How do you view God? Most Americans believe in God or some kind of higher power; even the 12% or so of “nones,” who have no religious affiliation, often believe in some kind of deity. As an article in the New York Times in Dec. 2011 said, “a growing number of Americans are running from organized religion, but by no means running from God. On average 93 percent of those surveyed say they believe in God or a higher power; this holds true for most Nones — just 7 percent of whom describe themselves as atheists.” The author of that article, a self-described None, says, “We Nones may not believe in God, but we hope to one day.” He is turned off by ideas of an angry judgmental God and of those who follow such a God and wishes for a new “Steve Jobs-like” way of being religious, “straightforward and unencumbered and absolutely intuitive. Most important, it would be highly interactive. I imagine a religious space that celebrates doubt, encourages experimentation and allows one to utter the word God without embarrassment.” It kind of sounds to me like he wants God when he, the human being, calls, not vice versa. He doesn’t want God to bother him or make demands on him. Not much of a God! More of an idol, actually. How embarrassing!
As we all know, there are different ways to view God. Two Baylor University researchers suggested these are almost mutually exclusive in a 2011 book entitled America’s Four Gods. Just over a quarter of Americans, they say, believe in an "authoritative God." "Someone who has an authoritative God believes in a God that is very judgmental and very engaged in the world at the same time," said one of the authors, adding that they also tend to be evangelical and male. Another group, mostly evangelical women, characterize the almighty as a "benevolent God" who is thoroughly involved in their lives but is loving, not stern. Others believe in a "critical God" who is removed from daily events but will render judgment in the afterlife. The authors of the study said, "We find a strong tendency for African-Americans, for people who are at lower levels of income and education to believe in the 'critical God,'" which I found rather surprising. The fourth view of God is a "distant God" who set the universe in motion, but then disengaged. "These tend to be higher educated, more 'spiritual' people," said the authors, “less suspicious of science” and less inclined to see God as caring about humanity. "A person's conception of God is central to how they perceive their world and behave in it," concluded the authors. How we view God makes a big difference in how we think and live. How do you view God? What effect does that have on you?
I don’t think these need be viewed as mutually exclusive views of God, but more matters of emphasis, though the last view is basically Deism, which is quite different from how God is portrayed in the Bible. In efforts to talk about God we might ask people what they believe, why and on what basis, and then try to find common ground with them, providing them with a biblical basis. Perhaps they haven’t thought these things through sufficiently. Perhaps we can help!
In our text for today, Moses is out in the fields, keeping watch over the flocks. Why does God call to him, save that God is interested in humanity?! In response to the Deists out there, why should we care at all about God if God doesn’t care about us? The fact that we can predict and manipulate aspects of the world does not mean God is absent from it. Indeed, the early scientists in the West were largely Christians who saw their explorations of God’s world as giving them better understanding of God in all his glory, beauty, and orderliness. To study the world of God’s creation was to study more of the one who created it. Francis Bacon, founder of the inductive method, said in the seventeenth century, “let no man upon a weak conceit of sobriety or an ill-applied moderation think or maintain, that a man can search too far, or be too well studied in the Book of God's Word, or in the Book of God's Works—Divinity or Philosophy. But rather, let men endeavor an endless progress or proficience in both,” he adds with love, not conceit. Conceit is a problem for humanity today, which is curious, given the world’s turmoil.
Moses leads his flocks on Mt. Horeb, called “the mountain of God” in anticipation of its being the place of the giving of the Law, since Horeb is another name for Sinai. There “an angel of the Lord,” often in the OT another way of speaking of the pre-incarnate Son, here certainly of God, “appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed” (Exod. 3:2). The fire is not drawing its energy from the bush, but is using the bush to reveal an energy of its own. The fire represents the self-sufficient eternal God. God often reveals himself in the Bible in fire. Later in Exodus he will lead his people through the desert in a pillar of cloud by day and of fire by night. When God later descends on Sinai in the giving of the Law, “Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke, because the Lord had descended upon it in fire” (Exod. 19:18). In 1 Kings 18, when Elijah battled the prophets of Baal, even dousing the sacrifice on the altar with buckets of water, “the fire of God fell and consumed the burnt offering.” This is not just the stuff of the OT, by the way. In 2 Thess. 1:7, the apostle Paul speaks of “when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus.” It should not surprise us, then, when the writer of the book of Hebrews admonishes us to offer God “an acceptable worship with reverence and awe; for indeed our God is a consuming fire” (Heb. 12:28-29).
These verses portray something of the awesome power and holiness of God. These depictions of God demonstrate him to be very authoritative indeed, critical, but not just for a life to come; he critiques our lives now. He calls us to himself, not wishing to judge and punish us, but to deliver and save us! Our own conceit, our own self-sufficiency, our own merits, must come under critique and judgment so that we then realize our own need, inadequacy, and hopelessness apart from his benevolence toward us. He reveals himself to us because he loves us! He hears the cries of the lonely, oppressed, and forlorn, and comes down to us to deliver us, to lift us up and bring us into the Promised Land of salvation. He came down to us preeminently in the incarnation of the Son of God in Jesus Christ, who said (Jn. 3), “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God.”
When God tells Moses he will send him to Pharaoh to bring his people out of Egypt to worship him on that mountain, Moses asks what God’s name is. God answers with the words of Exod. 3:14, “I AM WHO I AM,” accenting his eternal nature and his enduring faithfulness to himself and his promises to us. God thus tells Moses to tell his people “I AM has sent me to you.” God promises to be with his people always. “I AM with you” and “I will be with you.” He is eternally faithful. There is no greater benevolence than that! Later, to those plotting his death in John 8, Jesus said, “before Abraham was, I am,” so “they picked up stones to throw at him” since they viewed him as having committed blasphemy. They recognized in his “I am” an assertion of divinity! Still later, when Judas and the temple guard came to Jesus in Gethsemane to take him, Jesus asked, “Whom are you looking for?” and they answered “Jesus of Nazareth.” “Jesus replied “I am [he],” to which they all “stepped back and fell to the ground” (John 18:6). Why did they fall? Because Jesus is God incarnate, the God who revealed himself to Moses on Sinai (Horeb). All who gain even a glimpse of the divine glory and power must fall before him!
In Exod. 3:15, the small caps for “The Lord” are the English translation of the covenant name of God, Yahweh (more correct than the older Jehovah). Yahweh is the third person form of the Hebrew verb translated “I will be” in v. 12 and “I AM” in v. 14. When God speaks of himself, he says, “I AM,” and when we speak of him, we say, “He is.” What is he to you? God is holy, of purer eyes than to behold evil, and cannot look on sin. He is authoritative and does judge sin, not just bye and bye, but here and now as well. He is also benevolent, loving us more than we could ever know, graciously calling us out of the sin that would destroy us, away from the world of Egypt with all its phony luster to the true, abundant, and eternal life found in his Son, whom he sacrificed in our place for our salvation. He is transcendent, but he is not distant. He has come to us in Immanuel, God with us. He promises to be with us. He calls us to be like him, to be holy, pure, loving, critical of anything that diverges from his will, in ourselves first and also in others, and to seek to conform our lives to who he is. We are called by his name. “As he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in all your conduct; for it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy’,” says 1 Pet. 1:15-16, citing several texts in Leviticus. Let us be holy like God!