(Fifth Sunday in Lent.)
EXODUS iii.14. And God said unto Moses, I AM THAT I AM.
And now, my friends, we are come, on this Sunday, to the most beautiful, and the most important story of the whole Bible -- excepting of course, the story of our Lord Jesus Christ -- the story of how a family grew to be a great nation. You remember that I told you that the history of the Jews, had been only, as yet, the history of a family.
Now that family is grown to be a great tribe, a great herd of people, but not yet a nation; one people, with its own God, its own worship, its own laws; but such a mere tribe, or band of tribes as the gipsies are among us now; a herd, but not a nation.
Then the Bible tells us how these tribes, being weak I suppose because they had no laws, nor patriotism, nor fellow-feeling of their own, became slaves, and suffered for hundreds of years under crafty kings and cruel taskmasters.
Then it tells us how God delivered them out of their slavery, and made them free men. And how God did that (for God in general works by means), by the means of a man, a prophet and a hero, one great, wise, and good man of their race -- Moses.
It tells us, too, how God trained Moses, by a very strange education, to be the fit man to deliver his people.
Let us go through the history of Moses; and we shall see how God trained him to do the work for which God wanted him.
Let us read from the account of the Bible itself. I should be sorry to spoil its noble simplicity by any words of my own: 'And the children of Israel were fruitful, and increased abundantly, and multiplied, and waxed exceeding mighty; and the land was filled with them. Now there arose up a new king over Egypt, which knew not Joseph. And he said unto his people, Behold, the people of the children of Israel are more and mightier than we: Come on, let us deal wisely with them; lest they multiply, and it come to pass, that, when there falleth out any war, they join also unto our enemies, and fight against us, and so get them up out of the land. Therefore they did set over them taskmasters to afflict them with their burdens. And they built for Pharaoh treasure cities, Pithon and Raamses. . . . And Pharaoh charged all his people, saying, Every son that is born ye shall cast into the river, and every daughter ye shall save alive. And there went a man of the house of Levi, and took to wife a daughter of Levi. And the woman conceived and bare a son: and when she saw him that he was a goodly child, she hid him three months. And when she could no longer hide him, she took for him an ark of bulrushes, and daubed it with slime and with pitch, and put the child therein: and she laid it in the flags by the river's brink. And his sister stood afar off, to wit what would be done to him. And the daughter of Pharaoh came down to wash herself at the river; and her maidens walked along by the river's side; and when she saw the ark among the flags, she sent her maid to fetch it. And when she had opened it, she saw the child; and behold the babe wept. And she had compassion on him, and said, This is one of the Hebrews' children. Then said his sister to Pharaoh's daughter, Shall I go and call to thee a nurse of the Hebrew women, that she may nurse the child for thee? And Pharaoh's daughter said to her, Go. And the maid went and called the child's mother. And Pharaoh's daughter said unto her, Take this child away, and nurse it for me, and I will give thee thy wages. And the woman took the child, and nursed it. And the child grew, and she brought him unto Pharaoh's daughter, and he became her son. And she called his name Moses: and she said, Because I drew him out of the water.'
Moses, the child of the water. St. Paul in the Epistle to the Hebrews says that Moses was called the son of Pharaoh's daughter; that is, adopted by her. We read elsewhere that he was learned in all the wisdom of the Egyptians, of which there can be no doubt from his own writings, especially that part called Moses' law.
So that Moses had from his youth vast advantages. Brought up in the court of the greatest king of the world, in one of the greatest cities of the world, among the most learned priesthood in the world, he had learned, probably, all statesmanship, all religion, which man could teach him in those old times.
But that would have been little for him. He might have become merely an officer in Pharaoh's household, and we might never have heard his name, and he might never have done any good to his own people and to all mankind after them, as he has done, if there had not been something better and nobler in him than all the learning and statesmanship of the Egyptians.
For there was in Moses the spirit of God; the spirit which makes a man believe in God, and trust God. 'And therefore,' says St. Paul, 'he refused to be called the son of Pharaoh's daughter; esteeming the reproach of CHRIST better than all the treasures in Egypt.'
And how did he do that? In this wise.
The spirit of God and of Christ is also the spirit of justice, the spirit of freedom; the spirit which hates oppression and wrong; which is moved with a noble and Divine indignation at seeing any human being abused and trampled on.
And that spirit broke forth in Moses. 'And it came to pass in those days, when Moses was grown, that he went out unto his brethren, and looked on their burdens: and he spied an Egyptian smiting an Hebrew, one of his brethren. And he looked this way and that way, and when he saw that there was no man, he slew the Egyptian, and hid him in the sand.'
If he cannot get justice for his people, he will do some sort of rough justice for them himself, when he has an opportunity.
But he will see fair play among his people themselves. They are, as slaves are likely to be, fallen and base; unjust and quarrelsome among themselves.
'And when he went out the second day, behold, two men of the Hebrews strove together: and he said to him that did the wrong, Wherefore smitest thou thy fellow? And he said, Who made thee a prince and a judge over us? intendest thou to kill me as thou killedst the Egyptian? And Moses feared, and said, Surely this thing is known. Now when Pharaoh heard this thing, he sought to slay Moses. But Moses fled from the face of Pharaoh, and dwelt in the land of Midian' -- the wild desert between Egypt and the Holy Land.
So he bore the reproach of Christ; the reproach which is apt to fall on men in bad times, when they try, like our Lord Jesus Christ, to deliver the captive, and let the oppressed go free, and execute righteous judgment in the earth. He had lost all, by trying to do right. He had been powerful and honoured in Pharaoh's court. Now he was an outcast and wanderer in the desert. He had made his first trial, and failed. As St. Stephen said of him after, he supposed that his brethren would have understood how God would deliver them by his hand; but they understood not. Slavish, base, and stupid, they were not fit yet for Moses and his deliverance.
And so forty years went on, and Moses was an old man of eighty years of age. Yet God had not had mercy on his poor countrymen in Egypt.
It must have been a strange life for him, the adopted son of Pharaoh's daughter; brought up in the court of the most powerful and highly civilized country of the old world; learned in all the learning of the Egyptians; and now married into a tribe of wild Arabs, keeping flocks in the lonely desert, year after year: but, no doubt, thinking, thinking, year after year, as he fed his flocks alone. Thinking over all the learning which he had gained in Egypt, and wondering whether it would ever be of any use to him. Thinking over the misery of his people in Egypt, and wondering whether he should ever be able to help them. Thinking, too, and more than all, of God -- of God's promise to Abraham and his children. Would that ever come true? Would GOD help these wretched Jews, even if HE could not? Was God faithful and true, just and merciful?
That Moses thought of God, that he never lost faith in God for that forty years, there can be no doubt.
If he had not thought of God, God would not have revealed himself to him. If he had lost faith in God, he would not have known that it was God who spoke to him. If he had lost faith in God, he would not have obeyed God at the risk of his life, and have gone on an errand as desperate, dangerous, hopeless -- and, humanly speaking, as wild as ever man went upon.
But Moses never lost faith or patience. He believed, and he did not make haste. He waited for God; and he did not wait in vain. No man will wait in vain. When the time was ready; when the Jews were ready; when Pharaoh was ready; when Moses himself, trained by forty years' patient thought, was ready; then God came in his own good time.
And Moses led the flock to the back of the desert, and came to the mountain of God, even to Horeb. And there he saw a bush -- probably one of the low copses of acacia -- burning with fire; and behold the bush was not consumed. Then out of the bush God spoke to Moses with an audible voice as of a man; so the Bible says plainly, and I see no reason to doubt that it is literally true.
'Moreover he said, I am the God of thy father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. And Moses hid his face; for he was afraid to look upon God. And the Lord said, I have surely seen the affliction of my people which are in Egypt, and have heard their cry by reason of their taskmasters; for I know their sorrows; and I am come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land unto a good land and a large, unto a land flowing with milk and honey; unto the place of the Canaanites, and the Hittites, and the Amorites, and the Perizzites, and the Hivites, and the Jebusites.'
Then followed a strange conversation. Moses was terrified at the thought of what he had to do, and reasonably: moreover, the Israelites in Egypt had forgotten God. 'And Moses said unto God, Behold, when I come unto the children of Israel, and shall say unto them, The God of your fathers hath sent me unto you; and they shall say to me, What is his name? what shall I say unto them? And God said unto Moses, I Am that I Am: and he said, Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel, I Am hath sent me unto you.'
I Am; that was the new name by which God revealed himself to Moses. That message of God to Moses was the greatest Gospel, and good news which was spoken to men, before the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. Ay, we are feeling now, in our daily life, in our laws and our liberty, our religion and our morals, our peace and prosperity, in the happiness of our homes, and I trust that of our consciences, the blessed effects of that message, which God revealed to Moses in the wilderness thousands of years ago.
And Moses took his wife, and his sons, and set them upon an ass, and returned into the land of Egypt, to say to Pharaoh, 'Thus saith the Lord, Israel is my son, even my firstborn, Let my son go that he may serve me, and if thou let not my firstborn go, then I will slay thy firstborn.'
A strange man, on a strange errand. A poor man, eighty years old, carrying all that he had in the world upon an ass's back, going down to the great Pharaoh, the greatest king of the old world, the great conqueror, the Child of the Sun (as his name means), one of the greatest Pharaohs who ever sat on the throne of Egypt; in the midst of all his princes and priests, and armies with which he had conquered the nations far and wide; and his great cities, temples, and palaces, on which men may see at this day (so we are told) the face of that very Pharaoh painted again and again, as fresh, in that rainless air, as on the day when the paint was laid on; with the features of a man terrible, proud, and cruel, puffed up by power till he thought himself, and till his people thought him a god on earth.
And to that man was Moses going, to bid him set the children of Israel free; while he himself was one of that very slave-race of the Israelites, which was an abomination to the Egyptians, who held them all as lepers and unclean, and would not eat with them; and an outcast too, who had fled out of Egypt for his life, and who might be killed on the spot, as Pharaoh's only answer to his bold request. Certainly, if Moses had not had faith in God, his errand would have seemed that of a madman. But Moses HAD faith in God; and of faith it is said, that it can remove mountains, for all things are possible to them who believe.
So by faith Moses went back into Egypt; how he fared there we shall hear next Sunday.
And what sort of man was this great and wonderful Moses, whose name will last as long as man is man? We know very little. We know from the Bible and from the old traditions of the Jews that he was a very handsome man; a man of a noble presence, as one can well believe; a man of great bodily vigour; so that when he died at the age of one hundred and twenty, his eye was not dim, nor his natural force abated. We know, from his own words, that he was slow of speech; that he had more thought in him than he could find words for -- very different from a good many loud talkers, who have more words than thoughts, and who get a great character as politicians and demagogues, simply because they have the art of stringing fine words together, which Moses, the true demagogue, the leader of the people, who led them indeed out of Egypt, had not. Beyond that we know little. Of his character one thing only is said: but that is most important. 'Now the man Moses was very meek.'
Meek: we know that that cannot mean that he was meek in the sense that he was a poor, cowardly, abject sort of man, who dared not speak his mind, dared not face the truth, and say the truth. We have seen that that was just what he was not; brave, determined, out-spoken, he seems to have been from his youth. Indeed, if his had been that base sort of meekness, he never would have dared to come before the great king Pharaoh. If he had been that sort of man he never would have dared to lead the Jews through the Red Sea by night, or out of Egypt at all. If he had been that sort of man, indeed, the Jews would never have listened to him. No; he had -- the Bible tells us that he had -- to say and do stern things again and again; to act like the general of an army, or the commander of a ship of war, who must be obeyed, even though men's lives be the forfeit of disobedience.
But the man Moses was very meek. He had learned to keep his temper. Indeed, the story seems to say that he never lost his temper really but once; and for that God punished him. Never man was so tried, save One, even our Lord Jesus Christ, as was Moses. And yet by patience he conquered. Eighty years had he spent in learning to keep his temper; and when he had learned to keep his temper, then, and not till then, was he worthy to bring his people out of Egypt. That was a long schooling, but it was a schooling worth having.
And if we, my friends, spend our whole lives, be they eighty years long, in learning to keep our tempers, then will our lives have been well spent. For meekness and calmness of temper need not interfere with a man's courage or justice, or honest indignation against wrong, or power of helping his fellow-men. Moses' meekness did not make him a coward or a sluggard. It helped him to do his work rightly instead of wrongly; it helped him to conquer the pride of Pharaoh, and the faithlessness, cowardice, and rebellion of his brethren, those miserable slavish Jews. And so meekness, an even temper, and a gracious tongue, will help us to keep our place among our fellow-men with true dignity and independence, and to govern our households, and train our children in such a way that while they obey us they will love and respect us at the same time.