Exodus 3:1-12

Exodus 3:1-12

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. 2 And 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. 3 And Moses said, “I will turn aside to see this great sight, why the bush is not burned.” 4 When 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.” 5 Then he said, “Do not come near; take your sandals off your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” 6 And 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. 7 Then 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, 8 and 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. 9 And 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. 10 Come, I will send you to Pharaoh that you may bring my people, the children of Israel, out of Egypt.” 11 But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the children of Israel out of Egypt?” 12 He 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.”

 

God seems to work most in the contrasts of life.  For instance, when we are weak, He gives us strength out of the storehouse of His omnipotence.  When we are broken, He gives us healing from the great provisions of His own hospital of grace.  When we are helpless, He draws us near to His more-than-sufficient love.  This is evident in the Bible as well as in our daily lives.  God indeed seems to work in the contrasts.

This is perhaps nowhere clearer than in the story of the Exodus, in general.  In the Exodus, God’s power meets Israel’s powerlessness with staggering and wonderful results:  God saves His people.  So, too, we find intriguing contrasts in the events leading up to the Exodus, as in, for instance, the call of Moses.

I. The Holiness and the Lowliness of Moses (v.1-6)

The first contrast that strikes us is between God’s holiness and Moses’ lowliness.  This becomes evident in the way that God calls Moses to his task.  When we find Moses in the beginning of this chapter, he has had to flee Egypt after killing the Egyptian who was assaulting the Hebrew.  Moses flees to Midian where he rescues the seven daughters of Jethro from marauding shepherds.  Jethro then gives Moses one of his daughters in marriage and she bears a son.  Moses then takes up with the family and is helping his father-in-law with his flock when something most interesting and unusual happens.

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. 2 And 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.

You have perhaps read naturalistic explanations of the burning bush.  Those who want to downplay the miraculous nature of this appearance will say that there is a bush in the Middle East that, when the sun hits it just so, looks as if it is burning.  I hope I will be forgiven if I don’t spend any time on such an idea.  This is clearly a miraculous visitation by God through the medium of a bush that is burning and not consumed.

Moses’ response is telling.

3 And Moses said, “I will turn aside to see this great sight, why the bush is not burned.” 4 When 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.”

What is interesting about this is the implied suggestion that Moses might not have turned aside to see what this strange sight was.  He could have dismissed it as an irrelevant oddity.  He could have said he was too busy.  Tending a flock, after all, certainly requires the full attention of the shepherd, especially in such a rocky region.  But Moses turns aside to see what this unusual sight is.

It is not insignificant that God speaks to Moses only after God sees that Moses has turned aside:  “When the Lord saw that he turned aside to see, God called to him…”  It is significant because it suggests that God’s call was contingent upon Moses’ turning.  Meaning, had Moses not turned, God would not have called him, at least not at that time in that way.  Moses would have missed a divine encounter if Moses had been to busy or too disinterested or too distracted to turn and see.

Just think of that:  had Moses been too busy, Moses would have missed God.

It raises an awkward and unavoidable question for us:  how often do we miss God’s call because we are too busy or too distracted?  How often has God desired to show us some marvelous thing, tell us some life-changing thing, or call us to some world-changing task but we missed it because we were too busy to stop and see.  And how often have we missed even startling clues, our own burning bushes, we might say, that God gives us, calling us to step out of our preset paths to encounter the divine?

In Hebrews 13:2, the writer says, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.”  That verse has always intrigued me.  It is an amazing thought:  sometimes we’re in the very presence of angels and don’t realize it.  And why don’t we realize it?  Because we’re too busy to turn our attention to divine things.  Or perhaps we’re too stuck in our routines even to entertain the thought that divine things might break into our world.

Moses was not too busy.  We may thank God for that!  He turned aside and God spoke to him.  What God said was fascinating.

5 Then he said, “Do not come near; take your sandals off your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” 6 And 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.

Note that the very first thing God says to Moses is an acknowledgment of the distance between them.  God declares His holiness and Moses lowliness.  He declares His holiness by (a) telling Moses to keep his distance, (b) telling Moses to take off his shoes, (c) declaring the ground on which Moses was standing “holy ground,” and (d) voicing his name over Moses.

Why does God not simply commission Moses out of the gate?  Why this preface of holiness and power?  The people of God are suffering.  There is work to be done.  There should be a sense of urgency here.  Why this highlighting of the contrast between God and Moses?

It is almost certainly because the success of Moses’ endeavor would depend entirely on Moses’ awareness of the truth about God.  Only a great and mighty and powerful and holy God would be worth the trials through which Moses was about to journey.  Only a transcendent God of awesome strength could be a sufficient enough reason for the staggering courage that Moses would be called to display.

Conversely, it was crucial that Moses understand his own lowliness.  It was crucial that Moses understand that he was the instrument in the hand of an awesome God.  He was the instrument.  He was not God.  He was the tool of deliverance.  He was not the One wielding the tool of deliverance.  It was vital that Moses not trust in his own strength, his own wisdom, his own power.  God establishes the contrast because it is only in light of the contrast that we can have a right relationship with God.

Jesus does the same thing in the gospels.  Jesus’ first message was, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 4:17).  That, too, is the voicing of the contrast. God is holy.  We are not.  We must take our shoes off.  We must repent.  We must, like Moses, fall on our faces before God.  “And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.”

Without the contrast, we do not come to God in humility.  Without the contrast, we dare to think that we are sufficient in our own strength.  Without the contrast, we are yet lost.

Do you realize that this God we worship is mighty, powerful, strong, eternal, everlasting, holy, pure, and true?  Do you realize that He is God and we are not?

II. The Strength of God and the Helplessness of His People (v.7-9)

There is an individual contrast in this calling, the contrast between God and Moses.  There is also a corporate contrast between God and Israel as a people.

7 Then 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, 8 and 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. 9 And 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.

God voices the distinction between Himself and His people with powerful and encouraging bluntness.  The people are suffering, but God will give victory.  The people are in pain, but God will give healing.  The people are oppressed, but God will set them free.  The people have no hope, but God will give them a reason to rejoice.  The people have no home, but God will give “a good and broad land.”

It is as day and night, God and His suffering people.  There is no hint of worry in the voice of this great God.  He does not say, “I think I can do it.  I think I can deliver them.  I think I can set them free.”

No.  Here is simply the raw declaration of what will be from the mouth of one who knows what He speaks:  “I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians.”  In Psalm 2, the psalmist captured well the certain might of our holy God.

1 Why do the nations rage
and the peoples plot in vain?

2 The kings of the earth set themselves,
and the rulers take counsel together,
against the Lord and against his Anointed, saying,

3 “Let us burst their bonds apart
and cast away their cords from us.”

4 He who sits in the heavens laughs;
the Lord holds them in derision.

5 Then he will speak to them in his wrath, and terrify them in his fury, saying,

6 “As for me, I have set my King
on Zion, my holy hill.”

7 I will tell of the decree:
The Lord said to me, “You are my Son;
today I have begotten you.

8 Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession.

9 You shall break them with a rod of iron
and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.”

10 Now therefore, O kings, be wise; be warned, O rulers of the earth.

11 Serve the Lord with fear,
and rejoice with trembling.

12 Kiss the Son,
lest he be angry, and you perish in the way,
for his wrath is quickly kindled.
Blessed are all who take refuge in him.

Only a King above all kings can laugh at all kings.  Only a God above all gods can laugh at all gods.  The one true God is strong.  He is powerful.  He speaks out of the confidence of His own self-understanding.

In our limited understanding, we might question God’s timing.  In our limited understanding, we might question God’s means and methods.  However, we should never question God’s ability.  Our God is able.

There is comfort in this for those suffering today.  There is comfort in this for you.  In this world, we will experience fear and helplessness.  The gift of God to His people is, first, His ability to overcome any obstacle you are facing, any trial you are enduring, any suffering under which you currently struggle.

God sees you.  God remembers you.  God knows you.  God is able to act to deliver you.  Our God is able!

III. The Certainty of God and the Terror of Moses (v.10-12)

The third contrast is closely connected to the second.  It is the contrast between the certainty of God and the terror of Moses.  We have seen that God is confident in God’s own ability to do what only God can do.  Moses, however, while recognizing the holiness of God, shudders at the call God places on his life.

10 Come, I will send you to Pharaoh that you may bring my people, the children of Israel, out of Egypt.” 11 But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the children of Israel out of Egypt?”

Who am I?  It is a valid question!  It is as if Moses sees the contrast between himself and God but does not realize that God will reach across the divide to lead, empower, and embolden him.  It is right to realize that you are not God.  That is a crucial piece of self-understanding that too many people do not reach.  But it is wrong, on that basis, to assume that God cannot use you.  On the contrary, it is only when you realize your weakness and insufficiency that God is ready to use you.  This is because, in the end, it is not you who is working, but God in you.  The Lord’s answer reveals this all-important fact.

12 He 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.”

God sends Moses.  God is with Moses.  These two facts are necessary to understand.  Outside of them, Moses’ terror and fright are utterly justified.  Outside of the indwelling presence of the all-powerful God, Moses is right to shudder and dread this commission.  But when God sends you and promises you His presence, the time for trembling is over.

Any call that is not a call from God is a call that is doomed to fail.  J. Stephen Muse wrote, “There is a saying among monks that ‘if you go into the desert without being called by God, you will go mad.’”[1]  Indeed you will!

Without God’s presence, Moses would have gone mad.  He seems on the brink of it at merely the initial suggestion.  But God comforts Moses.  God will be with the one He calls.  It is a crucial bit of understanding:  God will be with the one He calls.

Has He called you to some task?  Is He asking you to set your hand to some plow?  It he calling you to something that you know only He can accomplish?

If so, tremble not.  Fret not.  Fear not.  When God calls, God equips, and what He equips us with more than anything is His own presence.

These contrasts between ourselves and God are important.  They must be acknowledged lest we lapse into arrogance.  But remember that God is the God who works in the contrasts.  He knows the gulf between us and Him, and, in Christ, has reached across that gulf to empower us for ministry and for life.

 

 


[1] Calvin Miller, O Shepherd, Where Art Thou?  (Nashville, TN:  Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2006), p.52.

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