Forging Covenant in the Wilderness: Yahweh, Moses and the Stiff-Necked People
“God Organizes the Overwhelmed”
July 21, 2019
Prayer for Illumination
Holy God, by the power of your Spirit…illuminate your Word…on this your day…
for these your people…through me your servant…
in order to accomplish all that you intend; through Jesus Christ we pray, Amen.
The very first words of the Bible, in the book of Genesis, speak of a God who brings order out of chaos.
In the very beginning, “when God began creating the heavens and the earth,
the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep,
and a wind from God swept over the face of the waters”, calling forth order and life.
The wind of God, the Holy Spirit, brings order out of chaos.
In Paul’s first century letter to the church in Corinth, he writes:
“There are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same
To each is given the manifestation of the (Holy) Spirit for the common good”. (I Cor 12:4-7)Paul
continues by writing about the various gifts of the Holy Spirit,
including the gifts leadership and administration.
Today’s story from the book of Exodus offers a timeless example of a man, skilled in leadership,
who provides critical counsel to Moses at one of the most important junctures
in the formation of the community of former slaves.
The wise counselor is none other than Jethro, the father-in-law of Moses.
Hear the Word of God from Exodus 18. Exodus 18 (selected verses):
Jethro, the priest of Midian, Moses’ father-in-law, heard of all that God had done for Moses
and for his people Israel, how the Lord had brought Israel out of Egypt…
Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, came into the wilderness where Moses was encamped
at the mountain of God, bringing Moses’ sons and wife (Zipporah) to him’…
Moses went out to meet his father-in-law; he bowed down and kissed him;
each asked after the other’s welfare, and they went into the tent.
Then Moses told his father-in-law all that the Lord had done to Pharaoh and to the Egyptians
for Israel’s sake, all the hardship that had beset them on the way, and how the Lord had delivered
Jethro rejoiced for all the good that the Lord had done to Israel, in delivering them from the
And Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, brought a burnt-offering and sacrifices to God; and Aaron came
with all the elders of Israel to eat bread with Moses’ father-in-law in the presence of God.
The next day Moses sat as judge for the people, while the people stood around him from morning
until evening. When Moses’ father-in-law saw all that he was doing for the people, he said,
‘What is this that you are doing for the people? Why do you sit alone,
while all the people stand around you from morning until evening?’
Moses said to his father-in-law, ‘Because the people come to me to inquire of God.
When they have a dispute, they come to me and I decide between one person and another,
and I make known to them the statutes and instructions of God.’
Moses’ father-in-law said to him, ‘What you are doing is not good.
You will surely wear yourself out, both you and these people with you.
For the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone.
Now listen to me. I will give you counsel, and God be with you!
You should represent the people before God, and you should bring their cases before God;
teach them the statutes and instructions and make known to them the way they are to go
and the things they are to do.
You should also look for able men among all the people, men who fear God,
are trustworthy, and hate dishonest gain; set such men over them as officers over thousands,
hundreds, fifties and tens. Let them sit as judges for the people at all times;
let them bring every important case to you, but decide every minor case themselves.
So it will be easier for you, and they will bear the burden with you.
If you do this, and God so commands you, then you will be able to endure,
and all these people will go to their home in peace.’
So Moses listened to his father-in-law and did all that he had said.
Moses chose able men from all Israel and appointed them as heads over the people,
as officers over thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens. And they judged the people at all times;
hard cases they brought to Moses, but any minor case they decided themselves.
Then Moses let his father-in-law depart, and he went off to his own country.
The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
Moses, who has just led thousands of slaves into the wilderness, is suddenly the leader of a new
He is feeling the tremendous weight of the responsibility and working himself to death.
Jethro, who comes to visit, bringing Moses’ young family with him,
is not only concerned about Moses and the plight of the Hebrews;
he is also concerned about his own daughter and his two grandsons!
If Moses tries to keep us this pace, he not only will eventually fail these people
whom he has led into the wilderness, he will also have no time for his wife and kids.
This, of course, does not please Zipporah’s father,
so granddad Jethro sits down to have a “come to Jesus” meeting with Moses.
However, notice that Jethro earns the right to this meeting.
Jethro, who has been the priest of Midian for many years and a leader among his people,
is well-respected for his spiritual and economic leadership of his tribe.
He has born the mantle of leadership for many years and understands sustainable leadership.
In the context of a healthy relationship, before the “come to Jesus” meeting,
before ever saying “you should” or “you ought”,
Jethro walks patiently with Moses through ten steps of understanding.
1 – Jethro helps Moses by providing a safe place for Zipporah and her sons during the Exodus.
2 – Jethro comes to visit Moses, bringing to him his wife and sons.
3 – Jethro listens to Moses.
4 – Jethro rejoices with Moses over the good news of the deliverance.
5 – Jethro offers a burnt offering and worships with Moses and the elders.
6 – Jethro observes carefully, all day long, all that Moses is doing for the people.
7 – Jethro asks questions, encouraging Moses to explain what was going on from his own perspective.
8 – Again, Jethro listens to Moses.
9 – After listening, Jethro shows personal concern for Moses’ own welfare.
10 – Jethro reveals some understanding of Moses’ situation.
Finally, after these 10 steps, Jethro offers Moses wise advice and counsel.
He only says “you should” to Moses after walking with Moses through these ten steps.
How many in-laws, or parents, or grandparents, are this wise and patient?
This story of Jethro visiting Moses provides a timeless model for how an older person
might give counsel to a younger person.
Many of you have met my father-in-law, Dr. Clem Doxey.
Poppa, as I call him, is a retired dermatologist in Marietta.
Though he has constantly been a supportive and encouraging father-in-law,
I am sure that there were many times when he was tempted to sit me down
and give me counsel about raising my four sons or about being a good husband to his daughter.
Over the years, I have been very grateful for his hands off approach.
He has been supportive without being demanding. He has been encouraging without being directive.
And on one occasion, I remember well how his advice was extremely helpful.
I shared something with him about a problem I was having
with a staff member at my former congregation. After I described the situation,
Poppa didn’t directly give me any advice, he just told a story.
As a dermatologist who served in Marietta for over four decades,
Poppa was seeing as many as 50 patients a day at the height of his career.
Imagine the kind of leadership it required in a doctor’s office to manage that kind of schedule.
Every staff member had to be fully on their game every day
when fifty patients were showing up to see him between 8am and 5pm.
The promptness and preparedness of his nurses and other assistants were paramount.
The story he told was about a young nurse, a new employee, who could not seem to get with the
She had been there only a few months when she started showing up late,
late enough to be noticed, late enough to impact the entire day’s schedule.
So, Poppa gave her a warning: “Sharon (or whatever her name was),
you were late once again today. This affects our entire office.
If you are late again, that will be your last day to work here.”
Sure enough, a few weeks later, Sharon showed up late.
To her great surprise, she was informed that that would be her last day to work in that office.
But the story did not end there.
Poppa went on to say that several years later, Sharon showed up one day to visit him.
She thanked him for holding her accountable and told him how his actions, though very difficult at
first, actually helped put her on a better path in life.
What I learned as a son-in-law was that you not only give people a chance to succeed,
you also not hesitate to hold them accountable for their actions.
Not long afterwards, that staff member at my former congregation,
the one who had been engaging in unacceptable behavior, had to be let go.
Remembering Poppa’s story, I held them accountable for their actions,
and, even though they had been a long term church employee, the entire session supported the
Father-in-law Jethro gave wise counsel and Moses listened and responded.
The specific advice Jethro gave to Moses was to delegate his work.
Anthea Turner, a British media personality, claims that “The first rule of management is delegation.
Don’t try and do everything yourself because you can’t.”
Author John Maxwell wrote: “If you want to do a few small things right, do them yourself.
If you want to do great things and make a big impact, learn to delegate.”
Ronald Reagan, the 40th President of the United States, advised:
“Surround yourself with the best people you can find, delegate authority,
and don’t interfere as long as the policy you’ve decided upon is being carried out.”
One of my favorite delegation quotes comes from Stephen Hayner,
former President of Columbia Theological Seminary.
Steve said that he would “keep his nose in but his hands out.”
He would keep up with what was going on with his staff, but would not interfere or micromanage.
There have been several times in my ministry when delegation became particularly important.
After serving Fourth Presbyterian Church in Greenville, South Carolina for four and a half years
as an Associate Pastor working with youth and mission and adult education,
I received the call late in the fall of 1997 to serve a different congregation,
First Presbyterian Church of York, SC.
For over four years, among other duties, I had worked hard with others
to build up the vitality of the youth ministry at Fourth Presbyterian, both in number and in spirit,
and so there no small concern in the congregation about what might happen after Melanie and I
What I remember most about that transition was the response of our faithful youth advisors.
The advisors gathered in my office not long after I made the announcement to the congregation
so that we might strategize about how to go forward.
One of the advisors, a mature parent of one of the youth,
suggested that we follow a similar procedure to what we did on youth mission trips.
On the mission trips, I would always have the various advisors take responsibility
for one important aspects of the trip. They each would have a manageable task,
like taking care of the meals or being responsible for the vehicles or handling the work groups and
tools, and I would be able to focus my attention on working with the youth toward their leadership
of the morning devotions and evening reflections.
At that meeting in my office with the advisors,
we spread on the table a manila folder for each of the primary activities of the youth group.
One by one, they each volunteered to pick up full responsibility for one aspect of the youth ministry.
One couple volunteered to ensure Sunday nights would continue solid youth-led programming.
Another couple took on the Montreat Conference, agreeing to make all the arrangements,
reservations, and recruit necessary chaperones.
A third couple picked up the mission trip folder and told me not to worry.
One of our single advisors took the ski trip folder and said it would be his joyful responsibility.
Some months later, in the spring of the following year, I received a phone call from my mentor and
friend, Allen McSween, the senior pastor of Fourth Presbyterian, Allen called to tell me that they had
a real problem with the youth ministry at the church.
Oh no, I thought. What has happened?
Allen replied that they were having real trouble feeding all the young people
who were showing up on Sunday nights!
It was one of the best phone calls I ever received. I was so relieved and so pleased.
My youth advisors had not let the leadership drop, but had jointly picked up their various
responsibilities and were leading, along with the youth, effectively and well.
“Stephen Covey, in his seminal work ‘The 7 Habits of Effective People’,
provided a set of concrete steps to help people delegate.
He outlined a proven recipe for creating a truly remarkable team that delivers outstanding results.
But there is one crucial element that makes his method effective – Trust.
Covey writes: “Trust is the highest form of human motivation. It brings out the very best in people.
(Trust) takes time and patience and (trust includes) the necessity to train and develop people
so that their competence can rise to the level of that trust.”
Moses trusted Jethro’s advice to take the time and patience to teach the people
the statutes and instructions of God, to make known to them the way they were to go,
and the things they were to do.
Moses trusted the advice to look for able persons among all the people,
persons who feared God and were trustworthy, who hated dishonest gain,
and to train such persons and set them over the people as leaders.
Then Moses, once he had trained them well, trusted the leaders to do their jobs.
The court system of the United States recalls the ancient wisdom of Jethro.
Like Moses, the Supreme Court does not attempt to hear every single case.
Only the most difficult of cases come before the Supreme Court.
All other cases are handled by the many lower courts, the judges and lawyers and staff,
who are well-trained to handle everything that comes before them.
In the beginning, the Spirit of God moved over the watery chaos, bringing forth order and life.
In the time of Moses, the Spirit of God worked through the wise Jethro,
to help bring order and life to the Hebrews wandering in the wilderness.
In the days of the early church, the Spirit brought order and life to those chaotic days
following the death and resurrection of Jesus in Jerusalem.
Still today, the Spirit of God is at work, everywhere there is chaos, everywhere there is darkness.
As Clark Simmons said earlier in the assurance of pardon,
“Peace is not the absence of chaos, but the presence of hope…
Peace is not the absence of darkness, but the presence of light.”
Working through the particular gifts and skills of individuals,
the Spirit of God is very much at work today bringing order, hope, and life.
So Jethro’s story begs the question: Where is there chaos and darkness among us today?
What aspects of your life or home or community or nation bring you great concern?
Are you open to the Spirit working through you, through your particular gifts and talents,
to help bring order and new life in places of chaos or placed of darkness?
Spirit work will take patience and understanding.
Spirit work will require trust among those who are seeking the common good.
Spirit work will be critically important to the life, health and vitality of all God’s people.
To God be the glory as we participate with God in bringing forth order and life. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Todd Speed
Decatur Presbyterian Church