God Needs Us
Exodus 1, 2, & 3
This morning in our journey through the Old Testament, we jump from Genesis to Exodus. We left off last week with Jacob wrestling with God and having his name changed to Israel. Jacob had 12 sons and at least one daughter and after a famine in their homeland, the whole clan moved to Egypt. One brother Joseph was already in Egypt and had become very powerful so he was able to help his family settle down. They lived there for hundreds of years and the story we will hear this morning is about a man named Moses. Many of you know Moses’s story. We’re not going to read all of this morning, so let me just fill in a few of the blanks for you. By the time Moses was born, the descendants of Israel were no longer free citizens in Egypt but slaves. In an attempt to limit the Israelite population, many Israelite boy babies were killed. Moses escaped this fate and was even adopted by an Egyptian princess and raised in the palace. As a young man, he killed another Egyptian and wound up running for his life hundreds of miles away to another country. In that country he married and had at least one son and joined in his wife’s family’s business of raising sheep. This morning, we’re going to hear a little bit of the back story of the Israelites in slavery and then catch up with Moses tending sheep in the desert.
“So let us listen now in the reading of Scripture for the Word and Wisdom of God.” – Iona Community Worship Book
Exodus 1:1-14, 2:23-25, 3:1-17
These are the names of the sons of Israel who went to Egypt with Jacob, each with his family: Reuben, Simeon, Levi and Judah; Issachar, Zebulun and Benjamin; Dan and Naphtali; Gad and Asher. The descendants of Jacob numbered seventy in all; Joseph was already in Egypt.
Now Joseph and all his brothers and all that generation died, but the Israelites were exceedingly fruitful; they multiplied greatly, increased in numbers and became so numerous that the land was filled with them.
Then a new king, to whom Joseph meant nothing, came to power in Egypt. “Look,” he said to his people, “the Israelites have become far too numerous for us. Come, we must deal shrewdly with them or they will become even more numerous and, if war breaks out, will join our enemies, fight against us and leave the country.”
So they put slave masters over them to oppress them with forced labor, and they built Pithom and Rameses as store cities for Pharaoh. But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread; so the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites and worked them ruthlessly. They made their lives bitter with harsh labor in brick and mortar and with all kinds of work in the fields; in all their harsh labor the Egyptians worked them ruthlessly …
… After a long time, the king of Egypt died. The Israelites groaned in their slavery and cried out, and their cry for help because of their slavery went up to God. God heard their groaning and he remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac and with Jacob. So God looked on the Israelites and was concerned about them …
… Now Moses was tending the flock of Jethro his father-in-law, the priest of Midian, and he led the flock to the far side of the wilderness and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in flames of fire from within a bush. Moses saw that though the bush was on fire it did not burn up. So Moses thought, “I will go over and see this strange sight—why the bush does not burn up.”
When the Lord saw that he had gone over to look, God called to him from within the bush, “Moses! Moses!”
And Moses said, “Here I am.”
“Do not come any closer,” God said. “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.” Then he said, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.” At this, Moses hid his face, because he was afraid to look at God.
The Lord said, “I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering. So I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey—the home of the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites. And now the cry of the Israelites has reached me, and I have seen the way the Egyptians are oppressing them. So now, go. I am sending 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?”
And God said, “I will be with you. And this will be the sign to you that it is I who have sent you: When you have brought the people out of Egypt, you will worship God on this mountain.”
Moses said to God, “Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is this God’s name?’ Then what shall I tell them?”
God said to Moses, “I am who I am. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I am has sent me to you.’”
God also said to Moses, “Say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord, the God of your fathers—the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob—has sent me to you.’
“This is my name forever,
the name you shall call me
from generation to generation.
“Go, assemble the elders of Israel and say to them, ‘The Lord, the God of your fathers—the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob—appeared to me and said: I have watched over you and have seen what has been done to you in Egypt. And I have promised to bring you up out of your misery in Egypt into the land of the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites—a land flowing with milk and honey.’
This is the Word of God for all people. Thanks be to God.
There are so many directions we could go with this text this morning. I would bet that even if you didn’t grow up in church, you’ve heard this story. You’ve seen either the Charlton Heston movie or the Prince of Egypt or you’ve just heard the phrase “burning bush.” But this morning, as we wrap up our series on stewardship, I want us to reflect for a few minutes on struggle, on hope, and on how God works in the world. Struggle, hope, and how God works in the world.
I read an article recently where the author was suggesting that many of us have an idealized version of God, instead of what I would call a realistic and biblical version of God. This ideal God is not the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, but instead is a god of our own imaginations, something like a giant Santa Claus in the sky. And in our imaginations, it is the job of this Santa Claus God to make everything OK for us. If we’ve been good boys and girls this year, then God will smooth out my path and give me health and wealth. And friends, that would be very convenient, but it is unfortunately not realistic and not biblical. The idea that it’s God’s job to make everything nice for us is a prosperity gospel American dream white middle class Hollywood lie from the enemy designed to make us dissatisfied and ungrateful. Let me say that again. The idea that it’s God’s job to make everything nice for us is a prosperity gospel American dream white middle class Hollywood lie. And when we fall for this lie, which has been cleverly devised by the power of evil, it makes us dissatisfied and ungrateful. When we fall for that lie, for that idealized version of God, our faith, our trust in God, stays weak and flabby and we never develop the muscles of a resilient realistic faith.
All of you in this room, even the youngest among us, have been alive long enough to know that life is not perfect. Things don’t always go our way, and regardless of how hard we may be willing to work, we don’t get everything we want. Now most of us in this room have it pretty good compared to the rest of the world, or even some of our neighbors in this county. And the irony is that the better off we are, the weaker our trust muscles usually are, because we haven’t had to exercise them as much. When we fall for the lie, when our muscles are weak, then struggles come our way and we don’t know what to do about it. And so we assume that something has gone wrong with our lives. That somehow “it wasn’t supposed to be this way.” What this story invites us to remember is that life can be hard and we can be right where God needs us to be.
By the time Moses sees this burning bush, he was probably tempted to say that his life wasn’t supposed to be this way. Separated from his family of origin, having lost his royal privileges, far away from everything that was familiar, raised to be a prince but out in the wilderness tending smelly sheep, Moses’s 10 year plan for his life had been shot to pieces. And yet, he was exactly where God needed him to be.
Which should give us some hope when we feel like we are struggling. One thing I love about this story is how God shows up in a totally unexpected way. Moses is having a regular day, not expecting anything special, and suddenly has an encounter with the Holy that leads him into a whole new season of life. Friends, the message here is that we never know what is right around the corner. We never know when redemption, healing, comfort, provision, love is going to show up in our lives. We never know when God is going to show up in our lives. Now you might say, “But Pastor Beth I have been waiting a long time for God to show up in my situation.” I know. We know. And we take that seriously, and we bear witness to your grief and fear, and we stand with you in that waiting. And, as your family of faith, we remind you that hope is God’s invitation to trust that something good is always possible.
Now this isn’t magic, which is why I want to also reflect on how God works in the world. There are real issues facing us as individuals and as a human family. In our own country we have issues of racial injustice and interpersonal violence that continue to go unresolved because some of us refuse give up what we see as our rights. In countries around the world, people are starving. And as a human family, we are standing at the edge of unprecedented disaster due to climate change. And what is God going to do about that?
Friends, according to this story, a better question is what are we going to do about it? Listen again to what God says in this story. God says to Moses, “I have seen the suffering of my people. I have heard their cries. I know their suffering. And I am coming down to bring them up.” Awesome! We love that. Here comes our on-time God ready to make a way where there is no way! But that’s not the end. God goes on to say, “Now I am sending YOU, Moses, to bring my people out.” Well, wait a minute, I thought God was going to do it. Uh-huh. Yes. God is going to do it. And Moses is going to do it. God is going to do it through Moses.
Friends, the only way that God works in the world is through us. The only way that God releases people from oppression. The only way that God accomplishes racial reconciliation – the only way that God calms violence – the only way that God ends poverty – the only way that God slows the destruction of Creation – the only way God provides food and shelter and car repairs and utility bills and medical procedures through Zion’s Family Emergency Fund – the only way that God does anything tangible in this world is through us. We are God’s Not-so-secret Agents, called and empowered to accomplish God’s purposes in God’s world.
God does not snap God’s fingers, or wrinkle God’s nose, or do that weird “I Dream of Jeanie” head move to get things done. God sees what needs doing. God hears the cries of the oppressed. God feels the pain of Creation. And then God says to us, “Go and get it done.” Do you understand that God needs you? That the things that break your heart break God’s heart and those are the things that you are being called and empowered to fix.
It’s a tall order. No doubt. But thankfully, we don’t do it alone. Remember, God gives this task to Moses and the first thing Moses says is “Who am I to do this?!” Did you catch what God says? God doesn’t say, “Well, Moses, you’re the best and the greatest and the smartest and that’s why I picked you.” No. God doesn’t tell Moses anything about Moses. God’s response to Moses’s feelings of fear and intimidation is simply this: “I will be with you.” I have called you. I have empowered you. And I will be with you. Moses is the Not-so-secret Agent, but it’s not about who Moses is. It’s about who God is.
And who is God? This is where our story ends this morning. Moses basically asks God, “Who are you?!” Which is a totally legitimate question. Up to this point in the Bible, God has only ever dealt with individuals and told them things about their own lives and futures and families. No one has ever before been sent by God to tell something to someone else. So when Moses picks up the phone and God says, “I’d like to speak to the people,” Moses basically says, “Whom shall I say is calling?” Who is this God? We assume Moses knows the Egyptian gods because he grew up in the palace. And maybe he knows something of the Hebrew God because he did spend at least a little time with his family of origin. But that God went by many names. And so Moses asks, “How do I represent you to the people? Who are you?”
And notice what God says, “I am myself.” The actual Hebrew phrase here is very interesting because it basically contains all possibilities of identity. I am who I am, always the same. I will be who I will be, always changing and always new. I will be who I am, evolving and yet familiar.
God doesn’t immediately answer the question of what Moses should say to the Israelites. I suggest to you that first God reassures Moses by saying, “You will discover that I am who you need me to be to complete this task.” God is not always who we want God to be. But God is always who we need God to be. Not making everything easy, not fixing everything immediately. But present with us, providing enough to help us take the next step, calling us and empowering us to do God’s work in the world.
And then God identifies Godself. God gives Moses a name to share with the people. But in the tradition of our spiritual ancestors, the name is almost unpronounceable. In fact, devout Jews never speak the name. In the Hebrew language, only the consonants in the name have been written down. We don’t even know what the vowels are, so we really don’t know how to say it. So in English we just say, the Lord in all caps. The Lord, the God of our ancestors, the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob. Remember that’s the God of bold moves, ridiculous promises, and struggling. And from this point on, God is remembered by the people as the one who brought them out of slavery and oppression. This is what our God is always up to in the world.
We are the people who are called and powered to do God’s work. The God of our ancestors, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is the one who invites us, however reluctant we may be, to follow God’s bold moves, believe God’s ridiculous promises, and be faithful in our wrestling. God has big things to do in this world, and God cannot and will not do it without us. Amen.