“Here I Am! Who Am I?”
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
In the book of Exodus, Pharaoh is more than one particular Egyptian ruler. Like Herod and Caesar in the gospels, he’s a metaphor for every proud and self-obsessed autocrat. In an effort to maintain his power, which such people constantly fear losing, Pharaoh orders the killing of as many young, Hebrew males as inhumanly possible.
During this holocaust, Pharaoh’s daughter goes to the river to bathe. She finds a Hebrew baby in a basket floating in the reeds. She picks him up and claims him as her own. Then she finds a Hebrew nursemaid, who “just happens” to be the baby’s mother. Pharaoh’s daughter doesn’t know this, but we do. And, so, the bond between the child and his true identity is set—for good.
One can imagine that growing up in Pharaoh’s home, Moses feels increasing tension between who he appears to be and who he feels like. In time, he chooses and commits to a particular identity. He picks up a brick and kills an Egyptian who is beating a Hebrew.
After that, the Egyptians want Moses dead, and the Hebrews want nothing to do with him. So, Moses flees to the Midianite wilderness, where he rescues Jethro’s daughters from some thugs who are trying to run the women away from a watering hole. This good deed lands Moses in Jethro’s good graces and in his family.
Then, years later:
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. 2There 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. 3Then Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.”
4When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!”
And [Moses] said, “Here I am.”
5Then [God] said, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” 6He said further, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.”
And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.
7Then the Lord said, “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, 8and 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, to the country of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. 9The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. 10So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.”
11But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?”
12[God] said, “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.”
13But Moses said to God, “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?”
14God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’“ 15God also said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you’: This is my name forever, and this my title for all generations.” (NRSV)
In the conversation, God says, Moses, I have seen my people in misery…Ihave heard their cries…I feel their sufferings…I am here to deliver them.
Then God says, Moses, you will go Egypt. You will face Pharaoh. You will deliver the Israelites.
(Do you hear the foreshadowing? A shepherd sees an odd light, hears a strange voice that announces deliverance, and tells him to go do something about it? In December we’ll return to that story.)
At first, Moses says, “Here I am.” Then, becoming overwhelmed, he asks, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh?”
Who am I? Maybe that’s modesty. Maybe it’s fear or a lack of confidence. Maybe it’s all of those things, but I have to imagine Moses asking that question as one who has struggled all of his life with who he is, where he belongs. He was born a Hebrew slave, raised as a privileged Egyptian, escaped as a murderer. And now he’s living as an ordinary husband, father, son-in-law, and shepherd.
“Here I am.” Then, Wait, who am I?
It’s revealing that when Moses asks what he should say when asked about who sent him to Egypt, God says to tell them, “I AM WHO I AM” sent you. While that may seem a deeply unsatisfying answer, as people of God, who we are and what we do declare our understanding of the essential being of God, the is-ness of God.
If we believe God is legalistic and vengeful, we will be legalistic and vengeful.
If we believe God is creative and loving, we will be creative and loving.
If we believe God is greedy and exclusive, we will be greedy and exclusive.
If we believe God advocates for the poor and the oppressed, we will advocate for the poor and the oppressed.
If we believe God requires violence and human suffering to be “satisfied,” we will inflict violence and suffering on others as an attempt to satisfy and please God.
If we believe God redeems human suffering by entering it, we will enter the lives of those who suffer and help to bear their burdens.
As people of faith, our understanding of who God is has everything to do with our understanding of who we are. And God knows who Moses is. God knows that Moses has no tolerance for injustice and no equivocation in confronting it. God knows Moses will act on behalf of those who are exploited because of their race or gender. Without even having a term for it yet, Moses already knows, sees, and lives toward God’s “promised land.” And isn’t that the very nature of faith? Living into a future we can’t see, while trusting that God is already holding us within it.
“And this shall be the sign…that it is I who sent you,” says God, “when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain.”
That’s a dangerous declaration by God. It can easily be misinterpreted as the horrific, Machiavellian fallacy of the ends justify the means. What we learn from the wider witness of scripture is that the means and the ends are intimately intertwined. The journey is the gift, and the means of the journey are essential to the outcome, even when the way ahead includes wandering the wilderness. To know God’s deliverance means to live each moment as if God’s promises were already fulfilled—even when fulfillment is so obviously incomplete.
For us as Christians, every Sunday is a celebration of Easter. The source and foundation of our faith is that God, through the power of the Holy Spirit, creates new life out of death, new hope out of despair, a new future out of a past riddled with bitterness and pain. And every journey from death to resurrection involves some kind of Exodus which begins with a call to which we often say, Here I am, then, Wait, who am I to do that? Saying Yes to God’s call means saying Yes to some kind of death on the way to resurrection. And following Jesus means dying to any image of God that makes us selfishly comfortable, any image of God that is vengeful, exclusive, or violent.
The stories of Moses and Jesus illustrate that God calls us to act on behalf of those who are crying out for help because they’re hungry, lonely, sick, or suffering beneath the oppressive systems of the world’s many Pharaohs and Caesars. And we are all, in one way or another, called to die to ourselves so that the Spirit might raise us into new ways of life, new self-understandings, new relationships, and new actions.
Think again about Moses: To lead the Hebrews out of Egypt, it takes someone who is familiar with the house of Israel and the house of Pharaoh, and who is sufficiently distant from both. It takes someone who has already journeyed through all manner of adversity. It takes someone who’s had a transforming experience of God. It takes someone with enough humility to say, I’ll need lots of help. It takes someone who is willing to learn to trust that I AM WHO I AM is sufficient grounds for taking up a daring journey. So, at God’s command, Moses dies a revitalizing death so that he, with the help of his brother, Aaron, might lead a protracted, two-person protest march against the systemic evils of Pharaoh’s Egypt. And as is always the case in human societies, when Pharaoh refuses to listen and to do justice, hispeople suffer.
One of the liturgical terms for the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper is The Feast of Victory; and the elements of this feast are symbols associated with Friday, the day of apparent defeat. The bread and the cup remind us that God is not satisfied or reconciled by Jesus’ death. Only human-imaged idols require revenge in order to love again. Friday is what we give God to work with. And God, being I AM WHO I AM from beginning to end, redeems Friday. On Friday, God transforms Jesus into another bush that burns without being consumed.
On Sunday, God declares that a new deliverance has begun.
On Sunday God announces, and calls us to share, that Pharaoh-defying, fear-defeating, Creation-transforming promise called Resurrection.