Exodus 3:1-6 - "I want to be close to you. Don't come near."
February 2, 2014 Speaker: Series: Exodus
Topic: Sunday Worship Passage: Exodus 3:1–3:6
[Text: Exodus 3:1-6] “I want to be close to you. Don’t come near.”
[Pray – Father, you are more holy than I would like for you to be. You live in unapproachable light (1 Timothy 6:16) – unapproachable for people like me who come from the darkness of sin. And yet you are the One who sent Jesus your Son to die in our place so that we might – in him – boldly approach the throne of grace without fear. So, Father, give us ears by the power of your Spirit to hear the Gospel of Jesus once again and to believe it and walk in it from this place. For the sake of your Son we pray. Amen.]
So, do you want to be close to God? Some people don’t and I appreciate their honesty in saying so out loud. But there are those who are convinced that what we see is not all there is. There is certainty about eternity and conviction of the value of spirituality. Now, that kind of certainty and conviction doesn’t only exist in Christianity. But for every person around the world who says, “Yes, I want to be close to God,” then there are some questions that have to be dealt with; assumptions that need to be brought out into the open.
First, to which God do you want to be close? I ask that only because there is a tremendous difference between the God in this Story of Redemption and the other gods with which humanity are familiar. But that actually brings up another question; what is your God like? Answering that question will help us see which God we want to be near.
There are gods concerned with power and control and being right all the time; gods who are petty and hold grudges. We don’t really like those gods, but we often serve them anyhow thinking they’re the only god in town. There are gods who are distant and unknowable; who created the world and set it in motion accidentally or for some long-forgotten purpose. But the most popular god to want to be near? The god who is primarily concerned with the happiness of people. If we’re talking about what kind of god we want to be close to, then this one is my usual pick (and I know I’m not alone). This is the god who is cool with sinners because he accepts everybody. He’s the god who is only controlled by his love for people. He’s the god we pray to when our happiness is at stake, like when we’re making a decision that might have lasting impact; marriage, job, 401k, etc. First and foremost, that god just wants everything to be okay and comfortable for us ‘cause he gets us, you know? He knows we’re not perfect, but he knows we’re trying.
As others before us have noticed, many of the gods we want near look and act surprisingly a lot like us (or at least act as we want them to act). Another surprising thing is that you can find worshippers of these gods inside the church just about as often as you can outside. This is where no one can throw stones; we each prefer to be close to gods of our own making instead of the God of the Bible.
You see, the God of the Bible is uncompromising. He is powerful, unyielding, totally loving yet totally just; He is radically, completely “other.” He is not bound by our ideas of what God ought to look like or act like. He is infinite and eternal. He never changes who He is.
That is the God to which Israel was introduced in these first books of what we now call the Bible. He first revealed Himself through His actions in redeeming His people from slavery in Egypt and drawing them out into the wilderness to be with Him. And then He gave them His word to teach them who He is and teach them who they were in relation to Him. And as they came to this passage in Exodus 3, they were about to learn a beautiful and terrifying truth – their God was (and is) holy. And they were not.
[Read Exodus 3:1-6]
We’re going look at this passage to help us answer three fundamental questions. First, who is the God of the Bible? Second, can we be close to Him? (I’ll go ahead and tell you the answer; no, we can’t, not on our own.) But that leads us to the third question – where is there room for hope in all of this? Answering these questions will not only help us think rightly about God, but about ourselves, too. Answering these questions will help us fight against our tendency to worship gods of our own making.
So, first, who is the God of the Bible? Well, in vv.1-3, we see that He is the God who seeks out His people.
Here’s Moses, minding his own business. He’s living in the ordinary pattern of his life in Midian, a pattern we understand he’s had 40 years now to establish. He arrives at this mountain with his father-in-law’s flock looking for pasture, not looking for God. But God was looking for him; the angel of the LORD appeared to Moses in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush that burned but wasn’t consumed. And that was something that Moses simply had to see.
That’s the same way God works today; He seeks out His people even when they aren’t looking for Him. From the New Testament: “…(E)ven when we were dead in our trespasses, [God] made us alive together with Christ….” (Ephesians 2:5) - “For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.” (1 Peter 2:25) If you want to know what this God is like, He’s the God who pursues those who aren’t looking for Him, pursuing even those who are running away from Him.
He does that because, fundamentally, He desires to be close to His people. He isn’t a distant, unknowable god; He is the God who pursues people in order to have an intimate relationship with them. And just as God caught Moses’ attention; He does the same with us. Through pain and grief, joy and wonder, questions and doubts. He stops us in our tracks and makes us look at Him. And then He speaks! You hear that in v.4. When the LORD saw that Moses was coming, “God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!”
When you want to emphasize something in Hebrew, you double it, repeating it. But when you double a name, it’s a way of expressing intimacy – the depth of a relationship. When Abraham had raised the knife in obedience to God (Genesis 22), the angel stopped him saying “Abraham, Abraham!” and spoke of God knowing his heart. When the Apostle Paul (then Saul) was pursued by the Lord on the road to Damascus, he said, “I heard a voice saying to me in the Hebrew language, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?’” The Lord was initiating a relationship with him that would turn Saul into Paul. So, for God to say “Moses, Moses!” was his way of saying, “I know you, Moses. And I want to be close to you.”
That’s the intention of God we see throughout this Story of Redemption; God means to have a relationship with His people. He means to restore what was lost in the Fall when Adam and Eve were sent out of Eden. That exit wasn’t so much about a removal from a place as it was a removal from a presence – sin separated humanity from the presence of God. And yet here we see in God’s appearing to Moses what we’ll see throughout Exodus and on through the end of the Story – God means to be close to His people, to give them His presence once again.
That God would pursue us and want to be close to us is a glorious hope. It’s powerfully attractive. It makes me want to be close to Him. But there’s a problem. The presence of God in this story looks the same as it is throughout the Story of Redemption – God’s presence is a burning presence. Because this God is not only one who lovingly pursues people. He is also holy and His presence is dangerous.
The presence of God is always seen in fire and smoke in the Old Testament. A smoking fire pot and flaming torch passed through the bloody aisle in God’s covenant with Abraham (Genesis 15). In the exodus itself, God would lead Israel in a pillar of smoke by day and a pillar of fire by night, showing Israel that God was with them. And when they arrived back at this very mountain after leaving Egypt, Israel saw fire and smoke and lightning as God came down. The fire symbolizes the “otherness” of God; the fire demonstrates His “set apart-ness,” His holiness. His perfection, His righteousness, His infinite goodness, His purity – all these things that (in part) make Him “other” than us – are illustrated in the fire that accompanies His presence.
So, yes, when Moses first sees this fire he is attracted to it. But when he gets close he’s confronted with the word of God that says he can’t come near. As soon as he’s invited into a relationship with the LORD, the LORD speaks and Moses is confronted with a reality that he can do nothing about. Everyone through this passage is confronted with the fact that this God is a Holy God. And although we may be powerfully attracted to His presence, the holiness of God is a danger to us.
We understand it better when we hear what God said to Moses. He calls out, “Moses, Moses!” but when Moses comes the LORD says, “Do not come near; take the sandals off your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.”
Holy ground. There is a lot of superstition around this idea that some places are inherently more special than others. But that’s missing the point here. God didn’t show up there because that place was inherently holy. The place became holy because God showed up.
So, when God says, “Do not come near…” He isn’t sending mixed signals to Moses. He doesn’t call Moses’ name and keep him at a distance to toy with him. It’s a warning, a reality check. The LORD is telling Moses, “I’m the Holy God and my holiness burns. Yes, I want to be close to you but don’t come near.” “Don’t come near” on your own terms because only burning holiness can endure the presence of burning holiness.
But look at Moses’ response to this Holy God in v. 6; “…Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.” Moses was afraid because he was meeting the God of the Bible, the “God of (Moses’) father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” (v.6) The God in this Story of Redemption is the one God whose perfect love is matched by His perfect holiness. And so of course Moses responds the same way Adam and Isaiah responded. Fallen Adam hid from God in the Garden and Moses hid his face. Isaiah was undone in the presence of God’s holiness and so was Moses.
Hearing that this God pursues people attracts me to Him. But to then hear that He is holy…I can’t handle that. I can’t handle it because I know I’m not holy and I don’t treat the LORD like He is holy.
First, I’m not holy. Part of the exodus story is the LORD giving His Law to His people (the Ten Commandments). In the law of God we are not just confronted with a list of rules; first and foremost we are confronted with the character of God. If you want to know how holiness looks, then the law of God is it. Holiness looks like perfect love of God and perfect love of neighbor in a glorious picture of life as it is supposed to be. But if you want to know what an unholy life looks like, then look at a lawbreaker’s life, one who does not perfectly love God and does not perfectly love a neighbor. If you want to know what an unholy life looks like, then look at me and everyone who hears what is good and right and either fails to do it or runs in the other direction. That’s what we call “sin” – it’s our failure to conform to the holiness of God; it’s our outright rebellion against His holiness. That sin means that I can’t endure the presence of a Holy God.
But just as my sin makes His presence dangerous for me, so, too, does the fact that I would often like to approach God on my own terms.
See God’s instruction to Moses; “…take your sandals off your feet….”? He’s saying, “Moses, I’m holy. You have to treat me as such.”
But throughout this Story we see where people would try to come to God on their own terms. Two priests would be consumed by fire from the LORD when they tried to worship Him in a way God had not authorized (Leviticus 10). Moses himself would be denied entry into the Promised Land because he did not “uphold [the LORD] as holy in the eyes of the people of Israel” when he disobeyed God by striking the rock instead of speaking to it (Numbers 20). We might look at that and think, “Well, that seems a little harsh.” But that’s because we have no real understanding of what holiness actually is. We don’t understand it because we aren’t holy.
But isn’t this really what is running beneath every sin – a failure to treat the LORD as the Holy God? We treat Him as we would rather Him be. And we would rather Him be something other than holy. We would rather Him be forgetful or compromising or just a little more understanding like us.
But He isn’t. He was and is and is to come the Holy, Holy, Holy God. And so, if we ask the second question – Can we be close to Him? – then we already know the answer. We may want to but we can’t. He is beautiful in His love and dangerous in His holiness.
This is the place where all those who say they want to be close to the God of the Bible have to come. Moses and Israel and us – we each have to come to the place of seeing a God we can’t approach on our own. His holiness burns away vain thoughts of self-sufficiency or casual closeness. Our sin leaves us in despair unless He does something.
Oh, but He already did something. And so we come to the last question - Where is there room for hope in all of this?
There is hope because the Holy God put a mediator in the fire.
Look at v.2. It was “the angel of the LORD” who appeared to Moses in a flame of fire. When the LORD spoke to Moses, He spoke through this mysterious character who only appears a few times in the Old Testament. But through this mediator – the Angel who at times seems distinct then equal to the LORD – through this mediator God was making a way for Moses and all the people of God to enjoy the presence of the LORD they so desperately desired.
You see, this mediator was a substitute for Moses. He stood in the fire of God’s holiness so that Moses could endure the presence of God, becoming himself like a burning bush that was not consumed.
As another pastor said, “All through the Old Testament God says, “The way you can live with a holy God and have a personal relationship with me is if someone substitutes and takes your punishment.” So over and over again sacrifices were made into the fire of God’s holiness. When you were guilty, you made a sacrifice and asked for forgiveness. There was a substitute. Something was slain and put into the fire.”
When Jesus came, he came as the Angel of the LORD who put on flesh and dwelt among us. But before the foundation of the world God the Son made an agreement with God the Father that he would come and die so that his unholy people could be counted as holy (Ephesians 1:4). Jesus Christ would enter into the fire of God’s holiness on the cross and be consumed by it so that the people of God could enjoy the presence of God without fear.
So, if you have heard the Lord call your name twice; if you have heard Him call you into His presence and you know that you cannot come on your own, then embrace Jesus. In his death and in his resurrection, Jesus is your hope. You are safe in Him and He burns within you, his Holy Spirit igniting the people of God, leading us to pursue the holiness that is already counted as ours. Trust him and believe that you may stand in the presence of a Holy God – yourself a burning bush – because Jesus stands in your place.
Just know that as the fire of God’s Spirit burns within you, He will burn as a purifying fire. He means to conform you to the holiness of Jesus His Son and will burn away sin and all the things that we would cling to as competing gods. That fire hurts deeply at times, but you don’t have to be afraid. It’s part of His love for you; He’s preparing you for His eternal presence in the age to come, preparing you for the place no unholy thing can exist but a place you yourself will see because of Jesus.
That is the God of the Bible, the God who pursues people and pays for their sin Himself so that He can be close to them forever. His beauty is captivating; His holiness is unrelenting; His mercy is infinite toward unholy sinners who rest in Jesus. What can we give Him but grateful praise? What act of obedience would exceed what is due Him? This God put a mediator in the fire so that we could be with Him.
[Transition to the Lord’s Supper]
That’s what we celebrate when we come to this table, trusting that Jesus remains our mediator forever – our great high priest who always intercedes for us before the throne of the Holy God. Here, we cling to Christ and his promises, trusting that even though we fail, in Jesus we are counted as holy before the LORD.
[Benediction, from Numbers 6]
“The LORD bless you and keep you;
the LORD make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you;
the LORD lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.”
 Timothy J. Keller, The Timothy Keller Sermon Archive (New York City: Redeemer Presbyterian Church, 2013).