Two lessons from the life of Moses


  • Moses action figureThis was a Sunday sermon at Glenwood Church on 11 August 2013. An audio recording is available on the Glenwood website.

    Moses is a very important person in the Old Testament. He is the person to whom God reveals God’s name – ‘I am’. He is sent to Egypt to liberate the Hebrews who are enslaves there and after several plagues are visited upon Egypt, Pharoah agrees to let the Hebrews go.

    Before they can leave Egypt they are chased down by the Egyptian army, but God opens up a passage through the Red Sea for them and the Egyptian army is destroyed when they try to follow. And you know all this, because you’ve heard the stories many times and maybe seen the cartoon ‘The Prince of Egypt’.

    Moses is also important because he is the person who receives the divine Law from God on Mount Sinai. This is the foundation of the Jewish religion, the core of the Torah, the Jewish law, and so he is central to the development of Judaism, and by extension to Christianity, because Jesus, our Christ, was a Jew who observed the Torah, the Law.

    I want to look at two instances in the life of Moses that at first glance may appear to be contradictory, but if we examine them we can see they complement each other. I believe the stories contained in the Bible are meaningful today for us as followers of Jesus, so my plan is to draw out lessons for us from these stories, to see how they can inform the way we live.

    So, the first story is in Exodus chapter 32. Read the chapter.

    If you know the ten commandments, then you will know the first two commandments are:

    • You shall have no other gods before or besides me.
    • You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them

    [Exodus chapter 20, verses 3-5]

    The irony here is that as Moses is receiving the Law that says ‘You shall have no other gods before or besides me, as it’s very first point’, and ‘You shall not make for yourself an image and bow down to it’ as it’s very second point, that is exactly what the people are doing.

    This is actually only six weeks after all the people of Israel had made a covenant pledge with God (in Exodus chapter 19) where they had promised to do everything that God has said. It has taken no time at all for the people to forget how they have been freed from slavery.

    They go to Aaron and they say ‘We don’t know what’s happened to Moses’ and they demand something they can worship; something like everybody else has – a statue; something they can see.

    It’s significant that the image Aaron created was a calf – this was a common idol worshipped in Egypt. Already, the people are slipping back into old ways. They have been taken out from slavery and are heading towards a promised land and yet, they want to return to the old way of thinking and doing things.

    So, what lesson can we draw from this. I think it’s very simple – one of the major mistakes we make in churches is to substitute something we can see for something that’s harder to see. We replace the spiritual with the physical; the unseen with the visible.

    Let me give you an example. A few years ago, my wife and I had a lodger living with us who had been brought up in a church where he was told that the way you could tell if someone was truly ‘born again’ was if they spoke in tongues. That was the ‘proof’.

    Now I would challenge anyone to show me the chapter and verse in the Bible that says you have to speak in tongues otherwise you are not a Christian.

    The point is that it’s very hard to assess another person’s spirituality, so we use something else to measure it. In academic terms this is called a ‘proxy measure’ – you can’t directly measure the thing you’re trying to measure so you measure something linked to it.

    And that’s what we do sometimes in church. It’s hard to measure commitment, so we look to see if people turn up every week. In some churches, your holiness is measured in whether you wear your Sunday Best. In other churches, it may be how long you say your daily Quiet Times are. In some churches it would be whether you speak in tongues.

    And there are other things that can easily supplant God, often with the best of intentions. The way some people talk about the Bible, you’d think it was a magical book that will solve all your problems and ward off evil. I’m not saying the Bible isn’t important. It is. But it’s not the answer to all your problems. The God whose words are written down in the Bible is the person who will transform your life.

    So, why do we do this – substitute something else for God?

    There is a tendency in our culture towards materialism. I don’t mean people wanting stuff. Often when we talk about someone being materialistic we mean they have a lot of possessions and they really care about what they wear and the car they drive, and so on. That is a materialistic way of looking at things, but materialism as a philosophy goes a bit further – it says that only the things you can see, matter.

    So, that is clothes and cars and whatever, but it’s also saying that if you can’t measure something or quantify it, or pin it down and label it than it doesn’t matter. We even have a popular phrase: ‘I’ll believe it when I see it!’ That is the essence of materialism.

    You don’t have to go far to find people who would say, of religion, for example, that there is ‘no evidence’ for it. And what they mean is no ‘scientific’ or material evidence.

    I often wonder what would constitute proof. Years ago I was talking to someone I worked with about faith and she said she didn’t believe in God because there was no evidence for God.

    So I asked her what would constitute evidence. What would she accept?

    And that kind of stumped her, because she couldn’t actually tell me what would be unquestionable evidence that God exists.

    She said ‘Well, if I saw Him.’ But then I asked how she would know she wasn’t hallucinating. Would she think that maybe I hypnotised her?

    And we got down to it eventually, that there wasn’t anything I could do or show her that would be rock solid evidence.

    And yet, she still felt that without evidence she couldn’t believe.

    That’s the conundrum of materialism. How do you find material proof of something spiritual? It’s the wrong set of measurements. It’s like licking a painting by Picasso. Or sniffing a violinist playing Mozart. Or listening to a flower. Or just looking at champagne. You’ll find out something, maybe. But you won’t get what makes it special.

    But materialism is our natural state as human beings. If you watch very little kids when they find something new they look at it, they touch it, they stick it in their mouths. They are gathering sensory data about the object. It’s a natural thing to do.

    So, it’s natural to revert to materialism in the church. We find it hard to recognise the spiritual, so we replace it with something we can see. We see the tendency right here in this story – Moses has gone up the mountain and the Israelites ask for something they can see to worship. God gets angry at that, and the warning to us is to make sure we don’t make something else more important in our church than the God we are supposed to be worshipping and living for.

    The second story is shorter and quite a strange one. It’s a long time after Mount Sinai and the Israelites are still wandering around in the desert. This is from Numbers chapter 21, verses 4-9.

    It’s odd medical advice, isn’t it? If you got bitten by a snake and you phoned up your doctor, I’m pretty sure they are going to talk about anti-venom and going to a hospital. No one is going to say “Are you near a bronze snake on a pole? Oh, good. Look at the snake and you’ll be fine.”

    But, those of you who have paid attention may be thinking ‘Hang on a minute’. We have had the commandment not to create any kind of image. We have seen how angry God got when the people of Israel did that. And then in this instance, God tells Moses to do exactly what the second commandment had forbidden.

    What is going on? Is this a massive contradiction? Does God hate cows but like snakes?

    So, what is this story about?

    John chapter 3, verse 16 is probably the most famous Bible verse in the entire Bible.

    In John chapter 3, Jesus has a conversation with a teacher of the law called Nicodemus. And of course most people have heard of John 3.16, which is part of that conversation. But the two verses before the most famous verse in the Bible, Jesus says this:

    “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.” [John chapter 3, verses 14-15]

    This story in the Old Testament is a pre-figuring of what is going to happen in Jesus. Snakes, we know, are a symbol of wickedness – the serpent in Genesis is a key player in the first act of human disobedience against God. Here the snakes are sent as a punishment for sin.

    When the snake is nailed to a pole and raised up, it is a symbol of sin being nailed to a pole. On the cross, Jesus carried the sins of the whole world. Just like the Israelites looked to the snake on the pole and the punishment for their sin – the venomous bite – was taken away, so too, when we look to Jesus on the cross, our sins, and the punishment we are due for them, are taken away.

    It’s not a contradiction of the Law, because the people don’t bow down to it. They don’t worship the snake. But they look to the snake – the symbol of sin – because they believe God and as an act of faith.

    And so too, we have Jesus. It’s hard to measure the spiritual. We naturally want something real and tangible to believe in.

    And so we have Jesus. God entering this world in human form, to live among us as a human being, to eat and drink, celebrate and grieve, and even to die.

    We look to Jesus, on that cross, a real person, bleeding real blood, feeling real pain, and we can know that our sins are forgiven because we place our faith in him.

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