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Sunday, February 27, 2011

Mission Setbacks (Exodus 5)

Sermon by: Robert Austell
February 27, 2011
Some Music Used 
Prelude: "Be Thou My Vision/My Shepherd Will Supply My Need"
(arr. Adams; Susan Slade - flute)

Hymn of Praise: "When Israel Was in Egypt Land" (GO DOWN MOSES)
Song of Praise: "I Have a Shelter" (Steve and Vicki Cook, and Kauflin)
Anthem: "This Lonesome Valley" (arr. Besig)
Offertory: "In the Valley" (Kauflin)
Hymn of Sending: "It is Well With My Soul" (arr. Austell)

Partners in Mission
Text: Exodus 5

(download) **Sermon audio is also accessible as a free podcast in iTunes - search for "Good Shepherd Sermons or Robert Austell"**

Sometimes the actual sermon varies significantly from the printed manuscript.  This is one of those cases.  I commend the audio to you in this case.

We left off last week at the end of Exodus 4. Moses had finally undertaken the mission to Egypt. He and Aaron had delivered God’s message and signs to the elders of Israel, and they had believed and bowed low in worship of Yahweh.

In chapter 5, Moses and Aaron go to see Pharaoh, the king of Egypt. And they are there, not yet to ask for the people to be set free, but simply to ask that they be allowed a few days of worship to their God in the wilderness. From there, things start to go terribly wrong and we end the chapter with the elders and people of Israel, as well as Moses, questioning where God is and what, if anything, He is doing.

So today, we will consider the topic of “mission setbacks” – that is, what sorts of things stand in the way of our trusting and obeying God, and how will we respond when we have setbacks.

Belief and Worship (Ex. 4:31)

I won’t repeat last week’s sermon, but will simply note that the elders and people of Israel received Moses and Aaron and the message and signs of the Lord with faithful worship. It was a high point and an answer to long, long prayers.

I imagine many of you know both that experience and what followed. You have cried out to God for help and it finally seems to come – you find new work, or a relationship is mended, or your health improves; and then… it doesn’t last. In fact, sometimes things get worse.

And as encouraging and faith-building as seeing prayers answered was, it is all the more devastating to see things unravel and reverse.

This is common in the human experience. Said another way, once one becomes a Christian, life does not become an unbroken series of ever-increasing blessings. Christians experience highs and lows just like any person, and even our prayers are not answered with an unending series of ‘YES!’

That is one of several explanations of what we experience, that sometimes God says ‘no’ or ‘wait’ to our prayers. But what happens in today’s text is another situation that I believe is also common to our experience. Sometimes there is opposition to God’s purpose in our lives. Let’s look at what that opposition is in the story, and we’ll also consider forms of opposition that we encounter.

Conflict and Opposition (vv. 1-5)

Moses and Aaron come to Pharaoh in verse 1. They name Yahweh (the Lord) as the “God of Israel” and ask for the people to be released from work to go observe a feast in the wilderness. Pharaoh immediately objects and opposes them and this idea. Initially, his response is “Who is Yahweh?” – in other words, Egyptians had and worshiped many gods, and Pharaoh had not heard of this god. His response reminds me of Moses’ early objection, “Who am I (for anyone to listen to me)?” God’s answer to Moses was that it would be God’s name and reputation at stake, not Moses’, and so it is.

But Pharaoh doesn’t pause before saying, “…besides, I will not let Israel go.” It didn’t really matter if he had heard of Yahweh or not; he wasn’t going to let them go. The more basic conflict here was that Pharaoh thought of himself as a god, and no concern of any other (lesser) god was going to inconvenience him.

Moses and Aaron pressed further in v. 3 to say that there might be bad consequences for Israel if they couldn’t observe the feast (this would have been a common understanding of feasts to please the gods). Pharaoh is unmoved; if anything, his subsequent reaction may have been to demonstrate that his pleasure or displeasure was greater than this Hebrew God’s; perhaps the Hebrews should have paid more attention to what Pharaoh wanted – their labor and productivity for his cause.

There are multiple sources of this Pharaoh-like opposition that you and I might face. The first is other people who might actively oppose God’s purposes. Mind you, I’m not talking about people who simply annoy or trouble you. I realize those are not hard to find either. But I’m talking specifically about opposing God and His will in your life. This would be a kind of persecution and of the kinds of faith-related opposition you and I face in this country, this may be the least common. Certainly elsewhere in the world, this is more common.

What may be more common in our experience is what I would describe as “spiritual opposition.” Scripture points to one called the Accuser or Adversary, or Satan, as being like a lion prowling and waiting to devour. Satan is called the prince of the power of this world and actively works against God’s purposes. In many ways, Pharaoh reminds me of Satan, viewing himself as the king of this realm and actively opposed to God’s intrusion into it. Just as Satan is known to accuse believers falsely, Pharaoh accuses the Israelites of being lazy rather than faithful in wanting the time away to worship the Lord.

In this story, I think Pharaoh’s opposition most closely aligns with the spiritual opposition of Satan, but I want to mention one other spiritual obstacle that we also commonly face. That is ourselves. When we view ourselves as little kings and queens of our own realm, and come to see God’s Word or Will as inconvenient or contrary to our own plans, we set ourselves up to be Pharaoh, standing against God’s purpose in our life. It is entirely possible to be our own Pharaoh and our own worst enemy.

Whatever the particular form of spiritual opposition is, the result can be real trouble and suffering.

Trouble and Suffering (vv. 6-19)

Pharaoh gave the order to do the impossible. The Hebrews would no longer be provided with straw to make their bricks, but would have to scrounge on their own to find ‘stubble’ to help hold the bricks together. But their daily quota would remain the same. Impossible! There was something godly, or pseudo-godly, about the order. And no one questioned the impossibility of it. I remember the line from the old movie, “So shall it be written; so shall it be done.” No one questioned Pharaoh, even if the command was impossible. And so the taskmasters and foremen passed the word down and the people labored to do what was demanded.

There is an interesting parallel here. God gave Moses signs to show that he spoke for the Lord. Moses was do demonstrate these “impossible” or miraculous signs. And Pharaoh gave an impossible order to demonstrate his authority and power. This is just the beginning of what will become a huge showdown between the power of this world and the power of God. Later Pharaoh will try to match plague after plague with demonstrations of his own power, but eventually he will fail.

While today’s topic is not the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart, recognize that this is not God unfairly turning an average nice guy against him. This is God confronting one of the major powers of this world and demonstrating that power, evil, and oppression will not overthrow or undo His purpose in the world.

The people of Israel had already been oppressed and crushed prior to Moses showing up in the first place. Then they had responded with so much hope and faith to the news that the Lord had heard their cry and was going to deliver them. Seeing that promise seemingly destroyed and being pressed even harder by the accusations and power of their earthly opponent produced a further crisis of faith.

I know many of you have been there before. Finally, a light at the end of the tunnel, then darkness. Where is God now? Where is faith?

Doubt and Discouragement (vv. 20-23)

The Israelites turned on Moses and Aaron, pronouncing a curse: “May the Lord look upon you and judge you!” (v. 21) Can you really blame them? As one who is seen as speaking for the Lord, I have heard and felt that anger before. And I understand it. Know, too, that I have played the part of Moses, who takes that disappointment and frustration to the Lord: “O Lord, why have you brought harm to this people? Why did you ever send me?” (v. 22)

Again, we will stop here with the text, because that’s how life feels sometimes. We don’t get to rush ahead to the next chapter and see what happens next. We are stuck in the trouble and suffering, in the doubt and discouragement, for a season. But my hope is that hearing someone else’s story – Israel’s story – and having some inkling of God’s larger story, can give you a glimmer of hope and faith as to what God is doing in your own life.

Remember the overarching theme of Exodus? God has a purpose for His people and for the world and is not sidelined, undone, or thwarted by sin or evil, whether that of human beings, earthly powers, or even spiritual powers like Satan, the Accuser. What we will see is not just that Pharaoh won’t win in the end, but that in the unfolding of the story, from suffering to hope to disappointment to conflict and showdown to deliverance, that God will be glorified through each part of that. Against Pharaoh’s power and stubbornness we will see all the more how patient, powerful, and faithful God is to His people.

So, what can you and I learn in the midst of this unfolding story, particularly if we are in a place of trouble, suffering, doubt, or discouragement? For one, that if you are not there yet, it may come, for until Jesus comes, Satan will oppose God and accuse His followers. And, we are prone to making ourselves into mini-gods and undermining our own part in God’s purpose. But know, too, that if and when the trouble and suffering come, if and when it results in doubts or discouragement, know that God is not done and is not overcome, but is still at work in the world and in your life to accomplish His purposes for His glory.

God can handle your anger and doubts; that even lets me know that you are still thinking of and perhaps talking to God. But guard against indifference or unbelief. Keep talking and praying, for God hears your prayer and sees your suffering. And know that today is not the end, nor does the Accuser or the powers of this world have the last word in your life. That is Good News, even in the midst of the shadows. Amen.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Partners in Mission (Exodus 4.14-31)

Sermon by: Robert Austell
February 20, 2011
Some Music Used 
Prelude: "Simple Gifts" (Shaker/Martin)
Song of Praise: "Come, All Christians, Be Committed" (Folk arr. Austell)
Song of Praise: "Hear the Call of the Kingdom" (Gospel arr.) (Getty/Townend)
Hymn of Sending: "We All Are One in Mission" (LANCASHIRE)
Postlude: "I Love Thy Kingdom, Lord" (Williams/Sikes)

Partners in Mission
Texts: Exodus 4:14-31

(download) **Sermon audio is also accessible as a free podcast in iTunes - search for "Good Shepherd Sermons or Robert Austell"**

Sometimes the actual sermon varies significantly from the printed manuscript.  This is one of those cases.  The basic verse by verse explanation is the same, but after writing the manuscript I realized God provided three partners (Aaron, Jethro, Zipporah) and I organized the sermon more around those partnerships.  I commend the audio to you for that reason.

Today we are still at the burning bush, though partway through the text (v. 18) Moses leaves that place. God has revealed His holy name and mission to Moses, and called him into service to carry a message to Egypt. Moses has offered several excuses: “Who am I? Why would they believe me? What if they don’t listen? I am not a good speaker.” And God has answered each excuse, nonetheless choosing this weak and imperfect man as the one He will send. The basic point of all we’ve studied so far in Exodus is that God doesn’t just call people who are talented and have their life together. Rather, God knows you fully, hasn’t given up on you, wants you, and will use you if you will listen and obey. And God will equip and qualifies you for what He asks you to do.

So at the end of last week’s text and all God’s answers, Moses basically says to God, “I’m out of excuses, but can you just find someone else.” And that’s where today’s text picks up.

Partner #1: Aaron (vv. 14-17)

At this last reply from Moses, the anger of the Lord burned against Moses. (v. 14) And yet God continues speaking and responding: “Is there not your brother Aaron the Levite? I know that he speaks fluently.” But this isn’t just anyone brainstorming after a rejection. This is God, and He adds, “And moreover, behold, he is coming out to meet you; when he sees you, he will be glad in his heart.” (v. 14)

Do you get all that? Not only is God sufficient for all Moses’ weakness, He has already stirred Aaron’s heart to come visit his exiled brother before Moses had even heard God’s words. God already knew and had already begun to provide. And this wasn’t just about having a good speaker on the team; Aaron seeking Moses out and being glad to see him was part of God’s full redemption of the exiled Moses who had fled everything and everyone forty years earlier after he committed murder. God had redeemed him IN exile and now was redeeming him OUT OF exile.

So in response to Moses’ excuses and fear, God provides a partner in mission: one who is strong where Moses is weak, and one who is a living reminder to Moses of how God found, forgave, and redeemed him for this work. Then God details how the partnership will work: Moses will tell Aaron what to say, and Aaron will do the public speaking, while Moses will perform the miraculous signs. Aaron would be the public mouthpiece of Moses just as Moses was the public representative of the Lord.

Partner #2: Jethro (vv. 18-20)

In verse 18, Moses leaves the place of the burning bush and goes to seek his father-in-law’s blessing to return to Egypt. Remember that Jethro was the one who took Moses in, gave him his daughter Zipporah for marriage, and gave him land and herds to tend. In a significant sense, Jethro was another one of the partners God provided to Moses as He redeemed him, first in exile, then out of exile. Jethro responds with blessing, saying to Moses, “Go in peace.” (v. 18) Some of the most important partnerships we can know come from someone standing behind us blessing us with support and peace on our way!

It’s easy to miss the break between the burning bush and the rest of this chapter, but note that God continues communicating with Moses after he has left the burning bush. After Moses left and went to Jethro, the Lord returned with more: verse 19 even notes that God is speaking to Moses “in Midian.” And the Lord says, “Go back to Egypt, for all the men who were seeking your life are dead.” So God extends blessing over Moses as well, on top of all the instructions that came at the burning bush.

And Moses takes his wife and sons (he has two now), and leaves Midian for Egypt, with a message from God for the elders of Israel and the promise of meeting up with Aaron to be his spokesman.

Partner #3: Zipporah (vv. 21-26)

At the burning bush, God did mention that Moses would eventually speak to Pharaoh about letting the Hebrew people go; but most of the conversation at the bush had to do with Moses speaking to the Hebrew elders. But now, God speaks again to Moses to remind him of what comes after talking to the elders.

At the burning bush (ch. 3), God had already indicated that Pharaoh would not let the Hebrew people go, even after a number of miracles. What the Lord tells Moses next kind of jumps to the end of the story – the Lord views Israel as His “firstborn son.” (v. 22) So, Pharaoh’s unwillingness to release Israel will ultimately cost the life of Pharaoh’s firstborn son.

The details of Moses speaking to the elders of Israel will be described in chapters 5-6, which we will look at in coming weeks. Then, the drawn out interaction with Pharaoh, with all the plagues and releasing and changing of his mind, will be described in chapters 7-11.

But the Lord’s words to Moses here help give us both an overview and an explanation of what is going on and why the stakes are so high. This is important to understand when we get to what comes next in the story, which is often seen as a mysterious and unrelated story out of nowhere. It is anything but that!

I’m talking about vv. 24-26. Moses and his wife and sons are on the way to Egypt from Midian and stop at a lodging place along the way. And there, the Lord shows up and tries to kill Moses! What in the world? Or maybe the Lord shows up to kill Moses’ son – it’s not clear from the wording alone. Then Zipporah cuts off the foreskin of her son and touches it to Moses’ feet. Finally, she says to Moses, “You are a bridegroom of blood.” What in the world?!

This is not the main thrust of this chapter, so I will just summarize what I think is going on here. God has finally laid it all on the line to Moses – he has the full mission assignment as well as the promise of God’s full blessing and help. And the stakes are as high as they get – it is God’s firstborn son, Israel, at stake; and the Pharaoh’s refusal to help will ultimately cost him his own son’s life. And all this is coming about because God is faithful to the covenant with Abraham.

The sign of that covenant was circumcision. And the punishment for failing to circumcise your son was death, because that failure indicated that you were excluding him from the covenant, which was a spiritual rejection of God and His promises (ultimately what Pharaoh would do when faced with God’s Word). For whatever reason – perhaps lack of faith or perhaps marrying into a non-Hebrew family – Moses had not circumcised his own son. It must have come up, because Zipporah knew exactly what needed to be done and why. God had not pressed the point previously – perhaps because Moses was in the midst of being rescued and reminded of the covenant himself. And then there were all the excuses and God’s reassurances and provisions and equipping. But now, on the way to deliver the message as a representative of God’s covenant faithfulness, the messenger was about to show up not as a Hebrew, but as an Egyptian, with family who had not been marked as belonging to God. So before they went any further, God confronted Moses. Likely it was Moses whom God was holding accountable, since it was the father’s responsibility to circumcise the son.

Thankfully, Zipporah knew what needed to be done and why. She was yet another partner God brought alongside Moses to equip and qualify him for the mission, even if she was an ‘outsider.’ Her swift and faith-filled action saved Moses’ life. Her action also vividly foreshadows the Passover, in which the blood of a lamb was placed on the doorpost of the houses of the Hebrew families to mark them as covenant keepers. And so by her faithful action she and her family are brought into the covenant.

Interestingly enough, we find out later in Exodus that at this point Zipporah and the sons return to Midian; but they will rejoin Moses later in the wilderness near Mt. Sinai. Even as Aaron began journeying to Moses before Moses asked for someone to help him speak; so God led Moses to Zipporah years beforehand, even when he was an outlaw and exile, and she became the partner who saved his life and returned him into the covenant family of God!

Mission Accomplished, pt. 1 (vv. 27-31)

Finally, in the last part of this chapter, Aaron connects up with Moses and they get together on the mission God had for them. They gather together the elders of Israel, speak the words and show the signs. All this will be described in more detail in the coming chapters, but we get as far as the initial meeting and read in v. 31 that “the people believed; and when they heard that the Lord was concerned about the sons of Israel and that He had seen their affliction, then they bowed low and worshiped.”

There is still much of the story to unfold, including a number of ups and downs, but God has already accomplished through Moses much of what He described at the burning bush. Moses was redeemed out of exile, was able to deliver God’s message (with Aaron’s help), and saw that message received and believed, resulting in the faith and worship of God’s people.

Our Partners in Mission

Today’s text is filled with transition, but I’d like to draw one particular point of application out of it. And I will set it in the context of everything we’ve studied so far in Exodus. God has a purpose in the world, not the least of which is to seek and save the lost – to deliver people from darkness, captivity, and fear. God chooses to use people like you and me – that is to say, imperfect and inconsistent people – in accomplishing His purpose. No matter who you are or what you’ve done, God sees you and loves you and wants you to be a part of His work. And God qualifies and equips you for that work; He will give you what you need for what He asks you to do! And you do not have to do it alone. First and foremost, God is with you! But God also brings other people alongside, often to complement or strengthen you where you are weakest. That is one of the great purposes of the Church – which the Apostle Paul writes about in the New Testament. The Church is like a body, where some are hands, some feet, some kneecaps; and all working together for God’s glory.

So, no disqualifications; no excuses; God knows you and loves you and wants you. And God is at work in the world. Know that God will equip and qualify you. Know, too, though that God will not leave you alone, but will stretch and grow and mature you as you follow him. Moses did not return to Egypt as an exiled outlaw, but as a redeemed representative of the Lord who had been reconciled to the covenant.

At Good Shepherd we are asking what God is doing in and around us. Will you be a part of that? We are trying to answer that call together as partners in mission. Amen.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

God Who Qualifies (Exodus 4.1-13)

Sermon by: Robert Austell
February 13, 2011
Some Music Used 
Prelude: "Ye Servants of God" (Croft/Courtney)
Song of Praise: "Hear the Call of the Kingdom" (Getty Townend)
Word in Music: "Total Praise" (Smallwood)
Song of Praise: "Fill Me Now" (Hansen, Peppin)
Offertory: "Sweet, Sweet Spirit" (Bobby White, piano)
Hymn of Sending: "Lord, You Give the Great Commission" (Rowthorn/Taylor)

God Who Qualifies
Texts: Exodus 4:1-13

(download) **Sermon audio is also accessible as a free podcast in iTunes - search for "Good Shepherd Sermons or Robert Austell"**

Last week we were at the burning bush in Exodus 3. There God revealed His holy name, Yahweh, which means “I Am.” Moses came into the holy presence of God in a moment of worship, encountering the God who is. But as God continued to speak, Moses also heard the call of the God who does, who is at work in the world to accomplish His purpose. And so God called Moses into mission, to participate in the deliverance of His people from slavery in Egypt.

In last week’s text, Moses asked two questions of God: “Who am I (to do this)?” and “How will I show my people that you sent me?” God’s response was basically, “It’s not about you, Moses; it is about me… and this is who I am and what I am doing. Come be a part of that.”

In today’s text, Moses has two more questions – at this point, we probably should call them excuses. We’ll look at both of those excuses and see what God’s response was.

“What if they won’t believe me or listen?” (v. 1)

While I might call this an excuse, it is certainly a legitimate question. As a preacher, it’s a question I have all the time. Every time I am teaching or preaching, I worry that people won’t believe or won’t listen. That concern is not limited to preachers. Isn’t it the concern any of us have in talking about matters of faith?

God gives Moses three signs to show that he comes from the Lord. The first is a sign of transformation: his staff will turn into a serpent and then back into a staff. Sounds a bit like Harry Potter, doesn’t it? And not to mention that evangelism would be a whole lot easier if we could do something like that! A second sign is one of healing. Moses is to put his hand inside his cloak, once to show leprous skin (scholars thing this was something akin to psoriasis), and then again to show it healed.

And then, only if he needed it, there was a third sign of life and death. He could take some water from the Nile, Egypt’s water supply, and turn it into blood, to be poured out on the ground. Note that these are all signs for the Hebrew people, to signify that Moses comes from God. Though Moses would not use the third sign when he goes to the Hebrew leaders at the end of chapter 4, a variation of turning the Nile water into blood happens in the first plague as a sign to Pharaoh.

So, what do we do with these signs? I would note several things. First, these are signs that God is at work. And they are not the message; God’s message is, “I am the Lord and I will deliver you, for I remember my covenant.”

Second, Moses was not without faith. He did, after all, grab the tail of the serpent at God’s instruction. And then, having seen a staff turn into a snake, he obeyed God when the Lord’s attention turned to his hand.

Third, these are not magic tricks. Like Jesus’ miraculous signs in the gospels, the point is not the miracle, but the message. So I characterized each of the signs in a certain way – transformation, healing, and life/death. While you or I can’t sit down at the coffee shop or the construction site and turn a walking stick into a snake, we can share our story. If you are a Christian, then you know something about transformation, healing, and God’s power over life and death. Like the signs given to Moses, the point isn’t to showcase yourself, but to point people to God’s greater story as the one who transforms lives, brings healing, and gives us life when we deserve death.

“I am not a good speaker…” (v. 10)

What Moses does next is what I have done – maybe you, too. “Okay, Lord; I didn’t know you were going to give me such a concrete answer to my last question, but you’ve got to know, I’m not really a good speaker.” Or, I don’t really know enough.

Apparently, Moses didn’t just not like speaking, but he had some kind of speech impediment. Perhaps he stuttered. And he makes it clear that he’s not just nervous in the moment. He pleads, “Please, Lord, I have never been eloquent (lit. “a man of words”), neither recently or in time past, nor since you have spoken to me…” (v. 10)

God responds to Moses by saying, “Who has made man’s mouth? Or who makes him mute or deaf, or seeing or blind? Is it not I, the Lord?” (v. 11) If God made the mouth and the ears, then He not only knows about Moses difficulty speaking, but also the potential difficulty of the Hebrews in hearing. God is all over this situation!

The Lord continues, saying, “Now then go, and I, even I, will be with your mouth, and teach you what you are to say.” (“It may even be that was my point!”)

Really, this is circling back to Moses first question/excuse, “Who am I?” And again God has answered, “This is not about you, Moses, but about me, and I am sending you.” God will do the work, exert the power, deliver the people; He really is just asking Moses to be in the place He shows him.

It reminds me of our Wednesday night experiment. I don’t ask people to go out knocking on doors, ready with evangelistic tracts, and trained with the latest apologetics. Instead, trusting that God is at work outside the walls of the church, in the midst of the lives of our neighbors, we are simply trying to go to the places where God is working and see what happens. (And a lot is happening!)

God Who Qualifies

The main thing we can take from all of this is that it is not about us. As we ask the question, “What is God doing and how can I be a part of that?” we may feel completely unqualified for the answer. Who am I to be part of what God is doing? But God says it’s not about us; it’s about Him!

And we don’t need to qualify ourselves for mission or ministry – if so, then other problems abound. Rather, it is God who qualifies. The God who is and the God who does is the one who will transform and heal other people’s lives. We are simply called forth to bear witness to that, to show forth what God has done in our lives and point with hope back to the God who saves.

Each Christian is qualified to respond to the “how can I be a part?” question because it is God who qualifies you. You may have heard it said before (but it’s still true!) – God does not call the equipped, as if He’s looking for the smartest, most beautiful, and most put together. God equips those He calls; and He knows who and what He is asking.

Now, as a preview of next week, consider where today’s text leaves off…

“I am out of excuses, but please send someone else…” (v. 13)

Basically, what Moses says next in verse 13 is, “I don’t really have any more excuses, but please Lord, will you send someone else?”

I appreciate the honesty of that. Sometimes we just feel like we can’t step up and step out, even in obedience to God. We will see how God responds to that next week, when He comes alongside Moses and provides a partner in mission, so that Moses will not be alone.

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

(download) **Sermon audio is also accessible as a free podcast in iTunes - search for "Good Shepherd Sermons or Robert Austell"**

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.