Sunday, June 5, 2011


As you might know, one of the things that I do at work is play with words.
And in the age of the internet, there are some brand new words, aren’t there?

You know, words like “blog” (which is like a public diary) and “netiquette” (which is how you are supposed to behave on the internet).
But there are also a bunch of words that were already in the English language, but have recently taken on new meanings. How about “spam”? (junk e-mails) or words that used to be nouns, but are now verbs, too, like “texting” (when you send a text from one phone to another)

But there are also some words in the English language that have taken on not new meanings, but new significance. One such word is “fail.” Fail still means the same as it always did – that is, to fall short of success. But today, if your friends use the word “fail” to describe something you did, they often don’t just mean that you didn’t quite succeed. They can mean that you missed success by such a margin that they’d like to capture it and publish it for your everlasting embarrassment. There are, in fact, websites dedicated to preserving life’s most embarrassing moments. Now while I would never approve of celebrating the misfortune of others, I do have a few examples that I thought I’d share.

• I like this one, because it happened just last month. The difficulty with it is circled in red in the top left-hand corner. It might have been the date of the century, but the newspaper misdated that edition!
• And I like this one, because anyone living in Montreal can appreciate just how desperate you must be to take an iron outside to deal with ice on the roof.
• But I like this one for its self-reference. If you want people to approve of your graphic artistry, it is recommended that you avoid spelling mistakes.

But why do I want to talk about failure today? Well, this morning, I’d like to tell you about someone really, really important in the Bible. Someone that the Bible says was “powerful in speech and in action”. Someone who might have accomplished more for God than anyone else in the Old Testament. And this person is going to be our example this morning. One of the greatest success-stories in the Bible, from him, we will learn some lessons on “how not to fail.” That’s right: this sermon could even be called “How NOT to Fail.”

Can anyone guess who our subject will be this morning? Hint: they made a cartoon movie about his life thirteen years ago. That’s right: today, we’re going to be talking about Moses. Now it wasn’t that long ago that I preached on Moses, but the last time, I talked primarily about how God looked after him when he was really young. This morning, I’d like to remind you of some of the wonderful things that Moses did when he was older. How he came to challenge Pharaoh, the greatest ruler in the world at that time. How he stood up to all the court of the sorcerers of Egypt. How he called down plagues upon the land, and how locusts and frogs and flies and boils and darkness and sickness all came from God according to Moses words. How he organized the people of Israel, and led them through the baptism of the Red Sea. How he met and spoke face to face with God on the mountain.

S: Are you talking about Moses?
D: Hello?
S: Down here!
D: Oh no, not you again!
S: No need to be nasssty.
D: Excuse me…
S: Ssssso. Were you talking about Moses?
D: Yes, that’s right.
S: Moses from Egypt?
D: That’s the one.
S: Well… I don’t think you should use him in a sermon…
D: Oh no?
S: Especially when the children are present?
D: Why do you say that?
S: Well… wait until you hear what I heard.
D: Is this centuries old gossip again?
S: Oh no! This is all completely true.
D: Alright. I’m listening.
S: Well… I heard that Moses was a very nasssty character.
D: Is that right? Who told you that?
S: Well… did you know that he was a murderer?
D: That’s old news.
S: You knew?
D: Sure!
S: And you’re going to use a murderer as an example in a sermon for children!
D: I was, yes.
S: Well, I can’t believe that you’d want to.
D: Are you suggesting that God can’t use people who have made mistakes?
S: Well, there are mistakes… and then there is murder.
D: You’ve got a point… and I sometimes think that Moses himself knew how big a deal it was… after the fact.
S: You mean like when he brought the stone tablets down from the mountain, and they said… “DO NOT MURDER”
D: Yeah – for sure, but I think he had figured it out long before that. After all, the Bible says that Pharaoh wanted to kill Moses after. Which is why Moses ran away.
S: Ran away? What are you talking about?
D: When Moses killed the Egyptian. Here: “He saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his own people. Looking this way and that and seeing no one, he killed the Egyptian and hid him in the sand.”
S: Moses did *much* worse than that!
D: He did?
S: Oh yes, he was responsible for the death of many, many snakes!
D: [facepalm] I’m not sure I’m feeling altogether sympathetic to snakes at the moment. Here, let me finish.

Oof. What a slimy character. The worst thing about him… is that he always sort of tells the truth. It is much easier to deal with lies that it is with half-truths, isn’t it? But by reminding us about that icky event in the life of Moses, the snake unwittingly gave us our first lesson this morning.

You see, Moses really did fail – epic fail, even – when he killed that Egyptian. He lost the respect of the people of Israel, and he was chased out of the country by Pharaoh! By taking matters into his own hands, and doing things his way, Moses made a real mess of it. Moses might even have been trying to help God out when he did that, but his head was too big and his heart was too small, and God didn’t show up to cover for Moses.

But just the fact that the story of Moses, one of the biggest success stories in the Bible, starts with failure teaches us something, doesn’t it? Since we know how the story ends (how God used Moses in a powerful way to free his people), we know (and here is our first lesson on how not to fail, so pay close attention) that Moses didn’t let his past failures keep him from future successes. That’s lesson number one: don’t be crippled by past failures. Not even BIG failures. Just because you messed up yesterday doesn’t mean that you’re going to mess up today. Like the Bible says, we need to be always “Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead.” One of the big principles in the Bible is this thing called forgiveness, and it means that God wants to give us second chances.

Now if any of you have seen the movie the Prince of Egypt, you know how the story goes after Moses messes up. Moses runs away into the wilderness and arrives in Midian. Check. He gets married to Zipporah. Check. And then he meets God in a burning bush. Check? Well, not so fast! Not even close to so fast! You see, at this point, the movie leaves out something important. Not just important; VERY important. In fact, we’re talking forty years important!!

That’s right: Moses didn’t run into that burning bush in the month after arriving in Midian. He didn’t run into that burning bush a year after arriving in Midian. He had to wait FORTY years before meeting up with that burning bush – but you can be sure that those forty years were no waste of time. Oh no: Moses needed FORTY years before his head lost its swelling and his heart grew some humility. And then, and ONLY then, was he ready to really meet God.

But that’s our second lesson on how not to fail. If we want to be sure to succeed, we need to do things in God’s timing and in God’s way. Like the Bible says: “unless the LORD builds the house, the builders labor in vain; unless the LORD watches over the city, the guards stand watch in vain.” If we go out doing things on our own power, they might not turn out the way we had hoped. And in order to know what God’s timing is, and in order to know what “God’s way” is, we need to get to know God Himself.

So let’s do a quick recap: Two lessons so far on how not to fail:
1. Don’t let past failures cripple you.
2. Get to know God (which also means being open to his timing and his strategies).

Which brings us… to that burning bush (Exodus chapter 3): “…Moses saw that though the bush was on fire it did not burn up. 3 So he thought, “I will go over and see this strange sight—why the bush does not burn up.” You see, Moses is curious (that’s always a good thing) and he is wondering why this bush isn’t quite behaving like people had told him to expect. So pay attention! You’ll find that there are LOTS of things in the world that don’t exactly behave like they teach you in school. And you may well find God is there (in those things) wanting to get your attention, too.

Now when God finally got Moses’ attention, the Bible says that he called Moses name “Moses!” and Moses replied “Here I am.” Can you imagine how awesome it would be to hear God’s voice? Well, did you know that the Bible talks about you hearing God’s voice, too? In fact, it even talks about you hearing God’s voice today. What do you think of that? In Hebrews chapter 3, we read: “Today” – that’s right, the Bible is talking about today. “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your heart.” You see, the Bible knows that God wants us to be listening to him all the time, and the number one reason that we do not see God at work in our lives is not that God is not at work in our lives. The number one reason that we do not see God at work in our lives is that our hearts have become hard. Soften our hearts, O God, that we may hear your voice today, we pray!

So God has got Moses attention, and he goes and surprises Moses again. The first thing that God says to Moses is really odd: “Take off your sandals,” God says. Now I’d like you to put yourselves in Moses shoes for a second. I mean “in Moses sandals”. You see a bush that seems like it is burning, but not burning up. You hear your name being called, and then you are told to take your sandals off, which likely means that you will need to put your bare feet down on the hot sand – and believe me: where Moses was, the sand can get pretty hot. So I’m guessing that most of us today, having been taught at school to be independent thinkers, would want to respond: “why should I take my sandals off?” But while thinking the word “why” and before saying the word “why,” Moses hears God say “because you are standing on Holy Ground.” Now if he didn’t feel the goose-bumps yet, just wait for what comes next.

Once again, having been taught at school to question authority, and knowing that that sand is really hot, before you take off your sandals, you want to know one more thing. Just who is it that is giving you orders, anyway? You want to ask “who are you telling me to take my sandals off?” But while thinking the words “who are you” and before saying the words “who are you,” Moses hears God say “I am the God of your father.” Goodness! It is just like God is reading Moses mind! And now God really has Moses attention.

Incidentally, that “taking off the sandals” thing – it isn’t just an ancient custom. It is a lesson for us, too. Moses sandals were the point at which he connected with the world every day. And God is saying to us that in order to come and meet him, we need to be willing to set aside all those things that connect us with our world, too. For us, it isn’t sandals, of course. Perhaps it is television. Perhaps it is internet. Perhaps it is your music. Perhaps it is your phone. Perhaps it is the gym. Or that spot behind the school.

In order to enter into God’s presence, we need to set all those things aside. Have you ever been talking to someone, and in the middle of the conversation, they pick up their phone and send a text message to someone else? How rude is that? Well, don’t make the mistake of doing that to God – by the time you look up from your phone, he may very well be long gone – and it won’t be his fault! Remember: “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your heart.”

So God tells Moses that he has a job to do: God asks Moses to go see Pharaoh, and to bring God’s people out of Egypt. And Moses does exactly what I would have done, and what most of you would do, too. “Oh yeah! Let’s go God!” – not so much! He starts making excuses. But it is really interesting to see how God responds to those excuses. Now there are a whole list of excuses that Moses makes, but I only have time to deal with two of them this morning. The most important one is the first one:

Excuse#1: “Who am I?” Moses asks. The implication here is that Moses thinks that he is nobody special. But God’s reply is most interesting. You see, God doesn’t answer Moses’ question. I wonder if that doesn’t happen to us sometimes: we come to God with burning questions. We pretend like our service to God depends on answers to our questions. But In the Bible, God almost never answers our questions! Why is that? It is because we are almost always asking the wrong questions! When Moses asks “Who am I?” God’s replies: “I will be with you.” This is big. This is not just big: this is enough. When God says “I will be with you” that should be the end of all excuses. You plus God is bigger than any ten armies. The Bible calls you to be a holy people. If you don’t think that you are up to that, God wants to remind you “I will be with you.” Jesus calls you to be the light of the world: to shine warmth and truth in a dark world. If you don’t think that you are up to that, God wants to say to you, “I will be with you.” Jesus calls you to be the salt of the earth: a preserving influence in a culture rotten at its core. If you don’t think that you are up to that, God wants you to hear his voice, “I will be with you.” Remember our second less in how not to fail? Get to know God. If Moses knew God, he would have known that God being with him was bigger than any excuses. But as it was, he had at least one more excuse:

Excuse#2: I’m really bad at talking. And God replies “Who made you, and gave you your mouth? I will help you, and will teach you what to say.” You see, we might know from the end of the story that Moses was a prophet mighty in word and deed. But Moses, at the beginning of the story, really truly didn’t know what he was capable of. And that, dear friends, is the third lesson on how not to fail: we need to know ourselves. Now that doesn’t mean deciding what we are “really like”. Not at all: I’ve known far too many people who have made a “decision” like that with disastrous results. The only way to truly know yourself is to pay attention to the one who made you – to become the person that God made.

For each of us, there is the person that we think we are, but there are also all the people that other people see. Which one is “real”? None of the above. The person that God wants you to become –if you let him, God will help that become the “real you”: the person that “redeemed history” will record as being you. Of course, if you insist on being who you think you are, God might be a gentleman and leave you to it. But if you do that, you will never experience the amazing wonder of sharing in the glory of God as Moses did. But having said that, there is one more important lesson on how not to fail. So far, we have:
• Don’t be crippled by past failures
• Get to know God
• Get to know yourself
But the last lesson comes from the next part of the story. And please remember: this isn’t the end of the story, which ends in great victory for Moses and the people of God. This is just the next part, but all we have time for this morning…. Moses gets up and heads back to Egypt. He confronts Pharaoh, famously saying “let my people go!” and he throws down his walking stick, and it turns into a snake in front of Pharaoh and his court. And how did that turn out? Well, first, Pharaoh isn’t too tickled about it, and orders the people of Israel to do twice as much work. And those people are not exactly delighted about the “help” that Moses has brought for them. Ouch. Fail. And second, all of Pharaoh’s sorcerers are also able to change their walking-sticks into snakes! Yikes. Double Fail. Out in the desert, it all sounded so good. But here, in the sophisticated court of public opinion, it really doesn’t seem to be standing up very well… which brings us to our last lesson on how not to fail. But it is a lesson that comes from the first three. What were they?
1. Don’t be crippled by past failures
2. Get to know God
3. Get to know yourself
Lessons, if we really “get,” will ensure that we:
4. Don’t give up
Moses didn’t give up. He stuck it out, and he goes down in history as one of the greatest men who ever lived: a leader, a lawgiver, an inspiration, and a servant. God might want you to be one of those things, too. And as we approach the season of Emmanuel, we need to be reminded of the words of Moses: “Be strong and courageous… for the LORD your God is with you – he will never leave you nor forsake you.” And we need to be reminded of the words of Jesus: “surely I am with you always.” If God is with us, that should always be enough. “Today, when you hear God’s voice, don’t harden your heart.”