Are You Kidding Me?
By The Rev. Dr. Andrew Stirling
Sunday, November 22, 2020
Reading: Exodus 4:1-13
So often we define ourselves by what we do. People will often ask when they meet you for the first time what do you do. Then you seek to find a way of explaining your career or profession, or whatever events that happen to shape your life, that are important to you. We define ourselves by what we do. We forget to define ourselves not by what we do, but by who we are.
Two recent events brought this very much to mind. One of them was when I was asked to write a reference for a ministerial colleague, who was looking to go to another church. There was a form outlining the questions you normally ask. As I wrote it, I realised that I didn’t focus on the curriculum vitae of the person, I didn’t talk much about the various churches or places or functions that this person had been in, I didn’t talk in those kind of structural and functional terms about the individual. I found myself writing about his character, about the type of person that he is, because I thought, people can look up your CV and see where you are and what you have done, but for someone to tell you the type of person they are seemed much more important, and I found it more rewarding to talk about that person on the basis of who they are, rather than what they had done.
Likewise, I was thinking about a eulogy that I heard some time ago that listed all the things that the person had done, it was like a repetition of the obituary. All the places that they had travelled to, all the jobs and functions that they had performed, all the awards that they had received. A glorious CV, but I realised a eulogy is not an accounting of all the things a person has done, but really should be the personal remarks of the person giving it honouring the deceased as a person. That’s when a eulogy becomes powerful. It’s not just an accounting of what a person has done or accomplished, it’s who they are that really matters, and those are the personal remarks and tributes that have a lasting impact.
In today’s passage we have an incredible encounter between God and Moses. It starts off in chapter three, where God calls Moses out of the famous burning bush. God says to Moses, “I have seen the suffering of my people in Egypt. I have heard their cry for help, and I am going to liberate them.” He talks about how he will send the people to a new land, “full of milk and honey” (that’s where that great phrase comes from) and then he turns to Moses and says, “I am sending you to the pharaoh.”
This was an incredible moment of indecision for Moses. It was a brilliant encounter between God and someone with great concerns about his ability to carry out his assigned role. As I’ve gone through this passage, I have read what I call four and a half excuses that Moses gave. I say four and a half, because one of them sort of blends into another. Some scholars have said there were five, some said there were four. I'm going with four and a half, and you’ll see why in a moment. In this encounter, we have a person who is frightened, feeling insecure and wondering whether he can do what God is calling him to do. He’s looked at the things he has done, his abilities, and successes, and questions God. In this questioning is a powerful statement about who we really are, and who Moses really was.
The first of these excuses goes right to the heart of things and he says to God, “Who am I?” In other words, what credentials do I possess to be able to do these marvellous things: To go to the pharaoh, set the people free, speak on their behalf? He looks at what is the inevitability of a needed exodus, of getting the people out of Egypt. He looks at himself and wonders, who am I to do this? He is full of self-doubt, and fear. He’s questioning “God, are you kidding me? You want me to go to the pharaoh?” Moses was defining himself based on the things that he had done, and not on what God wanted him to do.
I think many of us feel the same way at the moment. Many people are questioning themselves and saying, “who am I?” in the midst of this pandemic. I think a lot of the anxiety that people are faced with, is because they often can't do the things that they normally do. Because of that they are questioning their very existence.
It’s even in the realm of pleasure. We define ourselves, do we not, by the vacations we have, by the travel, and places that we see. We define ourselves by the joys that we have in our lives, the meals, the movies we see, the ballets and the operas we attend. We define ourselves by the circle of people around us, who affirm us and tell us that we’re important, and by the ability to buy things and then show others what we have. Those are often the things that define us, and when those things are taken away, people become anxious and they question who they are. Maybe we’ve been living in a society that, to be quite honest with you, has been somewhat spoiled in all of those things. We assume that they are now our right and when we don’t get them, we have an existential crisis. If I can't do these things – notice the language – then who am I?
It’s the same in more serious realms of work. A lot of people define themselves by what they do, but what happens when you can't do what you normally do? What happens when you're a waiter, for example, in a restaurant, or a waitress, and the restaurant closes? What happens if you're in a business that folds? What happens if you own a business and that business fails? What happens if you are unemployed because the product that you have been selling is no longer needed in the current market?
We’re being told by economists that this is called a “K-curve”. What’s happening is, the rich are getting richer, and the poor are getting poorer. Those that are getting poorer, that do not have assets to begin with, are really feeling down and out and questioning, who they are. But look at what God said to Moses. God did not say to Moses, “now look here, Moses, you're a fine chap, you know, you're a wonderful person, you have great gifts, you have great abilities, come on, Moses, buck up man, I'm telling you, you've got a lot going for you.” No. Did he lay out a road map for Moses saying, “Once you go to the pharaoh, then all of this is going to transpire?” No. What God said to Moses is, “I will be with you.” Pure and simple, full stop, nothing more.
Moses had been wrapped up in wondering, who am I, but he had forgotten that it is God who called him, that it was not his credentials that made him wonderful, but it was the promise of divine presence and divine guidance that gave power to Moses. Moses wasn’t satisfied with that, though. He says, “By whose authority do I embark upon this mission?” In other words, God, who are you, that you would give this mission to me? Don’t you know that it’s dangerous? Don’t you know that nobody wants to go and speak directly to the pharaoh? Don’t you know that this is a problematic call? So, what authority do you have? What power do you have to be able to do this?
God answers in a most peculiar manner. He says to him, “I am who I am.” God does not define himself, but simply states – and it’s complicated, even in the Hebrew – “I am who I am. By that, he is implying that he exists before anything had to be done, God exists after everything that is to be done, before the world even began. I am. I am not defined simply by the flow of history. “I am who I am.” I am there as the creative one. I am the one who is Yahweh, to be, as well as being present.
There’s a moment in Jesus’ ministry, according to John’s Gospel, where Jesus makes a very similar statement about himself. It’s one of those great passages where you realise that Jesus is very much the second person of the Trinity, very much one with the Godhead. He says, “before Abraham was, I am.” I exist even before Abraham. So, God precedes even the history of the people of Israel. God precedes even Abraham. Moses would have known that “I am who I am” is a powerful statement, not to be questioned, or defined. A God whose story needs to be told and retold and retold again. God did not need to give Moses his curriculum vitae. “I am who I am.” Enough said, Moses, carry on with the mission.
But Moses isn't satisfied, and here he throws another curve at God. “What happens if the people don’t listen to me, God? What happens if they don’t hear my voice? What happens if I speak and they don’t listen? What happens if I try to get them as a collective to come together with me, and they don’t respond, or they don’t recognise my authority?” Here God gets really strong with Moses. God reminds him that he is the power behind his ministry, and Moses is to call and recruit others. It’s not all about Moses, it’s about Moses recruiting and engaging the people.
God says, “I’ll give you the means to do that. I will show you miraculous things that you will be able to do as a sign of the authority of the I am. You don’t need to worry about this. See, the staff in your hand? I’ll turn it into a snake, and grab the snake, and it’ll turn back again into the staff. I will take a leprous hand and put it under your coat, and when you pull it back out again, it will be clean. Even the water from the Nile – and that’s significant, because of Egypt – will turn to blood. I will do wondrous things for you. You must trust me.
Indeed, God does remarkable things with Moses and with the people, but at this moment, when God is calling Moses, Moses needed to learn to trust God, and that it’s not all about him. It’s about him working with the people.
Is that not always the case? It’s not always about ourselves. I was reading a wonderful piece by Alexander Solzhenitsyn called, Under The Rubble, in which he said this about the collective struggle for freedom:
“If we wait for history to present us with freedom and other precious gifts, we risk waiting in vain. History is us, and there is no alternative but to shoulder the burden of what we so passionately desire, and bear it out of the depths”
History is about us. It was not just about Moses and his history. It was about Moses and the people of God whom God would call. Moses was not in it alone.
I think often, we wonder, especially right now when we can't often meet in person with the people that we love, who we are, what are we doing, and what value we have, and we get down on ourselves and question whether we can actually do the things that we need to do. But we don’t do them alone, even though we might feel we’re alone, we’re very much part of a greater community. What we do, even as alone and isolated beings, we do for the greater good and for the freedom and health of the world.
We might be like Moses and wonder who is around us to help, but God says, “Don’t worry, I’ve called those people and they will do as I ask.”
Lastly, and this is the four and a half bit, Moses says, “I am not a good choice so send someone else. “I don’t have the words to say.” Moses was not articulate, or a powerful orator, and he wondered if he could be convincing with his speech to the people that God is calling to go to the pharaoh, and for them to respond appropriately when needed, to redeem and save them. So he asks God to send someone else.
At this point it’s God who’s saying, “Are you kidding Me?” If I told you to do these things, I would give you the words to say. But okay, because you're feeling uncertain, I am going to appoint somebody else, and his name is Aaron. Now, Aaron represents something powerful in the Bible. He represents what is known as the priestly tradition, where Moses represents the prophetic tradition. The church and the ministry of the people of God has always been prophetic and priestly. It has always prophetic to proclaim the Word of God, to get people to change, to be a voice for the voiceless, and to speak a word of liberation, which Moses did. But we’ve also been a worshipping people, a people that glorify God, a holy people, honestly seeking together, to be faithful in praising our Maker. If we’re only prophetic, then we become a social movement and nothing more. If we are only a priestly one, we become irrelevant for the culture in which we live.
So, God, by bringing Aaron into the circle of Moses, was a powerful statement about the prophetic and the priestly. It’s also a statement to Moses, that when Moses was questioning himself, God speaks to Moses loud and clear saying these exact words from the text in verse eleven:
"Then the Lord said to him, who gives speech to mortals? Who makes them mute or deaf, seeing or blind? Is it not I, the Lord? Now go, and I will be with your mouth and teach you what you are to speak."
God was reminding Moses again that it’s not about him, it’s about God giving him the ability to speak, to convey the Word of God, to set the people free.
So, here is Moses, saying, who am I? What is your authority? How will I change the people? Can't you get somebody else? But God was saying to Moses something powerful, because every single time he reminds him, “I am with you, I am who I am, I have called the people, I will give you Aaron, I will give you the words to speak.” When Moses was questioning himself, God was reminding him that he was a child of God first.
In former minister from here many years ago, David McLellan’s book, Preaching The Good News, he tells the story of a man called AJ Cronin, in a book Keys To The Kingdom. In this book is a story of an encounter between a priest and a doctor in China during an epidemic. Many people were dying and the doctor said to the priest, in the midst of the deaths, and in his inability to be able to do things, “I still do not believe in your God.”
And the priest replied to him, “No, but my God believes in you. My God can still call you to do great things.” This is what we need to know right now. Amen.