“I AM WHO I AM”

The end of Exodus 2 gave us insight into God’s perspective of His people’s suffering: “God heard their groaning, and he remembered his covenant promise… He looked down on the people of Israel and knew it was time to act” (verses 24-25, NLT). Chapter 3 unveils God’s plan to deliver His children.

“One day Moses was tending the flock… He led the flock far into the wilderness and came to Sinai, the mountain of God. There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a blazing fire from the middle of a bush” (Exodus 3:1-2, NLT). I think it’s insightful that the Hebrew word here for Sinai (or “Horeb,” as is also used) is a word that means “dryness” or “desolation.” It is from the dry and desolate places–the places where we feel abandoned and hopeless–that God often reveals His Presence in our lives. (An encouraging thought.)

God calls to Moses from the midst of the burning bush. He introduces Himself. “I am the God of your father–the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” He shares His plan to use Moses as His instrument of deliverance for the Hebrews, but Moses has some reservations, doesn’t he? “But Moses protested to God, ‘Who am I to appear before Pharaoh? Who am I to lead the people of Israel out of Egypt?'” (verse 11). Moses’ big concern here is, “Who am I?” Notice that God doesn’t even attempt to answer Moses’ question. He simply responds by telling Moses the only thing Moses needs to know: “I will be with you.” Moses is asking the wrong question. Because it’s not about who Moses is – it is, in fact, all about who God is!

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But Moses protested, “If I go to the people of Israel and tell them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ they will ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what should I tell them?”

God replied to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM. Say this to the people of Israel: I AM has sent me to you.”God also said to Moses, “Say this to the people of Israel: [YHWH], the God of your ancestors-the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob-has sent me to you. (Exodus 3:13-15)

What’s going on here is profound. The Hebrew phrase for “I AM WHO I AM” is heyeh aser heyeh. The central word, hayah, simply means “to be.” God is claiming to be “the Self-Existent One.” He is completely self-sustaining and self-sufficient. Everything and everyone else derives life and receives breath from Him. As Acts 17:28 reminds us, “In Him, we live and move and have our being… ‘For we also are his children.'” Fascinatingly enough, God goes on to introduce his name as “YHWH.” (Most Bibles denote this term by reading “the LORD” in all caps.) This “Tetragrammaton,” as it is referred to, was considered to be the most sacred of all of God’s names. It only consists of four Hebrew consonants, and we have no idea what the vowels were, or even if there were any. In fact, many rabbinical scholars believe that these four consonants are meant to form a composite of the three tenses of that same Hebrew word hayah, “to be”: He Was, He Is, He Is to Come. (Sound familiar? Compare with Revelation chapter 1, verse 4 and 8!)

It gets even better than that! This name of God is also inseparably connected with the idea of God’s life-giving breath. As Rabbi Lawrence Kushner writes:

The letters of the name of God in Hebrew… are frequently mispronounced Yahweh. But in truth they are inutterable…

This word {YHWH} is the sound of breathing.

The holiest name in the world, the Name of the Creator, is the sound of your own breathing. That these letters are unpronounceable is no accident. Just as it is no accident that they are also the root letters of the Hebrew verb ‘to be’… God’s name is the name of Being itself. And, since God is holy, then so is all creation. At the burning bush, Moses asks for God’s Name, but God only replies with Ehyeh-hasher-ehyeh, which is often incorrectly rendered by the static English, ‘I am who I am.’ But in truth the Hebrew may denote the future tense: ‘I will be who I will be.’ Here is a Name (and a God) who is neither completed nor finished. This God is literally not yet…

A God who is neither completed nor finished… I am humbly reminded by this of how absolutely impossible it is to put God in a box. We can’t define Him; we can’t contain Him. God continues to grow and expand beyond our horizons of definition and constraint. That must also mean that we never reach the “finishing point” with God. We will never reach the place where we’ve experienced all of Him or where we’ve stopped growing and progressing in our relationship with Him. With God, the best is always yet to come!

It all circles back to the Creation account, doesn’t it? “And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being” (Genesis 2:7, NKJV). So, if our every breath is an utterance of our Creator’s name–a reminder of His life-sustaining power–then that means that the very act of breathing is an act of worship! Look at what Romans 12:1 declares in the NIV: “Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies [your life, your thoughts, your breath–everything you are] as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God–this is your true and proper worship [‘this is truly the way to worship him’, NLT].” The songs we sing and the prayers we pray are all nice, but what is our Heavenly Father really looking for in His people? He’s looking for a people who simply “live life.” A people who live in such a way that every breath is a witness, a proclamation, of God’s Name–a declaration to the onlooking world of Who God Is! 

But I will reveal my name to my people, and they will come
to know its power.
Then at last they will recognize that I am the one who speaks to them…
My people will see again who I AM.
I will tell them, “I AM here. And I AM ready.
(Isaiah 52:6, NLT/The Voice, capitalization supplied)

 

Exodus, Part 1: A Likely Hero

We are excited to begin a new Stepping Stones series with you. We journeyed through Genesis a number of months ago, and now we will blog our way through the story of Exodus. The book of Exodus begins right where Genesis leaves off: Jacob’s sons settle in Egypt and the family grows from a small clan to an innumerable nation. We are told that a new Pharaoh came to power in Egypt who “did not remember Joseph” and who crafted a plan to enslave the Hebrews. “Therefore they set taskmasters over them to afflict them with their burdens… And they made their lives bitter with hard bondage-in mortar, in brick, and in all manner of service in the field” (Exodus 1:11-14, NKJV).

Of course, we know that God had a plan for Israel’s deliverance, and that plan began with the miraculous protection of Moses as an infant. Moses grew up knowing that there was a special purpose for his life. He knew that he was destined to play a critical role in Israel’s liberation. Acts 7:20-25 tells us, “At that time Moses was born-a beautiful child in God’s eyes… Moses was taught all the wisdom of the Egyptians, and he was powerful in both speech and action… Moses assumed his fellow Israelites would realize that God had sent him to rescue them…” Clearly, Moses was the guy for the job, right? He was a skilled statesman, a natural military leader. If anyone was going to mobilize the Hebrew masses into an organized revolt, there was no question that it would be Moses! And yet, we then read, “Moses assumed his fellow Israelites would realize that God had sent him to rescue them, but they didn’t… [They] pushed Moses aside. ‘Who made you a ruler and judge over us?'” Moses expected the Hebrews to recognize him as their hero and rally to his ranks. Moses thought he could make all this deliverance business happen in his own way and in his own timing. Moses was even ready to commit murder in order to get his plan rolling. But God was going to have to teach and “unteach” Moses a great many lessons before he was really ready to lead. And so, God sends Moses through a radical paradigm shift. Having fled Egypt, Moses eventually finds himself in a remote wilderness shepherding sheep. (Apparently, shepherding is one of God’s favorite training programs.) During this time, God will need to unteach Moses just about everything he had ever learned. Moses will have to give up his pride for humility, his impulsiveness for patience, his self-sufficiency for dependence on God.

As we come to the end of Exodus chapter 2, however, our attention is drawn away from Moses and back to the enslaved Hebrews:

But the Israelites continued to groan under their burden of slavery. They cried out for help, and their cry rose up to God. God heard their groaning, and he remembered his covenant promise to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He looked down on the people of Israel and knew it was time to act. (Exodus 2:23-25, New Living Translation)

Every one of us has (or will) find ourselves in some sort of “bitter bondage” at one point or another in our lives, some kind of “dark night of the soul” experience. During those trying times, it may seem like God is distant and silent. We may wonder if He really cares at all. But in those difficult seasons, we must remember that God hears, God sees, God knows, and God remembers… “He remembered his covenant promise.” God didn’t decide it was time to help the Israelites because they were such a wonderful group of people, did He? He didn’t choose to deliver them because of their good behavior or virtuous actions, but, rather, because He “remembered his covenant…” God chose to deliver Israel because He is a Promise Keeper. He did it because of who He was – not because of who they were.

God “knew it was time to act.” God’s timing can seem to be delayed and overdue. But that doesn’t mean that He isn’t working in the background to accomplish His plan. For one thing, we must remember that God chooses to do His work through people. Yes, God could have miraculously delivered Israel through an angel, but, instead, His “M.O.” is always to use people. The problem with that is… people are messy, people are stubborn, people are dysfunctional, and people take time, don’t they? But if God chooses to use people like Moses–sinful and dysfunctional–that must mean that he can also use people like you and me. I find that reality encouraging this morning, and I hope you do as well.

Jonah, Part 4: Radical Mercy, Scandalous Grace

After Jonah pours out his soul in heart-felt repentance, the LORD commands the fish to spit Jonah out on a beach. “Then the Lord spoke to Jonah a second time: ‘Get up and go to the great city of Nineveh, and deliver the message I have given you.’  This time Jonah obeyed the Lord’s command and went to Nineveh” (Jonah 3:1-3, NLT). Jonah then launches one of the most effective evangelistic campaigns this world has ever seen:

The people of Nineveh believed God’s message, and from the greatest to the least, they declared a fast and put on burlap to show their sorrow… When God saw what they had done and how they had put a stop to their evil ways, he changed his mind and did not carry out the destruction he had threatened. (Jonah 3:5-10, NLT)

And this miraculous repentance is exactly what Jonah feared the most! Jonah’s reaction to God reveals that there is still much hardness and bitterness in his heart:

This change of plans greatly upset Jonah, and he became very angry. So he complained to the Lord about it: “Didn’t I say before I left home that you would do this, Lord? That is why I ran away to Tarshish! I knew that you are a merciful and compassionate God, slow to get angry and filled with unfailing love. You are eager to turn back from destroying people. Just kill me now, Lord! I’d rather be dead than alive if what I predicted will not happen.” (Jonah 4:1-3, NLT)

“I know exactly what you are like, God,” Jonah bitterly exclaims. “I knew that you are merciful and compassionate, and that you would be willing to forgive them—even them!” Isn’t it all so tragically ironic?

God’s response to Jonah’s four-year-old temper tantrum is astonishingly compassionate and patient: “The Lord replied, ‘Is it right for you to be angry about this?’” God simply asks Jonah a question. Just like a loving parent, trying to soothe a screaming child. God is trying to get Jonah to recognize the root of his heart problem. But Jonah stomps off to find an area with a good view, so that he can see what might happen to the city. He’s hoping for a good firework show.

“And the Lord God prepared a plant and made it come up over Jonah, that it might be shade for his head to deliver him from his misery. So Jonah was very grateful for the plant” (4:6-7). Did you notice that God does a lot of preparing in this story? God prepares a storm, God prepares a fish, God prepares a plant, and now God will prepare a worm and a bitter east wind – all for the purpose of showing Jonah his desperate need for a heart transformation. Now, let’s read the ending of our story:

And as the sun grew hot, God arranged for a scorching east wind to blow on Jonah. The sun beat down on his head until he grew faint and wished to die. “Death is certainly better than living like this!” he exclaimed.

Then God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry because the plant died?”

“Yes,” Jonah retorted, “even angry enough to die!”

Then the Lord said, “You feel sorry about the plant, though you did nothing to put it there. It came quickly and died quickly. But Nineveh has more than 120,000 people living in spiritual darkness, not to mention all the animals. Shouldn’t I feel sorry for such a great city?” (Jonah 4:8-11, NLT)

The End.

What, the story is over? That can’t be all of it! What happens to Jonah? Does he ever repent? First of all, you may find it encouraging to know that the book of Jonah may have been actually written by Jonah. If that’s the case, Jonah’s repentance would have certainly preceded his authorship of the account. Furthermore, Jewish tradition actually tells us that, after hearing the LORD’s words, Jonah fell on his face and proclaimed, “Govern your world according to the measure of mercy, as it is said, To the Lord our God belong mercy and forgiveness (Daniel 9:90).”

But we’re sort of missing the point when we worry about what Jonah’s response might have been. Because this book isn’t about Jonah… It’s about God. It’s a story that begins and ends with God. The story is bookended by God’s mercy. Maybe part of the reason that our story’s conclusion is so open-ended is because it’s meant to put us, the audience, in Jonah’s shoes. There’s a sense in which we get to decide the ending four ourselves. We get to choose whether to accept or reject God’s completely radical, entirely scandalous offer of mercy and grace.

And so, how does the story end? Well, the question is up to us: What will you choose?

Jonah, Part 3: In the Belly

It is in the belly of a fish, the ultimate “dark night of the soul,” that we find one of the most profound and heart-wrenching psalms of worship in Scripture. As I mentioned in our last study, Jonah fully expected to die as he was cast into the sea. What an unbelievable turn of events, then, when Jonah instead finds himself alive in the gut of some sort of sea creature! Although he is alive, Jonah does not find himself in a comfortable situation. (God could have saved Jonah via a luxury cruise, but He didn’t do that, did He?) Jonah’s physical situation is a reflection of the intense psychological, emotional struggle of his very soul. And now, for the first time in our story so far, Jonah finally reacts in the best way possible: “Then Jonah prayed to the Lord his God from inside the fish” (Jonah 2:1). I hope that we can remember to cry out to God from the depths of our struggles as well.

It is in this psalm of worship that we see Jonah as a representation of Christ. Jesus was also thrown into the sea of separation from God so that we might be saved. Jesus explicitly references Jonah in Matthew 12:38-41 and identifies His mission as our Savior with Jonah’s three-day experience. Jonah 2:1-9 is a song and prayer of trust in the face of seemingly irreversible separation from God. Notice how this passage ends with a triumphant cry of faith:

You threw me into the ocean depths,
and I sank down to the heart of the sea.
The mighty waters engulfed me;
I was buried beneath your wild and stormy waves.
Then I said, ‘O Lord, you have driven me from your presence.
Yet I will look once more toward your holy Temple.’
(Jonah 2:2-4, New Living Translation)

Jonah’s prayer is also one of repentance. He promises to fulfill his vow of obedience to God, while recognizing that salvation and forgiveness come from the LORD alone:

Those who worship false gods
turn their backs on all God’s mercies.
[Side note: Isn’t it interesting that Jonah compares
his stubborn rebellion from God’s will to the sin of idolatry?]

But I will offer sacrifices to you with songs of praise,
and I will fulfill all my vows.
For my salvation comes from the Lord alone.

I love how the prayer ends. It doesn’t end with what Jonah will do for God, but it ends with what God has done for Jonah – and, by extension, what God has done for us: Salvation begins and ends with the LORD. I am reminded of Hebrews 12:2, where we remember that Christ endured the ultimate “Jonah experience” – Christ bore the cross, courageously facing its shame and humiliation. And now Christ reigns triumphantly in His Father’s throne where He is able to freely dispense the gift of salvation to all who care to ask for it:

“looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:2, NKJV)

Jonah, Part 2: The Storm

We like to think of Jesus as the “Storm Calmer,” don’t we? But sometimes Jesus can be the “Storm Sender.” God will sometimes send storms in our lives to turn us back from a path of destruction. We see this dramatically exemplified in the life of Jonah:

But the Lord sent out a great wind on the sea, and there was a mighty tempest on the sea, so that the ship was about to be broken up. Then the mariners were afraid; and every man cried out to his god, and threw the cargo that was in the ship into the sea, to lighten the load. But Jonah had gone down into the lowest parts of the ship, had lain down, and was fast asleep. (Jonah 1:4-5)

Storms reveal where we have really placed our trust. “And every many cried out to his god.” When the storms come, we first try to fix things ourselves (the mariners throw the cargo overboard) and then we turn to our “gods” of security for help – whether that’s money, social standing, or even misplaced-trust in friends or family. As one commentator states, “If we don’t know the true God–the God of the Bible–before we are in trouble, we may sincerely turn to a false and imaginary god, one of our own making” (David Guzik).

Notice then that in the midst of this crisis—a crisis where the sailors desperately needed to learn about the power and mercy of God—that Jonah is fast asleep in the hull of the ship. I like how Pastor David Guzik points out the parallels between Jonah and many “Sleeping Christians” in our churches today:

  • Jonah slept in a place where he hoped no one would see him or disturb him. “Sleeping Christians” like to “hide out” among the church.
  • Jonah slept in a place where he could not help with the work that needed to be done. “Sleeping Christians” stay away from the work of the Lord.
  • Jonah slept while there was a prayer meeting up on the deck. “Sleeping Christians” don’t like prayer meetings!
  • Jonah slept and had no idea of the problems around him. “Sleeping Christians” don’t know what is really going on.
  • Jonah slept when he was in great danger. “Sleeping Christians” are in danger, but don’t know it.
  • Jonah slept while the heathen needed him. “Sleeping Christians” snooze on while the world needs their message and testimony.

When Jonah finally wakes up and gets dragged to the deck of the ship, he then has the opportunity to tell the sailors about a very powerful God – a God named YAHWEH who not only made the heavens, but the dry lands and the sea as well! You see, the sailors came from a pagan culture which believed in many, many gods. There were different gods for different geographical areas, and there were gods of the sea as well as gods of the land. Now, these men get to learn of an all-powerful Creator God who is in charge of ALL of it! The chapter even ends with the sailors offering sacrifices to the LORD and worshipping Him. I bet they took the news of this all-powerful Creator God back with them to their homes and families. What a testimony!

As the storm continued to grow worse, however, Jonah finally realized he has no choice but to cast himself at the feet of God, in expectation of swift judgment. Jonah was convinced he was going to drown as he told the sailors to cast him into the sea. But, as I heard one of our students say, “Who knew that you could even find God’s mercy in the belly of a fish?”

Please check out the next part of our study, “In the Belly.”

Jonah, Part 1: Running

Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Amittai, saying, “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before Me.” But Jonah arose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. He went down to Joppa, and found a ship going to Tarshish; so he paid the fare, and went down into it, to go with them to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. (Jonah 1:1-3)

I like how our story begins. It begins with God – God initiates the action. God speaks. Our attention as a reader then turns to Jonah: “But Jonah flees…” This map gives us a pretty clear picture of how desperate Jonah was to get away from God’s call:

Jonah_map

Nineveh, the capital city of Assyria, was undoubtedly one of the most depraved cesspits of sin and human ugliness in the ancient world. And yet, God sends Jonah to the city for a redemptive purpose. Jonah is sent to extend an invitation of forgiveness and reconciliation with God. But it really shouldn’t be very hard for us to see why Jonah did not want to go. The Assyrians were an incredibly cruel people and they had terrorized the Israelites for generations. Jonah may have even lost family members or friends to the barbarous enemies. God sending Jonah to Nineveh would be something like God sending a Jewish holocaust survivor to preach repentance to the Nazis in Berlin! Jonah’s primary fear wasn’t that he would lose his life in Nineveh or that he would fail in sharing his message – he was scared that he would succeed! (See Jonah 4:2.)

Now, let’s turn the situation around on ourselves: We all have “Ninevehs” in our lives, don’t we? Don’t we all have those messy people and relationships that we really don’t want to invest in? Those uncomfortable ministry opportunities where we really don’t want to serve? Those sacrifices God is calling us to make that are just too much? And so, many times we will opt out of God’s plan and pay the fare for Tarshish:

Like Jonah, we’ve paid the fare at one point or another. The escape to Tarshish for some people takes the form of shopping, where the temporary fascination with something new takes your mind off of Nineveh… Others retreat inside; they escape by isolating themselves from everyone around them, keeping everyone at arm’s length. Some fill their lives with busyness to ignore their inner dissatisfaction with life; some escape in pornography, a sense of intimacy without strings. (Jonah: The Man Who Ran and the God Who Ran After Him)

Yes, we all have a Tarshish where we retreat to instead of going to the Nineveh where God is calling us.

Notice that Jonah had to go through a lot of steps to run away from God’s plan. He had to: 1.) go down to Joppa, 2.) find a ship going to Tarshish, 3.) pay the fare, and 4.) get on the boat. God could have stopped Jonah at any one of those intervals. God could have simply stopped Jonah from getting on the boat, right? If I were to imagine myself in a Jonah-like situation, I would probably have reasoned out something like this: “You know, I’m not really sure that I heard God speaking to me after all. It was probably just my overactive imagination. I know it seemed like God was leading me down that road, but that road looks a little scary and uncomfortable. I think I’m going to go down this road instead. I’ll just pray that God will shut doors and drop road blocks to stop me from going down this road, if it’s really not His will.”

You see how we often reason things out? We often know in our heart of hearts where God wants to take us, but we resist His will and then we justify our rebellion by saying things like, “I’ll just pray that God will close doors if I’m going down the wrong path.” But in Jonah’s case, God waits until Jonah is well on his sea-bound voyage… And then God sends a storm.

As we reflect on what we can learn from Jonah’s journey, I can think of a few self-directed questions:

  • What is your “Nineveh”? Think and pray on the opportunities and relationships where you have heard God’s call.
  • Are there areas in your life where you are resisting God’s call? What is keeping you from fully surrendering to His will? Is it fear? Difficulty? Inconvenience? Bitterness, perhaps?
  • Where is your “Tarshish”? Where do you run to escape?
  • What are you going to do about it?

Tune in next time for “Jonah, Part 2: The Storm”