This sermon is offered by the CRCNA as part of our Reading Sermons series.
Scripture: Exodus 3:1-22
Sermon prepared by Rev. Michael Bootsma, Frankford, ON
I. THE PIANO MICE
Imagine a family of mice who lived all their lives in a large piano. In their piano world the music of the instrument filled all the dark spaces with sound and harmony. At first the mice were impressed by it. They drew comfort and wonder from the thought that there was Someone who made the music - though invisible to them - above, yet close to them. They loved to think of the Great Player whom they could not see. Then one day a daring mouse climbed up part of the piano and returned very thoughtful. He had found out how the music was made. Wires were the secret; tightly stretched wires of graduated lengths which tremble and vibrate. The mice must revise all their old beliefs. Some, however, still held on to the faith in the Unseen Player.
Later, another explorer carried the explanation further. Hammers were now the secret, many hammers dancing and leaping on the wires. This was a more complicated theory, but it all went to show that they lived in a purely mechanical and mathematical world. Now mothers told their little ones about the myth of the Unseen Player.
But the pianist continued to play. (from the LONDON OBSERVER)
II. IS GOD REALLY THERE?
I imagine that Moses must have felt like one of those mice inside that piano. His parents had taught him to believe in God as a child. He had spent nearly forty years living as the son of Pharaoh's daughter, believing in the God of his fathers. But when he actually began to do something for God's people, no one came to his support and he ended up on Pharaoh's most wanted list. So he fled. Now he had lived forty years in the wilderness tending sheep. I can well imagine that Moses had given up on the God of his fathers.
And Christians today, even some here today, have times of doubt. In the midst of the gut-wrenching experiences of life, when everything is out of control and God appears absent, we wonder if the mice are not right - there is no unseen player. In those times our knowledge and experience of God need to be renewed. That is what Moses discovered on Mount Horeb, which means, "Desolate wasteland."
III. THE DESERT BECOMES HOLY
Moses is wondering further than his usual places for grazing the sheep. Moses is alone in the wilderness - Moses, the failure. The landscape of his life is as dry and barren as the wasteland in which he tends his sheep. Nothing happens, and nothing has happened for 40 years.
Sometimes the landscape of our lives looks like Horeb too, "a desolate wasteland." Life is dry and barren, and worst of all, we're all alone. Then again, maybe we're not alone. Maybe we only think we're alone. For Horeb, the "desolate wasteland," is called "the mountain of God." The last place Moses expected to meet God was on Horeb. The last place we'd expect to meet God is that dry, barren, lonely place in our lives. Yet, that is where God shows up. He meets us in our desolate places.
Moses is confronted by a strange sight. A bush on fire, but not burning up. He does not know what it is. But we know that God has chosen a ordinary bush as a vehicle to meet Moses. When Moses moves in to investigate, God speaks out of the bush. God makes his presence doubly sure: Moses sees the sign of God's presence and Moses hears the voice of God. Moses is told not to approach (the original word meant "approach God in worship"). The place is holy. Moses must remove his shoes.
Shoes carry the dirt of one's journey. Many of us still remove our shoes when we enter someone's house, to keep it clean. Moses is entering the house of the Lord, so to speak - a piece of ground God has chosen to inhabit. God is holy, therefore this ground is holy. He is pure and clean, but our sandals are dirty. Their removal is a symbolic gesture of purity. When God identifies himself, Moses is afraid. He is struck by his unworthiness. The first thing we need to know about God is that he is holy. But God, in all his holy purity, enters our dirty world.
IV. HOLY FAITHFULNESS
God identifies himself as the God of Moses' father, not fathers. God connects himself with the faith of Moses' family in Egypt. He is also the God of the three great patriarchs: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. This is the God of Israel. At this point, Moses knows with whom he's speaking and turns away in fear. He's afraid of being consumed by God's holiness, so he hides his face. But the bush isn't consumed, and neither is Moses.
At this point in Scripture, God hasn't spoken directly to a man since the time he encouraged Jacob to go to Egypt. When God reveals that it is he, himself, who is speaking with Moses, he does so in a way that also reveals his covenant faithfulness. He is God, yes, in all his holiness, but he is also the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, in all his faithfulness. God shows up in our lives not to destroy us but to help us. That, too, is good to know.
V. FAITHFUL COMPASSION
God has watched the plight of Israel for a long time and has heard their cry of distress. God knows Israel's need and his time for action has come. The urgency is expressed in the power of God's words: he has come down from his home in the heavens; he is about to snatch his people (as if from a fire), tear away, rescue; he will snatch them from a place of restriction and deprivation to a place wide and free, a place of plenty.
God is compassionate. He has "seen" the affliction of his people. He has "given heed to" their cry and he is "aware" of their sufferings. Moses responds to God in fear. God answers that fear by speaking of his compassion. Compassion disarms fear. God cares deeply for his people. Our sufferings move God deeply. In fact, they move him to action.
God calls Moses to help him with this task. It is in this verse that we begin to hear a deep play on words which is most significant to this chapter and to God's identity; God says, "I am sending...." Does it seem strange to you that the great God Almighty needs lowly humans to accomplish his work? Do you think, if God is God, he ought to be able to do these things all by himself? No. This God (says John Calvin) "condescends" to use even people like us for godly work. God calls us. Not to deliver from Egypt, but to live in the name of Jesus. To go in Jesus' name.
VI. WHO, ME?
Moses protests, "I'm not good on my feet, I flunked Public Speaking 101." Though Moses was once a member of the ruling house of Egypt, he is now but a lowly shepherd. He is an 80-year-old man, already past the average life span for his generation. His life has been a failure from a human perspective. This prompts Moses to wonder whether he is the right man for the job. Is it not true that we use the same excuse often enough: "I am insufficient for the task"? It is a humble opinion, and humility is a biblical virtue. We ask with Moses, "Who am I?"
But it is irrelevant, "The point is that I am...I am with you...." (Not I will be with you). Who Moses is, is not the question; it is not important. Who we are is not important. The point is that "I am sending!... I am with you!" As surely as Moses knows that God is speaking with him here on the mountain, so surely Moses can know that God will be with him. Moses' emphatic "I" is echoed by God's emphatic "I". Then God gives him a sign: "Israel will be here with Moses to meet with God." God says he'll give Moses a sign, but not until after he's done what God is asking. We look for signs from God to see if it's safe to move forward. More often, he gives us signs afterward, confirming our step of faith. The Israelites mocked Moses when he helped them. Pharaoh wants his head. Now God tells him to lead Israel out of Egypt. It is just like God to tell us to go do something at which we have been utter failures before. But that is just the point. Moses knows that unless God indeed goes with him, this will be an utter failure. When Moses asks, "Who am I?" he asks a question echoed by millions of God's people since. He has monumental doubts about who he is. We have such doubts as well. But God's answer is still the same, "I am going with you." God spoke it loudest on the night that Jesus was born. Jesus is our Immanuel - "God with us."
VII. WHO ARE YOU?
But this is not enough for Moses. He has a new question: "Who is God?" It is not a question of identity, it is one of qualifications, "Why does God think he can get us out of Egypt?" Moses looks into the future and he doesn't trust God with the future. Is that not the truth?
The terrible situation of the Israelites in Egypt is the background for this question. The God of the fathers may have proved himself to the fathers. But Egypt and the bondage there is a new situation. Egypt is a world power and the Israelites are its slaves. The plight of the Israelites in Egypt is unparalleled in the history of the fathers. The Egyptians possess an extensive pantheon of gods controlling every aspect of life and granting international influence to Egyptian culture. Pharaoh himself, the king whom Moses was to confront, claimed divine descent.
It is against such a setting that Moses raises his question. Moses is asking if God can accomplish what he is promising. What is there in his reputation that lends credibility to the claim? How is he going to deal with a host of powerful Egyptian gods against whom he has won no victory for his people in all these years? The Israelites in Egypt, oppressed savagely across many years and crying out with no let-up to their God, will want to know, "What can God do?" Is that not also our question? Someone assures us in our time of trouble that God is with us, and we say, "So what?" God has done nothing to prevent us from getting into this mess, so why should we believe he will get us out?
VIII. I AM
God gives Moses not a name but an assertion of authority: "I am who I am," implying continuing, unfinished action. God cannot be referred to as "was" or "will-be." He is the "Always Is." I am always being God. Maybe a story will help us understand. A woman once told a story about her 7- year-old son. The boy was on the high dive for the first time. As he looked down through the 10 feet of air he had never plummeted through before, and at the pool of water he had never penetrated with such force before, he was terrified. He wouldn't jump. The instructor, observing from below, climbed the ladder to offer encouragement. Then he told the frightened boy, "We'll jump together." So the man wrapped the boy in his arms and cradled him safely to his chest, and they jumped off together. The boy found the courage to leap because the instructor was with him. He believed that the instructor would not allow him to be harmed. He trusted him. And the scared little boy successfully completed his first high dive.
Like the little boy, we're frightened. We're afraid of life. We're afraid of pain. But as the instructor was with the little boy, God is with us. He climbs up the ladder and speaks to us face to face. He wraps his arms around us, cradles us to his chest and tells us, "We'll jump together." And so we dive into life with God. And if God is with us as we jump, how can the jump not be successful? It may not be artistic, and it may hurt, because we may be new at this diving stuff, but if we leave the safety of the board for the unknown of the air and water, and God's arms are wrapped around us, we'll be successful. God told Moses he is like that diving instructor, always.
But despite all the assurance that God offers, the fear doesn't go away. God does not take the fear away; he simply commands us to walk into the fear, trusting him. But if God is with us as we move forward, good things will happen. God called Moses to be involved in his plan for the people of Israel, and God promised success. Moses was terrified. He had to dive into the teeth of his biggest fears. But God told him, "I am with you." Repeated over and over again is the verb "I AM." The point is obvious: even though Israel may have the impression God was absent, he is and always has been present, really present.
IX. I AM IN EGYPT
To make his point, God says that he is in Egypt. He knows Pharaoh, he knows Pharaoh will not grant the request. So God will strike Egypt with powerful signs, right in Egypt's backyard, where Egypt's gods are supposed to be in control. God will be so terrible to the Egyptians that Pharaoh will do more than just grant the request, he will hurl them out of Egypt in his eagerness to be rid of them and their God. In fact, Israel will plunder Egypt, God will show that he is in control over everything Egyptian. He will strip the Egyptians of everything.
Moses returns to Egypt, and God strikes Egypt. Forty years earlier, Moses struck down an Egyptian, but it had no effect, because Moses acted independently of God (2:12). This time, God is with Moses and God himself strikes Egypt, God grants the people favor, and God fills the people's hands with gold, silver and clothing when they leave. We can be faithful, but only God can be successful. God is wildly successful. Not only will the people be freed from their horrible bondage, they'll leave with all the good stuff: the best gold, silver and clothing. And God will take them to a better place with the good stuff in tow. If this is what happens, if this is how God works, isn't it worth risking a step or two forward? Isn't it worth trusting God? Isn't it worth believing that he is Holy and that he is Faithful, and Compassionate?
Copeland, Mark A. 1997 "The Excuses of Moses" Illinois: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, Wheaton College. Durham, John I. 1987 Exodus. Waco: Word Books, Publisher. GOD, names of Grant, Scott. **** "Being Involved"
I AM (A poem that might be placed in the bulletin)
I was regretting the past
And fearing the future...
Suddenly my Lord was speaking:
"MY NAME IS I AM." He paused.
I waited. He continued,
"When you live in the past,
With its mistakes and regrets,
It is hard. I am not there.
My name is not I was.
"When you live in the future,
with its problems and fears,
It is hard. I am not there.
My name is not I will be.
"When you live in this moment,
It is not hard.
I am here.
My name is I am."
--Helen Mallicoat, quoted in Holy Sweat, Tim Hansel, 1987, Word Books Publisher, Page 136
PH #569, 241, 232, 383, 485, 425, 195, "Shine Jesus Shine"