Exodus 3: The LORD shows himself - 18th May 2014 - Dave Walker

Bible reading: Revelation 1:4-8

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God doesn’t just want us to know that he’s there; he wants us to know him.

A few weeks ago there was a group of Oak Hill students here with us carrying out a community survey, asking lots of questions to people in North Finchley. And one of the things that was striking to them, and to us as they shared their findings with us, was just how many people here in North Finchley say that they believe in God. Sometimes we can have the impression that Britain is largely made up of people who are atheists, that is people who believe that there is no god at all. But actually far more British people believe that there is a god, than those who don’t.

But then when you get beneath the surface, you find there’s a lot of confusion. People define “god” in all sorts of ways; some will say they believe in a personal God one of a range of personal gods, some just say that they believe that there’s “something there.” But it’s not enough to know that God is there; it’s not enough to have ideas of what you think God might be like. Either you know God personally, relationally, or else you don’t. That’s what’s truly important in God’s eyes. God doesn’t just want us to know that he’s there; he wants us to know him.

That’s what we see in today’s section of Exodus. Last week we were thinking about the fact that God is Lord, even when he’s behind the scenes. We saw that as we heard about the situation of God’s people the Israelites in Egypt. On the surface of it having a miserable time, in slavery, under the cosh of Pharaoh, the king of Egypt, who was increasingly and cruelly trying to destroy them. But all the time God was there, turning things upside down, keeping his promises to them which he had made generations ago to Abraham. They were still growing as a nation, their rescuing leader Moses was being raised up and prepared. God was doing all of that behind the scenes.

But if all God did was behind the scenes, we would never know him. We could see the hints of his existence, but that is all. The best we could say is “I have the feeling that there’s someone up there watching over me.” And that’s nowhere near good enough. That’s not relationship with God. If God is going to be in relationship with his people, as he had promised to Abraham, then at some point he needs to step through the curtain and show himself front of stage. Behind the scenes alone will not do.

And that’s where we’re up to as we begin Exodus chapter 3. (p.59)

Exodus 3:1-15  Now Moses was tending the flock of Jethro his father-in-law, the priest of Midian, and he led the flock to the far side of the desert and came to Horeb, the mountain of God.  2 There the angel of the LORD appeared to him in flames of fire from within a bush. Moses saw that though the bush was on fire it did not burn up.  3 So Moses thought, "I will go over and see this strange sight-- why the bush does not burn up."  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."  6 Then 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.  7 The LORD said, "I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering.  8 So I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey--the home of the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites.  9 And now the cry of the Israelites has reached me, and I have seen the way the Egyptians are oppressing them.  10 So now, go. I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt."  11 But Moses said to God, "Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?"  12 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."  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.

So God steps in and shows himself to Moses. He reveals himself, so that Moses can know him. And as ever with God, the big deal is not so much what he looks like as what his character is. That’s why there’s all that stuff about his name here. For us, names are just labels aren’t they? I’m Dave. That’s not because my character is inherently Daveish, it’s just the name my parents gave me. In the Bible names are far more significant; names describe people. If you know someone’s name in the Bible, you have a window on their character.

So Moses asks, doesn’t he, “what is your name?” and in those famous words in verse 14, God says “I am who I am.” That’s my name. I am who I am. It’s the phrase that gets rendered “Yahweh” for short – when you see the word the LORD in capitals in your bibles, that’s this phrase. I am who I am. What does that mean? Well it means at the very least “I get to say who I am”; “I define myself.” God is who God is. He’s not who we say he is; he’s who he says he is.

Now straight away that has an implication for us, doesn’t it? That stuff we were saying at the start about believing in a god, or believing that there’s something out there not being enough. This is why. God says who God is. If you want to know God, he has to show himself to you. You can’t work him out. You can’t put God in any box of your devising. You can’t imagine him, or sit around with a few friends and try to come up with what God is like. You can’t even go to a philosopher or a religious person and expect them to tell you. You have to listen to him. He is who he says he is. No one else gets to define God.

And what God says he is he will always be. If you look at the little footnote ‘b’ at the bottom of page 60 you can see that this phrase ‘I am who I am’ can also be translated ‘I will be who I will be’. It’s both. God is who he says he is and he will not change.

Now this is something that we really need to stop and think about if we’re going to understand what God is saying about himself here. Because this is so not like us. When people say things like “you can’t dictate who I am, I am what I am” or something like that it’s normally a teenage strop, isn’t it? It’s not the result of mature thinking, because the truth is that we are what other people say we are. In so many ways, our role and our identity is cut out for us. We even change from one day to the next, don’t we, to fit in with what other people want us to be. Have you ever noticed that? You’re one person at home with your family, another person altogether when you’re out with your work colleagues. We change all the time. Our character and identity are flexible. God is not like that. He is who he is, always.

I just want to say what a really attractive characteristic that is. On Thursday we had Tom Heriot’s funeral, and one of the great things that was said about Tom there was that Tom was always the same with everyone. That’s a wonderful trait – you know where you are with someone like that. We don’t like slippery fish, chameleons who you can never pin down. God is no spin-doctor. He is who he is, always.  

So much depends on this particular self-revelation of God. This is why God is trustworthy, because he does not change. This is why we can’t take God captive to our personal agendas, because he alone gets to define who he is. This is why it’s worth our while spending time to study an ancient book from the Bible like Exodus; because in it God shows who he is; and he’s the same now as he was then.

That’s all so important. God is who he says he is and he will always be who he says he is. That’s fantastic. But we need to know more than just that, if we will know this God personally. So let’s walk through that encounter with Moses again, and see what God shows us:

Well did you notice that first thing that God says to Moses after he calls his name? Look at verse 5: “Do not come any closer,” God said. “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.” I am holy, says the Lord. Moses can only approach God on his terms. On God’s terms. He can’t just go marching in to God’s presence. God does the inviting, God dictates the terms. Now for some people of some cultures that would seem obvious, but in our society we’re very anti-authoritarian, aren’t we? If there’s one thing we hate it’s pomposity, people being full of themselves. We love to burst the bubble of people like that, and bring them back down to earth. In a way, that’s ok, because after all people do have feet of clay, don’t they. Even the highest ranking people are still people, with all the fragility which that brings. But not God. God is not just another person. We don’t help ourselves if we start thinking that he is. We’re in for a nasty shock if we think that God is somehow obliged to us, as if he owes us anything. We need to be very careful that our attitude to God doesn’t start to fall in line with our society’s attitude to authority. You don’t get matey with God. He not just one of the boys.

God, the LORD is holy. He is so magnificent, so fearsome that you can only approach on his terms. Moses is on holy ground – that’s like God has drawn a line around it and said “mine”. That’s what holy means – set apart for God. Moses has been brought to meet God, God is in charge; this is his event. God is on home turf, Moses – well as soon as he realises who he’s talking to he hides his face, doesn’t he? I wonder, do we have that awe of God? Or have we got too matey? I can’t help but feeling that if we had a real sense of the awe of God, like Moses did, it would a pretty big difference to the way we are when we’re together like this, here to listen to God and meet with him in word and prayer. And it would make a pretty big difference to the way we lived out there too. It would make a pretty big difference to our holiness, don’t you think?

But having seen all this stuff that sets God apart, if you like – his holiness, the fact that he has to show himself to Moses, he has to describe himself to Moses, he dictates the terms for meeting – even with all that God then goes to speak in the most amazingly relational terms about his people.

I am the God of my people. Says the Lord. I am their God. Verse 6: “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.” And he doesn’t just say it here, does he? He repeats it – verse 15, there it is again, verse 16, just the same. God alone gets to say who he is, but at the same time God is quite happy to tie his name to his people. He is their God. God binds his name, his character, his reputation to his people.

God is being amazingly relational here. In a way, that’s what goes with God being so willing to make his name known to his people. You only tell someone your name if you want to be on personal terms with them, don’t you? You don’t tell them your name if you want to remain distant. The Jewish people over time stopped using this name “Yahweh”, because they thought it was too holy, it was presumptuous to speak God’s name like this. But that misses the point here. God is indeed holy, but he is also deeply relational with his people, deeply connected to them, so much that he is happy to be identified with them.

Baptism is such a good illustration of this, actually. When we baptised baby James, we did so in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, didn’t we? It’s we wrote the name of God upon James’ forehead. That’s a good picture of the way God is speaking here. His name is the LORD, the God of his people. He has written his name upon us. It’s almost like a sponsor’s name on a football shirt – the sponsor stakes their name on that football club, so that what happens to that football team reflects on the sponsor. Or like what happens when two people get married and the bride takes his name: she is therefore his family, united to her husband so that what is his is hers. If you are in Jesus Christ, if you are a follower of Jesus, God has written his name on you. He has tied himself to you in the deepest commitment. He has the strongest possible interest in your future. He has staked his name on you.

I think this helps so much with what we mean when we talk about being in relationship with God. Some people really struggle with that phrase because it seems strange. They imagine relationship with another human, a friend or even a boyfriend or whatever, and then they suppose that relationship with God must be like that, and they wonder how that would work. Clearly when we’re talking about relationship with God we’re not just talking about a regular friendship. God is holy, isn’t he? He’s different. He’s not an equal. But he is deeply, deeply committed to his people. This sort of relationship – covenant relationship the Bible calls it – is deeper, more committed, more loving than any other.

And the proof of that is in what he does for his people. Look at verse 7: “The LORD said, "I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering.  8 So I have come down to rescue them…”

This is where God really picks up where we left off last week – the misery of the people in Egypt. Those people, as they suffer, they are not just people. They are His people. God has heard, he is concerned. And he’s not just concerned from afar, he doesn’t just send them a card or a sympathetic text. What does he say? “I have come down to rescue them.” I had a quick paper chase looking at this ways the Bible uses this word ‘come down’ and it seems to refer to two big things: it talks about God coming from on high and it talks about humiliation. The two go together.

This God doesn’t just look down with distant pity, like one of those unmoved pious faces in a renaissance painting. He rolls up his sleeves and gets stuck in. I am the LORD who stoops down to rescue.

We’ve said God is always the same, his character doesn’t change, and so it doesn’t. So it’s no surprise that so many years after this God would fulfil this word in a far greater way even than the rescue from Egypt. As God himself, God the Son, came down. Sometimes people find it hard to square the clearly Trinitarian God of the New Testament with the LORD of the Old Testament. It’s not hard at all.

Exodus 3 is just screaming out that Jesus is coming. Everything here is fulfilled in Jesus. Just think of those things we’ve seen about God today. What did God say his name was? I am who I am. How did Jesus reveal his character? “I am the bread of life; I am the Light of the World; I am the Good Shepherd; I am the resurrection and the life; before Abraham was, I am.” All there in John’s gospel. What about that thing here where God says “I am Holy, you can only approach on my terms.” Again, that’s exactly what Jesus fulfills – what does he say? “I am the way and the truth and the life, no one comes to the Father except through me.” “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” You can only meet God in the way he has chosen, and that is only through Jesus. God has shown up front of stage in Jesus.

And in all that he is the God who stoops down to rescue. He became human like us. He stooped down to our level. He made himself nothing, and took on the very nature of a servant. He humbled himself to death on a cross. He did it to rescue his people. He did it to take away our sin and shame. He did it to break our captivity to evil and death. It’s no coincidence that one of the names most often used in the New Testament to describe Jesus is “the Lord.”

This is our God. He’s not just a bunch of ideas, not a collection of philosophical statements, not just a ‘someone up there.’ He’s glorious, he’s holy, he is deeply relational. And he stoops and bleeds for his people.