SUNDAY SERMON: Speak the truth in love

By Rev. Stephen Baldwin

OT: Exodus 18.5-10, 13-23

Most people have never heard of Jethro. Although I think that name sounds like it’s one that’s ripe for a comeback today, because it sounds like a character from Dukes of Hazzard or a  new country music singer with a permed mullet like the kids these days. 

As we’ve just read, Jethro was the father-in-law of Moses. He went by several names in the Bible–Reuel, Hobab, and most of the time he was called Jethro. 

The Bible introduces him in Exodus 2, when he meets Moses for the first time. And that is a story unto itself.

Moses was a slave under pharaoh living in Egypt. He saw an Egyptian beat a Hebrew, one of his own people. Moses killed the Egyptian and buried his body in the desert. The next day, he saw two Hebrews fighting and told them to cut it out. 

They replied, “Who made you king? Are you gonna kill us too, like you did the Egyptian?”

So the word was out. People knew what Moses had done. Pharaoh knew what he had done and sent people to fund him. Moses feared for his own life and ran away to Midian. 

One day he was sitting by a well at Midian. Seven daughters of the local priest were there to get water for their father’s sheep. A group of shepherds chased them away from the well, wanting to keep it for their own sheep. Moses didn’t like bullies. He had a habit of saving people from those who meant them harm. And he did the same for these seven sisters. He watered their sheep and protected them from the others.

When the seven sisters returned to their father, they told him all about the Egyptian man who saved them and watered the sheep. Their father insisted that they go find the man and invite him to live on their farm. 

The father who made such a generous offer was named Jethro. He was a priest, a shepherd, and a father of seven daughters. Moses would go on to marry his daughter Zipporah. Because Jethro saw how good he was with animals, he put Moses in charge of the flock. 

He and Zipporah had two sons together and enjoyed a simple life until one day God spoke to Moses in a burning bush, urging him to go back to Egypt and save his people from pharaoh. 

Moses didn’t want to go. He knew all about life in Egypt. He experienced the horrors of slavery. He knew pharaoh wanted to kill him. And he didn’t want to leave his family, his wife, his son, his father-in-law. 

He confided in Jethro. Moses told him what was happening and what God wanted. Jethro simply said, “Go in peace.” And that’s what Moses did. He trusted Jethro. He valued his wisdom. He did as he said, and Moses loaded up the family donkey so that he, his wife, and his sons could go back to the last place he wanted to go. 

You know what happened next, or at least the highlights. With God’s help, Moses saved the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt and took them on the exodus. It was a long, difficult, and trying time for Moses. At one point, Zipporah saves Moses’ life when he had a major disagreement with God over circumcision. 

They survived so much together, but their marriage could not survive. Somewhere between life on the road and the duties of leading the people and arguments with God, Moses divorced her. Zipporah and their sons went back home to Jethro. Few people realize that part of the Exodus story. It was not all roses and rainbows for Moses and his family; the exodus took its toll in so many ways personally. 

Now, Jethro had not seen Moses in years. Not since he left with his family to go to Egypt. Not since the plagues. Not since the exodus. Not since the divorce. And he decided it was time to pay him a visit. You might expect Jethro to be upset with Moses for divorcing his daughter, and he probably was. But he did not show it or voice it. Instead, he got to the heart of the matter. He was concerned about Moses. 

“What God has done is wonderful, but what you are doing is not good,” he tells Moses. “You will surely wear yourself out. The task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone.” He was referring to the role Moses had taken on as leader of the people, guiding the exodus while also being Judge Judy, resolving all the people’s quarrels. Jethro told him he was wearing out trying to do it all alone. 

Which was a nice way of saying, “You were a jerk to my daughter and grandsons, but I know you have a good heart. We need to get you back on track.” 

In order to get him back on track, Jethro suggests that Moses take a few concrete steps. One, teach the people the law. That way they can understand it themselves and solve some of their own disputes. Two, hire some help. Find some trustworthy leaders who can help solve more serious matters for you. Three, reserve your time for only the most difficult cases. 

Moses took the advice really well, just like he always had from Jethro. He agreed to make those changes, and they made everyone’s life easier. But advice wasn’t the only thing Jethro gave to Moses that day. He also gave him his family back. He brought Zipporah and the boys with him, and they were reunited with Moses on the exodus.

My favorite verse from the story of Jethro is Exodus 18.24. “Moses listened to his father-in-law.” So simple. So rare. So powerful. 

Moses could have ignored Jethro. After all, he wasn’t his father-in-law anymore. Moses could have nodded his head but not actually changed. After all, he was in charge, not Jethro. Moses could have refused to even listen to Jethro. After all, he was awfully busy leading the Israelites on the exodus. 

But instead, he listened. I think a lot of the credit for that response goes to how Jethro handled the situation. He was trustworthy. He was honest. He was loving. 

I do a fair bit of couple’s counseling. Most everything usually comes back to communication. And it isn’t often what people say that causes problems; it’s how they say it. If Jethro had said, “Moses, you’re an awful leader and if you want your people to survive then you need to make some major changes,” then it never would have worked. Not the advice, not the relationship between the two men, not the reunification of Zipporah and the kids. 

But instead Jethro said, “What God is doing here on the exodus is miraculous, but I am concerned for your wellbeing, Moses. I care about you, and I want you to be around for years to come. What if you made some changes that will help you and the people live a little easier?” 

It’s the same message, but it’s said in a totally different way. 

Jethro spoke the truth in love. And because of that, Moses listened. Speak the truth in love in your life, and those who matter to you will listen. Amen. 

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