Identity theft is one of the most rampant crimes sweeping across America. A thief steals someone's Social Security number and personal information and misrepresents that person in order to make purchases in their name. Everyone is trying to figure out how to properly secure their identity. Not long ago, a 31 year old woman in Chicago got a note from a local car dealership thanking her for buying a new car. A thief stole her identity and illegally purchased three cars under her name. Recently, someone stole my identity and attempted to buy electronics, telephone services, and other things under my name.
It's distressing when someone tries to steal your identity. But who would have the nerve to steal the identity of God? Who would dare to take his name and use it to represent something that is not really him? But someone has done this. In many pulpits across this country, pastors are stealing God's identity by misrepresenting him to their congregations. Some try to steal his identity by calling him a prosperity God; they say he's only concerned about our health and our wealth and our material goods. Others make God into a universalistic God: all paths lead to God, all gods are one. Some promote a Burger King God, who says, "Have it your way!" All sin is acceptable and love trumps all judgment. It's not a sin, they say, it's a lifestyle.
Some pastors declare that God is limited, and evil only exists in the world because God can't do anything about it. Others affirm that God is a political God, that God has to get elected every four years, and that God has to declare a political party. Finally, some pastors say that God is a legalistic God; he is pleased when you and I determine what we should and shouldn't do. But these gods aren't the God of the Bible.
I am that I am
Each of us has a desire to promote a god that serves us, rather than a God that we serve. We try to create these designer gods that meet our desires and that fulfill who we are. But based on the truth of God's word, under the power of the Holy Spirit, I want to talk about the true identity of God. Exodus 34:6-7 says:
And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, "The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation."
In these verses, as Moses climbs a mountain to encounter God, he describes himself. This true identity of God ought to shake every sermon and direct every pulpit. We should not preach what is merely popular, we should not preach what merely draws a crowd, and we should not preach what merely makes people shout. We must preach the true identity of God. And if we preach that, God will be pleased.
I love this text because in it, God speaks for himself. God says, "This is who I am." As Moses asks God to show him his glory, God responds and gives him a description of himself. God gives him his own resume, so Moses will know who God really is. This passage begins with, "The LORD, the LORD …" Immediately, God gives Moses his name. God calls himself Yahweh, Yahweh El, (translated to English as "LORD"). He says, "I am that I am." He implicitly says to Moses, "I started this sermon in Exodus 3, but I want to finish it on today. I told you, 'I am that I am,' which means 'I was, I am, and I will be.' Moses, let me explain my 'I am-ness' to you, because my 'I am-ness' has to be defined to take you to the next season in your life."
As long as you walk with God, you will never know everything about him. Every now and then, God has to define himself in a new way to you. God hasn't changed, but sometimes you need to see God in a fresh way. He gives you a fresh view of how great the God that we serve is.
Compassionate and gracious
God says, "I am a compassionate and gracious God." Think about all of God's divine attributes. Think about his power and his knowledge and his wisdom. Yet God starts with his compassion. Many of us like to lead with power. Many of us want people to know who we are, what we do, where we've been, and what we've accomplished. But God has nothing to prove. He says, "I am a compassionate and a gracious God."
The word compassionate comes from a Hebrew word that means "womb." It refers to the maternal nature of a mother to her child. It can be expanded to include not only the mother but the father as well; it describes a parent's care for his or her child. God says, "When you think about me, I want you to think about the compassion that signifies my nature. Think about a mother who is willing to cut up food before her baby can finally enjoy a meal. Think about a mother who gets up in the middle of the night to walk with her child and to nurse her child and to rock that child back to sleep." And God says, "When you think about how a good parent loves their child, cares for their child, watches over their child, looks after their child, I want you to think about me."
God cares about you. God has concern for you. Surely Moses needed to hear this, to know that God cares. And many today need to know the same thing: God cares. But this verse also couples compassion with grace.
God cares when he doesn't even have to care. He cares when he doesn't get anything out of the relationship. He cares when you can't ever repay him for what he's done in your life. He cares without any ulterior motives.
He cares because that's his nature. He comes and says, "Moses, I'm a compassionate and I'm a gracious God." And oh, how they needed, how Moses needed to know that God cares. He cared so much that in Exodus 1, the Bible says the people of Israel were going through a season of suffering, but in Exodus 2, they cried out to God. And the Bible says, "God showed concern for their cries." When Israel looked over their history, God's care showed up over and over. This is true in the life of Moses, too. In chapter 2, Moses should have died because every boy was destined to be killed. But because God is compassionate and gracious, God made a basket and put him in a stream at the right time with the right parent, delivered him to the right house with the right woman. Moses is on the mountain in Exodus 34 because God is compassionate and gracious. Every time you turn a page of the Bible, you see God's compassion and you see his grace.
Look at your own story. You've made it through the trials of your life because God cares. God has shown and will continue showing you grace. God will not only see you, but he will get involved in the details of your life. He's a compassionate and gracious God. Yes, he is. Yes, he is.
In 1904 the Reverend W. Stillman Martin, a well-known Baptist preacher and evangelist, taught at a Bible school in Lestershire, New York. One evening he prepared to go out and preach. But his wife became desperately ill, so he attempted to cancel the preaching engagement. He didn't want to leave his wife's side while she was ill. Then his son said, "Dad, don't you think if God wants you to go preach, he can take care of Mom while you're away?" His son's comment struck him, so he went away to preach. When he came back, his wife was better than she had ever been before. In fact she began writing about the care of God. She wrote:
Be not dismayed whate'er betide, God will take care of you! Beneath his wings of love abide, God will take care of you! God will take care of you, through every day, o'er all the way; he will take care of you; God will take care of you!
A year later while watching a friend suffer, this same woman wrote a hymn called, "His Eye is on the Sparrow." As you tell others about the compassionate and caring and gracious God, it will not only minister to them, but it will minister to you. It will remind you that God can take care of you wherever you are, he can take care of your family and he can take care of your problems. .
Loving and faithful
The text continues, "I am a loving and faithful God." God talks about his lovingkindness and his faithfulness. This Hebrew word, hesed, describes the covenant love, the unfailing love, the loyal love that God has between himself and his people. He tells Moses, "I want you to know that I am going to be with you. Moses, I want you to know that I keep every commitment. I am consistent all the time. I am always loyal to those that I've called my children." He says, "Moses, you can depend on me. My love, my relationship, my commitment to you will never fail."
He describes this commitment right after Israel betrayed him. In Exodus 32, the Israelites made an idol calf because Moses took too long to return. Against this backdrop of their unfaithfulness, God says, "I'm faithful." Against the backdrop of their failure, their disappointment, their impatience, God says, "I am reliable. I am consistent. I am available. I am dependable. I am here even when you're not." He says, "You can't even compare who I am to what you're used to. It's think about trying to glimpse the greatness of God. He is so far above us that we can't even imagine him as he really is. We can't understand this loyalty and this commitment and this reliability and this consistency.
We live in a Bernie Madoff world. We live in the days of prenuptial agreements, fine print, and church free agency. People change churches like they change clothes. We live in the days of rising divorce rates and failing marriages. We can't find loyalty and commitment anywhere.
But God says, "I am faithful. I will never leave you or forsake you." No temptation has seized you except what is common to man, and God is faithful. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us from all unrighteousness and will purify us. The text says, "He will love us through a thousand generations." I believe this means that God will last. Politicians come and go, jobs come and go, officials come and go, even pastors come and go. But God will last through health problems, through family problems, through job problems, through legal problems, through a recession, through a Democrat president, through a Republican president.
Not only will God last; he'll also outlast. He'll outlast the buzz of drinking, the high of marijuana, the smell of a new car, fake friends, and real enemies. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The grass withers and the flowers fade, but the Word of the Lord stands forever. Thou hast been our dwelling place through all generations. He'll last from the rising of the sun to the going down of the same. Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, today, and forever.
He'll last. He'll last. He'll last. He'll last. Yes, he will. He will last. He says, I want you to know that he's faithful, know that he's reliable, know that he's dependable, know that he's committed to you, proven.
Forgiving and just
Finally, he says, "I am a forgiving and just God." He says he forgives wickedness, rebellion, and sin. Each of those words speak about how awful our condition really is. They help remind us of our total depravity. He gives three different descriptions of the same issue, and they all mean that we are sinful. One term means we miss the mark; another means we break our relationship with God; and another means we disobey and rebel against God. Any way you look at it, we're in a bad situation because the wages of sin is death.
But in front of all of those descriptions of sin—wickedness, rebellion, and sin—there is another word: forgiving. That one word changes our whole situation. This Hebrew word, nasa, means "to lift up, carry, take away." God lifts the burden of sin from our lives.
In February of 1993, a young mother named Mary lost her 16-year-old son when he was killed by another young man. She was so overburdened and so weighed down that she had difficulty continuing on with life. When the young man was about to be released, and she decided to visit him. She talked to him, shared her story. She said, "You don't know me and I don't know you, but I know I need to forgive you in order to lead my life properly." She began building a relationship with him. He later said, "I have a hard time forgiving myself, but this woman was like a mother to me." He was finally released after 17 years. This woman spoke to her landlord and found a space where he could stay in their community. Now they live right next door to each other in their community. She lives in room 902 and he lives in room 904. They're separated by a wall. But she said, "I had to learn how to forgive."
That story reminds me of how God has forgiven us. But he didn't require us to stay next door. He invited us into his own house. We are in his house because he has lifted the burden of sin off us through the death of Jesus Christ.
He then says that the guilty will not be left unpunished. This seems like a contradiction in the text, but there's no contradiction when it comes to God. God says he forgives, then in the next sentence he says he's going to punish. How does he do this?
First, forgiveness is for those who know how to repent. But those who do not repent will be punished for their sins. God will not pass anybody by. God will not let anyone slide. He will punish us for our sins.
But the text says that he is slow to anger. In other words, he's slow to punish us. My mother would say it this way as a child: "Boy, if I have to come up there one more time … If I have to call your name one more time …" That's how God is to us. He's not in a rush to cut us off, but he gives us chance after chance so that we can be restored to him. Then he says he will punish us, and the punishment will not only affect us, but it will affect other generations. This is not wrong or immoral. All sin has consequences. It impacts our families, and it trickles down. God's blessings are generational, and so are the consequences of sin.
The difficult thing about preaching is that the text preaches to me before I get to preach to others. In the midst of preparation, the text I think is for somebody else slaps me upside the head and says, "No, this text is for you." When I think about how God forgives me, and when I think about how God has lifted the burden off of me, I have a spirit of unforgiveness. I know others have hurt you. I've seen it in my own life. Yet if God is holy and righteous and still forgives us, we should not hold grudges against others.
When we start talking about a high view of God, we have to start living a high view in response. The bigger your God, the more your life has to line up with the Word and with what God has called you to do. The text says Moses hears God's description, falls down to his knees, and worships God. The true identity of God will always lead to worship.
Any time you see God, any time you glimpse how great he is, the only thing you can do is to fall to your knees and worship and adore him. You'll stop talking and you'll start worshipping. Moses worships on the side of the mountain because he has come face to face with the great God that he serves. Every time you talk about the true identity of God, don't try to redefine him. Don't try to bring him down to your level. Share who he is. Preach what he says. Proclaim what he is going to do.
When I had my identity stolen, I began to look for solutions to the problem. I discovered a service called Lifelock. When you sign up for Lifelock, you give them all of your information, and they guarantee they will protect your identity. Any time you try to apply for something new, they immediately call your phone to find out if it's you or somebody else. This happened when I tried to apply for something, and they said, "Mr. Carter, we just want to make sure you can verify who you are before this charge can go through."
Every time you get ready to proclaim God's Word, give God a call. Ask God, "Is this message reflecting you? Does my proclamation line up with who you are? Does it lift up somebody else? Or does it validate who you are?"
After I had those credit issues, I was told, "Mr. Carter, to clear up your credit, we need you to go down to the police department and fill out a police report on what's happened in your life." I asked, "Can I do it online?" They said, "No." I said, "Can my wife come down and do it?" They said, "No." I said, "Can I send the form in the mail?" They said, "No." They said, "Mr. Carter, if you want to reclaim your identity, you have to come for yourself. Bring your birth certificate, bring your Social Security card, bring your credit report, and reclaim your identity for yourself."
2,000 years ago, God did just that. He got tired of people misrepresenting him. He said, "I can't send a prophet, and I can't send a priest, and I can't send a king, and I can't send an angel. I'm going to go myself." So God put on the robe of human flesh, came down through 42 generations. Jesus was born in Bethlehem of a virgin, Mary. Jesus did miracle after miracle. Jesus gave the blind their sight, made the lame walk, put those out of their mind in their right mind. Jesus, the Rose of Sharon. Jesus, the Lily of the Valley. Jesus, the bright and shining star.
And after serving for 30 years, he put his life in the hands of humanity. He went through a trial and was wrongly convicted. He was beaten and carried his cross down the Via Dolorosa, and he carried it up a hill called Calvary. They stretched him high and they stretched him wide, and he stayed there from the sixth to the ninth hour. Then he hung his head and died. They put him in a borrowed tomb, and he stayed there all night Friday, all day Saturday, and all night Saturday night. But early Sunday morning, he said, "It's time for me to reclaim my identity," and he came out with all power in his hands.
Bryan Carter is the Senior Pastor at Concord Missionary Baptist Church of Dallas, Texas and the Vice President of E.K. Bailey Ministries.