I AM WHO I AM

October 18, 2020/Exodus 3:1-15

The story of Moses and the burning bush is so well known, it has lost its ability to amaze us.  You know the old saying, “familiarity breeds contempt”?  We may not regard this story with contempt, but we do tend to slide right by the messages it carries.  Messages that hold great import not only for the Hebrew people God will send Moses to rescue, but also for us.

You’ll remember Moses fled Egypt after Pharaoh learned he had killed an Egyptian who was abusing one of his kinfolk.  He made a life for himself, there in Midian, marrying and working for his father-in-law caring for his flocks.  This day found him wandering with the flock “beyond the wilderness” in Horeb.  There, on the “mountain of God,” he saw something that pulled his attention away from the animals.  A bush, seemingly in flames, yet not consumed.

Moses drew closer, curious about what he was seeing.  And his curiosity would lead to a call he surely was not expecting.

Consider how God makes use of ordinary things to call Moses into service in what will be one of the most sweeping sagas of the Old Testament.  A bush – so ordinary we’re not even told what kind of bush – a bush “serves as an instrument for the purposes of God, evoking both holiness, passion, and mystery (fire) and down-to-earthness (bush).  … ‘God made his presence lowly’ in order to give room for humankind to enter into a genuine conversation regarding the shape of the future.”[1]  The rabbis refer to God’s use of the ordinary in this way as “divine condescension.”  German theologian Karl Barth would use the same term later to refer to God’s coming to live and walk among us as a human being in the person of Jesus.

God condescends to make the Holy known to Moses, first in the shape of a bush that burns but is not consumed.  And God uses a very human trait – curiosity – to draw Moses to his cause.  “It is only when God sees that Moses actually moves to satisfy his curiosity that God calls to him.”[2]

Now, realizing he is in the presence of the Holy One of Israel, Moses hides his face in fear.  Hides from the very real presence of God.  “Take off your shoes, Moses,” God instructs him, “for you are standing on holy ground.”  An ordinary place, with an ordinary bush and an ordinary man, transformed into something sacred by virtue of the divine presence and the divine purpose.  What follows is a conversation, a dialogue between God and Moses that moves from fearful and deferential on Moses’ part to challenging and questioning.  Throughout, the idea of being holds our focus.

Moses responds to the voice speaking out of the bush with words that are simple but carry great weight – Here I am!  Here I am, ready and waiting to hear what you have to say.  Here I am, leaning into the conversation we will have.  Here I am, ready to go?  Not quite.

Moses quickly learns God has appeared before him out of deep concern and love for the Hebrew people.  “I have observed.  I have heard.  I know the suffering of my people.”  A people Moses is to liberate.

Moses’ words shift with God’s call.  No longer saying “here I am,” but protesting – “who am I?”  Who am I to talk to Pharaoh?  Who am I to bring Israel out of Egypt?  Who am I?  Why would anyone follow me?

Now the conversation shifts.  Now we hear not Moses’ I am, but God’s I am.  Moses wants to know, who are you, who asks me to do such a thing?  Who am I to tell the people sent me?  Who are you?  God’s answer?  An affirmation of being, of existence unchanging and immutable.  I am, God responds.  I AM WHO I AM.  “I will be God for you.”[3]

God will faithfully be God for them.  God will be God with and for the people at all times and places.  … Wherever God is being God, God will be the kind of God God is. … God can be counted on to be who God is; God will be faithful.

God will faithfully be God for them. God will God with and for the people at all times and places. … Wherever God is being God, God will be the kind of God God is. … God can be counted on to be who God is; God will be faithful.[4]

It is a mysterious answer, an answer that leaves as much hidden as it reveals about who this God is.  But it also is complete, naming “the God … who will participate in their story forever.”[5]

In the naming of God’s self, the Holy One enters into a relationship with Moses and, by extension, the Hebrew people.  This God will be available to them, will communicate with them, will stay close to them.  Knowing someone’s name opens the way to a certain intimacy that isn’t possible if no name is given.  “Naming also entails vulnerability.  In becoming so available to the world, God is to some degree at the disposal of those who can name the name. … For God to give the name is to open [God’s self] up to hurt.”[6]

I AM WHO I AM will be God for Moses and the Hebrew children – but not only for them.  I AM WHO I AM will be God for all generations to come.  Will continue to be God for them when they flout God’s laws and turn away to follow the latest and greatest.  Will continue to be God even when it means sending the only begotten Son to draw us back to God.  Will always be God with and for and in God’s people.

Moses’ story serves as a lesson and reminder to us.  To pay attention to the unusual amidst the ordinary.  To exercise curiosity when the Holy One enters the everyday and transforms it into sacred space.  I AM WHO I AM has given us a name that speaks of God’s desire for a relationship with us, calls us into service to God’s kingdom, urges us to answer when God speaks to us, here I am.  Here I am, Lord.  Send me.

Our sending may not be as dramatic as Moses’.  We aren’t likely to be called upon to liberate a nation of people, to part waters with a staff, to intercede with God on behalf of a wayward people.  Our call may be as simple as remembering all that we have comes from God so that we are intentional in returning a tithe to God.  Our call may be as basic as teaching a Sunday school class, working with our youth, attending a Bible study.  Our call may mean making a phone call or jotting a note to someone.  In whatever way God calls us to service, we can rest easy.  God will be right there with us, all the way. 


[1] Terence E. Fretheim, Interpretation: Exodus, 55

[2] Ibid., 54

[3] Ibid., 63

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 65

[6] Ibid.

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