Between a Rock and a Hard Place

You know how some people have additions to their person that they can’t leave home without?  My son once had a red baseball cap for a couple for a couple of years that he wore almost constantly.  A couple of guys in our congregation simply can’t worship May through September unless they are wearing their Hawaiian shirts. Moses had his walking stick.

I guess he took it up when he started herding sheep and goats for his father-in-law Jethro.  A walking stick comes in handy when fighting off snakes or mountain lions.  It helps keep one’s balance walking down dry slopes with loose rocks.  He wouldn’t have left home without it.

But when God gave Moses his new assignment at the burning bush, telling Moses to free the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt,  you could say Moses’s walking stick took on new meaning.  God told the reluctant  Moses to throw the stick on the ground; it turned into a snake.  God told Moses to pick up the snake; it turned back into his walking stick.  Strange, huh?

Down in Egypt, Moses held his staff over the Nile River;  it turned to blood, the first plague.  God told Moses to hit the ground with his walking stick, the plagues of gnats and later locusts arose.  God told Moses to hold his walking stick up to the sky;  a plague of thunder, hail and lightening devastated the Egyptian countryside.  When Egyptian armies trapped the people against the Red Sea, God told Moses to hold his walking stick over the water, and the sea parted for the people to escape.  When the people in the wilderness ran out of water, God told Moses to strike a rock with his stick; the rock split and water started flowing out so they wouldn’t die of dehydration.

One could get the idea that God, Moses, and that walking stick made an invincible partnership. Until the reading found in Exodus 17:8-13.  Suddenly the walking stick/Moses/God combination was not working smoothly.

A desert Bedouin tribe, distant feuding cousins of the Hebrews, had seen Moses and the people walking through the wilderness, a wilderness where there was limited water and limited grass.  The tribe started ambushing and killing small groups on the edge of camp.  Joshua reported the crisis to Moses.  Moses told him to fight back in the morning.  Now remember, these Hebrews were newly freed slaves, brick-makers unused to this wilderness territory, who had not had any military training.  Odds were stacked against them, and Moses knew they needed God’s help.  So while Joshua led the counter-assault, Moses climbed up a hill with his walking stick and did what he always did, held up his staff, invoking God’s help.

But for the first time, results were not instantaneous.  The fight was long and bloody and his arms got weary.  So Moses rested the stick on the ground and gave his cramped arm muscles a chance to relax.  Then he glanced downhill and realized in horror that the desert tribe was recouping and winning the battle over the Israelites.  So immediately Moses raised his staff again, and Joshua’s men started to rally…until Moses could stand it no longer and had to lower his arms again. This happened over and over.  Why was it taking so long?  Why wasn’t praying with the walking stick working?

Finally, Aaron (Moses’ brother) and Hur, realized what was happening.  They ran to Moses, got him to sit down on a rock, and together stood on either side of Moses, each holding up one of his arms which were in turn supporting the famous walking stick.  They stood as partners with Moses in prayer until Joshua’s men finally defeated the desert tribe.

I don’t believe for a minute that God needed a raised walking stick to be cajoled  into answering prayer.  Nor do I believe any of us would  think that God would turn God’s back on the people when Moses arms were hurting too much to keep holding them up.  So what’s going on?

What I really think was happening was that God was helping Moses be a better leader.  It’s becoming apparent in the story that Moses felt like he carried the burden of the people alone, and he was getting weary.  He was the one that prayed for the people.  He was the one God talked to.  He was the one people complained to, and it was more than his arms that were getting tired.  (Read Exodus chapter 18 and see what happened next).

So high on this hilltop, God was teaching Moses that he couldn’t pray alone.  He needed to sit down on a rock and let others pray with him.  Not until Aaron and Hur shared the burden of prayer did things begin to change.

Have you ever found it hard to share with others a special burden that is on your heart? We don’t like to be vulnerable, do we?  If we share this struggle or that problem, what will people think of us?  If we talk about how we are having a hard time, won’t they question our capability or our spirituality?  How can we share our deep concerns and struggles with one another?

But sometimes burdens are too heavy to bear by ourselves and we need partners in prayer and support and presence.  Of course, God hears us no matter where we are or who is with or not with us.  And yet, there is something crucial about a faith community.  Jesus used to take a couple of disciples with him during the times he was especially burdened.  And he is the one who said wherever two or three are gathered in his name, there he will be in the midst of them.

There have been times, when I have avoided sharing with others a deep concern; I tried to carry the weight of prayer by myself.  God hears my prayers, I said.  But, while God is always faithful, I have slowly and stubbornly learned that it often takes sharing and praying with others before God’s answer becomes evident.  We need to let a few trusted Christians know how they can be praying for us.  This is not only true of individuals.  We as congregations need to be praying, not just for ourselves, but for one another in these challenging times.  Yes, it takes the Body of Christ to be in prayer together for us to be able to see and hear and point to how God is working.  One person, one congregation, and not even Moses can carry the burden alone.