Moses is a man who is profoundly aware of his Hebrew ancestry. Although he was brought up in the palace of Pharaoh, he has taken his stand with the oppressed Hebrews. He is also a man with a passionate concern for justice; he has shown himself to not only be willing to intervene on behalf of his people but also on behalf of others (Reuel’s daughters).
He seems like just the right sort of man to lead the Hebrews out of the oppression of Egypt, yet his initial attempt to act as a kind of leader of his people was swiftly rebuffed. And here we find him, some 40 years later, miles away from the action, living as an exile in Midian, tending his father-in-law’s sheep.
If Moses is to be a significant player in the history of his people he clearly needs to get back to Egypt. But he has an even greater need that must be met before ever he can lead his own people out of slavery: he needs to meet God. This is God’s world, God’s story, and the Hebrews are God’s people, chosen for the sake of the whole world. Moses needs to be prepared for how God will use him and he needs to directed clearly by the Lord.
That’s what we’re going to see in these verses. As we do so, our eyes will be inevitably (and wonderfully) drawn to think not only of our place before God but of the fact that while he spoke through Moses, the full unveiling of his heart and plans is seen in Jesus.
1. The presence of God
The chapter opens in a quite mundane way – Moses is looking after some of his father-in-law’s sheep and takes them “to the far side of the desert”. Nothing too significant in that – but there is: he “came to mountain of God at Horeb”. Did Moses know it at this stage as the mountain of God? Most likely not; it is probably being called that now from the perspective of hindsight. To Moses, there’s no special reason in play to explain why he chooses to go there.
But in God’s hands, the most mundane place can take on a new and special significance. And the way that happens here is through a very strange sight: Moses sees a bush on fire that isn’t burnt up.
He would often have seen bushes ablaze but they would soon have been consumed; what gets his attention here is that this one doesn’t. This is the Lord himself, getting Moses’ attention. Fire is a sign of the divine presence (and will be on the journey Israel makes from Egypt) but the Lord is not present in order to harm but to heal: the bush is not consumed.
Moses, a broken sinful man, is going to stand in the presence of God and not be consumed, because the purpose of God is to deal with sin and to reconcile humanity to himself. The means for that had not yet been revealed but we have gladly sung of how the sons of ignorance and night can dwell in the eternal light – an offering and a sacrifice, a Holy Spirit’s energies, an advocate with God.
When he calls Moses, the first thing the Lord tells him is to take off his sandals because the ground he’s standing on is holy – and it is holy for no other reason than that the Lord is there. His being there changes everything; Moses is in the presence of greatness, of the Creator, the One who has promised to heal and save. Nothing less than absolute reverence is appropriate here. Moses covers his face, afraid to look at God and he is right to do so.
The God who is appearing to Moses in this strange way then discloses to Moses who he is: “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God if Isaac and the God of Jacob.” There is a real note of continuity here and the hope that promises made long years before will now be taken up and fulfilled.
All of these points that confront Moses here converge in the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. When he comes, he can tell his disciples that if they have seen him they have seen the Father; he is the personal presence of God in the world, the only one who by rights can look into the face of his Father without flinching, without irreverence.
Peter falls at his feet because he sees in Jesus something of the awesome holiness of God. Yet Jesus’ aim is not to consume Peter but to commission him. He has come so that all the promises of God might be ‘yes’ in him.
But that isn’t all. He commissions not just the 12 but all his people. We, too, are confronted in the most mundane places and on the most ordinary of days, with the startling discovery of the presence of God. He takes the initiative and calls us to faith in his Son and then service for his Son.
What qualifications do we need to serve him? What can prepare us to live for him? Strangely, a sense of our utter inability to do so, the keenly-felt sense that we are unworthy, that in the presence of genuine holiness we are, as Isaiah puts it, “undone”.
2. The concern & commission of God
But why is the Lord calling to Moses now? “I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt”. That almost reads as though it is a response to an unspoken question. Maybe that’s what’s been going through Moses’ mind as he shepherded the sheep in the desert these long years: where is the Lord? What will become of his promises to Abraham?
If those questions were indeed in Moses’ mind, if they had been in his prayers, the answer is given with great clarity and strength of purpose: “I have heard…I am concerned…I have come down to rescue…and to bring them up”. Everything God promised Abraham has not been forgotten or shelved; the divine purpose was being worked out down these long years and now is the time for him to act.
Do delays indicate that the Lord is uncaring and ready to break his promise? Never; Peter reminds us that the Lord is not slow in keeping his promises but he works to his own timetable. His ways are above ours and hard for us to comprehend but what should never be in doubt is his concern for his people and for his plans to rescue this world from sin.
3. The promise of God
In the light of this extraordinary call to go back to Egypt as the Lord’s agent in the deliverance of his people, Moses’ response is to say in v.11, “Who am I?” His response may not be overflowing with faith in God but it at least shows a commendable humility – far better than if he’d said ‘Well, I’m your man!’
With his past history in Egypt no doubt in mind (both in terms of the Pharaoh and the Hebrews), Moses stands in great need of reassurance from the Lord. His question is met by a gracious and powerful promise: “I will be with you”.
The life-history of Moses shows just how fully that promise was answered. It also discloses that the sign promised here also came to pass as Moses returned to Horeb with the people when they had left Egypt.
The God who calls us to be his partners in the work of the gospel can be trusted to the full. The promise given to Moses was reiterated by the Lord Jesus Christ to his disciples (and, so, to his church) in Mt. 28:20 – “I am with you always”. Emmanuel; God with us. It’s what Moses was promised, it’s what we also discover to our delight.
If the Lord was going to be with Moses, how much more was he with Jesus in his role as Messiah. All the way through his life, Jesus was conscious of the presence of his Father. We see in him no sign of the hesitancy that Moses shows here – “I stand with the Father who sent me” (Jn. 8:16); “the Father, living in me…is doing his work” (Jn. 14:10).
But a day did come in his experience when the presence of his Father was painfully absent and Jesus felt utterly alone and forsaken. Yet, in the strange but wise purposes of God, that was the very moment when prisoners were set free, when the guilty obtained their pardon, when evil was defeated and God’s plans to save were delivered.
At the end of the day, the presence of God, his concern for his people and his promise to help are all summed up in Jesus and made real in and through him.
As we consider our call to serve God in our day, personally and collectively, it is vital that we fix our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith. He calls and he equips; he humbles and he heals; he makes real both the presence and the power of God. That is ever our greatest need and it is fully met in Jesus.