One of the most profound, important, and powerful narratives in the Bible is told in the book of Exodus. Ultimately, that story provides the framework for the atoning work of Christ. It’s all there. The bondage and suffering of people which is overseen by the satanic figure of Pharaoh, who when confronted by a deliverer, finds himself powerless to stop a chain of events that ultimately leads to his undoing and the deliverance of the people he had enslaved.
Though there are many powerful scenes in Exodus let’s look at one in particular. Moses, as he stands before the burning bush (Exodus chapters 3-4). It was there that he was called and commissioned to do the seemingly impossible: take on the most powerful nation in the world…by himself (or at least it would look that way and sometimes even feel that way).
There is enough material in those two chapters for a year’s worth of sermons and blogs. Let’s set the table, so to speak. Moses has been overwhelmed. He was standing before a bush that was on fire but wasn’t being burned up. A voice from the bush said, “I am the God of your father…” Then God said that He had come down to deliver His people (Exodus 3:8) and that Moses would be His tool to do so (Exodus 3:10). Quite naturally Moses hem-haws around the whole idea of being involved in the plan but God is patient and answers his questions and concerns.
Now we come to chapter 4 and Moses finally addressed the elephant in the room:
But behold, they will not believe me or listen to my voice, for they will say, ‘The Lord did not appear to you’ (Exodus 4:1).
That seems fair enough. Aren’t we all skeptical of those who tell us they have been talking to God and said conversation involves us?
Look what happened next:
The Lord said to him, “What is that in your hand?” He said, “A staff.” And he said “Throw it on the ground.” So he threw it on the ground, and it became a serpent, and Moses ran from it. But the Lord said to Moses, “Put out your hand and catch it by the tail” – so he put out his hand and caught it, and it became a staff in his hand – “that they may believe that the Lord, the God of their fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has appeared to you” (Exodus 4:2-5).
There is no relationship with God outside of faith (Hebrews 11:6). And there is no evidence of faith without obedience (Acts 5:32). Clearly, there comes a point in time when everyone who calls out to God must do what initially seems absurd, ludicrous, and even dangerous. The calling of God is not a summons to mediocrity or cultural acceptance. It is not a call to get in line. It is a call to step out of line.
The staff Moses threw down on the ground became a snake. Now Moses was 80 years old when this happened and had been around the block, so to speak. He knew what kind of snake it was. The text is clear: “and Moses ran from it.” He ran from it because he obviously recognized it as being venomous. Forty years as a shepherd in the wilderness had certainly brought him face to face with this kind of serpent. He knew its potential. He didn’t run from a garter snake.
Then it comes: “Put out your hand and catch it by the tail.” Now in this world we live in I would not advise catching any kind of snake by its tail…venomous or not. What kind of command by God was that? No Bear Grylls or Steve Irwin-ish advice to be very careful and quickly seize it right behind its head to avoid the bite. “Catch it by the tail.”
What many of us fail to realize is that this is precisely the moment that validated the ministry of Moses forever. Forget about plagues, the Red Sea parting, manna from heaven, water from a rock, the Ten Commandments, and the Promised Land…if Moses fails to reach for the snake’s tail. We already know he ran when he saw it. Now the command to go back and catch it by the tail.
Perhaps the most sublime statement in the Bible is “so he put out his hand and caught it, and it became a staff in his hand” (4:4).
Faith that produces obedience. That is the name of the game with God. Every single one of us has one or two of those moments in our lifetime. Put up or shut up. Talk faith or show it. Claim God’s favor or demonstrate it. Grab the snake by the tail or run from it.
Everything within us rises up to scream “No!” We know unequivocally what could happen if we obey God. The snake could turn and bite us. We could die. And the tragedy is how many of us who are truly called of God to contribute to His kingdom find good common-sense reasons for our disobedience. That’s right…disobedience. Whatever else was at stake, at the lowest level was the decision to bend down and grab a snake by the tail. Either/or. No gray area.
When it comes to salvation we bow the knee before Christ or we don’t. When it comes to the Great Commission we either “Go…and make disciples…” or go to church and contribute money to make sure someone else does it. When it comes to forgiveness we either let go and let God or we hold on and make it an idol. When it comes to humility we either allow ourselves to “decrease” (John 3:30) or we climb the ladder of status and power all the while reassuring ourselves God is helping us reach higher and higher. And when it comes to sin, we either resist with every ounce of our being or we yield and comfort ourselves that everyone else is too.
The measure of Moses’ greatness was not that he successfully liberated the Hebrews from Pharaoh’s vice-like grip. It wasn’t the parting of the Red Sea, bringing forth water from a rock, or even the delivery of the 10 Commandments (still heralded to this day!). No, the greatness of Moses was determined when after fleeing in fear from a snake, he returned to pick it up by the tail because God told him to do it.
You know what I’m talking about. That thing God told you to do that seems utterly absurd and even dangerous. There are a thousand good reasons not to do it. If you cave to them you will be effectively shutting the door to a future defined by faith. So much of life all comes down to this:
“Catch it by the tail.” Yes or no?