Go and gather the elders of Israel together and say to them, ‘The Lord, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob, has appeared to me, saying, “I have observed you and what has been done to you in Egypt, and I promise that I will bring you up out of the affliction of Egypt to the land of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, a land flowing with milk and honey.” ‘ And they will listen to your voice, and you and the elders of Israel shall go to the king of Egypt and say to him, ‘The Lord, the God of the Hebrews, has met with us; and now, please let us go a three days’ journey into the wilderness, that we may sacrifice to the Lord our God.’ But I know that the king of Egypt will not let you go unless compelled by a mighty hand. So I will stretch out my hand and strike Egypt with all the wonders that I will do in it; after that he will let you go. And I will give this people favor in the sight of the Egyptians; and when you go, you shall not go empty, but each woman shall ask of her neighbor, and any woman who lives in her house, for silver and gold jewelry, and for clothing. You shall put them on your sons and on your daughters. So you shall plunder the Egyptians.” – Exodus 3:16-22
I’ve been reading through the book of Exodus this past week and it struck me how many times Moses must have felt like a failure in his life. After his miraculous rescue at birth and the opportunity to be raised in the palace of the ruler of Egypt – then one of the most powerful nations in the world – he lost it all helping out a Hebrew slave when he killed the Egyptian guard beating him. So he failed at a life of luxury. He then fled into the wilderness and became a wandering shepherd, and this is the point where he seems to have experienced the most success in life. He made friends with some shepherds in Midian, helping them to water their flocks, and was married to Zipporah, one of the daughters of Jethro as an act of gratitude. This would be a great Rags-to-Riches-to-Rags story if we ended it right there. We might even be able to pick up some lessons in finding comfort and satisfaction in the small things in life rather than always chasing after the bigger and better. You could even say there is a lesson in there about using your head when potentially getting mixed up in other people’s business because sometimes you end up with a new family and great appreciation, and sometimes you end up with a warrant for your arrest and execution. We could end the book of Exodus right there in chapter 2 and be done with it.
God however, was not done with it. Moses first approached the Spirit of God, present in the burning bush on Mt. Horeb one afternoon, long after he had come to terms with his new life as a wilderness shepherd among the Midianites. God explained to him that there was a divine plan to free the Hebrew slaves from their bondage in Egypt and that he, Moses, had a leading role in the coming drama. Yes, drama really was the appropriate word. Now, I don’t know if Moses was listening carefully or not because when God says, one the one hand, “they will listen to your voice…” but then on the other hand, “Egypt will not let you go unless compelled by a mighty hand. So I will stretch out my hand and strike Egypt will all the wonders I will do in it; after that he will let you go.” Not just one or two wonders. All the wonders. What happens when he does let us go… will it just be that simple, we walk away, no questions asked? This is about the time that Moses starts having second, third, and fourth thoughts and even develops a stutter. Sounds like a job for… someone else. I’ve made my peace with the world and plan on dying a simple shepherd out here in the wilderness. Those Hebrew people didn’t want my help the first time and they certainly won’t want it now. And perhaps, in the back of his mind, God, this plan does not sound very well thought out. Not only are You saying that Pharaoh might not be impressed with sticks turning to snakes, but You are actually saying that You know it won’t work. God, if You want Your people out of Egypt so badly, why don’t You go to Pharaoh Yourself. (Of course you’d never actually say that to God.)
It didn’t stop there either. The first two rules God gave were to love and worship Him alone and not to make idols. Guess what the Hebrew people were doing when Moses came down the mountain with those laws God wrote on stone tablets. Could they have failed any worse? Several weeks later they made it to the Promised Land, but Moses couldn’t convince the people to actually step foot in it because they were afraid of the Canaanites who lived there. So Moses got to wander the wilderness with them for 40 years. Moses went through all of this… over 40 years of failed attempts to simply lead a group of people from one place to another and follow a few simple rules. And he failed. For forty years. Wow. He did not even get to set foot in the Promised Land himself, but died on the mountaintop that overlooked the place to which he spent most of his life trying to bring his people.
So why does Moses get such fame in the Bible, both Old and New Testament? I don’t know. Maybe Moses wonders about that himself. Some people have said that the destination is not as important as the journey, and there may be times where that is true… but as for me, I’d like to know that I at least ended up in the right place. I mean, in all fairness, those Hebrew people were giving up everything they had ever known and trusting that Moses (and God) were going to be good to their word, even if the people themselves were not always themselves. I don’t think they were willing to pull up roots and leave just to be remembered as the world’s most famous homeless people or for the sake of “the journey”. There were probably shorter and nicer trips they could have taken than the 40 year trek round and round the Sinai desert. So again, it begs the question: Why, God, would you call Moses to go through with all of this when You know very well that this expedition had its hitches from day one?
And why do You let us go through failure as well?
The first time I remember wondering this was the day I was rejected from joining the army. I was 17 and planned on joining the Army band, not out of patriotism or even looking for career security, but because I felt God calling me to do that, which surprised most of my friends and family at the time. I got to the audition and bombed it. They wanted me to play jazz improve and I’d never done anything like that before in my life. Then, very frustrated, I decided I would enlist as infantry or whatever was available and try to re-audition later and was rejected for health reasons because I wouldn’t lie on my medical history papers and I strongly felt God calling me to be honest and truthful. It wasn’t 40 years, but it was several weeks worth of leaving my old life behind and putting myself in places I never dreamed I would ever go, simply because God asked… and the end result was… nothing. A rejection. Back to square one. Why did God lead me on?
I don’t have a definitive answer either for Moses or myself. I do believe that God works out all the messy details of our life for good somehow in the end, even when we can’t see it – but I do not think that is really an answer to why God lets us see failure, even seems to call us into it sometimes. I know that the world teaches us that if we encounter failure, we were probably mistaken – that perhaps we weren’t following God after all, but I do not think that success = faithfulness. Indeed, I have seen, and experienced, God working “success” in ministry despite the failures in my own faithfulness and that of others leading ministries. Not ideal, but God is big enough to work through all of the mess that we bring with us sometimes. I don’t have a perfect Scripture that explains why God would call us into failure, but I know the story of Jesus. God, in the flesh, who had the opportunity and the power to change the way the entire world worshipped, to bring people back to relationship with Him in a profound way. But he chose the cross instead of the crown – the ultimate symbol of failure, rejection instead of reign. For Jesus, his 33 year journey in this world was important, but his destination was even more important. It just happened to be two sides of the cross… and as much as we glory in the resurrection, it doesn’t change the fact that he did not kick Rome out of Israel. In fact, Israel fell just a few decades after His own death. God, apparently, had other things in mind.
The Church however, was born out of that failure, and the realization that God had other things in mind. I’m not sure Peter would have been as great a preacher or as strong and faithful a leader, had he not known what it was like to doubt, to turn tail and betray his Lord and Savior. Would they have grasped near the depth of God’s grace had they not needed it so much themselves? Perhaps not. Would Paul the Apostle have been such a fervent evangelist and advocate for the Gentiles had he not fallen so far from God’s intention in giving Israel the law? I doubt it. Sometimes it’s not just the journey, but the failure itself that changes us and brings us closer to the people God wants us to be.
As for me and my short excursion in the Army, I still do not understand all of it. Some days I think back and wonder if life would have been much simpler if I would have pushed forward on my own and made that experience successful rather than listening to God and following Him into failure. Other days, I’m grateful it didn’t work out the way I was expecting. In response to my questions to God about that failed experience, He has only told me one thing. He led me through it so that I could look back and see that I had done it. Yes I had failed, but I had followed Him the whole way. Through thick and through thin, the good times and the bad, even when I was so far out of my comfort zone and natural element that I didn’t know what or how to think… still I followed Him… and if I followed Him through complete and utter failure, how hard would it be to follow Him to victory?