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What Is In Your Hand?
Reverend Kathy Escandell
February 28, 2016
Exodus 4: 1-5
A reading from Exodus:
Then Moses replied, “But what if they don’t believe me or pay attention to me?
They might say to me, ‘The Lord didn’t appear to you!’”
The Lord said to him, “What’s that in your hand?”
Moses replied, “A shepherd’s rod.”
The Lord said, “Throw it down on the ground. So Moses threw it on the ground, and it turned into a snake. Moses jumped back from it. Then the Lord said to Moses, “Reach out and grab the snake by the tail.” So Moses reached out and grabbed it, and it turned back into a rod in his hand. “Do this so that they will believe that the Lord, the God of their ancestors, Abraham’s God, Isaac’s God, and Jacob’s God has in fact appeared to you.” CEB
This episode occurs within a larger narrative that is one of the best known stories in the Bible. Moses takes his flock of sheep out to graze, chances upon a burning bush and becomes one of the towering figures of Judeo-Christian history.
All right – so there are a few additional details – and today’s passage provides some of them. But before we get to the matter of what Moses holds in his hand, let’s remember how he finds himself considering that question.
Moses, the little Hebrew boy saved from infanticide to be raised by Pharaoh’s daughter, flees Egypt as a young adult after killing an abusive Egyptian slave master. In exile he marries, begins a family, and works tending his father-in-law’s sheep. And then there comes a normal, ordinary, commonplace day which begins with Moses leading his flock beyond the wilderness – which is the most wonderfully evocative phrase and which turns out to be the place that transports Moses from ordinary to extraordinary, from normal to astonishing, because it is there, beyond the wilderness, that Moses treads upon holy ground and meets God.
A lengthy and complex conversation ensues. God tells Moses that, having heard the Hebrews’ cries and seen their affliction, God has come down to deliver the Hebrews from the Egyptians, to bring them out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey. (Ex. 3:8)
Or — more precisely, God has come to delegate that task to Moses – So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt. (Ex. 3:10)
There, succinctly, we find the Israelites’ dilemma; God’s intention; Moses’ task. Pretty straightforward, right? God’s people are in grave need of help. God has chosen an agent to deliver that help.
We now enter the excuses portion of the story. Moses doesn’t seem to think he’s the perfect man for the job.
Who is he to stand before Pharaoh? How can he possibly convince anyone – Egyptian or Hebrew – that he’s an authority figure of any kind?
Is there maybe a godly name he can use as a calling card to convince people he really is an emissary of the divine? Because – you know – the people are going to have questions and they’re almost certainly going to disbelieve him because, again, who is he but an outlaw shepherd who, by the way, is slow of speech and slow of tongue?
I really love the call story of Moses. Not just the whole beyond-the-wilderness, holy ground, miracle-burning-bush part, but this excuses part too, where Moses trots out one reason after another to decline God’s invitation, and God – with admirable patience – persists in believing that Moses is, indeed, the right person to fulfill God’s purpose.
Since it is our practice to read Scripture for God’s word to us today, to discern how the Bible’s wisdom and guidance from ancient times continue to instruct and guide us in this age, this passage is quite a gift. Doesn’t this story of Moses just fill us with hope; help us realize that – just as with Moses – God can see our abilities even when we cannot, that God will allow and equip us to participate in the work of God’s kingdom even when we are reluctant and whiny and flawed?
Because Moses – who goes on to become a towering figure in Judeo-Christian history – is at this point in his story, a great example of reluctant and whiny and flawed. He has to be moved, inch by inch, from a deep conviction of his inadequacy to an eventual acceptance of his call.
For each of Moses’ excuses, God offers a reassurance.
When Moses wonders who he is that he should confront Pharaoh and free the Israelites, God points out that it really isn’t as much about who Moses is as it’s about who God is. And God, who is with Moses in this desolate landscape will remain with Moses as he leads the people from slavery to freedom.
When Moses frets that the Israelites will want a name for their divine redeemer, God obliges – with an enigmatic name, it’s true – but a name nonetheless.
When Moses doubts that the people will believe him even when he shares God’s name, God, getting perhaps just the tiniest bit bored with this whole exchange, says, “What’s that in your hand?”
And what is in Moses’ hand is nothing special. It’s his shepherd’s staff, a wooden tool of his trade, a crooked stick.
But God doesn’t need something special, for it is God alone who brings power and promise into even the most common objects and the most mundane circumstances. To convince Moses of this truth, God transforms the staff to a serpent writhing and wriggling on the ground. Moses’ immediate and understandable reaction is to recoil, and I think perhaps the moment when he obeys God’s instruction to reach out and seize the serpent by its tail is the moment when he enters into God’s purpose for the Hebrew people, and accepts God’s call upon his own life. The moment when he realizes that his inadequate courage and his human fallibility are not the only resources available for the task at hand. Reaching out to pick up the writhing snake suggests that Moses, in this moment, begins to trust God.
And indeed, at his touch, the serpent returns to being a staff. And while it may once again look like an ordinary crooked stick, Moses himself has begun to be transformed.
The staff-to-serpent-to-staff quick change makes clear that life and discipleship are about possibility, not about certainty. Transformation is always in the air, and the extraordinary hovers just beyond the mundane, ready to move in and through us to bring glimpses of God’s kingdom. So, as to the question of what Moses holds in his hand, it matters less whether he holds a staff or a serpent as it matters whether Moses will enter into God’s purpose or resist it.
The God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob – whether beyond the wilderness or in Pharaoh’s throne room or here with us – is a God of power and purpose. Moses can stop worrying about how to impress and convince the people, for what he holds in his hand is touched by the power and purpose of the God who has chosen to be in covenantal relationship with the Israelites. The God who says, “So come, I will send you.”
At the Presbytery meeting this weekend, we voted – with sadness – to dismiss a congregation that has chosen to leave the denomination. And as we discussed that departure, what we held in our hands was sorrow, frustration, a sense of loss, the pain of disunity. We struggled with how those emotions might be transformed and offered to God’s Kingdom. How such disruption meant be brought, in time, to serve God’s purpose rather than resist it. And then within the same afternoon, we heard a report of Everlasting Hope Presbyterian Church in Taylor. When the congregation there had dwindled to two members, it looked like the church would have no choice except to close. On the Sunday that decision was to be made, two visitors came to worship. They came back the next week, and the next, and they brought friends with them, who also kept coming back and started bringing their friends. Today, Everlasting Hope no longer thinks of closing for it has become a vital faith community, growing in both numbers and discipleship. At stories such as this, we hold in our hands everlasting hope, indeed. We remember that God can transform that which looks dead into something not just alive but flourishing.
Each of us holds in our hands emotions, experiences, interests and energies that contribute to our identity, and position us to impact the world around us. Such attributes may look ordinary to us, but if we will allow it, God can and will transform them and give them back ready for us to use in the service of God’s kingdom as we respond to our individual calls to ministry.
The God who met Moses beyond the wilderness continues to meet us with transformative power that changes a staff into a serpent; that changes reluctant, flawed Moses into a leader for the ages, and just as readily changes each of us, reluctant and flawed though we may be, into faithful disciples who hold in our hands the power and the purpose of the God who sends us to be about the work of the kingdom.