The Burning Bush

Sermon by Cory Brock on February 16

Exodus 3:1-14

We’re going to read this morning from Exodus chapter 3, and this is the story of the burning bush. And it’s a great story. It’s one of the great stories of the entire Bible, and especially the Old Testament. And it’s so great that Christians for twenty centuries now have said this is the chapter you go to when you want to answer, well, maybe the most important question of existence, and that is, “Who is God?” And this is where we learn the answer to that question in the Old Testament. 

And what we’ll see in just a minute is that if you are a seeker today, if you are on the spiritual search, if you have been pricked in some way by conscience by looking at the beauty of creation and wondering if there’s something invisible to this visible reality, if you are looking for hope and meaning and you just haven’t quite found it yet, then this passage is for you because that’s exactly where Moses was when God comes down to the mountain. And if you are a Christian, whether a baby Christian or a growing Christian, a mature Christian, you can never graduate from coming back to the question, “Who is God?” We don’t ever get past it. And so what that means is this critical moment in Moses’ life is for everybody. This passage is for everybody. And so let’s pray and then we’ll read it. Let’s pray.

God, will You open our eyes now, and especially the eyes of our heart, so that by the help of the Holy Spirit we could hear Your holy Word? And we ask that in Christ’s name, amen.

So let’s read Exodus chapter 3, verses 1 to 14:

“Now Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law, Jethro, the priest of Midian, and he led his flock to the west side of the wilderness and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. And the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush. He looked, and behold, the bush was burning, yet it was not consumed. And Moses said, ‘I will turn aside to see this great sight, why the bush is not burned.’ When the Lord saw that he turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, ‘Moses, Moses!’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’ Then he said, ‘Do not come near; take your sandals off your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.’ And he said, ‘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 surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters. I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of 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 place of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. And now, behold, the cry of the people of Israel has come to me, and I have also seen the oppression with which the Egyptians oppress them. Come, I will send you to Pharaoh that you may bring my people, the children of Israel, out of Egypt.’ But Moses said to God, ‘Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the children of Israel out of Egypt?’ He said, ‘But I will be with you, and this shall be the sign for you, that I have sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall serve God on this mountain.’

Then Moses said to God, ‘If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers 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.’ And he said, ‘Say this to the people of Israel: ‘I AM has sent me to you.’’”

This is God’s holy Word.

The question is, “Who is God?” and we learn two things from God here about who God is. And the first is that He is the God who comes down to find. And secondly, He is the God who comes and reveals Himself. 

The God Who Comes to Find 

So first, He is the God who comes to find. You’ll see in the very first verse that Moses is doing his day job here. He’s a shepherd, and he looks up and he has encountered the bush upon the mountain that’s burning. This is Mt. Horeb, also known as the mountain of God in this passage, also known later as Mt. Sinai. And he wasn’t looking, he wasn’t out looking for God; he wasn’t out looking for a temple. He was not out looking to worship. He was interrupted. He was called up. And it says in verse 3 that he turned aside from what he was doing to see something truly great. 

Now we all know that he wasn’t always a shepherd. We remember 1998, DreamWorks reminded us that he used to be a prince of Egypt, right? And he murdered an Egyptian slaver out of a sense of justice he had for his biological people, even though he didn’t know them well, and he ran. And so he has been a man on the search for a home, he’s been a man wrapped up in so many different cultures in his life. He was born Hebrew, but remember, he was raised Egyptian. He would have been taken to the temple of Ra in pharaoh’s palace with his adopted mother to worship. He had been raised by his adopted mother as a polytheist. Yet he knew of the God of the Bible, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. And he was in between these two spaces and then when he runs he goes to Midian and when he gets there in chapter 2 he’s at the well and he saves some Midianite women from some shepherds, and one he will marry later. And they go back to their dad, Jethro, and they say, “Today we met an Egyptian man who saved us.” And that means the Midianite people thought Moses was Egyptian because he dressed like an Egyptian and he talked like an Egyptian and he walked like an Egyptian. And he was Egyptian by culture and he had been raised in Egyptian, polytheistic religion. 

And when he gets to Midian he marries into the family of Jethro who is the priest of Midian. And you know when you see that language in Exodus you might think it means that Jethro was a priest of the God of the Bible, Yahweh, the God of Israel, but he wasn’t. He was a polytheistic priest who gets converted, who comes to faith in Yahweh later on in Exodus. And we know that in Midian they worshipped the God Baal-peor, and also Ashtaroth, the queen of heaven. He was a polytheistic priest, Moses married into a polytheistic family, his wife’s name, Zipporah, comes from a Midianite goddess; her name, Zipporah, is a Midianite goddess. And then he names his son, Gershom, saying, “I am a sojourner. I am without a home. I am wandering. I am lost. I haven’t found what I’m looking for.” And that means that in New Testament terms what we’re reading about here is Moses’ conversion story. This is when God comes down to get him. Right?
Look, Moses was a man looking for a hope he had not yet found. 

And it’s incredibly popular in the modern western world to be spiritual and to be religious in general, to be on the spiritual search. There was what’s called the secularism thesis that was batted around in the 19th and 20th century in the Academy, and it suggested that by the end of the 20th century we would have no more need of religion. Marx called it “the opiate of the masses” – that when you have good plumbing, good hospitals, and suffering is pushed back, you don’t need religion anymore. And by the time we got into the 20th century and well before, we found out as much as militant atheism tried to make a push through the world, it hasn’t taken hold. Still 82% to 83% of all human beings on earth, and close to that even in the western world, continue to believe in the supernatural. And that’s because it’s incredibly difficult to square the invisible realities that we all know to be real, no matter what we believe in, with materialistic, secular humanism – like love and the desire we all have for something beyond this world, a hope, and being pricked in our conscience that we are guilty of something, of some moral order that we have broken and we don’t know what. Right? There are invisible realities that secular, humanist materialism just cannot wrestle with. And so people continue to believe in the supernatural across the world at more than 80%. 

But in the modern west, it is incredibly popular to believe in a spirituality in general, a common denominator religion, but it’s safe to never actually arrive at an exclusive truth claim. So it’s okay to be spiritual, it’s okay to be religious, it’s okay to always be searching and never find anything, but what’s not okay in modern secular discourse is to ever actually arrive at the God you have been searching for, to ever actually say, “This is the truth! I’ve found it! It’s exclusive!” And this passage is what tells us what makes Christianity so different than all the other religions and philosophies of history. And it’s this – that in the very beginning, to Abraham and to Moses, the principle, Biblical religion, the only way we find God or get to God is if God comes down and finds us. God has to come down to the mountain. God has to come down in fire and call us out of our day to day duties and wake us up. That’s at the center of Christianity that makes it different from modern spirituality. Modern spirituality says, “Be on the search. Be looking for something. Be a good citizen, but never actually arrive at it. Never claim exclusive truth.” And this passage says the only hope in fact is that if God will come down on the mountain and call us. He has to condescend. And that’s at the center of all of Biblical religion. He did it to Abraham. He called him out of Caldean polytheism, and now He comes and He does it to Moses here. And it’s at the very center of what Christianity says. 

Now let’s ask, “Who is this God who has come down and revealed Himself specifically?” secondly. And we see two things about the way God reveals Himself here. And the first has often been called “the great conundrum.” You can see it in verse 4. God comes to Moses. Moses goes up the mountain, he approaches the burning bush, and God speaks and says, “Moses, Moses.” And in Hebrew, the commentators will say that when the Hebrew term is repeated more than once this is the way of emphasizing, but it’s also the Hebrew way of doing a superlative in English. Right? So fourth grade grammar – let’s go back to there! Remember in Isaiah chapter 6 the angels say what? “Holy, holy, holy” – and another way to translate that is, “God, You are the most holy.” And here, “Moses, Moses.” And most of the commentators will say what that is, is that is God as a Father coming and saying, “I love you and I want you and I’ve come for you, so come close to Me.” And then in verse 5, Moses steps near and he says, “Here I am!” And then God says, “Now don’t get any closer!” And this is the great conundrum of all of history – God who is real comes to all humanity and says, “I love you and I’m coming to get you.” And then you approach Him in His temple on this mountain and He says, “Do not get a step closer or you will die.” That is the meeting place of God’s love and God’s justice, right there together. 

And what he is saying here is that simply, God is absolutely holy and absolutely and perfectly righteous in every way and He loves us and is coming for us and a sinner cannot be in His presence – at the very same time! That’s the great conundrum of history. But another thing it’s saying to us is that when it comes to approaching God and being in His presence, God defines the terms. He tells us what reality is. And it’s super important I think in the contemporary world that we hear this passage say to us that we cannot define God or approach God according to the way we feel about God. Our feelings do not define who God is or how to come into His presence. He tells Moses, “You take off your sandals. You are approaching reality right now!” And what’s He’s really asking Moses to do is saying, “Are you willing to fully submit to the God who really is, the God that you’ve been searching for but never found? Well He’s come to find you, and are you ready to take off your shoes and submit in His presence to God as God defines Himself?”

You know, what this means is that God is fiery. He cannot be controlled. The human will cannot control Him and the human heart cannot define Him. In 1 John 3, John gets at this when he says God is greater than our hearts; He’s bigger than the way we feel about Him at any given moment. You will remember that Mr. Beaver taught us all that. What did Mr. Beaver say? “He is good but He is not safe.” “He is good, He loves you, but He is not safe.” And so the question is, “Moses, are you willing to surrender to reality, to the God who really is?” 

The God Who Comes and Reveals Himself

And then secondly, God reveals Himself then, more specifically, in the fire to Moses. And Moses sees a bush on fire here, a thicket literally, that does not burn up. But that is not the main thing Moses sees and it’s important to note that a lot of times in storybook Bibles or things like that this passage will be depicted as simply a bush with flames around it. But that is not what Moses was so afraid of here in verse 6. That is not exactly what was here. What was it? You look down at verse 2 and it tells us. What did he literally see? He saw the angel of Yahweh come out of the midst of the burning bush that was on fire. So what Moses was seeing here is in some way mysteriously embodied presence of the angel of the Lord appearing before him and stepping out to him from the bush. And who is it that, this whole passage, when Moses was conversing with God, where is that language coming from? It’s coming from the angel of Yahweh. When he says, “Who are you? Who am I going to tell Israel that you are? What’s your name? Who is it that speaks?” It’s not a cloud from heaven; it’s the angel of Yahweh saying, “This is my name.”

And so the question we have to ask is, “Who is this angel of Yahweh?” And we have met the angel of Yahweh, the angel of the Lord two times already in Genesis. The first time was in Genesis 22. He comes to Hagar and after he leaves Hagar says, “God has spoken to me.” And then in Genesis 18, three men appeared to Abraham and one of them is the angel of the Lord and Abraham bows down on his face before him and worships. And then after this passage in Exodus 23 there’s a really important moment where we really learn the truth – Exodus 23 verse 20 – where God the Father speaks and says, “I am about to send the angel of the Lord before you. He bears My name and He has the power to forgive sins or to condemn sin.” And so who is this angel? 

It’s important to note that names, this whole passage is about the name of God, names in the ancient near east were treated very differently than names are today. And I’ve said this before on a Sunday night before I think, but for all of us, especially for me, my name could have been different. My parents chose it; it could have been something else. And the chances are, I probably would be relatively similar to the person I am now but just called by a different sound throughout my whole life. Right? Now some of you have names that mean more than that to you because you were named after a father, grandfather, great-grandfather, etc. But in the ancient near east, none of our names compare to what they thought a name was doing. A name in the ancient near east defined a person’s essence – what they are, who they are, to the core – and also their vocation in life, their job. So think about Abraham. He is the “father of the nations.” Right? He has been named by God, “You are the father of the nations,” and it’s also his job to go out and be the father of the nations. Right? 

And this was a pre-modern reality, all the way up to the Enlightenment era and even beyond. If you were born in 17th century Scotland or somewhere like that, England, your name might be John Smith. And what did that tell you you were going to do for the rest of your life? You were going to be a blacksmith. That’s what your name meant. Your name was your vocation. And that’s how it was always in the pre-modern, up to the ancient near east for most people. Whenever Moses asks, “What is your name?” the same thing is happening when God says, when the angel says, “My name is I AM” or “I will be who I will be.” You see, he’s saying two things. He’s saying, first, “My identity, my essence is I AM.” And theologians have said “Look, what it means is that God is saying, ‘I am absolute existence. I am what it is to be in itself. I am necessary.’” Humanity, humans, none of us have to exist. We are not necessary. We are entirely contingent. God is absolute. He is the I AM. That’s His essence. It tells us about His essence.

But it is also telling us about His job, His vocation, because it can also be translated, “I will be who I will be.” And He’s just told Moses, “Look, I’m going to come and I’m going to get you up out of Egypt and I’m going to take you across the Red Sea and I’m going to save you. I’m going to be the God of Israel forever. This is My steadfast promise to you.” So when He says, “I will be who I will be” in His name, He’s saying, “I am never going to change on that. That will be my job forever until I get My people. I’m never going to go back on it.” It describes His essence and His vocation and it’s the angel of the Lord who says, “This is my name.” It’s the angel that’s saying, “I AM.” And who is this angel?

And theologians and Christians for twenty centuries now have come and said every time the angel of the Lord comes down in the Old Testament, what we are seeing is the Son of God come down, condescend. If you could use language like this, this is a pre-incarnate, temporary incarnation of the Son of God come down. And the Son of God has always been coming down. He came down, Colossians 1, to be the mediator of creation. And He came down to Abraham and He came down to Hagar, and now He has come down to Moses. And His name in the Old Testament is “the angel of the Lord.” This is the Son of God who comes out of the bush to Moses. 

And what that means – well, we’ll close with this – how do you solve the great conundrum? That’s the problem in this passage. And the answer has always been the same. The answer is you look for the Son of God come down into the fire. Here on top of this mountain, the son of God comes down into the fire of glory to reveal Himself, but it wouldn’t always be that way. In John chapter 8 you’ll remember the scribes were questioning Jesus. They said, “Do you have a demon?” and He said, “No, I don’t.” Naturally He said, “No, I don’t have a demon.” And then they said, “Do you think that you’re a better prophet than Abraham?” And He said, “Before Abraham ever was, ego ami – I AM.” And that was not the first time the Son of God ever called himself that name. It was here in Exodus chapter 3. In John 18 He’s in the Garden of Gethsemane and the soldiers come for Him and they try to arrest Him and they say, “Are you Jesus of Nazareth?” and He says, “I AM.” And the Roman soldiers fall on their face in order to worship Him. And He has to tell them, “Get up and arrest Me. Do your job.” He says, “I AM.” He’s always been saying that was His name from the very beginning. The answer has always been the same to the great conundrum. “What do you do with the fact that God loves you and comes and – insert your name here twice – and says that to you yet says, ‘Don’t get any closer. You are a sinner’?” The answer is the Son of God come down on another mountain and step into the fire. It was glory fire in Exodus 3, but at Golgotha it will be hell fire so that we can hear God the Father say our name and we can approach Him.

You know, at the resurrection, Jesus, John 20, He’s resurrected from the dead and He only says one word in the resurrection narrative of John 20. He looks at Mary Magdalene and He says, “Mary.” And now, at the point of resurrection, you can run up and give Him a hug. There’s no longer a barrier to stand in the holy temple. Now Herman Bavinck says this is what makes Christianity so different from all the other religions. Christianity is unique because the other major religions have founders but in none of them is the founder the very content. Jesus Christ is the content of Christianity. And the question is – the same question Moses was facing – “What are you going to do with the reality of the God who is?” Are you going to surrender? If you’re a seeker, if you’re a Christian – today is the day of surrender! 

And the last thing is in verse 3 – the word is that Moses turned aside to see something great. And there is a precise parallel in Greek to the word in Hebrew “turn aside.” We translate it as “repent.” He repented to go up the mountain and be in the presence of God. And repenting here means surrendering to ultimate reality as God has defined it. Tim Keller asked, “What if Moses would have said in that moment, ‘That’s really interesting, that bush on fire, but I’ve got to get the sheep home by eight o’clock tonight’?” We’ve got to be interrupted from the mundane today to see something great – the Mediator for us in the fire of the cross, the Mediator here on the mountain. Let’s pray.

Father, we ask that You would work the Word of God into our hearts so that we would surrender to the reality of Your existence and give You the worship that is due. We ask for this help in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.

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