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Life of Moses: What's In a Name?
Exodus 3:1 - 3:15
June 28, 2020
Reverend Jason Harris
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1“Now Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law, Jethro, the priest of Midian, and he led his flock to the west side of the wilderness and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. 2And the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush. He looked, and behold, the bush was burning, yet it was not consumed. 3And Moses said, “I will turn aside to see this great sight, why the bush is not burned.” 4When the Lord saw that he turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” 5Then he said, “Do not come near; take your sandals off your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” 6And he said, “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.
7Then the Lord said, “I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters. I know their sufferings, 8and I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of 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 place of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. 9And now, behold, the cry of the people of Israel has come to me, and I have also seen the oppression with which the Egyptians oppress them. 10Come, I will send you to Pharaoh that you may bring my people, the children of Israel, out of Egypt.” 11But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the children of Israel out of Egypt?” 12He said, “But I will be with you, and this shall be the sign for you, that I have sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall serve God on this mountain.”
13Then Moses said to God, “If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” 14God said to Moses, “I am who I am.” And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel: ‘I am has sent me to you.’” 15God also said to Moses, “Say this to the people of Israel: ‘The Lord, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.’ This is my name forever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations.”
We have reached a critical inflection point within our society. There is an understandable and great degree of anger, hurt, frustration, and fear arising out of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, and the seemingly intractable problems of racism and injustice. And the way in which some people are responding to these crises is only increasing the polarization of our society between those with differing viewpoints. Who would have ever thought that a facemask would become a political issue?
As I talk to people on the left and the right of the political spectrum, it seems as if people are living in separate universes. When I talk to people on the left, they say: “The problem is the conservatives. They're racist, selfish, reckless, heartless. As a result, our society is rotten to the very core.” So from their point of view, America is a failed social experiment, and so we should just tear it all down. When I talk to people on the right, they say: “The problem is the liberals. They are destroying this country. They don't fully appreciate a liberal democracy. They're taking away our freedoms, so we've got to stop them. We've got to stop them in order to preserve our history and our culture.”
Listening to them, I think to myself: Is there not a more balanced, a more biblical way of thinking about our current moment? Is there a way that we can think about these things through the lens of the Scriptures that, on the one hand, affirms the importance of personal agency and personal responsibility, and at the same time, recognizes the historical and current structural reasons for why things are the way they are—that need to be addressed? The cultural crises we find ourselves in raise important questions for the church. As followers of Christ, we do need to do what we can to change things for the good of society and the world in which we live. Yet there are so many voices right now clamoring for our attention, the fundamental question for Chrisitians becomes: Whose voice are you going to listen to? Or as I prefer to sum up the question: Are you going to listen to the voice of Marx? The voice of Nietzsche? Or the voice of Jesus? Now, this is something of an oversimplification, but the point is to provide clarity as to whose voice you are going to listen to, for each is speaking to you in our current cultural crisis.
The Voice of Marx and Nietzsche
Marx said that religion—especially Christianity—is the opiate of the people, because just as a drug lulls its addicts into a condition of passivity, so religion inhibits people from seeking real change in the world in which we live by filling them with false hopes of a better world to come. Therefore Marx said that if we want to live free of oppression—wherever it may be found within our society—then we have to eradicate religion. We've got to get rid of Christianity. We've got to tear it all down—and the ends justify the means. In his well known The Communist Manifesto, he concludes by saying, we can only obtain our goals through “the forcible overthrow of all social conditions.” “We've got nothing to lose, but our chains. We have a world to win.” So Marx calls for revolution.
By contrast, Nietzsche famously said, “God is dead.” But to Nietzsche's chagrin, God continues to cast a long shadow over society in the form of morality, and in particular, Christian morality, which he despised, calling it “the morality of slaves.” Christians are “wimps.” Christianity, as he saw it, is nothing more than an attempt by the weak to try to control the strong by espousing virtues like love, humility, compassion, care for the weak, the poor, and the downtrodden. But in a world without God, he affirmed there's no place for sympathy; all there is, is power. And you should grab as much power as you can. Nietzsche thus identified ressentiment as a powerful force that drives society. (In English, ressentiment translates as “resentment” though people often keep it in the French.) The point here is that ressentiment captures an idea, and central to that idea, is a narrative of injury or loss—a sense that something has been lost or something has been taken away from us. It doesn't matter if this injury or loss is real or imagined, because it's the fear of further injury that motivates people into action. So being afraid and resentful, what do people do? They vilify, blame, scapegoat, try to take out the other—whoever the perceived enemy may be. In the end, all that's really left is a Nietzschean will to power: take no prisoners.
The Voice of Jesus
From where I sit, I would say that I can hear a little bit of Marx coming out of the left now; and I can hear a little bit of Nietzsche coming out of the right. But what I'm not hearing very much is the voice of Jesus—and that is because Jesus’ voice is altogether different. Jesus calls us to love. He calls us to love God, our neighbor, the poor, the marginalized, the oppressed, the other—and yes, even our enemies. And Jesus calls us to do justice. But now I want you to consider this: The two sins most clearly and consistently denounced within the Scriptures are 1) idolatry and 2) injustice—idolatry, because it is simply a failure to love God with all of our heart, mind, soul and strength; and injustice, which is the failure to love our neighbor as ourselves. Because Jesus calls us to do justice, we will be held responsible and accountable for living a life of justice towards our neighbor. Nonetheless, we have to understand what God means by justice, because biblical justice is not necessarily the same thing as what people mean when they talk about “social justice.” And that is because, in the eyes of God, the end never justifies the means. So the question I put to you again is: Which voice are you going to follow? Are you going to listen to Marx—the way of revolution? To the voice of Nietzsche—the way of resentment? Or to the voice of Jesus—the way of redemption and reconciliation?
In the life of Moses, we discover that God's plan of redemption is already being plotted out centuries before Jesus appears in human form on the scene. For here in the passage of Scripture we are examining today, we come to what is perhaps one of the most famous encounters in all the history of the world: God meets Moses at the burning bush. And there, for the first time, he reveals his personal name. I'd like us then to take a closer look today at this divine encounter, and at the divine name,—which will help us to better respond to the cultural crises we face at this moment.
The Divine Encounter
First, the divine encounter. When Moses was middle aged, he decided that he needed to pursue justice in order to help his enslaved people, the Hebrews. Only in his pursuit of justice, Moses did the right thing but in the wrong way; he took matters into his own hands and killed an Egyptian. As a result, he runs away and flees to the land of Midian; where he eventually marries, starts a family, and spends forty years in exile. Forty years is a long time. By the end of this forty year period, Moses is an old man, and by this time, he must have thought that he had blown it, because in those fortyyears, he hears nothing from the Lord. Then suddenly, after all those years of silence, God finally speaks. At this point Moses is working as a shepherd for his father-in-law, Jethro, and wanders way out into the wilderness, the Scripture passage says, where he sees a bush on fire—yet not consumed by the flames. This is something he has never seen before, so he decides that he's going to “turn aside” in order to investigate the burning bush.
Now to “turn aside” is an important phrase, because it means Moses diverges from his plans, and takes a step off the beaten path, simply because he's curious about this inflamed bush. Now just imagine what the world would be like, what Moses’ life would have been like, if he had not turned aside. Imagine if he had said, “Huh, well, that's kind of weird! But I’m hungry. I need to get home for dinner.” Imagine what he would have missed! But his curiosity is piqued, and so he turns aside and there, from the inflamed bush, the Lord speaks to him. When God speaks to Moses, he reveals three things: his identity, his concern, and his mission.
God’s Identity, Concern and Mission
The Scripture passage says that when God saw that Moses had turned aside to see the burning bush, he called out to Moses by name: “Moses! Moses!—and then warns him: “Do not come near; take your sandals off your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground” (v. 4-5). In other words, God says to Moses, “Stay right where you are, Moses. Do not take another step.” You see, there is a fundamental incompatibility of nature, between the holiness of God and the sinfulness of human beings, like the incompatibility of nature between fire and water. Given that incompatibility, God knows that if Moses takes another step, he will be consumed. And Moses, filled with fear, understands this and does what God says. Afterwards, God reveals his identity: “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” (v. 6). Here we must remember that Moses had been raised during his earliest years by his own mother, and it was during that formative time of life, he would have discovered the truth of who he really was, and the God that his people followed. So here God is essentially saying to Moses, “Look, I'm the one that you've heard so much about.” And here, as Jesus will later point out in the gospels, it's striking to see that God doesn't say to Moses, I was the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but I am the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—in other words, he's not the God of the dead, but of the living. He's the living God, and all those who are united to him by faith, live in him forever.
God then goes on to communicate to Moses his concern: “I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters. I know their sufferings….” The God of the living does not turn a blind eye to injustice, and resolves to do something about it. In v. 8, God tells Moses, “I have come down to deliver them [my people] out of the hand of the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land.” God sees. God hears. God knows.
But describing his mission, God reveals the most shocking thing of all to Moses, telling him in v. 10, “I will send you to Pharaoh that you may bring my people out.” Now, what's so striking about this is that Moses was not engaged in some kind of spiritual search when he turned aside to investigate the matter of the burning bush. He wasn't looking for God, he wasn't hoping to be found by God—he was just curious. But because God piqued his curiosity at the sight of the burning bush, Moses’ whole life is then transformed by the encounter with the living God. It makes me wonder what might happen in your own life, if God piqued your curiosity enough to cause you to slow down, turn aside to take a step off of the beaten path, and explore who this God is and what he might be calling you to.
I’d like to tell you a story about a man who did just that, who turned aside to explore the Bible, and the God of the Bible for himself. And as a result, he has something, I think, to show us about the way of Jesus in the cultural moment we find ourselves in today. The man to whom I'm referring is John Perkins. At 90 years old, he is considered somewhat of a pioneer in the work he has devoted his life to: biblical reconciliation. His own life serves as a testament to God’s grace and Perkins’ response to that grace—especially in race relations. Born in 1930, in New Hebron, Mississippi, his mother died when he was only seven months old; his father abandoned him when he was a young child, and so was raised by his grandmother in his extended family. In 1947, when he was only 17-years-old, his family thought that it was safer for him to move out of Mississippi to California, because his older brother Clyde had been shot and killed by a deputy police officer. Clyde died in the arms of John Perkins. Prior to that move to California, Perkins writes in his memoir, Let Justice Roll Down, that his whole family background was anti-religious:
“I grew up knowing nothing about Jesus Christ…My whole family background had been anti-religious. And life, as I grew older, merely reinforced those feelings inside me…I had never met any religious people who impressed me. I was convinced that the Church—really the black Church, since that was the only one I knew anything about—was just one more kind of exploitation. I had seen Southern brutality, and the Church had kept silent about it. I was convinced that the problems of my people were political problems…Obviously, if I had no use for the black Church, I could hardly even imagine something called a ‘white Christian.’ It was totally impossible for me to imagine that the white Church, the private club of the oppressors, had anything to do with reality and justice…”
But then, in 1957, when he was 27 years old, Perkins had a real encounter with the living God. His son Spencer, who was a little boy at the time, started attending a Bible class near the family home. Spencer encouraged his dad to come along with him. Perkins loved his son, and seeing the joy that was welling up within him, decided to go to the Bible study. Around the same time a friend of Perkins invites him to go to church. He does, and while there starts reading the Bible on his own. He reads the Bible because he’s curious, and just like Moses he turns aside to take a step off the beaten path. Then one night, he says, “For the very first time, the Spirit of God took the Word of God, and spoke it directly into my heart.” And the verse he says that the Spirit used was Galatians 2:20: “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me, and gave himself for me.” Writing in his memoir, he says, “In all my years growing up in Mississippi, I had never heard the simple truth of the gospel, the fact that Jesus Christ could set me free and live his life in me.” Well, after that night, the very next Sunday, he went to church by himself and he heard a sermon, based on Romans 6:23: “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” He says:
“I thought I knew about the ‘wages of sin.’ Union organizers had talked to me at the foundry about stopping exploitation…Exploitation was sin. But was there other sin? My sin?...For the first time I understood that my sin was not necessarily and altogether against myself or against my neighbor. My sin was against a holy God who loved me, who had already paid for my sins. I was sinning in the face of his love. I didn’t want to sin anymore. I wanted to give my life to Christ, so he could take care of my sin. I sensed the beginning of a whole new life, a new structure of life, a life that could fill that emptiness I had even on payday. God for a black man? Yes, God for a black man! This black man! Me! That morning I said yes to Jesus Christ.”
Soon after, Perkins felt—much like Moses—that God was calling him to return from California, back to Mississippi, in order to identify with his people, and to help them break the cycle of despair. The way in which he felt called to do that was by teaching children the Bible, and as a result, he founds the Voice of Calvary ministries, where along the way, he gets to know the white pastor of First Baptist Church. Despite their racial difference, and despite being in Mendenhall, Mississippi, Perkins and the white pastor discover that they have a bond between them, because they share the same gospel and commitment to Jesus. Soon they begin talking about ways in which they could perhaps work together on racial reconciliation, and this pastor begins to give sermons along these lines. Perkins writes:
“It wasn’t what some might call big, bold, radical, but it was obvious enough. Cautiously, but surely, he had tried to take the major step of trying to preach the real meaning of Christian love as it applied to the sin of racism. Only he met with absolute resistance. In fact, some whites didn’t see any connection at all between their minister’s new sermons and the Bible. All they saw was that the pastor was acting ‘strange.’ I could tell this man was under great emotional stress, really strained. But I never understood at the time what all he was going through. Then one night as I was driving along in my car…I heard the news…[He] had committed suicide. I wept in my heart for this man who had tried so hard to build a bridge of understanding between his people and ours.”
From that moment on, Perkins resolves to dedicate himself to the work of evangelism, and sharing the message of Jesus and reconciliation. Concerning this resolve, Perkins says this:
“In 1960 I thought God called me to tell Bible stories to school kids. I would have been more than happy to do that work for the rest of my life. But my white friend’s suicide showed me that I was called to preach the good news of Jesus Christ to white people. Looking back, I guess that was a unique call for a third-grade drop-out from rural Mississippi. There aren’t many black preachers who are called to evangelize white people, but that’s what I’ve spent a large portion of my life doing.”
Now the story of John Perkins just displays the amazing things God can do in a person's life when he gets their attention—when one turns aside to step off the beaten path.
The Divine Name
That is exactly what happens to Moses when he turns aside: God meets Moses at the burning bush, reveals his personal name, then tells Moses that he's going to send him to be the one who will bring his people out of their bondage in Egypt. Moses has his doubts about this mission, and says, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the children of Israel out of Egypt?” In other words, he’s saying, “I think you have the wrong guy. I'm a nobody. I'm nothing.” Yet while Moses is doubting his ability to carry out this mission, at the same time we see that Moses is learning humility, because he then says to God: “If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?”
And here in the wilderness, miles and miles away from anybody else, God reveals his name: “I AM WHO I AM... Say this to the people of Israel, ‘The LORD, the God of our fathers, the God of Abraham, of Issac, and of Jacob, has sent me to you.’” So God identifies himself as “I AM” or “YHWH”—four consonants pronounced Yahweh from the Hebrew, or Jehovah from the Latin. But many people down through the centuries have considered God's name too holy to utter, and so they simply refer to him as, “the LORD.” And that's why, when you look in your Bible, you won't find Yahweh written on its pages. Instead, wherever that “Divine Name” would have appeared, you'll see the word “the LORD” written in all caps, LORD.
Now the name of God is notoriously difficult to translate, because Yahweh or Jehovah is related to the Hebrew verb “to be,” which begs the question: What exactly is God saying when he says, “I am who I am” or “I will be who I will be?” Some people suggest that this means that God is describing his self-existence; that he’s saying that he's not dependent upon anyone for his existence but determines his own existence—therefore he has always been and always will be. And I think that's definitely part of what God means when he says, “I am who I am.”
But I think God is communicating something more to Moses, through his name. In verse 12, he tells Moses, “I will be with you,” but to reassure Moses, he says to him, “I am the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob”—thus saying to Moses: “I will be to you just as I was to them. I will be your God. I will guide you. I am with you always.” And you know what? Moses is going to need that reassurance because God has given him this seemingly impossible task. He's telling Moses, I want you to free my people, numbered in the millions, and from the greatest Empire in the world at the time. Most people would look at that and say, “That’s not going to happen, the chances of success are nil.” Yet God is telling Moses, you can do it, and you’ve got absolutely nothing to worry about, because no matter what, I will be with you.
I would suggest to us, that God has likewise given us a seemingly impossible task in our current cultural moment. How are we ever going to overcome the differences that divide us so severely? If you stop and think about the civil rights movement of the 50s and the 60s, the primary reason it was so successful was because it was primarily a religious movement, rather than a political one. This has been well documented. The Civil Rights Movement was principally led by ministers, by people like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. And while people in the 50s and 60s were not all Christian—far from it—they lived in a culture that had been influenced and shaped by Christianity. Even if people didn't have a living faith in Jesus, they were at least biblically literate, and had a religious consciousness where they understood concepts like “God,” “sin,” “grace” and “salvation.” Therefore, when ministers like Dr. King used biblical language, or made appeals based on biblical principles, they struck a chord. And having their conscience pricked, people were motivated to change. Today, we live in a completely different world. Today, many people consider Christianity to be part of the problem, rather than part of the solution.
So with this being the cultural reality, how are we, as Chrisitans, ever going to overcome these deep differences that divide us? Despite how monstrous the challenge may be, John Perkins tells us in his most recent book, One Blood, that Christians, nonetheless, have to lead the way. And we have to lead the way, he insists, because we have a resource that the world doesn't have, wherein he notes this truth: People apart from God are trying to create unity; but Christians—despite all of our differences— already have unity, because God has gathered us into a single family.
The problem however is this: We're not living like family. We, therefore, have to give tangible expression to the unity that Jesus died to achieve; and so, what do we have to do? We have to share the message of Jesus, and we have to show the world what unity looks like in the family of God. We might say that the chances of that unity are zero. I, however, think that we have even more reason for confidence that this will happen, even more than Moses did concerning the deliverance of the people of Israel from Egypt. Why do I say this? Because while God came down to rescue his people from their bondage in Egypt, it was not the last time that God would come down. No, God comes down again fully to us in the person of Jesus Christ in order to deliver us, not only from exploitation and oppression, but even deeper spiritual evils—from sin and from death—by dying and rising again on our behalf. Jesus himself affirms that it is God who has come down to free us when people, questioning his authority, ask him: “Who do you think you are?” “Do you think you're better than our father Abraham who died? Jesus answers them, “Your father Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day” then lays out the thunderclap: “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am” (John 8:56-58). Here he associates the “Divine Name” with himself. Jesus is saying he is “the self-existing one”—the one who has always been. In Isaiah 42:8, the prophet says the name of God is “Yahweh, the Lord,” who “does not share his glory with any other.” And yet the apostle Paul, in Philippians 2, tells us that because Jesus “humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross... God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name.” The beautiful name of Jesus, at whose name “every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus is”—what?—“LORD!” Jesus is your way to God—who will not share his name or his glory with any, except his one and only Son.
And that's why, when Jesus is resurrected, he appears to his disciples on a mountain, and gives his followers—the original and all who have followed him through the centuries—a mission. And what does that mission tell us to do? “Go and make disciples of those who have one ethnicity, one race, one tribe, one language?” No! “Go and make disciples of all nations” because we are all of one blood. God gathers us all into one single and reconciled family.
But how do we carry out this mission? Jesus says, “Baptize them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” It is through baptism that God places his name on you, and sends you out to participate in his mission—not relying on your own strength or power, but on his. Jesus tells us to go and teach them all to observe the commandments that he has given us, but how can we do what Jesus commands us to do? How can we engage in this seemingly impossible task? Remember what Jesus says: “I will be with you always, to the very end of the age.” Just as he was with Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Moses, so he will be with you.
He sends us out to share the message of Jesus, to show the world that God gathers us into a single family, in order to prove what real unity looks like. We might think, this unity can't happen. But Jesus says to us: You can do this. You've got absolutely nothing to worry about, because no matter what, I will be with you.
So whose voice are you going to follow? Are you going to follow the voice of Marx, the voice of Nietzsche, or the voice of Jesus?
Dear God, we ask that you might pique our curiosity and cause us to turn aside and take a step off the beaten path, so that we might investigate the claims of who you are, and who you have revealed yourself to be. Help us to discover your identity, your love and concern, and the mission you are calling us to undertake. We pray that through it all, you might enable us to follow the voice of Jesus, along the way of redemption and reconciliation. We ask for this in Jesus’ name and for his sake. Amen.