This is my manuscript for a sermon I preached on Exodus 2:23–3:10 for Dr. Jason Meyer's preaching class.
God, you have made man’s mouth, you choose to make us mute or deaf, seeing or blind. We ask now that you give us eyes to see, ears to hear the words you have spoken, that our hearts would not be hard. May it not return void. Speak, for your servants are listening.
Intro + Context
My chosen passage for this sermon will be Exodus 2:23–3:10, which most of us will recognize as the story of the “burning bush” or the Moses’s “call narrative.” And as you turn there, I want to set the scene for this passage. Being that this is a familiar story, it can be easy to detach it from where it continues the story which began in Genesis.
So first, let’s get our bearings on where we are in this story. The opening of the book of Exodus begins by reminding us that Jacob/Israel and his sons have moved to Egypt. They have fled here to find refuge from a famine that has affected the land from Egypt to Canaan. God had sent Joseph ahead of his family—through the ill-intent of his brothers—to become the second-on-command of all Egypt in order that, as he says in Gen 50:20 “to bring about the… preservation of many people.”
And all of that was to fulfill a promise made earlier to Abraham in Gen 15:
The LORD said to Abram, “Know this for certain: Your offspring will be resident aliens for four hundred years in a land that does not belong to them.
Within the context of that prophetic promise is a much greater and sustained promise, one that has been passed down to each generation of Abraham’s sons: God was going to make Abraham and his descendants into a great nation, he was going to give them a land to inherit and, in doing so, all the world would be blessed. All this seems on track at the end of Genesis as Exodus begins. The first 7 verses of Exodus tell us Jacob’s descendants are being fruitful and multiplying.
But then verse 8 presents us with a dilemma for this growing nation: “A new king, who did not know about Joseph, came to power in Egypt.” This change of power results in widespread oppression for the Israelites. They are pressed into forced labor and their sons are killed in order to control growth of the nation. And this is a big deal, not simply because of the position it puts the Israelites in, but because it threatens God’s promises to them: The fruitfulness of the nation is at risk, the line of the promised deliverer from Gen 3 is under attack, God’s people have no rest from their labor, and they have no land to call their own. And as the Egyptians attack God’s promises, by extension they attack God himself, calling his power to keep his promises into question. Pharaoh himself later boasts: “Who is YHWH that I should obey him by letting Israel go? I don’t know YHWH…” (5:2)
But then in the midst of death and defiance, a new character shows up and is saved in a miraculous way. Moses—a son of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob—is hidden, rescued by his mother hiding him in the waters of the Nile and “by chance” he is adopted into the family of the king of Egypt. And you might think: Oh wait, I know where this is going. Maybe this is a repeat of what happened with Joseph? Should we expect him to find favor with the king and reign, as Joseph did, for the relief of God’s people? Is he another king-like deliverer?
But quickly we find out this is not how things are going to go. Moses’s initial attempt at saving his people leads to his exile from Egypt. His murdering an Egyptian to save one of his brothers ends up with him running for his life into the wilderness of Midian.
Imagine the scene: Moses—a prince of Egypt—has become a lowly shepherd in the wilderness. And this seemingly unfortunate turn of events goes on for decades. Stephen’s sermon in Acts 7 tells us that forty years pass between Moses’s fleeing from Egypt and the where our story picks up in chapter 3. Moses isn’t just out and back on a weekend road trip to find himself in the wilderness. This is life. And all that time, Israel is still waiting for deliverance. Moses may have settled down—a family and a steady job—but for the people in Egypt, life is anything but settled.
God Has Not Forgotten
And here, the author injects a rather abrupt break in the narrative. We get this sort of outside commentary from the perspective of heaven. And this is what we are told in 2:22–23. Look with me if you will:
After a long time, the king of Egypt died. The Israelites groaned because of their difficult labor; and they cried out; and their cry for help because of the difficult labor ascended to God. And God heard their groaning; and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob; and God saw the Israelites; and God knew.” (Exodus 2:23–25)
There’s a scene in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe where the children first meet Mr. Beaver. If you remember, they’ve really just arrived in Narnia, some for the first time, others have had other adventures, but they’ve just discovered the capture and imprisonment of Mr. Tumnus by the White Witch’s spies. All in the story seems dark and cold, always winter and never Christmas. But when Mr. Beaver finds them despairing in the woods, he whispers a word to them (some of you will know it) that changes the whole outlook of the story: “They say Aslan is on the move—perhaps has already landed.” At this point, the children, though they don’t even know who Aslan is, never even heard of him, suddenly they know that all is no longer lost, things are about to change, winter is about to end.
This “outside commentary” acts in a similar way in our story. While the people of Israel groan in their captivity, when the only person with an eye towards saving the people seems to have been exiled, though God has seemed silent for four hundred years, even still, the story whispers, God has not forgotten. And God is on the move.
This is then, our first point: God has not forgotten. He hears, he remembers, he sees, he knows. And not only has he not forgotten his people, but he has also not forgotten his promises to them. What is it that God remembers here? It’s his covenant with Abraham. And by telling us “God remembered,” we aren’t to imagine that God is going about his day and suddenly, a notification pops up on his phone which says “Remember to keep your promise to Abraham.” the Bible uses language like this to bring to mind the effect remembering has on us. When we get notifications about a forgotten task, we act on it! When God remembers, it is not because he has forgotten, rather it tells us, Now is the time when God chooses to act on his word.
God Initiates Deliverance
But the next question is why now? Why does he wait 400 years to make good? God has been promising, repeating promises, making promises personal to specific individuals as the story progresses. And suddenly, now the time has come at last to make good?
Exodus 3, verse one. We snap back into the flow of the story, some forty years later. This is how it begins, read with me verses 1–10:
Moses is now in a very different place from where he was in Egypt. He has been transformed from a prince of one of the world’s most powerful nations to, of all things, a shepherd. Recall briefly from Gen 46:34, that shepherds are seen as a detestable class of people to Egyptians. Everything in Moses’s upbringing would have made him recoil from this task. Yet, he has been humbled in a way that he can now identify with his own people, who were, when they moved to Egypt, shepherds. Moses has, in many ways, been prepared for his mission through this radical identity shift.
And as he carries out his duties as a shepherd, he runs onto this strange scene in the middle of nowhere: A bush on fire which isn’t acting like other bushes he’d seen on fire. It’s easy for us to brush past this scene, having read it dozens of times before, seen it on flannel graph boards growing up (anyone?), and the annual Easter showing of Charlton Heston in The Ten Commandments. We know the burning bush…
But what’s the deal with a burning bush? It’s not like that’s a typical way for God to show up. Most of the time, when God has shown up before now, it’s been in presumably human form. Abraham and Jacob both interact with a person or people in human form, sometimes identified as God himself, occasionally called “the angel of YHWH” but still explicitly identified as God. There is not question that it is God here. but again, why a bush on fire? There’s a clue from what’s going on in the story right now, one other event that includes fire, covenant, and oppression in Egypt. In Gen 15, which we read earlier, Abraham is asking God how he will know he will possess the land God has promised. And in response, God puts Abraham to sleep and then says this (again from, v. 13):
“Know this for certain: Your offspring will be resident aliens for four hundred years in a land that does not belong to them and will be enslaved and oppressed. 14 However, I will judge the nation they serve, and afterward they will go out with many possessions...” 17 When the sun had set and it was dark, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch appeared and passed between the divided animals. 18 On that day the LORD made a covenant with Abram, saying, “I give this land to your offspring…”
In that passage, fire, oppression and covenant all show up together. A burning bush, then, is altogether appropriate for this encounter. It is a sign that God will keep his promises to Abraham, passed down to Isaac and Jacob. And if we look forward, we know the bush on fire becomes a pillar of fire finally to become a mountain on fire, when, as God promised Moses: “you will all worship me on this mountain” after he rescues them as he said he would.
A burning bush? What else should it be?
So, Moses approaches the bush and as he does, God speaks directly in the text for the first time since Gen 46. Now that only stands apart by seven chapters, but remember 400 years have passed between then and now. God hasn’t said anything since he spoke with Jacob. And this earlier speech is incredibly similar to when he speaks to Moses in Exod 3. Gen 46:2 says
That night God spoke to Israel in a vision: “Jacob, Jacob!” he said.
And Jacob replied, “Here I am.”
God said, “I am God, the God of your father. Do not be afraid to go down to Egypt, for I will make you into a great nation there. 4 I will go down with you to Egypt, and I will also bring you back.
The very next time God speaks in the narrative after that, he is doing exactly what he said he would do, picking up where he left off as if no time at all has passed. The people have gone down into Egypt and now God is going to bring them back. 400 years later and God has not forgotten. In fact he’s on the move.
I hope you can feel the impact of each of these details, each of these promises building on one another. People are groaning, dying, crying out to God, begging for help! And at the darkest moment, God bursts onto the stage. And why? Because God made a promise to do it and God is a faithful God.
Up until these verses in Exodus (even though we’re not that far along), God has acted behind the scenes and other people have played in the foreground: Moses, his parents, Pharaoh and his daughter, the slave-drivers, the midwives: these people held the spotlight, yet they have set us up for God to appear.
This point in the story acts as the fulcrum. We all know what a fulcrum is, right? If you were trying to lift a car out of, let’s say, a snow bank, using a lever of some kind, you need a good point to rest the lever on so that you get the perfect amount of leverage. In this story, the “car” as it were, has sunk four hundred years deep in a snowbank, impossibly deep, seeming as though it will never again return to the solid road of God’s promises. And so when God comes down, to press on the other end of that lever, this turn in the story shows only he is capable of lifting the “car,” the Israelites in this metaphor, out of the depths of despair back onto the road.
And this is our second point: God initiates deliverance. He knows what is needed and now he takes the initiative to fulfill that need. God has not been waiting for Moses to show up. He has not been hoping some deliverer would arrive, hoping that, maybe, just maybe someone will see the need and take action. God knows. God acts.
God Sends a Deliverer
So what is Moses doing in our story? God says in verse 8 “I have come down to rescue them from the power of the Egyptians and to bring them from that land to a good and spacious land.” So why is Moses even in this story? First let’s read again the last two verses of our passages.
In verse 9, the focus shifts from what God knows, and has seen and what he is planning to do, to how and through whom he is going to do it. This is our third and final point:
- God has not forgotten
- God initiates deliverance
- God acts through a deliverer
The result of God’s hearing, remembering, seeing and knowing is Moses is to be sent. Moses is given God’s word, his authority, his signs, his rescue plan. Moses is taking on the role God says he is doing. Note the similarity between vs. 8 and 10.
v. 8: I have come down to rescue them from the power of the Egyptians and to bring them from that land…
v. 10: I am sending you to Pharaoh so that you may lead my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.”
Is it God? Is it Moses?
Moses is being sent as God’s deliverer. God saves through a human being, a man, a prince-become-shepherd. We know from the rest of this episode (which for the sake of time I can’t cover) that Moses is a very unwilling and imperfect deliverer. He tries to make every excuse and, when he runs out of excuses, he asks “Can’t you just find someone else?” But we also know that Moses becomes one of the most gracious, patient, tenderhearted shepherds in the OT: advocating for God’s people in the face of God’s wrath; instructing, leading, arbitrating, feeding them by God’s power, sustaining them water to drink in the wilderness. He is God’s man, standing between God and the people.
Now, I wanted for a long time to preach this passage in a way that identified us with Moses, to see God calling and enabling us to minister to those who need deliverance. That’s partly why I chose it: we’re all training to be pastors in some form, right? Some as missionaries, translators, chaplains, church planters, worship leaders. And hey, here’s a picture of someone being called to ministry, right?
But I don’t think we’re meant to see ourselves as Moses in this story. Rather, it’s the group we haven’t said much about yet, but is very much the reason this story is happening at all: it’s the Israelites in Egypt. They are who God is stepping into the story for by sending Moses. There’s no need to send a deliverer if there is no one to deliver. Does King Arthur fight the Saxons if there is no England to defend? Does Mario do his thing if there isn’t a Princess Peach? Does Aslan arrive if there is no country without Christmas?
And who do you know that groans, as the Israelites do, under difficult labor? Us, right? I mean, if you want to talk about groaning under difficult labor, you need look no further than the lowly seminary student. Homework, family strains, ministry burdens, finances tight, I mean even the blessing (and burden) of “they were fruitful and multiplied” fits us!
Now maybe none of us have or will see 400 years of suffering in Egypt. But four years is a long time. Some among us have lost children, perhaps not to Egyptian swords but that doesn’t lighten the blow of loss and grief. Even winters being what they are here… I once told God I never wanted to move farther north than South Carolina. So he sent about as far north as you can go before you end up in Canada… There is legitimate suffering represented in this room, brothers.
We don’t need to be ashamed to identify as those struggling in this story, like those frustrated and worn out. It can be hard in a place that prizes serious joy, but there can also be groaning, a crying out for relief and rescue. We ought to be so! Because when we cry, God hears. What initiates God’s rescue plan in this story? It’s the cry of God’s people which ascends to God!
The God who responds to the Israelite groaning isour God too. The God who heard his people cry out, and remembered his promises to them, and saw their trouble, and knew what they needed—that they needed a deliverer, that they could not save themselves—hears, remembers, sees and knows you. The God who knew the pain of the Israelites knows every hardship in this room, and he will not forget his promises to you
- of rest for the weary,
- restoration for the broken,
- deliverance from sin and sin’s effects.
The God who remembered his people in Egypt remembers you. This is our God, brothers. He knows our needs, and he is still on the move.
And most importantly, we know, we know that God has moved. He has come down into our trouble to lift us up. I love the way the ESV renders 3:8
I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up…
God has come down to lift us up. He has borne our trouble for us, he bears them with us, and he has promised to wipe all of those burdens away and to bring us to his promised rest. And what, or rather who was the fulcrum of his coming down to us?
I don’t know about you, but the incarnation is hard for me to get my head around. What does it mean that Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men? (Phil 2:6–7)
In this story, I think we get some help, a human-brain-sized (or at least a my-brain-sized) illustration of incarnation, of what it means that Jesus is our Immanuel, God with us.
Much like Moses, Jesus:
- Was humbled (or rather humbled himself) to become, in every way, like his people.
- Is a shepherd who knows how to care for the deepest needs of his flock.
- Was sent by God (and unlike Moses, came willingly!) to deliver his people from bondage, a bondage much greater than Egypt.
But unlike Moses, and rather more like God in this story, Jesus
- Came down to bring his people up.
- Showed up on the scene after 400 years of waiting in silence until the fullness of time.
- Made good on his promises to his people, not just the one’s to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, but ALL them.
Moses reminds the people at thee end of his life and ministry: “[God] will never leave you, nor forsake you” so Jesus says “I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”
Brothers, Jesus is the new and better Moses. He is God with us. He is the prophet like Moses, whom God gave, not just to speak his word, but as his very Word to us. He is the one who intercedes for us at the right hand of God himself. Jesus is our deliverer, God’s strong and mighty hand to redeems us from slavery to sin and death.
Death has been swallowed up in victory. Where, death, is your victory? Where, death, is your sting? The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. 57 But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ! (1 Cor 15:55–57)
While sin still corrupts us and the world around us, though the house of mourning may still be the end of all mankind, though the whole world groans to be free of its bond to corruption, Jesus has overcome. He has defeated the power of sin. He is the first to live on the other side of death. And he is coming again to deliver once and for all those who are waiting for him.
We can be sure of this. Why? Because he promised! And if I’ve told my PreK Sunday school class once, I’ve told them a thousand times: What do we know about God? He always keeps his promises.
Moses, at the end of the mission that God sent him to do, speaks these words in Deut 7:8–9:
Because the LORD loved you and kept the oath he swore to your fathers, he brought you out with a strong hand and redeemed you from the place of slavery, from the power of Pharaoh king of Egypt. 9 Know that the LORD your God is God, the faithful God who keeps his gracious covenant loyalty for a thousand generations with those who love him and keep his commands.
Brother’s take heart.
- God didn’t forget his people, languishing in Egypt, even after 400 years. He will not forget you, not for four years, not for four minutes.
- God is doing what is needed for your deliverance, even now. He is at work in you to will and to act according to his good pleasure, to sanctify you and to present you faultless before himself.
- And God has sent his servant, Jesus to deliver you from sin and death, to bring you up to a good land, where there will be rest in his presence forever.
God has not forgotten and he is still on the move, even now.