Sermon Commentary for Sunday, September 3, 2017
Exodus 3:1-15 Commentary
“Does Jesus Care?” is a hymn grieving family members sometimes ask soloists to sing at funerals. They ask, “Does Jesus care when my heart is pained/ too deeply for mirth or song,/ as the burdens press, and the cares distress,/ and the way grows weary and long?”
While the lyrics may seem a bit outdated and syrupy, the issue at the hymn’s heart remains contemporary. After all, God’s adopted sons and daughters naturally wonder if anyone cares about our pain, fear, or grief. Christians may especially wonder if God cares about the difficult things we’re enduring.
It’s a question Exodus 3’s Hebrew parents must have also asked. After all, Egypt’s Pharaoh contrived a plan to slaughter all Hebrew baby boys. So while his own daughter had rescued and adopted one of those babies, countless other Hebrew parents suffered the murder of their baby sons.
The adult Moses escaped death only to have to flee Egypt in order to escape punishment for his own act of murder. In exile his life improved as he married and then went to work for his father-in-law. Things, however, don’t get any better for his Hebrew countrymen in Egypt. After all, we read that they “groaned in their slavery and cried out …” (2:23).
If Exodus 3’s preachers and teachers listen closely enough, we still hear echoes of such cries ringing out across our world. We hear them coming from deep in the hunger-swollen bellies of sub-Saharan babies. But does God hear those cries? Does Jesus care about those cries?
If you and I listen closely enough we hear echoes of those cries in our own neighborhoods and communities. We hear the cries of children whose parents are too busy working or just growing up themselves to be good parents. But does God hear those cries? Does Jesus care about those cries?
If we listen closely enough, we still hear the cries of God’s oppressed people. We hear the cries of Christians whose country’s leaders are assaulting, interrogating and threatening them for their faith. But does God hear those cries? Or do such cries simply disappear into space?
God initially seems largely unresponsive to the enslaved Hebrews’ cries. So Israel and Exodus 3’s readers may wonder if God will finally get to work on behalf of God’s oppressed people. Exodus 2:24’s answer? “God heard their groaning … So God looked on the Israelites and was concerned about them.”
Yet we may still wonder if God will somehow respond to the 21st century’s cries. After all, God’s people hear and care about the cries of Africa’s starving children and the Middle East’s oppressed Christians. But God’s people don’t always have a lot of power to do much about them.
Exodus’ answer to the question whether God will do anything about God’s concern is far quicker than it is predictable. God turns, after all, to Moses, the adopted Egyptian royalty who’s just minding his own business in exile. To Moses, who’s busy building a new life, family and future, far away from his countrymen’s misery.
Sometimes God comes to God’s adopted sons and daughters too when and where they feel far away. Some have found themselves on the run, basically hiding from God and people in some kind of place precisely because it seems so isolated. Yet in those lonely places God often finds, catches and somehow calls out to God’s people.
In fact the Moses whom God catches seems so isolated that we probably learn what’s going on even before he does. While he’s in exile, Exodus 3’s readers know what’s happening in Egypt and with God. While Moses sees just a bush that burns but doesn’t burn up, we learn that God’s messenger is in that flaming bush. While Moses knows he’s on a mountain, Exodus 3’s readers learn that it’s no ordinary mountain.
On that holy mountain God calls to Moses by the name that reminds him of how God rescued him out of the Nile’s murderous waters. Moses finally learns that it’s the God of his ancestors who’s somehow calling him from that mysterious bush. He learns that the same God who made promises to his fellow Hebrews has now come down to talk to him.
Is it any wonder, then, that Moses becomes terrified? After all, he learns that he’s seeing the God whom to see is to die. What’s more, Moses isn’t looking for God; he’s probably just looking for a place to graze his sheep. Moses isn’t looking for a job; he’s already got one.
So this is all God’s gracious idea. God hears the oppressed Hebrews’ cries. God cares very deeply about God’s children’s misery. God is ready to get moving against mighty Pharaoh.
And while God could single-handedly free the Israelites from the Pharaoh’s iron grip, God chooses to enlist Moses’ help.
God, however, never just delivers God’s people from something. God always also delivers us to something. So God promises to deliver Israel from Egyptian slavery to the spacious and fertile land God had promised her ancestor Abraham. In a similar way God still delivers God’s people from slavery to sin, Satan and death to the freedom to joyfully obey the Lord.
God’s plan for Israel’s liberation probably sounds pretty good to Moses – until God fills in the details. After all, God tells him, “I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt.” “Are you kidding, God!” it’s as if Moses squawks. “You want me to stand in front of Pharaoh?.” As one biblical scholar notes, Moses’ “Here am I” turns into a “Who am I?” His readiness turns into resistance.
Yet Moses isn’t just a messenger. He’s also the one with whom God promises to stand before the rebellious Pharaoh (and, as it turns out, rebellious Israel). The divine “I” will go with the human “I” to accomplish God’s plan. Sounds kind of familiar, doesn’t it?
Yet not even God’s promise to go with Moses is enough to convince him. As Terrence Fretheim (Exodus, John Knox Press, 1991) notes, Moses’ “Who am I?” turns into a “Who are you?” If he’s to take this risky job, Moses needs to know just who the God is who promises to accompany him on it. God’s answer to that question is one of the most mysterious in the whole Bible. The New International Version of the Bible translates it as “I AM WHO I AM.” I personally like the paraphrase, “I will be who I am, and I am who I will be.”
Yet no matter how we translate God’s answer to Moses’ question about God’s identity, it’s an answer that reflects God’s faithfulness to both himself and God’s character. God insists that Moses and Israel can count on God to always be who God is, that is, among other things, faithful.
That’s, in fact, why God both hears Israel’s groaning and is concerned about Israel. God is what God is: faithful. That’s why God will rescue Israel from her Egyptian slavery. God is what God is: faithful. That’s why God will plant freed Israel in the land God promised her ancestor Abraham. God is what God is: faithful. God cares.
In response to the question if Jesus cares, I sometimes saw mourners mouth the answer with the soloist, “Oh, yes, he cares, I know he cares,/ his heart is touched with my grief;/ when the days are weary, the long nights dreary,/ I know my Savior cares.”
Yet how do God’s adopted sons and daughters know that God cares about the cries of hungry, sad, fearful and oppressed people? How do we know that God cares about the cries of 9/11’s mourners? God, after all, sometimes waits a long time to answer our cries. Sometimes God, in fact, seems to answer our cries with a “no.”
So how do God’s people know that God cares so deeply about us? The answer is: Jesus Christ whom God faithfully sent to live, die and rise again from the dead. God sent him to free God’s adopted sons and daughters from all things that enslave us, including sin, Satan and death. So Jesus Christ is God’s answer to all of our cries.
God, in fact, cares not just about those who suffer but even about those who inflict their suffering. After all, Jesus Christ came to reconcile all things to himself. So he’s God’s sign that God hears not just the cries of the oppressed but also the cries of needy oppressors.
God hears the cries of oppression, grief, fear or doubt. Because God is faithful. God’s people can walk into whatever this new week, new month, new school year has in store for us. Because God is faithful. We can look forward to a home in God’s presence in the new creation. Because God is faithful.
In his book, The Bible Jesus Read (Zondervan, 1999), Philip Yancey writes, “I know of only one way to answer the question ‘Does God care?’ And for me it has proved decisive: Jesus is the answer. Jesus never attempted a philosophical answer to the problem of pain, yet he did give an existential answer. Although I cannot learn from him why a particular bad thing occurs, I can learn how God feels about it. Jesus gives God a face, and that face is streaked with tears.
Whenever I read straight through the Bible, a huge difference between the Old and New Testaments comes to light. In the Old Testament I can find many expressions of doubt and disappointment … In striking contrast, the New Testament Epistles contain little of this type of anguish. The problem of pain has surely not gone away … Nevertheless, nowhere do I find the piercing question, “Does God care?”
“The reason for the change, I believe, is that Jesus answered that question for the witnesses who wrote the Epistles. In Jesus, God presents a face. Anyone who wonders how God feels about the suffering on this groaning planet need only look at that face.
“James, Peter, and John had followed Jesus long enough for his facial expressions to be permanently etched on their minds. By watching Jesus respond to a hemorrhaging woman, a grieving centurion, a widow’s dead son, an epileptic boy, an old blind man, they learned how God felt about suffering. By no means did Jesus solve the “problem of pain” he healed only a few in one small corner of the globe – but he did provide an answer to the question, Does God care?…
“When Jesus Christ faced pain, he responded much as anyone else does. He did not pray in the garden, ‘Oh, Lord, I am so grateful that you have chosen me to suffer on your behalf – I rejoice in the privilege!’ No, he experienced sorrow, fear, abandonment, and something approaching desperation: ‘… if it is possible, may this cup he taken from me …
‘We may not get the answer to the problem of pain that we want from Jesus. We get instead the mysterious confirmation that God suffers with us. We are not alone. Jesus bodily reconstructs trust in God. Because of Jesus, I can trust that God truly understands my condition. I can trust that I matter to God, and that God cares, regardless of how things look at the time. When I begin to doubt, I turn again to the face of Jesus, and there I see the compassionate love of a God well acquainted with grief.’
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