Sunday Morning Worship – 8/31/08

“Holy Ground and Holy Questions”

Exodus 3:15

I suspect that quite a few of us did not come here today looking for the God of our fathers. That God is dated, stilted, too masculine, not “contemporary” enough, not personal enough, old-fashioned, moralistic and judgmental, hard to understand, blue-eyed and blond-haired.

I suspect some of us came here looking for some version of our fathers’ God. That God is known, loyal, comforting, trustworthy, and has been with your family for generations.

And I suspect some others of us came here today without fully knowing whom it is we seek. We may know only the gnawing sense that life is bigger than what we’ve been sold on TV. We may know only a hunger for something more…

The passage from Exodus begins with Moses tending flocks out “beyond the wilderness” (Ex. 3:1). Now I know there are many among us who know what the wilderness is like: desolate, barren, hot, endless, separated from normal life and community. There are wildernesses at UVA and if you haven’t stumbled out into one yet, you may sometime before you leave. Relationships, money management, figuring out a major – and then figuring it out several more times – break ups, break downs…College life has its share of the wilderness. Just plain life can contain a lot of wilderness scenarios.

But poor Moses has wandered out with his flock “beyond the wilderness.” What could this mean? We know that God works all kinds of miracles in the wilderness. Streams flow in the desert (Isa. 43: 19-20) and mothers like Hagar and their babies are protected and saved from certain death (Gen. 21). In biblical terminology, when we come across a scene set in the wilderness, we know we are in for the unexpected.

So what are we to expect when we go out beyond even the wilderness? What do we find there?

But we started off talking about the God of our fathers and I want to get back to that. Here’s Moses, who as a baby was orphaned in a basket on the river in Egypt, then rescued and adopted by Pharaoh’s daughter. He grew up in a strange house in a strange land without a father. Now he’s moved to another land, married, and is tending his father-in-law’s flocks. A man without home, family, or God suddenly finds himself out beyond the wilderness with someone else’s father’s sheep, confronted by a burning bush and a voice claiming to be the God of his father.

He says to himself, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up” (v.3). The moment he turns aside God sees this and calls out his name: “Moses, Moses!” Moses immediately responds, “Here I am” (v.4).

Remember this initial interaction between Moses and God because we’ll come back to it.

Directly after Moses present himself to God, God points out that he’s now on holy ground and must remove his sandals. Then God says, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” (v.6).

Next God explains what Moses is to do. God’s been watching and listening and understanding the misery of the Hebrew people enslaved in Egypt and will send Moses to bring the people out and into the promised land. Moses listens – or at least we think he does – he doesn’t interrupt God during this lengthy explanation of the Israelites’ plight and Moses’ new mission, should he choose to accept it.

But, the minute God stops talking Moses pipes up. He tells God he’s really not the man for the job, I mean, he says, What do I tell them when they ask who you are? (v.13).

And God says to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM…tell them I AM has sent me to you…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 is my title for all generations” (vv. 14-17).

What’s interesting about the name God gives is that the Hebrew is a verb form. It can also be translated as “I WILL BE WHO I WILL BE” (New Interpreter’s Bible, p.90). The name God gives as God’s own – the name meant to answer the potential questions of the Israelites when Moses gets to Egypt – this very name poses further questions… God will be what? (New Interpreter’s Study Bible, p.90).

This is no simple name. This is not a name like either of father-in-the-faith Jacob’s names, for example. Twice in his life Jacob gets named for his actions in an event. At his birth he and his twin Esau fight to be the first out of their mother’s womb. The story goes that Jacob pushes his way out first though it had seemed initially that Esau was going to win that contest. So Jacob was named “Jacob,” meaning “he supplants.” Later in Jacob’s life he wrestles again, this time with God, and comes out with a limp and the name “Israel,” meaning “the one who strives with God.”

But this name of God’s – I AM WHO I AM…I WILL BE WHO I WILL BE – this is not a name that wraps this up and satisfies our curiosity. This is not a name or a God whose meaning can be discerned through reflection on or study of the name itself. No, this is a name that only becomes meaningful through further revelation by and relationship with the One who bears the name. This is a God who only begins to become understandable through ongoing revelation and relationship (New Interpreter’s Study Bible, p. 91).

A lot of us like satisfying, sensible answers – answers that make sense of the questions we ask, answers we can repeat when someone else asks us the same thing.

Fortunately, God doesn’t usually give us what we want, but rather, what we need – what we are created for. Often this means another question or more for us to question.

Whether this is your first visit to the Wesley community or you’ve been here on the block a long while, know that Wesley Memorial and the Wesley Foundation are places for the unraveling of questions and the unfolding of answers. God has hallowed – made holy – this place where we find ourselves and God keeps meeting us here in the midst of all our wildernesses — college, loneliness, broken marriages, torn relationships, financial poverty, poverty of spirit.

The God of our Hebrew and Christian and family fathers and mothers is the One who meets us right where we are – and calls us out beyond the wilderness and into fullness of life. It can be a scary call, a crazy-sounding call, and it might seem like someone called the wrong number. But that call is persistent.

You know, Moses is often described as stubborn. Our passage today ends with just the 15th verse of chapter 3 in Exodus. By the time Moses finally accepts this call from God, it will be halfway through chapter 4. I can see why folks want to call him stubborn. He’s certainly trying to get out of this assignment. In the rest of the story he puts up excuse after excuse. What if they don’t listen to me? …I’m not a great speaker…Please send someone else…until finally he has run out of excuses. I can certainly see the “stubborn” label sticking.

But I have to say I disagree. I don’t think that’s what happens in this story at all. In fact, I think the whole rest of Moses’ call story – way out beyond the wilderness and beyond the section of scripture we just read – the whole story must be read in light of verses 3 and 4. Remember that initial interaction between Moses and God? This is when Moses first sees the bush, God calls out his name, and Moses days, “Here I am.”

It’s a split second reaction – Here I am! – and it’s the right one in response to hearing your name on God’s lips.

Moses isn’t stubborn or evasive. He gives the right, appropriate, brave, simple answer upfront. It’s the rest of the passage (and beyond) that tries to recapture this relationship between God and Moses, which is borne of God’s grace and Moses’ attention and immediate offering of self. Moses isn’t stubborn; he’s smart. He knows how serious God’s call is and he knows immediately and intuitively that the call is a threat to his very life (New Interpreter’s Study Bible, p. 91).

This kind of call changes everything from here on out. This kind of call requires the response of your whole being. Answering this kind of call isn’t something that can be squeezed in between soccer practice and making dinner, between the gym and chemistry class. This kind of call is the terrifying invitation and gift of God to more fully realize who you are created to be.

Moses’ gut reaction is better than anything else he comes up with later. We’re made for this type of relationship with God and – before he gets scared – Moses knows this and answers from this deep knowing. Here I am. Not just Over here but Right here, reporting for duty!

He realizes as soon as the words are out of his mouth, of course, that he doesn’t want to do this and is afraid to know this God of his fathers whom he doesn’t yet know. And the rest of the story is a continuing negotiation between Moses and God to get back to that moment that came fast and without thought: Moses! Here I am.

If you haven’t yet had a moment with God like this one, let me assure you that you will. The hillsides are ablaze with burning bushes and God awaits your turning aside.

Whether you’ve come here — to UVA, to Wesley Mem, to this one worship service — ready to distance yourself from the God of your family and your past or whether that’s just who you’ve come to meet, know that the god of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Rachel, and Moses and Zipporah is our God and WILL BE WHAT GOD WILL BE.

God is not static, trapped in the wilderness or in the Bible. The God we worship has a long, faithful history with our people and that’s something we can count on. We can also count on continuing to discover more than we thought or knew or believed about God.

Take off your shoes! We are on holy ground and it’s a place where God’s name brings more questions and God’s presence upsets the status quo. GOD WILL BE WHAT GOD WILL BE.

Feel the desert sand between your toes!

Turn aside and catch a glimpse of that bush. Listen out for your name.

God is not calling you to a definition of God. God is calling you out beyond yourself as you know yourself now and even beyond whom you know God to be. God is calling you to relationship with God beyond who you think your parents’ God is. God is calling you beyond the dark night of the wilderness and deeper into the questions.

God who called Moses…whispered in the ears of Mary and lived and breathed in Jesus Christ.

God who called Moses…has been the God of our ancestors and WILL BE our God, beyond the wilderness and beyond time, beyond all our beyonds.

Thanks be to God!

© Deborah E. Lewis 2008

Weekly Meeting Schedule
  • Sunday
    • 11:00 Morning Worship at Wesley Memorial UMC (next door)
    • 5:00 Sunday Night Worship
  • Tuesday
    • 6:00 Tuesday Night Dinner
    • 6:45 Forum — Discussion/speaker on a variety of faith topics and student life.
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