a sermon on Exodus 3:1-15
preached on March 23, 2014, at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone
As we spend these forty days of Lent preparing for Easter, our Jewish friends and family are also getting ready for the holy celebration of Passover. Although they have different celebrations and preparations, these seasons share common roots. Jesus was tried and executed in Jerusalem during Passover celebrations, and from the earliest days of the church Easter has been viewed as the Christian Passover, for just as in the first Passover the Lord let the firstborn children of Israel live while the other firstborn in Egypt were killed, on Easter God again conquered death in the resurrection of Jesus.
So as we share this time of holy reflection and celebration, it is good and right that we look at the stories that define us all, not just remembering these things of the past but sorting out their relevance and meaning in our lives today.Today we turn to the figure who stands behind the Passover, Moses, and think about how his story continues to impact us and define us even now.
Our reading this morning from the book of Exodus takes us to a pivotal moment in his life, when God appeared to him in a burning bush and instructed him to lead the Israelites out of Egypt. Moses began his life in Egypt as the son of Hebrew slaves. He had been facing death along with all other male Hebrew infants born in his time, but Pharaoh’s daughter rescued him as a baby from a basket floating in the reeds and raised him in the household of the Pharaoh. He grew to be a strong and powerful man in the court of Egypt, but he fled this position for the safety of Midian after he killed an Egyptian who had mistreated a Hebrew slave.
After many years, as mistreatment of the Israelites deepened, our story today tells us how God appeared to Moses in this strange bush that “was blazing, yet… was not consumed.” God then spoke to Moses, instructing him to remove his sandals and recognize that this was holy ground. Once Moses understood who he was talking to, God told him of the plan to free the Israelites from their Egyptian oppressors:
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,
and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians,
and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land,
a land flowing with milk and honey.…
So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.
Moses was understandably skeptical. He asked God quite directly, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” Even when God assured him that he nor the Israelites would be alone on the journey, even when God promised that they would worship God together on that very mountain, Moses was just not so sure about all this. He turned again to God with more questions: “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?”
God responded with quite possibly the most important and yet the most confusing response in the entire Bible:
I Am Who I Am.
Thus you shall say to the Israelites,
‘I Am has sent me to you.’
Apparently that confusing bit of revelation was enough to convince Moses to make this trip, to put things on the line, to leave his new homeland and go back to Egypt to lead his people to the promised land.
The story of Moses continues well beyond these verses, as Moses returned to Egypt, declared God’s word of freedom to Pharaoh, gathered the confidence of the Israelites, led them out of Egypt and into the wilderness, engaged with God on their behalf, received the law to guide them, dealt with their disputes and frustrations, and took them to the edge of the Jordan River as they prepared to receive the fullness of God’s promise there.
Amidst all this, the center of this story that defines us is God’s revelation to Moses. While God had revealed God’s self to others before this, Moses’ encounter with God in the burning-but-not-consumed bush tells us more about God than we have known before. We learn here of God’s insistence upon justice and willingness to stand up for the people of Israel. We learn of God’s willingness not just to send someone on a journey but to go along too. And we learn God’s very strange but very informative name.
This name is easily the most important thing revealed about God in Moses’ encounter at the burning bush. God declared so clearly,
This is my name forever,
and this my title for all generations.
This name is quite unlikely any other name. In Hebrew, it is spelled YHWH, and we might say it as “Yahweh,” though an observant Jew would never pronounce such a holy name. Anytime an observant Jew sees these letters in a reading, she replaces it with another name for God, “Adonai.” We translate it as “Lord,” and it is always printed with those small capital letters so that you can immediately know that this is the most holy name of the most holy God. But in literal terms, this name means exactly what we heard: “I Am Who I Am,” or “I Will Be Who I Will Be,” as it says in a footnote in nearly every Bible.
In sharing this name here, God revealed to Moses—and to us—the very essence and core of God’s being. “I Am Who I Am,” God says—insisting that God’s way is the only way, telling us that God does what God does, demonstrating from this early place in God’s story with God’s people that God is sovereign and supreme. “I Will Be Who I Will Be,” God says—if “I Am” is not enough to make it clear, hearing this in the future tense shows us that this is not the end of this story, that God will not leave Moses or the Israelites alone as they make this journey out of Egypt, that God will continue to go with God’s people in all the days to come.
Alongside this holy name and its holy meaning, the revelation of God to Moses also shows us God’s insistence on justice for God’s people. In calling to Moses to go to Egypt and proclaim freedom for the people of Israel, God makes it clear that oppression will not have the final word. God saw the misery, injustice, and suffering that they faced and proclaimed,
I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters.…
I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians,
and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land,
a land flowing with milk and honey.”
In sending Moses to Egypt, God responds to these cries of the oppressed—and makes it clear that God hears the cries of all who are oppressed and so will consistently call God’s people to a new and different way of freedom and new life. By responding to this injustice in this way, God not only condemns those who would perpetuate suffering but insists that God will actively work to end oppression and call God’s people through the centuries to join in this work.
So this story about Moses not only shows us who God is but also gives us a glimpse of God’s call to us. We like Moses have glimpsed God, perhaps not in a bush that burns but is not consumed but in actions against injustice and for peace, in the wonder of nature and the joy of life, and most of all in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. So with our own revelation of God, we like Moses are called to go and embody God’s freedom, justice, and new life in the midst of the oppression and misery of our world.
We do not go on this journey alone. Women and men like Moses go before us to remind us that God’s presence goes with us every step of the way. And others also go beside us now, lifting up the story of Moses to show us God’s insistence on the end of oppression and the rise of freedom and encouraging all who desire justice and peace for all people to join these ranks. But as much as we might like to leave this journey to other, God’s revelation to Moses and to us shows us that each of us must go and join in the cry to “let my people go,” to work to transform the brokenness and injustice around us into new life, to stand up and step in for those who cannot speak for themselves, to proclaim the day of the Lord’s favor for all creation. We do this not to further our own agenda, to promote a way of life for a select few, to gain freedom for others that looks exactly like the freedom we enjoy, or even to convince others of God’s presence, but we always seek to embody God’s love more deeply and broadly than it has been before as we live in peace and hope to build up all people along the way.
So may this story of God’s revelation to Moses strengthen us to join in the work of justice and peace so that all people might know the fullness of life that comes from this God who is who God is and will be who God will be now and always. Thanks be to God. Amen.