The Presbyterian Pulpit
A sermon by the Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger

THE GOD OF THE UNLIKELY

Delivered 10/23/05
Text: Deuteronomy 34:1-12
To read endnotes, click on the the note number, then click on the to return to your place in the text.

Moses. One of the genuinely towering figures of the biblical story. Protected by God at his birth, chosen by God as a man, led by God throughout his career, buried by God at his death - as the scripture says, "Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses...unequaled for all the signs and wonders that the LORD sent him to perform...for all the mighty deeds and all the terrifying displays of power..." Hollywood needs a handsome, powerful Charleton Heston with flowing hair and full beard to begin to portray this "lion" of a man.

Our lesson introduces us to him at the end of his life. Moses is on the mountaintop across the Jordan River from Jericho. Before him is a vast panorama. To the north is the Sea of Galilee, to the west is the Mediterranean, to the south is the vast Negev and the Jordan valley down to Zoar at the edge of the Dead Sea. For forty years he has led his people through one adventure after another to get to this place. Now he finally gets to see their new home, if only from a distance.

What was running through his mind at that moment, as he stared at the scene? I wonder.

If Moses was like so many who arrive at the final crossing, he looked back on his life. What an unlikely adventure! Although he was too young to realize until later, the fact that he survived infancy was a miracle. He had come into the world at a time of trial for his people - they were a nation of slaves in Egypt, where they had lived for 400 years. But now the Hebrew birth rate had climbed to a level that intimidated their masters. The Pharaoh announced a draconian population control policy - newborn girls would be allowed to live, but newborn boys would be killed, with midwives responsible for enforcing the rule. The midwives, being Hebrew themselves, had no interest in being the government's agents, so they invented the story that they could not comply because Hebrew women were such efficient "baby factories" that they delivered before the midwife could even arrive. So the Pharaoh revised his order - let the girls live; take the boys and drown them.(1)

Suddenly, baby Moses arrives. His parents were not anxious to comply with the Pharaoh, so they hid him for three months. When that became impractical, Moses' mother Jochobed came up with a bizarre scheme - she fashioned a makeshift boat, placed the baby in it, and set it afloat among the reeds along the bank of the Nile. What could she have been thinking? Hard to imagine. We know what happened: the daughter of the Pharaoh and her entourage came to the river for a bath, found the baby crying in his basket-boat, took pity on him and decided to adopt. Courtesy of Moses' big sister Miriam, the princess arranged for Jochobed to be the wet-nurse...and for MONEY! What a quirky, unlikely turn of events!(2)

Scripture does not tell us how long Moses remained with his natural parents before moving to the palace. Long enough, obviously, for him to learn his true heritage and be shaped and formed by it. Jewish legend has it that he grew to be so handsome that people turned in the street, and even ceased their work, to look at him. He was so wise that he was far beyond all other children in learning and in knowledge. When he was still a child, the princess took him to her father and told him how she had found him. She placed him in the Pharaoh's arms, and he was so entranced by the child that he embraced him and, at the request of his daughter, promised to make him his heir. By way of jest he took his crown and placed it on the child's head, but the little lad snatched the crown from his head and flung it on the ground.(3) Prophetic symbolism, to be sure. But still, how unlikely a scenario!

Our hero's next adventure comes when he defends a fellow countryman who is being beaten by an Egyptian taskmaster. Defend is too mild a word - Moses kills the Egyptian, then buries him in the sand. He thought that would be the end of the matter, but word got around and soon Moses was high-tailing it out of Egypt to escape prosecution. He ends up in the land of Midian.(4) At age 40 his career as prince and heir to the throne was over - now he would be a shepherd in that desert region, in the process learning the terrain of a country that, as events would come to show, he would one day need to know. Still, an unbelievably unlikely switch!

Almost forty more years go by. Moses is out in the desert tending the family flocks. Over yonder, he notices something - a bush on fire but not burning up.(5) He approaches to investigate and, from the midst of the bush hears his name called out. "Moses...Moses." It is God's call to another career change. God says, "I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them... Come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt."

Moses tries to beg off. "Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?" I'M NOBODY!

God answers, "No matter. I am with you!"

Moses responds, "I don't know what to say, or who to tell them has sent me!"

God answers back, "Say to them "I AM, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob has sent you!"

"They won't believe me!"

"If they don't believe you, I will give you miraculous signs to perform. Check this out. Drop your shepherd's staff on the ground." Moses complies, and as it hits the sand, it becomes a snake. Moses backs away. God says, "Now pick it up again." Moses reluctantly obeys, and as he does, the snake becomes a staff once more. God says, "Put your hand inside your cloak." OK. "Now pull it out again." OK, and Moses recoils in horror - his hand is eaten up with leprosy. "Put it in again." OK. "Now pull it out," and all is well. Hmm.

But Moses is still not ready. "I am not eloquent. Public speaking is not my thing."

God answers, "I made your mouth; don't worry or whine about being a poor speaker!"

One last gasp. Moses says, "O my Lord, please send someone else."

God responds, "I will send your brother Aaron to help you. He can be your mouthpiece. But you ARE going!"

So Moses embarks on career number three. At the vigorous young age of eighty, he makes his way back to Egypt, the nation of his birth, the nation from which he had fled for his life a generation before. One more unlikely event in a life full of them.

Moses makes his way to the palace, confronts the Pharaoh and says, "Let my people go."(6) As might be expected, the demand was not greeted with enthusiasm. It took a series of plagues that climaxed with the death of the first-born sons of Egypt's households for freedom to be reluctantly granted. Then there was the mass exodus, the hot pursuit of the Pharaoh's military, finally climaxed by the miraculous deliverance of the Hebrew people at the parting of the waters of the Sea of Reeds.

Memories, memories. As Moses stares forward across the Jordan at the new homeland of his people, his mind must have gone back over the past forty years. What an experience! How many insurrections had he faced...even from his own family? How many complaints about running out of food? Water? These people never knew when they were well off. They even went so far as to ask for their old slave life again.

What should have been his finest hour, his meeting with Yahweh on Sinai and the gift of the Law, was ruined by what he found when he came back to the people - his dear brother Aaron was leading them in worship around a Golden Calf, an idol which Aaron said just popped out of the fire full blown when the folks dropped their jewelry in.(7) Duh. Moses first reaction had been to throw down the tablets of the Law in rage, smashing them to smithereens, precisely what he would have liked to do with his suddenly pagan people. But when the anger and frustration subsided, underneath was a love that would not stop. Up the mountain Moses wearily climbed once more to intercede for his foolish friends. He even offered for God to blot HIM out if necessary rather than give up on these children.

For forty years the wilderness wandering had continued. Now it was done. Soon the people would make a new home for themselves. As Moses looked back, it must have struck him how unlikely this all had been, and the only explanation could be that it was all in God's hands all along. Perhaps Yahweh might even be called The God of the Unlikely:

  • It was unlikely that he should have survived infancy, but God protected him...the God of the unlikely;
  • It was unlikely that a Hebrew child would be made a member of the Egyptian royal family, but God arranged it...the God of the unlikely;
  • It was unlikely that a prince would become a shepherd, learning what it took to care for an unruly flock (whether it be sheep or people), but God provided...the God of the unlikely;
  • It was unlikely that a tongue-tied, stammering 80-year-old would inspire a nation of slaves or overwhelm a reluctant ruler, but God was behind it...the God of the unlikely;
  • It was unlikely that a people could survive as witless wilderness wanderers for forty years, but God protected...the God of the unlikely.


As we move through scripture, the message is hammered home again and again. "Many who are first will be last, and the last will be first."(8) Unlikely. "The greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves."(9) Unlikely. The Savior of the world comes as a humble infant. Unlikely.

History is equally clear. Unlikely heroes arise. They quickly pop to mind. A poor boy raised in a log cabin and educated by the light of his fire becomes President and saves his nation from splintering. Lincoln. Unlikely. The inventor of the light bulb and the electrical system which made it generally available, plus a practical telephone, the phonograph, the dictaphone, motion pictures, the storage battery, along with improvements in uncounted other materials and processes, the holder of almost 1100 patents, Thomas Edison, only had three months of formal education before his teacher decided the he was retarded and could not manage the life of the mind. Unlikely. A black preacher's son who became a preacher himself changed the racial face of this nation - not a military leader or powerful politician, a preacher. Unlikely.

It is interesting that just before his murder, Martin Luther King, Jr. harked back to the story of Moses. It was the spring of 1968, and Dr. King was heavily involved with organizing what was known as the Poor People's Campaign, but in the midst of that he took time off to travel to Memphis, Tennessee to lead a demonstration in support of higher wages for the garbage collectors of that city. At a rally on April 3rd, the day before he was gunned down on that motel balcony, he said,

I don't know what will happen now. We have got difficult days ahead. But it doesn't matter with me, because I've been to the mountaintop. Like anyone else, I want to live a long life. But I'm not concerned with that. I just want to do God's will and He has allowed me to go up the mountain. I see the promised land. I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the promised land. I am happy tonight that I am not worried about anything. I'm not fearing any man. "Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord."(10)

No, Dr. King did not make it. He died outside the Promised Land of racial justice. He could see the land, but he never got there himself. It was the same with Moses. The Broadway or Hollywood ending to his life would have him marching triumphantly ahead of his grateful people as they enter Canaan, accompanied by a full-throated score played by soaring strings, crashing cymbals, and the rumble of drums. But no. For reasons which scripture never makes entirely clear, Moses would not cross over. In his one hundred and twentieth year, Moses died there on the mountaintop, and was buried in some secret place known only to God. One more unlikely turn.

Moses, the liberator. Moses, the lawgiver. Moses, the leader. And as the scripture plainly acknowledges, Moses, "the servant of the Lord." But we would have to add UNLIKELY in every case.

The message in all this is very simple: God chooses and God uses people and events that are often utterly beyond comprehension. Perhaps even me and you. We have all seen it. So, be open to it. Look forward to it. Even celebrate it. After all, you and I are servants of the God of the Unlikely.

Amen!


1. Exodus 1:15-22

2. Exodus 2:1-10

3. William Barclay, The Daily Study Bible, CD-ROM edition (Liguori, MO: Liguori Faithware, 1996) used by permission of Westminster/John Knox Press

4. Exodus 2:11ff.

5. Exodus 3:1ff.

6. Exodus 5:1

7. Exodus 32:21-24

8. Matthew 19:30

9. Luke 22:26

10. Quoted by Fant and Pinson, 20 Centuries of Great Preaching, Vol. XII, (Waco, TX: Word, 1971), pp. 352-353

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