will work many wonders through Moses, and how he will bring the Israelites into the land of milk and honey through Moses. Now, remember Moses is standing in the Sinai desert with a shepherd’s staff in his hand, tending his father-in-law’s sheep. It is not what one would expect, on a day that starts out the way every other sheep-tending day starts out. Life is like that, isn’t it? We are most likely to unexpectedly encounter God in our desert places and on our normal sheep-tending, or routine days (just like Moses). I encourage you to read Exodus chapter 3, it will help you get the picture of what is happening here (as we lead up to God’s question for Moses). Understandably, Moses has some objections and questions. “What if they won’t believe me? What if they won’t even listen to me?” Like most of us, what is uppermost in Moses’ mind at this point is himself and his own capabilities and situation. But God brings him up short by completely changing the focus of Moses’ attention by asking this question: “What is that in your hand?” Moses replies, “a staff.” Every shepherd carries a staff as their common tool of the trade. Much as a mechanic might hold a wrench, a cook might hold a spatula, a teacher might hold a pencil – a shepherd holds a staff. God answers, “Throw it on the ground.” What an odd command. In calling upon Moses to throw down his staff, his tool of the trade, what is God really calling for here (do you think)? Simple obedience. And he asks Moses to submit himself and the (means at hand) – his staff.
What do you think Moses expects when he obeys God’s instruction? What does Moses get? Something totally unexpected and surprising. Something Moses would never have predicted. The staff becomes a snake. Any snake lovers here this morning? How about snake fearers? (Ophidiophobia – fear of snakes.) I wonder what is going through Moses’ head when God says “reach out your hand and seize it by the tail”? After forty years in the desert herding sheep, Moses is very familiar with the dangerous snakes that hide in the rocks. Do you think he would instinctively reach down and pick it up by the tail? No, that is how you get snake bit; if he were to pick up a snake at all, he would probably grab it behind the head so it can’t bite him. But Moses obeys and grasps the snake by the tail and it becomes, miraculously, a staff again in his hand. What is God’s purpose of this demonstration with the staff? I think it is two-fold. 1) to show Moses that God values and honors obedience and 2) to demonstrate God’s authority and ability to use ordinary people and things in miraculous ways.
Now, this was way back in Moses’ day, what about now? Have you seen God use ordinary objects or circumstances to do something remarkable, maybe even miraculous? How about some of the things we do on Sermons of Service Sunday? Can God use a few quarters, and some laundry detergent to remind one of his children that they are not forgotten, but they are loved? How about a handwritten thank-you note given to a hurried and stressed school teacher – can it bring refreshment knowing that someone cares. How about that jar of peanut butter or box of mac and cheese you let go of and put in the food pantry – can it do more than nourish the body? My daughter, Hannah, loves to bake specialty baked goods. Right now she has a friend who is battling cancer. She has made a commitment to make some sort of special sweet each week to take to her friend. Will it make the cancer go away? No, but it will remind her friend of their special place in her heart and that they are cared for.
One of the things that Moses struggles with is his sense of feeling inadequate. But God says, you be you and let me be me, and let me work through you, and through your obedience and trust, you will find that you are adequate beyond belief.
For Moses, his common shepherd’s staff will be important in the coming exodus and in the wilderness journey, but at this point before all of that happens Moses does not know that. At this point God has only promised a tiny piece of the puzzle – that the Israelites will believe that the Lord really appeared to him. Remember verse 5 says, these things have happened “so that they may believe that the Lord, the God of their ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has appeared to you.” Moses is still in the dark about where all this is going. But he throws down the staff and he picks up the snake by the tail. He trusts, he obeys and the rest, as they say, is history.
This week, is there something within your control that you can figuratively thrown down and let God take control over? Is there some ordinary, everyday thing that you now have “in your hand” or in your control? Something such as material possessions, financial resources, time, abilities, skills, space, vehicles, friends, interests. Will it be hard for you to “throw them down” or release control over some or all of these? What if God asks you to do so as an act of obedience as he asked Moses? What is that in your hand? I believe God wants to use it.
Let’s pray –
Lord, give us the grace and the trust, that Moses showed when he responded to your question. Help us to trust you with our ordinary gifts, and abilities, and possessions. Even when we don’t understand your purpose or when we cannot see why you have asked – let us respond faithfully and readily. You are faithful and we trust you. Guide us, Lord!