[audio http://www.opcbrookhaven.org/worship/audio/sermons/08-28-11.MP3] There is no greater figure in all of the Old Testament, the Hebrew Bible, than Moses. He is the prophets’ prophet, God’s translator, Law deliverer, freedom leader, desert organizer. His birth is enveloped in miracle, spared the cruel wrath of Pharaoh by his quick-thinking and risk-taking mother. His death is shrouded in mystery; having seen the land of promise, he dies and is buried on Mount Nebo, but no one knows where. No one can touch Moses.
In the New Testament, there are several key figures. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that Jesus is pretty central. As for the non-divine, John the Baptist is the forerunner of Christ, and Mary is the mother of God. Both have a crucial role in preparing the way for Jesus’ ministry.
But afterwards, after the ascension, when Jesus disappears into heaven, the disciples are left to figure it out. And it is Peter who steps forward as their leader. He takes the lead on replacing Judas. He’s the one that stands up to address the crowd in the midst of Pentecost’s confusion. It is Peter who gets called before the Sanhedrin, the Temple council, to account for the early church. And it is Peter whose imprisonment comes to a miraculous end as an angel springs the door open.
After Peter comes Paul. With his dramatic conversion and “take no prisoners” attitude, as soon as he steps onto the stage, Peter fades into the background. But Peter still remains an important figure in church tradition. Origen says that Peter was martyred inRome, crucified upside-down. The Roman Catholic Church considers Peter the first Pope. And on the holiest level of all, every joke that begins with “Three people die and go to heaven” feature St. Peter as the pearly gatekeeper. For the church, Peter is the Rock.
Moses. Peter. They have secured their place on the Biblical all-star squad. And yet, reading our two lessons today, it would have been hard to predict greatness.
Last week we read of Moses being saved from the Nile. We can sense that the writer of Exodus is setting us up, giving us a hint of Moses’ greatness to come. And yet, quite a bit has happened in the intervening years. As a young man, Moses sees an Egyptian abusing a Hebrew; and seeing no one in sight, Moses kills the Egyptian and buries him in the sand. Word spreads quickly, and Moses runs away to Midian, where he marries and seems to settle down as a shepherd.
And that’s where the story picks up today. God has decided that it is time for the Hebrews to be freed from their cruel slavery; and God has also decided that Moses is the man to do it. The conversation that took place must have been maddening. A talking, burning bush speaks to Moses and gives him an assignment: go to Pharaoh and get the people out of there. But Moses demurs; not only that, he argues with God. “Who am I that I should do this? What am I supposed to tell the Hebrews? Who should I tell them sent me?” I half-expect God to reply with something like, “tell them the burning, talking bush sent you.” But God’s patience wins out – patiently explaining that God is the one who was, is, and always will be. That should be enough to convince the Hebrews.
What happens beyond this morning’s lesson is nothing short of frustrating. Moses wants something better that just an “I will be with you” promise, and God gives him three miracles to perform: a stick that turns into a snake and back into a stick, a leprous hand that heals itself, and Nile water that turns into blood. Still not good enough: “But I’m not eloquent,” Moses says. So God agrees to send his brother, Aaron, along for the ride. Finally, Moses goes to Egypt.
It’s not the most inspiring start to the story that becomes the legend of Moses. Can you imagine trying to sell this as a movie? “I love the whole baby in the bulrushes thing; and the early failure bits build some good tension, but…I’m not sensing greatness. This guy is gonna be a leader, right? Let’s add in some foreshadowing, some early childhood moments, like where he raises his hands and, uh, parts his hair…something that lets the viewers know what to expect.”
And yet, that’s exactly what happens. From these less-than-inspired beginnings, Moses goes on to be the great leader that sets the stage for the rest of the journey of the people of God.
Peter’s story isn’t much different. Last week we looked at the disciples gathering up in Caeasarea Philippi. They have managed to get away from the crowds for a little breathing room. And there, as Jesus asks them what they think about all they have seen, Peter is the one who gets it right: “You are the Messiah, the son of the living God.” Yes, Simon! You nailed it! That’s it! You are so right that I’m changing your name to Rock; that’s how solid your faith is, how reliable you are!
And as Jesus goes on to explain exactly what being “Messiah” means, that they’re on their way to Jerusalem where he is going to suffer, be killed, and rise again, Peter takes advantage of his new-found influence and pulls Jesus aside: “Alright, listen; I’m ‘the rock’, right? OK, then; let me give you some advice. All this suffering and death stuff just puts a damper on it. We have only established that you’re the Messiah. If you start saying things like this, you’re just going to turn people off. It’s a downer.”
Peter seems intent on setting the land speed record for moving from faith to doubt. He has already been transformed from Simon to Peter; and in the blink of an eye, he is now “Satan.” That can’t be good.
Just like Moses, Peter seems to have blown his recently acquired status as Biblical hero. It’s an inauspicious beginning to the legend of Peter.
Have you ever found yourself feeling like Peter? Or like Moses? Someone has asked you to do something that you are sure is beyond your skill-set? Or circumstances have conspired against you, putting you in a position where you just know you are in over your head? We have all found ourselves in this situation. Some of you may feel like you are in the thick of it right now.
There are things which we are clearly gifted to do. We know what we are good at; and we might even have an idea of how to use those skill-sets for God’s sake and God’s desires. But what about those things which aren’t in our wheelhouse?
We have been talking about evangelism the past few weeks, and it seems that this is an appropriate topic again today. I am certain that much of what God hopes for us is to recognize who we really are, deep down inside. Our personalities, our abilities, our worldview, I believe that so much of this is what we are created to be. And yet, I also trust that God wants us to stretch.
And I think we do, too; if we didn’t, then none of us would be able to read, or count, or walk, or drive, or sing, or pray. We may have been doing these things for so long that we take them for granted, but these are all things that we had to learn.
When I was 17, my parents bought a car with a manual transmission. My dad took me to the steepest hill in Ansley Park and stopped the car halfway up. “Your turn,” he said, switching seats with me. I must’ve stalled that sucker out three hundred times; I also must’ve drifted backwards about 2 ½ miles – at least, it felt that way. . Frustration mounted; but eventually, I was able to get the car in gear and head up the hill.
Maybe evangelism feels like that to you? I hope that we’ve deconstructed the word “evangelism” enough, that it’s not about screaming on the street corner, or meeting a complete stranger and making sure they have accepted Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Savior. Instead, I hope we have discussed the topic enough that it we have come to see it more as a natural extension of relationships marked by honesty, integrity, and depth. If we are willing to talk to our closest friends and family members about life and death, about politics and the economy, surely we could also talk with them about those things of faith, those things that give us our grounding, our ultimate sense of meaning?
Even so, does it still feel like you’re stalled out in the middle of a steep hill? Is this something that doesn’t come naturally?
Last week, I announced that as we kick off our program year in two weeks, we are encouraging everyone to bring a friend to church. For some of you, and maybe for many or all of us, this might feel like something way beyond the possible. If so, then I want to leave us with Jesus’ response to Peter. I’m using Eugene Peterson’s translation, adding some of my own emphasis:
Anyone who intends to come with me has to let me lead. You're not in the driver's seat; I am…Don't be in such a hurry to go into business for yourself.
Evangelism isn’t our business; it’s God’s: the same God who transformed Moses from the frightened shepherd of Midian into the leader of the Hebrew people; the same God who changed Simon into Peter into stumbling block and back into Peter again. What can God do with you?