Forging Covenant in the Wilderness: YHWH, Moses, and the Stiff-Necked People
God Equips the Called – Exodus 3-4 (selected verses)
June 23, 2019
This Sunday represents the second week of a summer series focusing on God’s wondrous works
accomplished in concert with God’s endearing servant Moses.
The title of the series, as printed in the bulletin, is
“Forging Covenant in the Wilderness: YHWH, Moses, and the Stiff-Necked People.”
The series focuses on the book of Exodus, the narrative of how God redeemed Hebrew slaves
from the oppression of Egyptian Pharaohs, and how God forged them into a covenantal community,
a community from which would arise forms of worship, law, and spiritual leadership
which inform and inspire the world to this day.
In Exodus, the groundwork is laid for an oppressed people to become the light of all nations,
for a former slave community to become the community from whom the Savior of the world would arise.
Last week, Alex did a beautiful job kicking off our summer series.
She described so well how God hears and cares and responds to desperate human cries for help.
God hears those in need. God listens to the groaning of our prayers,
and, in God’s way and in God’s time, responds to human need.
When you may feel trapped, and helpless, and hopeless, God hears and God responds.
And sometimes God calls very unexpected people, people like Moses, people like us,
to be God’s hands and feet and voice on earth.
Today, we recall the narrative of how God called Moses, a particular individual in particular time and
place, to participate in God’s saving work, and how God gave Moses the gifts of presence, purpose,
power, prose, and people.
But before we jump into the call of Moses, a few definitions –
First, YHWH – Yahweh, the four Hebrew letters which are translated “I AM”.
These letters reveal the name that God used for God’s self when Moses asks:
When Pharaoh asks who sent me to deliver the slaves, who shall I say sent me?
Tell them “I AM” sent you, God replies. “I am who I am. I will be who I will be.”
This name Yahweh was considered so holy that it was never uttered by the Hebrew people.
When the name YHWH appears in the ancient scrolls, the readers of Israel
would substitute the name “Adonai”, which means “my Lord”.
Second definition, Exodus – the word “ex-odos” literally means “a way out or a path out”,
similar to our word “exit”.
The book of Exodus describes how God provided a way out of slavery through the wilderness
and through the sea and toward the gift of a Promised Land.
Third, Moses. The Hebrew “Moshay”, which means “draw out”.
Moses was the Hebrew infant drawn out of the river by the Egyptian princess and saved from slaughter.
Fourth, “stiff-necked people”, “qesheh oreph”, literally “hard of neck”.
We use this term in our series title because it is used so many times in the Bible
to refer to the stubborn and difficult-to-lead people that Moses ushered through the wilderness.
Several of our stories over this summer, beginning with today’s story about the call of Moses,
reveal why this particular term is used.
Like an ox which was difficult to lead in plowing,
the Israelites became known as those not always responsive to the guiding of God’s Spirit.
The term “stiff-necked” recalls their ancestor Jacob, the twin of Esau,
the father of the 12 sons, the 12 tribes, whose name was changed to “Yisra-el”, “Israel”,
the one who is always wrestling with God.
Fifth definition, covenant. The biblical word “covenant” connotes more than a simple promise.
The biblical word covenant comes from the Hebrew “berit” and connotes a binding together of two
parties that cannot be easily broken. A covenant with God is one made unilaterally by God,
with terms and conditions not to be altered or broken by the unequal party, that is, humans.
Covenants were often sealed by the cutting in half of an ox or a cow, or the sharing of a meal.
Every time we break the bread and share the cup,
we are reminded of God’s continuing covenant with us through Jesus Christ.
Now, let us listen to the call of the stiff-necked Moses from selected verses in Exodus, chapters 3-4….
God heard the groaning of the Hebrew slaves and God responded by calling Moses
to lead them out of slavery, through the waters of the sea, and toward the Promised Land.
Moses is perhaps an unlikely figure.
At the time of his calling, he was serving his father-in-law as a shepherd in the wilderness.
He was a runaway felon who had recently married a desert princess and become a young father.
It seems that he was a man settling into a relatively comfortable career and lifestyle.
However, as the old bumper sticker claims: “No one is fully at peace until all are at peace.”
God heard the groaning of the Hebrew slaves and appeared to Moses, to send him back to Egypt.
Moses was not a slave himself, never had been.
Moses and his immediate family do not appear to be groaning, grieving, or hurting at the time of his call.
Moses’ life seems to be going fairly well.
No wonder Moses was “stiff-necked” when God called him to go face the Egyptian Pharaoh,
the most powerful man on earth at the time.
No wonder Moses tried to dodge the call five different times.
When God calls Moses at the burning bush, five times Moses objects, but five times God responds.
Like most human beings, Moses’ first reaction to the presence of God was fear.
Moses hid his face and was afraid to look at God.
God’s response was “You are standing on Holy ground.
Remove your shoes, recognize your vulnerability.
You have every reason to be fearful in my presence, but instead of turning away,
instead of trying to hold me at an arm’s distance,
instead of ignoring that I am here, calling you by name, instead of hiding your face,
turn to me, embrace the holiness of my presence, and be prepared for your whole world to change.
Like most of us, when presented with the possibility of a major life change,
Moses asks a few questions: Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh?
This is an important question. The beginning of wisdom is to know thyself,
to know one’s strengths and weaknesses, to identify one’s hopes and fears and dreams,
to understand one’s own fears of inadequacy.
To Moses’ question, God replies: “I will be with you.”
My presence is enough to meet your need, to meet your fears.
You are enough when you are walking in my will.
So Moses asks: Who are you?
If you are going to be my Source of strength and wisdom, then who shall I say sent me?
“I Am,” God replies. I am who I am. I will be who I will be.
I know you, Moses. I know your history. I know your future. I know the plans I have for you.
I AM has a purpose for you.
Third, Moses asks: What if they don’t believe me?
To this, God responds with power – or, in this case, parlor tricks:
a staff that turns into a snake, a hand that becomes leprous then well again, water that turns to blood.
It seems like God is giving Moses some tools of confidence in order to face Pharaoh’s magicians.
After his three questions, Moses makes a reasonable objection: “But I am not eloquent!”
Whomever is to go and speak before the most powerful man on earth should be eloquent, and that’s not
You must have the wrong person. I don’t have the gifts or skills to do what you’re asking me to do.
But God replies: Who gives gifts to mortals? Who makes them able to see and speak and lead?
Who inspires the prose of the poets?
I will be with your mouth, God says, and I will teach you what you are to speak.
Finally, Moses offers God an alternate proposal: “Please, send someone else!”
And finally, God becomes angry. God’s anger is kindled by Moses’ stiff-necked unresponsiveness,
by Moses’ lack of trust, by Moses’ faithless fearfulness.
But still God provides. Even in God’s frustration with Moses, God provides, in this case, people.
What of your brother Aaron? He speaks well, too much even.
Take him with you and I’ll give you both the words that you will need to say.
There is no doubt that God calls those who are equipped with certain innate gifts and talents.
But God also equips the called.
God provides what we need in order to do the wondrous works that God is calling us to do.
Walking around the city of Rome last week, I was reminded of the “Hunger Games” movies.
Ancient Rome was much like the capital PanAm in the “Hunger Games” series, written by Suzanne
Collins. PanAm’s President, President Snow, wielded almost absolute power, much like the ancient
Caesars. In one poignant scene, President Snow tells a young man that “the only thing stronger than fear
A little hope is good for the people, he said.
A lot of hope is dangerous, dangerous for us, dangerous for the empire.
“Be careful not to let the people have too much hope.”
Just like God gave the first century church enough hope to face the threats of the Roman Empire,
God gave Moses enough hope to face Pharaoh.
God’s provisions for Moses gave him hope,
enough hope to face a seemingly unconquerable foe,
enough hope to face his own fears and overcome his own anxieties,
enough hope to be dangerous to Pharaoh and the status quo of the system of oppressive slavery.
So what might God be calling the Church of the 21st century to do?
What might God be calling you as an individual to do? And what fears does that bring?
Are you afraid of anything in your career right now or in your relationships this month?
Is there some new plan or purpose you have been wondering about but have been afraid to attempt?
How might God respond to you as God did to Moses with some provision for those fears?
God’s provision engendered such hope in Moses that he left his settled life in Midian.
He gathered his wife and kids, he moved away from his settled life in Midian to the big city,
and then he attempted the impossible.
God just may be calling you, or calling us as a congregation, to face some insurmountable foe.
Perhaps God may even be calling us to become dangerous to some oppressive system,
for God’s sake and for the sake of those groaning in need.
We are God’s covenantal community.
Like Moses and his people, surely at times we are stiff of neck.
We have our own questions and objections, just as did Moses.
We share the same fears as did Moses and those poor Hebrews stuck in a system of slavery.
But God’s presence is among us.
God’s purpose is before us.
God’s power is made manifest among us.
God’s prose is on the tips of our tongues.
And God’s people are all around us.
As Paul declared, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” (Philippians 4)
We can do all things through Christ who strengthens us.
Long ago, YHWH forged a covenant with Moses and the Stiff-Necked People
in order to provide an exodus, a way out, and to move the people toward the Promised Land.
And God continues to call individuals and forge covenant with communities even to this day,
for the perilous needs of human beings have not changed all that much over the years,
nor have the systems of oppression all been overturned.
The Savior of the world has come, but his reign is not yet fully realized.
The ancient call of Moses reminds us that none of us will fully be at peace until all of us are at peace.
Rev. Todd Speed
Decatur Presbyterian Church