"Thus shalt thou say to the children of Israel, I will be hath sent me unto you .... Thus shalt thou say to the children of Israel, Jehovah [YHWH, the Eternal], the God of your fathers, hath sent me unto you." - Exodus 3:14-15.
W. M. MacGregor: Grammarians tell us that this great name of God, "I am that I am", ought to be translated not as a present but as a future, not as "I am" but "I will be," and this is not to be dismissed as one of the teasing modern changes with which some undevout scholars have impoverished the Book.
That great master in experimental theology, Rabbi Duncan, says bluntly, "`I am that I am' is really `I will become what I will become.' So in due time He was made flesh; but He did not tell Moses that it was to be flesh." Mere grammarians have not always been of much service in edification, but in this case, clearly, they become ministers of faith by giving us a noble and cheering thought of God.
In most languages the names by which God is known are obscure in their meaning, but this one is radiantly clear. "I will be" - I am going to be something to you, to do something for you; what you have seen in the past is not the limit of My bounty, it is only the beginning. And thus the name is almost equivalent to "The Coming One"; it is a word of hope and promise without any touch of reservation. Through all the vicissitudes of our mortal life - the joys of it, and the labors, and the perils, and the escapes, the people who know His name may still be sure of Him; and even of the last necessities it is written, "When thou passest through the waters I will be with thee." (Isa. 43:2)
But if we start thus, reading the Name as a promise, the question at once arises as to the reception which we are to give it. God to His creatures may say, "I will be," but if they seek nothing from Him, looking to the earth and not to Him for succour, His word is spoken in vain. The Lord Jesus in certain villages could do no mighty works "because of their unbelief" (Matt. 13:58). He, whose name is "I will be," is constantly hindered through the poorness of men's notions of what they would desire from Him.
We read in the gospels of a witless lad who asked Jesus to come in as arbiter in some miserable business of dividing a succession (Luke 12:13), for that was the best use he could imagine for the Lord of all light and healing; and many people to-day have thoughts every bit as sordid of what the great God might bring them.
A promise without reserve is put at our disposal in this Name, - men and brethren, what wisdom or boldness are we showing in our response?
I. Now first of all, experience should help us in our answer, for, as our text reminds us, the God who is to be is the God also of the past, the Lord God of our fathers (Acts 3:13).
Israel was facing a fresh adventure, but by no means with an empty mind. Even in their slave cabins in Egypt the older folks had rehearsed the story of their forebears. It was not wholly clean or noble, but running through it like a golden thread was a record of divine interpositions. God had dealt with each of the fathers in turn as if He had no other object of His care. He had borne with them though they were often in the mire, and by His patience and His strength He had brought them to the heights. It is no wonder that Israel, looking doubtfully along the unknown way, should ask this first of God that He should be to them what so gloriously He had been to their fathers. Surely He would not be less to those who seemed to need Him more.
We have a wealthier record to fall back upon than theirs - a New Testament as well as an Old, and both are marked by the same divine urgency of giving.
When prophets were needed in the old time, it is said that God rose up early and sent them (e.g., Exod. 9:13, Psa. 46:5); and of Jesus it is justly said by Augustine that "He tarried not but ran." He was a spendthrift in life, with no desire to stint or hoard. It warmed His heart to see the woman break the flask so that the treasure of fragrance was expended in an hour (Luke 7:37), for that was His own way. When He gave it was without reserve; "having loved His own that were in the world He loved them to the uttermost" (John 13:1).
When we thus recall the Gospel story and see God in every detail of it, we may well take courage, for the future is inhabited by the same God, and it is sure to match the past. "If He spared not His own Son, surely with Him He will also give us all things freely" (Rom. 8:32).
Many of us have recollections more individual than these. In Scotland we have seen days of revival, "when there was mid-sea and the mighty things" (Jer. 33:3). Then the eternal things came up before men and looked near, and a universal compulsion of human souls seemed not wholly out of reach. Unlikely people were transformed, and the most obstinate obstructions gave way.
Some of us have experienced in ourselves great hours, when the dross seemed burned away, and the nobler stuff for a while ran clear. Even poor creatures amongst us have had seasons of uplifting and light and nearness. And thus when God's name - "I will be" - is proclaimed, our answers might be prompt: "Amen, Lord, be what Thou hast been! Make to-morrow rich like these great yesterdays, and we shall ask no more," for experience makes men brave in their petitions.
"It was not always dry land where we dwell," says H. D. Thoreau; "far inland I see the banks which the stream once washed. And the life in us is like the water in the river, which any year may rise higher than man has known it, and flood the parched flats. Even this may be that eventful year." It is so, he ends. And it is so, if we remember the Lord God of our fathers and His Name, that we ought to think and pray. For the future, with God in it, cannot be less than the past.
II. But experience alone is not a sufficient guide, it needs to be supplemented by the thought of need. Merely to ask for yesterday back again might show a grave misunderstanding of to-day. For life does change its face, and brings conditions we had never dreamed of; and if we ask for nothing but what we have had, we may be like Arctic travellers pushing south [from the North Pole] into new zones of weather, but sticking obstinately to the furs which served them on the ice-fields.
"The God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob" (Exod. 3:6) - it is a glorious record; but to-day we are in the brick-fields, under the lash, our natures growing baser through base uses, whilst sullenness and revenge corrode our spirits. Some new gift is surely needed. Experience may assure us that God has much in store for men; but need, imperious and individual, must come in to teach us what to pray for.
This matching of hope with need is always clear in the temper of the Hebrew prophets. They were convinced that in God's fullness there was provision for every need which could arise, and therefore, in picturing the Coming One, they did not simply repeat the dreams and demands of those who had gone before. To-day has its rights as much as yesterday, they felt; and God, who cares for us and who sees the differences between day and day, will meet the new necessities. So whilst they all looked for a Coming One, they did not all conceive Him with the same features or the same offices.
In days of misrule He was appealed to as the righteous Judge; in days of foreign oppression He was looked to as Conqueror and Deliverer; when the channels of communication were clogged, they conceived of Him as a Prophet like Moses, one of themselves. But in each case they set their expectation in the line of their necessity: need instructed them what they should pray for.
In the 110th Psalm the Coming One is figured as a Priest as well as a King, for to the great heart of that poet no lack seemed half so bitter as the lack of access. The priests he knew had little help to offer to a man aware of his remoteness; they were mere temple officials, drilled in the discharge of the etiquette of their business. So to God he looked past them for the gift of a true Priest.
We must be not less bold in making our requests match our needs. God has not made all times or all men after one pattern. He might have fashioned creatures fairer or more gifted than we; but something in our peculiarity tempted Him, and we are here with needs and cravings all our own. "The heart knows its own bitterness, and a stranger intermeddleth not with its joy" (Prov. 14:10).
Even when we have companions in distress, each is yet conscious of something distinctive in his conditions; and therefore, if we are wise, we shall never be content with borrowed petitions which might be used alike by anybody. Rather we ought to say, "Here, Lord, is this trouble which is making life hard for me, reveal Thyself in it for Thy name's sake. Give me, not anybody's grace, but that which meets my own condition." This may sound audacious, but it is an audacity which the very name of God - "I will be" encourages.
A wise Jewish teacher of our own generation attributes much of the disappointment attaching to the Synagogue worship to failures just at this point: "We love God," he says, "not with our own hearts but with our fathers' hearts." That is to say - we use their petitions, and look for their blessings, and even imitate their tones, as if this were not a new age with puzzles and oppressions of its own, in which God will certainly reveal Himself afresh for our strengthening, and surprise us by the timeliness of His gift. For He is able to make all grace to abound in all our need. He makes even the darkness His secret place (Psa. 18:11, Isa. 45:3), it is said, for no necessity can bar Him out from the life of His creatures.
III. But experience and need, even when taken together, do not exhaust the fullness of God, and we must call in faith to guide us in our prayer, for He is able to do exceeding abundantly above what we ask or think (Eph. 3:20).
Paul strains the resource of his vocabulary, inventing words, doing violence to grammar, heaping comparatives upon superlatives in order to express the amazements he had seen in Christ, but still the fact outgoes him. Of the common Christian Gospel he declares that "eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, it hath not entered into the heart of a man to conceive the things which God has prepared for them that love Him" (1 Cor. 2:9); for as he looked more closely into it, that Gospel seemed ampler and more astounding than he had supposed.
"To me it was granted as a favour that among the nations I should proclaim the glad tidings of the untracked riches of Christ" (Eph. 3:8). In presence of that fullness, which is our possession also, Paul felt himself like some explorer who has landed here or there on the shores of a rich continent, and from a near hill-top has gazed out over forest and prairie to mountains packed with treasure; "The untracked riches of Christ."
And Paul's Christ is our Christ also, so we are not meant to be hampered in our expectations. He who rightly knows the Lord is like one swimming in the mid-Atlantic, far beyond the fear of striking a hand against the shore of either coast. There is room in Christ for wide expansions, and therefore in thought and prayer we must always keep an ample margin.
Much of God's wonder has reached us by report, and there is much which our urgent needs suggest; but beyond both there lie still mightier things, and in our petitions we must leave room for the unexpected. There are duties unattempted, promises unexplored, comforts unimagined, victories undreamed of, and thus, in its form, the redemptive Name is left vague and uncompleted. That He will be is declared, but what He will be is unexpressed.
"It is a great silence, with contents immeasurable, blessedness unspeakable; for what else can He be than God?" (cf. Rev. 8:1)
In good days and in evil, in work and in weakness, in prosperity and in fear - He will yet more fully declare Himself. For He, the Lord, has said, "I will not leave you comfortless, I will come unto you" (John 14:18).
Brethren, having such a God we do not lose heart. In the name of our God we shake out our banners and we face the coming days with hope.
Sermon preached by W. M. MacGregor, Glasgow, Scotland, 1920, before the General Assembly of the United Free Church.
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