Need Help? Call Now
Getting Closer To God

Life In The Penalty Box

Dr. Erwin W. Lutzer | September 12, 2004

Selected highlights from this sermon

Sometimes God puts His people in a desert in order to teach them a lesson. Even Moses was sent into the wilderness for forty years.

Living in the desert in obscurity, instead of his high position in the palaces of Egypt, Moses was humbled and learned lessons in servanthood, trust, and obedience. The desert tested the depths of Moses’ yieldedness to God. 

I’d like to begin today by reading a letter that I received from a radio listener:

I’m a man, 31 years old and divorced, though I fought the divorce bitterly. I feel badly because I have no hope for the future. I often go home from church and cry, but there is no one to hold me when I cry. No one cares.

What hurts me most is that I begged God for the grace to be single for His glory and to fix my eyes on Jesus, but nothing changes. I continue to fail. I’m a basket case emotionally and on the verge of collapse. Something is very wrong. I’m so crippled and embittered that I can scarcely relate to others any more. I feel I will have to sit it out the rest of my life in the penalty box.

Have you ever been in the penalty box? Do you know what that’s like? You can relate maybe because of a bankruptcy, maybe because of a failed marriage, maybe because of some bad financial investment opportunities that you thought you were taking advantage of, maybe because of health reasons. You’re in the penalty box, and you wonder if you’re going to have to be there for the rest of your life.

Well, I want you to know that you have a friend in Moses. Moses was in the penalty box 40 years for manslaughter. Who was this Moses? Stephen says that he was educated in all the wisdom of the Egyptians and was mighty in word and deed. That means that he was educated in mathematics, astronomy, chemistry and hieroglyphics. He had the best education that Egypt could offer. When he floated down the Nile River it was to strains of beautiful music. And when he went down the streets of Egypt, soldiers ran ahead shouting “Bow the knee. Bow the knee. Bow the knee. Moses is coming.” Josephus says that Moses was a warrior, and when the Ethiopians attacked Egypt he led troops to victory. And Josephus also said that he was scheduled to be the next Pharaoh of Egypt.

But there was something within Moses, because of his upbringing (You remember he was a Hebrew.), that told him that his destiny did not lie within the palace. On days when perhaps he had nothing to do he would wander out and he would see his own people being harassed, being beaten and being used as slaves, and this gripped his heart.

One day, the Bible says, this child of luxury and fashion, who had the cream of Egypt poured into his cup, went out and he noticed that there was an Egyptian and a Hebrew, and they were arguing. They were having a rumble of some sort, and Moses intervened, and he killed the Egyptian, and he hid him in the sand. He thought that if word ever got out about it the Hebrews would say, “Great! This man came out of the palace to deliver us.”

The next day he walks out and two Hebrews are arguing and he tries to bring peace to them, and one says to Moses, “Are you going to kill me like you killed the Egyptian?” Moses thought that he had killed the Egyptian and hid him in the sand. He thought that it was secret, and now it was out and the rumor began to spread that Moses killed an Egyptian. And Pharaoh was not amused and sought to kill Moses.

In the book of Hebrews, we read that Moses went out when he came of age and he looked upon his brethren, and he was willing to turn his back on the treasures of Egypt and to esteem a different kind of reward. Stephen tells us that when Moses went out there to identify with his people, and he probably did so on a regular basis, walking out and seeing what was happening, he supposed that his brethren would understand how that God by His hand would deliver them. But they understood not. Have you ever supposed that brethren would understand only to discover that they don’t?

I sometimes say at pastors’ conferences, “Don’t take it for granted that the brethren will understand how that God by your hand will experience deliverance in the church, because sometimes our brethren and our sisters do not understand.” And Moses was deeply, deeply wounded, so wounded that 40 years later there’s no doubt in my mind that the hurt is still there.

So what Moses does is he runs. He runs to Midian because now he’s a wanted man. And he goes to Midian, and the text of Scripture (I’m in Exodus, chapter 2) tells us in verse 15: “When Pharaoh heard of it (what Moses had done), he sought to kill Moses. But Moses fled from Pharaoh and stayed in the land of Midian. (He’s running now as a fugitive.) And he sat down by a well.”

And if I may be a little informal here, we could say, “Yuck!” Unending gravel, sand, burning heat, isolation! You are suddenly all alone and the whole thing is lost. Everything is gone—your fame, your fortune, your admirers. They’re not there for you anymore.

And he sits down beside a well—a bucket of medals but nobody to congratulate him. They call a party but there’s nobody there to come.

But we should know that it is when he was in the desert that he learned lessons that the palace could never possibly teach him. Success, at the end of the day, is a very poor teacher. Failure is a much better teacher. Believe me when I tell you that you’ll learn a lot more when your stocks fall in value than when they rise in value. You’ll learn a lot more when you are sick than you ever will when you are well. The palace is a poor teacher, but the desert does wonders.

What we’d like to do is to look at the three lessons that Moses learned in the desert that he could never have learned in the palace.

First of all, you have the lesson of servanthood. We’re still in Exodus 2. (Lutzer said Ephesians) We’re there and it says in verse 16: “Now the priest of Midian had seven daughters, and they came and drew water and filled the troughs to water their father's flock. The shepherds came and drove them away, but Moses stood up and saved them, and watered their flock. When they came home to their father Reuel, he said, ‘How is it that you have come home so soon today?’ They said, ‘An Egyptian delivered us out of the hands of the shepherds and even drew water for us and watered the flock.’ He said to his daughters, ‘Then where is he? Why have you left the man? Call him, that he may eat bread.’ And Moses was content to dwell with the man, and he even gave Moses his daughter Zipporah.” He gave Moses his daughter as a wife.

The lesson of servanthood! I want you to see that Moses served. Moses served, first of all, in obscurity. In obscurity! There beside the well nobody knew that he was next in line to be the next Pharaoh of Egypt. Later on when he marries into the family and spends 40 years in the desert, nobody knows that they are in the presence of greatness. The other shepherds don’t realize the history of this man. They don’t understand his resume. They don’t understand where he came from, what he was destined for. He is an ordinary person, serving in obscurity where nobody knew him, and worse, nobody cared.

Not only did he serve in obscurity. He also served in humility. We’ll never understand this until we realize that the Bible says in the book of Genesis that “shepherds were an abomination onto the Egyptians.” The Egyptians believed that if you were a shepherd, it was at the bottom of the totem pole. In fact, they weren’t shepherds. They would use slaves to be shepherds.

We think that being a shepherd today is a wonderful thing. Well, you ask a shepherd and you realize that they are remarkable people. You go to the Middle East and you see a goat coming out of the same tent as a Bedouin. Somebody said to the Bedouin, “How in the world can that possibly work?” He said, “No problem. The goats get used to it.” (laughter)

Moses was destined for the most humiliating despised vocation that there was available. In fact, what he was doing was an abomination in the culture in which he was reared. Forty long years! His aptitude and desire and training were in one direction. Have you ever had a vocation? If you just absolutely hated to get out of bed because it was so inconsistent with who you were and what you wanted to do, here’s Moses whose aptitudes are in one direction and he’s forced day after day after day to work in something that was considered to be the lowest of the low. Forty years! Talk about somebody who was overqualified for his position, serving in obscurity, serving in humility.

It’s so easy to serve the Lord in the limelight. Years ago I used to quote a poem and I didn’t have it this morning, and you know, just so you know, I was able to remember it.

Lord, you know how I serve you
with great emotional fervor in the limelight.
You know how I effervesce
in Bible study groups and fellowships.
But how would I react, I wonder,
if I had to wash the calloused feet
of a bent and old woman,
day after the day where nobody saw,
and nobody knew?

The palace will never teach you to be a servant. In the palace you are served. In the desert you learn to serve others.

I’m so glad that God has called me to Chicago, It’s a wonderful city. When you are in Chicago you feel as if you’re in the middle of things. Sometimes when I drive out to the country, like one summer when we went to a state in these great United States called Montana… Ain’t much going on in Montana. I came to a little town called Plentywood, Montana. An entirely different understanding of time there! Things are so laid back. Some of those folks out there, bless them, I think it would take them an hour and a half just to watch Sixty Minutes. (laughter) It’s a whole different way. But I had to ask myself, “What if I had been called to obscurity?” Moses was called to obscurity for 40 long years. His most intelligent conversation was “Baa-a-a-a,” and he believed that was what it would be for the rest of his life. But it’s in the desert that you learn servanthood, not in the palace.

There’s a second lesson and that is the lesson of trust. Now we’re in verse 23. It says: “During those many days the king of Egypt died, and the people of Israel groaned because of their slavery and cried out for help. Their cry for rescue from slavery came up to God. (I love to underline these verbs. And you can underline them in your Bible as I have underlined them in mine.) God heard their groaning (He wasn’t deaf after all.) and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. (He doesn’t have a bad memory, and He doesn’t have bad eyesight.)” Verse 25: “God saw the people of Israel—and God knew.” He saw the people of Israel when nothing was happening, when they were there in bondage and in slavery. He saw them in their monotony. He saw them in their despair. God was there and God was with Moses.

I believe that God allows every one of us to go through a desert experience. If you’ve never been through a desert experience, there probably is one in your future.

Israel was in the desert for 40 years, and what was God doing during those 40 years that Israel was in the desert? We find that the Lord says this: “He found him (that is, Jacob, or the children of Jacob) in a desert-land and in the howling waste of a wilderness. He encircled them. He cared for them. He kept them as the apple of His eye, like an eagle that stirs up its nest, that flutters over them (the eaglets), spreading out its wings, catching them, bearing them on its pinions.

Do you know what eagles do? Eagles build nice nests and make them very comfy. First of all, they put in sharp rocks and pieces of twig, and even sharp objects that they might be able to find. If they can pick up a piece of glass or something they put… And then they fill out the nest and make it very, very comfortable with all kinds of feathers and everything, and those little eaglets absolutely love it. The problem is the little eaglets won’t go out of the nest to test their wings. And so what mom eagle does is she begins to take away the feathers. She begins to pull out the down, and these little things find themselves on a sharp edge of rock and they say, “You know, things are so bad we’d better learn to fly.” And then, if anything, the mother eagle will come and push them out of the nest and then swoop under them to catch them when they are in flight. God says, “That’s what I was doing for you when you were there in the desert.”

They were there in the desert because of their own disobedience and the disobedience of those before them, but God says, “I’m with you there in the desert. I am working there in the desert with you.”

You know, it’s easy to trust God when the bush is burning, when the waters are parting, when that mountain is shaking, and when the money is flowing. And when the board is glowing it’s easy to trust God. But it’s hard to trust God when you are in transition, when you’ve been unfairly fired from a job. It’s hard to trust God when your optimistic dreams and hopes in a relationship suddenly end in bitterness and in disaster. It’s difficult to see God there, but blessed is the person who knows that God is not with us only in our ups, but also in our downs, not only when we are there in the palace, but also when we’re there in unending monotonous desert day after day, week after week, month after month.

It says, “It came to pass after these many days that God intervened.” How many days? Multiply 40 times 365. Thank God for pocket calculators. As some of you have heard me say, “When it comes to math, I’ve always said, ‘As long as I’m right 90 percent of the time, I mean, who cares about the other 5 percent?’” Fourteen thousand six hundred days of monotony, of boredom, of hopelessness! Moses had to learn to trust.

There’s a third lesson, and that is the lesson of obedience. We’re going to go into this in detail next week when I give you the five excuses that Moses had as to why he didn’t want to go. We would think that God would be saying to Moses, “Go back to Egypt,” and Moses would say, “Well of course, where have You been?” But Moses is still hurting. Moses still remembers the pain of rejection. He still has in his heart now this, and probably a root of bitterness over all that has happened, and so he objects to God. And God says, “Go,” and Moses says, “No.” And God says, “Moses, what are your excuses?” We’ll look at them next week, but notice in chapter 4, verse 1 Moses says: “But behold, they will not believe me or listen to my voice, for they will say, ‘The Lord did not appear to you.’”

He’s saying, “I’ve been through this before. I was rejected by them. I don’t want to go. I don’t want to be hurt again, and furthermore, they have no reason to believe me after having been away for 40 years as a shepherd. Why should anybody believe me?”

God says: “What is that in your hand?” He said, “A staff (That is a branch of a tree maybe three or four inches in diameter).” The Lord says: “Throw it on the ground.” So he threw it on the ground, and it became a serpent. The Lord said, “These are the kinds of things I’m going to enable you to do to prove that I’ve sent you.”

But let me ask you this: Where did Moses get the staff? Where did he get it from? Where did he get this rod or staff, as it is sometimes called? He got it when he was in the desert. Not in the palace! He picked it up when he was serving time in the penalty box.

And God says this rod is now going to be a rod with great significance. Wherever Moses goes he takes it. He’s about to go over the Red Sea, and the Bible says that Moses put his rod (or staff) over the sea and the Red Sea parts. Later on he’s supposed to hit the rock, and he does hit the rock and water comes out. The next time he’s to speak to it and he hits the rock again in disobedience. But the point is wherever you see Moses from now on, you see that rod, because the rod of Moses now becomes the rod of God. God did something to him there in the desert. You see, God tests our loyalty in the desert. God tests the depth of our commitment in the desert. God sees what we are really like in the desert, and in the desert He gives us the equipment and the ability to learn things that we could never learn anywhere else so that we could be more useful to Him in the future than we are now.

Perhaps I could change the metaphor. You all know what the penalty box is. Maybe it isn’t so much a penalty box as it is a bullpen. Everybody who has ever lived in Chicago for more than a year knows what a bullpen is. The Cubs and the Sox—they have their bullpens. What they are there for is to help them to get ready to get back into the game.

Let me ask you a question: Are you alive today? You say, “Yeah, yeah.” Actually it is one of the few requirements we have to attend Moody Church. (laughter) If you are alive today God is not finished with you yet. (applause) No matter how hot the desert, no matter how long the desert, God is there for you.

So what have you picked up in your desert? Patience? Love? The ability to pray? Brokenness, which you didn’t have before your desert experience? The ability to forgive so that you could become Godlike and so that God allows you to have hurts and injustices to teach you to be more like Him? And so God continues to work for you and with you in the desert experience.

Some of you, if we could see you actually (if we could see your feet) there would be some sand in your sandals. You are in the desert, and God says, “I’m here in the desert with you.” That, I think, is probably one of two important lessons we learn about Moses in the desert. First of all, that God is with us! God is with us. It says in the Scriptures that God was with Joseph when he became a ruler in Egypt, when he became next to Potiphar, and Potiphar had the responsibility of the secret service detail of the Pharaoh, the King, and Joseph was exalted in Egypt, the Scripture says. And it says that the Lord was with Joseph and exalted him.

Later on Joseph, because of his faithfulness to God, has a lie told about him. He is slandered. Potiphar’s wife says, “He tried to force me to go to bed with him,” and you know that the opposite was true. And so Joseph is cast into the pit, into the dungeon, another dungeon. Talk about somebody who spent quite a bit of time in the pits. That would be Joseph. He’s cast into the prison. His reputation is ruined because Potiphar believes the story that his wife gave him. Everybody is speaking scandalous lies about him, and what does it say in the text—same chapter, in Genesis, chapter 39? It says: “And the Lord was with Joseph in prison.”

He’s with us when we are sick. He’s with us when we are well. He’s with us when we are rich. He’s with us when we are poor. He’s with us when our friends encourage us. He’s with us when our friends reject us. The Lord is with His people.

And now I come to a statement I never want you to forget. On your deathbed somebody should be able to ask you, “Do you remember that statement that Pastor Lutzer made at Moody Church when he was preaching on Moses?” And you say, “Oh yeah, yeah, absolutely.” You should be able to quote it. Are you ready for it? I want to make sure everybody’s ready for it.

Never interpret the silence of God as the indifference of God. Don’t ever interpret the silence of God as the indifference of God.

Forty long years of slavery of the Hebrews in Egypt! Forty years of wilderness wandering, believing that every day for the rest of his life was going to be like the last one. He didn’t foresee the burning bush. He didn’t foresee the shaking mountain. He didn’t foresee the parting of the sea. All that he saw was day-after-day monotony in the desert. God was silent, but God was working, directing, leading, orchestrating to an appointed end. Don’t ever misinterpret the silence of God as the indifference of God.

The last lesson! You develop deep roots in the desert, because in order to survive in a desert you have to go somewhere, and those roots have to reach down really, really deep. And you have to find an oasis somewhere and you have to be like that tree planted beside the water, or you will be no more. You don’t have to develop deep roots when everything is going well. It’s when everything falls apart. It’s when your nest is stirred up. It’s when you are in distress that you develop those roots.

And I like to refer to the redwoods in California, which I saw at one time, that grow right into the heavens. These redwoods have basically shallow roots, but they are interconnected I am told. Underneath you find that this redwood is connected to this redwood that’s connected to this one. And if this one gets some water they all benefit, which is a wonderful example of the Body of Christ, because sometimes in the depth of our despair, when we are there in the desert, we can’t go it alone. And God uses the desert experience to have other believers become our friends to help us, because sometimes you may be in that desert and you may not even be able to get your own water, but there’s somebody there who can get water for you. And together we develop deep roots in the desert.

You’ve heard me say that someone asked a sculptor (apparently a true story), “How do you make an elephant?” And the sculptor said, “Actually it’s very easy.” He said, “You simply take a block of marble, and you chip away everything that isn’t elephant.”

I’ll tell you what God is doing in the desert. He’s chipping away everything that isn’t Jesus, and only the desert can do that. The palace can’t. And it is in the desert that we learn the lesson of servanthood, the lesson of trust, and the lesson of obedience. And it’s in the desert that God tests the depth of our yieldedness, and our desire to please Him. And after the desert has done its work, He invites us back into the game to play like we’ve never played before.

Would you join me as we pray?

Our Father, surely those 40 years must have seemed long to Moses, unending. And yet You were there working, hearing, listening, remembering. And there are some of Your children, Lord, some who You have adopted into Your family who’ve lived years with injustice, with poverty, with heartbreak from people, from illness perhaps. Would You at this moment stir up their souls and let them know that You are doing a deeper work in their lives than could ever be done if they had had only success, only mountains, and no valleys? Grant us the ability that during our desert experience we may learn from You. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.

Tell us why you valued this sermon.

Other Sermons in this Series

Related Sermons