We have the strangest faith you could imagine. Two of our greatest heroes, Moses and Peter both have an opportunity to say yes to the call of God: both of them say “no”.
Moses is called to the greatest vocation possible: to be the leader of the Liberation of his people, the slaves of the Empire of Egypt. The first thing he says to God, (in effect) is “not me.” The great vocation seems like a terrible idea to him personally.
Jesus finally announces his itinerary to his inner circle led by Peter. Remember, Peter has just proclaimed, “You are the Messiah, the son of God.” But hearing that the path leads to suffering and death, he says, “God forbid!” Sounds like a terrible call to follow.
Why do we have these texts? Why, of all the vignettes of the lives of Moses and Peter did these texts get passed down? Because they are crucial.
Any time you have a story in which the central characters are confused and need to be corrected, it must be that the author is concerned that the readers are in grave danger of making the same mistakes.
Neither Moses nor Peter understood the big picture; they had to come to a new and clearer understanding of:
- What is God like?
- What does he care about?
- What does he want from us?
- How do we answer his call to follow him?
We have these same crucial questions.
To answer the questions mistakenly is disastrous – as much to us today as to Moses and Peter.
Let us let the Author teach us. First, Moses’ story.
What did Moses believe about God before he saw that mysterious burning bush?
Who knows? He was raised in the house of the Egyptian Pharaoh. Did he believe in the divinity of the Pharaoh, the divine sanction on the Empire and its methods? Who knows?
One thing is clear: at the experience of that mysterious, unquenchable burning bush, he was taught two things: Who is God, and What does God care about.
Lesson 1: God is Absolute divinity. “I am who I am” – the essence of being itself. ”
Don’t come any closer: this is holy ground; remove your sandals”, or as Jesus said “Hallowed, or Holy be your name.”
When we worship God, we come with reverence, knowing that we are in the presence of divinity itself.
But lesson 1 is complex: this holy God knows Moses by name: calls to him by name. “Moses, Moses”
He identifies himself with Moses family history: “I am the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.”
Lesson 1 is that this mysterious, holy God is personal, he is near, not far off. He is aware of what is happening to his people and he is engaged in their rescue.
We cannot miss this:
What kind of God is God? He is not any kind of god; he is not an Egyptian god. He is Israel’s God.
- He has a history with these people.
- He has a relationship with these people.
- He has committed himself to these people.
What is God like?
- He is the God who hears his people’s cries, and cares.
- He is aware of their misery, and it moves him.
- He can see the oppressing conditions that Empire has forced upon them, and he is engaged.
So what does he want?
He wants Moses to do something that seems to defy logic and common sense. Go to Pharaoh. Go to where your ran from for fear of loosing your life.
Moses, though in the presence of the burning fire itself, says, “Who am I?” His mission is counter-intuitive. How could good come from such a call? Liberation seems not unlikely, but impossible, and life threatening.
Take note of this: God has not called Moses to comfort, to safety, to ease. But he has called him personally, and promises this: “I will be with you;
Who is God and what does he want?
We worship a God:
- who is holy and transcendent, and
- who is horrified by slavery, by sweat shops and child labor.
- who is in opposition to the inhumane treatment of prisoners
- and hates conditions of grinding hopeless poverty;
And a God who, therefore:
- sees where the pain is in your life
- hears your cries in the night
- and is with you, presently at every moment.
We worship a God whose love is not merely mystical and psychological, but rather is as actual as the bricks those Israelite slaves were forced to manufacture for the benefit of the Empire.
It is so significant to notice what he does about it
He calls a person to put himself at risk for people in need.
“Go to Pharaoh! … Set my people free.”
He calls Moses to deny himself, take up his staff, and follow his leading into the jaws of the Empire.
And you know the rest of the story.
But now let us fast forward to the story of Peter and Jesus. Here we have another similar call to risk everything, deny yourself, take up your cross, follow me.
Just like Moses, Peter cannot handle this at first: death and suffering were not part of his plan for the Messiah, the son of God – as he had just proclaimed Jesus.
“God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.”
In Peter’s words, Jesus recognizes the voice of the satan expressing the same temptation he had faced in the wilderness: to take the path of glory, not of suffering. To bend the knee to the evil tactics of Empire and make all the kingdoms of the earth bow before him.
Jesus looks at Peter, but addresses the source of that idea:
“Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
Peter, at this point, pre-Easter morning, cannot fathom how suffering and death could possibly achieve God’s purposes for his people.
God’s people were in bondage to empire and needed liberation.
Jesus knew that the source of the pain of his people was deeper than empire, it was evil itself.
Every empire is built on the domination, control, subjugation of people.
Every empire is founded on the backs of its slaves – whether they are building an Egyptian pyramids, or laboring 18 hours a day in a coal mine, or sewing up cheap T-shirts for export.
Jesus did not have the agenda of dismantling Rome.
His agenda was the demolition of the evil use of human beings as means rather than ends.
This evil, this “will-to-power” to gain advantage over others, to pursue the endless quest to indulge ourselves, whether by direct or indirect means, is at the root of an enormous amount of human suffering.
The revolution Jesus brings will begin when redemption comes to people who will reject this evil in themselves.
The revolution will start when a groundswell of people of faith are willing to deny themselves, take up their cross and follow Jesus.
This is what God wants from us:
- Every moment we invest in ministry to the poor instead of spending on ourselves, is an act of self-denial; a direct assault on evil’s claim on our lives.
- Every time we get out and visit people in hospital or people who are home-bound, every call, every card that says “I care” is a rejection of the evil of self-obsession.
- Every time we spend money filling the grocery sack for the Christian Service Center instead of banking the money for ourselves, we are saying “no” to evil and “yes” to the call to deny ourselves.
- Every time we raise our political voices against genocide, every time we participate in the One campaign, we are putting ourselves behind Jesus in the movement that can bring real, concrete liberation to people all around the globe.
The self denial that we are called to is not about guilt and shame or self-loathing. Self denial is real, concrete and practical. It is saying no to the concept that a persons life consists in the abundance of his possessions.
- It is about finally learning that there is actually more joy that comes from spending an hour in ministry at Holeman prison than an hour in front of HBO.
- It means you feel better about yourself for having tutored young people who would otherwise drop out than you could ever by spending that time on yourself.
- It means discovering that you feel far richer for having invested money in a clinic in Sudan than you would be if that money was spent on new clothes for yourself.
This is the irony and compelling certainty of following Jesus: that those who loose their time, loose their money, loose their lives for him and for the kingdom are the ones who actually gain their lives.
Jesus said it best:
For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. 26For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?
The call we hear is the call to risk loosing ourselves, our security, our lives on the wager that this is the only way we will find them.
Let us loose our lives, for His sake!