Presence

When we left off in Exodus 32 a few weeks ago, we were confronted with the unbridled, raw emotion of a betrayed God. Moses had begged God to restore the covenant with His people, and yet, the end of chapter 32 left us dismayed with what seemed to be an unequivocal “NO!” I appreciate how Professor Steve Rodeheaver helps us to understand this unsettling place in Scripture: “if we are to know Yahweh’s heart, if we are to know the heart that Christ reveals, that’s where we must be for now: the not-yet-forgiven side of forgiveness” (Exodus Talks: Pastoral Devotionals from Exodus, CRI/Voice, Institute)

As we continue reading in Exodus 33, we see God and Moses continue their conversation once again:

The Lord said to Moses, “Get going, you and the people you brought up from the land of Egypt. Go up to the land I swore to give to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob… And I will send an angel before you… But I will not travel among you, for you are a stubborn and rebellious people. If I did, I would surely destroy you along the way.” (Exodus 33:1-3, NLT)

Basically, God is saying that Moses and the people are free to go their own way. God will send an angel before them to clear the way and fulfill the promise to Abraham, but He Himself will not be traveling among the people. The relationship, it seems once again, has been too far damaged. The covenant has been shattered beyond repair. You know, at this point, I think if Moses had any less of a heart for God than he had, this arrangement probably would have seemed good enough. “Okay, God, thanks for at least sparing our lives! I guess we’ll be heading our separate ways now… (At least there will be a lot less rules this way.) Well, see you later!” But, no! Moses knew that this arrangement was completely unacceptable. Without God’s very Presence in their midst, there was simply no point in continuing to exist as a people.

At this point in the narrative, there’s this rather awkward break in the flow. Verses 7 through 11 give this seemingly-random aside about Moses and the “Tent of Meeting” (separate from the sanctuary tent) where he would go to speak with God. I didn’t appreciate the purpose of this side note until just recently, when I finally realized that the reason we have this passage is so that we have context–a backdrop, so to speak–on the unspeakably intimate friendship which God and Moses enjoyed. This passage helps us to understand why Moses will ask what he is about to ask. But before we get to that part, I just love how verse 11 reads: “Inside the Tent of Meeting, the LORD would speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend. Afterward Moses would return to the camp, but the young man who assisted him, Joshua son of Nun, would remain behind in the Tent of Meeting” (verse 11, NLT). I especially love the part about Joshua. Joshua wanted so badly to experience God’s Presence that he would stay behind after Moses left – just so that he might experience a glimpse of God’s lingering Presence. Oh, that we would have hearts for God like Joshua!

Now that we have this backdrop to Moses’ and God’s friendship in place, let’s read what Moses asks of God in verses 12 and on:

Then Moses said to the Lord, “See, You say to me, ‘Bring up this people.’ But You have not let me know whom You will send with me. Yet You have said, ‘I know you by name, and you have also found grace in My sight.’ Now therefore, I pray, if I have found grace in Your sight, show me now Your way, that I may know You and that I may find grace in Your sight. And consider that this nation is Your people.”

And He said, “My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.” (verses 12-14, NKJV)

God’s response to Moses is both gracious and loving. But at this point, God has only promised to personally be with Moses, singularly. Yet Moses’ courage and confidence is bolstered by this response, and he’s ready to probe God’s heart even deeper for the sake of the people:

Then he said to Him, “If Your Presence does not go with us, do not bring us up from here. For how then will it be known that Your people and I have found grace in Your sight, except You go with us? So we shall be separate, Your people and I, from all the people who are upon the face of the earth.”

So the Lord said to Moses, “I will also do this thing that you have spoken; for you have found grace in My sight, and I know you by name.” (verses 15-17, NKJV)

Amazing grace, unfailing love! God’s goodness and graciousness know no bounds. Israel is forgiven and the covenant is renewed. The relationship is restored! I can only imagine Moses’ breathless relief and ecstatic wonder at this response. His heart is so overcome by God’s words that he blurts out the most daring request of all: “Please, show me Your glory” (verse 18). I imagine that God’s heart thrilled at Moses’ request for deeper intimacy! Moses’ request is granted, yet, God must warn Moses that only His back can be seen. God then arranges for Moses to meet with Him again on the mountain.

As we come to Exodus chapter 34, our anticipation as the reader can hardly be contained. This is the first time in the biblical narrative that someone will actually encounter God’s full glory! Even if it is only God’s back, we eagerly wait to see what this experience will be like. What will it look like? What will it feel like? And, yet, when we get to verses 5 through 7, we are left surprised–maybe even a little disappointed at first–at the lack of a physical description of the event. Instead, here’s what we get:

Then the Lord came down in a cloud and stood there with him; and he called out his own name, Yahweh. The Lord passed in front of Moses, calling out,

“Yahweh! The Lord!
The God of compassion and mercy!
I am slow to anger
and filled with unfailing love [hesed] and faithfulness [’emet].
I lavish unfailing love to a thousand generations.
I forgive iniquity, rebellion, and sin.
But I do not excuse the guilty… ” (Exodus 34:5-7, NLT)

No description of what God looked like. No description of what the encounter felt like. Instead, what do we get? We get a transcript of God’s character. We get a picture of how God chooses to relate to His people. We are reintroduced to who God really is: the LORD is full of immeasurable compassion, boundless mercy, unfailing love, and eternal faithfulness! I especially love the use of the Hebrew word hesed. Hesed describes a love so deep, so intense, so radical, that we simply don’t have an English word to describe it. It’s a word that is never used to describe the love between a man and women, because that kind of love simply isn’t deep enough. It’s only ever used to describe the self-sacrificing, unfailing love of God for you and me. Likewise, the Hebrew word ‘Emet denotes uncompromising fidelity, unwavering reliability, unchanging faithfulness. Moses wants us to know that this is what God’s glory is like!

As we close out our weeks, my prayer is that we will develop an insatiable thirst for God’s Presence just like Moses and Joshua. Like Moses, let our prayer be that God’s Presence will “go with us” in every step of our daily journey. It’s a prayer God’s heart is yearning to answer.

The Shattered Covenant

Last time, we studied the first half of Exodus 32: the Israelites’ disobedience against God and the making of the golden calf. So far, we’ve read everything from the perspective of the people. Starting in verse 7, however, the focus of the story’s action suddenly shifts back to God and Moses. As the reader, we are confronted with the full, unbridled, raw emotion of a betrayed God:

The Lord told Moses, “Quick! Go down the mountain! Your people whom you brought from the land of Egypt have corrupted themselves. How quickly they have turned away from the way I commanded them to live! …I have seen how stubborn and rebellious these people are. Now leave me alone so my fierce anger can blaze against them, and I will destroy them. Then I will make you, Moses, into a great nation.” (Exodus 32:7-10, NLT)

In response to God’s anger, Moses immediately throws himself into the position of intercession for the people he loves – the people he knows God loves! Notice, how Moses in his prayer first turns God’s words around and gives the people back to God: “But Moses implored the LORD his God and said, ‘O LORD, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you have brought out of the land of Egypt…?” (vs. 11, ESV) Moses then appeals to God on the basis of His reputation: “Why let the Egyptians say…?” (vs. 12) In other words, “Your glory and reputation is at stake among the nations here, God! Don’t turn Your back on Your people!” Finally, in his desperate prayer, Moses ultimately appeals to God on the basis of His covenant promise: “Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, to whom you swore by your own self” (vs. 13, ESV). Moses knows that above all, God is a promise keeper. He knows that when all else seems to fail, he can count on God’s eternal covenantal faithfulness.

The astounding surprise of the story comes in verse 14: “So the LORD changed his mind about the terrible disaster he had threatened to bring on his people” (NLT). This verse has left many confused and frustrated. How can we reconcile the idea of God changing His mind with what we read about God’s unchanging and eternal nature? “God is not a man, so he does not lie. He is not human, so he does not change his mind. Has he ever spoken and failed to act? Has he ever promised and not carried it through?” (Numbers 23:19, NLT) What we must recognize here is that God is using “anthropomorphic” (human-like) qualities to express himself in a way that we can understand and relate to. Even more importantly, God is using this interaction to thrust Moses into a Christ-like position of intercession for his people. I like how commentator David Guzik puts it:

God did not destroy Israel, and He knew that He would not destroy Israel. Yet He deliberately put Moses into this crucial place of intercession, so that Moses would display and develop God’s heart for the people, a heart of love and compassion. Moses prayed just as God wanted him to – as if heaven and earth, salvation or destruction, depended on his prayer. This is how God waits for us to pray. (David Guzik, Commentary on Exodus)

Moses prayed the exact prayer that God wanted to hear. “That’s right, Moses! That’s exactly what I hoped you would say. You have proven to me that you have the same heart of love that I have for our people.” As I reflect on this amazing reality, I find theologian R. Alan Cole’s words particularly meaningful: “We are not to think of Moses as altering God’s purpose towards Israel by this prayer, but as carrying it out: Moses was never more like God than in such moments, for he shared God’s mind and loving purpose”(Exodus, p. 227).

But the drama of our story is not over yet. We then read how Moses goes down the mountain to fully realize the extent of the people’s rebellion. It was worse than Moses could have ever imagined. Moses immediately gets down to business and carries out a swift sentence of justice on the leading offenders. But after that, Moses again returns to the mountain to speak with God. This time, Moses isn’t pleading for the people’s lives (that request was granted earlier). The question that now hangs in the balance is: Will God choose to continue His covenantal relationship with Israel? As the reader, we are left wondering, “Can the shattered relationship between God and Israel ever be restored? Will God ever claim the Hebrews as His people again?” The end of chapter 32 leaves us astonished and dismayed with what seems to be a clear and irrevocable “NO!”

And the Lord said to Moses, “Whoever has sinned against Me, I will blot him out of My book… in the day when I visit for punishment, I will visit punishment upon them for their sin.”

So the Lord plagued the people because of what they did with the calf which Aaron made. (Exodus 32:33-35, NKJV)

In closing for this segment of the study, I would like to leave you with the thoughts of Professor Steve Rodeheaver:

That’s where our text ends for now. Plague. Israel must feel the pain of Yahweh… There was no forgiveness. It was still too soon. Imagine discovering that your spouse only married you as a means to an end. You have been reduced from a covenant partner to a manageable resource. The wound is deep. The rage is strong. Quick, automatic forgiveness? No such thing. Can the counselor coax you into forgiveness? Not a chance, not if it is going to be genuine. No, that forgiveness will have to come, if it comes, from deep within your own heart. And thus we wait to discover what lies deep within the heart of Yahweh.

[At this point], it would be easy, too easy, to jump to the New Testament and Jesus as the atonement for our sins. To make that move would be true enough, but to make it so quickly would distort the nature of forgiveness and shrink both Israel’s sin and Yahweh’s heart. The sin of reduction is huge. Only a huge forgiveness can cover it. Does Yahweh have a huge enough heart to re-covenant with Israel? So far, there is only a whisper of hope. Possibly, just maybe, plague is not the last word.

But we don’t know, not yet. We have to wait amid hushed tones of hope to see what’s in the heart of Yahweh. As a New Testament people it is an awkward place for us to be. But if we are to know Yahweh’s heart, if we are to know the heart that Christ reveals, that’s where we must be for now: the not-yet-forgiven side of forgiveness. (Steve Rodeheaver, Exodus Talks: Pastoral Devotionals from Exodus, CRI/Voice, Institute)

Be sure to watch for our next study over Exodus 33!

Idolatry

“When the people saw how long it was taking Moses to come back down the mountain…” (Exodus 32:1)

Before we get into the crux of Exodus 32, I want us to pause for a second on these first few words: “When the people saw how long it was taking…” Isn’t it sad that we so often fall into traps of temptation when we think God is “delayed” in doing something? How we so easily become discouraged and disheartened when we see “how long” things are taking? Even though we have been given an absolute guarantee on the final outcome of God’s good plans for us! Undeniably, these seasons of waiting can be excruciatingly difficult. But unlike the frustrated boredom of the Israelites, Jesus advises us to “actively wait” for His timing – with lamps burning bright and a heart ready for service: “Be dressed for service and keep your lamps burning, as though you were waiting for your master to return from the wedding feast… He may come in the middle of the night or just before dawn. But whenever he comes, he will reward the servants who are ready.” (Luke 12:35-38, NLT).

Coming back to our story, we now watch as the people clamor around Aaron, fiercely demanding: “Come, make us gods that shall go before us; for as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him” (NKJV). Sadly, it doesn’t take Aaron long to capitulate. Perhaps he thought that by complying with the people’s demands, he could at least remain in control of the situation? Else, maybe he feared he would be killed? “And he received the gold from their hand, and he fashioned it with an engraving tool, and made a molded calf. Then they said, ‘This is your god, O Israel, that brought you out of the land of Egypt!'” Tragically, it seems the Israelites have completely turned their back on God in full-out rebellion…

But then we get to verse 5, and here’s where I think things get really interesting: “So when Aaron saw it, he built an altar before it. And Aaron made a proclamation and said, ‘Tomorrow is a feast to the Lord'” (verse 5). Literally translated, Aaron is saying: “Tomorrow is a feast to Yahweh.” He’s talking about the actual Creator God here! I used to think that the people had made an idol to a pagan god, that they had completely rejected their Creator and turned to a false religion. But in reality, they were still “worshipping” the true God – Yahweh. You see, the people didn’t actually want to totally get rid the one true Creator God who led them out of Egypt. They liked His power and miracles, but the whole business with the “I AM THAT I AM” invisible kind of God who only seemed to be making more and more demands was getting a little old… If only the people could have some sort of tangible manifestation of God’s presence among them. Something that they could see, feel, hold… Something that they could control. Something that they could carry around to “lead them” to the places they wanted to go (verse 1). Something that they could even put back in the box if they wanted to! “Well,” they reasoned, “then that would be a much nicer, much more manageable arrangement with the divine, wouldn’t it?” The scary thing is, though, how often do we do the exact same thing with God today? Don’t we find ourselves trying to control and manipulate Him in our prayers and decisions? Don’t we try to squeeze God in the tiny boxes of our own desires and plans? Don’t we so often limit God to nothing more than a puny idol when we doubt His ability to work in our own lives and the lives of others? It’s a sobering reality check to recognize that we are perhaps not so very different than the idolatrous Hebrews after all…

“The people got up early the next morning to sacrifice burnt offerings and peace offerings. After this, they celebrated with feasting and drinking, and they indulged in pagan revelry” (verse 6, NLT). What began as an attempt to “worship” God (a limited, reduced, cheap version of God, that is) in their own way and with their own rules quickly spiraled out of control into a drunken pagan orgy! What it ultimately comes down to is that Israel was trying to redefine the contract with God. “We know you said that, God–that whole thing about not making idols, etc. But, given the special circumstances, we think we’ll do this instead…” In fact, the Israelites have more or less been trying to renegotiate the terms of the covenant with God this since Day 1. (See our study over Exodus 19, “The Covenant“) The scary part about it all is that we so often do the exact same thing! When we start trying to “rearrange” things with God–when we start trying to redefine who God is in accordance with who we want Him to be–then what we’re ultimately doing is duping ourselves for a puny, vacillating idol of ourselves! Nothing limits God’s power more in our lives than our attempts to mold Him into our own image. Perhaps this is why God responds so intensely (violently, even) to the Israelite’s rebellion at Mount Sinai?

And except for the prayers of one faithful man, Israel would have irrevocably set its course for complete destruction that day… Keep an eye out for the second half of this study on Exodus 32!

Final Instructions

By Exodus 31, God has been giving instructions to Moses for the last ten chapters – instructions for social laws, ceremonial feast days, the construction of the tabernacle, the garments of the priests, and nearly everything in between. Finally, God wraps up the conversation by telling Moses who has been chosen to build the holy tabernacle:

Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: “See, I have called by name Bezalel the son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah. And I have filled him with the Spirit of God, in wisdom, in understanding, in knowledge, and in all manner of workmanship, to design artistic works, to work in gold, in silver, in bronze, in cutting jewels for setting, in carving wood, and to work in all manner of workmanship.

And I, indeed I, have appointed with him Aholiab the son of Ahisamach, of the tribe of Dan; and I have put wisdom in the hearts of all the gifted artisans, that they may make all that I have commanded you…” (Exodus 31:1-6, NKJV)

I find these words to be of special importance. We so often think of God pouring out His anointing Spirit on pastors, ministers, evangelists, and missionaries. We think of the work of the LORD as encompassing preaching, teaching, and witnessing – but not much else. Yet here we have a beautiful illustration of God’s Spirit being poured out on an ordinary workman. “See, I have called by name Bezalel the son of Uri,” the text reads. “That’s my guy!” God says. “This is the one I have specifically called and chosen to build My holy tabernacle.” What an overwhelming privilege! I would think that this passage offers encouragement and affirmation to those of us who may not have been called to a specific vocation of church ministry. We may not be pastors or foreign missionaries, but, guess what, we’ve still been chosen and anointed to do a very special work of the LORD. You have received a unique calling that only you can fulfill! When you look at it that way, you realize that every single activity of your daily labor—no matter how menial it might seem—can be turned into an act of worship! The New Testament admonishes us to live out this “true worship” which comes by surrendering every facet of lives—whether at work or home or church—to God’s will. “Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship” (Romans 12:1, NIV; see also 1 Corinthians 10:31.) It is both an encouraging realization as well as a sobering mandate of responsibility.

The final set of directions that God gives Moses is in relation to the Sabbath day: “Speak also to the children of Israel, saying: ‘Surely My Sabbaths you shall keep, for it is a sign between Me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I am the Lord who sanctifies you.’” (Exodus 31:12-13, NKJV). At first I found this repetition of the Sabbath commandment a little strange. Hasn’t God already given clear directions for the Sabbath in Exodus 20? Why the need to repeat? It then occurred to me, however, that the placement of the Sabbath reminder here is indeed very significant. God and Moses have just been talking about all the things that the people will need to do to prepare a dwelling place for the LORD: they will need to build the tabernacle, they will need to craft the sacred furnishings, they will need to prepare the priest’s garments, they will need to perform the dedication ceremony – and the list goes on… Perhaps God wanted to use this last repetition of the Sabbath promise as a way to remind the people that it is not their works, but God’s work, that will make them holy. God wanted His children to take a break every single week on the Sabbath day, to stop and remember – “that you may know that I am the Lord who sanctifies you” (verse 13).

It’s almost as if God has intentionally book-ended this entire mountain-top discourse with the Sabbath. We first read about it in Exodus 20, at the heart of God’s proclamation of the Ten Commandments (the “Ten Promises”). And here we are reading about the beautiful Sabbath promise once again at the end of Exodus 31. I think God wants us to learn something today as well. As we discussed in our previous lesson “The Law, Part 2 – Sabbath,” Sabbath is so much, much more than a mere day of the week. It’s an attitude. We can either live our lives striving to get something that we already have, or we can begin abiding in the promises that God has bestowed upon us. (See John 15:1-8.) The Sabbath signifies a salvational rest. It’s a day we observe every week, where we remember that we can stop working to earn anything with God. We can’t impress Him. We can’t earn our way to heaven. Instead, we simply rest in His self-sacrificing and eternally-lasting love for us.

And with that last reminder, God delivers to Moses His holy law and covenant – the transcript of His very own character of love:

“When the Lord finished speaking with Moses on Mount Sinai, he gave him the two stone tablets inscribed with the terms of the covenant, written by the finger of God” (Exodus 31:18, NLT).

Written with God’s very own finger! The question we are now left with is, “What will Moses and Israel do with this overwhelmingly-beautiful token of God’s covenant relationship?” We wait until the next chapter to find out.

“Now, you will see what I will do”

As we read through Exodus 4, we see that Moses and God have been going back and forth on this “deliver my people” business for a while now, and finally, Moses runs out of excuses. “But Moses again pleaded, ‘Lord, please! Send anyone else'” (Exodus 4:13, NLT). Finally, the real reason comes out – Moses simply does not want to go. God has been exceedingly patient with Moses up to this point. God has parried every excuse Moses has brought to the table, but finally God gets a little ticked: “Then the Lord became angry with Moses” (verse 14). When God calls us to do something, He is more than willing to patiently work with our weaknesses and even our wavering faith. But when it boils down to sheer unwillingness to obey His call, then that’s what frustrates God and hinders His ability to continue working with us. But God compromises with Moses, I guess you could say. He agrees to send Aaron along with Moses. Of course, this ends up being a less-than-ideal situation since Aaron will end up causing a number of sticky patches along the way. However, under God’s direction, Moses and Aaron do eventually make their way to Egypt to meet up with the Hebrew elders:

Then Moses and Aaron went and gathered together all the elders of the children of Israel… So the people believed; and when they heard that the Lord had visited the children of Israel and that He had looked on their affliction, then they bowed their heads and worshiped. (Exodus 4:29-31, NKJV)

Then they bowed their heads and worshiped… I love this. When we learn of God’s amazing love and when we see His revelation in our life, our only proper response is to worship. Worship is a response to what God has done for us. Worship is the glue that holds our relationship with God together.

So things are off to a promising start, right? The people believed! Now it’s just a matter of politely asking Pharaoh to set his slaves free, right? With God on his side, Moses is sure to have the road clearly laid out before him! Except, that’s not exactly how it plays out, is it? Exodus 5 details the disastrous fallout of Moses’ audience with Pharaoh and the painful consequences that the suffering people must bear. If we’re honest with ourselves, we can hardly blame Moses for his agonizing cry:

Moses returned to the Lord and said, “Why, Lord, why have you brought trouble on this people? Is this why you sent me? Ever since I went to Pharaoh to speak in your name, he has brought trouble on this people, and you have not rescued your people at all!” (Exodus 5:22-23, NIV)

I think there’s a lesson in this reminding us that, sometimes when we follow God’s call, things may get worse before they get better. God hadn’t filled Moses in on all the details, but He had given Moses the big picture. Moses must learn to trust God with the big picture, even when the details seem to go the wrong direction. And so must we.

I appreciate Moses’ raw honesty with God. But I love even more how God responds to Moses… In response to Moses’ bitter outcry, God simply says, “Now you will see what I will do…” God isn’t angry with Moses, as we might expect. Instead He simply replies, “Just watch, Moses, and see what I can do.” Let’s remember that! Sometimes, when it seems like we’ve reached the end of our rope in life, when it seems like our backs are against a wall and there’s nowhere else to turn, just remember that those times are often the exact opportunity God has been waiting for to say, “Now, you will see what I will do!”

The LORD gently reminds Moses that He is fully aware of His children’s suffering, and that, with each stinging whip lash, His own heart has reverberated with the pain: “You can be sure that I have heard the groans of the people of Israel, who are now slaves to the Egyptians. And I am well aware of my covenant with them” (Exodus 6:5, NLT). God then wraps everything up in a beautiful restatement of His covenant. In a seven-fold “I will” promise, God reaffirms His covenant with His people:

“Therefore, say to the Israelites: ‘I AM the Lord [YHWH] and I will bring you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians. I will free you from being slaves to them, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with mighty acts of judgment. I will take you as my own people, and I will be your God. Then you will know that I am the Lord your God, who brought you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians. And I will bring you to the land I swore with uplifted hand to give to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob. I will give it to you as a possession. I AM the Lord.‘” (Exodus 6:6-8, NIV)

Notice how this beautiful promise is bookended by a declaration of God’s holy name – a claim of His identity and character. Before we jump head-first into our busy schedules this week, let’s take some time to meditate on God’s seven-fold promise to us today:

  • I will bring you out from under the yoke of the bondage.
  • I will free you from being slaves to this world’s sin and addiction.
  • I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with mighty acts of power.
  • I will take you as my own child.
  • I will be your God.
  • I will bring you to the land, the spacious place (Psalm 18:19), I swore to give you with an uplifted hand. (That is both a promise for this world and the world to come!)
  • I will give it to you as a possession, an inheritance. (“In Christ also we have obtained an inheritance, being predestined according to the purpose of Him who worketh all things after the counsel of His own will.” Ephesians 1:11, KJ21.)

May the Father and Son and Holy Spirt richly bless you today!

“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!

mosesbush.gif

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.