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Sunday, February 6, 2011

The Mission of God (Exodus 3.10-22)

Sermon by: Robert Austell
February 6, 2011
Some Music Used 
Prelude: "The God of Abraham Praise" (Page)
Hymn: "The God of Abraham Praise" (LEONI)
Anthem: "Go Down, Moses" (Men's Ensemble; arr. Hogan)
Offertory: "Adagio" (J.S. Bach)
Communion Hymn: "Behold the Lamb" (Getty and Townend)
Hymn of Sending: "We Will Glorify" (T. Paris)

The Mission of God
Texts: Exodus 3:10-22

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Today we continue the story of Moses in Exodus with what is probably the best-known part of the story other than the parting of the Red Sea: the burning bush. Having said that, I don’t know if you are feeling this, but I am realizing that I didn’t know Moses’ story as well as I thought. For one, Exodus is much better called “God’s story” – because it becomes clear that God is the prime mover in this story, not Moses. That is only going to become more evident in today’s text.

And I will also admit that when I thought of the burning bush story, about all I thought of was the fact that God talked out of a burning bush that was not burning up. What we will focus on today, and what we SHOULD focus on, is not the miracle of a bush that won’t burn up, but the identity of the One speaking from the bush and the content of what He says.

That mistaken focus is one that’s easy to make. It’s easy to focus in on the worship team or the choir or the organ and start thinking, “I liked the sound of that” or “I didn’t like the sound of that” and miss altogether the message. I know Jesus had the same issue with his miracles. People came to see more of the fancy stuff, but often missed what he was trying to show or say.

So, I invite you to listen and look past the burning bush to the real miracle in this story: the infinite, all-powerful, unknowable, sovereign God of the universe speaking to a man and revealing His personal name and purpose in a time and place in human history. It may be – it is our prayer and hope – that the same thing might even happen today through hearing God’s Word.

I AM (v. 14)

Verse 14 is one of the most significant verses of scripture. It is where God reveals His name. It is a personal name, but not just a name like Harold or Elizabeth, but one that is self-revealing, purposeful, and in many ways our means of knowing and interacting with God.

Now, this naming of God doesn’t happen in a vacuum. God speaks His name in reply to a question from Moses. Where we left off last week, Moses had not only been redeemed IN exile with the blessing of a home, family, and livelihood; but at the burning bush, God was redeeming Moses FROM exile and calling him back into service and ministry. But Moses had questions. “Who am I to go to Pharaoh?” he asks in verse 11. “What will I say to the sons of Israel?... I can say I represent the God of Abraham, but they know my treachery and sin. They will question me. They will want proof that I come from you. What will I tell them?”

God answers both those questions and much more. To the first, “Who am I?” the answer is, “It’s not about you!” God’s response is, “I will be with you.” (v. 12) For the second question, “Who shall I say sent me?” God puts a name to His traditional identity with the Hebrews, “The God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” (v. 15) God speaks His name and tells Moses to use it: the LORD. See, it’s there after “Thus you shall say to the sons of Israel…” in verse 15. Whenever you see “the LORD” in your Bible – in most English translations it’s in all caps – that is the name God gave to Moses. And as that verse finishes: this is God’s name forever, God’s memorial-name to all generations.

So let me take a moment to talk about the Name.

When you see LORD in all caps in your Bible (most translations), that is the English translation for the Hebrew letters YHWH (הוהי). God’s name is a verb, like “SAVE” or “HEAL”; but not just any verb, it is the verb ‘to be’. There in verse 14 when God says, “I am who I am” the Hebrew is EHYEH (היהא), first person of ‘to be’ which is “I am.” And it’s an interesting construction. Where I would introduce myself with, “I am Robert,” God says, “I am I AM.” Then in verse 15 and following, when God is referred to in the 3rd person, the Hebrew becomes the more familiar YHWH, which literally is “He is.”

What does it mean for “I am” or “He is” to be God’s name? For one, God is the eternally existing One – the One without beginning or end. And God is both self-existent and creator-sustainer, not dependent on anything else for his own existence and also the creator and originator of all else. There is also an overlap in meaning, because EHYEH can also be future tense. God’s name can also mean “I will be who I will be” – future and present are without distinction because God is timeless as well as eternal.

All of that is true, but what is especially personal and poignant in this passage is that God is pledging Himself to His people. God equates His eternal “I AM” name with the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. What is especially personal and meaningful in this context is that God is saying, “I AM still your God, as I was for your fathers; I am not going anywhere; and I will save you.”

And finally, while this is a side note to all of the above, you can begin to understand perhaps why the Hebrew people so revered the self-revealed name of God. It came to be that they would not speak it aloud, but would instead call God Adonai, which is “the Lord.” And when the Hebrew scriptures began to be written, they would print the letters YHWH, but instead of putting the vowels for the name with it, they would put the vowels for Adonai, and that combination is what the English translators picked up as “Jehovah.” To this day, Jewish people honor and guard the name of God, and while Jesus has given us freedom to speak the Name (Yahweh), I urge you to never speak or use it casually.

Okay, one more important note. With all this as background, it is especially meaningful to read the Gospel of John and realize how often Jesus links himself with the revealed Name of God. In fact, we have a Sunday school class this semester focusing on the “I AM” sayings of Jesus. Even if you are not a part of that class, read through John sometime and circle all the times Jesus says “I am” – then notice what follows. All of those are divine claims and further reveal the character and nature of God as incarnated in Jesus.

I Will Bring You Up (v. 17)

So there is a lot going on there just in terms of God revealing Himself to Moses, and by extension to His people and to us. And remember the whole context of holy ground. In the verses just before this, which we looked at last week, we saw that God instructed Moses to take off his shoes because of the holiness of God’s presence. And Moses could not look directly at the bush because of the presence of God convicting him of his sinfulness.

And yet God giving His name is not all that is going on here. In fact, most of the verses in today’s text had more to do with what God was doing and was about to do, which is deliver His people.

The text opens with God telling Moses He was going to send him to Pharaoh. Then, after the giving of the Name, God continues with calling and instruction to Moses. This picks up in verse 16: “Go gather and speak to the elders of Israel…” The message was to say that God has not forgotten them, does remember the covenant, and is about to bring them up out of the affliction of Egypt to the Land of Promise (v. 17). And then God outlines the obstacles and journey that lies ahead, that will unfold in detail in the chapters to come.

What I want to highlight here again is two-fold: 1) God’s purpose to deliver His people has not been undone by the sins of His people, by the sins of Moses, or by the evil of Pharaoh; and 2) God was pleased to redeem and use the exiled Moses to accomplish His purpose. Again, from past weeks: God’s purpose endures – like His name, God will do what God purposes to do! And whatever your story, or choices, or past, God loves you and is not done with you. If you will come, God will use you in what He is doing in the world.

Finally, this text is such a great reminder that mission is not about us, but about God. Moses’ “Who am I?” in verse 11 is exactly right. Who am I… who are you… to save the world or help the helpless or shine in the darkness? But God is! That is His Name: Yahweh… He is… God is.

And the incredible claim of this text is that God IS and God DOES. Not, “Who am I and what can I do?” but God IS and God DOES… and I’m with God!

Worship and Mission

I was asked this past week to come speak to one of the most dynamic and faithful committees of our presbytery (the collection of Presbyterian churches in metro Charlotte and surrounding eastern counties). This particular committee is charged with “church development,” which includes planting new churches, encouraging and developing existing churches, and working for transformation of struggling churches. They do great work.

They asked me to come share for an hour about what God was doing at Good Shepherd and how that might apply to ministry and life at the presbytery level. And so I was honored to go and share our story.

I told them about our desire to be a lighthouse, to be visible in our neighborhood and community as a stable and guiding beacon for Christ, a sanctuary and harbor in the midst of a dark and lonely world, that we might winsomely share the Good News of Jesus with them.

I told them about our desire to be a searchlight, not content to huddle inside the walls, but press out into our neighborhood to be good neighbors in the biblical sense of the word, to carry the light and life of Christ into dark and lonely places.

And I shared some of our journey, from challenges and obstacles to lessons learned to successes and signs of faithfulness that I see in our life together.

And someone asked me how we got focused in this direction. And I had to ponder that. These ideas are very popular nowadays – it’s called “being missional.” But the danger of reading about a movement, however faithful it might be, is that you turn it into a program or you imitate someone else, and the actions get cut off from the source. It becomes “who am I and what am I supposed to do?”

And here’s the interesting connection I made – and perhaps I only could have made it in the week I was studying and preaching on the burning bush. I hadn’t heard of “missional” anything when I came here and when I started talking about lighthouses and searchlights. In fact, when I came here, my head and heart were immersed in worship. Really, they still are – that was the subject of my dissertation, but more than that, what I believe to be at the core of our existence. It’s all about God and we are made for worship.

What I think happened was this: you and I have been so drawn to the Lord in worship – the “I AM” – that we have increasingly come to see what God is doing, that God is at work in the world and is seeking and saving the lost. God is out among our neighbors and in the dark and lonely places all around us. And as we draw near to “God IS” we become a part of “God DOES” because God brings us along.

When we worship in Spirit and Truth, we come before the burning bush and a God who reveals Himself to us, and it is God who calls us to come along with Him as He goes down into Egypt.

That’s why we ask: What is God doing and how can we be a part?

That is worship and it’s all about the God we love and serve. Amen.

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