Sunday, August 28, 2011

The Name Game

The Name Game

Exodus 3:1-15

Robert J. Elder

11th Sunday after Pentecost: August 28, 2011

When we read stories in Exodus like this account of Moses’ encounter at the burning bush, if we are like lots of other people, we may think of them as, well, stories about Moses. It may appear that one of the main reasons for the second book of the Bible is to recall the activities of Moses. We may think this story tells us about Moses’ religious experience in the desert, about his reluctance to follow God’s call to go free the people in Egypt. Seeing things from the human point of view, we think the story is about Moses.

Silly us.

That might explain the amount of ink spilled over the centuries in efforts to explain Moses’ state of mind when he came on the bush that burned and was not consumed. There have been tiresome modern attempts to describe Moses’ psychological condition at the time he encountered the burning bush. There have been some who have held forth at length on Moses’ repressed guilt for having murdered an Egyptian taskmaster, some who speculated on whether he had a speech impediment, others who believe they have found him to have been a mystic, and still a few more who have seen him as a crusading agent of political liberation for an enslaved people.

I’m not ready to deny that Moses could have been any or all of these things. He might well have been suffering from repressed guilt, he could easily have been a mystical revolutionary held back only by a halting ability at public speaking. He might have been these things and others besides, but I don’t find as much help in scripture for pursuing those biographical leads about Moses as others seem to do. When I turn to this story of his encounter with God at the bush on Mount Horeb, I am struck not so much by what it tells me about Moses, as what it tells me about God. It seems to me that for all our understandable curiosity about the figure of Moses, that is not the main purpose of scripture. This is a story in which we discover some of the most important things about God that can be found anywhere in the Bible. To miss that by dwelling too much on the quirks and foibles of Moses is to miss a great deal.

Would you like a clear description of the God we worship, the one Jesus confessed? Would it be helpful to know how God goes about working with people he calls as his servants, even those who answer reluctantly? Just what sort of God do we know through the testimony of scripture and the witness of the church? This passage supplies us with a pretty thorough profile on these questions if we will just pay attention.

This is the God who calls out, reaches out,

moves toward us, takes initiative (vs. 4).

In the story of Moses’ encounter with the burning bush, we discover a God who always takes the first step toward his people. For all the Hollywood attempts to make this Bible scene terrifying and dramatic, I believe we are meant to be struck more by the ordinariness of it, because that is the kind of time when God calls out to us, plain old ordinary time. Moses was simply the fugitive son-in-law of a fellow who owned some sheep, sheep which Moses took to the greener pastures around Mount Horeb. He was not on a spiritual quest, and he likely thought the day was going to go by like any shepherd’s other. If this was the mountain of God, it was going to come as news to Moses.

In the middle of ordinary time, while we were yet sinners, it is on a day that is just like any other day there ever was, that God moves toward us, reaches out to us, calls us. We don’t have to wait for some special place or time, some sacred site, some holy day. On a day like any other, God’s gesture is extended toward us, beckoning us. It is never the wrong time to find the call of God addressed to us. This is the God who calls us in the middle of the very sort of world we live in.

This is the God who was known by those who went before us,

by Abraham, Isaac, Jacob (vs. 6)

God was known by Grandma and Grandpa, by old Uncle Lou, by Pastor Perkins, and by our 7th grade Sunday School teacher. He comes to us through family, our network of relationships is one of God’s most effective vehicles for self-revelation. God has cared for those who went before. Now God will care for us. If we can believe that God was active in those past times both inside and beyond the accounts of scripture, then this declares that same God is the very one who steps up and is willingly self-revealed to us.

This is the same God that is known by that great cloud of witnesses, who, according to the letter to the Hebrews, have gone before us. We don’t have to step outside the faith that has been handed down to us from patriarchs and apostles and disciples. There is no need to reinvent God in our own image. This is the God who was known to those who came before us, and who wishes to know us just as he has known our fathers and mothers in the faith.

This is the God who has seen misery, heard cries of anguish,

knows what it is to suffer (vs. 7).

A close friend once shared with me the grief he went through when his father was dying.[1] His father had a rather long battle with cancer, and so he could see the end coming quite some time before it arrived. He said that one day someone who knew of his father’s condition brought him a copy of C.S. Lewis’ short book, A Grief Observed, saying, “I want to go through this with you.” Later, my friend picked up the phone and called, saying “Do you want to go through it now?” “Through what?” she asked. “Through the book you gave me.” But she said, “Oh, I didn’t mean the book. I meant the loss of your father.” That is what she wanted to “go through with him.”

So few people are open to that need to “go through” suffering with others. Often, our inclination is to run the other direction from suffering. But the ones who know grieving best, who are most intimately acquainted with it from their own lives’ experiences of loss, are frequently the ones who are able to help the most. They are the ones who in “going through it with us” go through their own grief as well and seek with us the transformation that “going through it” rather than going around or avoiding it can bring. God is like that friend. God sees, hears, knows suffering. And God says to Moses, as God says to us, “I have come...” I want to go through this with you. This is the God who sees, hears, knows who we are and knows what we suffer.

This is the God who acts not so much to erase suffering

as to transform it (vss. 8-10).

When I was in college, one guitarist we all knew, whose talent clearly placed him in a league beyond any run-of-the-mill top-40 player, was Eric Clapton. Clapton has had the sort of rugged life of big-time stardom and hard-time drug abuse that characterizes so many who emerged out of the 1970’s music scene. But then, by the 1990s, he seemed to have straightened his life around. Then one summer, his four year-old son, Conor, ran to an open window in his mother’s high-rise apartment in New York City and fell to his death.

Since that day, one news report said ­­– rather snidely, I thought – that Clapton “has sought support through religion, therapy, and Alcoholics Anonymous.”[2] I don’t pretend to know what spiritual resources Clapton lays claim to, but I know pain when I hear it, and one of his subsequent songs – one of the most unlikely top-40 hits I have ever heard – was filled with it. Listen to some of the words he sang to his dead boy:

Would you know my name, if I saw you in heaven?

Would it be the same, if I saw you in heaven?

I must be strong, and carry on,

‘cause I know I don’t belong here in heaven.

Would you hold my hand, if I saw you in heaven?

Would you help me stand, if I saw you in heaven?

I’ll find my way, through night and day,

‘cause I know I just can’t stay here in heaven.

Time can bring you down, time can bend your knees.

Time can break your heart, have you beggin’ “Please,”

beggin’ “please.”

Beyond the door, there’s peace, I’m sure,

and I know there’ll be no more tears in heaven.

These are the sorts of questions and observations only grieving parents could bring themselves to ask. Someone once said to me, “When a loved one dies, it is a feeling like no other.” And it is true. Morning after morning, we awake to the knowledge that the one who once was here is now gone, irretrievably. Yet somehow, after time, an occasional morning will come and go, and we are startled with the realization that we haven’t given a thought to our loss. It may first strike us as if we were guilty of disloyalty. How could I forget? But we don’t ever forget, not really. I have seen tears over the loss of a spouse thirty years after the actual death, which struck me as fresh as the tears shed over yesterday’s grief. We never really forget, our suffering is never really erased.

But it can be transformed. Not invariably, but we have seen it happen. The knowledge of a certain pain can transform a person into one who is more sensitive to the pain of others. This is not to say that God sends pain to us. Nor is it to say that suffering inevitably builds character. Some people react terribly, become embittered. But I think there is the possibility that God can empower us, bit by bit, day by day, to live through the pain, and to appreciate, even grow because of the difference it has made in us. This is the God who can make all things new, even the old news of suffering and loss.

This is the God who takes our own limitations and fears seriously (vss. 11-14).

God met each of Moses objections to the call to go to Egypt by taking them seriously. As soon as it became clear that God had a job for Moses, Moses went from saying, “Here am I,” to “Who am I?” “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” God never says, “Never mind that now, just go and do what I tell you.” Throughout this story, God takes each of Moses’ objections with utter seriousness, and answers in kind. To Moses’ question “Who am I?” God answers, “I will be with you.” What you say, you say for me. So it doesn’t matter who Moses is so much as who God is. This is the God who takes us seriously, and makes our shortcomings irrelevant by the abundant availability of his power to bring to pass the new thing he has in mind for us and for our people.

This passage tells us so much about the nature of this God, that by the time God gets around to telling Moses the name by which he can be known, it is almost unnecessary. The literal translation of God’s name means, “I am who I am,” or “I will be who I will be.” And just what is that? Refer back to verses 6 through 14: I am the God who calls, the God who was worshipped by those who came before you, the God who knows fully what human misery is about and yet who acts to transform that misery into new life, the God who takes seriously the partnership God has entered with human beings. If you want to know the name of God, look for one who is revealed in those ways.

Look especially to Jesus on the cross, in the tomb, and raised from the dead, because this became God’s most powerful way of declaring solidarity with us in all our humanity, and transforming suffering into victory over death.

copyright © 2011, Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved

[1] George Chorba, “You Are...”, a sermon preached at 1st Presbyterian Church, New Vernon, NJ.

[2] Newsweek, March 23, 1992, p. 53..