“Hello, My Name is ‘I Am’”
By Rev. Dr. Jason Byassee
Sunday, January 22, 2023
Reading: Exodus 3:1-15
Think with me for a moment about your name. What does your name tell others about you?
It’s commonly observed that western names don’t tell a story. We pick them because we like the sound of them, or because they’re in our family. My name, Jason, was popular because of some movie in the early 70s, like Jennifer was at the same time, like Madison in the 90s, but it has no deeper meaning. Asian names often mean something though. Happy Lunar New Year. Indigenous names too. My Ghanaian friends can tell what day of the week each other were born from their names. But I was struck asking folks in my Tuesday Bible study about their names. Their names didn’t mean nothing. This name came from this favourite aunt. That name was popular in that decade, not so much now. There was information there, it just wasn’t a story, as in many Asian or African or indigenous names.
Now tell me, what’s God’s name? What does that name tell us?
The story you just heard is so important it’s tempting to just read it and sit down. Think of the phrases and images that sear into our imagination. The bush on fire not consumed. Taking off one’s shoes. I am that I am. To try and talk about them is almost necessarily to desecrate them. So here goes nothing.
Moses has settled into a new life after fleeing from Egypt. He has married the daughter of a priest of Midian, a different race and religion than the Israelites’. He’s a shepherd and has been for 40 years, a whole generation. And there’s no sign he’s even thinking about his Israelite brethren back in slavery. He’s not even looking for God. It’s just a normal ordinary workday, which makes you wonder what might happen to us on any old ordinary workday.
Moses is doing whatever shepherds do all day. And he looks. And sees. The text goes on about: Moses’ attentiveness, his curiosity. Listen for all the words about looking in verse 4: “I must turn aside and look at this great sight and see why the bush is not burned up.” Now, it’s really not all that great a sight. Things burn in the desert. And it’s just a little shrub, not even a tree. This isn’t exactly the parting of the Red Sea. It’s a modest little miracle. The rabbis say Moses’ attentiveness is the story. If Moses hadn’t turned, and looked, and seen, it’d have never happened—no burning bush, no liberation from slavery. In fact, some say, nature is always on fire with God. We just don’t notice. You can see below Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s reflections on this:
Earth's crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God,
But only he who sees takes off his shoes;
The rest sit round and pluck blackberries.
Another rabbi suggests that every single blade of grass has an angel stooped beside it saying: “Grow! Grow!” If we all noticed the glory in every created thing all the time, we’d look like idiots, and never get anything done. Staring at blades of grass and common shrubs. And that’s not even to mention people. Thomas Merton once had an experience like Moses. He even gives the address.
In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all these people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation . . . .
This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud. . . . I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. . . If only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.
Peoples’ faces are godlike. If only we all noticed that.
So, Moses sees creation correctly and he hears a voice, he says, “Here I am,” he takes off his shoes, and comes no closer. The fire is significant. Fire is often an image for God. Fire is beautiful, mesmerizing, if I get around fire I’m just done, I’ll stare at it for hours. Fire is life: heat and cooking and warmth. People put images of their gods or ancestors on the hearth, they tell stories that matter around the fire. Fire is also death if you’re not careful. Perfect image for God. The bush, burning but not destroyed, reminds us of the church. Modest, humble, alight with God, not consumed. The Presbyterian Church in Canada has this as its motto: “yet it was not destroyed.” Christians have long seen in the burning bush an image for the Virgin Mary. I thought this was nuts when I first heard it, so be patient: just like the bush is filled with the fiery presence of God but not destroyed, so too is Mary filled with the fiery presence of God but not destroyed.
Taking off shoes. Like a guest in a home on the Canadian prairie. We all tend to wear uncomfortable shoes to church. I’m amazed at the footwear especially that women wear, they look like torture devices to me. Jaylynn made me finally get a decent pair of dress shoes now that I have a grownup job here. Our shoes tell us something about ourselves, often economic data. And in God’s presence they can come off. No socio-economic markers, just bare feet. Here’s what else: in the Garden of Eden Adam and Eve try pitifully to cover themselves with fig leaves. God takes pity and makes them animal skins. That requires the killing of an animal. Moses’ sandals are animal skins, so he has to take them off. No death in God’s presence. Just life. There’s a reason we feel so good when we take our shoes off at the beach, in green grass. We’re like Moses’ in God’s presence whether we know it or not.
Moses hides his face. It’s interesting God doesn’t tell him to, Moses just does it. I find when I pray I often use the same gesture—face hidden. Our face is who we are. It’s as personal as our name. Whole philosophies have been written about the human face—Emmanuel Levinas, great Jewish philosopher for example. Though he covers his face now, later Moses will speak to God face to face, as one speaks to a friend. In fact when Moses comes down Mount Sinai from talking with God, his face will still be glowing, so bright they have to cover it or no one could bear his presence. The thing we all long for whether we know it or not, is to see God’s face. When someone dies that’s my prayer for them, that they’ll see God’s face. My favourite line from all the Christmas hymns we sang recently is this: “and the babe, the world’s redeemer, first revealed his sacred face.” God is always personable. And then God is a person. Born of Mary. With a face like ours. Only infinitely more beautiful. God show us your face. And give us new faces.
Now for all this mysticism I’ve thrown at you this morning, God’s appearance is very much this worldly. God might have let the Israelites suffer in slavery 400 years, but now God is in a hurry. “I have observed.” “I have heard their cry.” “I know their sufferings.” “I have come down.” I, I, I, I. When we look for God or imagine God or see God in nature or in others, that’s sort of about our interior space. Not in this story. This is about God summoning Moses. God has plans Moses isn’t even considering. We might even fault Moses for forgetting about his fellow Israelites in bondage. God hasn’t forgotten. God has heard. And God will act. This is how we know it’s God we’re talking about and not our own imagining. God works to set people free.
Christian faith differs from other religions. Our Jewish and Muslim cousins are like us in this respect. In our faith God reveals who God is. We don’t dig deep down to find out what God is like. Nope. God tears into history and tells us. Hey, I’m this way. We listen, learn, and obey. We call it revelation. For faith we don’t start gazing at our navel or talking about our baggage with our mother. Nope. We listen. God speaks. And the world changes. There’s a ten-cent word to describe stories like this. It’s a theophany. Theos for God. Phaneo for manifestation. God is showing us who God is. We’re not at a tragic lack of information about God. No, God has shared God’s identity. I like Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ description of Judaism: the only God there is intervenes in history personally to free slaves. There’s more. The land God promises flows with milk and honey. That stuff is normally hard to get—requiring animal husbandry and beekeeping. If our world flows with creeks and rivers, rainwater and runoff, the promised land gushes with milk, without the pre-dawn milking. Honey is the only food product that doesn’t spoil. Pull it out of an ancient Egyptian tomb and you could drink the stuff. It’s not just sweet. It’s eternal. And this eternal nectar will be as common as raindrops and tears. From the lash to honey. That’s God’s way. And that will be God’s way for every oppressed people. God forgets none. North Koreans. Uighurs. The poor of Latin America heading north. The oppressed of the Middle East and north Africa on boats. Indigenous children in residential schools until recently here. Not an oppressed cry goes by on this planet that God doesn’t hear. Including from us. Everything that hurts y’all, it’s only there for God to heal it.
So, God says, all right, off you go. But Moses has some questions. When God first appeared, Moses said, “here I am.” Now Moses says, “who am I… that I should go to Pharaoh?” Eight different ways Moses objects to God’s calling. God is so very patient, fielding all our objections, hesitations. God even relents, gives and takes, changes the plan a little. One objection is this: so . . . who’s sending me? When they ask who God is, what do I say? This is so much more interesting a question than whether someone believes in God. What sort of God does someone believe in? Moses was curious with the burning bush, turning aside to see. Now he's curious with God. So, hook me up God. What’s your name?
God says, “Tell them ‘I AM’ sent you.” Now we’re in deep waters. What’s this about? Another faithful translation of the Hebrew is: “I will be who I will be.” Not very revelatory in one way. Israel’s neighbours had proper names for their gods: Marduk and Rah and Zeus. This God says: I Am. We’re left waiting for the end of the sentence. You are… what? One way we’ve tried to understand this is that God is not just another being, like a frisbee or a great horned frog or a table. God is the source of being. You and I have existence, for just a little while. God is existence. Another way is this. Your and my life is contingent. We receive it as a gift. We give it back at our death. We have life only really briefly. God’s is the only life that is not contingent. Not received or given back. All God is life. But don’t let me fool you. Anyone who thinks they understand this I AM is mistaken. We worship and adore but we fail to comprehend.
Again, our Jewish elder siblings have some wisdom for us here. Another way God is named in the Bible is as Yahweh, or more properly, YHWH. No vowels. Hebrew had no vowels originally, and when vowels developed, they wouldn’t put vowels in for God. You’re not supposed to say this name. You can’t in fact. Jewish friends won’t even use the word “God” in English. They’ll just say, “the name.” The name. Ha shem. This is holy ground. Take off your shoes. And don’t even pretend we can say God’s name. We Christians have something similar. We call God “Father” because Jesus does. Whatever Jesus calls God, we join in. But this Father is unlike any we know about. He’s not older than Jesus. Not more powerful. Not even male. But we trust it’s a good name. Because Jesus does. Friends, if you never felt you’ve understood God, good. You’re in good company. With Moses. And Jesus. And the rest of us.
This I Am has even more relevance for us Christians. In the gospel of Mark Jesus won’t say whether he’s Messiah. In fact, only the demons seem to know who he is, and he shushes them rudely. Until he’s on trial. And asked if he’s the Christ, Son of the Most High. He doesn’t say no. He doesn’t say yes. Do you know what he says? He says: “I Am.” Those are the words that get him killed. For identifying himself with God. It’s either blasphemy, or it’s true. In the Gospel of John, soldiers come to arrest him, and they ask if he’s Jesus of Nazareth. And do you know what he says? Not yes, not no, I’m betting you can guess. He says: “I Am.” And the soldiers all collapse to the ground. An appropriate response, that. We human beings can’t use “I am” this way. We might say I am . . . Canadian. I am a daughter. I am an employee. “I am” is not a full sentence for us, it needs an object, as your English teacher would have said. Only for God “I Am” is a complete sentence. God’s nametag says: “Hello, my name is I Am.” God is the one who cannot not be.
Lots of faiths describe God in abstract terms. Omni this. All-that. Highest the other. That’s fine, religion and philosophy classes need something to do. But it’s not how the Bible speaks of God, how the church speaks of God. We speak of God by telling a story. God’s character is rendered in narrative. God is the one who lights things on fire and sets people free. Someone may ask, well okay, is God omni this or all-that? Sure, I guess, I don’t know, but let me just tell you the story again. I suppose God could have given us bullet points or data, sent a spreadsheet. But God does not. God’s character comes to us in stories. About modest things: bushes and shoes. Macro things: slavery and freedom. And amazing things like your beautiful face.
So, all that’s a little heady. Thankfully, God promises Moses a sign. As if a burning bush, a theophany, a prophetic assignment, a face-to-face conversation with God and a name all weren’t enough. Okay, Moses must think, hit me. Later in Exodus we’ll see more signs. Staffs turn into snakes and back. The Red Sea split. Gobs of plagues. Signs everywhere in Exodus. God says, okay cool, here’s your sign. When you free the Israelites y’all will worship me on this mountain. God promises . . . a future sign. Nothing visible now. Just an IOU. Your sign is one day you’ll stand here with hundreds of thousands of Israelites in worship. God says, basically, the cheque is in the mail. Of course, that’s precisely what happens. Later. Later Moses will meet with God on this mountain amidst thunder and lightning and smoke. Jews teach that every Jew who’s ever lived stands at the base of that mountain—those alive now, those long dead, in a great communion. The little burning bush will give way to a smoking thundering shuddering mountain. And all will stand amazed.
Then it all happened. Later.
God makes promises that are hard to believe. Flowing milk and honey. Freedom from slavery everywhere. Every wound healed. The hungry fed. And all people full to running over with knowledge and love of God and one another. Here’s your sign, God says. One day you’ll see it’s all true. One day we’ll see. One day everyone will see. Bring that day quickly, Lord Jesus. Amen.