AND THESE ARE THE NAMES
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We said last week that it is at this point in the story of the Exodus that God is about to get obtrusive. God has been thus far largely unobtrusive. God is about to make his presence known. “Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God.” Moses is doing an every-day thing. Note that Moses’ encounter with God doesn’t take place in a house of worship. It doesn’t take place when Moses is seeking to have some sort of transcendent encounter with God. It takes place while Moses is going about his every-day business.
I like old movies. There’s a movie called “Harvey” with Jimmy Stewart. It was based on a play by a playwright called Mary Chase. “Harvey” is about a man – Elwood P. Dowd who struggles with alcohol and whose best friend is a large imaginary rabbit called Harvey. Elwood’s family hires a psychiatrist to try and cure Elwood of his hallucinations. The psychiatrist comes around in a way, to the wonder that is Harvey – the wonder of imagination and our ability to see things beyond what is readily apparent. At one point in one of their sessions, he exclaims “Flyspecks. I’ve been spending my life among flyspecks while miracles have been leaning on lampposts on Eighteenth and Fairfax.” Later on, he tells Elwood “To hell with decency, I’ve got to have that rabbit.”
Wherever you may stand on the relative sanity of Elwood or his psychiatrist, the psychiatrist is saying something of significance, I believe, about God. Do we look to encounter God only in places that we view as holy or surrounded by things we view as holy? Do we look to encounter God only when we seek to encounter God? Do we seek to encounter God in our everyday? Are we looking? If we were looking what might we see?
This story of Exodus 3 tells us that God is seeking to encounter us. God is seeking to have a talk with us. God invites us to talk with him. This might happen in the most unexpected circumstances.
This is how it happened for Moses. He is going about a very menial task. A very mundane task. He sees something that makes him stop. The angel of the Lord appeared to him – and the text doesn’t make a difference between angel or messenger of the Lord and God, this is a theophany, an appearance of God. The angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. This scene is very heavily imprinted on our minds, for many of us. Many of us have heard this story since we were children in Sunday School, or have seen it played out countless times in “The Ten Commandments.”
I want us to pay attention to the details of the narrative as we have it here and hear what God has to say to our hearts. To look at what is going on. To see. In our story, we see that seeing invites hearing. Look at all the verbs for “see” that we have in the first 7 verses – “The angel of the Lord appeared… he looked… I must turn aside and look… When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see… I have observed the misery of my people…” Seeing invites hearing. Seeing and hearing invite a response. Dialogue leads to more revelation on the part of God. Curiosity and a willingness to enter into this dialogue leads to call.
The conversation starts with a name. “Moses! Moses!” This should remind us of other places where God calls people by name. Samuel Samuel. Martha Martha. Saul Saul. David David. Sarah Sarah. Dorothy Dorothy. Bill. Bill. The God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob, the God of the Covenant, knows you by name. This is significant I think. It means something, to be called by your name. It means something when someone knows our name. It means we’re remembered. I remember one night at OOTC a guest was there who we hadn’t seen in some time. As he passed one of the volunteers the volunteer called him by name “How are you, Johnny?” It struck him. He stopped. He said “I can’t ‘believe you remembered my name,” with no small sense of wonderment. The God of the Covenant wants a dialogue.
What does God say? God tells Moses what is going on. “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt: I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed I know their sufferings…” This is what we looked at last week. God heard. God remembered. God saw. God knew. The Israelites were in a situation that was disordered. It was not a situation that begat life but one that begat death. It was a situation from which they were unable to extricate themselves. From which they were unable to deliver themselves.
So what is the word?
“…and I have come down to deliver them…”
I have come down. I have come down.
Many biblical interpreters think that this scene happened at night, hence Moses noticing the burning bush in the first place. I like that view. A messenger of the Lord appearing before an 80-year-old shepherd, in something as innocuous as a piece of shrubbery. The rabbis described God working in this way like this – “God made his presence lowly.” God made his presence lowly. Infant holy infant lowly yes? We can’t hear that without being reminded of another time that messengers of God appeared before a group of shepherds. God is stepping into history in our story you see. Those shepherds announced something historic, to say the least. Edmund Burke was a 18th-century political philosopher. He wrote, “History is full of momentous trifles.” God appearing before a shepherd. I have come down. God appearing in the person of a tiny baby in Bethlehem. A momentous trifle. Do you ever think you are a trifle? Are we trifles? Are we not to be trifled with? Do we get discouraged because we are so few? Do we get discouraged because people don’t seem to want to hear the message? Look. See. Ask God to give us eyes to see where he is in our trifles and to hear him. Ask God to make us people in whom others see God. Ask God to make us partners in God’s saving delivering work.
Because this is what God does. This is what God is announcing to Moses. I will bring my people out. I will bring my people up out of Egypt. God’s delivering work. God delivering us from bondage to sin is not simply a matter of delivering us from something. God is delivering us to something. To life. To a land flowing with milk and honey, symbols of life, of fecundity. For what purpose? That we may worship God. That we may serve God because as we always come back to - you have got to serve somebody or something and we have come to believe and are coming to know that we were created by God to serve God and in so doing to find freedom.
To be delivered.
God calls us by name. I have called you by name, you are mine. God calls us and this call merits a response. “Here I am!” The amazing thing is that God doesn’t go about all this delivering business solo. I know I’m prone to say that we don’t save anybody. I can’t save you. This is true. I can’t change you. I can point to the one who can. The amazing thing though, is that God has not chosen to do his saving delivering work on his own. God invites us to participate in it! Look at God’s words – “I have come down… The cry of the Israelites has come to me… I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them…” Moses might have been thinking at this point “Sounds great – go to it!” God invites us to participate in God’s delivering work – “I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain.”
You have a part to play. Letters of Christ. Living epistles of Christ. I said earlier sight leads to hearing. Opportunities to speak will often come about because of what others see in you. I believe this. May people look at us and see that we are people whom God is with. People whose desire it is to know God and to make God known.
Who are we to be living letters? Who am I? This is Moses’ question. It doesn’t appear to come from a place of humility as much as it does copping out. As one commentator put it, Moses’ reply is not so much “Here am I, send me” as “Here am I, send him!” Who am I to do this? Who am I to act as a partner of God in God’s saving delivering work?
The thing is, the question is not so much “Who am I?” The question we should ask is “Whose am I?” To whom do I belong? Who is alongside me? This is God’s answer - “I will be with you…” I will be with us and that will be all we will need. There is a great line from Paul in Acts 27. He’s in the middle of a storm at sea (one that will result in a shipwreck). He assures the sailor that there will be no loss of life – “I urge you now to keep up your courage, for there will be no loss of life among you, but only of the ship. For last night there stood by me an angel of the God to whom I belong and whom I worship, and he said, ‘Do not be afraid, Paul…” (Acts 27:22-24a).
To whom I belong. The question is “Whose am I?” The same word came to Joshua, “do not be frightened or dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.” Note that God doesn’t discount the fear. God doesn’t try to tell you “Your fears are groundless.” God invites us to trust. Perfect love casts out fear. A story is told of a child who was afraid of monsters in his closet. The child’s father told him that there were no such things. Didn’t work. Child is terrified. The child’s father tells him that he’s going to sit at the foot of the child’s bed. Tells the child that if any monsters want to do anything, they’ll have to go through him first. Sits on a chair at the foot of the bed. He’s with his child. Child trusts.
“I will be with you.”
I have called you by name. You are mine. I have brought you out of Egypt, up to a good and broad land, that you may worship God on this mountain.
This is our Covenant God friends.
I have redeemed you. I know you by name. I no longer call you servants… but I have called you friends. The one is not ashamed to call us brothers and sisters who stands before God and says “Here I am and the children God has given me.”
The one who makes His name known. “But Moses said to God, ‘If I come to the Israelites and say to them, The God of your ancestor has sent me to you, and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?’” This question never actually came to Moses from the Israelites. It might have been some sort of secret code he was looking for. He might have just been asking for himself. It’s not unreasonable. I want to know you, Lord. Tell me your name. We’ve been saying how important names are. “I AM WHO I AM.” Four letters of the Hebrew alphabet. We’re not sure how it was pronounced. The name was not spoken. Known simply as Hashem – the name – in Judaism. Rendered LORD in our NRSV Bibles, but remember it’s not a title. It’s a name. I am who I am. I will be who I will be. Someone has described it like this – “God will always be there for his people, in a distant Egypt too, even if that divine presence is questioned and imperceptible. He will always be whoever his people need him to be in any given moment, in any given place. If they need a deliverer, that’s YHWH. If they need grace and mercy and forgiveness, that’s YHWH. If they need purifying and empowerment, that’s YHWH. If they need rebuke and chastisement, that’s YHWH. For God is a ‘I-will-be-what-I-will-be’ God and a ‘I-will-be-what-I-need-to-be-for-you’ God.”
God with us friends. Even to the end of the age. Knowing our name. Making his name known. Coming down. Delivering. Bringing life. Calling on a response from us of seeing and hearing and dialogue and thanks and worship. May God make these truths ever clearer to us all.