Introduction to the Reading
In risky times, God is getting our attention. Sometimes we think of surprises in our lives as the interruptions of life. But there can be no journey of Biblical faith without a divine interruption in our lives. And there can be no beginning without a divine interruption of our lives. We call that interruption “The call.” Will you turn with me to Exodus 3:1-10 chapter three and the calling of Moses?
Introduction to the Sermon
I could not look him in the eye when he asked me. “Are you called?” Dr. Eckley was a retired Nazarene preacher who at ninety years of age was serving as the chaplain at a nursing home in Olathe, Kansas. He probably could have been a resident himself, but he was ambitious as ever to preach the Gospel. He had heard my Aunt Eva telling people that we were all leaving Kansas, going to Florida, to Knox Seminary, for me to prepare for the ministry.
“Are you called?” He said again.
“Dr. Eckley, I think so.”
He looked at me like a concerned grandfather. “Son, just ‘thinking so’ is not enough. My boy, you better know that either God called you to preach the gospel of His Son or not because the devil is surely set against you and your message. And the world is not going to put up with what you are going to be preaching without some opposition. I have been talked about behind my back constantly, my family has endured cruel rumors and unimaginable and unfair scrutiny, and on one occasion I was told to leave a church because of the strength of my message on sin and the coming judgment of God, and Mike, you will be no different. Mike, when you have lost all and when you are run out when you are down in the dirt, you have only one thing and that, my boy, is your call. I ask you again, and I ask you not to answer me now but to go home and pray about it, “Are you called by God?”
I crawled away from him, it seemed, and went back into my prayer closet. And I sought counsel from my pastor, from my elders, from other ministers, and from my wife. And I knelt next to my bed on the day before I was to resign my position as a manager with the Ashland Chemical Company and I wept, and I shook with fear before the living God, and I cried out to this God. And the call of God came to me in the words and encouragement of my wife and family and friends and even my boss at work, and I looked again at the Savior who bled and died on a tree for my sins, and who saved me by His rich grace and I opened the Word of God to 1 Corinthians 9.16:
“For if I preach the gospel, I have nothing to boast of, for necessity is laid upon me; yes, woe is me if I do not preach the gospel!”
And by God’s grace, I am just a preacher. That is a significant part of my calling and that calling gives meaning and purpose to my life.
Now, today, we turn to this matter of calling, and I want to say today that this is a matter for every person here. You say, “I am not a preacher, will not be a preacher, have no gifts or desire to do so.” But that is not the whole story, my friend. In the Word of God, all of who are on a journey of true faith begin with a calling.
To learn about how God deals with us, how He calls, we turn to His Word. The Book of Exodus is the grand narrative about how God leads Israel out of bondage and through the wilderness into a Promised Land. It is the primary motif that will be used again and again for the story of our lives. In this day, when as one writer said, “the overarching stories we used to build our lives on have crumbled or been discredited,” we who believe the Bible to be God’s Word see this as our story, the journey of a lifetime. God is saving us from sin and leading us through the wilderness of a sometimes-difficult life to the Promised Land of eternity with Him.
But it all begins with a call. Now, today, I want to ask a question about what it means to be called in the Bible and then what are the processes of calling.
What do We Mean When We Talk About Calling in the Bible?
When we speak of calling we are speaking of the divine, supernatural intervention of God in our lives. We are speaking of the sacred moment when God’s story intersects the story of our lives, and we are swept up, only by His grace and love and His sovereign design, into His Story of Grace. Now, this happens in two ways, and both of them are quite personal.
There is a personal calling to become a son or daughter of the living God. This is a general call. It comes when we hear the call to repent and receive Jesus Christ as our living Lord and Savior. Jesus said that “I am the way, the truth, and the life and no man comes to the Father but through Me.” Moreover, this is called a “call” because it is God who comes to us, and He may do it through the means of a parent or a pastor or a friend or a coach or even an author, but He always comes through the presentation of His Word in the power of the Holy Spirit. Jesus said that no one could come unless He is supernaturally drawn. At that teaching, many walked with Him no more. But calling is always something that God does to us, not to the other way around. It is not a volunteering of your gifts or your interests; it is a divine summons from God.
There is also a personal calling to follow Jesus Christ into the life of discipleship. To follow Christ is to begin a journey in which the leader is Jesus, and you are the follower. A disciple at its base understanding is simply one who sits at the feet of the Master. This is going to involve, as the old Book of Common Prayers puts it, “renouncing the devil” and then committing to follow Jesus. There must have been a divine change of heart, and now God calls you to follow the Master wherever he leads. And every man and woman here are called to follow Christ.
Then, there is a personal calling to share the gospel. I have pointed out many times that in the Bible, the Great Commission is understood to be directed toward, not only the Apostles, or the elders, or selected pastors, but to the whole of the community. I have shown how in Acts 8.4, “They went everywhere preaching” and they were everyday men and women, like you and me, who were discharged by God to share Christ in their daily lives. If you have never heard that before, this is the call of God on every person.
Now, all of these are what we might call, “General Calls.” But there is, also, in the Word of God, what we might call “Specific Calls to a Particular Gospel work in the Church.” For instance, Abraham is called to leave his business and his family and to journey to another land, the land of Canaan, which would be a place where Israel is made into a nation and where the Abrahamic covenant would be incubated in the people called the Hebrews. That was a particular call.
Isaiah the prophet was summoned before the throne of God to be a mouthpiece to Israel during the days before her judgment and being overthrown. Amos, who reminded everyone that “I was no prophet, nor was I a son of a prophet, but I was a sheep breeder and a tender of sycamore fruit. Then the Lord took me as I followed the flock and the Lord said to me, ‘God, prophesy to My people Israel, Now, therefore hear the Word of the Lord…” (Amos 7.14b-16a). Andrew, Peter, John, Saul of Tarsus, Timothy, are all examples of men who not only received the general call of God to repentance and faith in Jesus Christ, but specific calls to service include the intentions of God toward man in specific ways, namely, as a preacher.
Now, again, you say, this is fine, but I am a homemaker. This is all good, but I am a salesman. This is interesting, but I am a student studying for accounting. I am a brick mason. I am an air conditioner repairman.
Yes, Beloved, but what we are going to see in the call of Moses applies to each and every one of us. For what I think God has put before us here is how the process of a call works and what we must do before Almighty God.
These are the five steps in the call in the life of Moses, Chapters 3 and 4 of my latest book Lord, I Want to Follow Your Call: A Pastoral Guide to the Ordained Ministry
Exodus 3:1¾“Now Moses was tending the flock of Jethro his father-in-law, the priest of Midian. And he led the flock to the back of the desert and came to Horeb, the mountain of God.”
Now, this is an amazing passage. Moses, the child prodigy, lifted from the makeshift hiding place in the Nile and made a son in the court of the Pharaoh is now in the back forty of the Midian desert, married to the daughter of a pagan priest, Zipporah and their son, Gershom, which means “sojourner.” Truly this man is on a journey. And let me tell you about his journey. It is a journey that is a retreat.
I have in this chapter something scribbled from a message at Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in 1991:
“Moses thought he was a Somebody; Learned he was a Nobody, and then found out that God uses Nobodies.”
That just about sums it up, and this was the learning he was a Nobody stage of life.
The retreat happened because he took matters into his own hands, a perennial problem with God’s people in the Bible and ever since. In this case, Moses gets a heart for the Hebrews, wants them liberated, and kills an Egyptian taskmaster who is mistreating a Hebrew slave. Then, his own people turn against him and reject his leadership. There is much there for twenty-five sermons, but for our purposes, we just need to say that this old boy, Moses had to retreat.
The journey of other faiths can begin and go forward without this. You can adopt a philosophy that “I am the captain of my own soul” and pretty much go forward without interruption. You can determine to be a Buddhist or a Pagan, and I noticed we had a Pagan festival here recently, and you can go forward. But in the faith of our Lord Jesus, in the Biblical faith of God, you cannot go forward without taking a step back to realize some things:
I thought I was a Somebody; I realize now that I am just a Nobody, and it is only then that I come to learn that God uses Nobodies.
That is not to demean a human being, but it is to say that your dreams, your vision, like Moses, will not succeed according to God’s will until you come to repent and see that He is in control, not you!
There are many examples of this retreat. A famous contemporary Christian musician believes that his gifts are his qualification and so he strikes out to share them with the world, gets caught up in the music business, falls into sin and goes into retreat to learn that the qualification for genuine service to God is putting God first and seeing your life as a response to His grace, not an indispensable tool of God. In my own life, I had to learn this. I had sought to clean up my act, do some Sunday School teaching, take some classes in the Methodist Church on how to speak and supply empty pulpits when needed, and I was a lay preacher. Through a variety of personal failures, I was quickly escorted to the Midian desert to learn about who God is and who I am.
I wonder how many reading this today, are being led by God to the back forty? I wonder how many here have not yet learned that success in life is:
“…Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit, saith the Lord of hosts” (Exodus 4.6).
But do not despair, dear saint of God. In Exodus 2, after Moses was sent into retreat to learn about who he was and who God is, God was not absent from the need of others. In verse 23-24 that the old king died, but the oppression continued, and the Hebrews were crying out to God because of their bondage. Exodus two says that “God looked upon the children of Israel, and God acknowledged them.” What God was doing in Moses’ life was not disconnected with what God was doing with the Hebrews.
What God is doing in your life today is connected with what God is going to do in other’s lives.Prayers go up and mingle. Only God knows how to connect the dots of our lives and to weave them to accomplish his purposes in our lives.
And do not despair, dear saint of God, if you are in the desert. For in the desert there are burning bushes. God often meets us in the humble places, in the broken places, in the backwoods of our lives, during grief, during personal failure, during divorces, during inexplicable circumstances that put us on the bench and out of the game.
This brings us to the second step in a personal call of God on our lives:
Exodus 3:2-4, “And the Angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire from the midst of a bush. So he looked, and behold. The bush was burning with fire, but the bush was not consumed. Then Moses said, “I will now turn aside and see this great sight, why the bush does not burn.” So when the lord saw the he turned aside to look, God called to him from the midst of the bush and said, “Moses, Moses! And he said, “Here I am.”
Now the Lord comes to Moses in a burning bush. He comes to others in a dream. He came to Saul of Tarsus on the road to Damascus. So we read in Hebrews 1.1 that God who in times past spoke through to the fathers by the prophets has in these last days spoken to us by His Son…”
The Journey of Faith begins with calling and calling, true calling of God must begin with His Word.
The calling to repentance and faith in Jesus Christ begins with God’s Word, which tells the story of a God of grace who sent His Son to save us from our sins. And the command is given from His Word to repent and believe.
The calling to follow Jesus in the narrow road, to embrace life and embrace His love and get rid of the idols in our lives that cannot satisfy, comes from God’s Word.
The calling, likewise, to share the Gospel comes from God’s Word.
And the calling to leave all and follow Christ as a preacher or missionary or teacher of the Word must be grounded in God’s Word.
Now, that Word comes to us in Spirit, as well. We have not only the clear outer call but also an inner call. The Word of God, which in principle calls each of us to consider what God would have us to do, is accompanied by wise counsel and also by the still small voice of God in our hearts.
Just this past week, a young minister called me to talk about this very thing. He told me that I had said something at General Assembly while talking to him in the hall that has led him to think that God is calling him to another gospel work. I told him that to listen to me alone would not be very profitable. But to carefully see how God’s Word was working with God’s providence and to test these things with counselors, but I told him, “in the end, there must be the overwhelming inner call of God in your life. You must have the outer call, and the inner call and one without the other invalidates the other.”
This morning, the Word of God comes clearly to you: God in the burning bush is a great sign. Look at many Presbyterian or Reformed colleges or seminaries, and you will find the emblem of a burning bush. It represents the eternal God, who is a consuming fire. It is the Word of God, which burns but is never consumed. It burns its truth into my life, but there is more for you. It burned for Moses, but it burned more brightly in the life of our Lord, and it burns today as the Spirit of God, proceeding from the Father and the Son, comes to you this morning.
What is God calling you to do? To surrender your life to H, your questions to Him. Perhaps He’s calling you to surrender to Himself and give up on trying to make sense of His greater ways with your limited understanding. Maybe you are a young person being called to the gospel ministry or the mission field. Maybe you are being called to face up to your utter dependence upon God. But maybe you are in the third phase of a call:
Once God gives His Word that He has called Moses to return to Egypt, to the place of his failure, to lead the Hebrews to freedom, Moses digs in and begins to show resistance in the form of a series of excuses.
Exodus 3:11-13, 4:1, “But Moses said to God, ‘Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and that I should bring the children of Israel out of Egypt?’”¾Moses is saying Who am I?
- 13¾“Then Moses said to God, ‘Indeed, when I come to the children of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they say to me, ‘What is His name?’ what shall I say tot hem?”¾Moses is saying Who are You?
Chapter 4.1¾“Then Moses answered and said, ‘But suppose they will not believe me or listen to my voice; suppose they say, ‘The Lord has not appeared to you.’”¾Moses says, But What if they don’t believe me?
Moses in resisting with questions that are all a smokescreen and behind that smokescreen is absolute fear: fear of himself, fear of failure, fear of man, everything but a fear of God that says, “If God is calling me then God will sustain me. This is God’s Work, not mine. I am just a messenger boy, and the message is not mine, but a Word from Another World.”
Resistance is the natural response. Before I left to go into the ministry, I shook like a leaf on a tree in Autumn. But I had to learn that it was not about me, but about God.
Jonah was a resistant prophet. When God called to go this way, he went the other way. When God called Peter to preach Grace, Peter stutter-stepped on grace, began to default back to works as a ground for salvation and had to be corrected by Paul.
I had a cow when I was a child named Bossy, not very original, but that was her name. And I would want to lead her into a stall to be milked, but she would not go. But I soon learned that the problem was a cat. We had a cat named Tom, which is also not very original. And that cat named Tom frightened old Bossy. One that was figured out, I got rid of Tom, and Bossy almost ran into that stall!
What is keeping you from God’s calling? Your skepticism? Or is it a deep pain of being betrayed in another church? Let God get rid of that as you confess it to Him. What is keeping you from God’s calling to preach, young man? Is it fear that you cannot take care of your family? Listen, God fed the Hebrews with manna from heaven. He fed Elijah with food carried by ravens. When armies hunted down Martin Luther, He raised up a prince to protect him in a castle, and it was there that Luther wrote, “A Mighty Fortress is Out God.”
“God is our refuge and our strength, a very present help in times of trouble” (Psalm 46.1)
You let God get rid of that old Tom Cat, and you let Him lead you into the place where there is good food for you and rich nourishment for others. He is calling you because He loves you and He has a plan for you to feed others.
This leads us to the fourth step in the process of a call:
Exodus 4:2, “So the Lord said to him, ‘What is in your hand?’ He said, ‘A rod.’”
In the passages from verse 2-5, God cuts the questions short and uses the illustration of the rod in Moses’ hand to show that Moses’ power was not going to be in Moses, but in God.
God asks what is in Moses’ hand, and he said a rod. Why did God ask this? God was getting at the real issue in Moses’ resistance, and that was Moses’ fear of failure. You see that rod used to be a scepter. But Moses lost that when he took matters into his own hands. So God says “throw it down.” Get rid of the thing that pains you. The rod turns into a snake. Snakes are dangerous, and Moses did what I would do, or you would do. He fled from that serpent. But the fleeing was going to be over. Moses need not ever retreat again. He need not fear anything, not even the deadly snakes, and when he was going to deal with Pharaoh, he was going to be dealing with a real snake in the grass. No, God said, “Pick it up.” Moses had to see that the thing that could harm him was going to be transformed by God. It became a rod again. The symbol of Pain had become the symbol of God’s miraculous power at work in his life. Then, if you look at verse 17, you will see that God requires Moses to “take this rod in your hand, with which you shall dot he signs.” He is saying, “Raise it high.”
As some of you know, I preached a sermon on this called, “Throw it Down! Pick it Up! Raise it High!” some months ago at a joint service with New City Fellowship. But what I want you to see here, about this passage, is that in the steps to accepting God’s call to eternal life, to follow Him, to love others, to step out in faith, to forgive another person, to follow Christ to preach or to the mission field, the last step before you go is to recognize that the power is not in you but in God.
This leads to the last thing I want to say about this personal calling:
Exodus 4:18 “So Moses went…”
Moses had lost himself in retreat, had seen God in revelation, had seen his sin and fears in resistance, had seen the power for ministry in recognition and was now ready to resolve to go.
For Moses, the process of surrendering to God took about 40 years. 40 years of his life, being shaped by God, conformed to the image of the Savior, and prepared to speak the Word of the Lord to others.
How long will it take for you?
But how could God call me? How could God use me? I am a student. I am a child. I am handicapped. I am elderly.
One of the most remarkable stories in medical history was told by an anthropologist by the name of Ashley Montagu. Montagu told the story of a person named John Merrick who lived in England in the 19th century and who died in 1890 at the age of 27. His life was not only told in books but in a famous play a few years ago and in a movie. They called John Merrick, “The Elephant Man.” John Merrick got his name because John Merrick may have possibly been the ugliest person ever to live. He suffered from neurofibromatosis. The disease devoured his body, and by the time he was a teenager, he was not only an orphan, abandoned by his mother but a freak in a carnival sideshow. One could pay a few pence to step into a booth and get a peep at the “Elephant Man.” One day a surgeon at London Hospital named Frederick Treves, found him. He paid his two pence and observed the sad, crouching creature. He was treated like a dog by his “owner” the carnie. But Dr. Treves “bought” him from the sideshow scam artist who had mistreated him and took him back to the hospital. He examined him and went on to describe the deformities in detail: (And I quote now from a book I read describing him):
“The bony mass protruding from his brow; the spongy skin, with a fissure resembling a cauliflower hanging in folds from his back; a huge, misshapen head the circumference of a man’s waist; the mouth a distorted, slobbering aperture; the nose a dangling lump of skin; a bag of flesh like the dewlap of a lizard suspended from the chest. His right arm was overgrown to twice its size, its fingers stubby and useless. Flaps of skin in the shape of a paddle descended from one armpit; deformed legs supported him only if he held onto a chair. A sickening stench emanated from the fungous skin growths.”
The anthropologist, who studied the case, was most amazed, though, by the person inside the hideous body as well as by the love of the doctor. You see, John Merrick, though he had been mistreated all his life, was one of the sweetest persons who ever lived. He was also very bright, having taught himself to read, he knew large sections of the Bible by heart and could quote the beautiful and moving prayers of the English Book of Common Prayer better than many vicars. He knew Jane Austen, and Shakespeare was his favorite reading outside of the Bible and the Prayer Book. And though he had been abandoned by his mother and shunned, especially by women, because of his freakish appearance, he loved women. He particularly loved what he felt was their tenderness. He carried a photo of the woman who abandoned him in his pocket at all times. One day, Dr. Treves paid a nurse to go in and show him kindness. The Elephant Man broke down crying, for he had never been shown kindness by a woman in all of his life.
The doctor arranged for a trip to the country for John Merrick, and there he took in all of the beauty of the wildflowers. He listened to the songbirds, flushed a rabbit, and befriended a dog. With childlike wonder, he told the doctor, “I am happy every hour of the day.”
He was given a room in the attic of the hospital, and from there he could see the Church of St. Phillip. He loved its beauty and said that the church building was to him, “An imitation of grace flying up and up from the mud.” Though he only had the use of one hand, he started constructing a model of the church, using cardboard. He called it jokingly, “my imitation of an imitation.”
After four years of such happiness, the Elephant Man died in his sleep. But today, I am told, you could go to the museum and see his “imitation of grace flying up and up from the mud.”
John Merrick was called. His calling life was to be a witness to the humanity that lies dormant in an ugly exterior. John Merrick’s calling was like that church outside of this window, and like his cardboard model. John Merrick was “an imitation of grace flying up and up from the mud.” His joy and love for life and others came from this grace.
Jesus being lifted up on a cross, dying for John Merrick and Moses and you and me is the real thing: “Grace flying up from the mud.” Coming to know that there is such love, such grace is the power that allows us to say, “I surrender all.”
To go deeper on a study of a calling to the ministry, see Dr. Milton’s new book, Lord, I Want to Follow Your Call: A Vocational Guide to the Ordained Ministry (Bethesda, 2017). Available at LifeWay, Amazon, BN, or bookstores everywhere. Also available on Kindle.
 Phillip Yancy, Rumors of Another World: What on Earth are We Missing? (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2003), 192.
 Ibid., 195.
Dr. Michael A. Milton (PhD, University of Wales) is the Distinguished Professor of Missions and Evangelism at Erskine Theological Seminary where he also serves as the Director of Chaplain Ministries. The retired fourth presidency and chancellor of the RTS System, Dr. Milton founded and shepherded 3 churches (KS, GA, and NC), and was the senior minister of the historic First Presbyterian Church of Chattanooga. Mike Milton is a US Army Chaplain (Colonel) retired, and remains President of the D. James Kennedy Institute of Reformed Leadership. Dr. Milton’s life verse is from Philippians 1:6: “Being confident of this, that He who has begun a good work in you will complete it unto the day of Jesus Christ.” Or, as Mike puts it in the title of his autobiography, “What God Starts God Completes.”