January 31, 2016 Exodus 3:1-3, 7-15
Rev. Dr. Andrew Purves
Names mean something, don’t they? They are not just casual designations. Names are personal identifiers. A winsome example of what I mean was in an email our daughter sent from the first day of her honeymoon. It was a long, happy email, full of chat. And then it was signed simply “Mrs. Fisher.” Laura was claiming her married name as a statement of her new identity. I know men mostly don’t change their names when they get married, and some women don’t as well. But the point is clear I think. For Laura, her new name signified a new identity and it declared something now fundamental about how and who she thought of herself.
This morning I want us to think about the name of God. God, at least when we take our direction from the Bible, reveals himself through the giving of the divine name. Thus it is not we who define or name God to suit our preconceived notions of divinity. And most certainly it is not we who define God in terms of our political or emotional needs, as is often done today, from rank politicians who invoke God to their own desires for power to prosperity preachers like Joel Osteen. No: God defines God, on God’s terms, and one way God does that is through the giving of the divine name.
I take as my text the most basic and important text in the Old Testament concerning God, which has its climax at Exodus 3:14 with the giving of the divine name. There is a proper theological sense in which the whole Bible revolves around this text. God has appeared to Moses through the angel’s appearance from the burning bush. Then God himself called to Moses from out of the bush. “Moses, Moses.” And Moses responded, “Here I am.” God tells Moses to come no closer, to remove his sandals, for he is standing on holy ground. The ground is not holy by intrinsic property. The ground is holy because God has come near. And that is a fundamental aspect of the Old Testament theology of God: God is the Holy One who draws near. And when the Holy One of Israel draws near, watch out, for this God is dangerous. This God is a holy God. This is not some tame divinity come to make us feel good. This is Yahweh Sabbaoth, the Lord of Hosts,
the commander of the heavenly army. This is God, the Ancient of Days. The God who appears before Moses in the desert is the Lord of creation, the God who makes covenants, the God before whose presence one quakes. God is LORD.
God immediately begins to declare himself. “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And Moses then hid his face for he was, very rightly, afraid to look at the face of God. The God of the Moses tradition in the Old Testament is a God of the desert, a God on the move, a God not domiciled in temple or church, a God of fierce justice and compassion, a God of demanding loyalties, a God whom one treats with the greatest of care, or else.
God, appearing to Moses, now reveals himself as the God of the past, the God of Moses’ ancestors, the God of history, the God who has acted to begin to forge God’s election of Israel to be God’s covenant partner. Thus the divine declaration reveals a God who is Lord of the past, Lord of history.
As people we have pasts. When I look back through the years I see the hand of God when at the time my sense of God’s claim upon my life may have been dim indeed. I see how God was working his purpose out for my life, when it often felt merely as though day was following day, and year was following year. Only with long hindsight do I see the pattern. Thus God reveals to Moses that the past is not accidental or incidental. Through the long past, with its confusions and mistakes, its dark as well as bright days, God was at hand, most likely in hidden and quiet ways, directing our lives both personally and as peoples.
As a congregation we too have a God-guided past. When you look back at your common life, do you see the hand of God at work in the history of this congregation? There is no reason to think that today and tomorrow will be any different, for the hand of God will be upon you tomorrow, as it was in the past, even when that divine hand seems to hold us with too light a touch.
Then the Lord says to Moses that he has seen the suffering of his people. In a remarkable statement at Exodus 3: 7 God says, “I know their sufferings.” The word used of God knowing, here, is the same word in Hebrew used to describe intimacy between a husband and wife. It is knowledge of, not just knowledge about. It is knowledge that is taken in deeply. It is not neutral knowledge. It is knowledge of a profoundly personal nature, knowledge that changes us such that we are never quite the same again. Thus God is telling Moses that he knows the pain of his people in a deep, intimate way, a way the affects God, indeed, dare we say, a way that changes God. God has taken the pain of the people to heart. Any notion of a dispassionate, nonsuffering, unchangeable deity in perfect, sublime isolation is here totally discounted in view of the God who knows the people’s suffering intimately.
To repeat, because this is so important: God is here revealed not as a distant, mute deity, uninvolved in the messiness of life, a deistically construed deity, perhaps. Rather, God is revealed in personal and relational terms as a God involved in and affected by the messiness of human life and history. This is the God who draws near, ultimately so near as to become human flesh and nature as the man Jesus, and to die as we do. Here, at the burning bush, the whole incarnation unto the sufferings and death of Jesus are prefigured. God is the kind of God who is very near to and is intimately related to and involved in our human suffering.
God then tells Moses of the divine plan for the people’s liberation from slavery. “I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians,” God declares. Think on these words: “I have come down…” God acts. And not just in the past. Here we have the promise of God to act in the present as a living God, a God known in the present tense.
The assumption is rightly made when we can go on to say that God – and as Christians we can be specific – that God, as the man Jesus, in the presence of the Holy Spirit, is with us and among us, here, today, in this room, at this time. God with us: that is the God of the Bible. And God is with us as God for us, today, now, here.
And this God has plans for us. But let us be guided by the Moses story. God tells Moses that he will send him to Pharaoh to demand the freedom of God’s people. Imagine Moses’ response: stutteringly, “who, mmmmmee?” “God, whoever you are, you have to kidding.” So God and Moses argue back and forward a bit. Eventually Moses stops playing the dope and gets to the nub of the issue. I cite the text directly: “But 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?”
This is the climax. Who is God? Who is this God? In whose name do you come? In whose name do you preach? In whose name do you act? In whose name will you invest your hopes, in life and in death? Given all the use of the word ‘God’ in our politics and culture, we do well to ask these questions. We do very well to be suspicious of the over use of appeal to God. What is the name of your God? For many say ‘Lord, Lord,’ but the Lord does not know them.
“God 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.” This surely is one of the most central verses in the whole Bible. This word marks a revolution in human experience. For this is the first time that God names God. God is not our invention. God is God, who names himself. Or to put that differently, God is not God, in the sense of a generalized or tribal or national divinity. God is the consonants YHWH (transliterated from Hebrew), or, we pronounce that, YAHWEH.
Now, what’s in a name? We have to pick this apart a bit to understand what’s going on. First, our translation “I AM WHO I AM,” is in a tense in Hebrew grammar – the hiphel tense – which acts as the causative tense of the Hebrew verb, ‘to be.’ The better translation, then, is “I AM WHO CAUSES TO BE WHAT I CAUSE TO BE.” Allow me a slightly academic point: the translation I AM WHO I AM has something of static Greek thinking to it. It is the language of Being as a noun, not a verb. The God of Moses God is more to be thought of as causing than being. God is not static. Rather, I AM WHO CAUSES TO BE WHAT I CAUSE TO BE means that in Hebrew thinking God’s name is verbal. Or to put that differently, in the giving of the divine name God is revealed as an acting God, a God involved in the creation of the future. Are you with me? God reveals God’s name as the God who acts not just in the past, acts not just in the present, but preeminently acts in the future. Modern theologians speak of God with future as his mode of being. Transcendence here is not so much vertical, up and down, as horizontal, oriented to the future, to the God who is characterized as the maker and keeper of promises. God is named as the God who goes ahead of us, pulling us, as it were, to God’s future for us. Thus the God revealed to Moses is the God not just behind the people, or God with the people, but also as God ahead of the people, pulling them, as it were, to God’s new future for them.
God has been with you. God is with you. God will be with you as God works within and among you to do a new thing and give you a new future. That’s what’s in a name. Drawing this to a conclusion, the application is evident I trust. The exciting questions are these. What is God’s future for BUPC? What new thing does God have for you? As for now, most likely, that future is hidden from you. But to think for one moment that God is no longer the God of your future is to abandon the God of the Bible. For Cathy and me it is similar. We are in our personal time of transition and who knows what’s ahead. No, that’s wrongly put. God knows what’s ahead for us. Our job is prayerfully to discern the divine call into the new future that God is preparing for us and get in on that. Isn’t that exciting for you, as it is for Cathy and me? It means we are sharers in God’s adventure within history, partakers in God’s divine mischief.
“I AM WHO CAUSES TO BE WHAT I CAUSE TO BE.’ Our job in faith is to travel towards the God who is not just past and present for us, but who is also future for us. It is as such that Christians as well as well as Jews are rightly an exodus people, a people on the move towards the new thing that God is preparing for us. Let us be on the journey wherever it is that God takes us.