Sermon 1 - Who is Yahweh?
Bruce B. Miller
For days the media has been remembering 9-11. In the wake of overwhelming 9-11 memories, for some there are too many stories and pictures. What I remember are the questions, important questions. Ten years ago, churches around the country were filled with people asking where is God? Who is God and does he care?
These are the very questions that the book of Exodus addresses. The people of Israel were asking similar questions, not because of a terrorist attack, but because of their long oppression in Egypt. Today we begin a new series: Exodus: the God you thought you knew. Exodus also calls us to remember, but what we are to remember is very different. It is not a tragedy we are to remember, or even individual heroic acts, but we are to remember the great God who delivered his people.
We will discover that the theme of Exodus is redemption. The point of the book is that God saves his people. The central character is not Moses or Israel, but God himself. This is an exciting book. According to the ESV Study Bible, Exodus is an adventure story par excellence. It features a cruel villain (Pharaoh), an unlikely hero (Moses), overwhelming disasters (the plagues), a spectacular deliverance (crossing the Red Sea), a long journey (through the wilderness), a mountaintop experience (where Moses received the Ten Commandments); and a grand finale (the presence of God coming down to the ark of the covenant, filling the tabernacle with glory). The story features unexpected setbacks and unpredictable delays, magic tricks (from Pharaoh’s sorcerers) and miracles, feasts and festivals, music and dancing, and many close encounters with the living God.
We are exploring and remembering seven anchor stories of our faith in Exodus. In each of them we will come to better understand the God you thought you knew. This chart from the Exodus study guide shows where we are going from, who is Yahweh?, to, God acts, God redeems, God delivers, God provides, God instructs, and finally, where is Yahweh? The story takes place in three main places. We start in Egypt and move through the wilderness to Mount Sinai, where we receive the Ten Commandments and the instructions about the Tabernacle. We will learn about God’s power, protection and presence.
In many ways Exodus is the central book of the Old Testament. It reveals the character and presence of God with his people. Passover, the exodus from Egypt through the Red Sea and the Tabernacle are anchor stories referred to again and again in the rest of the Old Testament and in the New. Understanding Exodus helps you understand Jesus Christ. Jesus fulfills the role of Moses, the deliverer, the great Liberator. Passover anticipates Christ’s redemption as the ultimate Passover Lamb of God. Jesus is associated with the manna in the wilderness. Jesus is the One who dwells with us. His death is our exodus out of slavery to sin. We are getting ahead of ourselves, but I want you to look out at what is coming. Look for connections.
Today we are asking the question: who is Yahweh? Yahweh is the main Hebrew name for God. This is one of the most fundamental questions we can ask. Why is it so important to answer this question? The answer to this question quiets our fears. It solves our insecurity. If we really know God, it puts everything in perspective. The point of our passage today is that you should ask who is God more than who am I, because God is the God of people past, the God who rescues and the God who IS, so his ability overcomes your inadequacy.
How can we trust and obey a God who we only vaguely understand? But what if you could really see who God is? That vision will settle your anxieties. It will fill you with confidence and peace and hope. Each person should ask “Who is Yahweh?” more than “Who am I?” You may be inadequate, sinful and scared, but Yahweh is the God of people past; the God who rescues and the unique I AM, so confidence is found in looking to him over looking to yourself.
Let’s dive into our story. We will focus on the amazing burning bush story in chapters three and four, but they make much more sense with some historical context. Exodus begins about 400 years after the end of Genesis. Genesis concludes with Joseph, second in charge of all Egypt, saving the empire from a seven-year famine. He brought his dad Jacob and his brothers and their families to live in Egypt. There was a total of 70 of them. Over the centuries they multiplied. They came to be called the Israelites after Joseph’s dad, Jacob, whose name was changed to Israel. A king arose to whom Joseph meant nothing, probably about 1450 BC. He was scared of the Israelites because they were so numerous, so he enslaved them, putting them into forced labor to work in the fields and building brick structures. The Israelites kept multiplying so the king told the Hebrew midwives to kill every Jewish baby boy. They refused because they feared God over the king. Then he told them to throw Jewish baby boys into the Nile River.
In chapter two, a Jewish woman gives birth to a boy who she puts in a basket among the reeds on the bank of the Nile. Pharaoh’s daughter finds the baby and takes it to raise herself. She named him Moses. After he grew up, Moses saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew and so he killed the Egyptian. Pharaoh found out and tried to kill Moses who fled for his life to Midian where he married a woman named Zipporah and became a shepherd for his father-in-law, Jethro.
We can imagine that many Israelite people in Egypt were asking why does God let this happen? Doesn’t he see what’s happening? Does he not care that we are being treated ruthlessly and that we are slaves? Where is God? Today we wrestle with the same questions. Sometimes we are tempted to think that God does not care, to think that God just set the world in motion and left. But then we read the end of Exodus chapter two. Notice the action verbs describing what God does. Who is this God?
The Israelites groaned in their slavery and cried out, and their cry for help because of their slavery went up to God. 24 God heard their groaning and he remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac and with Jacob. 25 So God looked on the Israelites and was concerned about them.
God hears, remembers, looks and has concern. Who is this God? He does not sound removed or uncaring at all. God’s concern sets the stage for the story today. Turn to Exodus chapter three to see the story of the burning bush: Moses’ amazing encounter with the living God. Listen for how God reveals himself. Who is Yahweh?
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.
2 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. 3 So Moses thought, “I will go over and see this strange sight—why the bush does not burn up.”
4 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.”
5 “Do not come any closer,” God said. “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.” 6 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.
7 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. 8 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. 9 And now the cry of the Israelites has reached me, and I have seen the way the Egyptians are oppressing them. 10 So now, go. I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt.”
11 But Moses said to God, “Who am I,that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?”
12 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.”
13 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 his name?’ Then what shall I tell them?”
14 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.’ ”
15 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 by which I am to be remembered from generation to generation.
Look closely at the story with me to see who God is and what difference knowing him makes to us. Moses is tending his flocks much as he probably did every day. It appears to be an ordinary day, but it will prove to be extraordinary. He meets God near Mount Horeb, which you might know better as Mount Sinai, the mountain on which God will give Moses the Ten Commandments. You never know when your life might be changed forever by an encounter with the living God. It could even be today, in this service.
Moses sees a bush on fire, but it is not being consumed by the fire. He went to check out this strange sight when he hears a voice calling out, “Moses, Moses.” In ancient Hebrew culture, addressing someone by saying his or her name twice was a way of expressing endearment, that is, affection and friendship. Put yourself in Moses’ sandals. You walk over to see the fire burning and hear your name called twice: “Bruce, Bruce." Moses responds, “Here I am.” He has no idea what is going on.
God on fire 3:2-5
Moses sees God on fire. The Angel of the Lord is not just a ministering angel, but is God himself presenting himself as the Angel of the Lord. Fire is a frequent sign of God’s presence. Later we will see God guiding Israel in a pillar of fire and he will appear on the mountain in fire. God gives two orders: do not come any closer and take off your sandals. This God is holy and dangerous. Taking off your shoes was a sign of reverence in the Middle East that continues to this day.
How can unholy people approach the holy God? Divine holiness endangers sinners. God is a being of holy fire. The burning bush revealed the very being of God. Moses would later say, “The Lord your God is a consuming fire” (Deut. 4:24). There is a huge gap between the transcendent holy God and unholy human people. In an unholy condition it is unsafe to come into the presence of the holy God. The only way to come into the presence of a holy God is to become holy. Then God says who he is. Exchanging names is one of the first steps in establishing a relationship. God describes himself as the God of people past.
God of people past 3:6
In verse six we read,
” 6 Then he said, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.”
Moses’ response is to hide his face out of fear. Why? He realizes now that he is encountering the living God. This is the God he has heard about. We don’t know how much Moses knew at this point. Notice that God names individual people, including Moses’ dad. He could have described himself as the God of the universe or more philosophically as the ground of all being, but instead he describes himself as the God of people by name. He is relational and personal. Imagine your name in that list, the God of Bruce, Joan, David, Phil and Lori.
Along with most believers there are two big challenges Moses wrestles with. Does God care about his people’s suffering? And secondly, given Moses’ past, why would God possibly appear to him in fire and talk to him? How God answers in the next few verses is dramatic truth. God cares and comes to rescue his people.
God cares and rescues 3:7-10
Look at the string of amazing actions by God in verse seven: Sees, hears, concerned, comes down, rescues. God sees the misery of his people, He hears their crying. He is concerned about their suffering. So he comes down to rescue them out of Egypt and bring them to a wonderful place. When we are tempted to say, "God has forsaken us …God has forgotten…Why are things like this?..." and so on and on. Exodus quietly reminds us that the contrary is true: God has not forsaken us, he has not forgotten us and our needs and, despite appearances, his promises and purposes remain firm and their fulfillment is on the way. God has not forgotten you. He has not abandoned you. It may not be on your timetable. God’s timing is almost never ours. But God sees your suffering. He hears you crying. He is concerned about you. He has come down and he has brought rescue in Jesus Christ and he has promised that he is coming back to complete the rescue.
But how will God rescue his people in Egypt? Moses must have been utterly shocked by verse ten when God said, So now, go. I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt.” Are we any less shocked when Jesus says to us: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations.
Jesus may have been deliberately echoing the call of Moses when he sends us. Moses may have expected God to explain how he personally would bring Israel out of Egypt. After saying all authority in heaven and on earth had been given to him, the disciples may have expected Jesus to explain how he would bring the message of salvation to the world. Instead Jesus commissioned them and us to bring his deliverance to the world.
Put yourself in Moses’ bare feet for a moment. Obviously he needed tons of reassurance. He does not say, “great God, let’s do it!” Instead in the rest of chapters three and four, Moses makes five objections.
‘Who am I?’ (3:11)
‘What shall I tell them?’ (3:13)
‘What if they do not believe me?’ (4:1)
‘I have never been eloquent?’ (4:10)
‘Please send someone else?’ (4:13)
We can feel Moses’ almost overwhelming insecurity. He feels he is inadequate, does not have the knowledge or the credibility or the speaking ability, and he does not want to do it. In Jewish and Christian tradition Moses stands as the towering leader of Israel, but it is good to remember where he started - insecure, uncertain, unprepared, and unworthy! He was a nondescript shepherd in the wilderness. God was patient with him and used him in spite of everything.
Moses first question is fundamental: “Who am I?” And yet the question is not the most important one. In reply to all Moses’ questions we see God taking Moses’ eyes off himself and on to God. The deeper and more important question is who is God? To the objection: "Lord, I’m not adequate," the Lord replies, "No, but I am!"
The Lord does not call us because of our adequacy. God does not assure Moses of what a great guy he is and how he has all the qualifications to be a great deliverer. Instead God simply says, “I will be with you.” That is enough. It is enough when you understand who the “I” is who says this. When you know, when you really know, who God is, that settles it all. Moses’ assertion that he cannot do this task is correct, but irrelevant. He is not doing the saving. When Moses says, “I cannot do this,” Yahweh responds, “You’re not, I am.” He met Moses’ inadequacy with the pledge of his own sufficiency. The exodus did not depend on the competence of Moses, but on the presence of God.
Notice how Moses hedges in verse thirteen, “Suppose I go to the Israelites. “ What’s this about supposing?" What was Moses thinking? He has just received a direct order from God. Don’t we often do the same? We hedge our obedience. This time Moses questions his own knowledge. Suppose they ask what is his name? He puts the objection off on the people. Moses is still focused on his own inadequacy rather that on God’s total sufficiency. But God patiently answers him in one of the most crucial passages in the Old Testament where God reveals his personal name.
To grasp the force of Moses’ question, we must understand that a name in ancient times was bound closely with that person’s essence. It expressed one’s character. To learn a person’s name was to have access to a person’s very character. Moses is really asking “What is God’s relationship to the people? He has been the ‘God of the ancestors.’ Who is he now?”
God is the “I AM” 3:11-21
In verse fourteen, we read,
14 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 is Yahweh. That is his personal name. This name is sometimes called the tetragrammaton because in Hebrew it consists of four letters: YHWH. The name YHWH in Hebrew is part of the cover of the exodus Study Guide. You read it from right to left. From the period of the second (postexilic) temple on, the Jewish community refrained from pronouncing this name out of their high reverence for God. The difficulty of translating such a name, combined with respect for the Jewish community, leads most modern translators to rendering it LORD (usually in small capital letters to distinguish it from the ordinary Heb. ‘adonay “lord”).
The fact that God gives us his name further indicates that we can know him personally, but at the same time his name indicates that he is very different from us. He alone simply exists. Everything else is created and contingent. He is not. Yahweh is mysterious. For 3,000 years scholars have been unable to fully understand what it means that God is the “I AM WHO I AM." In Hebrew it implies more than static being, but of being in action. He alone is dependent on nothing and no one else. He is defined in terms of himself. God says this is his name forever by which he is to be remembered from generation to generation. He is Yahweh. There is no one like him.
Then comes Jesus. In John chapter eight he is arguing with the Jews about his identity. At the climax of the argument Jesus says,
“Truly I tell you, before Abraham was born, I am!” John 8:58.
You could hear a pin drop. The Jews picked up stones to stone him. Now you can understand why. Jesus claimed to be equal with Yahweh, the I Am. And he is. That’s why Jesus can save us from our sins. Jesus is the great I AM. He is God. In John eight he told the people that everyone who sins is a slave to sin (8:34). But if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed. He said whoever obeys his words will never see death. (8:51). Jesus put it plainly when he said, “if you do not believe that I am he, you will indeed die in your sins” (8:24). Jesus is the true Moses, the only One who can deliver us from our slavery to sin and from the divine judgment of death. If you have never done so, I urge you to trust in Jesus Christ to save you. Believe that he is the I AM who died for you and rose from the dead to set you from sin and death, and to bring you to paradise one day. This could be your encounter with God today. If you want to make that decision today, come talk with me or a host online or share it on your Care Card. We want to help you.
What does a clear understanding of who God is do for you? Chapter four shows us how God applies this truth to Moses, but sadly Moses does not respond well. He is not the hero of this story. God is the hero. Here’s the main point:
“Who is Yahweh?” is a better question than “who am I?”
because God’s ability overcomes your inadequacy 4:1-17
You should ask “Who is God?” more than “Who am I?” Yet, in chapter four Moses raises three more objections. He asks, "What if they do not believe me or listen to me?" Moses worries that he has no credibility. If they know anything at all, it is that he was brought up as an Egyptian, committed murder, and is a wanted man. But God has already said that they will listen. Often I hear people hesitate to share the Gospel because they think their brother or friend will not listen or believe them. That is not the point. God changes hearts. Our role is to be the messenger of truth.
Still patient with him, God gives Moses three signs showing that he can do the extraordinary with the ordinary. The staff becomes a snake. The hand turns leprous and then is healed. And water from the Nile turns to blood.
Moses counters with another objection. He is not eloquent. This could have been stuttering, forgetting the Egyptian language or feeling inadequate about talking to a world ruler. Notice God’s answer. He applies what we have learned so far. The point is not “Who am I?” but “Who is God?” God does not assure Moses that he was trained to speak in the palace. He does not say, “I’ve heard you speak and you are great.” He does not assure him of his ability at all. He does not say, “Sure you can. I know you can do it. Have faith in yourself.” Instead, he says, who made the mouth?
It is a battle over which “I” should be the focus. Moses says “I” have never been eloquent. “I” am slow of speech. God says, “Who made the mouth?” “Is it not I, the Lord? Now go. “I” will help you.” The fundamental question is not your self-image, but your God-image. It is not who are you, but who Yahweh is. When we look at ourselves we see no end of our inadequacy; when we look to God we see no end of his sufficiency. He is the I AM. We say, ‘I can’t, therefore I won’t.’ The Lord brings us to the point where we can say instead, ‘I can’t, but HE can, therefore I will.’ No matter what you are going through, no matter how you are being treated in Egypt, he is greater still and he is concerned.
Moses’ response is sad. His last objection is flat out: “I don’t want to do it. Send someone else.” Now God gets angry. God is slow to anger, but he gets angry. He brings in Moses’ brother Aaron, diminishing what he had planned for Moses and, as we will see, ends up creating huge problems down the road. We would expect the great Moses to have more resolve and less hesitation. But God uses him anyway and he uses us too, anyway. Thank the Lord.
Chapter four ends with a preview of what’s to come next week. God will send Moses to Egypt and it will be rough, but he will deliver his people from Pharaoh, but at a high price. Blood will be shed. People will die.
What is God saying to us in this first anchor story in Exodus – the story of the burning bush? The point is that we should ask “Who is Yahweh?” more than we ask “Who am I?” God is greater than all our inadequacies, sin, lack of experience, or talent. God calls people out of ordinary circumstances for extraordinary tasks: from watching sheep in the desert of Midian to delivering Israel from Egypt. It is precisely in our inability that God’s glory shines the brightest.
Today pray that we will all come to see more and more who Yahweh is. In the rest of our study, we are seeking to know God, the God who is Yahweh. Yahweh is the God of people past; the God who cares and rescues and the unique I AM WHO I AM. Let’s sing to his honor. Let’s worship Yahweh.