The God who cares - Exodus 3:1-22

This is a sermon by Melvin Tinker from the evening service on 19th October 2003.

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Well it would appear that the sayings of President George W Bush are turning into a nice money spinner for some people. In fact a so called dyslexicon has been published which contains a whole host of the President’s verbal bloomers; such as: ‘I have opinions of my own - strong opinions - but I don't always agree with them’, and ‘It's no exaggeration to say that the undecided could go one way or another.’ and, 'If we don't succeed, we run the risk of failure.' Then there is my all time favourite, ‘Why can’t the Jews and the Arabs sit down and sort things out like good Christians?’ It certainly appears that when the President of the United States speaks in some cases we are permitted to giggle. But what is our reaction to be not to President Bush, but the God of the Bush? What happens when he speaks? Well, then a whole universe is opened up to us which we simply did not know existed before. We find ourselves being embraced by a being so sublime that we are caught up in a joyful surrender to his wisdom and goodness. That is what happens when the God of the bush speaks for that is exactly what happened to Moses. So do turn with me to Exodus chapter 3 and this fascinating account.

The scene begins with a somebody who has become a nobody. The nobody is Moses. At one time of course, he was a very important somebody, a prince of Egypt no less, brought up in the Royal household , educated at the finest university, heading for the top. But that was forty years ago. Now? Well now he is a farm labourer, estranged and isolated in the backside of the desert. He might as well be selling the Big Issue. The only prospect he has to look forward to is another forty years of the same mundane sheep chasing under the watchful eye of his pagan father-in -law. And that is how the day began for Moses just like any other Tuesday, he was out looking for good pasture for his flock. So he wondered into the Sinai peninsular and up onto its higher ranges where green fertile valleys could be found and that is when it happened- an unexpected event in an unexpected place which was not only to change the course of his own life but the course of the entire universe. And what was the event? He was met by the God of the bush.

Of course Moses didn’t immediately realise what was going on at the time. He just happened to see something out of the corner of his eye which was more than a little unusual, a burning bush. But it wasn’t the fact that a bush was burning which caught his attention, like the veldt of South Africa bush fires were quite common, what was different about this was that inspite of the intensity of the fire the bush remained in tact and so in v3 Moses saunters off to investigate. And that is when Moses realises that this is no ordinary Tuesday and this is no ordinary bush, for what we have here is one of those rare occurrences which signals that a major turning point in history has been reached, we have what is called a theophany- a visible manifestation of the invisible God. And the first thing God tells Moses is to stop right where he is- and not to approach him v 5, 'Do not come any closer,' God said. 'Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.' What makes this place special is not the place but the person who occupies the place-God. It is because he is holy that the place is holy. Now what is meant by that little word ‘holy’? The word holy (qadosh) literally means cut off. Let me use an illustration and if you are squeamish you might want to close your ears that this point. If I am helping prepare the dinner with Nigella Lawson and I am busy slicing carrots with a sharp knife and am suddenly distracted because Nigella starts to show me one of her creamy cakes, by accident the knife slips and there goes my finger. At that point my finger has become ‘qadosh’ -holy, separate. Now, that is God- utterly distinct - separate- from anything we can imagine or conceive by virtue of his eternal and infinite being. His moral perfection is such that you do not trip lightly into his presence for that would mark your destruction. You come into the presence of the living God on his terms not he on yours. That is why Moses had to tread lightly and remove his shoes. And if you and I are to really know this God and relate to him then we to need to tread very carefully too and lay all our preconceived ideas and preconditions outside that door. And when we do that we discover that far from being a distant faceless God he is a God who delights in relationships. And this shows itself in three ways.

First, we discover that he is the God with a people v6, ‘He said, 'I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.' At this, Moses hid his face, because he was afraid to look at God.’ Now what is all that about? It is this: the true God is the God who makes and keeps promises - and these promises are called covenants. In other words, he is a God who says what he means and means what he says and is therefore totally reliable. What is more he has a track record of doing this sort of thing , he did it with the father of the Israelite nation- Abraham, promising that not only would he have a son, Isaac, but the whole earth would eventually receive blessing stemming from him. And this is focused further in his descendent Jacob who was given the name ‘ Israel’ from whose 12 sons would come the Israelite nation proper. But the problem being that at this moment in time they are languishing as slaves in Egypt and they have been stuck there now for 400 years! So what happened to the promise? Is it ever going to materialise? But whether it is four weeks, four years or four hundred years God will fulfil his promises in his own way and his own time- there is no shelf life for the promises of God. This God never fails to deliver on his word, there is no ‘reverse gear’ in God and so he is utterly dependable. If he says, ‘Whoever comes to me I will never drive away’ -and he has -John 6:37 - he means it. If he says I will make a great nation from Abraham and the whole earth will be blessed, he will do it, and four centuries in Egypt will not be a barrier to him. That is the first thing it means to be the God with a people- he has proved faithful in the past. So do you trust him?

But there is another implication which gives us hope for the future. To be the ‘God of’ means possessing, being in relationship with people. For me to say, ‘I am the husband of Heather’ means that there is a Heather of which I am the husband. Now this is not to state the blindingly obvious but to make a profound point which so many people in our day desperately need to hear, such as Bee Gee Robin Gibb of ‘Fame Academy.’ Recently he said this about the death of his twin brother Maurice : ‘I can live with Maurice’s death but never get over it. I fear death myself tremendously. The idea of not existing is incomprehensible to me... I walk through graveyards, and read someone is ‘at sleep’ or ‘at rest’. that’s nonsense. He’d be alive if he was ‘at rest’. Reality tells you there is zero after this life. You are gone.’ Now to some extent, of course, he is right. We do fear death, it is incomprehensible not to exist, if a person is at rest they would be alive not dead. Now do you see why what God says here to Moses about being ‘The God of Abraham , Isaac and Jacob’ is so important? Jesus did. In Matthew 21 he had a debate with a group of theological liberal leaders who scoffed at the idea of life after death and he said to them ‘ You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures nor the power of God... have you not read what God said to you (note how a word in the Bible in the past is God’s word for today- to you), ‘ I am the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. He is not the God of the dead but the living.’ Not I was the God of Abraham but I am the God. He is the God to whom Abraham etc. still belongs- he still possesses them, in other words-they live with God. And they live with him because God has made a promise to them to be their God and if they didn’t exists in some way the promise would be null and void. That is why the Christian who loses a loved one in Christ knows that for them death is in fact life, it is seeing the God previously held to by faith. For there to be no life after death, no final resurrection at the end of time, would mean that God failed in his promises and he simply cannot do that. Look, the moment you become a Christian and keep on being a Christian, you will be a Christian for ever. In a trillion years time when all of this is a footnote on the page of history, when exams have come and gone and world powers have risen and fallen - you will still be glorying in the presence of this God because he has promised to keep you- to be the God of Melvin, Nathan, Janet’ just put your name in there.

But secondly, the God of the bush is the God with a heart vv 7-10. The pew Bible is very weak at this point. It should read: ‘ I have certainly seen the affliction of my people in Egypt and I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters and I have known their pains.’ And in v 9 ‘ Now look the screams of the Israelites have come to me and I have seen the oppression with which the Egyptians oppress them.’

This idea of ‘knowing their pains’ is not simply that God is objectively aware of what is going on with the Israelites as he will be aware of the planet Neptune, it carries with it the sense of God somehow entering into the sufferings of his people. That is, he is a God with a heart - empathizing with the mistreatment of those he describes as the ‘apple of his eye.’ He is not a God who stands outside our pains, outside our turmoil's, outside our trials, looking in, but mysteriously he comes into those pains, turmoil's and trials. So what difference does that make? Well, I will tell you what difference it makes. Prisoner 174517 was thirsty. Seeing a fat icicle hanging just outside his hut in Auschwitz extermination camp, he reached out the window and broke it off to quench his thirst. Before he could get the icicle into his mouth, a guard snatched it out of his hands and dashed it to pieces on the filthy ground. 'Warum?’ the prisoner burst out ‘Why?’ The guard answered bluntly,'Hier ist kein warum’,, 'Here there is no why?’ For Primo Levi, the Italian Jewish scientist, the guard’s answer encapsulated the essence of the death camps, they were places which defied all explanation for their absolute evil. In his book , ‘If this is a Man’ , Levi wrote ‘ If there is an Auschwitz then there cannot be a God.’ Forty years later he committed suicide. Now here in this passage we move from the death camps of Auschwitz to just over 3,000 years earlier and the death camps of Egypt and God says ‘ I know the pain of my people, I hear their screams.’ I am concerned about their suffering and I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them out of that land into a good and spacious land.’ Why? Because they somehow deserved it? Hardly, given the first opportunity they ditch this God as fast as they can, as we do, and run after idols like a dog on heat.. It is because he is a God who actually cares. Here he is meeting with Moses not to give him a religious experience to make his dull life more exciting, but a divine commission to rescue his dying people- v10- in other words he is been given a task to proclaim a gospel-good news. You see, it is not as Primo Levi said, ‘if there is an Auschwitz there is no God’, rather if there is no God there is no Auschwitz in that such suffering is ultimately meaningless and the death of 6 million Jews is of no more significant in a godless universe than the death of six million ants- for there is no one to give life ultimate value, no one to declare an act absolutely good or bad, we just are. But here is a God, you see, who shows himself as the moral law giver, who declares such treatment evil, and more than that who takes steps to put things right and who feels for us. Now I don’t know about you but that is the sort of God I can worship. The statue of a Buddha ,sitting in the lotus position smiling benignly on good and evil leaves me cold- the God of the bush practically weeping over his people moves me.

And we know that this a God with a heart because he is also a God with a name and that name tells us something about his character- v 11- 15 ‘But Moses said to God, 'Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?' And God said, 'I will be with you. And this will be the sign to you that it is I who have sent you: When you have brought the people out of Egypt, you will worship God on this mountain.' Moses said to God, 'Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, `The God of your fathers has sent me to you,' and they ask me, `What is his name?' Then what shall I tell them?' God said to Moses, 'I AM WHO I AM. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: `I AM has sent me to you.’'God also said to Moses, 'Say to the Israelites, `The LORD the God of your fathers has sent you.’ Moses begins to resist his calling with a, ‘Who am I’ And you may well think the same. ‘Who am I that I should share my faith with my friends, they can be pretty scary?' ‘ Who am I that I should take on this task as children’s worker or cell group leader’ ‘Who am I?’ Well, the point is not ‘who am I?’ but ‘who is God?’

Note what Moses says in v 13, ‘Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them ‘The God of your fathers sent me, and they ask me ‘What is his name?’ Not whose his name but what is his name. They want to know the character of the God who has spoken to him-the type of God he is. You see, in this culture names meant more than they do today, they were means of representation, not just identification ,expressing the type of person to whom the name was attached .I guess we get something of this in the nick names we use. So if we call someone ‘smiley’ they will be of a sunny disposition, if it is ‘stinky’ well, I leave that to your imagination! But what is given is a verb ‘to be’ in v 14 ‘ ‘I am who I am’ or ‘I will be what I will be.’ What is God saying to us in describing himself in this way? I think it is more than existence: ‘I AM’ , that is pretty obvious if there is a God, there is a God. No big deal there. But the context suggests a different rendering , something like, ‘ I am who is present has sent you .’ Notice how God answers Moses first objection in v 12 ‘I will be with you.’ that is the same verb form as v 14. The stress is on being present with Moses, being with his people. Think about it. When you are having a rough time at work or school because you are wanting to do the right thing because you are a Christian and others want to cut corners, what will make a difference to your attitude and state of mind? To know that God exists or that God is with you? When you have just been told that you have a serious illness and you have to run a debilitating course of treatment, what will help you not only come to terms with the situation but give you strength to go through the situation; to know that God exists somewhere in heaven or is with you on earth? Moses feels he is a nobody and can’t hack it. God is the somebody whose promised presence counters every excuse Moses can come up with. ‘I will be with you’. More than that the verb has a future tense and could be rendered, ‘I will be whatever is necessary for me to be.’ Do the people need a guiding God, he will be their guide. Do they need a God who performs miracles to convince a recalcitrant Pharaoh to change his mind? God will provide the miracles. Do they need a God who gives laws and legislation and leadership to forge a rabble of slaves into a nation unlike any other, then he will be that God. He will be whatever he needs to be to achieve his saving purposes for his people. Isn’t that encouraging?

And eventually this verb, ‘I will be’ becomes a proper name in v 15, ‘ Say to the Israelites ‘The LORD has sent me. This is my name by which I am to be remembered.’ The word rendered LORD is actually ‘YHWH’ It is linked to the verb ‘to be’ . And it is a name which embodies everything that has been said so far. Think of it like this. If I see a man get out of a red van coming to our house with a pile of letters in his hand and I wanted to be long winded about it I could say: ‘This is the man who delivers post to our home’ or on seeing him my eyes could widen and I say more briefly -‘ Ah, postman.’ So instead of saying this is the God who will be whatever he needs to be for you , who is present with you, who cares for you, who rescues you, who makes promises to you and keeps them’, you simply say, ‘YHWH.’ LORD. It is a personal name, not just a title. My name is Melvin, God’s name is LORD.

Can a personal name capture a deep and profound meaning? Well yes it can. A friend of mine was at college where there was a girl a couple of years behind him who had been adopted as a baby and her name was a sort of Indian sounding name ‘Weneedja’ and the name was actually linked to her being adopted. You see, sometimes adopted children can feel undervalued and insecure and so her parents wanted to head that off right at the beginning so they gave her this name, which in its full form would be ‘we- need -you’ which would be cumbersome so they just made it ‘W-e-n-e-e-d-j-a’ -weneedja. What were they trying to say through that name? Well, something like this: ‘You are our adopted daughter whom we dearly love , you are everything to us,. Can you some it up in a word? A name? yes- Weneedja.’ How do you some up the character of God, his love, his power, his presence,- you say YHWH.

In fact now that name has been tied to another name- YHWH Jesus- the Lord Jesus. Jesus is the God who has heard the screams of a world lost in sin, held captive in bondage to Satan, and who was so concerned about our suffering that he came down to rescue us by being taken, beaten, and nailed spread eagled naked to a cross- bearing our judgement and shame in order to redeem us. You say the name Jesus and you capture the sublime majesty of God, the humility of God, the compassion of God, indeed the very presence of God as now risen from the dead, and seated above every rule and demonic power Jesus says, ‘ I will be with you even to the end of the age’ You see unlike Islam, unlike New Age, unlike Hinduism, the one true God is the God who has wounds. It was this which took the Russian writer Dostoevsky to faith through what he called ‘the hell fire of doubt’ . Gazing at the suffering of Jesus as he stood before Hans Holbein’s painting Descent from the Cross, he realised that this was a window into the reality which resides at the heart of the universe. If God could suffer like this ,there could be redemption for anyone. Now, is this the God you profess to worship? Is this the God you say you serve? Because there is no other than the God who has wounds- and you know what? He carries those wounds for you.

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