Sermon: Big Enough?
Scripture: Exodus 3 1-15
There are some places in my life where I can go to most clearly experience God’s presence. Where I go to encounter God. When we go to Colorado, I have one of these special places, not far from our cabin, that I often hike to first thing in the morning, and in the beauty and seclusion of that place I can really feel God’s presence. Do you have a place like that? Sometimes to know God, we just need to see Him, or at least see images of Him. But then is that even possible? Is it possible to see God? Humanity has wrestled with that question throughout history. That’s one of the subplots it seems to me of the story of the burning bush. You see, the ancient people of faith believed that if you ever actually looked on the face of God, that you would drop dead. And so human beings have always had to settle for just seeing parts of God. The Apostle Paul says we see God as in a mirror dimly, a murky reflection of His glory, but that there will come a time when we see Him “face to face”.
Which brings us to the names that human beings have given to God. For a God without a name, He was called many things by the ancients. But the names have always been humanities attempt to describe the mirrored images that we can see. Here are a few of those names:
El Shaddai ( Almighty or all powerful)
El Elyon (Most High God, majesty)
Adonai (Lord, Master)
El Olam (Everlasting God, trying to answer the question of whether there is an eternity)
Elohim (One God)
Qanna (Jealous God)
For a God who could not be named, He certainly has had a lot of names through the centuries. These names really are humanities attempt to identify the attributes of the same God, but there were those in the ancient world who came to believe that so many names indicated that the Hebrew people (like the nations that surrounded them and occasionally even conquered them) had many Gods, and even some of the Hebrews adopted a more polytheistic (or many God) approach to faith. And certainly some of the teachings of the priests before the time of Moses would indicate a more many god approach to faith. For instance there is an ancient Hebrew legend that says:
A young man asked his Priest “Why does your daily prayer say, ‘God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob? Why does it not simply say, ‘God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob?’ ” The Priest replied, “because, my son, Abraham’s God and Isaac’s God may not have been Jacob’s. Each generation must find God for itself, indeed, each person must find his own God.”
There are a lot of people in our world today who mistakenly believe that coming to faith is an exercise of finding one’s own God. Even Paul, who grew up in the Rabbinic tradition talks about being able to only catch glimpses of God. We can know God, not by a name, but by His actions. Because,you see, We can never know all of God, but what we can know of God is always enough to meet our needs.
And so that brings us to today’s scripture reading. Now when Moses was cast out of Egypt, he fled to the land of Midian. The Midianites were descendants of Abraham’s son Midian who was not Sarah’s Son, but rather the son of Keturah, Abraham’s second wife. So they were related to the Hebrews, but not true descendants of Abraham. Much like the Ishmaelites. Moses, of course, made a completely new life with the Midianites. And it was really from them that He learned about this God of many names, because even though He was a Hebrew by birth, Moses grew up in and was educated in an Egyptian household and, of course, did not come to terms with his Hebrew heritage until he was an adult. He learned about the many gods of the Egyptians, that were believed to control just about every aspect of one’s life. Now we used to talk about those outside of the church being seekers of the faith. NOW that’s not the politically correct term, but Moses was a seeker before it became politically incorrect to be one.
And so the writer tells us that Moses was tending the sheep of his father in law Jethro in the wilderness where the ancients often went to encounter God, searching for something that the sheep could feed on, as well as some answers about the direction of his life. And at the base of Mt. Horeb, which is described as the mountain of God, Moses encounters a bush that is burning but is not being consumed by the fire. Now get out of your head an image of wilderness of dense growth and understand that the concept of wilderness in Biblical writings is usually a desert like place. Dry, devoid of growth. So in that setting this burning bush would have been very visible to Moses from a long ways off. And when he goes to check it out, he hears the voice of God speaking to him from the midst of the bush. Now the voice tells him to go back to Egypt where he would surely face death for killing an Egyptian and go to Pharaoh who has already tried to kill him once, and ask him to let a people whom he barely knows really and who are an essential part of the Pharaoh’s building program and economy, leave Egypt and go back to their homeland. But Moses doesn’t really question what he’s being called to do, but rather who is calling. And so the question that Moses asks is “Who are you? Are you the El Shaddai – the God Almighty? Or are you El Elyon – the most high God? Are you Adonai – the master? Or are you El Olam – the everlasting? Or are you Qanna – the jealous God? Because I’ve heard all of these names for you and if I am going to do this, I first need to know who you are. Which God are you? When the Pharaoh asks who You are, what name shall I tell him? How shall I describe who you are? Because for people of faith, the power has always been in the name. The writer of Proverbs wrote: “The name of God is a tower of strength, the righteous run to it and are strengthened.” And in the prophecy of Zechariah we find these words: “Call upon My name, and I will answer.” You see, I think Moses’ question to the voice in the burning bush is really a two part question. First it is the question of identity. “Who are you?” What shall I call you?” Of all of the gods of the Midianites, or at least the manifestations of God which they have identified by name, which one are you? You see, like many of us Moses had lived a life that had been blessed by God without really knowing it. All of his life he has been the focus of divine providence, without being aware of that. Everything had led him to this moment of calling, this burning bush moment when He felt God’s call on his life, just as the events of our lives often lead us to burning bush kinds of moments, these moments of calling, and he needs to know, as we need to know in those moments, “who are you God?” What shall I call you? It is really the first question of coming to faith. God comes to us, sometimes speaks to us in miraculous ways, and it is only natural that the first thing we ask is: who are you? What is your name? In the song that Will sang earlier, Chris Rice says that there comes that point where “we wrestle face to face with the image of deity.” Paul says there is that moment when we see “face to face.” Who are you? What is your name? It’s a question of identity. John Wesley believed that all of us are created with the image of God inside us. That God is the God who goes before in love and grace, working in us and for us without us knowing, but then for each of us there comes that moment when we must ask the question of identity. Who are you that has been guiding my steps, working in me, making my heart burn? Calling me? What is your name? “I am” is the assurance that the God who is within us is greater than anything this world can throw at us.
And then secondly, it’s a question of authority. Moses is being called to go against the Egyptian Pharaoh, who claimed deity for himself. The most powerful man in the world. And a god on top of that. Because there was power in the name, he could not envision completing such a huge task on behalf of an unnamed god. Was this God of many names, or many attributes, strong enough, big enough, to defeat the Pharaoh and rescue Moses’ people? By what name, what authority, am I sent? You see, Moses is seeking the assurance that if he goes, that this God of the burning bush is able to deliver on His promises. Who are you God that you can use me, a weak human being, really a person without a people much less an army, to overcome the Pharaoh and deliver your people from captivity? How many of us have cried out to God in the midst of our weakness and despair? When life presents us with seemingly impossible tasks. When we are called to challenges that in our own strength we can not overcome. And so we wonder, perhaps, (I know I do) is God enough, big enough, to rescue us, to empower us, to send us? I ask that question every Sunday morning when I step behind this pulpit. And every time I go to the hospital to visit those who are critically ill, or sit with a family that’s lost a loved one. Moses question is a question of authority and it is a question that people of faith have asked time and again, in one form or another, throughout history. So many times, even the most faithful among us, aren’t sure that our God is enough, big enough, to empower us to overcome the challenges of this world. We call out to Him in our great need, but we often wonder if He is able to rescue us.
And here’s the thing. This God of the burning bush, the God of many names, of many characteristics, is not bothered by our questions. In the ninth chapter of Mark’s Gospel there is the story about Jesus casting an evil spirit out of a boy. His father brings the boy to Jesus and says “Jesus if you can, then save my boy.” And Jesus responds, “If I can? All things are possible for those who believe.” And then the Father says a most peculiar thing. He says to Jesus, “I do believe in you. But help me in my unbelief.” It is really the same thing that Moses is saying. “I believe in you God, but I’m not sure you can use me to rescue the Hebrews. I believe in you Jesus but I’m not sure you can save my son from the evil that has possessed him.” I believe in you Jesus, but I’m not sure you can rescue me from this cancer that has invaded my body. Who are you? Are you big enough to save me? Or I believe in you Jesus, but will you comfort me in my grief over the death of my child, or my spouse, or my mother or father, or dear friend? Who are you? Are you big enough to save me? I believe in you Jesus but help me in my unbelief. We lose our job. A family splits apart. Marriages and relationships fall apart. Our world is invaded by evil. Can you save me? Who are you really and are you big enough to meet my need? But rather than being upset by the questioning, Jesus simply rescues the son from the spirit. Now don’t miss the point here. In the pagan culture in which Moses grew up, the power and authority of the Pharaoh was absolute, and to question it meant sure death. And so the ancients feared to even question God. Moses showed great courage just in asking the God of the burning bush about His identity and authority. I can just imagine Moses asking the question and then ducking and covering, to try and protect himself from the inevitable retribution that would come from questioning God. But the God we can know – who wants us to know Him is not threatened by our questions. He clearly understands what Moses is asking of Him.
Who are you God? By the authority of what name shall I go? And so, from the midst of the burning bush, God says tell Pharaoh that I AM who I AM. In Hebrew, Yahweh. In the Latinized version the translation of “I Am” is Jehovah. Who are you? Jehovah. I Am. By what authority do I go? Tell them Jehovah has sent you. I Am.
And so for Moses, I Am becomes a promise of presence because Moses identity crisis was more than just his confusion about God’s identity, it was a confusion about his identity. Was he Moses who had been placed in a basket on the river when an infant by his Hebrew mother to save him from the executioner. Or was he Moses, taken in to the court of Egypt and raised by the Pharaoh’s daughter as her own. A child of luxury and power. “Who am I that would presume to go back to Pharaoh on behalf of a people I barely know?” “I Am” becomes the promise of presence. You will not go alone Moses. I will go with you. You do not speak for yourself, you speak for me. Tell Pharaoh that I Am sent you. There is great power and assurance in the promise of the presence of Jehovah within us. Our own strength is often inadequate, especially in the most difficult times of our lives. Jehovah points to a God who is always present, sometimes in spite of ourselves and the choices we make. A God who is present and is always who we need Him to be, though not always who we want Him to be. I Am is a promise of presence.
And then “Jehovah – I am” establishes the authority of God. Moses, go and tell Pharaoh that Jehovah sent you. You will witness to my authority in the palace of Egypt. And to the Hebrews tell them that you are sent by me – I Am the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob – and as I led them I will lead you to the promised land. It is a big task. But Jehovah is big enough to do all of this and more. But here’s the thing. The authority and power is in Jehovah working in and through us. Sometimes we forget I think that Moses did not confront Pharaoh in his own name. He confronted Pharaoh on behalf of I Am. Our power, the power to change lives and the world, is not our power. The power comes through I Am, Jehovah working in and through us to change lives – to change the world. One writer describes the authority of “I Am” this way:
You may be surprised to hear me say this, but . . . If God called you to do it, then you shouldn’t be able to do it without him. In fact, if you could do it without him, then it’s really not a God-thing. I know you feel that God is asking you to do something that works against your strengths. But God has called you and that means his strength is working through you and that will make you sufficient for the task. The God-who-loves-you, (Jehovah, I Am) is with you for every step you take as you follow Jesus toward your destiny.
I Am establishes the authority of God. I am says that our one God IS big enough to accomplish what He sends us to do. In essence God says this about all of those images which were the sources of other names that the people called, “I Am all of those and more.”
And then finally, I Am is a term of identity. If we jump ahead in the story, after God confronts the Pharaoh through Moses, and establishes Moses as their leader out of Egypt, through the wilderness to the promised land, they return to the mountain of God. And Moses goes up on the mountain to receive the Ten Commandments. The first thing that God tells Moses to record are the words: I Am. I Am the God who brought you out of Egypt, out of slavery. There are no other gods. From this point on, God is called Jehovah. I Am. He says to Moses This shall be my name forever, the name by which I am to be remembered from generation to generation. This does not mean that the people stopped trying to understand God through the images of deity but now through the perspective of I Am. We know God by the images He chooses to reveal to us. And so God is called:
Jehovah-Raah (I Am the Shepherd)
Jehovah Rapha (I Am the Great Physician)
Jehovah Shammah (I Am with you)
Jehovah Jireh (I Am all you need)
Jehovah Shalom (I Am Peace)
We know God through what He reveals of Himself to each one of us. And He is all of this and more. I Am who I Am.
Well, in the New Testament Gospel of John, it is the Disciples who like Moses are asking the basic questions of faith. Who are you? Are you the Messiah? The long awaited one? The anointed one? Remember when John the Baptist asks from his jail cell – Jesus are you the one we’ve been waiting for. And in response Jesus says, just like the God of the burning bush said to Moses, “I Am”. I am all of this and so much more. Savior. Redeemer. Sacrificial Lamb. I Am. Lord if you are Jehovah, are you big enough to sustain me, to light my darkness, to quench the thirst of my soul. Are you Big enough Lord to lead me through this sometimes overwhelming world? And then the words of assurance and comfort, strength and authority. I Am. And that was enough to make Moses go and do all that God was calling him to do. And the really neat thing is that Jesus picks up on all of that on our behalf, harkens each one of us back to the burning bush, that moment of calling, when He claims “I Am” as His name. So what does that mean for our calling in this life. Well, we’ll be asking those questions in the next few weeks both in worship and in small groups and Sunday Schools. Come and join us in the next few weeks as we discover a burning bush God that each one of us can know personally. A God who wants to be known. Come discover who “I Am” is in your life.