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3. Responding To God’s Call (Ex. 3:11-4:17)

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We noticed in the last sermon in this series (Ex. 3:1-10) that Moses encountered God in a miraculous experience at the burning bush, a bush that was on fire but which did not burn up. The theological principle that we derived from that passage was that God appears to ordinary people in ordinary circumstances and reveals to them the extraordinary.

While Moses’ encounter with God revealed God to Moses in an awe-inspiring and life-changing way, Moses’ response to God was anything but exemplary. One wonders if Moses’ experiences up to that point somehow colored his worldview. After spending 40 years in Pharaoh’s palace and another 40 years looking after sheep in the back part of the desert, perhaps he had lost hope of ever being used by God. After all, he had tried once to intervene on behalf of one of his Hebrew brothers and been utterly rejected (Ex. 2:11-15). Even though he still knew his Hebrew identity, 40 years under the influence of the royal household and Egyptian culture could easily have caused him to forget the godly example of his faithful mother and his covenant relationship with the God of Israel. And another 40 years tending sheep could certainly cause him to lose his sense of purpose and conclude that this would be his lot for the rest of his life. That would certainly be understandable, wouldn’t it?

But, though Moses seems to have forgotten God, God had not forgotten Moses. In fact, in the eternal purposes of God, God had sovereignly chosen to use Moses in a very special way in His service, and the previous 80 years were years of preparation for this moment.

The passage we are studying today is a continuation of Moses’ encounter with God at the burning bush, specifically dealing with Moses’ response to God’s call to lead His people out of their misery in Egypt to “a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey” (Ex. 3:7-8). What we are going to learn in this passage is what Moses didn’t know, that when God calls us, he equips us perfectly for the commission that He gives us. That’s the theological principle in this passage. This is an important lesson because Moses didn’t get it. In fact, he is overwhelmed with the task and the obstacles that he thought he would face. Indeed, at a human level, what God was calling Moses to do was overwhelming, exceedingly daunting, plain scary. And so, in response to God’s commission in 3:10, Moses offers a series of objections (3:11-4:12) leading up to an outright refusal, which is met with God’s gracious provision (4:13-17). Notice firstly that…

I. Our Objections Do Not Obstruct God’s Purposes (3:11-4:12)

Moses presents four objections to God, four reasons why he could not accept God’s call and commission, all of which have to do with his sense of personal insufficiency.

Objection 1: His lack of confidence (3:11-12).But Moses said to God, ‘Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the children of Israel out of Egypt?’” (3:11). No longer is Moses the bold, strong 40 year old man in Egypt, who could kill an Egyptian slave master singlehandedly. The last 40 years in the wilderness have erased his confidence. He had suffered a serious demotion from royalty to one of Egypt’s most-wanted assassins, from a prince to pauper. So, we can understand how, after all these years of tending sheep in the desert with no prospects of any change on the horizon, Moses could have a serious sense of personal inferiority. That’s understandable, isn’t it?

But what Moses didn’t know is that God had His eye on him all the time. God had chosen him for a task greater than anything he could have imagined. Indeed, the last 40 years tending sheep were not wasted. On the contrary, they had taught him much about leadership, for sheep are renowned for (1) their crowd mentality; (2) for wandering away, completely unaware of dangers that may lurk ahead of them; and (3) for their complete dependence on the shepherd to guard them and provide nourishment for them. If he could lead sheep, then he could certainly lead people. If he could lead the sheep around the Midian desert and find them food to eat and water to drink and protect them from wild animals, then would he not be able to do the same for the Israelites? Did he not possess the leadership skills and experience to quite easily lead that vast population out of Egypt to the promised land of Canaan?

Moses’ objection sounds more like an expression of deep humility, doesn’t it? “Who am I to lead the Israelites out of Egypt? Surely there are others better qualified and more skilled than I.” But this isn’t about humility, this is about a lack of confidence, not lack of confidence in self but lack of confidence in God. After all, God had seemingly abandoned Moses just when he was intervening to use his strength and position to advance the plight of God’s people. If He had abandoned him then, could he trust Him for the future, especially a future that would be fraught with tremendous obstacles, including Pharoah himself?

Yes, Moses could trust God for the future and for everything that he needed. God replies, “I will be with you” (3:12a). That’s all Moses needed – God’s presence with him. The expression “be with you” indicates intimacy, presence, guidance, provision, protection. In other words, everything that Moses would need, God would provide. This was the same expression of encouragement that Jesus gave to his disciples just before he ascended back to heaven and before they would face tremendous tests of their newfound faith: “Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20).

Furthermore, if God’s promise of his presence was not be enough to give comfort and confidence to Moses, God grants him a further assurance and promise by way of a sign: And this will be a sign to you that I am the one who sent you: when you bring the people out of Egypt, you will worship God at this mountain” (Ex. 3:12b). Signs in Scripture often serve to affirm the authenticity of a person and / or to confirm what God had promised. God is telling Moses that when he and the Israelites leave Egypt, they will return to this very same mountain in the Midian desert where Moses is having this conversation with God, and that will be the sign that proves beyond any doubt that (1) God has acted on their behalf and (2) that Moses’ leadership is divinely appointed. God is saying to Moses, “There, that’s a concrete promise that will prove My word is true. You can take it to the bank!”

We all have doubts from time to time about our ability to serve God or why God called us to serve him in a particular way or place. Like Moses we might well ask sometimes, “Who am I?” Indeed, I ask that myself quite frequently, not because I lack the confidence that God will enable me to do what He has called me to do, but because I am utterly dumbfounded as to why God would deign to use me in this ministry at all. Who am I? Let us constantly wonder at the grace of God in using us in any way He chooses, but let us not doubt the power and provision of God to get the job done. Serving God is not our ministry – it’s His. I love Hudson Taylor’s motto and have quoted it often: “Depend on it. God’s work done God’s way will never lack God’s supply.”

You would think God’s gracious promise would be enough to satisfy Moses’ doubts, wouldn’t you? But no, Moses has another objection…

Objection 2: His lack of knowledge of God (3:13-22). “If I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what should I tell them?” (3:13). In other words, if the Israelites challenged Moses’ authority and integrity by testing Moses’ personal knowledge of God, what was he going to say? He had to know the correct answer or his authority would be instantly in doubt. And well they might challenge him, knowing who he had been and what he had done. They would understandably be suspicious of him, given his track record. And if he didn’t answer correctly their hypothetical question as to God’s identity, they certainly would not follow him.

It seems that the hypothetical test that Moses is anticipating concerns three issues: (1) his personal knowledge of Israel’s God; (2) his authority to act as Israel’s leader; and (3) Israel’s relationship with God. As to the first issue, the question seems to be, is Moses himself a true follower of the God of Israel or had he abandoned God in favour of the pagan god’s of Egypt? In other words, exactly what God is Moses speaking on behalf of; who had authorized him for this mission and position? Was it the One true, covenant God of Israel - the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob - or was it some other god that they did not know or recognize or trust?

As to the second issue, the question seems to be, was Moses usurping his authority again, just as he had when he killed the Egyptian slave master? To act in someone’s “name” is another way of saying, “Who is your authority for saying or doing this?” The answer to this question would be a critical test of Moses’ authenticity and credibility. But, in posing this hypothetical question that he may be asked by the Israelites, at least Moses recognizes that his only legitimate authority for this commission must come from God. He could not act on his own authority or self-will, as he had done previously.

As to the third issue, perhaps Moses was also concerned about the spirituality of the Israelites themselves. Perhaps, after 400 years of slavery in Egypt, they themselves had long forgotten the God of their fathers.

The sad thing is that Moses’ objection here seems to indicate that he himself did not know God, could not identify him, did not even know His name. And this after just having been told by God from the burning bush exactly who He is. “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” (3:6). How much greater identification did Moses need?

To be fair to Moses, though, we too often face circumstances in which we make the excuse that we cannot speak for God because we lack sufficient knowledge of God and his Word. So, we are afraid to open our mouths lest we say the wrong thing or don’t have the right answer. Or, perhaps you are afraid to speak for God because you don’t know God.

It seems that God replies to Moses, “Don’t worry about asking me who you are (3:11), Moses, you just need to know who I am - ‘I AM WHO I AM’”(3:14). There is no higher or greater authority than the LORD himself. The one true God cannot be compared to anyone else. He is the uncreated One. The incomprehensible One. The incomparable One. The inexplicable One. The unchangeable One. He is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent. He is not shaped by outside forces or circumstances. He is not influenced by, nor dependent on, nor obligated to anything or anybody. He is self-existing, self-dependent, and self-determined. He is the great I AM – the One with no beginning and no ending, the eternal One, the ever-present One, the One who was and is and is to come. This, then, is the One in whose name Moses would approach and lead the Israelites. “So, tell them that, Moses.” And “Say this to the Israelites: The LORD, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you. This is my name forever; this is how I am to be remembered in every generation” (Ex. 3:15).

Thus, not only could Moses respond appropriately to the Israelites’ question, but he could add a wonderful promise from God - “I have promised that I will bring you up from the misery of Egypt to the land of the Canaanites…a land flowing with milk and honey” (3:17). In the name of the God of Israel, Moses could hold out to them the promise of deliverance from slavery in Egypt. That surely would persuade them to follow and trust Moses. No one else could possibly offer them that hope.

So, two objections dealt with – his lack of confidence (3:11-12) and his lack of knowledge of God (3:13-22). Surely that is sufficient to give Moses the confidence and the knowledge he needs to face the Israelites. But no, he has another objection…

Objection 3: His lack of credibility with the people (4:1-9). “What if they don’t believe me and will not obey me but say, ‘The Lord did not appear to you’?” (4:1). Now it’s not a matter of the Israelites questioning who had sent him, but whether they would believe him and obey him. Now it’s a matter of personal credibility. Well, he certainly had cause to wonder if they would believe him. Again, his track record wasn’t that great. Yes, he had attempted to protect the Hebrew slave who was being mistreated by the slave master, but then he had disappeared for 40 years. Where had he been? Who was he now? Would he abandon them again?

This time, God graciously gives him three miraculous signs by which he could prove his credibility and convince them that he had been sent to them by God. First, his miraculous rod - when he threw it to the ground, it became a serpent and when he took hold of it again it became a rod again (4:2-5). Second, his hand - when he put it into his cloak, it became leprous and when he put it into his cloak again it was restored to perfect health (4:6-7). Third, water from the river Nile - when he poured it on dry land it would become blood (4:9).

Amazingly, even these miraculous signs were not enough to assuage Moses’ doubts and fears and objections. There was one more…

Objection 4. His lack of oral ability (4:10-12). “But Moses replied to the Lord, ‘Please, Lord, I have never been eloquent - either in the past or recently or since you have been speaking to your servant – because my mouth and my tongue are sluggish’” (4:10). This is everyone’s biggest fear, I think, when called upon to speak publicly for God. Public speaking is, after all, a daunting task at the best of times. How much more so when called upon to speak to a multitude as vas t as the Israelites and to Pharoah, the very man who had hunted for Moses to kill him and from whom Moses had fled so many years ago. But, once more, God graciously and patiently provides comfort and assurance, saying, 11 Who placed a mouth on humans? Who makes a person mute or deaf, seeing, or blind? Is it not I, the Lord? 12 Now go! I will help you speak and I will teach you what to say” (4:11-12). The Creator himself is surely able to empower us to speak for him and to give us the right words to say at the right time (cf. Lk. 12:12). This is God’s promise and assurance to Moses.

So, our objections do not obstruct God’s purposes. And notice secondly…

II. Our Refusals Do Not Restrict God’s Grace (4:13-17)

By this time, you would think that Moses would have been convinced by God’s grace and patience, and by God’s provision for his weaknesses and fears in response to his objections. But did all of that satisfy Moses? Did it give him the courage and confidence he needed? Did he willingly submit and say, “Here am I, send me?” No! If you can believe it, after all God’s gracious assurances, promises, and miraculous signs, Moses said, “Please, Lord, send someone else” (4:13). After all his objections and God’s responses, Moses refused to go and be used by God. He says, “Send someone else. I’m not going.”

I wonder how often we, perhaps unwittingly, refuse God’s call on our lives. God wants to use us and assures us of his presence and power for his service, and yet we refuse. Now it’s not about fears or doubts or excuses. Now it’s about outright refusal. This is not an emotional response when faced with a frightening prospect. No, this is a volitional response, an emphatic refusal to obey God. But notice that…

When we refuse God’s call to serve, He provides us with assistance. “Then the Lord’s anger burned against Moses” (4:14a). Even though God is, understandably, angry with Moses for all his objections (3:11-4:12), yet He still offers Moses a way to overcome his fourth objection concerning his lack of oral ability: 14b Isn’t Aaron the Levite your brother? I know that he can speak well. And also, he is on his way now to meet you. He will rejoice when he sees you. 15 You will speak with him and tell him what to say. I will help both you and him to speak and will teach you both what to do. 16 He will speak to the people for you. He will serve as a mouth for you, and you will serve as God to him” (4:14-16).

Though we may overstep the mark, we can never overstep God’s grace. When Moses objects to serving God because he lacks oral ability, then God graciously provides Aaron to act as Moses’ spokesperson. Moses would receive God’s word, pass it on to his brother Aaron, and Aaron would communicate it to the Israelites. God has responded to all Moses’ objections and he has swept aside Moses’ refusal. Now he must go and the staff in his hand would be a reminder and assurance of God’s presence with him and that God can and will do miraculous things through him.

When we refuse God’s call to serve, He provides us with assistance. And…

When we refuse God’s call to serve, He provides us with confidence. God says to Moses: “And take this staff in your hand that you will perform the signs with” (4:17). Moses would have two sources of comfort and confidence as he takes on this huge task that God has assigned to him. First, he has his brothers would will be his spokesperson (4:14-16). Second, he has his staff (rod) which will be his source of power (4:17). He felt inadequate and weak, as we all do from time to time, but God is greater than our fears. Indeed, it is in those very times when God emboldens us for His service.

Don’t you just marvel sometimes at the amazing grace of God? Isn’t it just thoroughly astounding how God meets our needs and responds to our weaknesses in order that we can have the inestimable privilege of serving Him? Don’t you just wonder sometimes why? Why would God bother with me? Have you ever wondered why God would not just choose someone else rather than put up with your fears and refusals? Well, it’s because God has chosen to use imperfect vessels to achieve his purposes. As the apostle Paul says, “Now we have treasure in clay jars, so that this extraordinary power may be from God and not from us” (1 Cor. 4:7). Through frail, failing, feeble, and finite human beings, God brings glory to himself.

You see, God does not call us to serve him without first teaching us our weakness and then equipping us appropriately for the task. The apostle Paul was acutely aware of his own weakness: “But he (the Lord) said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is perfected in weakness.’” (2 Cor. 12:9a). This promise and assurance renewed Paul’s courage to press on and to be content with his situation: 9b Therefore I will most gladly boast all the more about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may reside in me. 10 So I take pleasure in weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and in difficulties, for the sake of Christ. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor. 12:9b-10). That is a wonderful state to be in – content in our circumstances and strong in our weakness.

There were many other servants of God who were empowered by God to serve him despite feeling their own weakness. David, who, after defeating the giant Goliath, was driven out of the royal household, hunted like an animal by Saul, and lived in exile before being elevated to become king of Israel. Elijah also experienced utter weakness when he had to drink water from a brook and was fed by ravens, all before God used him mightily.

I suppose when we are called by God to serve him, a feeling of weakness and inability is natural and even necessary, asking like Moses, “Who am I?” Or, as the apostle Paul asked, “Who is adequate for these things?” (2 Cor. 2:16). But it doesn’t stop there. Our feeling of inadequacy is not an excuse. Rather, we need to rest in God’s comfort, be confident in God’s assurance, and move forward in God’s power, understanding that the issue is not about who I am, but about who God is, the great “I AM.” Again as the apostle Paul put it, “It is not that we are competent in ourselves to claim anything as coming from ourselves, but our adequacy is from God” (2 Cor. 3:5). That’s the point!

Final Remarks

Is it not true, that we are, in so many ways, like Moses. We have the same weakness of faith. We have the same fears about serving the Lord. We have the same objections and excuses for not responding to God’s call. We have the sae questions about God’s commission. Like Moses, we are prone to settle for far less than God calls us to. It seems that Moses would have preferred to stay as a shepherd of sheep rather than a shepherd of God’s people. I suppose in many ways that would have been a simpler life. I can understand why Moses was fearful of God’s call to lead the Israelites out of Egypt, from the known to the unknown. But what a blessing he would have missed if he had refused to obey God. Think of all the wonderful manifestations of God’s power Moses would have missed – the plagues, the Red Sea crossing, the manna in the wilderness, the water from the rock, the brazen serpent.

When God calls us He often pushes us out of our comfort zone into new places, new activities, new responsibilities. By nature we shrink back from such radical changes in our lives, preferring instead to stay in familiar places, with familiar activities, and familiar responsibilities. It’s a bit like taking a new job, isn’t it? Those first few weeks can be so threatening, so uncomfortable that we often feel like turning back. But as with Moses, so with us, God never fails to give us all that we need – courage, material resources, wisdom, discernment, vision, helpers, confidence in Him rather than ourselves, and even the words we need to say at just the right time.

I have experienced this many times in my life. For example, in 2012 I was teaching pastors in Burkina Faso, West Africa. My colleague there showed me a piece of land on which he believed God wanted him to build a Christian school. When I saw it I couldn’t believe that it was possible or would ever come to anything because it was in a rural area with no houses in sight. And besides, why and how would God use me for such a project. My ministry is teaching pastors, most of whom have not had the opportunity to get formal theological education. So, when my colleague first suggested this project to me, I pulled back. I didn’t see how starting a Christian school had anything to do with my teaching pastors. In addition, I didn’t know how to raise the funds for such a project. Anyway, somewhat reluctantly, I agreed to come back to Canada, make his vision known, and see where it would go. Frankly, I didn’t expect it to go anywhere. I thought that my colleague’s idea was good but not one that I could participate in.

Well, that was then and this is now. Through the encouragement of others and the prompting of the Holy Spirit I came to the conclusion that my colleague’s vision and my partnership with him in it were from the Lord. The result today is the Gampela Christian Education Centre that includes a school with about 400 students, a preschool with over 300 students, a church, a medical clinic, a vocational training school for young adults, and a pastoral training centre!

Through this ministry opportunity I have witnessed God work in marvelous ways, all of which I would have missed if I had not been prompted by God and encouraged by friends to help with that ministry. Perhaps you have had the same experience. When God first opened a door of opportunity for you to serve Him, you couldn’t see any future in it, or you felt inadequate or just plain scared. But when you began the journey, you experienced God’s incontrovertible activity, leading you, providing for you, achieving His purposes that you couldn’t see before.

It seems that God does not unfold to us his intentions in five year plans. We need to learn to “walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Cor. 5:7). I have been trying to learn that lesson throughout my adult life and probably will continue to learn it to the end, when our faith will be replaced by sight and earth exchanged for heaven. “For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror” writes the apostle Paul, “but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I will know fully, as I am fully known” (1 Cor. 13:12).

Finally, let us take courage that despite our past failures, weaknesses, and lack of faith, God prepares us for future service that is beyond anything we could ask or think. That might mean time in the desert tending sheep, but that isn’t wasted time. That is the time when our prior hurts, rejection, self-will, and failures recede from view, and we receive training for what is needed for the future. Tending sheep in the desert might not seem like training for leading God’s people out of Egypt, but it surely was. Moses learned from sheep how to move them along from place to place, what food and water they needed and where to find it, how to respond to their animal objections, how to stop them from going astray, and how to protect them from harm and danger. And after 40 years of training, God called Moses to a task that was humanly impossible, but perfectly possible by God. May we learn these lessons and trust God for anything He calls us to.

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