This Advent, I will be watching the shepherds in our story. “While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks By Night…” – who is watching, and what they see and hear – it makes a difference to me. On the second Sunday of Advent 2014, we considered the story of our brother Moses. The scripture was from Exodus 3:1-10 and I Corinthians 9:19-23
Do you know this guy? He broadcast the Chicago Cubs games to the audiences at WHO in Des Moines, Iowa, from 1933-1937. Later, he achieved a measure of celebrity status as an actor in such classics as “Bedtime for Bonzo”. He ended his career working for the government.
You may recognize this character: Tigger appears in chapter 2 of House at Pooh Corner and, like Mr. Reagan, found a home in filmdom. This man, Paul Winchell, is not as recognizable – but if you heard him, you’d know him as the voice of Tigger. Interestingly enough, Paul Winchell is also the first person to patent an artificial heart designed to be implanted in the human body.
This profile is familiar to anyone who’s been a football fan in Pittsburgh in recent years. For two decades, Charlie Batch has been a football player – in fact, the only quarterback with a longer tenure on the Pittsburgh Steelers is Terry Bradshaw. But when we had dinner with him a few weeks ago, he told Carly and I that he was turning 40 this week and he was ready to discover what the rest of his life would hold. The old definition – quarterback – won’t work any more. He’s got to find a new identity.
As adaptable as all of these fellows are, I don’t think that they can hold a candle to Moses. He was raised as a prince of Egypt. He became a fugitive who eventually wound up as a hired man and then a shepherd. At the time of our reading this morning, he was already 80 years old and he receives his call to be a prophet. He would go on to add public speaker, community organizer, tour guide, and caterer to his resume.
When I was thinking about Moses earlier this week, the word “pliable” came to mind. The first definition of that word means, “able to bend freely or repeatedly without breaking.” He spent his entire life adapting to the situations in which he found himself and demonstrating the capacity to re-invent himself time and time again.
The second definition of the word “pliable” is “too easily influenced or controlled.” Interestingly enough, I don’t think that there are any situations where we might see this use of “pliable” as relevant to Moses’ life. Surely the Pharaoh and the people of Israel were not likely to describe him as “too easily influenced.”
What’s the difference between “able to bend without breaking” and “too easily influenced or controlled”? For Moses, I think, it was a willingness, if not always an eagerness, to put himself in a place where he could be used by God. The key phrase from this morning’s Old Testament reading is from verse 10: “I will send you.”
In Advent 2014, we are spending time with the shepherds. We will watch them as they watch their flocks in the hopes that we might learn something of importance. Last week, we talked about Abram, and the ways that this old shepherd found his way to establishing a covenant with God.
This morning, we’re taking a look at Moses. If I were to ask you to tell me something about Moses, I would imagine that very few of you would have used the word “shepherd” to describe him. Yet that is exactly what he was doing when he received the most important message of his entire life – God’s call through the burning bush.
Because Moses was watching the sheep, he saw the bush. And because he saw the bush, he explored the call. And because he explored the call, he listened to God. And because he listened to God, he led the people from slavery to freedom.
Oh, this kind of re-invention is not unique in the scripture. Our New Testament reading comes to us from the pen of a man who had been given the name Saul at birth, but who is better known to history as Paul. He was trained as a rabbi by Gamaliel, one of the most important teachers in the history of Judaism. Saul was a Pharisee’s Pharisee – a young man with a promise. And yet some years after this training was completed, he found himself in jail cells in places like Ephesus, Philippi, and Rome; he was shipwrecked and threatened with the death penalty six times (only one of them was successful!). I have to wonder how many times he woke up and asked himself, “Is this what I wanted to be when I grew up?”
Moses, Paul, Peter, Mary, Esther, Noah, Matthew, Ruth…you can’t name very many Bible characters who did not find themselves having to re-invent their identities in a new light, with new circumstances and new challenges. Our story is the story of a people who continually wake up in strange places and search for ways to use what God has given us to do what God calls us to do in that spot. Our identity is given: we belong to God. Our task is to understand what it means to belong to God in this place and at this time.
The problem is that when we think of “waiting”, we think of that as a very passive pursuit. People say that they hate waiting because “there’s nothing to do”.
But what if Advent is not passive?
What if Advent is our preparation for being sent somewhere or to someone?
What if we were further able to understand that we are being sent somewhere or to someone right now?
What if when we encountered that elderly person having difficulty in the grocery store, or that buffoon making racist comments in the office, or that kid being bulled at school, we thought of ourselves not as bystanders, not as witnesses, but as sent to that spot on a mission for a purpose?
What if the places you have been and the experiences you have had are preparing you for what is coming next?
What if the place where you live, or work, or go to school – the place where are are currently engaged in some advent waiting – is no accident?
Richard Halverson was one of the most influential pastors of the 20th century. He preached for nearly a quarter of that century in the Fourth Presbyterian Church outside of Washington DC. When Sharon and I were teenagers, we participated in the ministry of that congregation, and were deeply impacted by the discipleship ministries that came out of the Fourth Church. After preaching there, Halverson was the chaplain to the US Senate for another fifteen years. He is most widely known now for what has become known as “the Halverson Benediction”. In fact, Halverson indicated that sharing this benediction was the most important thing he did in his ministerial vocation. Every week he would tell his people as they prepared to leave the room,
You go nowhere by accident.
Wherever you go, God is sending you there.
Wherever you are, God has put you there.
He has a purpose in your being there.
Christ, who indwells in you, has something He wants to do through you, wherever you are.
Believe this, and go in His grace, and love, and power. Amen!
I have to say that I wish I could stand here and say, “you know, I heard Halverson pronounce that benediction…” While that might not impress you too much, it would give me some great “pastor cred” in the theological world. “Wow – Pastor Dave was with Halverson.” But I can’t honestly say I remember hearing him say that to me.
And it doesn’t matter…because I know that my life was molded by people who believed that, and who taught me to believe that. The fact that I can’t remember Halverson ever saying that to me is irrelevant, because a community of God’s people helped me to see that God had something to do in me and through me. The important part was not who said it over me – but rather, who showed me how to live as if those words were true and could be lived in my own experience.
Dear people: the events of these past weeks show us that now, as much as any time in history, the world needs gifted, pliable people who are convinced that God can use them – and that God will use them – in the places to which they are sent – even if those places are surprising, like when a movie actor becomes President or when a cartoon voice invents life-saving technology. The world needs people – pliable people – like that here. And now.
The good news is that I know where to find people like that. I believe that they are sitting right in front of me.
And you say, “Oh, well, not so fast, Pastor. You see, there’s more to my story than you realize.”
Of course there is.
“I’ve got some issues that I need to work through. There are some doubts.”
“Well, it’s just not that easy to jump in and be all, well, Christian right now.”
Yes, I don’t recall either Moses or Paul mentioning the easy part of the story, but then again, I haven’t read the whole thing lately…
Look, I’m not asking you to invent anything. And I’m certainly not expecting you, me, or anyone to be perfect. All I’m saying is that since the first Advent 2000 years ago, we confess that the person and spirit of the Living Christ is present on the earth. And what I am asking you to do is leave this place every week prepared to look for those places where the spirit of the Living Christ is active – look for the lives of the broken that he would mend, the mouths of the hungry that he would feed, the chains of the oppressed that he would break, and listen for the cries of the wounded to whom he would tend.
And when you see or hear those things, walk toward them. Because I promise you that you will find Christ there. And when you show up, it may be that those who cry out will discover the presence of Christ as well.
And here’s the deal: you’ll probably screw up. I mean, you won’t get it right every day. Big deal. Get up the next day and start over. Again. Because the world needs something, and God is sending you. Whatever room you find yourself in tomorrow, whatever situation you encounter next Wednesday, you didn’t get there by yourself, you know. And you won’t be alone. Just remember that you can bend. You are pliable. And faithful.
Thanks be to God. Amen.