“They were changed men themselves before they went about to change others. Their hearts were rent as well as their garments, and they knew the power and work of God upon them….And as they freely received what they had to say from the Lord, so they freely administered it to others. The bent and stress of their ministry was conversion to God, regeneration and holiness, not schemes of doctrines and verbal creeds or new forms of worship, but a leaving off in religion the superfluous and reducing the ceremonious and formal part, and pressing earnestly the substantial, the necessary and profitable part, as all upon a serious reflection must and do acknowledge”. William Penn’s Preface to George Fox’s Journal, 1694
September 7, 2008
Qualifications for Service
In the whole of Jewish history no story has received more attention than the story of the burning bush. It has been analyzed for symbolism. It has had its significance explored in detail and its impact on the generations has been expounded upon, relentlessly. In looking at the call of Moses to lead the Israelites out of Egypt I did something that was interesting to me. I created my own interlinear comparing what you might call our Old Testament and what a contemporary Jewish reading of the text looks like. I found a couple of interesting differences right in the first verse of this ancient story.
At the beginning of the story in our Old Testament, Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, is presented as a priest of Midian. The Jewish scriptures call him a sheik. There’s difference in how the burning bush is presented . Listen to the contrasting language. First ours: “2There the angel of the Lord appeared to (Moses) in a flame of fire out of a bush”. Now theirs: “God’s angel appeared to [Moses] in the heart of a fire, in the middle of a thorn-bush”. I wondered about what significance there might be in the angel of the Lord appearing in the heart of a fire in the middle of a thorn-bush versus appearing in flame of fire out of a burning bush. And by the way, we’ve just got a bush, they have a black raspberry bush. It’s enough to make you want to go take a hike.
In our text Moses says to himself that he must turn aside to look at this great sight and to see why the bush wasn’t burned up. The Jewish text says the same thing but has Moses using different language: “I must go over there and investigate this wonderful phenomena”. In the middle of this passage Moses asks God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” That is ours version. Listen to theirs. ‘’Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh?’ said Moses to God. ‘And how can I possibly get the Israelites out of Egypt?” In our version where we only have the one question: “Who am I?”. They have an additional question, one of very practical importance, “How can I possibly get the Israelites to leave? It’s an important, perspective changing difference. We want to think that the Hebrew children were jumping up and down wanting to leave Egypt. We seem to want to imagine that they couldn’t wait for a Messiah to lead them out. Is it possible that it’s harder to abandon that to which one is enslaved than we imagine?
At the conclusion of this piece, in answer to Moses inquiry, listen to how God introduces himself. First, our familiar version: 14God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’“ Now theirs: 14” ‘I Will Be Who I Will Be,’ replied God to Moses. [God then] explained, ‘This is what you must say to the Israelites: ‘I Will Be sent me to you.’ According to the Jewish Kabbal this Name is the very first thought and impulse of the Divine will that initiated the creative process. Thus It must be ‘I will be,’ since at the time of that impulse, everything was in the future.
The call of Moses has a great deal in common with the call of God upon others. The Old Testament commissioning accounts include Moses, Gideon, Samuel, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Micah, and in modified form, Amos and Jonah. But, looking a bit wider I find it has commonalities as well in the call of the Apostle Paul and the call of Andrew and Simon Peter, and potentially you. None of these persons are commissioned because they have the ability to succeed, but because they are willing to acknowledge their inability. As a theological commentary on leadership, this affirms that true leaders are not those who think they have the skill to lead or who seek leadership. Rather, they are those who are reluctant because they understand how inadequate they are for the task, yet are willing to depend upon God for guidance and empowerment. The great leaders of the Bible did not campaign for the position; they were placed there by God. Not a single leader of the Old Testament is portrayed as having in themselves the abilities to be a great leader.
James Hume, a speechwriter for President Reagan, told the story of draftee who was being interviewed by the Sergeant. He asked the young man “Did you have six years of grade school?” “Yes, Sir.” replied the recruit. “I also graduated High School with honors, I received my Bachelor’s degree from Yale and did graduate work at Columbia.” and, he added, “I received my Ph.D. in political science at Harvard.” The Sergeant turned to the stenographer and said, “Put a check in the space marked literate”. What were credentials Moses had to lead the children of Israel out of Egypt? He killed an Egyptian who struck a Hebrew. He fled to Midian for chastising a couple of quarrelsome Jews. He saved Jethro’s daughters from evil shepherds. These were bold acts of courage and fortitude. God uses none of those events to put Moses into a place of authority. No, it is in this simple act while he was caring for his father-in-law’s sheep, when a simple bit of curiosity about a bush aflame draws his attention. What God looks for in qualifications for leadership don’t seem to match ours. Seemingly God chose humility to tend sheep and wonder about nature over gallant and daring acts.
When Moses spotted the bush in flames, he knew that something extraordinary was happening. He had two choices, explore the spectacle or walk on. His approaching the bush changed his life forever. His three steps changed the course of history. For Moses, the decision was simple but difficult. According to one Jewish Midrash God says of him, , “you pained yourself to look, I swear you are worthy that I should reveal myself to you.”
And what of us? Do new situations we encounter commit us to change? Do we take three steps and look or in ignoring a burning issue ignore another burning bush? For Moses, in that moment of interest, the ground where he was standing was declared Holy. What happened there that was special? Nothing! Except that is where he is presented with his mission – and his challenge. That makes it Holy.
What Moses demonstrates for us is something of a pre-condition to hearing and obeying. I think I’ll call this proclivity cognizance. Cognizance simply means to take notice of something.
David Albert, a Quaker home school advocate, in his book Have Fun, Learn Stuff, and Grow says that two of the most important ingredients in a child’s development is inquisitiveness and courage. We must seek to assist our children in embracing the world — and the world is about surprises, recognition, unveilings, journeys completed and new ones begun.
Both the Jewish version and our version of this story require of Moses something of an inquiring mind. Gideon’s story has him threshing wheat down in a winepress rather than in the open air. By the way, that’s not a very smart thing to do. But he was intrigued when an angel spoke to him from an oak tree. There was something that compelled him to check it out. You don’t find the core of the matter in Jeremiah’s call as described in Chapter one, it is not until his fifth lament in Chapter 20 that the story comes out – he claims that God enticed him with his call.
After his Damascus road encounter Saul had a three-day fast to explore what was going on. In the New Testament for Paul it wasn’t a burning bush. What pulled him out of his intolerant Jewish fundamentalism was sheer desperation. God slapped him blind on the road to Damascus. He didn’t know how he was to survive without sight? I guess I’m saying that before a person is used by God they must be open to the new, the unusual, that which intrigues them into going out side their normal course and investigate. Safety and security are not what people called by God to service are seeking.
The second piece of a call I think I’ll call audience. Please note that I am not suggesting that we seek an audience to tell God anything. The type of audience of which I am speaking is for us to be in a place where we can hear God – clearly. Last Sunday in part of our Taize worship, we sang a pleading chorus from the Psalms of David: “O Lord, Hear My Prayer.” It is repeated in Psalm 39, Psalm 101, 102, 130, 143. The Byzantine Catholics call their forty days of Lent “O Lord Hear My Prayer” and repeat it again and again through out that whole season. I’m reminded of the words of Matthew 6:7 where we read of Jesus saying: “And when you pray, do not use needless repetitions as the Gentiles do, for they expect to be listened to because of their multitude of words.” Generally for us, the issue isn’t pleading with God to hear us but rather our need to stop and be quiet long enough to hear what God is trying to say to us. God is ahead of us. God is intent on speaking to us and pointing the way for us to continue the work of the Kingdom on earth.
Then, finally, there is the moment I’ll call obedience. And please note, obedience does not necessarily result in what we could call success. Obedience is simply and strictly doing what you know in your heart God has called you to do and to be. Every prophet God called knew at the outset that they were ill equipped and unable to do what they were called to do. Regardless of their reluctance they put one foot in front of the other and obeyed.
The roots of biblical leadership are theological not anthropological. One’s call to service in the Kingdom begins in the mind of God. God’s choice tells us more about the character of God than of the positive qualities of those he chooses to lead.
And those he chose to lead, well, almost always they were the wrong people. It is almost as if God goes out of his way to pick those who, at least on the face of it, have no qualities that would suggest that they would be good leaders. Just think about Jacob, Sarah, Mary, Peter, Paul as well as Moses. Maybe God likes a challenge. Maybe the creator of everything enjoys making something out of nothing. I mean, it is some kind of God who could make a wonderful leader out a man like Moses!
When the chips are down all true leaders have for credentials is faith in God’s promise that “I will bring you out”. Such call to service doesn’t begin in ambition or even a realistic assessment of our gifts, talents and abilities – but rather in God’s summons to us to take a longer look at a burning issue.
Cognizance is God getting our attention – calling us to open our eyes to see where he is at work in the world. He wants our curiosity. He expects of us a willingness to leave our well-trod path ways and accustomed patterns. When something in the world doesn’t make sense – those he calls will be about the task of trying to understand for themselves.
Audience occurs after God has our attention and we shut up long enough to hear his call on our life.
Obedience is the simple doing.