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. There 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. Then Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.” When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” Then he said, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” He 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.
Then 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, and 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. The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.” But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” He 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.”
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?” 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.’” God 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.
* * * * *
This is one of the seminal moments in all of scripture: God’s call to Moses to lead the Hebrew people out of slavery in Egypt, and, in that moment, God revealing the sacred name of the divine. It is a ‘theophany’ – a revelation of God. Moses is on holy ground.
We’ll come back to this powerful ‘call’ story in a minute, but first I want to catch you up on how Moses got there in the first place. Last we heard he was an infant in Egypt, the son of Hebrew slaves. The Hebrew people – or Israelites - had gone down to Egypt centuries before, in the days of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. It all started when Jacob’s beloved son Joseph was sold into slavery by his conniving brothers who were jealous of Joseph. But God used their trickery for good. He not only raised up Joseph as a leader in Pharaoh’s vast empire, but to save Joseph’s whole family from starvation. All of Jacob’s family moved to Egypt, where they thrived.
But four centuries later, things had changed. The descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were no longer welcome in Egypt. Still considered outsiders, they had ‘multiplied,’ scripture says, and there were so many of this ethnic minority that the new king of Egypt was unnerved. Pharaoh cracked down on the Hebrew people by taking away all their rights and enslaving them. But even the brutality of forced labor didn’t crush them, so Pharaoh took up the new tactic - ethnic cleansing – ordering all the Hebrew male infants to be killed at birth.
Last week Trip told that story – how Moses was spared, thanks to the courage and cleverness of two Hebrew midwives, the bravery of his mother, his sister, and even Pharaoh’s own daughter. The subversion of these women upended Pharaoh’s horrific orders, and Moses not only survived, he grew up in Pharaoh’s household!
So how did he end up here, out in the wilderness, tending sheep?
Well, Moses grew up. And he saw what was happening to his own people. One day he saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, and it incensed him. When he thought no one was watching, he killed the attacker. But the next day he saw two Hebrews fighting, and when he intervened one of them called him out – “Who made you a ruler and judge over us? Do you plan to kill me like you killed the Egyptian?” When Pharaoh heard about it, he was ready to kill Moses. So Moses fled to the mountains.
Time passed. He married a woman named Zipporah, the daughter of Jethro, and settled down. Until that day he was up on Mt. Horeb, and the angel of God spoke to him from the bush that did not burn.
It is a classic ‘call’ story, with a familiar pattern that gets repeated again and again throughout scripture. God speaks to someone – it’s always particular, a particular person – God speaks to this person, calls them to do something God important, the person protests – or even makes excuses. God persists, the person eventually caves, and – most of the time - does what God wants. It’s classic.
But notice where it begins: with Moses paying attention to the fiery bush that does not burn. It begins by paying attention.
Now, you could argue that something that astounding would catch anyone’s eye. You could make the case that God is being so obvious that it’s a no-brainer for Moses to turn aside and look. But I’m not so sure. Listen to the scripture again:
Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.” When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!”
When the Lord saw that Moses turned to see, then God called to him.
I don’t think I really have to make the case to you that it’s hard to pay attention to God’s voice. In an age of cell phones and constant noise, in an era of 24/7 news and social media, and knowing how busy most of us are – busy, or tired, or both – I don’t think any of us take for granted that God has a lot of work to do to get noticed.
As one writer puts it, “Learning to pay attention and knowing what to pay attention to is a key discipline for leaders but one that rarely comes naturally to those of us who are barreling through life with our eyes fixed on a goal.”[i] I know I’m plenty busy, and I have to tell you, figuring out what’s my agenda and what God might actually want is no small thing. I have all these people I care about. I have a thousand email whispering, “Pay attention to me!” I have lists. Lists and lists and lists. Listening for God’s call is a stretch.
Which is why I think this time and space is so important. It’s one of the few times we quiet our minds long enough to listen. “Silence every voice but your own…” is one of the prayers we sometimes pray before scripture is read. We practice listening for God.
But it’s not just how busy we are. Frankly, I’m not sure we really want to hear what God wants. I’m not sure I want to know, especially if it’s something more than I’m already doing. I would just as soon God keep that to God’s self. Especially if that call has something to do with the suffering of other people. People struggling with addictions, or immigrants, or the fragile elderly, or people who are suffering from drought, or disaster, or disease amplified by climate change. Do I really want to know? What am I supposed to do about it, anyway?
I like it better when God speaks to us in a still, small voice to soothe and comfort us. It is lovely when God comes to us in a sunset, or a shooting star, or a tree changing color or a baby’s snuggle. It’s like a kiss from God, a blessing, a moment of solace or joy. I am grateful that God comes to us in those tiny, stunning ways.
But God also comes to us in ‘call.’ And frankly, that’s a whole lot harder. That burning bush isn’t there for decoration or to make Moses feel better about himself .
God has heard the cry of God’s people. God is tired of the injustice done to them. God is committed to setting the Hebrew people free, to bringing them back to the land of their ancestors, of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, committed to bringing them out of slavery in Egypt. And God needs Moses to do this.
Moses? Moses does what almost everyone does, at least in the scripture stories of call. Moses finds a way to politely tell God, “no.”
Actually, Moses is better than most at trying to dodge this bullet. Moses doesn’t have just one excuse, he’s got a whole list. It goes on for two whole chapters!
“Who am I, that I should go?” Which sounds really humble, doesn’t it? He should get extra points for that one.
o But God says, “I am with you.”
“If they ask me, ‘What is this God’s name?’ what should I tell them?”
o And God says, “I AM. Tell them my name; they’ll listen to you.”
“But suppose they don’t believe me?”
o Then God says, “Take this rod; perform these signs; they’ll listen.”
“I’m not eloquent, I stutter, I don’t have the gifts you need.”
o So God says, “I’ll teach you.”
“Please, please, for God’s sake, send someone else!”
o God says, by then angry, “Fine, I’ll send your brother Aaron, too.”[ii]
I mean, you’ve got to hand it to Moses – that’s a pretty good list.
And God has an answer for them all. Every. Single. One.
See, what God knows is that Moses is uniquely suited for this challenge. He is a Hebrew child, raised as an Egyptian, raised in Pharaoh’s own house. He is, if you will, bilingual. He knows both cultures, both ways of life. There is no one else who can do this. He is it.
God cannot do the work of liberating God’s people without Moses.
Our God does not do magic tricks. Our God works through us. And like it or not, that’s what your own call is all about. God working through your life, for the sake of the world. Because your own life is uniquely suited for something that no one else is. Not in spite of your faults and flaws, but even with them. Because God is with you, too. And God will teach you what you need to know. And God will not send you out alone.
“I AM who I AM” is sending you. Not some magician, not some trickster, but the One who is, and was and always will be. The One who existed before time began and will exist after time itself has ended. The One who brings life into being, all of life, and your life, too.
“I AM who I AM” is calling.
[i] Ruth Haley Barton, Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership: Seeking God in the Crucible of Ministry, (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Press, 2008), 63; see Cynthia Campbell, unpublished paper on Exodus 3:1-15 for the 2011 Moveable Feast, 5.
[ii] See Campbell, 5, for Moses’ protests, and Eugene Peterson, Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places: a conversation in spiritual theology, (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2005), 151-2.