Approaching God: A sermon based on Exodus 3-4
Consider the fire that first caught Moses’ attention. The bush is on fire, yet the fire does not consume it. God draws Moses to come closer through fire. Throughout his whole life, Moses is associated with water. Moses was drawn out from the Nile. Moses led His people, from slavery in Egypt through the waters of the Red Sea. By the power of God, Moses brought water from a rock. Robert Altar says, “The man associated with water from infancy on, now encounters the God of all creation in the dry desert, and in flame.” If Moses is water, God is fire. When we encounter God, we encounter the one who is completely other than us. We are not made of the same stuff as God. And the closer we get to God, the more evident that becomes — like water evaporating in the presence of flame. When Moses learns who speaks from the bush, he covers his face lest he die.
Moses encounters God in the fire. John saw this same fire burning in the eyes of Jesus. In the book of Revelation, John looks at the risen Jesus. In His eyes He sees that same fire. Unlike Moses, John didn’t shield his face, and John fell over as though dead. That’s the fire Moses now stands before.
The fire of God is a picture of God’s presence, His glory, His Judgment and His jealous love. And that’s what God’s words reveal to Moses. God promises His presence shall warm and comfort his people Israel. God says, “I have seen the abuse of My people that is in Egypt, and its outcry because of its taskmasters. I have heard, for I know its pain. And I have come down to rescue it from the hand of Egypt.” God describes how His glory shall burn through Egypt. His fire of Judgment will fall on Egypt, on account of His jealous love for His firstborn son, Israel. The fire at the burning bush is a glimpse of what is to come.
So, God then charges Moses to bring His people out of slavery in Egypt. Moses immediately wonders and asks, “Who am I Lord that I should bring the Israelites up out of Egypt?” No doubt Moses is thinking, “I was a prince. Then I killed a man. Then I fled to Midian in Exile. Here I’ve been here as a shepherd for the last 40 years.” But God says, “I will be with you.” Even still Moses wonders who will believe what he saw and heard in the desert. He says, “Look, when I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they say to me, ‘What is His name?’, what shall I say to them?” And so Moses asks for God’s name. And so God reveals His name to Moses. Here too we get a glimpse of unfathomable power. “God said to Moses, “‘I-Will-Be-Who-I-Will-Be. Thus shall you say to the Israelites, ‘’Ehyeh has sent me to you.’” And God said further to Moses, “Thus shall you say to the Israelites: ‘YHWH, God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, sent me to you.” To quote Robert Altar again, “This name is a mystery of the most daunting character.” I-Will-Be-Who-I-Will-Be. Or it could be, “I-Am-That-I-Am. Or it could be “I Am He Who Endures.” This Name cannot be defined with precision, yet it at God’s essence, His preeminence, His all-encompassing power. It speaks to the fact that God’s is a limitless ocean of being. God is without beginning middle or end. God is the first. God is the last. God is sovereign over all ages. I Am who I am. God’s name is a refusal to be defined. He is who he is.
In the world of Scripture, wielding the name of a god was to wield the power of that god. The Lord God determined Moses must have His Name to carry out His mission. With God’s name, Moses speaks God’s words and reveals God’s power. From very early on, the power associated with this name was considered too great, God’s Name was considered too holy to utter, except perhaps by priests in the Jerusalem temple. So when Jews would come across the Name in Scripture, they would either say hashem, which means “The Name,” or they’d say Adonai, which means Lord. Over the centuries, certainty over how to pronounce God’s name became lost. It was lost because reverence for the power of the name was so great that no one dared pronounce it.
Yet, I suspect that the name’s power isn’t so much from pronouncing it precisely, I suspect the power comes from your relationship to the one the name represents. Jesus spoke this name. He spoke it not in Hebrew, but He translated the name into Aramaic. And when Jesus speaks the name “I AM”, He claims it as His own name. He does this three times in John’s Gospel. The last time he uses the name is right before he’s about to be arrested. Jesus asks the soldiers who they are looking for. They say, “Jesus of Narareth.” Jesus says, “I AM”. The soldiers drop to the ground.” The power of the Name overwhelms them and they cannot stand up before Him. In Jesus we see the embodiment of all that Moses encountered in the burning bush. The Name took on flesh. Picture water that is enveloped by flame and the water does not melt away. Jesus came and embodied the limitless ocean of God. A Human who’s heavenly eyes burn with the eternal fire of God. Moses saw this fire and feared he would die. When we confess that Jesus is God, this is a hint of what we mean.
I’ve taken a lot of time to portray the mysterious, indefinable, transcendent, overpowering nature of God in this story, because if we miss that we miss most remarkable thing about this passage — God sees hears, and knows his people. This God, who’s glory we cannot remotely fathom, sees, hears and knows the suffering of His people. He comes along side us. He cares more deeply than you could imagine. Think about the last time a tiny little bug was crawling on you. One of those really, really tiny bugs that’s no bigger than the smallest of crumbs. Did you think twice about wiping it off? Squishing it with your thumb? Did you consider Its feelings? Its aspirations? Its family? Its socioeconomic situation? Were you concerned that little bug might be on you because it’s in exile for manslaughter and that other bugs it knows are being enslaved by a cruel bug tyrant? Of course not. You just squished that bug and went on with your day. When you are that much bigger than something, the less attention you give it. I find it much harder to kill big spiders. The difference between us and God is infinitely greater than us and a bug. Yet not one little bug is squished without His knowing. And in this passage we see that the God who is beyond all praising, he knows His creatures by name.
The one who’s Name is above all names, He calls Moses by name. This God, who’s glory we cannot remotely fathom, He calls His people by their name. There are books so many books in the Bible that are just long lists of names. When I read the book of Numbers, or Chronicles, I’m tempted to just skip over them and get to the good parts. God doesn’t skip over anyone’s name. This God never stops calling His people by their name, their personal name. So God became Human, walked on earth and continued calling us by name. He called Peter, James, and John by name and they left everything to follow Him. He called to Zacchaeus’ by name and he gave back four times what He’d stolen from people. He called out Lazarus, and He walked out of His tomb. He called out to Mary, she turned around and recognized her risen saviour. This God, who’s glorious name we cannot remotely fathom. He knows you by name. He’s calling you by name. He sees you. He knows what You are going through. He knows your struggles. And He knows you by name. He calls you by name. He who could so easily overlook, He does not overlook. He does not overlook His people — He sees, He hears, and He knows.
So he called Moses by name, And He says I have seen the abuse of My people, and its outcry I have heard, for I know its pain. He sees and He hears, and He knows. This God who could so easily overlook the pain, He pays attention to that pain. H sees, hears and knows, He does not overlook. He sees, He hears and He knows the suffering of His people. That word ‘know’ is like a wife knows her husband. Its the most intimate word you can imagine. God knows us, and He knows what His people are facing. He knows far more deeply than you can imagine. And He comes to rescue His people. So the story of the Exodus is the story of God leading His people out of slavery. And Jesus came for the same purpose. When Jesus began his ministry, he stood up in the synagogue and read from the Prophet Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him.”
So He not only calls us by name, He not only promises to rescue us from slavery, he calls us to work alongside him. After God called Moses by name, and spoke of His intent God says to Moses, “Go that I may send you to Pharaoh and that I should bring My people Israel out of Egypt.” And this job is nothing less than utterly overwhelming. Impossible, it would seem. Its no wonder that Moses says, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and that I should bring out the Israelites from Egypt?” But God does not belittle Moses, instead he responds with the most reassuring words possible, “I will be with you.” Fear not, you will not go alone. I will be with you. The one who’s name was feared because it was too powerful to utter. The one who speaks from the eternal fire, that one says, “I will be with you.” Fear not, I will be with you always. He will travel alongside wherever we go, even should we be led into the shadow of death. Even if we encounter the world’s fiercest demons. God says, fear not, I will be with you. And perhaps Jesus had this moment of Exodus in mind when he sent out the disciples after His resurrection, saying: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” No less daunting a job has Jesus given us. No less comfort does He give — I will be with you. The one with All authority in heaven and Earth is with us. The one who’s eyes burn with the Holy Fire of God. This One who’s name is above all names. He is with us. What else could matter? What could this world throw at us that God cannot handle? He sees. He hears. He knows.