Exodus 3: 1-17
3rd Sunday in Lent
When we first meet our young hero, he is out tending his father-in-law’s flock. And it is important for us to remember how he got here. A failed attempt to liberate his people. Perhaps “failed” is being too kind. You see, Moses, even though he was raised in the royal Egyptian family, had figured out that he was a Hebrew. And daily he watched as the Egyptians tormented his enslaved people. One day he finally snapped and went after an Egyptian who he had seen abusing a Hebrew slave. There was no foresight. No consideration of how his actions would possibly benefit anyone. Sheer impulse. He killed the Egyptian and buried him in the sand. When word got out and Pharaoh got mad, Moses ran away.
So here is our hero hiding out, tending sheep, staying far away from the concerns of his people back in Egypt. I would say Moses has a cushy job, except that I have talked with people who tend sheep–so I know they are not always the most pleasant or cooperative of animals. Still, it’s a far cry from the brutal slave conditions being endured by the Hebrew people in Egypt.
And so our valiant hero comes upon the infamous burning bush. It’s on fire, but it’s not getting burned up. Now personally, I’m not sure I would have gotten close enough to the flames to figure that out. But our impulsive–we could call him courageous–hero notices the bush isn’t burning up and walks right up to the fire.
He is, needless to say, a bit taken aback when the fire calls him by name. “Moses” the bush says. Our hero looks around the vast pastures at the foot of mount Horeb. Funny. Not a very common name–Moses. And I don’t see anyone else around. Don’t recall naming any of the sheep “Moses.”
Oh, me? “Here I am.” Truth be told, God already knows exactly where Moses is and what he is about. It’s Moses who needs to figure out what God is doing. Does our hero have any idea what he is getting himself into with these words “Here I am”? Does he know he is offering himself to the almighty God? Or is he merely intending to clarify his location?
And God replies, “Well, yes indeed. There you are. Don’t come any closer. And take off your shoes if you please. This ground is holy.” Once again, Moses is rushing in where angels fear to tread. So excited about this talking, burning, not getting burned up bush that he is completely unaware of the situation. In Mid-Eastern culture, removing your shoes was a religious requirement. Apparently Moses has not yet registered that this is a sacred encounter.
Then the voice finally leaves no room for doubt: “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.” And then Moses hides his face. Now that he knows it is God, he is afraid even to look.
So there he is, shoeless, covering his face, listening to a burning bush out in the middle of nowhere waiting for God to say . . .what? How could Moses know what to expect? He is so unfamiliar with God that he doesn’t recognize God’s voice. But what God says to Moses reveals the nature of this God of Abraham and Sarah in profound ways.
First, the Lord tells Moses, “I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering.” This God is a God who proclaims identity in relationship with people–the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. And a God who continues to be in relationship. Intimate relationship.
I believe God still sees the misery of this world and hears the cries of those in bondage. God laments the many ways that we suffer and are enslaved today. People bound to oppressive, unfulfilling jobs. Those who continue to face the obstacles created by racism and sexism and homophobia. Those enslaved to addictions of all kinds. Those enslaved by fear amidst the violence of war.
And, sadly, there are still voices of literal slaves crying out from around the world—about 27 million of them, mostly women and children.1 We like to discuss slavery as a phenomenon of the past, but it is alive and well today.
God heard the cries of the abused Hebrews and he hears the cries of the Burmese boys who are slaves in Thailand. When a well-dressed Thai man came to the boys’ village in southern Burma, they were impressed. The man introduced the boys’ parents to a 14-year-old boy from their region who was also very well dressed and spoke fluent Thai. The man said, “Look how well this child from your region is doing. If you let me take your son back to Chiang Mai, I will do the same for him.” Of course many of the parents, themselves oppressed by extreme poverty, allowed their children to go with this man. But when they got to Chiang Mai, the boys were sold into sex bars and brothels.2
From the ancient Hebrews to the children in Thailand’s sex bars, God sees the people, hears the people and is concerned about the people. God is immanent. Present with suffering humanity in myriad ways–not the least of which, for our hero Moses, is this burning not being burned up bush.
Then God tells Moses, “I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey.” God is coming down. And God will rescue them from the clutches of a powerful nation. So this immanent God who is present with us is also above us and more powerful than us–is transcendent. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, of Sarah, Rebecca, Leah and Rachel, is a God grounded in the history of humanity–and yet beyond it.
What must our hero be thinking? “Well, finally. It’s about time somebody did something about this problem.” Ah. But perhaps Moses isn’t expecting this last little bit of God’s speech: “So now, go. I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt.” Just when he was getting comfortable with the sheep. Go? Our hero doesn’t want to go anywhere, thank you very much! He particularly doesn’t want to go to Pharaoh.
Moses has a thousand reasons to stay right there with the sheep, not the least of which is the fact that, as far as he knows, Pharaoh still wants him dead. But with or without a warrant hanging over our heads, speaking truth to power is hard. It’s not something most people do readily. It’s particularly not something people generally do when they are comfortable. Comfortable with their job, with their community. Comfortable with the fact that the real horrors are miles away, worlds away. None of our concern.
And so, in an attempt to get out of “going” anywhere, our hero asks, “Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” Now, those of you who teach probably tell your students that there are no stupid questions. And if you’ve been teaching for very long, you’ve probably heard a few questions that made you re-think your position. I propose that questions can be wrong. And this one is. “Who am I?”
But we still ask it over and over again. Who am I that I should lead in worship? Who am I that I should help the homeless? Who am I that I should speak out for peace? Who am I that I should speak up against the enslaving powers of our day?
And, truth be told, we probably want to hear what, just maybe, our hero Moses wanted to hear: Why, you’re Moses. You’re Joanna. You’re Fred. You’re Sally. You are beautiful and talented and–just between you and me–a lot smarter than most of the rest of them down there.
But alas, what we want to hear and what we do hear are two different things. God says, “I will be with you.” Notice how this doesn’t answer the question. Who is Moses? God will be with him. It is the presence of God that is important. Not the limitations of the person God calls.
Kru Nam is a Thai woman with a university degree in art. Not exactly the qualifications we would be looking for in a fearless crusader against child sex slavery. And she never intended to go up against Pharaoh. She just wanted to teach art. And it seemed like a good thing to her to reach out to children living on the streets of her city.
But when those children began painting disturbing pictures of the lives they had escaped–lives as slaves in the brothels that litter the city—she couldn’t help but go. She marched, unthinkingly, into a sex bar and walked up to boys one by one. “Let’s go. I’m taking you out of here.” And she walked out with six boys.3
I am confident that God was with Kru Nam, because owners do not take kindly to their “property” being escorted out the door. When raiding the bars became too dangerous, she and others began trying to get to the boys when they got off of the buses—before they were sold. She continues this liberating work today, living with about sixty boys and girls in temporary shelters on land she has purchased.
Even though Kru Nam did not have what we might consider the necessary experience or skills to take on the rampant problem of slavery in her city, she readily went when she sensed the call to go. She didn’t develop a strategic plan to address human suffering, she simply did the work God gave her to do.
Our hero Moses seems to need a little more convincing. He says to God, “Suppose the Israelites ask me, ‘What is this God’s name?’ What should I tell them?”
What’s going on here? Is our headstrong, overzealous hero stalling? Or does he really think the Israelites will demand to know the name of God before they walk away from slavery in Egypt? None of those boys seemed to care what Kru Nam’s name was when she led them out of their slavery.
But I suppose Moses’ question is a fair one. God knows his name, after all. So God obliges, sort of. God utters the divine name: I am/shall be what/who I am/shall be.
Grueling hours have been spent in the ensuing centuries trying to figure out what this Hebrew term means. But I think Bernard Robinson’s observation is key: that God’s response to Moses “may well have puzzled early readers as much as it does present day ones.” I will give you a name, God says, but not a name by which you can control or even comprehend me.
And so God does provide the divine name–but not quite. Or at least not the way we might like it to be given. My name is justice. My name is mercy. My name is compassion. No. I am who I am. I will be who I will be.
And Moses, you tell the Israelites “I AM has sent me to you.”
Our hero is, after all, part of the equation. He is called by God to participate in the saving work God plans to do among God’s people. And our hero will succeed. Despite his hot-headedness. Despite his reluctance. Despite any public speaking phobia or speech impediment he may have.
As Kru Nam is succeeding with her fearlessness and her art degree.
Moses will succeed because God–the God of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Leah–the God who is who God is and who will be who God will be–that holy, immanent, transcendent, confounding God–will be with him.
Who am I that I should free the oppressed people of our world? Who are you to confront the Pharaohs of our day?
We’re asking the wrong questions. We shouldn’t ask “Who am I?”. We simply need to realize that the One who goes with us is the great I AM.
1From iabolish.com, the web site of the American Anti-Slavery Group.
2Batstone, David. “Cry Freedom!” in Sojourners, March 2007, 17.