Dear Working Preacher,
Don’t be fooled by your dim recollections of Charlton Heston’s Moses. This passage isn’t about a timid exile’s reverent first meeting with the God of his ancestors. Rather, this story is about a no-holds-barred encounter between a wily, even conniving outlaw and a God who’s more than up to the challenge of transforming him into an instrument of salvation.
The drama of this scene peaks when Moses asks what seems an innocuous question. Up to this point, it’s been pretty much your standard encounter with a deity: spectacle (burning bush), booming address (“Moses, Moses…”), appropriate show of humility (shedding the sandals ), followed by a huge promise (“I will deliver my people from bondage”), self-deprecating hesitation (“I can’t do this”), and divine reassurance (“yes you can”).
And then it comes. “Suppose I go to the Israelites and tell them all this great news and they’re a tad skeptical, you know, to the point of asking just who this God is who sent me. What shall I tell them?” Such an innocent, understandable, even reasonable question, don’t you think? Except that it’s not. It’s a total power play; subtle, even sly, to be sure, but a power play none the less. Everything at this point hinges on names and, particularly, the power of names to reveal the character of a person. Remember Jacob, the heel — literally — who received his name because he was grabbing his brother’s heel as they came out of the womb and never stopped grabbing for all that he could the rest of his life, until he wrestled this same God to a draw and was given the new, life-transforming name of Israel.
That’s what’s going on here. Moses isn’t asking for a calling card, he’s trying to wile the name out of this divine being because to know its name is to have a certain power over it. Which is what makes God’s answer so perfect: “I AM WHO I AM!” How do you like them apples, Moses?!
I love God’s answer because through it God is saying, in a sense, “Don’t box me in, Moses!” Significantly, the divine name, Yahweh, has a future cast to it as well, rending it even more elusively, “I will be who I will be.” Which means, I think, that what God is actually saying is that you can’t really know who God is unless you’re willing to sign on for God’s mission in the world. Which is what Moses ultimately does, going to Egypt, confronting Pharaoh, leading his people out of Egypt, taking then through the parted waters and into the wilderness. And there, on the other side of things, Moses doesn’t need to ask for God’s name anymore, as he learned it first hand, though his own experience, and so is ready to sing of what he has discovered. (When reading, keep in mind that every time it reads “LORD,” it really means “I AM WHO I AM.”)
‘I will sing to the LORD for he has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider he has thrown into the sea. The LORD is my strength and my might, and he has become my salvation; this is my God, and I will praise him, my father’s God, and I will exalt him. The LORD is a warrior; the LORD is his name. (Ex. 15:1-3).
Moses has learned who God is, you see, only by following God on the path God set for him and thereby learning first hand the nature, purpose, and truth of this God. And the thing is, this doesn’t stop — or even begin — with Moses. It was true of his ancestors — Abraham taking off for a new land in his old age; Jacob fleeing God in every which way only to be called by God to sire a nation. And it will be true of his descendants, as well, from Old Testament prophet and priest to New Testament disciple and missionary. To tell you the truth, I suspect that this is the way it always is, even today. To know God, you have to go with God. Faith is a full contact, participation sport. You just can’t sit back and expect to really know God, you have to get up off the couch and get in the game, take a risk, try something marvelous, reach for something you thought unachievable, step out onto the winding road the end of which you can’t see from your doorstep.
So what might be interesting this week, Working Preacher, is if after a few minutes of teasing this biblical truth out of the story at hand, we then asked our people what some of their big questions about God are. Maybe you’ll want to give them a little quiet time to think about it. Or let them write it down. Or even make room for a little mid-sermon conversation. We might be surprised — and enlightened — by the questions our people ask.
But it can’t stop there. Not after what we just read. So next, ask them where they believe God is calling them. What task might God have set for them? What mission are they called to? What path have they been set upon? It doesn’t have to be spectacular. As we talked about last week, when done in faith, there is no small gesture. Keep in mind, though, that this second question might be a tad more challenging. Because the truth is most of us don’t see ourselves as the stuff of which faith-heroes are made. But that’s probably because we haven’t been reading our Bibles very carefully. 🙂 After all, few of the characters God employs — including Moses — are the stuff of heroes. And yet God uses these frail, fallible, and oh so ordinary people, over and over again, to do extraordinary things.
So it’s important, I think, that we ask this second question as well, for even by asking it we make it more likely that our people believe that God is, indeed, working through them in small ways and large for the health of the world. And, to be honest, I think most of our people — and we, too, for that matter — are dying to be asked, desperately wishing and wanting to give ourselves to something that matters.
So ask the question, Working Preaching, do your best to make room for a little wonderment, and then be ready to be surprised, humbled, enlightened, and encouraged. For God continues to stand elusively out in front of us, beckoning us forward into a future that we cannot yet see but which God is fashioning both for us and through us.
As always, thanks for your faithful ministry, for God has called you to a significant role in God’s church and future, and I am grateful for your fidelity in responding to it.
Yours in Christ,
P.S.: One of my favorite prayers seems just perfect for this kind of sermon:
“O God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown. Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.” — Evangelical Lutheran Worship, p. 304, Evening Vespers.