Last Sunday, Jesus asked his disciples two questions: “Who do people say that I am?” And “Who do you say that I am?” I invited you to reflect on those questions and am looking forward to hearing from some of you what you’ve thought as you’ve wrestled with them. In today’s reading from the Hebrew Bible, Moses asks God a question. At its heart, it’s a simple one: “Who are you, God?” But God’s answer is anything but simple and opens up to us an infinity of questions. In a few minutes I will invite you to follow Moses’ lead and ask questions of God. But first, let’s explore the text.
I haven’t drawn your attention to the readings from the Hebrew Bible in several weeks, not since we read snippets of the story of Isaac. I apologize for that because we passed over in silence some wonderful and dramatic stories—Jacob’s ladder, Jacob wrestling with the Angel, Joseph’s mistreatment at the hands of his brother and his eventual reunion with his family in Egypt. The lectionary also passed over a great deal—equally dramatic stories, but also some very uncomfortable and disturbing ones.
Today’s reading continues the story of Moses. Last week, we heard of his birth in the midst of Pharaoh’s threat to kill all Hebrew male children, his mother’s efforts to save him, and Pharaoh’s daughter’s rescue of Moses from the waters of the Nile. Again the lectionary omits an important detail in Moses’ overall biography. When Moses grew up, one day as he was walking, he saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew and he killed the Hebrew. When his actions became public, Moses fled from Egypt to Midian. There he helped Jethro’s daughters when they brought their flocks to a well for water. Jethro welcomed him into his home and Moses married Jethro’s daughter Zipporah.
Fast forward. Now it’s Moses who is responsible for herding Jethro’s sheep. Think about it. We’re not privy to the internal lives of most biblical characters. We rarely are told their emotions or what they might have been thinking. And such details were probably not in the forefront of the writers of these texts. Still, it’s worth reflecting on the enormous changes Moses had already seen in his life. Rescued at birth from a certain death, he grew up in the most powerful, wealthiest family in all of Egypt. Whatever motives he might have had when he attacked the Egyptian, we’re likely meant to think that he knew what he was doing, that he was angered by the Egyptian’s treatment of his fellow Hebrew. Having fled for his life, he is now working as a shepherd, married, living a nomadic life in the desert.
And as he’s going about his business, on a day like any other day, he has an encounter with God. He sees a burning bush; it’s strange because the fire doesn’t seem to destroy the bush but it keeps burning. So he goes to investigate. On one level, this encounter with the divine is a straightforward theophany, the scholarly term used for such experiences of the holy. There’s a strange event—the burning bush; the divine address to a human, and the human’s response of fear and humility. Moses took off his sandals and hid his face. There’s also the divine self-revelation. I am the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. In Hebrew scripture, such theophanies often include a call or commission, as this one does: God tells Moses to go back to Egypt and lead God’s people out, to this place, to worship God.
But Moses isn’t having it. As I’ve said before, these stories from Genesis and Exodus depict many of the leading characters in complex ways. They aren’t all good. That’s certainly the case with Moses, even from what little we know so far. After all, he did kill that Egyptian, so at the very least, he’s probably hotheaded, rash. But now we see another side of him. He’s not going to accept the task God has set out for him without some discussion or debate. He pushes back, saying to God, “That’s all well and good, God, but who should I tell them has sent me?”
Now, in Hebrew scripture, names are incredibly important. They aren’t random but reveal something essential about the person’s identity. Jacob, which was said to mean “heel” for example, was called that because he was grasping the heel of his brother when they came out of the womb. Later, he would be renamed Israel after wrestling with the angel, which was said to mean “he strives with God.”
So when Moses asks for God’s name, he is asking to know who God is, but knowing names also gave one some power over the one named. But God’s answer eludes Moses’ trap, and eludes our efforts to understand and control God as well. On one level, God’s response, “I am who I am” is the perfect comeback. It could mean, “Moses, don’t try to control me.” But the Hebrew could be translated in other ways, most significantly, in the future tense—“I will be who I will be.”
It doesn’t just prevent Moses from defining or confining God into categories he’s comfortable with. It’s declaring to Moses that if he wants to know who God is, he will have to spend time with God; he will have to experience God, walk with God. And over the course of his long life, Moses would do just that.
But it wasn’t just Moses. The same was true of other biblical figures—Abraham who God called out from his home. It was true of Jacob, who after wrestling with God was renamed Israel.
And it is true of people in the New Testament, not least the disciples, who Jesus called to follow him. We see that with Peter, who made his great confession of faith, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” And yet a few verses later, when he hears Jesus speaking about what will happen to him in Jerusalem, Peter rebukes him, refuses to believe that Jesus might suffer and die—and in response, Jesus calls him Satan. He, and the other disciples would learn what Jesus meant by his prediction only by following him. They would learn, only by following him, who Jesus was and what it meant to follow him, to take up their crosses.
We often think we need to figure everything out, to know what we believe, know who God is. But as I’ve said before, sometimes, the questions we ask are more important, more revealing of ourselves and of God. Scholars have pondered for centuries just what God’s answer to Moses means. Those few words have opened up infinite speculation and questions that would have remained unspoken if Moses hadn’t asked his question.
Moses asked God a question. Do you have questions about God? Any questions about or for God that you dare to ask?
Asking these questions, actually saying them out loud, opens us up to the possibility of deeper relationship with God. The God we encounter as we ask the questions is a more expansive, more exciting, more challenging God.
In addition to God’s answer to Moses, we learn something else about God in this reading. It’s something very important but often overlooked. God hears the cries of those who suffer. God responds to the oppressed.
In addition to Moses’ question, there’s another question that emerges from today’s readings. God called Moses to lead God’s people out of bondage. Jesus called his disciples to take up their crosses and follow him. Relationship with God, relationship with Jesus Christ is not just about being or knowing, it is also about being called. And so the second question we are posed today is, “Where is God calling us?” Our inclination may be, given what Moses did next, given what the disciples ended up doing, that being called by God means big things—becoming a prophet, a saint, a hero of the faith. But close reading of scripture reveals something else, that God uses ordinary people, like you and me, and that God often calls us in very small, ordinary ways. So where is God calling you?
Finally, remember that “God will be who God will be.” Among all the other things this means is that our deeper knowing of God, our deeper relationship with God, lies in the future, with all of its possibility and uncertainty. God is calling us all to new things, new adventures, and as we go, we will learn more deeply who God is and experience more deeply God’s love and grace.