Note: the audio recording of this sermon hit an unrecoverable glitch!
Here is a text version by Fr. Greg:
Text: Exodus 3:1-15
Moses encountering God in the burning bush is one of the most important days in history. At 80 years of age, after 40 years as a semi-nomad, having fled from Egypt; Moses’ life completely changes with the revelation of God and the Call of God. And it’s not just Moses’ life that changes, all Israel is saved from slavery. This is the biggest story of the Old Testament. And it’s not just a story for ancient Israel. This salvation may be ancient history, but it is the foreshadowing of the great salvation that believers know today. We have been in slavery to sin; and a Savior has led us out of spiritual bondage and into the promised land of God’s kingdom, and ultimately to his kingdom in glory. So then Moses is a type of Messiah, a type of savior.
Here he is tending his father in law’s flock at 80 years old. The greatest challenges can happen at any age. God will reveal himself and call and use anyone who has ears to hear, from young to old. And at this point in his life, Moses is a shepherd, and he’s been at this job for 40 years. In today’s Scripture, we see at the beginning Moses minding his own business, doing his age-old routine. He’s moving along some path by the base of a mountain, and off the beaten path, up out of the way but close enough to see, he beholds a curious sight. His routine is interrupted–disrupted by something unusual. He turns off his path, goes out of his way. And as he gets closer, his understanding of what can be real is turned upside down. In this particular case, a fire with flames but without burning up the fuel.
And that’s what happens in the course of encountering God for most everyone. Life is happening, we’re moving along our path, and then in comes some disruption that gets our attention. Think for a moment on what the disruptions in your life have been that resulted in you knowing God, or knowing Him even more? Something different got your attention, perhaps it was painful, or perhaps it was lovely or love itself. Perhaps a new idea startled you; something that at first made no sense.–Whatever it was, it was not routine. And if you want to meet God anew, if you think you need to meet God anew; and I often do. You should do like Moses, pay attention to the disruption, then turn off your path, and look for God and listen to him as he reveals himself. In the disruptions that encircle you, you may well find the Lord.
You know, this is very different from what I heard growing up from friends, classmates, teachers and coworkers. This is very different from television talk shows and movie-script dialogue. The spirit of the age says it’s okay now to seek spiritual things, but it’s not okay to believe you’ve actually found God in a trustworthy way. Searching is cool, finding is not.
Often what is communicated is that every opinion of God is valid. When is the last you heard someone say, “I like to think of God as….” Or likewise, “I don’t like to think God is….” So on and so forth.” These “likes” often end up describing a Santa Claus figure or someone laid back and not bothered by sin. Anyone who simply “likes to think of God” one way or another, is probably making up God for him or herself.
It doesn’t make sense. For instance, I have a rusting 12 year old minivan; what if I like to think of it as a new corvette? How would that be good? If I treated it like a new Vette, I’d stop putting in oil treatment to stop the leaks, and get in trouble fast. I might take it to the racetrack and be very sorry; or perhaps I’d put in an expensive car alarm…useless.
Just because I like to think of something in some way doesn’t make it real. If I say to my wife, “Alice, I like to think of you as being unaware of my shortcomings,” “I like to think that it never hurts you when I break a promise, and so on.” That would not be reality; I would not really know her, even if I liked to think otherwise. “Oh, and Alice, I like to think you’re a born car mechanic who should repair what I’ve done to my corvette.”
That’s crazy talk, right? But this may challenge you. It is not only non-church goers and the world that have ways they like to think about God. We can do the same, and during these forty days of Lent, it is a good time to examine our path, look around at the disruptions in our life and look for God. God as he truly reveals himself to be, not how we might quickly think of him according to our preferences. The question is, Is your God too small?…too safe?…and too tame? And The answer is “yes.” because God will always be infinitely bigger and mightier than we can know. We just need to look to God’s word and see as best we can how God himself reveals what is true about him; and our true knowledge will grow, our relationship with God will grow.
And so what Moses sees first in his encounter with God, is Fire! God is communicated as Fire throughout the Bible. His word is fire. His presence is fire. Last week we saw God is like a burning fire-pot going through the midst of animals, cutting a covenant.
God leads the Israelites by a pillar of fire. His judgment is fire. He pours out his wrath like fire and this happens several times to punish disobedience and defiant disbelief.
Later in Exodus, we’re told that on this same mountain the Lord descends with great fire
The Son of God appears in the midst of fire to Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego.
Upon his return, The Lord Jesus will be revealed in the midst of blazing fire.
At least three time in Scripture, including the New Testament, we’re told that
Our God is a consuming fire, a consuming fire.
So, what gets Moses’ attention is FIRE, but here, the bush is burning and yet it is not consumed–at least not at that time. So what is up with that? We’ll get back to this. Regardless, it is not natural, that much is clear. God is revealing that He is sovereign over nature. The old rules can’t limit Him. Moses may or may not have liked to think of God that way, but at first, he still doesn’t even know if this is God or not; he’s just paying attention, and then he hears his name, “Moses, Moses.” O God is so tender-hearted, he has heard the cry of the Israelites and longs to save them; and he has a plan for Moses and gets his attention with fire, beckons him closer, personally calls his Name, emphasizing it by saying it twice–Moses Moses–things have gotten personal, fast, and then God says something we all must understand if we are to know God as he is and not just what we like to think. What does he say after calling and bringing Moses near? Does God say “come closer?” No. God says, “STOP! Don’t come closer!”
(Exodus 3:5ff) “Do not come near; take your sandals off your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” 6And he said, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.”
Moses believed that he was indeed in the midst of holiness; which is divine purity–something or some place that is set apart and dedicated to God. Nothing is to taint or defile holiness. It is so blazing pure it is to be feared. And it all dawns on Moses, as he hears that this voice comes from the God of his forefathers, his family, inheritors of the great promises to Abraham and the others. Moses knew the stories, he knew the promises, he knew about this glorious holy God, and now he knows he has met him, and is afraid.
Fearing God is a necessary requirement to knowing God like Moses knew him, like the patriarchs knew him, like the prophets, and like the apostles knew him. Fearing God is also necessary to know God the Father in a remarkable way that Jesus and the Holy Spirit know God the Father. Isaiah 11 says that “The Spirit of the Lord will rest on the Messiah, … the spirit of knowledge and fear of the Lord.” We see that the knowledge and fear of the Lord go hand in hand. Isaiah continues, “and he (the shoot from Jesse, the Messiah) will delight in the fear of the Lord.”
Just like there are bad emotions and good emotions, there is wrong fear and there is good fear. We are so used to hearing about bad fear, that we might find it hard to accept what the Bible says about good fear. We might find ourselves saying, I like to think of God as someone never to be feared. And that would be as imaginary as my corvette. God is to be feared, and yet only in the right way, not the wrong way; but the first thing to know, is that: knowing the holiness of God and the Fear of the Lord go hand in hand. Of course God is love and you should never let go of that, but as often as we hear that God is love in the Bible, even more often we hear that God is holy.
The natural response of everyone in the Bible who catches a glimpse of the holiness and glory of God is to fear and tremble, like Isaiah in the throne room, like the Apostles at the Transfiguration and at the catch of fish and when the storm was calmed and so on. Even John, the Apostle of love, who extolled love over fear, nevertheless fell down in fear when catching a glimpse of the Lord’s glory (Rev. 1); and that was the right thing to do. You may think the Psalms are all joyous, and all can be sung with joy, but nine out of every ten psalms in some way either commends the fear of God or sets forth God’s fearsome attributes or both. Divine fear and divine joy are meant to go together, “Rejoice with trembling!” says David (Psalm 2).
Even to this day, the Fear of God is the beginning of wisdom. In a common sense, A child knows no earthly wisdom until she knows there are consequences in life. Don’t touch the hot stove. Knowing consequences helps keep you alive. And you can’t start learning anything about the world without knowing that. Positively, there are good consequences being in the arms of your parents and being fed; you learn that as well.
Spiritually then, the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom because without knowing that God matters, that there are consequences for sinning against him, you can’t learn anything of eternal value. “Stop!” God said to Moses. “This is holy ground. It matters. You will die if you approach my glory and refuse to acknowledge my holiness. Here, take off your sandals. When you humble yourself in this way, then you can get to know me in truth, not just how you wish me to be.” “Then you can understand, (and this is critical,) then you can understand more of the depths of my love and goodness.—Love and goodness that are diminished and cheapened without knowing my holiness, and my worthiness to be feared; You need that understanding to appreciate more of the magnitude of my love and mercy and grace.”
This gets us started on understanding the good fear of the Lord. The more we grasp how unworthy we are by ourselves to be in God’s awesome, holy presence, the more we know and appreciate the living miracle that each believer is. No one is worthy, and yet, and yet, Jesus made you worthy, and in him you are able to stand in the holy presence of God. How can this be?! Jesus was consumed by the fire of the Father’s holy judgment so that you will never be.
It’s in the text, that the angel of the Lord appeared to Moses from the midst of the fire. And then, God spoke to Moses out of the burning bush. So who is speaking to Moses, is it the Angel of the Lord or is it God?
The Angel of the Lord is not just an angel, it is THE Angel of the Lord, and when THE Angel of the Lord speaks, and he does several time in the old testament, it is not “thus says the Lord” like an ordinary angel or prophet may say, it is “I say,” first-person. This is not just me (Fr. Greg) this is what church scholars and pastors have taught throughout history. God from the burning bush, the Angel of the Lord, reveals himself as the self-existent One, “I AM.” I need to depend on no one else. Everything depends on me. The whole universe, and if your’e into multiverses, all of them too, everything depends on me. I AM is God’s name, sometime pronounce Jehovah, as it came through latin and older English. Today it’s said Yahweh is a better scholarly pronunciation. Either way, it’s the same word and the same phrase, “I AM”. So Jesus did not leave us hanging, regarding who he was, he told us loud and clear, “before Abraham was, I AM.”
In the bush, the angel of the Lord is not just a foreshadowing of Jesus, this person is the second Person of the Holy Trinity. He is in the midst of the fire but is not consumed in front of Moses. At the judgment our Lord will be a consuming fire, holy and to be feared. But the joy we are looking forward to at Easter celebrates the fact that our Lord is a consuming fire another sense. Jesus allowed himself to be consumed on the cross so that all who trust in him will never have to be consumed in the judgment. He is our substitute, burnt, as it were, in our place. When we understand that, we understand the gospel and more of the magnitude of God’s love.
Jesus did not just love us a little, he did not just face mild discipline for us. He faced the full weight of God’s fearsome holy judgment for each one of you. If we diminish God’s worthiness to be feared, we diminish the extent to which we are saved, the extent to which we are loved.
I know this teaching on fear can be hard to get our heads and spirits around, and it may take time to digest; and I know it is especially hard for those of you who have dramatically experienced liberation from fears in your life. For you, freedom from fear is a big part of your spiritual life, and you want others to know that freedom too. So do I, and yet we also know the Bible is full of hundreds and hundreds of verses extolling the good Fear of the Lord. And we only have had time for a few. (I’ll be up front after service if you have questions and hopefully I can reflect the proper balance of God’s word on these things.)
The bad fear of the Lord, by the way, is first, to think of him as not good, or “questionably good,” –to think that he can’t protect you or won’t protect you–that He is untrustworthy. It is to doubt God’s goodness and fairness. And for believers, it is bad to fear God’s condemnation–that would be disbelieving Jesus’ work on the cross. And of course, bad fear in general is to fear anything more than we fear God. Nothing in the world can separate us from the love of God! (Rom. 8:28-39) Yes, God wants you liberated from every single worldly fear. Don’t fear anything in the world compared to God!
A mighty fortress is our God! We are safe inside him! Knowing how worthy God is to be feared, makes us less fearful of the world. God will protect us from all our enemies, spiritual and flesh and blood. Moses learned, and relearned that lesson. And as we, likewise, respond to the Lord with the right kind of reverential fear, we are better placed to be sent by God to serve. And that’s our mission as a church, right?–To serve Jesus, as he saves heals and reconciles people from all nations and conditions; where we are at, to the Father by his Word and Holy Spirit.
We’ve just begun to touch on a few of the hundreds of texts in Scripture on the healthy fear of the Lord, and I trust that it is clear from the Word, that if we are going to know God as he is, as he defines his own goodness and love, it needs to be in the context of also knowing that God is worthy of fear. And so here are a number of thoughts on applying this truth.
Look again at the distractions and interruptions in your life. Regardless of the cause of the disruptions in your life, God wants to use them to get your attention and call you to know him more deeply, and to be used for his saving purposes, like Moses–each of you is called to be a Moses in a special way. I know that’s amazing, but, you know, it’s not as amazing as being called to be like Jesus, Christians–so let’s follow as Moses, because we can have confidence that THE Angel of the Lord, Jesus himself, will appear to you out of the midst of whatever is disrupting your life, if you’re willing to look for him.
Here then, are several questions to help us.
TURN? Are you willing to turn from your everday path and see the presence of the Angel of the Lord-Jesus Himself, in the midst of the fire, in the midst of whatever is challenging or disrupting you? Whether those disruptions come from without or within, are you willing to turn from your old path to see Jesus?
BEHOLD? Are you willing to think about God, not as you may like to think about him–not how I may like to think of my van as a corvette– are you willing to think abbut as he reveals himself to be? — Not only good and loving, but good in such a way that he is also Holy, Fearsome, a Warrior, with overwhelming Glory, Majestic, Awesome, All-powerful, Judge of every person–to either come to heaven or to depart to hell? That God reveals himself to be worthy of fear and fatal to behold in the fullness of his holy glory? Can we remember that Cherubim in heaven cover their faces; that John the apostle of love collapsed in holy fear when beholding the Lord in his glory?. And that the prophets told us that even Messiah was to fear God in the right way? Are we holier than the cherubim? More mature than St. John? More righteous than the Messiah? Of course not. Never let it be said that you have progressed to the place where there is no fear of God before your eyes. That’s not a virtue. The Bible condemns living with no fear of God as the worst vice in the Old Testament and New. (as Paul sums up the vices of mankind in Romans 3, “No one is righteous. No one is good. No one seeks God. No one does good … their feet are swift to shed blood; and to top it all off, there is no fear of God before their eyes.”) So, are you willing to fear God in the right way, that is, to simply meet Him in his true glory, as he reveals himself to be holy and worthy of fear? Then behold him: read the Psalms with a mindfulness that God is worthy of fear. Read Revelations, read all of Scripture and behold him.
BELIEVE? Likewise, Are you willing to hope and believe that as you grow in seeing God as he reveals himself to be: Holy and worthy of fear, that the other true things you already know about God, that he saves you?!–That he is fair and good and trustworthy and love, that these truths that you cherish will not be replaced, but magnified? Magnified in your heart? Magnified in your heart, mind, soul and strength?
OBEY? And ultimately, will you let these truths change you into loving God more in practice?–In ways that result in decisions and actions of faith and obedience? Look at Abraham’s faith and obedience. When Abraham raises his hand above Isaac*, the Lord doesn’t say to Abraham, “Stop, I’ve seen your faith,…” nor does he say, “I’ve seen your obedience,” but rather, “Stop, for now I have seen that you fear God. And seeing that you fear, I will provide!” When tempted today, obey. Let us all resolve, by God’s grace, that when we are tempted today, we obey.
In a balanced God-centered life, practical faith, obedience and healthy fear all go together. Search your hearts, today, God is not only calling away from the ordinary path, not only to expand your view of him as both good and holy, but he is calling you to serve him with reverent obedience, awe and healthy fear.
(Ps. 96) “Ascribe to the LORD the glory due his name; …Worship the LORD in the splendor of holiness; Tremble before him, all the earth!” Amen.
*”The Fear of Isaac” is one of the names of God in Scripture (Genesis 31:42)