Exodus — Part 3
September 27, 2020
At this point in our story Moses is a nobody. He is not yet known as the leader who led the Israelites from Egyptian bondage. He is not yet known as the man who saw God’s face on Mt. Sinai and delivered the Ten Commandments to a people desperately in need of some direction. That’s much later on in the story. Right now, Moses is a nobody. He’s a shepherd who watches over his father-in-law’s sheep in the middle of nowhere as he hides behind the anonymity provided by wilderness living. After all, it was many years ago that he escaped from his murder charges back in Egypt. He ran away hoping to find a new life away from all the drama. We can imagine he likes his ordinary life of shepherding. Each day is much the same; Moses knows what to expect as he watches over his father-in-law’s flock.
But on this particular day, Moses finds himself encountering Something transcendent—Something that interrupts his ordinary life and peels back the curtain to reveal that Moses is called to a life that is so much more than fulfilling daily obligations and familiar routines.
As Moses leads his flock down a wilderness road, he comes to Mt. Horeb – literally meaning Mount “wasteland.” This is the last place you would expect to find God. And going about his usual rhythm of tending the flock, this work requires much of Moses’ attention. He must be hypervigilant for any other creatures lurking who may like a tasty sheep for a treat, and he must be careful to watch for stray sheep wandering from the safety of the flock. It’s no cake walk being a shepherd. And yet, something catches Moses’ eye. Out of the corner of his eye he notices a bush on fire. It must have been off to the side somewhere, because Moses says to himself, “I will turn aside to see this great sight.”
The bush requires Moses to take a time-out from his normal routine; it requires him to pause from his important work of watching over the sheep. Moses could have just glanced at the bush, said, “Oh how pretty,” and kept right on driving his sheep. He didn’t know that God was in the bush after all. Moses could’ve decided to come check on the bush again later when he had more time and when he wasn’t so busy. But he didn’t. And he encountered God in an unexpected place.
From the burning bush God calls to Moses, “Moses, Moses!” Moses responds, “Here I am.” God instructs Moses to remove his sandals, because he is on holy ground. This wilderness place on Mt. “Wasteland” has become holy. And as Moses removes his sandals, he also removes all pretenses, all protections. It’s disarming to walk around bare foot; there’s less protection, more exposure. In some cultures removing one’s shoes is a sign of intimacy and vulnerability. By removing his sandals Moses takes the first step in opening himself to God.
And God reassures Moses that he is the God of his forefathers, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. He is the God of promises. And as the God of promises, he enlists Moses’ help in freeing God’s people from a life of bondage. God tells Moses that Israelite lives matter and enlists Moses’ help in liberating them. God is clear that he is in the business of liberation and healing. Moses is invited to join this important work.
And it is at this point in our story when Moses utters the two most important questions that humans have been searching out the answers to since the beginning of time: “Who am I?” and “Who is God?”
Moses has taken a time-out from his regular shepherding duties. He’s stepped off the worn path he’s used to traveling, and has encountered Something that shakes everything up. It is usually these moments in our life, when we slow down long enough, or stop busying ourselves with all the noises and distractions of 21st century living, that we come face to face with these existential questions that we spend most of our time trying to avoid facing. “Who am I?” and “Who is God?” Both of these questions seek to understand our place in this world. Who am I? How do I belong/fit in? And who is God? Is God benevolent or violent? Is God for me or against me?
Moses, the regular ol’ shepherd is tasked by God to liberate the Israelites. I can imagine Moses looking over his shoulder, looking for someone else God must be talking to. “Who? You mean me?” “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the children of Israel out of Egypt?” Moses’ question implies that he does not think himself worthy of such a high calling. “You must have the wrong guy. I’m no saint or liberator. I’m a runaway. A murderer. Just a regular old shepherd trying to keep my head down and stay out of trouble. You must have the wrong person. Who am I that you should want me?”
Moses doubts that he is good enough for God. In fact, Moses objects to God’s call eight times over the course of this chapter and the next. Now Moses doesn’t strike me as a guy who is lazy and trying to get out of some work. Moses strikes me as a guy who genuinely believes the lie that he not worthy of God’s attention and calling. “Who am I that I should go? There’s nothing special about me. I’m a runaway. I can’t speak well. I don’t know anything about leading. Why would they believe me, a shepherd?”
I’ve always been drawn to the character of Moses because of his doubts about his worth. I’m drawn to him because his doubts are my doubts. And since all of you are just as human as I am, I’m guessing that my doubts are also your doubts. Everybody I have ever become acquainted with has a story, usually from childhood, of not being chosen, of not being deemed worthy enough: not chosen for the glee club, not chosen for the basketball team, the last chosen in a neighborhood sandlot softball team, not chosen for a job, not chosen as a spouse. Not chosen carries the blunt message that I have no worth, that I am not useful, that I am good for nothing.
This fundamental insecurity of not being valuable, useful or worth something lives inside all of us. Most of the time we bury it deep down and pretend it isn’t there. For many of us, our life becomes a battle ground to prove this existential insecurity wrong. We do everything we can to prove that we are worthy, that our life is valuable. We accumulate skills to make ourselves invaluable to employers. We live lives of productivity to prove our usefulness. We garner wealth and possessions to demonstrate that our life is as valuable as the price tag on our home or new car. We go to school so that we can work an “important” job that will prove we are smart enough or capable enough. We brag and hope people will notice all that we do and have. We climb the social ladder so that we’re not left behind at the bottom. Even as I was writing this sermon I was constantly measuring it against the standards of other preachers I’ve heard, wondering if this is good enough to make me worthy as a pastor.
I think that at the heart of our constant climbing, our rat racing, our self-medicating is a fear of emptiness and loneliness. We’re afraid that we don’t belong. We’re afraid that we aren’t worthy, aren’t valuable.
We’ve bought into the same lie that Moses did. Like the snake in the garden, the lie that is whispered to us is that we are only as worthy as what we produce, we are only as valuable as what we do. Moses gives God a nice long list of objections as to why he can’t possibly be worthy of God’s attention and call. “You can’t mean me!” Moses thinks that he is not a worthy object to be wielded by God. He is not the right tool for the job of liberation. But God doesn’t treat Moses like an object to be wielded as God wills. God treats Moses as a subject, as an equal who is allowed to question and push back.
God’s response is a little surprising. God doesn’t answer Moses’ question “Who am I that I should go?” in the same way that I would. See, if I was God I would lay out for Moses all the reasons why I am choosing him, to prove to him that he is worthy. “I’m sending you because you will be a great leader, because you care about justice, because you are bold enough to speak to Pharaoh.” These things may be true, but God doesn’t give Moses any of these reasons. God simply says, “But I will be with you.” In other words, “what other reason do you need to prove your worth to me, other than the fact that I want to be with you?” God’s response isn’t a laundry list of attributes or reasons why Moses deserves the call; those are the lists we accumulate for ourselves to prove that we are worthy. Instead, God’s response is a relational one. “I will be with you. What more could you need to prove that you are worthy of my attention and call?”
I have a childhood best friend who I grew up doing everything together with. We were essentially brothers in everything except blood. He was someone I never felt the need to prove myself to. We loved each other not because of any of our accomplishments, skills or possessions, but we each enjoyed the other person for who they are. We just enjoyed being with one another. This is a bond that hasn’t broken, even with time and distance and now different political opinions.
Just a few weeks ago we had a difficult conversation over the phone and realized how vastly different our political opinions have become. And you know what? We didn’t care. We still listened, we asked questions, and we laughed. Even though my friend represents a political side I’m supposed to be ardently opposed to, I don’t care. Because to me he’s more than a political label; he’s more than what he says or believes or does. He’s my friend, and nothing can ever change how much I care about him.
I hope that everyone of us has a friend or a family member like that. Because it’s those relationships that reveal the heart of God to us. It’s those relationships that reveal the depth of God’s own love for us. Who am I? I’m God’s beloved. I’m worthy of God’s attention and call, not because of anything I’ve done or will do, believe or don’t believe, but simply because I belong to God. God does not measure worth in the same way we do.
God’s response to Moses’ “Who am I?” is a relational response. Now, let’s not forget that this is God, who just showed up in a burning bush, who Moses is now questioning. But God doesn’t flinch; God invites the relationship, invites the questions, the mutuality, the give and the take. Because that’s what a real relationship requires.
So now Moses, bold as he is, ventures a step further, asking “And who are you?” Moses asks for God’s name. Names in the ancient world are very important, because if you know someone’s name, then you have power and knowledge over them. A name reveals who you are and where your origins are from; it’s vulnerable act to offer your name. This is a big ask from Moses.
But once again, God doesn’t flinch. God responds, “Ehyeh asher ehyeh.” This Hebrew name can literally be translated “I am who I am” or “I will be who I will be” or “I will be who I am” or “I am who I will be.” In essence, the divine name can be understood as “I will be God for you.” The force of the name is not simply that God is or that God is present, but that God will be faithfully God for Moses and for the Israelites. God will be for them and not against them. God has given Moses another relational response.
How much would this change the way we live and view our self if we really knew that God was for us? And I don’t mean “know” in an intellectual sense, but what if we really knew this be true deep down in our soul. I think we’d realize all the silly things we do to try to earn God’s approval and love. I think we’d realize that we don’t really understand the concept of grace as a free gift. Because the God who still occupies much of popular imagination is capricious and petty, quick to turn angry, like a strict hard-to-please father. But the God who reveals herself to Moses and the Israelites is more akin to a passionately strong and loving mother who will fight for her children, but who will also nurture and expect the best in them.
God is for us. These four words have the ability to change everything. God is for us. Not against us. Before Moses has done anything of value or importance, God promises to be with him and for him. Before you do anything of value or importance with your life, God promises to be with you and for you. You are worthy of God’s attention and calling. Even after you have lived many years under the sun with most of your life behind you, mistakes and all, God promises to be with you and for you. Ehyeh asher ehyeh. “I will be God for you. I will be God with you.” Amen.