Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Exodus 3:1-15; Matthew 16:21-28

Responding to God’s Call


The first lesson for this Lord’s Day relates a familiar scene. Indeed, if you were raised in the church, you will remember it from your earliest Sunday school years. Moses encounters God in the burning bush.


Have you ever wondered why God appears to Moses in a burning bush? What is it about a burning bush that makes it a suitable means for revealing God?


Fire is a fitting image for God. It is a symbol of God’s holiness. There is an explicit connection drawn between the burning bush and God’s holiness in the very first words God addresses to Moses: “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground” (Ex. 3:5). Moses now hides his face, modeling the human reflex to God’s holiness. We read in Isaiah 6 that even the angels veil their faces, because they cannot bear to look at the resplendent glory of God. No wonder that a mere man does not dare to look at him. 


The image of fire appears elsewhere in the Bible. The author of the Letter to the Hebrews tells us that we are to worship God with reverence and awe because our God is a consuming fire (12:29). The Psalmist tells us that fire goes before God to consume all his enemies (97:3-5). Again, the author of the Letter to the Hebrews tells us that, to those who continue to reject God, there remains only a terrible expectation of God’s judgment, a raging fire that will consume the enemies of God (10:27).


But what is a force of destruction for God’s enemies is a means of purification for God’s people. Consider that the bush, although ablaze, is not consumed. In this regard consider also the lines from the fourth stanza of the hymn, How Firm a Foundation:


When through fiery trials thy pathway shall lie, my grace, all sufficient, shall be thy supply. The flame shall not hurt thee; I only design thy dross to consume, and thy gold to refine.


God brings his people through the fire, but he does so not to harm them, but to purify them so that they may share in his holiness. It’s the God of the purifying, not the destroying fire, that encounters Moses. For God appears to Moses as a bush that is burning but is not consumed. God wants to tell Moses about his plan to rescue the people of Israel. Moreover, he wants to tell Moses about the special role that he is going to play in the execution of this plan.  


Moses should have been impressed enough to change whatever plans he had, and do whatever God asked him to do, right then and there. But that’s not what happened, at least not right away. Moses’ response to God is curious, and it’s worth devoting the rest of our time to exploring it further.  


Let’s note above all that the response is marked by doubt. We may further qualify it by saying that it is filled with hesitancy: doubt and hesitancy. What exactly provokes Moses to doubt? What exactly makes him hesitant to respond to God’s call? The answer has three parts. In the first place, Moses is a man characterized by self-doubt. He hesitates because he does not see himself as adequate to the task. But in the second place, Moses doubts the people to whom God is sending him. He doubts they will listen, irrespective of who goes to them. And finally, Moses doubts God. Who is this God who is sending him? And is this God able and willing to do what he is telling Moses?


Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” If we want to know why people act the way they do, it often helps to find out about their past. What happened to a person in his past helps explain why certain situations trigger him, for example. Moses is no different than anyone else in this regard.


Let us then recall his past. Last time we learned that Pharaoh’s daughter discovered the baby Moses floating in a box in the reeds of the Nile River. She later raised him as her own in Pharaoh’s court. But when he became a young man, he went out among his own people. One day he saw an Egyptian mistreating a fellow Israelite. He then killed the Egyptian and hid his body in the sand. Later when he saw two Israelites fighting, he tried to break it up. The men were indignant, and asked him if he was going to kill them as he did the Egyptian. Now with a bounty on his head, Moses became a fugitive at age 40 and settled in the desert of Midian, where he tended flocks for forty years.


When he had reached his eightieth year, having grown old in Midian, the cruelty of their Egyptian taskmasters evoked from the Israelites new cries, which reached the ears of God. God now responds and announces his plan to Moses. God is going to deliver the people of Israel out of the hand of the Egyptians and bring them to a good and spacious land flowing with milk and honey. And Moses is going to be his instrument. God tells Moses to go to Pharaoh to tell him about this plan.


But why now? Moses was ready as a young man to champion the cause. But that aspiration came to nothing. Why did God delay so long? The long years of delay have hollowed Moses out. He is only a shell of the man he once was. He’s old now and has no drive for this adventure that God is laying before him. He saw how it turned out the first time, and now he is no longer so confident. Thanks, but no thanks is the subtext here.


Failure can discourage us from trying again. It usually undermines our self-confidence. Lifestyle coaches tell us that the key to success in life lies in self-confidence. But most of us, if we are honest, will admit that we often have low self-confidence. The exchange he has with God most emphatically does not show us Moses to be a man with self-confidence. But what is God’s response to Moses? “I will be with you.” The lifestyle coach tells us we need to develop self-confidence. But God tells us: “I will be with you.”


I don’t know about you, but I am hard on myself because of my lack of self-confidence. But nowhere in the Bible does it tell me to develop self-confidence. Instead I find verses like these: “Be content with who you are. Because God has said: ‘never will I leave you, nor forsake you.’ So we say with confidence: ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can mere man do to me?’” (Heb. 13:5). Our confidence does not rest in ourselves, but in God, who promises to be with us. This is how God wants Moses to see things. It’s how God wants us to see things.


But even if Moses can see things this way, that does not mitigate his doubt about the people to whom God is sending him. Observation teaches us that people can be so beaten down, their faces so ground into the dirt, that they no longer have the will to hope their situation will ever improve. There is even a phenomenon known as Stockholm syndrome. It denotes a psychological condition in which captives identify with their captors, as well as with their agenda and demands. In other words, if my captor says that I deserve to be his slave, then he must be right, and so I must act accordingly.   


The people of Israel are beaten down by the Egyptians. They are in no condition to hear a message about their liberation. Moses senses that God’s message about this will be a hard sell, and he wants no part of it.


If we tell people in their suffering that God loves them, that he sent Jesus Christ into the world to give his life for them too, their response may be: “this sounds too good to be true.” They are unreceptive to this good news, which discourages us, who bring it. But we still need to go to them. We need to pray continually that God will work in their hearts, just as he does in ours. A pastor once said in this connection: “Before you tell people about God, you first have to tell God about people.”


Finally, there is Moses’ doubt about God. This is not to say that he doubts his experience of meeting God in the burning bush. But Moses wants to know if God is trustworthy.


We may know in our heads that God is able to help us. Is anything too hard for God? But what we really want to know is whether God is willing to help us. When Moses asks for God’s name, that’s what he’s really asking about.


God’s response to Moses is twofold. God gives Moses the name by which he is known to Israel. Our Bibles translate the one word in the original as “I am who I am.” It may also be rendered as “I will be who I will be.” This disclosure of the divine name should convince Moses that God is able to help them. The name implies that God depends on nothing outside himself to be God. He is all-sufficient. He determines his own course. Nothing can thwart his will. That means if God says he is going to help his people Israel, then he can. Who or what can stop him?


But God gives Moses another name by which he wants to be known. He is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. These are the patriarchs about whom we learned this past summer. Moses need only recall God’s faithfulness to them. God watched over them. God delivered them from every danger. God appeared to them to reassure them of his presence and plan for their lives.


If the first name demonstrates to Moses that God is able to help his people, then this second name means to convince him that God is willing to help them. On account of the patriarchs, God loves the people of Israel. They are the apple of God’s eye. They are his precious possession, his own inheritance. He loves them with a passionate devotion. How can he not free them from their misery in Egypt? How can he not settle them in a good and spacious land? How can he not pour out his blessings upon them?


Of course, we need to consider these things for ourselves, insofar as they apply to us too. The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is our God too. For if we belong to Christ, then we are the true children of Abraham. We are his heirs, and God’s promises to Abraham belongs to us too (Gal. 3:29). Since that is so, then how can God not deliver us? How can God not pour out his blessings upon us too?


But like Moses and the Israelites, we also have to respond to God’s call. That call is addressed to us in our gospel lesson for this day. Jesus says: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Matt. 16:24). If this sounds very demanding, it’s because it is. In fact, it demands nothing less than our very selves. Since this is the case, we want a guarantee. We are uncomfortable when we are not in a position to dictate our own terms. But in relation to God, we cannot be in this position. We can only be in a position of faith. Faith says: I will follow, because I trust God. I trust that God will be faithful to me, just as he was faithful to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. May each one hearing me make or remake this commitment to follow. Amen.

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