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When Going It Alone Doesn’t Work

Exodus 18: 1-27
David A. Davis
September 23, 2018
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Jethro doesn’t hang around long in the bible. He first shows up when Moses comes about the burning bush and experiences the call of God. According to Exodus, that seen of divine revelation happened as “Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro” out beyond the wilderness near the mountain of Horeb. After God convinced Moses to go and confront Pharaoh on behalf of the people Moses went to his father-in-law Jethro to ask permission to leave the flock and head back to Egypt. Jethro said “go in peace”. And that was it for Jethro until he shows up to visit Moses and to bring along Moses’ wife and two kids who had been sent back to Midian in case things didn’t go so well.

Moses goes out to meet Jethro and the two men share an embrace. Moses bows down and kisses Jethro. They ask after each other and Moses tells the remarkable story of all that God has done, how hard it was along the way, but that God had delivered Moses and the people from the hand of Pharaoh. Jethro shared Moses’ joy and expressed his gratitude. “Now I know God is greater than all the other gods”, he said. So Jethro offered a sacrifice. They worshiped and shared in a feast. No mention of Zipporah and the two kids, but father-in-law and son-in-law had quite the celebration in the presence of God.

The next day, as the story is told, Moses sat as judge for the people. Apparently Moses wore a few different hats in the community. In addition to parting the sea and offering a play by play on plaques and drawing water from a rock and overseeing military action, Moses sat as judge for the people. Like a tribal leader or a town patriarch, he listened and adjudicated minor and major disputes among the people, offering them a word from the Lord on the nitty-gritty realities of life. Given the case load described as the people standing around him from morning until evening, God’s people had more than their share of issues in that season of life after Pharaoh.

When Moses’ father-in-law saw what was going on, first he asked what it was all about, what was going on. “What are you doing?” Moses explained it all to his father-in-law. “I decide between one person and another and I make known to them the statutes and instructions of God.” Yeah, Jethro says, that’s not good. That’s not going to work. You’re going wear yourself out and all these people, your going wear them and their patience out too. It’s all too much. The task is to heavy. You cannot do it alone. You listen to me, I’m going to give you some advice. And Jethro goes on to tell Moses that he should find some able folks who are trustworthy and fear God and hate dishonest gain. Jethro offers a bit of math: let them judge of thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens. “It will be easier for you,  and they will bear the burden with you.” It’s the only way you will endure and these people can go to their homes in peace. Then Jethro went back to Median. That was it. Moses let his father-in-law head back but only after, as summarized here in the 18th chapter of Exodus, after “Moses listened to his father-in-law and did all that he had said.

            It was a small part to play for the father-in-law. In these few verses that tell of Jethro’s visit, almost every reference to him includes the label “father-in-law”. The narrator refers either to Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, or just to Moses’ father-in-law. Over and over again. The only time his name is used without the relational tag is in when Jethro rejoiced for all that God had and when Jethro offered his own words of praise. With every other reference, all here in one chapter, over and over again, father-in-law. Moses heeded the advice of his father-in-law.

Some of you know that our daughter Hannah became engaged to be married this summer. So I am thinking more and more about this father-in-law thing. I’m thinking it would be pretty nice if Henry ran out to meet me, bowed and kissed me every time I showed up for visit. Or maybe even more, if he listened and did all that I said. Actually, I’m not sure I can remember any specific wise counsel offered from my father in law over the years other than love and encouragement. And upon hearing of Hannah’s engagement, one experienced father of the bride here in the congregation told me what was told to him when his daughters were married. The father of the bride is expected to show up, pay up, and shut up. So I am not sure what all to make of this constant reference to Jethro as Moses’ father-in-law. At the very least, I think we can conclude that the advice that you can’t do this all alone comes from a rather unexpected source.

You won’t be surprised to know that preachers and devotional writers kind of have a field day with Jethro. Sermon after sermon after sermon on things like “Jethro’s five lessons for leadership”, “the Jethro principle”,  “Jethro and the case for servant leadership.” Then there are those who search for 21st century takeaways on Jethro’s description of community-based, distributive justice; searching antiquity for what might be relevant for a judicial system, for judicial process. Some offer the observation that Moses’ role in the community reveals that the practicalities of life, relationships, day to day, operations and disputes, that, in fact, God cares. Able people who fear God, are trustworthy and hate dishonest gain. God cares. Moses wasn’t just in charge of ritual and revelation but also the messiness of life together. Faithfulness in the nuts and bolts and life beyond all things religious, it is important. It matters.

Jethro certainly didn’t hang around all that long in the bible. So maybe we ought not to overplay the hand of the father-in law. Maybe the takeaway, the lesson learned, maybe it’s all a whole lot simpler, a truth that’s just a lot plainer, a message that’s right there in the low hanging fruit of the advice to Moses from his father-in-law Jethro. Moses, Moses, Moses, you cannot do it alone.

Years ago I was with a group of pastors on a guided tour of the Andrew Wyeth museum down in Brandywine, PA. Our docent for the morning was actually the granddaughter of Andrew Wyeth. I’m not quite sure how our host pastor pulled that off. As we moved from painting to painting, she pointed out the common and repeating symbols in much of Wyeth’s work: the doors, the windows, particular seasons of the year, the woman named Christina. At one point we stopped in front of the well known painting of a dog curled up, snuggled up to the pillows on a bed. We were all looking at it and our guide, she didn’t have anything to say. A colleague asked “what’s the title of this painting”.  She said, “dog on a bed”. Then she said, “sometimes a painting is just a painting” meaning sometimes you can’t overplay the symbolism. It’s just a dog on the bed. Moses, Moses, Moses, you cannot do it alone.

A few years ago Tara Woodward Lehman wrote an essay entitled “Do you Really Need Church?’ Tara was the Presbyterian campus chaplain at the time and her piece was a response to a conversation with a student on campus who just wasn’t buying the whole church thing, the whole Sunday morning worship thing. “After given it much consideration” Tara wrote, “I have decided that there is at least one very good reason why I need church. I have a really bad memory. It’s true. I have a terrible memory, especially when it comes to remembering who I am as child of God, especially when it comes to remembering what God has done, and continues to do, in and through Jesus Christ….I need Church, because church reminds me of everything that’s important. When I say church” Tara concludes, “I’m not talking about a building. I mean the people. I’m referring to the organic, collective, flesh and blood Body of Christ. I’m talking about the beautiful but undeniably imperfect community of people who help me remember who I am, and to Whom I belong, over and over again.”  Or to put it another way, Tara was saying “I can’t do this alone.”

The Body of Christ. The eye, the foot, the hand. You cannot do it alone. Being an instrument of God’s praise, joining the choir of creation where the mountains and the hills burst into song and all the trees clap their hands. You cannot do it alone. Weeping with those who weep. Rejoicing with those who rejoice. Singing for someone who can’t sing. Knowing today someone else is going to have to pray for you, believe for you, hope for you. You cannot do it alone. Feeding the hungry. Making a difference in the life of the child you tutor. Filling one back pack and then watching them multiply like loaves and fishes. Speaking for justice. Yearning for righteousness. You cannot do it alone. Raising children when the challenges, the conflicting values, the multitude of other voices, it just so hard.  Trying to make the best decision as to where you are going to live when you finally sell the house, trying to make a way after you bury the love of your life, worrying about your young adult children still sort of finding their way. You cannot do it alone. Remembering what is important, and living as a child of God, and just trying to be faithful and live the life God intends for you, and feeling God’s presence, and clinging to the hope of God’s future, and allowing your heart and soul to be wrapped in the embrace of God’s eternal presence, you cannot do it alone.

Sometimes it’s just a dog on a bed and the passing advice of father in law.

Moses, Moses, Moses, you cannot do it alone.