Close Encounters

Scripture: Exodus 3:1-12

Title: Close Encounters

Structure:

  • Introduction
  • God’s humility – vv. 1-6
  • God’s love – vv. 7-10
  • Moses’ honesty – vv. 11-12
  • Conclusion

Introduction:

The Franciscan scholar Ilia Delio observes…

  • Before encounter, God is perceived as omnipotent power; after encounter, God is perceived as humble love.’

Omnipotent power is unlimited power, supreme power, power which cannot be trumped by any other

  • Omnipotent power is overwhelming and fills us with fear
  • In contrast, humble love is down to earth, accessible love, love which empties us of all pretence and invites an honest response

Please turn with me to Exodus chapter 3, page 61 near the beginning of your pew Bibles

  • In this reading we see God’s humility in the very down to earth way he speaks to Moses out of a bush.
  • And we see God’s love through his attention and concern for Israel, his oppressed people
  • We also see Moses’ honesty in objecting to God’s call

From verse 1 of Exodus 3 we read…

[Read Exodus 3:1-12]

 

May we encounter the Spirit of Jesus in this Scripture reading

God’s humility:

Aslan is the Lion in CS Lewis’ Narnia series

  • Aslan represents God

I suppose Lewis chose a Lion to represent God because of the particular images lions raise in the human imagination

  • We associate lions with power, strength & royalty (they are considered the king of the jungle)
  • Lions are also normally thought of as wild or untameable – something we can’t control and therefore something to be feared

Lucy may have been afraid of Aslan at first (before actually meeting him) – as we are all afraid of omnipotent power, but after actually encountering Aslan Lucy came to know this lion as humble love

  • The movement from perceiving God as omnipotent power to perceiving him as humble love is a movement from fear to faith – from terror to trust
  • It is a movement from hiding from God to being honest with God
  • This appears to be Moses’ experience in our reading this morning

Exodus 3 begins by telling us how Moses was going about his regular job – shepherding sheep & goats

  • Moses is quite a bit older by this stage – it has been many years since he ran away from Egypt
  • He arrives at Mt Sinai in the Horeb wilderness
  • Horeb basically means ‘wasteland’
  • This is a lonely place

Verse 2 tells us that, there (at Sinai) the angel of the Lord appeared to Moses as a flame coming from the middle of a bush

  • Moses saw that the bush was on fire but that it was not burning up
  • So he went closer to investigate
  • He doesn’t yet realise that the angel of the Lord is in the bush

Many Christians believe the angel of the Lord in the Old Testament is a cloaked reference to Jesus – before he became human

  • An angel is basically a heavenly messenger and Jesus is the Word of God
  • Hence the angel of the Lord is God’s Word – Jesus in a different form

I’m not sure we should try to tie it down too much for there is a certain mystery here which we can’t explain

  • The point seems to be, God presents himself to Moses, on this occasion, as a talking flame inside a bush

There is significant symbolism in this

  • Fire is powerful and dangerous – it is not safe to get too close to fire but, at just the right distance, fire can warm us, comfort us and give us light

Furthermore, as Alec Motyer points out, the fact that the fire does not consume the bush shows us that Yahweh is ‘a self-maintaining, self-sufficient reality [who] does not need to draw vitality from the outside’ [1]

  • In other words, God is not like fire in every respect
  • Fire needs oxygen and fuel to survive – but God doesn’t need anything to survive – he is entirely independent and without needs
  • Creation depends on God but God does not depend on creation

It’s also interesting that God should be found in a bush

  • You can’t get more down to earth, more grounded, more humble, more non-threatening than a bush

God (who is bigger than we can imagine) is basically making himself small so that Moses can cope with the conversation

  • If God were to reveal himself to Moses (or any of us) in all his glory we couldn’t handle it – we would be completely overwhelmed
  • So God very graciously speaks out of a bush – he dresses down and makes himself small so that Moses won’t feel so threatened

Having said that, Moses is still pretty frightened by the whole experience

  • When he realises God is in the bush he covers his face because he is afraid to look at God
  • Before encounter, God is perceived to be omnipotent power – and therefore terrifying
  • Moses won’t always be so afraid though – and nor will God always seem so small
  • Moses’ perception of God is like Lucy’s perception of Aslan
  • Returning to Narnia for a moment, in the book Prince Caspian Lucy says…

 “Aslan”, you’re bigger”.

  • “That’s because you are older little one…
  • every year you grow, you will find me bigger”

God starts small with Moses, but as Moses grows in faith he finds that God gets bigger too, until eventually the Lord is represented as a pillar of fire by night and pillar of cloud by day

  • The beauty of it is we can never out-grow God nor be too small for him

Interestingly God introduces himself by saying…

  • I am the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob
  • To me this says that God is known through relationship
  • It also indicates a continuity or connection between Moses and his forebears – it’s sort of a way of establishing common ground
  • A way of saying – I know your roots Moses, I understand where you come from – your family and me have got history, we go way back

But the part that is most interesting to me is God’s humility in identifying with Abraham, Isaac & Jacob

  • God could have introduced himself in a quite a big deal kind of way
  • He could have said, ‘I am the God of the universe – the God of the Milky Way, the God of infinite might, the God of eternity and time, bow before me mortal’ – but he doesn’t
  • God doesn’t give a list of his achievements
  • Instead in a rather humble and far more personal way he identifies himself with three imperfect human beings
  • That’s quite cool really

 

God’s love:

The Hunger Games movies have been quite popular the past 2 or 3 years

  • The Hunger Games is a variation on the ‘Exodus story with the ‘Capital’ parallel to Egypt and the oppressed ‘Districts’ parallel to Israel
  • President ‘Snow’ is like Pharaoh and Katniss is sort of like Moses
  • The story line and characters in the Hunger Games don’t match the Exodus account exactly but certainly they share similar themes

Returning to Exodus 3…

  • You might be thinking, ‘I get what you’re saying about God being humble, but where does the love part come in?’

Well, God reveals his love in verses 7-10, where he says…

I have seen how cruelly my people are being treated…

  • I have heard them cry out to be rescued…
  • I know all about their sufferings…
  • I have come down to rescue them…
  • I have indeed heard the cry of my people…
  • I see how the Egyptians are oppressing them…
  • Now I am sending you [Moses] to lead my people out of Egypt

I have seen

I have heard

I know

I have come down

I have heard

I see

I am sending you

Here we have seven statements of God’s love

  • The key to understanding is found in the middle of the list where the Lord says, I have come down

God’s seeing isn’t from a distance – up on a cloud somewhere

  • His seeing is up close and personal, for he has come down
  • Nor is his hearing detached or unfeeling, for God hears the cry of his people like a parent hears the unique cry of their child in distress
  • It tears at his heart
  • Likewise, God’s knowing isn’t just an intellectual head knowledge
  • God’s knowing is the understanding which comes from first-hand experience – for God has been present amongst his people throughout their suffering and has in fact suffered with them

Although God sees, hears and knows (first hand) the sufferings of his people in Egypt, Moses doesn’t – at least not to the same extent

  • Moses has been living away from his people for a long time and even when he did live in Egypt he was in the sheltered environment of the palace – so why does God want to send Moses to lead the people out?

Well, Moses may not have suffered in exactly the same way as his fellow Israelites, but he had suffered – exile is no picnic

  • Perhaps Moses’ exile was one of the things that qualified him for this particular task. As Richard Rohr says…

It seems until you are excluded from any system, you are not able to recognise the idolatries, lies or shadow side of that system… There seems to be a ‘structural blindness’ for people who are content and satisfied on the inside…

It is always the forgotten one… who understands things more deeply and breaks through to enlightenment.”  [2]

Perhaps it was necessary for Moses to be excluded and forgotten for a time in order for him to recognise what was wrong with the Egyptian system

  • That way he wouldn’t make the same mistakes with Israel

Moses’ honesty:

Before encounter, God is perceived as omnipotent power; after encounter, God is perceived as humble love.’

  • The movement from perceiving God as omnipotent power to perceiving him as humble love is a movement from fear to faith – from terror to trust
  • It is a movement from hiding from God to being honest with God

Moses has gone from being too afraid to look at God, to feeling comfortable enough to talk back to God

  • This is what an encounter with the God of humble love does – it makes honest dialogue possible
  • Moses responds to God’s request by saying, “I am nobody. How can I go to the king and bring the Israelites out of Egypt”
  • To us this might appear like humility – but actually it’s not

 

As our friend C.S. Lewis reminds us…

  • Humility is not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less
  • In other words, humility is not the same thing as poor self-esteem
  • It’s not the same as doubting your value

God is humble in the sense of thinking of himself less

  • When we look at God’s words to Moses so far, we notice they are largely about other people – God says hardly anything about himself
  • Moses on the other hand is quite self-focused at this point
  • Thinking less of yourself (as Moses does here) is still thinking of yourself

God answers Moses, “I will be with you…”

  • In other words, think of yourself less and think of me more – you’re not alone

God also gives Moses a sign or a proof

  • When you bring the people out of Egypt you will worship me on this mountain

I think God is saying more than one thing at once here

  • At a surface level God is saying…
  • ‘The proof that I have sent you is that you will be successful – you will bring the people out of Egypt and worship me on this mountain’

The flip side (or the unspoken part of this) is…

  • ‘You won’t argue with me (as you are now Moses) you will praise me’

Going a little deeper – God is inviting Moses to trust him, for the sign requires faith, it won’t be fulfilled until after Moses has done what God asks

 

But at an even deeper level I think God is also saying to Moses…

  • ‘You doubt your value, don’t run from who you are’ [3]

In other words,

  • ‘I believe in you Moses – you are a leader – you were born to do this’

Conclusion:

Before encounter, God is perceived as omnipotent power; after encounter, God is perceived as humble love.

 

Soren Kierkegaard tells a parable of a king and a maiden which helps to illustrate the humble love of God. [4]

Once there was a rich and powerful king who fell in love with a beautiful woman

  • This king was no ordinary king
  • Every statesman trembled before his power and might
  • World leaders brought him tributes and showered him with the best of everything their lands had to offer
  • People were so afraid of him that no one dared breath a word against himOne day, while out walking, this most mighty of men was stopped in his tracks by the sight of a beautiful woman
  • The king had his intelligence service investigate the woman
  • And they found that she was not rich and powerful like him
  • She was simply a regular person with an ordinary job, paying her bills like everyone elseAt first the king tried to ignore his feelings but unexpressed love turns into pain
  • The more he tried to ignore what he felt the more he couldn’t help thinking about her until eventually the king could stand it no more
  • There was nothing for it but to declare his love for the beautiful maiden
  • And to find out if she held love in her heart for him
  • Perhaps that way he might find some peaceBut the king was no sooner on his way to her house than he realized something
  • How would he know whether she really loved him or not – whether she would be truly happy at his side?The king knew he could impress the woman with his power and wealth
  • He could visit her in his helicopter with all his body guards
  • He could fly her to Paris for dinner and shower her with jewellery, but grand gestures like that might only deceive them both
  • For then the maiden would never truly know whether she loved the giver or just his gifts
  • Elevating the maiden would only alienate her from him further In an ironic kind of way the king’s very power and wealth made it difficult for people to get close to him
  • The king didn’t want a cringing fearful subject for a wife
  • He wanted someone who would be honest with him
  • He wanted someone he could trust
  • He wanted a friend and a loverFor this is the nature of love, that it desires genuine equality with the beloved So, motivated by love for the maiden, the king humbled himself
  • Putting aside his claim to the throne he took on a new identity to win her hand
  • He rented a place in her neighbourhood, became a carpenter and suffered much – for this was the only way she could know him and relate with him on equal terms Humble love you see
  • God doesn’t want to force or manipulate or control people
  • God wants people to relate with him freely, willingly, because we trust him and because we love him

The goal with God is not following orders

  • The goal is mutual friendship
  • The goal is not grudging service
  • The goal is joyful worship
  • Not duty – but delight
  • With the goal of right relationship in mind God does not overwhelm us with his power – He descends to us in humble love

It’s shocking really that God Almighty would seek equality of relationship with humanity

  • But that is exactly what he did with Moses
  • And what he has done with each one of us through Christ

[1] Alec Motyer, BST Commentary on Exodus, page 56

[2] Richard Rohr, ‘Things Hidden’, pages 92-93.

[3] I think Aslan may have said this to Edmund in one of the Narnia books

[4] This is not Kierkegaard’s original parable, just a paraphrase of it

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