Scripture: Exodus 3:1-15 (NRSV)
Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. Then Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.” When the LORD saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” Then he said, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” He said further, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.
Then the LORD said, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the country of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.” But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” He said, “I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain.”
But Moses said to God, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’” God also said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘The LORD, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you’:
This is my name forever,
and this my title for all generations.
Introduction: On Holy Ground
When you exit the London Underground’s Westminster station, it is easy to be overcome with the grand sight before you. You stand before two magnificent gothic structures: the Palace of Westminster immediately before you—home to the houses of Parliament and the belltower enclosing Big Ben—and Westminster Abbey just to its right, across Parliament Square. You immediately feel tiny and in the presence of greatness. If you step inside Westminster Abbey, the feeling of smallness amid grandeur is even more compounded. The architecture itself is meant to draw our eyes heavenward and signal that we are standing in the presence of God. I experienced this four years ago, and it is overwhelming to behold—and you know me: there’s nothing I enjoy more than magnificent art. Yet for all the wondrous beauty of that towering Gothic architecture, perhaps the smallest I’ve felt and most in awe of God has been standing on the beach of a South Georgia island in the dark of a moonless night during my senior year of college, staring up at a million stars stretched out above the vast ocean.
For Moses, the awe comes not from towering buildings nor the cathedral of the heavens but from a solitary bush alight with a holy blaze yet undestroyed. The story of this remarkable encounter shows us many things, but there are four observations about God’s character that I want to point out today. And as revelatory as these are here to the people of the Old Covenant, they take on an even greater significance for us as the people of the New Covenant, the people of Christ.
Observation 1: God is holy, but uses the humbled
God tells Moses to come no closer and take off his sandals because he is standing on holy ground. Sandals removed, hiding his face out of fear, Moses stands there wholly exposed and vulnerable in the presence of perfect holiness. And there, the God of the universe speaks to this runaway murderer. No, we need not forget that Moses, in the last chapter, had killed an Egyptian and fled from Pharaoh’s wrath to Midian, where he has now lived for many years. That very sin-stained exile now stands enveloped by God’s holiness. And just as the bush is not consumed by God’s holy fire, somehow, neither is Moses.
In fact, God says he will use Moses—this Egyptian-adopted Hebrew with a criminal record and, as the next chapter would suggest, even a lack of public speaking skills—to lead all of Israel out of Egypt. Moses rightly replies, “Who am I” to do this? And God doesn’t give him some speech saying, “Aw, Moses, you’re special. You’re better than you give yourself credit for. I believe in you.” No, God doesn’t challenge Moses at all on his suitability for the task. Like all of us, Moses is far from perfect—we “all fall short of the glory of God.” As often happens, God works through the weak, the despised, and the outcast—those who have been brought low by their own circumstances.
In the New Testament, we see this in Jesus’ choice of apostles—rough-hewn fishermen and a despised tax collector amongst them and, long after the resurrection, a Pharisee who has persecuted and murdered the church. It is by using these ragamuffins that the Lord’s words to St. Paul when he prays for relief from his “thorn in the flesh” are most on display, “My power is made perfect in weakness.”
Our weakness may be the theme that sticks out to us most here in the season of Lent, when we intentionally recognize that we rely only on the Lord’s provision, fasting and giving up luxurious foods to remind ourselves that he is our only sustenance. And if you’re anything like me, there are always a few slip-ups with those Lenten goals, further emphasizing the point (alas, I was lured astray recently by some Skittles at a movie theater!). All of this humbles us, forcing us to recognize our own imperfect state and ensuring that what happens in Moses’ scenario is what always must happen: God himself does the work.
Observation 2: God is for us
Why does God do the work? Why is he here talking to Moses? Because God loves his people. He says, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey.” And these were a people already prone to sinfulness, disobedience, and unfaithfulness. But God does not forget the one-sided covenant he made with Abraham, the covenant he put Abraham to sleep for because he knew that Abraham and his descendants were fallen people and unable to keep perfect faithfulness. He acts in love to save his people from captivity in Egypt, and for this very same love, he gives his only son to save us from captivity to sin and bless us with eternal life.
Observation 3: God is known to us
But what kind of God are we dealing with here? Why should we trust him? Perhaps we, like Moses in this chapter, need assurance. Maybe we, like Moses, are aware of our own frailties and the hardness of the world around us. Who is this God to reassure us? The Israelites have been in Egypt for generations, surrounded by dozens of gods, and no one even knows this God’s name. They only know he’s the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
But here, God reveals his very name to Moses and, through him, to the people of God for the first time. God said to Moses, “I Am Who I Am.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I Am has sent me to you.’” God also said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘The LORD, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.’”
God’s name, I Am, invokes his very eternality. This is not some temporal god who has been created by the hands of men. This is the creator God, who is and always has been. And, likewise, something we often miss in our English translations is that when we read “The LORD” there, that is Yahweh. This is the covenant name of God used throughout the Old Testament, but which is first revealed to the people of Israel here. Hebrew scholars tell us it roughly means He Is; there is even an implication of being with, being present. From its frequent word pairings, one can even easily infer, He Is With His People. Our God is one who always was, always is, is to come, and who is fully present.
God isn’t finished revealing himself, though. While he reveals his name—his identity—to the people of Israel here at the burning bush, God has one more revelation of himself coming, though it will take a few more centuries. The first chapter of the Gospel of John tells us that it is Jesus Christ who has made God known. Jesus—the Word of God—has dwelt, or tabernacled, among us. What was spoken to Moses became flesh and blood in Jesus, and he claims it. In a heated discussion with the scribes and Pharisees later in John, Jesus explicitly claims the name of God, saying, “Before Abraham was, I Am.” This phrasing is not an accidental grammatical error of someone who didn’t learn their verb tenses in school. No, this is God incarnate claiming his own name, a blasphemy for anyone who wasn’t Yahweh come in the flesh. And later, in his glorious Revelation to St. John, he makes abundantly clear, “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and end… who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.” This is our God, our forever king, and he’s not going anywhere.
Observation 4: God is with us
God tells Moses, “I will be with you.” It is remarkable to have the God of the universe on your side, and we see this on full display over the following few chapters. Indeed, God is Israel’s steady guide over the next forty years in which they wander in the desert—one of the many episodes we remember in the 40 days of Lent. He leads them with a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night, feeding them with manna from heaven. However, as Christians, we not only stand in the presence of God, with him going before us and guiding us, but we have what the Israelites did not: his very Spirit inside us. Because Christ died for us, rescuing us from sin and imparting his holiness to us, he could then send the Holy Spirit of God to dwell within us as our counselor, something we will celebrate in just a couple of months at the Feast of Pentecost.
While the Israelites spent forty years with God guiding them with a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night, with his bread from heaven their sustenance, God guides us by placing his Holy Spirit inside of us and feeding us with Christ as our very bread of life, which we encounter in an extraordinary way even today here at his table.
So, what do we do with this? We preach to ourselves. When we feel discouraged or when the devil’s lies speak to us that God doesn’t love us, won’t use us, or has outright abandoned us, we should find comfort here in the scriptures. The very God who loved the Israelites loves his church enough to endure death for her. The holy God who used a criminal exile to lead his people to freedom then used flighty fishermen, tax collectors, and even a persecuting Pharisee to spread his gospel will use you and me today. The God who led the people of Israel out of Egypt and guided them through the desert with a cloud by day and a fire by night now leads his people by placing his Holy Spirit within us. And this very God reigns forever and ever because he is forever and ever, world without end. Amen.
(Cover image: detail from Sébastien Bourdon, Burning Bush, 17th Century)
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