St Michael’s and St Barnabas, 21st June 2015
Reading – Exodus 3:1-22
Has is it ever occurred to you how often we use words and phrases without thinking what they mean?
Take, for example, the widespread use of the phrase “no problem”. This is one of my personal bugbears which I find is often repeated by the young folk who operate those call centre helplines. You ring up, explaining some major emergency that has happened in your life. After spending five minutes detailing all the events that have taken place, and making sure the young trainee knows what you are saying, what response do you get? “No problem” – even though the person at the other end may have little idea what to do. Well, of course there’s a problem, otherwise you wouldn’t have rung up in the first place!
Or what about the use of the word “nightmare”? Folks, let’s be clear. A nightmare is a dream about scary spiders, or finding yourself at the front of church with no sermon and no clothes on. It’s not looking in the mirror and discovering your first grey hair, or being held up at traffic lights for five minutes. Those kind of things may upset you and they may cause you inconvenience, but they are not nightmares.
Or what about the use of the word “God”? I hear God’s name being dropped so casually into so many conversations, even by people who would call themselves Christians. For so many people it seems to be little more than a sort of filler in a sentence to express strong emotion. Indeed folk will text one another with the abbreviation OMG without even thinking what they are doing. I would love to invent an app which detects any use of that expression and interrupts with the message, “God calling. How can I help you?” Maybe for some people that would be no problem, but I suspect for others it could well be a nightmare.
So if there’s one thing I want all of us to take away this morning, if you remember nothing else about this sermon, it’s simply this: please be aware of who God is. It sounds a strange thing to say, perhaps, in a church service, but I passionately believe we all need to be more aware of the God we worship, of who He is, what He is like, what He done for us. God is God – not an optional extra or another distraction in our busy, busy lives, but the very essence of our being, to whom we owe everything.
That’s why, if you are able to read a Church Bible, I want you to turn with me to Exodus chapter 3. For this is one of the most important passages in the whole of Scripture which reveals both the name and the nature of the God we worship, and it is directly relevant to how you are going to live your life the moment you step out of the church door this morning.
So let’s look, first of all, at the name of God.
Now names are hugely significant. When we give our cat a name, for example, it shows that we own that cat and that it belongs to us, even if he might question our authority from time to time. When you look at the Bible, you see that when someone is given a name, it comes either from a parent or someone who has authority over them. So, for example, when Jesus looks at Simon the fisherman and gives him the name Peter, it’s a sign that Jesus is claiming authority over Simon and calling him to follow Him. The whole process of naming someone is hugely significant, and indeed we might say that who gives which person a name defines the very relationship between them.
So look closely at our reading this morning, because at the very centre of the passage, in verses 13-15, is a discussion between Moses and God about the name of God:
13 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?” 14 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.'” 15 God also said to Moses, “Say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord, the God of your fathers – the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob – has sent me to you.’ This is my name for ever, the name by which I am to be remembered from generation to generation.
Moses does not give God His name, but asks God to reveal it to Him. That is a massively important point because it tells us that, despite what some people think, God is not a human creation. He is not, as atheists like to believe, the product of our own imagination, or some kind of childhood fantasy – an imaginary friend, perhaps, or a comicbook superhero who comes alive in the pages of the Bible. God exists whether or not we choose to believe in Him. That’s why we have no right to define who He is, and no authority to give Him the name we would like. Instead, all we can do is like Moses ask Him to show Himself to us, and identify Himself.
And what is the name by which God reveals Himself to Moses and to us? At first glance, it may seem like He is speaking in riddles: I am who I am… I am sent me to you. But by calling Himself I am, God is communicating to our limited minds a really vital truth about Himself.
God is. That is what the name, Yahweh, the Lord means. So when He calls Himself “I am” He is telling us that He is always there, yesterday, today, forever. He is not a vague possibility. His name is not “I might be” – a mysterious entity who could be somewhere out there, perhaps sitting on a white fluffy cloud, surrounded by harp-wielding angels. Nor is His name “I used to be” as if the idea of God has reached its sell-by date, the sort of vision of God the author Philip Pullman writes about in his books.
No the name of God is “I am”. So think what that means. God is the great I am, no matter how many or how few people choose to believe in Him. At the moment all the statistics show less and less people call themselves religious. So what? That doesn’t affect for a moment whether God is real. If anything, it only shows the hardness of the human heart. God is the great I am, no matter how many discoveries science may make. So we’ve landed on a comet and we have a few more clues about how life on earth began. Well, that’s great. But it doesn’t tell us anything new about why life on earth began. The answer to that question is still God. And God is the great I am, no matter where we go or what we choose to do. As the psalmist asks in Psalm 139:7-12:
7 Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence?
8 If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
9 If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea,
10 even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast.
11 If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me and the light become night around me,”
12 even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you.
My Bible programme quite rightly titles Psalm 139 with the words, “The inescapable God”. How different would our churches be if we lived every hour, every minute in the knowledge that God the great I am was with us? If we were so aware of His presence that we could only bow down in worship and awe?
Brothers and sisters, there has been much talk in recent days about revival and much argument about what revival is. Is it a week of mission and outreach? Is it services full of songs and preaching? Is it miraculous wonders done in the Spirit? No, revival is about living with the inescapable reality of God. Do you want this church to grow? Do you want your family and friends to know Him for themselves? Then live with the constant reality of God, the great I am. Allow Him to shape and mould your life. Let Him take first place in all that you do. Because Moses’ God is our God, and He is present with us right here, right now.
And what is this God like?
Let’s go back to the beginning of this passage. Moses has been driven out of Egypt because he is wanted for murder. For forty years he has been looking after flocks in the Sinai Peninsula for his father-in-law. He has ended up at Mount Horeb, which we know better as Mount Sinai, a massively significant place in the Old Testament where, as God promises in verse 12, the Lord will appear to the Israelites and give them the Ten Commandments.
Moses of course knows nothing of this at this point. All he knows is there is something very unusual happening to that bush over there. It seems to be on fire, but it is still recognisably a bush. There’s no smoke, no smell of charred wood. So quite naturally he goes over to investigate.
Listen carefully to what happens next:
4 When the Lord saw that he had gone over to look, God called to him from within the bush, “Moses! Moses!” And Moses said, “Here I am.” 5 “Do not come any closer,” God said. “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.”
Now we might ask what God is doing appearing to Moses in a burning bush. Well, the first thing God wants Moses to understand is that He is a holy God. That, as Scripture makes clear from beginning to end, is the first and most essential characteristic of God. We worship a God, in other words, who is totally different from and totally beyond our own limited comprehension.
For a start, because He is not a human creation, He is not bound by the laws of science and nature. He can, for example, set fire to a bush and leave it unharmed. He can, if He so wishes, turn the waters of the Nile into a river of blood. He can bring His own dear son back to life from a cold, sealed tomb. Whatever God chooses to do is really up to Him. He is the Lord over all things, and we can never restrict or define what He is capable of doing.
And what is the significance of the fire? Quite simply, that fire is a symbol of purity. When you want to refine gold, for example, you heat it up until you separate out all the dross and you are left with the genuine 24 carat article. Just as in the same way God Himself is totally and utterly pure. There is no dross, no imperfection in Him. He is absolutely perfect, completely untainted by any wrongdoing or evil.
So how can we get to know such a God like this? If we have a holy God, one who is not bound by our own understanding, one who is completely and utterly flawless, then how can we reach Him?
That’s a question which has dogged humanity for millennia. It’s the reason why every culture in the world has some form of religion. Religion represents our own attempt to try and draw close to a holy God, whether through keeping lots of rules and regulations, or seeking a mystical experience, or detaching ourselves from the cares and concerns of this world. But if God is the God of Exodus, if He is the great I am far beyond our knowledge then how can we ever say we have done enough to please and satisfy Him?
That’s why we also need to take on board the second great truth in this passage, that we worship a God who is also a personal God, a God who takes the initiative to draw close to us and call us by name. God could have just ordered Moses to take off his sandals or to bow down and worship, but before He says anything else, He calls out His name. “Moses! Moses!” He wants Moses to realise that right from the very beginning He has known him and He is aware of everything he has done in his life.
Now we like to think of the idea of a personal God as deeply comforting and in many ways it is. It is good to know that nothing happens to us outside of God’s knowledge. It is good to know He understands our deepest desires and longings. It is good to know He hears and answers our prayers.
But take a moment to consider Moses’ reaction in verse 6: At this, Moses hid his face, because he was afraid to look at God. Why is Moses just so terrified? The answer surely must be that if God knows everything about us, then He knows all about our flaws and imperfections. He knows the inmost thoughts which we try to keep hidden from others. He knows what we dream about and imagine in our idle moments. Or, to use the words of the confession, we have an Almighty God, to whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hidden.
That’s why we also need to take on the third great truth about God from this passage that we have a God who is also a God of our salvation. Because the sad truth, that by our own efforts, no matter how good or religious or honourable we try to be, we all fall short of God’s standards. We need God to come and rescue us from ourselves, and to change us from the inside out according to His own wonderful, undeserved love.
And the wonder and beauty of the good news of Jesus Christ is that is precisely what God the great I am has done for us. Not because we somehow earned His favour, or because He considered us righteous enough. But because He knew we could not live with His holiness and His absolute knowledge about us. So just as in the book of Exodus God promised to Moses that He would rescue the Israelites from physical slavery in Egypt, so God promises to us today that He will rescue us from the spiritual slavery sin through the death and resurrection of His son Jesus Christ.
How do we know God will do this? Because He is the great I am, the one who never changes, the inescapable God who is always there. Yes, I realise that when we read the Bible it can all seem as if the good news was aimed at a different time and at a different place. But God has not gone away. He still promises to save and rescue all those who come to Him through faith in His Son Jesus Christ. He still promises to save and rescue you when you call on His name.
Now I realise I have covered a lot of ground this morning. I feel like I have only touched the surface of his passage and yet I realise your head may still be spinning. So to sum up, let me repeat what I said earlier: revival is living with the inescapable reality of God. And my one challenge to you today is quite simply this: will you live with reality of God’s presence with you this week? When you are at work or at home? When you are alone or with family and friends? When you are awake or asleep? Recognise that wherever you are, whatever you do, God the great I am is with you, the holy, personal God who thanks to Jesus Christ is also the God of your salvation. And just see what He is able to do with our lives when we truly surrender to Him and let Him be God.
For the sake of His name and to the praise of His glory. Amen.