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The Lord said to [Moses], “What is that in your hand?” He said, “A rod.” And he said, “Cast it on the ground. So he cast it on the ground, and it became a serpent; and Moses fled from it. But the Lord said to Moses, “Put out your hand, and take it by the tail” — so he put out his hand and caught it, and it became a rod in his hand — “that they may believe that the Lord, the God of their fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has appeared to you.” Exodus 4:2-5
“Be playful with the scriptures.” That was the advice of one of my seminary professors. He was not suggesting his students be unfaithful to God’s word. He wanted us to look beyond the words to all possible meanings wrought from the characters, emotions and situations found in each biblical passage.
The story of Moses begs for such playfulness. Moses is one of the most interpreted characters in the Bible — to the point that most of us think that he looked like Charlton Heston!
Consider the story of Moses on Mount Sinai — his first encounter with God. Here was a man, once lieutenant to the most powerful man in the civilized world, now “self-deposed” to the rank of shepherd — one of the lowliest of jobs. Even worse, he was working for his father-in-law!
But in this moment, he was face-to-face with Almighty God — a situation he, and most people of his day believed would bring instant death. Put yourself in Moses’ sandals as they speak.
“What’s that in your hand, Moses?”
“I-I-It’s my shepherd’s staff.”
“Throw it down.”
Now this is not just a stick Moses picked up to play with. It is not just a walking stick. The staff, or rod as the scripture calls it, was essential to making a living as a shepherd. It was a tool. Shepherds used the crooked end to pull sheep back into the herd when they strayed. It was a handy extension of their arm — to grasp things just beyond their reach.
The blunt end was important, too. If a wild animal attacked, the shepherd could use the end to poke it away. He could also use the staff like a baseball bat and beat back offenders if needed.
The staff was, indeed, a necessity for making a living, and sometimes for simply staying alive. No shepherd dared leave home without it. The rod was indispensable, essential, vital to the everyday life of the shepherd.
“Throw it down.”
For all Moses knew, God was telling him to get rid of his rod. He might never see it again. And it was a good rod. It had just the right grip and flex and swing weight. Moses was used to it.
There were many fond memories attached to that rod, too. The wild animals he had fought off. The sheep he had saved. The comfort and support it gave him when he twisted his ankle a few months ago. Moses could buy or cut a new rod, but it just wouldn’t be the same.
“Throw it down.”
God was asking Moses to throw down that one possession that was most important. A tunic, a cloak, a few coins, even a sandal or two would not have made much difference. But to throw down his rod was to give up his means for making a living. To get rid of it could mean death in the desert where wild animals and poachers thrived.
The Bible simply says that Moses threw the rod down. I suspect there was considerably more thought put into it than what appears in the text. We might have expected Moses to say, “I depend on this rod. I need it. How am I supposed to survive without it?”
We do not see such words, though. Without making a big deal about the dilemma facing Moses, we read, quite simply, “he cast it on the ground.”
Are there things that we hold in our hands that are so important to our livelihood and safety? Chances are, if we were to conduct a scientific survey, we would identify some basic material possessions which all of us consider essential to our health and well-being: homes, cars, clothes, food, and, of course, money or financial resources.
I suspect, if we were to narrow it down to the one most important possession of all, it would be our money. If we had to give up all else and begin fresh with only one material possession, we would choose money. We could, after all, use money to purchase all the other necessities — food, clothing, shelter.
Money tends to be the one thing we hold onto tighter than anything else. It is, after all, the one thing we have which provides all the essentials, and even some of the luxuries we need and expect in life. We take great pains to make sure we have enough and to keep from spending it too quickly.
We complain when bills come due and we have to part with some of our hard-earned money. Sometimes we even try to put off paying by waiting until the last due date. When we can, we use someone else’s money to pay the bills and buy the necessities and luxuries. Why not let the bank pay cash for our new car and house? We only have to pay a “minimum balance due” at the end of the month. Our minds go blank before we think of the interest we will have to pay. And, of course, we complain about paying the interest, too!
We have Christmas club and vacation accounts to save for anticipated annual expenses. We have special accounts for our kids and grandkids’ education. (Yes, sometimes our minds do work well.) And, of course, we have retirement accounts — IRAs, 401Ks, annuities. These are sacred — we dare not borrow against them lest we reduce our retirement income (substantial tax penalty for early withdrawal).
Then, there are those rainy day accounts. Mutual fund investments, savings accounts, savings bonds — all set aside for … well, we’re not sure what we will use them for. We just know that we will need them sometime for something. Rainy day accounts are often even more sacred than retirement accounts. You never know when you are going to need some reserves to fall back on. And when we do have to dip into these savings accounts, they are the first to be repaid. We like that security — the knowledge that we have extra money “just in case.” After all, we can never have too much money.
What is really interesting, is that, we who hold so tightly to the money we save for ourselves, spend it so freely on our children, and especially our grandchildren. We do not hesitate to buy the clothes and school supplies our kids need. We even go overboard with the toys on birthdays and at Christmas. We send our kids to the finest schools and promise them that, whatever they want to be in life, we will be there to support them. And that includes (especially) paying for the education necessary to fulfill their dreams — regardless of the cost.
Yes, we save our money to meet our own needs — and we must. We spend our money freely to provide the best life possible for our kids – and that is admirable. We save our money for retirement and special needs and rainy days — and we should. But ask us to spend our money on God and his church? How dare we?
Dare we hear what the Bible says about our money? We do not want to hear it. Yet if we do, dare we give ten percent of our income to the church? Dare we follow Jesus’ word to sell all that we have, give to the poor and follow Him? Dare we set aside an amount in keeping with our income so that special offerings will not have to be taken? Dare we give the last two cents we have to God?
“What is that in your hand? Throw it down.” Moses held in his hand his most valuable possession. And he dared throw it down. It nearly scared him to death. The snake, of course, but just the thought of throwing it down nearly gave him a stroke.
But he did. And look what happened. It turned into a snake, and like most of us, Moses ran. (In being playful with the scriptures, we have to be careful not to read too much into the story. He ran because it was a snake. You and I would run, too!)
Then God asked him to pick it back up again. Now Moses and God had a little disagreement about which end he should grab.
“Pick it up by the tail.”
“Pick it up by the tail.”
“Lord, I know its been a long time since you created these things. Perhaps you’ve forgotten that’s it’s not a good idea to pick up a snake by the tail.”
“Pick it up by the tail.”
“I can’t. I-I don’t want to.”
We play the same game when it comes to giving. We know the Old Testament standard — tithing. Ten percent, off the top, given to God. And we know Paul’s New Testament word to “set aside an amount in keeping with your income” — what we now call proportionate giving. And we hear stewardship sermons every year — more than we want. Then we look at today’s financial economy and society. We remember the Great Depression (now more than sixty years past). We think about things like recessions and market corrections. We look at the unemployment statistics. We think about the fact that economic upturns and downturns come about because of the insights and opinions of a single economist. And we panic.
It is not realistic to give ten percent to the church these days. To think of giving more than ten percent is impossible. We can’t. We don’t want to. We won’t! Perhaps we think too much and believe too little.
Our decisions to keep more and give less say less about our financial savvy than they do about our faith. What we do with our money is the greatest indicator of our Christian commitment — more so than how much time we spend doing church work, or how many visitors we invite to church, or how many good deeds we do. If you want to know what a person really values, what a person really believes in, read his or her checkbook ledger.
How do we really know that we will not have enough money if we tithe to the church? How do we know we cannot afford to increase our giving? We will not until and unless we step up in faith and try! Our future, economic and otherwise, is in the hands of one person, and His name is not Greenspan.
This particular story of Moses is akin to the story of Abraham and Isaac on the mountain. God asked Abraham to sacrifice Isaac — to give up the promised heir. In Abraham’s mind, to end the promise of becoming a great nation. But Abraham obeyed. And the great nation came to be.
God asked Moses to throw down his most valuable possession — to give up his source of living, his security. Moses obeyed. And when he did, God allowed him to pick it back up.
God tested Abraham to see if he would trust God, even in impossible circumstances. Abraham did. God tested Moses to see if he would trust God, even in absurd circumstances. Moses did.
Look what happened when Moses released his staff to God. God allowed him to receive it back — and to use it to the glory of God. With the rod, Moses parted the Red Sea. With it he saved the wanderers by bringing forth water from the rock. With the rod of God, he oversaw the conquest of enemies and led the people to the Promised Land.
God is testing us right now. As the body of Christ, we give very poorly — less than three percent of our combined income. Why? Because we are not willing to throw down our most valuable possession.
What will happen if we throw down our money? Perhaps God will ask us to pick it back up again, and use it to the glory of God in his church.
We may not part the Red Sea, but we might open doors of opportunity for people to enter the promised land of salvation and the fellowship of the Church. We may not strike water from a rock, but we may feed hungry children and families in our communities who come upon hard times. We may not conquer enemies, but we may provide the resources to overcome obstacles standing in the way of becoming all we are here to be and to do.
When Moses threw down his rod, he did not know what to expect. When God allowed him to pick it back up, Moses performed miracles remembered throughout human history. When we trust God enough to throw down our money in support of His church, we cannot know what to expect. When He allows us to use His money, we will perform miracles to be forever remembered in His Church.
One of my favorite stories about stewardship comes from Bob Roberts, an American Baptist leader in the field of stewardship. While teaching a seminar on the theology of stewardship and giving, the light came on for one of his students, a teenager. “I get it!” the teen said excitedly. “I get stewardship! It’s not how much of my stuff I give to God. It’s how much of God’s stuff I use for myself.”
That is it! That is stewardship! That young man understands stewardship and his responsibility to God as a steward. Do we?
What is that in your hand? Throw it down!