Traditionally when I preach I post my sermon up here. It is usually easy to do as I preach from a fairly full script. This Sunday was a bit different for various reasons, and so I ended up using notes on index cards rather than a full script.
I had struggled massively to get my thoughts in order. My instructions were that I was to unpack how Moses’ responses to God in Exodus 3:7 and following contrast with the “correct” responses of the first 6 verses of the chapter – all in the context of a broader series looking at listening to God. I wanted to say something about the God Moses meets in the scene, and how he is worth listening to. All my efforts at explaining what I wanted to say to my wife as we did the dishes on Saturday night failed rather dismally, until she cut through to the chase and said something like “I think you’re trying to hide from the way the subject is too close to the bone right now.”
As usual she was right. I knew that what needed to be said was something about Moses arguing with God, but, given our circumstances right now, it felt rather too personal. So, emboldened by my wife’s comments I went back to the passage and my preparation and reworked things a bit. I didn’t need to change much – just stop striving for the perfect message and let a little more heart into it. What I said went something like this:
So, from Exodus 3:1-6, you would expect Moses to do what he is told – but it doesn’t quite happen like that. Let’s look now at what happens next.
In Exodus 3:7-9 you can imagine Moses being quite happy – God is declaring his plan to rescue Israel and affirming that he will give them a land. But then comes 3:10 – after declaring that he has come down, God turns to Moses and says “now go – I am sending you to Pharaoh”. This must have been a shock to Moses, to put it mildly, and it is not surprising that he objects.
His first objection is “who am I?” Perhaps Moses is thinking of his own failed attempts at rescue 40 years before and perhaps he has become happy with his exile in a strange land. It seems that he does not know who he is, and he certainly isn’t up to this task God has for him.
God’s response is “I will be with you – and I’ll give you a sign” – he doesn’t answer Moses question, and he gives him a sign that is useless until Moses has done half the job. Not surprising that Moses asks another question: “what is your name – who are you?”
God’s response is again somewhat obscure “I will be who I will be” – which again does not seem particularly helpful (we’ll unpack this a bit more in a few minutes) – before giving the more expected answer in 3:15 followed by further instructions.
Moses still isn’t convinced – “what if they don’t believe me” – so God gives him some signs for now – including turning his staff into a snake without warning. Moses still isn’t for going – so he says “but I can’t speak” – to which God replies – “I made your mouth – I’ll be with it…” Moses final attempt is “please send someone else” – to which, after getting angry God replies “I’ll send Aaron to help – and I’ll be with his mouth too”.
Finally Moses goes to Egypt, and at 4:31 everything is working as it should. But then we get chapter 5 – and it all falls apart once more. It doesn’t seem like Moses does anything wrong in 5:1-3 (footnote: some commentators take Moses to task here and do think he has messed up – I am not convinced, and have a page devoted to why I am not convinced in my thesis), but Pharaoh’s response is to make life worse for Israel – bricks without straw – and so the Israelites turn on Moses, who in 5:22 turns on God and criticises God for his lack of action.
(Again, some of the commentators think Moses is going wrong – I’m not convinced – I think his response is firmly in the tradition of the prophets and the Psalms in particular). God now responds with a declaration of what he will do next.
The first thing to note from all this is that God doesn’t seem to have a problem with Moses’ questions and arguing. It is in response to Moses’ questions and arguing that we learn more of God. So I want to pause and say that it is OK to question God. It is OK to not understand. Because sometimes God’s ways are just hard for us to get.
When a loved one becomes seriously ill, even to the point of death
When unemployment hits, or the job is going nowhere.
When you can’t find the right job – we know all about that right now, as we try to work out our next steps after the PhD.
In all these situations, and many more we scream out to God – “Why?” And that is OK. God can take the questions. And as we do that lets listen to his answers, and especially to the first two answers he gives Moses. These answers are rocks we can build our lives around.
First “I will be with you” – Moses’ identity or lack of is irrelevant. What matters is that God is with him. God equips to do his work. There are no ifs, and no buts. Quite simply God is with us – that is reaffirmed all the way through the bible. It is what Joshua hears as he enters the land, it is what Gideon hears when he hides from the Midianites. It is the name of Jesus in Matthew 1 – Immanuel – God with us. We don’t have Moses’ mission – but we do follow Moses’ God. He is with us come what may. In the silence and the darkness. Through the tears and through the pain. He is with us.
Second “I will be who I will be” – God’s answer affirms that he doesn’t need anyone else in order to be the God who is with us. He isn’t defined by anyone else. He isn’t defined by the grandeur and glory and order and control of Egypt. He isn’t defined by Moses’ stammering lips. He is defined only by himself.
This answer is an explanation of his name – Yahweh – by means of a word play on the verb “to be” – “he will be” looks and sounds similar to “yahweh” in Hebrew – and Hebrew names are often given because of words they sound like. What God is saying is that his name cannot be controlled by Moses, instead it defines God in relation only to God – God will be with Moses as God chooses to be. Yet God is also saying that his name means that he will surely be with Moses, and Israel, and us. The meaning of God’s name says both “God is in control” and “God is with us” – and so we can be sure that God will keep the promises he makes because he is both able and willing to do so. (footnote: there is a lot of discussion behind every word in that paragraph – but I think it is all there in the text…)
That promise continues in Exodus. In Exodus 6 God affirms that he is the one who will rescue Israel. Exodus 6:5-8 contains a great crescendo of verbs declaring what God will do for Israel. This God brings about an unstoppable rescue.
Even when his people keep on messing up he keeps on rescuing. After the exile he declares to the people, in words we were reminded of a few weeks ago, which come with extra power in the context of the exodus, in Isaiah 43:
43:1 But now thus says the Lord,
he who created you, O Jacob,
he who formed you, O Israel:
“Fear not, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine.
2 When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you.
3 For I am the Lord your God,
the Holy One of Israel, your Saviour.
I give Egypt as your ransom,
Cush and Seba in exchange for you.
4 Because you are precious in my eyes,
and honoured, and I love you,
I give men in return for you,
peoples in exchange for your life.
5 Fear not, for I am with you;
(footnote: I once heard a speaker recommend that, if you doubted God’s love for you, you should go and read that passage to yourself until tears came)
Notice there the Exodus language, and affirmations – especially that God is with us – and think of the fact that God gives, not simply “men” in exchange for our lives, but “the man” – Jesus, his only son, for us. That is what we can build life now on. That is the affirmation we root our lives now in.
God is with us. Not in a way that I can control. And how I hate that at times. I want to be in control. But events continually remind me that I am not. Yet God is with us. Even in the darkest times he is with us.
At those times we need to remember words like this from Isaiah 50:10
Who among you fears the Lord
and obeys the voice of his servant?
Let him who walks in darkness
and has no light
trust in the name of the Lord
and rely on his God.
Because there is a day coming when the darkness will become light. On that day we will be with the Lord, and there will be no more sorrow. No more sickness. No more sin. No more death. On that day everything will be right, and everything will be light. (I stopped at this point – but Revelation 22 springs to mind)
Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb 2 through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. 3 No longer will there be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him. 4 They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. 5 And night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign for ever and ever
Until that day we live with the questions and the confusions and the darkness. In those times bring the questions and the doubts and the fears to the God who made you, the God who loves you, who bought you and is reshaping you. Come to this God, and look forward to the final rescue from all sin, and all sickness, and all death. Amen, Come Lord Jesus.
Postscript: At least – that’s something like what I said – maybe slightly re-ordered. We have a God worth arguing with – not because he necessarily answers our questions – but because he always has more questions of his own that reshape us into who we are meant to be.
As I thought of the concept of God’s ways being hard to get I had a line from a Rich Mullins song which has been a significant encouragement at key times in my life in my head – have a listen here: “hard to get”
There are a number of poignant lines in the song – but two that always hit me are “and I know that it would not hurt any less, even if it could be explained”. So often I want explanations, but God is more interested in being with us.
The other that hits me, and strikes me now is “lost enough to let myself be led”. At that point my mind draws in a line from another song from the same album – “so hold me Jesus, cos I’m shaking like a leaf, you have been of King of Glory, won’t you be my Prince of Peace”.
In all that he is with us. God is with us. He hears. He sees and he knows. And one day all will be well. As one pastor puts it, “it will be all right in the end – so if it is not all right, it is not the end.”