And, now, for the third and most important actor in the drama that unfolds in the book of Exodus. In last week’s reading from Exodus 1 and 2 we met the villain, Pharaoh, and the hero, Moses. Now we meet the director, producer, creator, redeemer– God, Yahweh, “I am what I am.” God is mentioned at the end of Exodus 2, but that was just a flicker of the stunning theophany that will blaze on for 5 chapters beginning in Exodus 3.
Indeed, until the Epiphany of our Lord Jesus Christ, this is the most awesome theophany in the history of redemption. I say that because it is the beginning of the main act of redemption in the Old Testament, namely, God’s liberation of his people from the house of bondage. Yes, God had appeared and spoken to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, thus inaugurating the covenant partnership between God and Israel. But all of Israel’s history will be focused on the history-changing action of God in the Exodus. And that massive movement of God began here at the burning bush when God called Moses to be God’s man, God’s mouth, God’s mediator in the drama of salvation.
While God has been active behind the scenes in the lives of his covenant people for four hundred years (as we have just seen in the story of Joseph), God has been invisible and inaudible since his last conversation with Jacob. One can sympathize with the misery and rage of the Israelites as they suffered in Egypt. Where is our God? Why doesn’t God come to help us? Why is God so silent? Here at last God shows up with words and deeds that will shake Egypt to its foundations and shape Israel for the rest of its future.
It all began with a curious phenomenon in an unlikely place. Having fled from Pharaoh after killing an Egyptian, Moses has been transformed from a prince of Egypt to a shepherd in far off Midian. Pursuing pasture on the far side of the wilderness of Sinai, Moses has inadvertently camped at the foot of Mount Horeb, the mountain of God. He didn’t have a clue, until he saw that curious sight—a bush on fire that just kept burning and burning. The text says that “the angel of the Lord appeared to him in flames of fire from within the bush.” But Moses didn’t see the angel; he only saw the fire. Rather than being awestruck, he was merely curious. So, he ambled over to see “this strange sight—why the bush does not burn up.”
That’s how this epic theophany began—with a curious sight. It is fascinating and telling how often the story makes reference to seeing; maybe after all those years of invisibility, God needed to be seen to be believed. At any rate, when “the Lord saw that [Moses] had gone over to look, God called to him from within the bush, ‘Moses! Moses!’” With that, the audible part of the theophany overwhelms the visible. Using the curious sight to gain Moses’ attention, God now has something to say, something that will change Moses’ life and the history of the world.
God’s conversation with Moses contains 13 distinct pieces of dialogue. It begins with this call consisting of the divine summons (“Moses! Moses!”), the declaration of limits (“the place where you are standing is holy ground”), and the divine identity (“the God of your father… of Abraham… Isaac… Jacob”). After each divine word, Moses gives the appropriate response: “Here I am.” He took off his sandals. And he “hid his face because he was afraid to look at God.
That interplay of divine and human, revelation and response, grace and faith will characterize the entire story of the Exodus and, indeed, the story of redemption through Christ. Though God could have liberated his people all by himself, he chose to act through a mere mortal, and a flawed one at that (though in the case of Christ the flaws were all ours, assumed by him as our substitute).
Now comes the substance of God’s revelation to Moses. Contrary to what Israel might have assumed about God, given their terrible situation in Egypt, God has “indeed seen the misery of my people….” And God has “heard them crying….” And God is “concerned about their suffering.”
God reveals not only his observation and his feelings, but also his actions on behalf of his suffering children. “I have come down,” words that anticipate the ultimate coming down of the One who emptied himself and became obedient unto death on a cross. God has come down from his throne above the heavens “to rescue them from the hands of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land….” Salvation is not only from; it is also to. It is not only freedom from bondage; it is also freedom for flourishing. Hell will be overcome; heaven will be enjoyed.
At this moment, Moses’ heart must have been soaring with joy and hope, but then God stunned him with the words of verse 10. “So now, go. I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt.” It’s easy to imagine Moses saying, “Wait! What? You said that you were going to do those things. Surely you don’t need me. You can do it yourself. Leave me out of it.”
But this is God’s way of working in history. Yes, there are occasional flashes of naked power (as in the Ten Plagues), but an unrelenting display of divine power will destroy humanity (as suggested by Moses covering his eyes when he realized that he was looking straight at God in a little burning bush). Instead, God stoops to conquer, using a man who isn’t very excited about his role in the project.
So begins Moses’ effort to talk his way out of God’s plan. He raises objection after objection, beginning with this humble question that leads to the soaring revelation of God’s real name. “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” Moses is suggesting that he is a little nobody, but, in fact, he was more than that, much more. He was the adopted son of Pharaoh’s daughter, a member of the royal court, trained in all the wisdom and policies of that court. Yes, he was a fugitive from Pharaoh. And yes, that Pharaoh had now died. But Moses wasn’t nobody. He protests too much.
God isn’t having it. However, God responds not with an affirmation of Moses’ ability as people do today (“you can be anything you want to be!”), but with a promise about God’s presence. “I will be with you.” The success of your mission depends not on your ability and power, but on my constant presence with you. Where else have we heard those words in Scripture as God gives a major commission to God’s people?
With cheekiness born of terror, Moses doesn’t simply bow before God’s gracious and powerful promise. Instead he raises another issue. “Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask, ‘what is his name?’ Then what shall I say to them?” God’s answer is as important as his promise to deliver his people. He tells them the name by which they are to call upon God for the rest of history. Tell them, “I am what I am.”
Volumes have been written trying to penetrate the enigmatic name God reveals to Moses. I will not attempt to give a definitive explanation. I will simply make a few observations. First, it is fascinating that the name comes out of a sequence of questions and answers. “Who am I?” “I will be with you.” “What is his name?” “I am who I am.” God is saying, it doesn’t matter who you are, because who I am is more than enough to accomplish what I promise.
Second, the actual name can be translated several ways, but the essence of it seems to be that God simply is. God is not the product of other beings, or forces, or resources. Everything else in the world has been made, or developed, or evolved. Only God simply is—self-existent, independent, sovereign, beyond the control of any other power.
Therefore, in the third place, it is astonishing that this supremely independent “I am” should bind himself with unbreakable promises to a community of puny humans who will constantly disappoint God. That’s why God identifies himself as “the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” With those words, we are directed to focus on the story of God with his people, rather than trying to penetrate the mystery of God’s essence.
Our concern should not be with ontology, but with history. We cannot penetrate the inner being of God, but we do know that we can count on God to keep his promises. He has done that for generations now beginning with Abraham, and he will do it for Israel through Moses, and he will do it for the world through Christ. Pharaoh may be mighty, a god among humans, but he is no match for the God who created all humans, covenanted with a chosen family, and will save the world through one Man.
Theologians make the distinction between God “ad intra” and God “ad extra,” God as he is in himself and God as he makes himself know in his works. In this name revealed to Moses, God gives us a hint about what God is like in himself. But his greatest revelation of himself came through his saving work in Christ. As John 1:18 says, “No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only, who is at the Father’s side, has made him known.” Or as Jesus himself said again and again in the Gospel of John, “I am, I am, I am.” “Who do you think you are?” asked his enemies. He stunned them with this answer. “I tell you the truth, before Abraham was born, I am (John 8:58).”
What is the first thing we ask when we meet a new person? “What’s your name?” We’re not simply being curious. The fact is that you can’t have a relationship with someone until you can call them by name. Perhaps Moses asked God’s name because he was simply afraid of his meeting with his fellow Israelites. But God told him that name so that every succeeding generation could call on that name with confidence, so that he could be “remembered from generation to generation.” And, says Paul in Romans 10:13, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”
Preachers of a certain age will recall the famous words of cartoon figure, Popeye the Sailor Man. “I am what I am and that’s all what I am.” That was his way of saying, “I’m just me, so don’t try to make me something that I’m not. I’m my own unique self, nothing more or less. Deal with it.” In our individualistic age many people today say something like that.
But the fact is that all of us are the product of multiple forces that shape us into who we are. I am Stan Mast, son of Herm and Ruth, husband of Sharon and father of Greg and Ben. I am a preacher, a golfer, a reader, a friend, an enemy. All of those relationships and duties mold me, restrict me, enlarge me, modify me, motivate me, control me.
But the God who reveals himself to Moses is not restricted, enlarged, modified, changed or controlled by anything or anyone. So, it is an absolute miracle of grace that such a sovereign God should give his life to save those who are mere creatures of time and space. Why would he do that? “For God so loved the world….”
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, August 30, 2020
Exodus 3:1-15 Commentary