When I read the story of David and Goliath, I want to be a David. When I read the story of Elijah and the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel, I want to be an Elijah. Equally so for Moses, Daniel, Samuel, Paul, or many others.
And it's not just the glory that attracts me. When I read of Jeremiah being cast up to his armpits in a pit of mud (Jeremiah 38:6), I want to be a Jeremiah, not because I like mud, but because he was fearless, speaking the word of the Lord without concern for his own life. Even, Isaiah, walking around Israel for three years naked (Isaiah 20:2), attracts me with his audacity.
What they all have in common, and what I long for, is the clarity of their experience of God. They were God's men. – speaking, acting, living for Him, and experiencing His intervention, or not, but knowing all the while His voice and His call. My faith feels weak, and I long for God to make Himself obvious in my experience.
In my preaching, I have set these men up as examples to follow. And in many ways they are. Who can argue with the faith of Abraham, the humility of Moses, the heart of David, the courage of Elijah, or the faithfulness of Daniel? We do well to mimic them.
In fact, I would like to have it all. I would like to be a composite of the best of all of them. Just like Jesus!
But what do I do when my experience of God is not like theirs? When my life is mostly mundane? When I get up in the morning and send kids off to school, and go out and feed cattle? When the decisions I make are mostly common sense with no voice directing me? When it appears that I am to live in the pack and not as the leader of the pack?
There seems to be an unavoidable tyranny in life, where we aspire to the exceptional, but live the mundane.
I was struck by this when I pastored up north.
It is normal for young, newly licensed, commercial pilots to get their first job up north.
There were a steady stream of them, and as I got to know them, I discovered that most aspired to become airline pilots – to fly the big jets carrying lots of passengers to and from major cities. For the seven years I was up there, I know of only one who made it. The rest settled with small planes -- air ambulances, fire bombers, freighters, or some other less exceptional assignment, in and out of airports barely on the map. So it was inevitable. For at least nine out of ten pilots, the day comes when they have to adjust emotionally to the fact that they are never going to fly the big ones.
And then there are the missionaries I have known who write prayer letters chronicling the day God used them in a big way in someone's life (and well they should). But most of their days, are just days of mundane obedience. Nothing to write home about.
I am 55 years old, having been a pastor for about 25 years. I resigned from my first church when I realized I didn't know how to bring vibrancy to it. And after 21 years, my second church has just fallen apart for the third time – twice under my leadership.
My experience of God has not been a glory story. In fact sometimes I wonder how much of what I have done could happen without Him.
So I have been thinking a lot about Moses parents. More specifically, about their experience of God. Comparing their experience of God with the experience of Moses and the next generation.
Initially, the Bible doesn't even give them a name. A man from the house of Levi married to a daughter of Levi (Exodus 2:1). Later, we learn that they are Amram and Jochebed (Exodus 6:20), and it is Jochebed who is credited with defying Pharoah's orders, hiding the baby Moses for three months, and then floating him in the Nile to be discovered by Pharoah's daughter (Exodus 2:1-10).
Life, for them, was hard. Recognized as a threat to national security, the Pharoah had made them slaves and subjected them to hard labor (Exodus 1:13,14). Still insecure, the Pharoah ordered the midwives to murder all the baby boys. But the midwives feared God, and refused to comply.
The picture we get is of the Israelites living afflicted, fearing for the lives of their children.
The midwives feared God (Exodus 1:21). The children of Israel, “cried to the Lord, the God of (their) fathers,” (Deut. 26:7) out of their affliction. The point is that many, if not most, were people of faith living in very difficult circumstances, and praying for intervention. So what were most days like for the faithful? What did praying feel like?
We can do some math. Moses had a sister who was old enough to sit and watch the basket in the Nile, and to approach the Princess with an offer to find a nursemaid. Probably at least ten. So Amram and Jochebed were a minimum of 25 years old at the birth of Moses. More likely 30+. Moses was 40 when He fled and 80 when he returned. So Amram and Jochebed were at least 105 years old when they crossed the Red Sea to freedom. (They appear to be numbered in the census taken of those who were in the wilderness, and to be among those who died in the wilderness (Numbers 26:59).)
Now here is the deal. The affliction started before Moses was born (Exodus 1:8-14), and then persisted while he lived as an Egyptian prince and tended sheep in exile -- a period of 80 years. So for Amram and Jochebed, the most blessed of their generation, life consisted of suffering, then an amazing moment of Divine providence (no miracle), followed by 80 years of more suffering, followed by miraculous intervention. For most others of their generation it would have been the same, with the possible exception of their experience of providence. And for those born a generation earlier, a slightly less difficult youth, but death in bondage with no hint of relief in sight.
No matter how you cut it, the chosen people went through at least 100 years of significant suffering. And Deuteronomy 26:7 says they were a praying people. Praying for something for 100 years doesn't feel like an amazing experience of God.
Why does Amram have to be Amram, and Moses get to be Moses? Or, if Moses wrote a journal of his experience of God for 40 years in exile tending sheep, what would he say? Or, why does one generation have to breathe it's last with no relief in sight, while the next gets to see the salvation of the Lord?
We find the answer in Genesis 15:13: “Know for certain that your descendants will be strangers in a land that is not theirs, where they will be enslaved and oppressed four hundred years.”
I don't know when the clock started, but clearly, God is working out His plan. Four hundred years have to pass before the words, “Let my people go,” can resound from the lips of Moses. If an Israelite is born in year two hundred, no amount of praying, or wishing, or trying, is going to change the story. He will not be a Moses, and he will not see the Exodus. He will be born, live and die in Egypt.
Why four hundred years?
Well at least part of the reason is that it will be that long before the “sin of the Amorite” is complete (Genesis 15:16). God is planning to use the children of Israel to judge the Canaanites, at the same time as He promises to fulfill His covenant promise to Abraham, at the same time as He judges the Egyptians for their mistreatment of the Israelites (Gen 15:14). And I would guess, He is also building a national identity for His people. Galvanized and glued together by suffering, they grow big enough to take possession of the land. And on top of that, who knows what God may be demonstrating to the principalities and powers in the spiritual realm?
But for our purposes, the “Why” is not important. We don't always know why we get what we get.
The point is that God has ordained four hundred years. Human aspirations will not change that. Human prayers will move the hand of God to intervene, but not before the time. Moses has an assignment in the story. So does Amram, and Jochebed, and the mother and father who passed the faith on to Jochebed and to Amram. It is theirs to be faithful, but it is not theirs to choose the time and the place of their birth or the part they will play in the story.
What we aspire to is trumped by what we are assigned.
This sounds like fatalism. “You get what you get, so why bother praying.”
Not at all. The birth of Moses is God's answer to the prayers of the people. As is his palace upbringing, desert exile, and charismatic return. They needed to pray! And God answered their prayer.
Perhaps even more helpful is the experience of the midwives.
First they refuse to obey Pharoah by keeping the boy babies alive, and then they lie to cover up their non compliance. They do this because they fear God (Ex. 1:17). And God changes their immediate life experience as a reward to their faithfulness.
“Because the midwives feared God, He established households for them (1:20).” Taking the text at face value, I assume that Shiprah and Puah were spinsters, without husbands or children, and God provided them with husbands and children. So instead of living without families of their own, they live out their years fearing for the safety of their very own children, as well as the children of their brethren.
I say that a bit tongue and cheek. But I mean no cynicism by it. It is truly a blessing to have children, a blessing experienced because God is a rewarder of Shiprah and Puah. But their faithfulness didn't fast forward the clock or the decree of God. So they live in a daily experience of God's blessing, under the shadow of a tyrant, anticipating deliverance at some unknown time.
That's the way it is for children of God. We live in a cursed world ruled by the god of this world and his minions. Into that world, God enters and grants gifts.
This brings us to the point. Life, for the godly, is made up of a mix. Much of our experience comes to us as an assignment that we can't pray away or dodge. We don't always know the why, In fact, we often don't know the why. And neither did Job. But it's still ours to complete. And within that, at times, we experience the intervention of God, sometimes miraculous, and sometimes providential. So we are neither in control of God, nor abandoned to our own devices.
The midwives had an impact, and were rewarded, but they couldn't pray themselves out of another 80 years of bondage (if they lived that long).
If you were an Israelite, and you could choose when you were born, when would you choose? I would choose to be a teenager at the time of the Exodus. That way I could watch God crush the gods of Egypt in the plagues, walk through the Red Sea and see Him annihilate the Egyptian army, be young enough to miss out on the dying in the wilderness, but experience God's provision in the wilderness, participate in the conquest of Canaan including the fall of Jericho, and settle in the land of milk and honey. They saw a lot of God.
But the point is that we don't get to choose.
So what do we do with our heroic aspirations? After all, most of the time, most of us, do not warrant special mention.
Elijah is perhaps our best point of contact. At one point he thinks he is the only faithful one left.
God's answer: “I have seven thousand who have not bowed the knee to Baal or kissed him.” (I Kings 19:18)
We are told very little about the other 6999. Farmers, housewives, shepherds, servants, traders, going about their business and refusing to stand with the masses in idolatry. They are faithful, without being conspicuous. They are anonymous to us, but not to God. Perhaps we should think more about what it was like for them, and less about what it was like for Elijah.
Perhaps we have made too much of our heroes and too little of our God. Perhaps the point of the stories is not, “Be a hero,” but, “God is faithful!” The heroes are God's gifts to His people – examples of his undying faithfulness and his stubborn refusal to give up on us. But by definition, they are the exception.
If God has assigned you a heroes role, then fill it with all your heart. But if not, and it's almost certainly not, fill the role he has given you with all your heart.
It just makes no sense to construct a theology of Christian experience that fits only a few.
His faithfulness extends to all of His children, and their faithfulness pleases Him, regardless of their role.
I think sometimes we think God discovers heroes. As if He is a hero scout. And we live our lives hoping to be discovered, and are disappointed when we are not.
God doesn't discover anything. He creates.
May it be enough for us to magnify His name.