Sunday, March 3, 2013

Exodus 3:1-15 Third Sunday of Lent

It would be easy to believe that God isn’t listening when you and your people have been praying for 430 years.  That’s how long God’s Old Testament people were slaves in Egypt.  That’s how long God waited before he came to help.
When Moses was 40 years old he saw a golden opportunity for God to answer their prayers for help.  He had grown up in Pharaoh’s court.  He was an Egyptian official, and also an Israelite.   A natural leader, he was born to set the Israelites free.  One day he saw an Egyptian slave driver beating one of the Israelite slaves, and he killed that Egyptian.  Moses had to flee for his life.  Apparently, God wasn’t going to take that golden opportunity to set his people free.  It would have been easy to believe that God no longer planned to help his people.
Then, 40 years later, God appeared to Moses in a burning bush and told Moses that he was sending him to set the Israelite people free.  After Moses had been tending sheep for 40 years, growing old and thinking that God wasn’t going to use him, we can see how that would have seemed like a job that he couldn’t do.
Jesus presented us with a hard job too.  In the Gospel he commanded us to produce fruit.  Do good works.  Live the life that God wants.  If we don’t, he said that we would be cut down and thrown into the fire…we would go to hell.   Living a God-pleasing life is as big a job as any, and we are going to need to pray for help.  But when we don’t see the temptations becoming any lighter, it’s going to feel like God isn’t listening.  When you suddenly come to the realization that, in spite of all your best efforts, you haven’t really become any better, it is going to look like God hasn’t been helping.
The lesson from the book of Exodus tells us that things are not always what they seem.  God’s love for us is reliable.  He is still there, listening to our prayers and caring.  His promises for our future also are reliable.  He is never going to change his mind.  With reliable love and reliable promises, God is still with us.  See this in the lesson from Exodus 3:
Now Moses was tending the flock of Jethro his father-in-law, the priest of Midian, and he led the flock to the far side of the desert and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. 2 There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in flames of fire from within a bush. Moses saw that though the bush was on fire it did not burn up. 3 So Moses thought, “I will go over and see this strange sight—why the bush does not burn up.”
4 When the Lord saw that he had gone over to look, God called to him from within the bush, “Moses! Moses!”
And Moses said, “Here I am.”
5 “Do not come any closer,” God said. “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.” 6 Then he said, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.” At this, Moses hid his face, because he was afraid to look at God.
7 The Lord said, “I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering. 8 So I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey…
10 So now, go. I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt.”
11 But Moses said to God, “Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?”
12 And God said, “I will be with you. And this will be the sign to you that it is I who have sent you: When you have brought the people out of Egypt, you will worship God on this mountain.”
13 Moses said to God, “Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what shall I tell them?”
14 God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I AM has sent me to you.’ ”
15 God also said to Moses, “Say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord, the God of your fathers—the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob—has sent me to you.’ This is my name forever, the name by which I am to be remembered from generation to generation.
Exodus 3:1-8a, 10-15
1.  God is still with us, with his reliable love.
We see that even after 430 years of silence, he was still with his Israelite people, still listening to their prayers.  He had not become discouraged with them.  He had not lost interest.  He had not stopped loving.  He listened, and he saw their misery.  He was only waiting until the time was right, and then he came down to help.
God was still there for Moses too, even though Moses had failed to deliver the people before, and probably had given up on the idea of God ever doing anything great through him.  God came to him when he was 80 years old and said, “I will be with you,” and “I am sending you.”
During those 430 years, God didn’t change.  He never changes.  Even today, he is still with us.  He sees our struggles, and he intends to help.
Jesus said that we must repent, or we will perish.  He told a story of a tree that did not produce fruit, and it was cut down.  His meaning was that we will go to hell if we don not turn away from our sins and live the good life that pleases God.  He wasn’t denying his promises that anyone who believes in him will be forgiven and go to heaven.  He was saying that anyone who doesn’t turn away from their sin and live the life that pleases God will lose their faith, and perish.
Jesus’ call to produce good fruit is as big a job as what Moses had.  We are supposed to be free from the slavery to sin, but that desire to do and say bad things remains as strong as any Egyptian slave driver.  We get discouraged with ourselves because of our failures, and it is easy to imagine that God will not listen anymore, and that he no longer plans to help.  At least, not until we do better.
At that point, it can’t really be said anymore with 100% certainty that a person still has faith.  Faith is loving and trusting in God as your Savior.  At that point, the person has given up on God.  Jesus’ words ring true.  That person who has not repented, but continued in his sins, has lost his faith and will perish.  The tree that does not produce fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
It is easy for us to imagine that the Israelite slaves would have lost their faith in God to listen to their prayers and rescue them, because we are the same.  It’s a good thing that God hasn’t actually stopped listening or stopped caring.  He is still there with his reliable love, and he steps in to do what he always does.  He told Moses that he had heard and he was coming to help.  He identified himself as the God of their fathers, who still intended to bless them just as he promised to their fathers.  He was still going to bless their nation, give them a land, and give them a descendant who would bless all nations—the Savior.  Nothing had changed.  When they sinned against him, he did not change his mind.  When they became discouraged and gave up on them because it seemed like he wasn’t listening, he did not change his mind.  He still came to rescue them.
God is still with us with his reliable love, and he steps in to remind us that he has already come to set us free from our sins, when Jesus came and paid that price, the death penalty we deserve for a life of sin.  We are actually already free from the sins that seem to enslave us.  In the book of Galatians, God says we are no longer slaves, but “sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus.”  Because of that, he is never going to give up on us or stop listening to our prayers for help as we struggle with our temptations.

God was there for Abraham, 4000 years ago, Isaac, and Jacob.  He was still there for the Hebrews and Moses 3500 years ago.  2000 years ago Jesus said, “Surely I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”  God never changes.  But even as long as God has been doing this, it still isn’t enough.  We want to see some evidence now.  Give me strength to overcome my temptations now.  Make it easier for me to be in church, and have a solid daily prayer life with you.  It’s no different than Moses, wanting some sort of assurance that God really was with him.  God stepped in to help again, he was there for Moses with a sign, but not a sign as we would think of it.  God was there for him with a reliable promise.  He said, “When you have brought the people out of Egypt, you will worship God on this mountain.”

2.  God is still there with his reliable promises.
God actually said that was a sign, but what kind of a sign is it?  It was nothing that Moses could see at the present time.  It was something that God could see, though.  It was the future.  For God, the future was so certain that he could give it as a sign. 
Now if the promise of the future was going to be reliable enough to serve as proof that God was sending Moses, God would have to be with them all the way, no matter what, to make sure that it would happen.  If it depended on Moses’ strength or the Israelite’s faithfulness, there would be no way.  Pharaoh would be too strong for Moses, and the Israelites would find some way to anger God and make him want to leave them in the desert.  They would never succeed on their own.  God would have to be with them to deliver them out of Egypt.  God would have to be with them to care for them and guide them to the mountain.  God would have to stay with them, no matter what, in spite of their sins against him—and he was.  When they sinned against him, he disciplined them, and forgave them.  He never left them.
We have a similar promise for the future.  “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, “ Jesus said.  Now there is no way he can make that promise if it depends on us.  What if God were to say, “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, if you faithfully attend church, and if you are always kind and patient from here on out?”  There is no way that God could promise that you would be there.  And yet, that is God’s promise.  You who are baptized into his name and believe that he is your Savior—you will be in heaven.
God’s promise is reliable because he will always be with us.  When we sin, he rebukes us and disciplines us.  When we are afraid that there is no way we can ever be free from our sins the way we are supposed to be, he reminds us that he has already set us free.  Time and again, when we sin against him and come back for forgiveness, we find the same God who never changes and never leaves us. 
People say that they believe in God but don’t need church.  I don’t know how they can say that.  There is no other way to get the personal assurance that God has not changed his mind about you.  Time and again, when you come to church after a week of struggling with sin and often failing, you find the same personal assurance that God has forgiven your sins.  Where can you find that, except in the words spoken to you, the baptism given to you, and the body and blood of the Supper given to you?  God is still with us, so his promise is sure.  We will be in heaven.
After God brought his people out of Egypt and back to the mountain, they worshiped him there.  That is where the book of Exodus ends.  But the story doesn’t end—the Israelites sinned against him many times after that, complaining about the jobs he gave them, complaining about their food, and complaining about the land he was going to give them.  But God never left them.  It was never really about brining them back to the mountain.  It was always about staying with them through their whole life, and finally seeing them safely through the gates of heaven.  That’s what he was doing then.  That’s what he is doing now.  That’s what he will always be doing.  God’s promise is still reliable, he is always with us.

There really is no question of whether or not God will be there for you.  The only possibility is that you might leave him.  Many look for God in places where he will not be found.  They think he isn’t with them, or isn’t listening.  If Moses would have looked for God somewhere other than in the burning bush, he wouldn’t have found him.  If the Israelites would have looked for salvation through someone other than Moses, and at any other time, they wouldn’t have found God’s help.  God is always with us, and he is always there to help and save, but we may not be looking for him in the right places.  If you aren’t in church, aren’t in your Bible, don’t complain that he isn’t with you or isn’t answering your prayers.  The problem in that case would be that you are ignoring him.  Wake up and see God where he comes to you in his Word and Sacrament with patient, forgiving love.  He is always there.  When you sin, come back to him, because God is still with you, with his reliable love and his reliable promises.  Amen.