The limitations of our humanity are inescapable. If ever God has called you to something, you know that the call was to a work which was impossible to carry out in your own strength. If you presumed upon that call with the idea that you were sufficient in yourself to fulfill its requirements, you likely discovered in grave humiliation the extent of your inabilities. One of God’s greatest mercies to His servants is the requisite trial of discovering how utterly weak we truly are. Moses’ life is the preeminent type of this very experience.
Long before the Lord’s explicit call came to Moses, he possessed an innate sense of God’s command to deliver His people from slavery. In spite of this fact, he was not yet fitted for the work through the stripping of strength and self-reliance. In Stephen’s defense before the Jewish leaders he says that Moses was learned in all the wisdom of the Egyptians--his erudition likely exceeded that of many of his contemporaries. Not only this, but he was mighty in words and deeds--he had a measure of experience and expertise that matched his level of study (see Acts 7:22). However, from God’s perspective he was entirely unfit for the work to which he was called. And when Moses struck out on his own to deliver just one of his people from oppression, the outcome was the death of an Egyptian at his hands and the rebuff of an Israelite the next day, who dismissed Moses’ leadership out of hand. “For he assumed his brethren would have understood how that God by his hand would deliver them: but they understood not” (Acts 7:25). Thus Moses fled for his life into the wilderness and tended sheep for the next 40 years.
In the midst of a commonplace day four decades later, the Glory of God burned in a bush, captivating Moses’ attention and forever changing the course of his life. Imagine the despondency and discouragement of his heart at the time of this divine encounter. By this point, his life had been stripped of all significance and value, his inward sense of God’s call was all but extinguished, he was beholden to his own father-in-law for sustenance. Moses’ life was a living epistle of failure. He was never meant to be a shepherd, he was supposed to be a deliverer. Little did he know that he could not be one without the other, a lesson he would learn by way of one question put to him by God in response to his reluctance. “And Moses answered and said, But, behold, they will not believe me, nor hearken to my voice: for they will say the LORD has not appeared unto you. And the LORD said unto him, What is that in your hand?” (Exodus 4:2).
Moses’ hesitation is understandable. Forty years earlier he was ripe for the work, he looked the part as a son of Israel raised in Pharaoh’s house, bearing wisdom gleaned among the Egyptian royal court. He is now a dusty, lowly shepherd, 80 years of age, well past his prime and devoid of expectation for any real future. Where his hand once held a metaphorical sword of deliverance, it now holds a shepherd’s crook. That staff was a perpetual reminder of his forty years of dying dreams, heartache, wanderings, and what-if’s. This is precisely why Yahweh inquires of Moses concerning the implement in his hand. The very thing Moses must have grown to despise, the tool of his shepherd’s trade, was brought to the fore when Moses tried to wriggle out of the revived call of God. So he answered God’s strange question simply, softly, and quizzically, “A staff.” The Lord replied, “Cast it on the ground,” and the supernatural sign of God ensued (Exodus 4:3). Christ instructed His servant to throw down the symbol of his vocation on the ground, to fling from his grip the last vestige of worth, and He transforms it into a symbol of God’s sovereignty and divine authority.
“You shall take this rod in your hand, wherewith you shall do signs” (Exodus 4:17). “I know you do not want to consider, or even acknowledge the staff in your hand, but that staff wherewith you have led sheep will become the weapon of war by which I will show My wonders through you.” Do you remember what God remembers about you? Was there a time some years ago when the word of the Lord to you was as clear as the noonday sun, impelling you to a work you dared not dream up on your own? Was it such a long time ago, is the memory of that call so distant, that it has virtually disappeared as a forlorn desire never to be realized? The time will surely come when you will be walking along in the doldrums of your day and you will come across a sight that is patently out of place--an experience akin to Horeb’s burning bush. When that moment comes, turn aside to see as did Moses, embrace the wonder of what lies before you, listen carefully with your weary heart, and give heed to the voice of God.
“What is that in your hand?” If you had been asked that question years ago, when your heart was ablaze with the passion of youth, you would likely have answered unwittingly with a reply that betrayed the immaturity of your soul. Maybe like Moses, you could have pointed to your college degree, your life and work experience, your intelligence, your natural giftings upon which you had relied and by which you had succeeded. Now, all you can do is sheepishly look at a bare hand that has been emptied through the years and now bears the staff of insignificance and buried sorrows. As your gaze shifts from that hand and its unimpressive contents to the consuming fire that burns before you, do not mourn the loss of the years that have passed. You thought the Lord had all but forgotten you. He has not. And the “staff” in your hand is a statement of that fact. Not only has He not forgotten you, but He has not forgotten His call upon you. “For the gifts and calling of God are without repentance” (Romans 11:29).
The sifting you have experienced has reduced you to the most elemental parts of your naked humanity in order to equip you for the Holy Spirit’s superabounding supply. Like Moses, your desert wanderings have not been in vain. Ever after you will be incapable of fulfilling the work that lies before you in your own strength, and thank God, you will know it. The staff that has been a shame of immemorial hopes and dreadfully dry days will become the implement of wonder by way of Jesus Christ’s unfailing word and faithful call. When God asks you what you hold in your hand, you need only to be willing to answer the question as simply and as humbly as did Moses.