During the fall of 2022, the people of The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are considering a series of Jesus’ statements in the Fourth Gospel that contain the phrase “I am”. Our hope is that in doing so, we’ll be able to hear the Lord in his own words, and resist our culture’s temptation to speak ABOUT the Lord, rather than WITH the Lord. On September 11, we established some context for this discussion by reading about God’s self-revelation to Moses in Exodus 3:1-17. We also heard from Isaiah 41:8-10,
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I suspect you’ve had an experience like this: you know of a person, but haven’t actually met them yet. Several mutual friends have offered wildly different perspectives as to that individual’s temperament, or personality, or life situation. Maybe you’re conflicted as to whether you’d actually have any interest in meeting… You don’t know what to think, because the descriptions about that person are all over the map. Does that sound at all familiar to you?
And maybe you’ve been in the opposite situation: you meet someone for the first time, and it’s clear that they’ve been given the wrong impression about you somewhere along the line. When things like this happen, it sets the relationship back, or maybe prevents it from ever forming in the first place.
I have a friend about whom a lot of people have said a lot of things. Frankly, I know more people who talk about him than who speak to him. And that makes me sad. So for many of the Sunday mornings this fall, we’ll be spending some time in our worship service doing our best to do as much listening TO Jesus as we do talking about him. My sense is that in our current political and cultural climate, there is no shortage of those who will tell you how Jesus feels about your life, those hot-button issues, or anything else.
The person who was regarded, perhaps, as Jesus’ “best friend” was his contemporary and disciple, John, who gave us the Fourth Gospel. While Matthew, Mark, and Luke explore many of the events and circumstances of Jesus’ ministry, John provides a unique witness to the words and teachings he offered. In particular, John reports a series of Jesus’ teachings that begin with or include the words “I am.” I believe that was John’s attempt to let Jesus speak for himself at a time when many people were eager to put words into Jesus’ mouth.
“I am” is a simple phrase, one that you’ve used dozens of times this week. Yet as we come to explore that in a theological context, it’s helpful to note that in the world of Jesus, John, and our Jewish friends it is a phrase that has a lot of meaning – there’s a story behind it. So this week, before we get to John, let’s take a look at the back story we find in Exodus in the hopes that we can search the context for clues as to what Jesus was saying and how his contemporaries may have reacted to it.
Our community is, of course, rooted in the narrative that begins in Genesis, which contains the story of God’s promise to an unlikely couple. Abram and Sarai heard a Word that indicated that their family would be vast, and a source of blessing and hope in the world. I call them unlikely because at the time they received that promise, they were quite old and for all kinds of reasons, not particularly well-suited to parenting. And yet, against all odds, it happens – the family develops and grows!
And yet just as it seems as though things are falling into place, a global famine arises, the family is displaced, and it’s not too long before we get to Exodus. Here we learn that the family is now indeed vast, but has also become enslaved in a foreign land; the people who grew up hearing the promises are beginning to wonder whether God can be trusted, or whether perhaps God has left them there, alone.
Today we meet Moses, a curious member of this family. He was born a slave, and yet raised in the opulence of the palace as a foster son to Pharaoh’s daughter. As he comes to understand and then grapple with his identity, he commits murder and is forced to flee. In seeking to find his identity – is he Hebrew or Egyptian? – it appears as though he might have lost both of them. Where and how does he fit in?
Moses moves into the scrub country, gets married, and fills his days working as a shepherd. It’s a far cry from both the slavery of the pyramids and the splendor of the palace. In our reading from today, God chooses that time and that place to call to Moses from a burning bush, and it is a conversation that points to a new understanding of self and God not only for Moses, or his contemporaries, but for all of us.
The first act of this drama is God’s invitation to Moses. God simply appears and beckons the shepherd into a time of wonder. Moses’ curiosity brings him closer to this unusual sight, and it’s clear that he does not understand what is going on – but he wants to be closer. When he is engaged, the voice calls Moses’ name from the burning bush, whereupon the answer is immediate: “Here I am!” Moses presents himself to the Holy – even that which is not entirely understandable. God then lays out the call to Moses – a series of tasks and responsibilities that are daunting, to say the least. As he begins to piece things together – to whom he’s speaking, and where he is, and what is happening – it’s easy to see Moses’ face become filled with doubt and fear. He understands that God is calling Moses to a special work – that of leading God’s people from slavery to freedom.
That announcement heralds the second act, as Moses’ reluctance takes center stage. “Here I am!” has now become “Who am I?” Moses is a lot of things, but he’s no idiot. He knows the score: he is wanted by the authorities in Egypt and unpopular with the people there. In fact, Exodus chapters 3-7 contain a series of eight different objections that Moses raises to the Divine plan; he checks off eight reasons why God might want to think twice about this. However, each of those concerns is heard by God, and then met with the fundamental assurance that whoever and wherever Moses is, that self will be sustained, guided, and guarded by God. Eight times, the Almighty assures the shepherd that neither Moses nor the people of Israel are alone as long as God is there.
This brings us to the third act: the “Here I am” that was transformed into “Who am I?” has now become “Who are you?” Moses starts to inquire about the credibility and reliability of this promise-maker. “Who shall I say sent me? What is your name?” God gives Moses a simple answer: only four letters in the Hebrew: YHWH. The word is related to the Hebrew verb hayah, or “to be”. Traditionally, this has been Anglicized to Yahweh, or even Jehovah. In our translation, it’s rendered as “I am who I am”. One could also make the case for hearing “I will be who I will be.” And recently, I came across a compelling discussion indicating that perhaps the best way to understand this construction is “I will be who I am and I am who I will be”.
God gives God’s name to Moses, and it is a promise. “I will be God for you. You don’t need to worry about me flaking out on you, abandoning you, deceiving you, or growing weary of you. You can count on me. I will be who I am.”
In giving Moses a name, we see that the Divine enters more deeply into a relationship. God chooses to enter more deeply into a relationship not only with Moses, but with all of creation in a new way. In this declaration God introduces and reveals God’s self! You know this! Naming something implies an encounter, an awareness, an availability, an interest, and the possibility of communication. And, as everyone who has ever given out personal information to the wrong people knows, such sharing of a name also carries with it the concept of vulnerability. In giving the name to Moses, God accepts the fact that Moses is now able to misuse or mistreat that name.
This led to what has become a central aspect of the Jewish culture: to honor the Divine Name. In our English Bibles, wherever the translation calls for YHWH to be written, for instance, we usually find “THE LORD”. Faithful readers and speakers would just omit any pronunciation of the name. When they got to YHWH in the writing, they would not say the word aloud, but substitute something else: they were so concerned about maligning God’s name that they would say “Adonai”, which means “Lord”, or “Hashem”, which means “the name.” For millennia, there has been an earnest attempt to avoid disrespecting anything associated with the “I Am” of Exodus.
And so when Jesus starts off sermons in John, not once or twice, but at least seven times, with the words “ego eimi” in Arabic – “I am…”, well, people lost their minds. Sure, you say it once or twice, and it’s a slip of the tongue. But that’s not what happened in the Fourth Gospel: Jesus was intentionally choosing that vocabulary to get a rise out of people, and boy did it work! These are the statements that we’ll consider in the months ahead.
For today, though, I’d like to stay in Genesis and ask you to think of yourself, like Moses, as a person who has been created for wonder and blessed with curiosity. I’d like for you to think of yourself as a person who has, like Moses, been invited into a relationship with the Divine Presence.
As you contemplate your life on this rainy September Sunday, can you imagine that God – in God’s very self-revelation – promises you the Self that is God? That you are an heir to comfort and hope because of and in the name of God?
Isn’t this the story of God’s people, time and time again? “I will be with you. I am with you. I was with you.” That comes through loud and clear in the reading from Isaiah, for instance: I chose you! I am here! I will be here.” Or maybe you remember the promise and the command that the angel Gabriel gave to Mary on the night he told her about Jesus’ birth: “You will have a son, and you shall call his name Emmanuel, which means… GOD WITH US.”
This reading from Exodus, or Isaiah, or even John – it’s not a one-shot deal. It’s not addressed to some a long time ago in a galaxy far far away… This is your story! This is our story!
Now I am pretty certain that nobody in the room this morning is a member of a royal family living under an assumed name who is wanted on outstanding murder charges. But I am 100% sure that on most days, most of us do a lot of seesawing between “Here I am!” and “Who am I?”
These are difficult, difficult times. We face stress at every turn. We worry about money, or Covid, or our employment, or our insurance, or our families. In addition to these personal stressors, our culture is beset by issues like war, political division, climate change, and more. Each and every day, there is the temptation to despair and to give into fear. I had half a dozen conversations with people this week who said, essentially, “Why bother? What’s the use? I can’t do it. Nobody cares.”
Today, beloved of God, let me remind you that you are creature of immense wonder and curiosity. God is inviting you. God is calling your name. God is revealing God’s very self to you in the hope of a relationship with you..
Let me remind you that God’s intentions for you and for this world – in which we are invited to partner – are good. They include health and peace. We are invited to walk in these paths. We were created to dwell in them.
As I close, and as we prepare for the next hymn, I want to ask you to reflect for just a moment on a time when you felt deeply connected to the Holy. Maybe you were able to sense, as was Moses, that even the ground beneath your feet was sacred. Was it a hospital room? At a wedding? Savoring a sunset through the eyes of a child? A final “goodbye” at the end of an incredible life?
I know that you have been there. I know that you have seen and heard that. Today, my job as a pastor in the Church of Jesus Christ, is simply to remind you that this is possible. To remind you that this kind of relationship is the reason that you were made! To promise you that this is who you are. Remember. Be grateful. Thanks be to God. Amen.
 This insight and much of my understanding of this passage this week has been shaped by Terence E. Fretheim’s Interpretation Commentary on Exodus (1991, John Knox Press).