Exodus 3:1 – 4:17
Did you hear about the group of former sports fans were surveyed and asked why they quit attending sporting events? They offered a variety of reasons as to why they no longer went to see their favorite teams play.
One grumbled, “Every time I went to the stadium they wanted my money.”
Another complained, “The people sitting near me didn’t seem very friendly.”
Several griped that the seats were too hard and uncomfortable.
One lady said in a huff, “The coach never came to visit me!” while her husband noted that at halftime the band would play songs he had never heard before.
Someone else whined that the coach sometimes made decisions he didn’t agree with.
One person quit attending because, as she said, “It seemed I was always sitting with a bunch of hypocrites. They weren’t there to watch the game but just to see who else was there and to be seen by them.”
One very important and busy person said he stopped going because sometimes the games went into overtime and he was late getting home.
Finally, one man protested that his parents forced him to go to games when he was a child. As soon as he was able to decide for himself, he quit attending sporting events.
Obviously that parody is poking fun at the excuses people sometimes use to justify their lack of church attendance. But whether it has to do with attending sporting events or church services, our reluctance to volunteer for school activities or to obey the calling of God, probably we all have experience with making excuses. Of course, the reason we make excuses is that we don’t really have a good reason to say, “No.” Sometimes we are asked to do something and there are good reasons to say “No”, but when we don’t have a good reason but we don’t want to do it, we come up with an excuse. And when we really don’t want to do something, almost any excuse will do.
When we make up an excuse to avoid what God is prompting us to do, we miss out on something good God wants to do in and through our lives. Sometimes God lets us get away with that, but other times God keeps after us until finally we run out of excuses. We find an example of that in the life of Moses. Our passage today in Exodus 3:1 – 4:17. I’ll read only some of the verses today, beginning with vs. 1-10.
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 desert 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.”
Last week we considered the first part of this passage and how Moses received a fresh call from God. He had failed when he was in Egypt by killing an Egyptian taskmaster. Moses felt moved to come to the aid of his fellow Israelites, but he went about it all wrong. He did it his way instead of God’s way. Because Moses killed the Egyptian, Pharaoh then tried to kill Moses for he was now a traitor. So Moses had to flee for his life and spent the next 40 years herding sheep in the desert. By now he was about 80 years old, and had probably concluded that he would never achieve anything significant with his life. He had failed before when he was young. He was too old now. After all, who receives a fresh call from God when they are 80 – a call to do the most important thing they have ever done? Moses must have thought he would simply live out the rest of his days and die there in the desert.
But God in His grace came to Moses again and spoke to him from the bush that was burning yet not consumed by the fire. In Scripture fire often represents the presence of God. Moses, rather than just going on about his shepherding, had the good sense here to turn aside upon seeing this unusual event. Only then did God speak to him.
After calling Moses by name, God commanded Moses, “Do not come any closer. Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.” It’s interesting that God did not tell Moses not to come any closer because the bush burning with the presence of God was holy, which is probably what we would have expected. Rather God said that the ground where Moses was standing was holy ground. And Moses, while he turned to observe this burning bush, was still a little ways from it for God commanded him not to come any closer. God did not tell Moses not to come any closer because the ground the bush was on was holy. No God said the ground Moses was standing on was holy. In other words, God was saying to Moses, “Stay there where you are, on that holy ground, until we are finished.” That was an important distinction for Moses and it is for us as well.
The word “holy” literally means “separated” or “set apart.” To be holy is to be separated from evil. It is to be set apart from the contamination of this fallen world in order to follow the ways of God. As the call of God came to Moses, God said to him that the very ground he was standing on was holy for he was standing in a place of decision.
God was calling Moses to separate himself from all that would distract him in this crucial moment to focus solely on God and His call. Furthermore, Moses needed to separate himself from his past failure in Egypt of doing things his own way, and he needed to separate himself from the life he had known these past 40 years to embrace this new call. In separating himself, Moses was being set apart by God for a special call from God.
From time to time we will find ourselves standing on holy ground. We may not see a burning bush, but there will be times when God will come to us with a new call, a new sense of direction for our lives. In that moment we must separate ourselves from anything that would hinder us from embracing that call. We must set ourselves apart from our past, from our own plans for our future, and from any excuses we might use to avoid accepting this new call of God. In those moments we stand on holy ground for the presence of God is there, and God calls us to set ourselves apart for the purposes of God, so that we may follow God in this new step of obedience.
How wonderful and affirming to us that God would come to us – no matter who we are and no matter our past – just as He did with Moses, and call us by name, inviting us to make a difference in our worlds as we follow in obedience to His call. Every one of us has the potential to make a significant impact, for God will empower us to do just that as we embrace His call.
Of course, we need to be honest about this and acknowledge that while being called by God is affirming and exciting, sometimes the call of God complicates our lives. We maybe thought we had our lives pretty well planned out. We’re comfortable in the present and we are moving nicely toward our future goals. We’re involved in the church but we keep our involvement limited to things that do not push us out of our comfort zones.
And then God calls us to a step of obedience and service that definitely pushes us out of our comfort zones. God asks us to do something we have never done before, something that we feel entirely inadequate for. Or maybe it’s not a task we don’t feel capable of doing but rather it’s a new direction for our life, something that was not a part of our long-range plans. Of course the reason is that God wants us to learn to depend on Him and to see how His power can work through our lives to accomplish what we never could on our own. But if our vision of God is too small, if we doubt that God will enable us to do what He calls us to do or question whether His plans really are good, then we may find ourselves making excuses to avoid stepping out in faith and obedience. That’s just what Moses resorted to.
When God first tells Moses that He seen the misery of the Israelite slaves and has heard their cries, that He is concerned about their suffering and is going to come down and rescue them, Moses probably is thinking, “Yeah! Way to go, God! The people have been suffering for so many years and now You’re going to rescue them. Praise be to you, O God!” But then God says to Moses, “So now, go. I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt.” Moses was not expecting that! And it took Moses only about half a second to realize he wasn’t at all comfortable with God’s call. It complicated his life. And so he started making excuses.
The first excuse Moses offered was, “Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” Who am I? Why, I’m just a nobody. I’m just a shepherd. I don’t have any qualifications or any experience in this kind of thing. I’m not capable of pulling this off. Pharaoh won’t listen to me, nor will the Israelites. Besides, look at my resumé. I’ve blown it in the past. How could anyone have confidence that I could succeed this time?
Notice that God doesn’t refute this argument. God doesn’t want Moses to begin trusting in himself, so God doesn’t encourage Moses to look at his strengths instead of his weaknesses. Instead, God says, “I will be with you.” That was the key. God almighty, unlimited in power and wisdom, would be with Moses. The strength of God would more than compensate for the weakness of Moses, and the power of God would far surpass all the power of the Pharaoh and his army.
Haven’t we all tried this excuse before? God places before us an opportunity. It may be life-changing in scope or something as simple as starting a lunch hour Bible study where you work. And we say, “Who am I to do that? I’ve never done that before. I don’t have any training.” But the most important thing is not what experience or skills we bring but the promise of God to be with us. When the risen Christ commissioned His followers to go into all the world and make disciples of all the nations – a daunting and terrifying call – He encouraged them with the promise, “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age,” (Mt. 28:20)
Be assured of this: God will not abandon us after He calls us. He will be there to strengthen us, equip us, and enable us to fulfill His calling. But we won’t experience His empowering presence until we step out in faith and act on His call.
Well, not entirely convinced, Moses then had another excuse. He said to God (vs. 13), “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 his name?’ Then what shall I tell them?” In other words, Moses’ excuse was, “I don’t know what to say. I don’t have all the answers.”
And don’t we try that excuse as well? God, I can’t witness because I get all nervous and confused and wouldn’t know what to say. I can’t teach a Sunday School class because I don’t know enough about the Bible. What if someone asks me to explain the Trinity, or what will happen to all the people who have never heard the gospel? I wouldn’t know what to say. What that really amounts to is pride. We don’t want to be in a position where we might appear foolish or uninformed. And therefore we play it safe. Rather than stepping out in faith we stay secure in our comfort zones.
That was Moses’ excuse. But at the same time, God recognizes Moses’ need to respond to this question and so He tells Moses His name: “I AM WHO I AM.” Much has been written about this name. It comes from the Hebrew verb “to be,” implying that God is self-existent and self-sufficient, dependent on no one and nothing for His existence or the manner of His being. This verb also carries with it a future sense, and so Bernard Ramm points out that it has the idea of “I will be continuously with you as future events unfold,” or “I am a God who participates in your history so that as events come I am in them.” So it’s not only a name that God gives Moses, but it is also God’s character that He reveals. He is the self-existent God who will be with His people to lead them, sustain them, and protect them.
The Scottish preacher from more than a century ago, Alexander Maclaren, relates this name for God with his presence in the burning bush from which He revealed His name. He made this insightful observation:
The fire that burns and does not burn out, which has no tendency to destruction in its very energy, and is not consumed by its own activity, is surely a symbol of the One Being, whose being derives its law and its source from itself, who only can say – “I AM THAT I AM” – the law of his nature, the foundation of his being, the only conditions of his existence being, as it were, enclosed within the limits of his own nature. You and I have to say, “I AM THAT WHICH I HAVE BECOME,” or “I AM THAT WHICH I WAS BORN,” or “I AM THAT WHICH CIRCUMSTANCES HAVE MADE ME.” He says, “I AM THAT I AM.” All other being is derived, and therefore limited and changeful; this being is un-derived, absolute, self-dependent, and therefore unalterable forevermore. Because we live, we die. In living, the process is going on of which death is the end. But God lives forevermore, a flame that does not burn out; therefore his resources are inexhaustible, his power unwearied. He needs no rest for recuperation of wasted energy. His gifts diminish not the store which he has to bestow. He gives and is none the poorer. He works and is never weary. He operates unspent; he loves and loves forever. And through the ages, the fire burns on, unconsumed and undecayed.
Like a flame that burns but does not burn out, God exists as He is forever. His power is never lacking and his wisdom is never diminished, and He is with us always. So we can be confident whenever we respond to God’s call.
Then Moses comes up with another excuse as to why he was not the one to carry out God’s plan. Speaking of his fellow Israelites who would have to follow him out of Egypt, Moses said to God (4:1), “What if they do not believe me or listen to me and say, ‘The Lord did not appear to you’?”
There are two words that have the power to keep us stuck in the starting blocks so we never run the race of faith. Two small words can snuff the life out of God’s good plans for our lives. Those two words are the two Moses used here: “What if.” What if this happens? What if that happens? Because Moses was bogged down with what might happen, he lost sight of what God said would happen.
When presented with a new opportunity from God we can come up with all kinds of potential obstacles. What if I begin to tithe on my income and then a medical crisis arises? What if I give to the needy but they just take advantage of me? What if I go on that short-term missions trip and I get sick? What if I sing on the worship team but my voice cracks and I hit the wrong note? What if I ask my colleague at work to come to church and he laughs at me like I’m crazy?
God doesn’t promise us that obedience won’t bring with it some new problems, for obedience always involves some risks. Nor does God expect perfection from us when we obey His purpose. But God will be with us and God will work through us. In fact, God works best through our weaknesses. Instead of getting bogged down with “what if” questions when God calls us to do something we don’t feel capable of or don’t feel comfortable with, we should welcome such opportunities with the attitude of “won’t it be exciting to see how God pulls this off.” When that is our attitude, we will watch in amazement as God overcomes the hindrances that may arise.
Well, Moses has another excuse up his sleeve. He reminds God (4:10), “I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor since you have spoken to your servant. I am slow of speech and tongue.” Moses protested that he didn’t have the necessary skills and abilities to go to the Pharaoh of Egypt and convince him to let the Israelites go free. And so God posed some questions to Moses. “Who gave man his mouth? Who makes him deaf or mute? Who gives him sight or makes him blind? Is it not I, the Lord? Now go; I will help you speak and will teach you what to say.”
We must never forget that the work God calls us to is God’s work. It could never be done in our own strength or by our own abilities. If we are trusting in ourselves we will soon fall flat on our faces. It’s not a matter of how capable we are. Instead it’s a matter of surrendering ourselves to God and His purposes. It means yielding our hands to God so He can work through them, our mind to God so He can reason through it, our mouth to God so He can speak through it. For He is the source of all we have and are.
Finally, Moses runs out of excuses and just pleads with God (4:13), “O Lord, please send someone else to do it.” I love this verse! Here is Moses, one of the two or three most outstanding people in Scripture, yet can’t we identify with him here! “O Lord, please send someone else to do it.” In the end, Moses just didn’t want to do it. So God used Aaron instead. Moses still was the one to go and lead the people out, but Aaron became the spokesman. That, of course, would lead to problems later on. Disobedience always does.
Sometimes we say the same thing to God. We just don’t want to do what He asks of us. Let someone else do it. Someone else can teach Sunday School. Someone else can open up their home for a Bible study. Someone else can serve on the board. Someone else can minister to the needy in the community. When we leave it to someone else we always miss out on the joy and satisfaction of seeing God work through us.
What is God calling you to do? How would God use you to impact others? What do you have to offer? And it could be anything. I skipped over one part of this encounter between God and Moses. After Moses argued, “What if they do not believe me or listen to me” God asked Moses (4:2), “What is that in your hand?” Moses replied, “A staff.” All shepherds needed a staff, and that’s all Moses had. God commanded Moses to throw it on the ground and when he did it turned into a snake. God then told Moses to pick it up and when he did it became his staff again.
I know that may be hard for the modern person to believe, but we must beware of taking all the mystery out of God and our faith. When we do that we end up with a form of religion without any power. In ancient Egypt the snake was a symbol of royal and divine power of the Pharaoh and a snake was engraved on his diadem. By having Moses grab the snake which then turned back into his staff God was reassuring Moses that by God’s power he would be victorious over the Pharaoh. God concluded His conversation with Moses by commanding him (4:17), “But take this staff in your hand so you can perform miraculous signs with it.” And later it was through the staff that God worked the mighty miracles, like parting the Red Sea.
Moses did not have a mighty army at his side. All he had in his hand was his staff, and that was enough. The question for us is: What do we have in our hands? You see, we don’t have to have a seminary doctorate or be a classically trained pianist. We don’t have to have 20 years of experience teaching Sunday School. If we have such things – great, but they are not required.
All we have to do is offer God what we have. And that’s all God asks of us, for He will work through that to accomplish His purposes. When he faced the fierce giant Goliath all David had in his hand was a slingshot, but he was victorious. All the poor widow had in her hand were two copper coins, but she is remembered to this day for her generous spirit. All a small, unnamed boy had in his hands were two fish and five pieces of bread, but by the power of Jesus that fed 5,000 people. Such things were enough, for they were offered to God, and God’s power worked through them to accomplish mighty things.
What is in your hand? Do you play a musical instrument? Do you like working with children? How about working on cars? I know of several churches in the States where a group of men who are knowledgeable about cars provide free car maintenance on Saturday mornings to the needy in their community. They demonstrate the love of God in a very practical way. Do you have computer skills? Are you real organized? Do you love to bake? Are you talented in art or drama? Do you enjoy studying? Do you have a lot of free time? Do you enjoy having people over to your home? Has God blessed you financially? All these things, and countless others, can be used to serve God and others when we offer them to God.
What’s in your hand? Whatever it is, that is what God is calling you to use in His service. Why settle for excuses when you can experience the power of God working through whatever you have to offer?
Are you standing on holy ground today? Are you in the place of decision? Is God calling you to separate yourself from your past, from failures, future plans, from all your excuses so that you might say “Yes” to God and be set apart for His purposes for you? Take whatever is in your hand, yield it to God, and embrace His call. And then be ready to see the power of God work through you.