Exodus 18 - What Should I Do?
June 8, 2014 Speaker: Series: Exodus
Topic: Sunday Worship Passage: Exodus 18:1–18:27
[Exodus 18 – “What Should I Do?”]
Israel's relationship with Moses was, well, let's just say, rocky. Israel had a stubborn streak in them about as long as mine. But YHWH had given them Moses and to Moses they would have to listen when life's questions came up. Where do you go with your questions?
[Pray - Father, with our confidence in Christ we come to you. And even so we only come because you have called us to seek your face. So help us now to see you in your Word and to hear the Good News of Jesus because he alone has the words of life. Through Christ our Lord and God we pray. Amen.]
"What should I do?" How many times have you asked that question? Out loud or in our heads, "What should I do?" echoes throughout our lives. We ask it the first time we have to choose between parents or friends, between going home or going to the party. "What should I do?" when Mom's body is failing and the drugs don't work and the doctors are asking what I want to do. "What should I do?" when I see the homeless person but know how messy it would be to get involved. When we've been wronged; when faced with big choices; when conflict comes we ask, "What should I do?" It's a question that reverberates throughout life because (as much as we like to think otherwise) we don't always know what's good and right.
Now, eventually, everyone answers those questions somehow. Very rarely are we in situations where we are free to do nothing - we usually have to do something. So, we make a decision based on some expert's opinion, some philosophy we trust, some longing we hope to satisfy, some method that promises to achieve our goal. But for the Christian trying to answer the question "What should I do?" there is help. There is guidance (even if there aren't always easy answers). Because this God guides his people in this wilderness. And his guidance is meant to make his people flourish.
That is good news for Israel. Because in this passage we see them trying to figure life out. And life is complicated. Look at v.15. Moses says, "...the people come to me to inquire of God; when they have a dispute, they come to me and I decide between one person and another, and I make them know the statutes of God and his laws." It says "the people stood around Moses from morning till evening" (v.13) and seems to imply that this was an ordinary, regular part of life. They had questions and disputes and arguments they needed help with constantly.
Part of their need for help was because this redeemed life was so new and so foreign to them. They've got questions about what's good and right as they begin life with YHWH and life with each other. And what is clear to them should become more and more clear to us, too - They aren't going to figure life out on their own. On their own they're confused. On their own they're preoccupied by disputes. So, in v.13, we see them gathered around Moses - inside what may have been a quiet crowd was a churning, roaring ocean of people crashing around a single rock.
These are redeemed people. This is the Old Testament church. This is the nation YHWH has led out of Egypt and into life with him. And what we see are people who don't have it all together. Apparently, being part of the people of God doesn't equal having all the answers. Their relationship with YHWH doesn't give them automatic, mystical insight into the problems of life. This is messy.
They have questions like I have questions. They need help like I need help. And no easy answers, no platitudes will do.
But YHWH provides for them. Because in this passage he sends Jethro, Moses' father-in-law, back into the Story. And from Jethro Israel can learn a lot. Because this Gentile is a picture of faithfulness to YHWH.
In this confusing wilderness, Israel (and we) can learn at least three things from Jethro - 1) to bless YHWH, that is, to speak well of him and his abundant goodness; 2) to submit to YHWH's Word as the standard for life; and 3) to embrace his representatives. Through these actions, the people of God would flourish.
Now, we have to say up front that by doing these actions alone, no one benefits. That is, if we're merely going through the motions - saying empty words of praise, giving lip service to God's Word or his representatives - going through the motions is really no different than blaspheme or outright rebellion against God's Word and representatives. But if we bless YHWH because we trust him, when we submit to his Word because we see his beauty in it, when we embrace his representatives because he takes care of us through them - when these actions flow from faith in this God, then through these things, as Jethro says, "all this people...will go to their place in peace" (v.23). Through these things, the people of God could flourish in the messiness of life.
So, first, look at how Jethro blesses YHWH. Because in the messiness of life, keeping our eyes and words on him first can guard us from obsessing over our own questions. In other words - speaking well of our God keeps our questions in their proper place. Contrast that with Israel's words lately. While they are briefly punctuated by worship, the words on their redeemed lips are usually grumbling words (re: Water - Ex. 15:24; Bread - 16:3; Water - 17:2).
But listen to Jethro in v.10-11. When Moses told him everything YHWH had done to the Egyptians for Israel's sake, told him all the hardship along the way, told him how YHWH had delivered them, then Jethro said, "Blessed be YHWH, who has delivered you.... Now I know that YHWH is greater than all gods...." And Jethro brings a burnt offering and sacrifices to God, holding a feast in the presence of God to worship YHWH with Moses, Aaron and all the elders of Israel.
Even as he hears about hardships, Jethro's first response is to bless YHWH, to speak well of him. It was a response Moses himself had to learn. The name of his first son, Gershom, has to do with the hardship of a wandering life. But he learned to speak well of YHWH by the time his second son was born, naming him Eliezer saying, "The God of my father was my help, and delivered me from the sword of Pharaoh" (v.4). Moses and Jethro are together confessing their faith in YHWH, speaking well of him through a son’s name and a good confession.
Hearing Jethro speak well of YHWH would have called the people to keep their eyes focused on their God, asking their questions, of course, but with hearts turned toward him in worship.
You have questions about life right now. We have disputes that need settling, wrongs we need to forgive, wrongs we need to have forgiven. But wherever you're asking, "What should I do?" there is something else that must cross your lips first, flowing from your trust and hope in this God – say first, "Blessed be the Lord who has redeemed me." Let the questions roll out, but let them follow after you remember and speak of the good God who has already done good to you.
Blessed be the Father who chose us in Christ before the foundations of the world. Blessed be Christ through whom the world was made. Blessed be the Christ who is patient and loving with us who rebelled against him. Blessed be the Christ who put on flesh and walked among us. Blessed be the Christ who suffered and died for our forgiveness. Blessed be the Christ who was raised for our justification! Blessed be the Christ who sent his Spirit to join us to himself. Blessed be the Holy Spirit who applies life and peace to us because of Jesus! May our question, "What should I do?" always be framed in light of the Triune God who is forever blessed and forever blessing his people.
After blessed the Lord, after remembering who he is and what he's done for us in Jesus, then we'll be ready to do the second thing we learn from Jethro. We'll be ready to submit to YHWH's word as the standard for life.
When Jethro sees Moses isolated and acting as judge, he asks Moses why he's doing that. Moses answers in v.15. "...'Because the people come to me to inquire of God; when they have a dispute, they come to me and I decide between one person and another, and I make them know the statutes of God and his laws.' Moses' father-in-law said to him, 'What you are doing is not good.'"
A lot of people today would stop right there and say, "Right on Jethro! Who is Moses to judge between people? Who is he to "make them know" the way to go?" Our American, Enlightenment-fueled individualism leaves us worshipping independence - neither wanting nor recognizing a standard for life set by anyone other than ourselves.
But Jethro keeps talking. And he doesn't seem to have a problem with Moses delivering the standard to the people. What is "not good" is that Moses is doing it alone (and we'll talk about that in a moment). But what is good is that Moses continue to deliver the standard. Jethro says, "...and you shall warn them about the statutes and the laws, and make them know the way in which they must walk and what they must do" (v.20).
Apparently, Jethro seems to believe that when it comes to answering questions about the messiness of life there is a standard to follow. But the standard isn't Moses' word. It's God's.
Now, in the following chapters, God's law and statutes are about to be given in thunder and darkness and fire at Sinai. Israel was about to receive the standard which would govern life, showing the way both justice and peace - with God and with one another - would flourish.
But here, Jethro affirms that we need a standard. We need statutes and laws to help us "know the way in which (we) must walk and what (we) must do." So, through Jethro and their own experience, the people are beginning to recognize their need for a standard. Where there is no standard there is no justice. Where there is no standard there is no peace. But YHWH makes the way for justice and peace because he gives Israel his Word as the standard. And to his Word, Israel would need to submit.
I can be so wise in my own eyes. I have ideas and hear advice about how to navigate the questions of life. But it is perfectly possible that I can follow my own ideas into misery and death. We should be careful about who we listen to - being suspicious of our own hearts above all others.
So, where do we go with our questions? Have you searched the Word? Not for easy answers but for truth to be applied through wisdom? And have you sought counsel from those who know the Word, who have sat under it for years, studying convinced that it is the very Word of God? They will tell you there are rarely easy answers. But they will also tell you this is the guide, the light God gives to his people to help us along the way.
There is guidance in all of life because in this Story of Redemption called the Bible we hear of a God who cares about everything. And into everything he speaks, showing us in laws and in principles how life works best. Because this God means to make human life flourish.
That's why the God of the Bible doesn't just talk about forgiveness and heaven. He talks about what to do when somebody steals an ox (Exodus 22:1) because he cares about how we work and take care of one another. He talks about how to treat immigrants and orphans and widows (Exodus 22:21-24) because he cares about justice. He talks about sex and money and taking a poor man's coat because he cares about sex and money and poor mens' coats! (These are all topics covered in Exodus 22 and many other places).
So, when we ask, "What should I do?" about troubled marriages; when we ask, "What should I do?" about a culture that hates Christianity; when we ask, "What should I do?" about an unreasonable boss or a child who's running away, we have hope for guidance because this God speaks - shining light into darkness, giving wisdom where there was ignorance, guiding his people through this wilderness because we aren't going to figure it out on our own. I'm not saying there are easy answers to any of our questions. On the contrary, some of his answers are harder and better than we can imagine. But if we would flourish in this wilderness, we must bless the Lord with trusting hearts then submit to his Word.
There's a third thing to learn from Jethro here; a third way YHWH means to help his people flourish in the wilderness. Through Jethro we see that if the people of God are to "go to their place in peace," then it won't be through an individualistic - "just me and YHWH" - kind of life. They (and we) need to embrace his representatives.
At the heart of this scene is Jethro's advice to Moses as he cautions him about doing this hard work on his own. Jethro says it is "not good." Ultimately, it's going to hurt both Moses and the people for him to continue with the one-man show (v.18). The answer is to appoint "able men from all the people, men who fear God, who are trustworthy and hate a bribe, and place such men over the people as chiefs of thousands, of hundreds, of fifties, and of tens." These chiefs, prototype-elders, would serve beneath Moses as fellow servants of God to help guide and care for his people.
This is one of the foundational passages for how we "do church" together today because we believe that as these chiefs were to Moses, so elders today are to Christ, with the exception that Christ is perfect and needing nothing where Moses was flawed and needed help to carry the burden. But Christ still raises up elders to take care of his people - under-shepherds beneath the Great Shepherd. And although your elders are insufficient for great things - I am not the Christ - your elders can be a big help in some things.
To these under-shepherds the people were instructed to go for help and guidance in the messiness of life. And these under-shepherds, like Moses himself, were not permitted to deviate from the standard for life given by God. It was God's Word, not their own, that the people needed. Because the elders themselves couldn't figure out life on their own. How could they help the people unless they, too, depended on the Lord?
We don't have time to fully develop a theology of eldership. And we don't have time to deal with the questions of gender and so forth that have become common today. I want that to be a topic of discussion for us. If you have questions, then let's talk about it.
But that's just it. We have questions. And God has given both his Word and his representatives (flawed though they are) to help guide us. Are you embracing both? I know it sounds weird to ask because I myself am an elder. And I'm aware of my sinfulness and my limitations - you might only find me useful for small matters. But you have me. And more importantly, you have Kurt and Dick and Jonathan and Ken (who's currently on Sabbatical so give him a break). These are the elders God has provided for you. In the messiness of life, you have brothers, advocates, under-shepherds who are eager to teach, support, warn and protect you. Because like Israel, we aren't going to figure out life on our own. But God has provided for us.
Through speaking well of their God, by submitting to his Word and embracing his representatives, the people of God could go "go to their place in peace," as Jethro says (v.23). And for sinners redeemed by Christ and following him in the wilderness, we may do the same. We can bless the Lord and submit to his Word as the standard. And we can embrace his representatives as helps along the way.
But do we? Do I always speak well of him with my words and actions? Do I take hold of the elders he's given to take care of me in the messiness of life? Do I fully embrace Christ by faith as my representative before God? Do I submit to his Word as a good guide to life and peace? No, I don’t, not like I want.
So, before his Word guides me, it breaks me. Because there is a standard and I haven't listened to it. God's Word is rejected by us and substituted with standards based on happiness or comfort or control. And so I find that not only do I have questions about the messiness of life, about what I should do, but I have a heart that often believes I can figure it out on my own. And that is what we call sin.
When Jethro blessed YHWH he “brought a burnt offering and sacrifices to God; and Aaron came with all the elders of Israel to eat bread with Moses' father-in-law before God.” (Exodus 18:12) Around the table, these saints ate the body of the sacrifice and broke bread together, understanding that in their worshipful feast they were eating in the presence of God himself. Their meal was eaten in hope that God accepts the sacrifices offered in faith and so accepts his people. The meal was eaten in hope that this God accepts messes like them.
When Jesus came in the flesh, he had his choice of people to eat with. But we see him, much to the frustration of the religious leaders, choosing to eat and drink with sinners and tax collectors. Jesus sat at table with messes like you and me, notorious sinners and people whose answers to “What should I do?” had led them into darkness.
But Jesus chooses to eat with them, giving them a sign of loving acceptance. And he still accepts messes like us because he came to die in order that the sin would be taken and we would remain with him at the table. Through his death in our place he takes our sin away and gives us his righteousness so that we can sit at his table, feeding on his body and blood by faith. By faith in Christ we may eat with our God unashamed and accepted.
This is where you and I have to run back to where we started, blessing the God who sent his only Son into the world to die for messes like us with hearts that don't work right. As we simply agree with God that we are miserable, rebellious messes; and as we trust again to Christ, our perfect sacrifice, then we can go to our place in peace. And it is in his peace we can take hold of what he has given once again to guide us in this wilderness with blessings to God on our lips.
We can bless our Triune God now because he says there will come a day when the messiness fades, when painful questions cease, and what is left is to bless the Lord face to face. Because the Christ who died has risen. And he is coming again with a feast – not a feast of sacrifice, but a wedding feast where you, Bride of Christ, will sit with your husband who accepts you.
So, bless the Lord, you saints who have much to say of him. And take hold of his Word and his representatives who will remind you of how much he has done. Ask your questions, groan them out if you have to, but speak well of the God who has not left you alone in the wilderness. Speak well of the God who sent the Son to lead you home.
[Pray – Father, we bless you as the One True God. As Jethro confessed, so we say with him – you are greater than all gods. It was you who came to us in Christ. It was you who made the way through his death for sinners to come to your table. It was you who remained faithful when we were faithless. And you will remain faithful to guide us and keep us in Christ until he comes again. For each of us asking, “What should I do,” would you guide us today and every day you give us. But would you help us to do the next faithful thing, beginning with blessing you with our lips. Then help us to trust you, O Christ, to submit to your Word as the standard for life. And help us to embrace you as our Great Shepherd, embracing, too, those whom you provide for our care along the way. And may we put no confidence in our own wisdom or the wisdom of this world, which is foolishness to you. But may we put all our hope in Christ, our faithful Savior, in whose name we pray. Amen.]
[Benediction – from Number 6]
The LORD bless you and keep you;
the LORD make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you;
the LORD lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.