God said to Moses, “I-AM-WHO-I-AM. Tell the People of Israel, ‘I-AM sent me to you.’”
(Preached on Sunday, September 3, 2017)
Here was Moses, minding his own business, tending the flocks of his father-in-law, Jethro, on the backside of nowhere, when all of a sudden he is confronted by the strange sight of a bush covered with fire and yet not burning up. Then, out of the blazing bush, the voice of God calling to him, telling him that God has a special job for him to do: to help free the Israelite slaves in Egypt.
Moses was not an easy sell. It takes one-and-a-half chapters, 39 verses to be precise, before Moses, begrudgingly begins to do what God asks of him. (That is quite the contrast to the disciples of Jesus dropping their nets or leaving their tax table to follow Jesus.) The very first objection Moses raises is “Who am I to do this great thing?” To which God answers immediately, “Don’t worry about who you are. What is important is who I am. And I will be with you. You will have me on your side.”
And then, as if God senses that is not quite enough for Moses, before he has a chance to question further, God offers a sign as proof. But it is not the sort of sign that most of us would embrace with reassuring certainty that “Yes, this is going to be okay!” No, look at what God offers as proof: God tells Moses that clarity and certainty will come when Moses returns to this same mountain with the people of Israel to worship God. In other words, certainty and confirmation will only come after the fact! Moses is to act in faith, not in certainty. He is to go as God leads, still full of doubts and self-questioning. Only when Moses completes the task for which he has been commissioned can he look back over the experience and say, “Yeah, God was in that.” God treats us no differently. It is only in the doing that God is to be recognized – everything else is the definition of faith!
Of course, this doesn’t quite satisfy Moses. So the next thing he asks is, “Well, who should I say you are when the Israelites ask me who is this God? Tell me your name.” This seems an innocent enough request on the surface. Any of us want to know with whom we are talking, especially if they are asking us to take on such a big job as going up against the powers that be in the world. But in ancient times there was much more to this question. In Moses’ day, to know someone’s name gave you power over them. It gave you a “handle” on them. Especially, to know the name of a god meant you could summon that god whenever you needed or wanted to and that god would have to respond. Knowing the name of a god was the key to using the power of the god for yourself.
So, again, Moses was hedging his bet. God wanted him to go do something dangerous; God was promising to be with him; but, just suppose God disappeared, got distracted, whatever? Moses wanted to know God’s name so he could be sure and have God present when he needed God to be present. Instead of moving into the future trusting God, Moses wanted some guarantees, some assurance that he was in control.
We do the same thing today. We want certainty; we want to get a handle on God. So, we look for certainty in creeds and confessions; or we look for certainty in the work of great Christian thinkers; or we look for certainty in using the correct “name” for God, or all 107 names as the Jews believe there are; or we grab for certainty in the Bible, in holding a particular view of scripture, or of God and what we believe God has said.
But we never find that certainty. God remains utterly free and in charge. There is no name given to Moses. In the Hebrew the name God gives is ‘ehyeh ‘asher ‘ehyeh. It is actually a verb form combination that has proven terribly elusive to translators. Tradition has translated it as I am who I am, or I am what I am, or I will be what I will be, or I am what I will be. But what the Hebrew really means, according to many scholars, is I will indeed be with you. In other words, God doesn’t give Moses a name, because God cannot be commanded or summoned by any human being. Rather, God simply repeats the promise made earlier: I will be with you.
In truth what God is saying to Moses, and to us, is “Hey, I am mystery – get used to it.” You see, God is nothing; that is, no thing. Things can be named and handled. We can name a child and a mountain. We can name an idol or a poodle. We can name a fruit or an insect. We can name a planet or a constellation. We can name the remains of a dinosaur and subatomic particles electrons. We can name anomalies in the heavens and call them black holes and we can calculate the beginning of all creation and name it the Big Bang.
But we can never, never name God! God is not a thing in the universe to be names. God is not even the sum total of the universe that we can name. God is the ultimate Mystery, the awesome Identity that precedes all things; the glory that cannot be imagined, and before whom humble worship is the sanest response we can make.
Does this mean that we know nothing and should stay silent? Not at all. For as Moses was to find out, this God is known by significant activity. That is why perhaps the best translation of that name is I will be what I have been. In other words, if anyone wants to know who I am, just have them look back over their history and they will understand. Remember when Abraham needed a road map? That was me. Remember when Isaac needed a stand-in sacrifice? That was me. Remember when Jacob needed a friend? That was me. Remember when Joseph needed protection? That was me. “What I have been,” God said, “I will continue to be. Not just for now, but for all generations to come.” God is holy activity, known from deeds in creation and redemption, from the history of a people, from yours and mine own histories.
When we witness the horrendous suffering and overwhelming need that occurs at times in the world as we did this past week in Houston, Texas we can remember God’s response to Moses. Just as God heard the cries of the Hebrew slaves in Egypt and came to be with them and bring salvation to them, even so we can know that God has heard the cries in Houston of those who have lost so much. We can be assured that God is not absent or indifferent. God is not blind, insensitive or hard of hearing. The God of infinite compassion sees, hears, feels and shares our suffering. We are not alone.
Just as God’s promise to Moses was realized through God’s activity in Moses’ life, even so God’s promised presence is made real through God’s activity in the life of the world. God is present in Houston in the hundreds of people who have responded to help the thousands who are suffering. God is present in all the first responders – the police, the firefighters, the National Guard troops – many of whom are also dealing with tremendous loss in their own lives, but who set that aside temporarily to assist those who need them. God is present in the ordinary citizens who brought their boats to the flooded areas to help in the rescue efforts. God is present in the churches and the aid agencies who are sending volunteers and goods and services to help alleviate the suffering.
And God is present in you and me, as we witness the suffering from a distance and wonder, “what can I do?” We cannot stop the storm. We cannot erase the impact of global warming or the absence of city planning that led to paving over the earth that might have absorbed more of the rain. We cannot replace all that has been lost. But we are not helpless. Just as it was for Moses, the word of God for us is, “Get going.” The compassion of God that moved the Samaritan to do what he could for the helpless man on the side of the road calls us to get going; to do whatever we can to relieve some part of the suffering we see.
Novelist Frederick Buechner writes: “There is no telling where God may turn up next – around what sudden bend of the path if you happen to have your eyes and ears open, your wits about you, in what odd, small moments almost too foolish to tell.” God did not give Moses the certainty of a name, but even better, God gave Moses the promise of a presence. Watch for evidence of God’s presence in your life. That is far better than what any name can provide.