When last we were together, we were traveling with the Old Testament’s Abram, whom God has told to step out in faith and get going.
Abram and his wife, Sarai, pack their bags and fly off into the unknown on the wings of God’s promises too breathtaking to take in and almost too good to be true, moving lock, stock and barrel hundreds of miles away from their homeland, with only the vaguest understanding of why they’re moving, and absolutely no clue about what will happen when they get there.
And so it goes when you’ve become a disciple whose trust is firmly in the Lord.
By faith, you’re all too happy and eager to step out boldly and bravely, even though you have absolutely no clue where you’re going, so long as you know that God is coming along for the ride. With God’s strong hand holding yours, everything is going to work out just fine. That’s the excitement of walking with God. God is in control and will unveil the route as the two of you go along, journeying in stages with Abram and all who followed him in faith, assured of God’s promises to fill the empty places in our lives with new life.
Perhaps it is, then, as I suggested to you last Sunday, that story of God and us hinges on believing that the answers to our prayers lie in the crosses we’re forced to bear and in trusting that we do not bear those crosses alone.
Which brings us to this morning’s lesson.
Save for the arrival of Jesus Christ, Exodus 3 shares the most spectacular revealing of God in the history of salvation. Its verses fire the Lord’s opening salvos in the battle to redeem a fallen Creation and broken people. The voice of God speaking to Moses from a burning bush begins the liberation of God’s people from their bondage of slavery in Egypt! This massive movement of God begins when the Lord calls Moses to be God’s mediator in the drama of salvation that begins to play itself out in these opening acts of Exodus.
And know this: While the Lord has been active behind the scenes in the lives of his covenant people for countless generations, God at this point has gone unseen and unheard for at least 400 years. No one’s heard directly from the Lord since he spoke to Jacob and gave him a new name: Israel.
So, you’ve surely got to empathize with the misery and rage of the Israelites suffering as slaves in Egypt, because, probably more than once, you’ve undoubtedly echoed the Israelites in lifting up similar cries of sorrow and lament: Where is God? Why is God so silent? Why doesn’t God come to help us?
Here, at long last, The Great I Am shows up with marching orders that will shake the foundations of Pharoah’s Egypt and shape the future for God’s people. May the Holy Spirit open your heart and mind to the Word of the Lord in these ancient words handed down to us in this age.
The Israelites groaned under their slavery and cried out.
Out of the slavery their cry for help rose up to God. God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God looked upon the Israelites, and God took notice of them.
Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the LORD appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. Then Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.”
When the LORD saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” Then God said, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” God said further, “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.
Then the LORD said, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from 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 country of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt”
But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” He said, “I will be with you, and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain.”
But Moses said to God, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’”
God also said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘The LORD, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you’: This is my name forever, and this my title for all generations.” (Exodus 2:23-3:15)
“Does Jesus Care?” is the pensive title to an old hymn that every now and again shows up on a funeral playlist.
“Does Jesus care when my heart is pained,” go the lyrics. “Too deeply for mirth or song, as the burdens press, and the cares distress, and the way grows weary and long?”
That sounds a little stodgy and syrupy, but the question at its heart remains as topical as ever: “Does Jesus care? Does God care?” Across the generations and yet today, we adopted sons and daughters of God naturally wonder if heaven cares about our painful experiences and emotions. Does God care about the sicknesses, the trials, and the challenges that each of us in our own way is enduring?
Those are gut-wrenching questions that the first hearers of Exodus 3 also must have pondered. And here’s why:
Egypt’s Pharaoh has hatched a scheme to slaughter all of Israel’s baby boys, because in the eyes of Egypt’s powerbrokers, there simply are too many greasy Israelites running around the country, and their large numbers supposedly pose a threat to national security. While Pharaoh’s own daughter rescues and adopts one of those babies, who grows to become the man standing before that burning bush atop Mount Horeb, Pharaoh nevertheless has blood on his hands for the brutal genocide of countless little boys.
Thanks to Pharaoh’s daughter, Moses escapes death only to be forced to flee Egypt as an adult to escape punishment for his own act of murder. His life of exile takes a turn for the better when he marries and goes to work for his father-in-law. But fortunes don’t improve for his family and friends back in Egypt, who who “groaned in slavery, their cries for help rising up to God.”
If you listen carefully, with ears of empathy, such cries still resonate across the vast landscape of all Creation. You hear them coming from deep within the hunger-swollen bellies of children dwelling in famine-stricken countries and food-insecure neighborhoods. Does God hear those cries? Does Jesus care?
If you and I listen carefully, with ears of compassion, we still hear the cries of parents working two or three jobs just to make ends meet and struggling to pay the bills and keep a roof over everyone’s head. Does God hear those cries? Does Jesus care?
If we listen carefully, with ears of deliverance, we still hear the cries of God’s oppressed people: Patients suffering in hospital rooms and nursing homes, friends and family members battling addictions, countless others wrestling with demons of every stripe. Does God hear those cries? Does Jesus care?
Or do the pleas of a desperate and hurting humanity simply vanish into thin air like so much dust in the wind?
Current events indeed give one pause to wonder if God really does still care.
Cries from the hungry, the oppressed, the downtrodden, and the enslaved still fill the air and echo off the hard surfaces and rough edges of a broken and fearful world with a steady, disturbing rhythm. God, at times, doesn’t seem to care. But that’s about to change.
The answer to the question of whether the Lord will do anything in answer to his people’s cries is far quicker than it is predictable. God turns, surprisingly, to Moses, the adopted of Egyptian royalty now happily living in a strange land, simply minding his own business and dutifully tending his father-in-law’s sheep far from the misery of his compatriots.
Sometimes, the Lord comes and speaks to his people when and where they feel far away. Some find themselves on the run, basically hiding from God and from others, in some kind of desolate place, precisely because it seems so isolated. Yet, in those lonely places, God often finds, catches, and somehow calls out to God’s people.
From Moses’s hiding place on a holy mountain, God calls to Moses by the name that reminds him of God’s rescue from Pharoah’s bloodlust. Moses finally learns that it’s the God of his ancestors who’s now calling out to him from that mysterious, fiery bush. The same God who made promises to his fellow Israelites now deigns to come down and talk to, of all people, Moses.
Is it any wonder, then, that Moses becomes terrified?
What’s more, Moses isn’t looking for God! He’s probably literally just looking for greener pastures in which to graze his sheep. And Moses isn’t looking for a new job. He’s already got one! And while God with the wave of heaven’s hand single-handedly could free the Israelites from the stranglehold of Pharaoh’s iron grip, God instead chooses to enlist Moses’s help in the fight for deliverance.
God’s plan for Israel’s liberation probably sounds pretty good to Moses – until God fills in the details. God tells Moses, “I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people out of Egypt.” “Are you kidding, God!” it’s as if Moses balks. “You want me to stand in front of Pharaoh?” As another biblical scholar notes, Moses’s “Here am I!” quickly turns into a “Who am I?” His eager readiness turns into resistance and reasons to say “no.”
Moses won’t just be a messenger. He’ll also be the one with whom God promises to stand before the rebellious Pharaoh – and, as it’ll turn out, a rebellious people. The divine “I” will go with the human “I” to accomplish God’s plan and fulfill God’s desires. But not even God’s promise to go with Moses is enough to convince him. As another notes, Moses’s “Who am I?” turns on a dime into a “Who are you?”
If he’s to accept this risky business, Moses needs to know exactly who this God is and what this God plans to do in accompanying Moses on such a dangerous mission. God’s answer is one of the most mysterious in the whole Bible: “I am who I am, I will be who I will.” It’s an answer that reflects the Lord’s faithfulness to both himself and his nature. God insists that Moses and Israel can count on God to always be who God is – that is, among other things, filled with faithfulness and overflowing with integrity.
That’s why the Lord both hears Israel’s groaning and shows his concern. God is what God is: faithful. That’s why God will rescue Israel from her Egyptian slavery. God is what God is: faithful and willing to walk the walk. That’s why God will plant freed Israel in the land God promised her ancestor Abraham. God is what God is: faithful, willing to walk the walk, not just talk the talk. God has the integrity of faith to care deeply and lovingly.
But how do we know?
How do we know that God cares about the cries of the hungry, sad, fearful and oppressed?
How do we know that God cares about the cries of families mourning losses of loved ones to COVID and cancer?
How do we know that God cares about the tears of the teenager thinking about ending it all because constant bullying doesn’t make life worth living?
How do we know that God cares about all the wars and threats of wars close to home and half a world away?
How do God’s people know that God cares so deeply about us? How do we know?!
The answer is Jesus Christ, whom God faithfully sends to live, die and rise again from the dead. God sends him to free us from all things that enslave us – including sin, evil, and death. Jesus Christ is God’s response to all of our cries. Does God care? One only needs to peer inside an empty tomb to see and hear an unequivocal “yes.” And because God cares, we can look forward to an eternal home in God’s presence in a new Creation.
And the next time you wonder why God permits such heinous suffering and heartache to happen in our world, ask yourself a better question: Why do you permit it? Why do we permit it?
God chooses the unlikely character of Moses to redeem an entire nation. So, why couldn’t and wouldn’t God choose you to do the same? Why couldn’t and wouldn’t God choose you to stand up to bully pharaohs of our time and thus free all those folks languishing in bondage?
The repeated refrain in the lyric story of God and us calls you and me to do the heavy lifting of co-creation and co-redemption with God. When the faithful God calls, your faithful answer is “Here I am!” And then let The Great I Am do great and beautiful, marvelous things through you – through the meditations of your heart, through the words of your mouth, through the movement of your hands and feet.
And so it goes when you’re a disciple whose trust is firmly in the Lord.
By faith, you’re all too happy and eager to step out boldly and bravely, even though you have absolutely no clue where you’re going, so long as you know that God is coming along for the ride.
Ancient words, ever true. Amen, and amen!
Pastor Grant M. VanderVelden shared this message on Sunday, February 6, 2022. The fifth sermon in his series “Becoming Disciples: The Story of God and Us,” it is adapted from scholarship, commentary, and reflection by Doug Bratt, Walter Brueggeman, Terence E. Fretheim, Stan Mast, and Scott Hoezee.