Now Moses kept the flock of Jethro his father in law, the priest of Midian: and he led the flock to the backside of the desert…
I. The story of Moses is the story, at first, of FAILURE. Two great streams of influences moulded his life — the one drawn from the Egyptian surroundings of his early days, and the other drunk in with his mother's milk and his mother's teaching. On the one side he had before him the revelation of the world in its majesty and power, brute energy and magnificence, massive purpose and force, and splendid genius, with a kind of weird and magical faith in the dim powers of the unseen — those speechless-eyed deities of Egypt looking for ever into his face; and, along with these, a rugged sense of the responsibility of human life. And then, from the Hebrew side, another strain of thought. There came belief in the governing providence of God; there was belief in something more than might and majesty of force, and brute power; something like a belief that the weak might yet become strong — for the early history of that people was the history of the individual, or of the tribe waiting, not for his power upon the tokens of brute force, but waiting, rather, for his power upon the evolution of their history under the providence of God. But where he expected amongst people of his kin to find aspirations after better things, and responsiveness to his own spirit, he met only with chillness, coldness, and refusal to follow. Then came his exile in Midian — an exile from all his early dreams and hopes, an exile from the splendid position he had in Egypt, an exile from the future which glowed before him, and an exile, too, from the confidence he had that there was the power capable of lifting the hearts of his people and making them fit to strike a blow for freedom.
II. Look, now, at THE VISION which restored him to faith and energy.
1. A revelation of permanence. The bush was not consumed; it held its own life amidst the devouring flame. Moses' feeling was one of suffering from that which, after all, is so common an experience of life — from the temptation to cry, "Vanity of vanities, all is vanity." It was something at such a moment to find that the revelation was to him one of permanence, where everything had slipped from his grasp. A while ago young dreams were his; a while ago, in his manhood, a noble purpose was his; and now all is gone, the temptation is to sit down and take a cynical attitude, and say, with a world where all things change, and where nothing abides, the safest and the wisest course is to laugh at existence, and take up either the language of despair, which wails out vanity of vanities, or the easy cynicism which treats life as a joke. But to the man in that state came a revelation of permanence. In the midst of all this change of things there is something which abides. Do not believe the answer to the cry of your heart, that all things perish, that the powers of decay touch everything in your life. There is in the unconsumed bush, there is in the change and policy of the world, an element of permanence.
2. A revelation of purity. "The place whereon thou standest is holy ground." In our first thought we think of permanence in material things. We see intellectual and moral things pass away and the materials remain; but the revelation of faith, the revelation of God, the revelation of all noble impulses of men, is everlastingly this: it is in the elements of purity that the powers of permanence are concerned. Mark you that the revelation given to Moses was not simply of the burning bush. Thrust thine hand into thy bosom; and he thrust it in, and drew it out leprous. Thrust thine hand into thy bosom again; and he did so, and drew it out clean. What significance is here to remind him that the cause of his failure lay not in the want of high purpose and high moral methods! The failure was not the failure of Moses' purpose, it was not the failure of his high hopes; there was permanent power, possibly, but there was a leprous stain within the breast of the patriot, and he understood it so; for when at last his dream was nearly accomplished, and he had led the people out from beneath the tryannies of the Pharaohs, and had planted them in the wilderness, then he drew from the throne of God that real law, that holy code, and he gave it to them graven as the image of eternity upon permanent stone, and said this is the law of the longevity of the people; these ten commandments, engrafted into the people's life, made part of their aspirations, part of their feelings, part of their intellectual powers, part of their whole social life, will guarantee their permanence. It shall be your life if ye will observe to do these things. The vision had taught him that permanence was to be found in purity.
3. A revelation of personal power and love. Behind the purity is a personal God. We might pause a moment and say, Why is this? If I have this moral law, and if the possession of this righteous strength gives permanence, why this personal God behind? The answer is simple. You and I may think there is energy in law; but, after all, law is merely a name given to certain causes and effects and sequences. There is no inspiration necessary in law. To tell Moses, indeed, that here this people could live, that there was no reason why Israel should die, that the element of permanence might be there if only the element of righteousness was there, would be to mock Moses, who might have said, "All my patriotic hopes are gone; here I get the answer of permanence, but I do not get the guarantee of it. I get no inspiration as to whether any one cares." Lo! the answer is given: "God cares; these people that seemed God forsaken, have yet God as their God; righteousness is not a dead letter, righteousness is an expression of a living will, and an expression of a living will moulding human life to achieve some great and final thing." Thus he began to see that he was not struggling merely against the nerveless hearts of men, but living and loving hearts were co-operating with his, and the aspirations which had dawned within his breast were not simply his own weak thought, but were the answers back to the purposes of God; for in the best sense it is true that the aspirations of man are the aspirations of God; and when you realize that, then you begin to see how needed is the guarantee which Moses asked, "Give me strength; what am I that I should go?" Because He is the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob — the God of this people who seemed to be no people; therefore their resurrection is possible.
III. THE REVELATION WAS NOT FOR MOSES ALONE. You remember the scene in "Alton Locke," where the poet would go to the Southern Pacific, and there find inspiration for his song, and a shrewd Scotchman took him into the slums of a great city, where the squalor and dinginess of life existed, and said to him that the poet sees poetry everywhere — the poetry is there if you will turn your poet's eye upon it. So also is religion. There is in every common bush the light of God, and only those who see it draw off their shoes. It is the old story again. God is near, God is in this place, and we knew it not. You may say that the vision, and that faith which the life which has surrounded you, has slowly dimmed and numbed, and you say, "There is no revelation for me; my heart, my mind, is a wilderness now; there were little fruits and flowers in the garden of my early life, and I hoped to dedicate my life, and consecrate my services, to God — perhaps as a minister of His Church, perhaps in a high calling in the State; but now I have grown confused with new and strange thoughts, that rise sirocco-like; new things have swept away the old, and have left me no verdure and flowers in their place; I am in a wilderness, and there is no revelation of fire for me." Pardon me, there is. Alter your views. Do you never feel a sense of dissatisfaction? did ever cross your mind the law of self-condemnation, and have you not said, "I meant to make more of my life in this place of study, and meant to have worked for a purpose; and now I am dissatisfied? Where I meant to be a living agent, I have only become an idle dreamer. I look back upon a wasted and unprofitable life, and say, Woe is me! all the bright, hopeful views have gone, and my life is like a ship. wrecked thing." Is not that pain, which is the witness of your failure, the fire of God? He lets it burn, that it may burn away the base thing, and that you may see in the voice of noble discontent the possibility of stepping up once more to the dream of your early life, and by the strength of God achieving it. But we forget to turn aside to see the great sights about us. Give your hearts leisure sometimes to meet with God, and God will meet with you. Give your souls the opportunity of letting the light of God's vision shine sometimes with a possibility of reflection upon your own, life, and the fire will glow, and the bush will burn, and the revelation will begin.
(Bp. Boyd Carpenter.)
Parallel VersesKJV: Now Moses kept the flock of Jethro his father in law, the priest of Midian: and he led the flock to the backside of the desert, and came to the mountain of God, even to Horeb.