Sermon - 7th October 2018
The Name of God
Scripture - Exodus 3:1-15
[An audio version of this sermon, in mp3 format, is available via the link at our Spirituality > Audio and Video page.]
That song – “I Am What I Am” – sung by Gloria Gaynor has become popular in the LGBT community, something we often call a ‘gay anthem’. Our sexual orientation and our gender identity are very much a part of who we are. The names by which we are known are another part of our identity. All of us were given names at birth, chosen by our parents. Trans people also have the exciting privilege of choosing a new name for themselves as part of their transition.
Names, like our sexual orientation and gender identity, are a fundamental part of who we are. When we meet someone for the first time, learning their name is often the first piece of personal information we learn about that person. Naming is very important to humans: not only do we name each other, we name our pets, we name everything… roads, buildings, ships, cars.
I used to work as a teacher, and I still work with young people as a volunteer Civilian Instructor with the RAF Air Cadets. Learning young people’s names is not only key to being a successful teacher, knowing someone’s name gives you a certain power. Think back to your time at school: our respect and obedience to a teacher who knew our name was greater than to those temporary teachers who did not!
Our names are not just arbitrary labels: our names themselves also carry meaning. In ancient times, the meaning of names was important; in our contemporary society, our names carry with them our reputation. Think about the names that carry greatness with them, such as Martin Luther King, Florence Nightingale or Winston Churchill; the names which will forever embody terrible deeds, like Adolf Hitler, Pol Pot or Mira Hindley; and the names which have known both good and bad reputations, most recently names like Rolf Harris and Jimmy Saville.
God’s name, God’s identity is central in today’s reading. Let us spend a couple of minutes gathering together the names by which we call God.
[Congregation invited to give names by which we call God.]
We live in an age when the words “God”, “Jesus” and “Jesus Christ” are more frequently used as exclamations and as swear-words than they are used in reverence and in true reference to God. Not so long ago, using words for God in a negative way, would have been seen as blasphemous, but views on what constitutes blasphemy in Western culture seem to have given way to more liberal ideals of free-speech and related civil rights.
In the other two Abrahamic faiths, those who follow Islam will speak of the 100 names of God, and many Muslims will have names which reflect these. For example, “Al-Malik” means “God is King”, and I am sure many of us will have met someone called “Malik”. Many other Muslims’ names begin with the prefix “Abd-“, meaning “Servant of”, so the name “Abdullah” means “Servant of God”.
We are now going to hear today’s Scripture reading, where Moses meets God, and God reveals the Divine Name.
[Reading: Exodus 3:1-15]
Today’s reading comes from the book of Exodus, named after the major event in that book’s narrative. The Hebrew name for it is ‘Shemot’, meaning ‘names’. The title of the book refers to how the book begins, the names of the tribes of Israel living in Egypt; however, I also like to think that it points to the revelation of the Divine Name.
In the Old Testament, or Hebrew Bible, the most common name for God is YHWH, referred to in theology as the Tetragrammaton. It sounds a little like the word “Jehovah”. In most Bibles, this word for God is spelt as Lord in capital letters. It is the one used in today’s reading when God says to Moses, “I AM who I AM”. The root of this word is the Hebrew verb “to be”. Devout Jews do not speak this word for God aloud; instead, they will substitute the word “Adonai” meaning “Lord”.
Let us look now at the narrative of today’s reading. Many of us will better know the story of Moses and the Exodus from the Cecil B DeMille film “The Ten Commandments”, one, which for the most part, keeps close to the Biblical text. We know that Moses had fled Egypt after he had murdered an Egyptian overseer; he wandered in the desert until he came upon Jethro and his family, where he stayed and married the eldest daughter Zipporah.
Moses’ time in the desert, tending the flocks, will have given him a lot of time to think. Jethro, his father-in-law, was the priest in Midian, and talk of the Hebrew God will, no doubt, have been a continual part of their conversations.
The next part of the story is difficult for our modern ears, as it speaks of unnatural happenings. Our rational minds tell us that bushes cannot burn and not be consumed, and that is very much Moses’ reaction, too! If any of you have seen the Dreamworks’ animation “The Prince of Egypt”, you might recall that Moses tests the fire with his walking-staff and his hand, only to find that neither are burnt.
The next part of the text challenges us even more, when Moses hears a voice, a voice which he learns is God’s voice. This, again, challenges our modern understanding, as we might immediately leap to the conclusion that any person claiming to hear an audible voice is suffering from a serious mental illness.
Let us look at what God says to Moses. Firstly, God identifies with Moses by referencing Moses’ ancestors back to Abraham. Whenever we speak with people and know something of their background, we do tend to feel more at ease with them.
God goes on to talk about the suffering of the Hebrew people in Egypt. After all, it was Moses’ disgust at the way the Hebrew people were treated which led him to commit the murder which prompted his exile which ultimately brought him that day to that mountain encounter with God.
God, like Moses, is appalled by the exploitation, harsh conditions and plight of the Hebrew people, and the purpose of the conversation is to begin Moses’ part in their freedom. Listening to and hearing God’s cry against injustice is something which is a common theme throughout the Bible and throughout history. Even today, God calls us as Christians to work against injustice, oppression and even slavery.
The next couple of verses, which speak of the land into which the Hebrew people will enter, bring us into a very modern conflict which has its roots in these events some 3500 years ago. The scenes we see on the news, as the Israelis and Palestinians fight against each other over the same land. In a conflict with almost 3500 years of recorded history, it is far from easy to see how this dire situation can ever be resolved.
We then move into a few verses which exposes Moses’ humanity. Later in Exodus, we learn that Moses had a speech impediment, and his brother Aaron did most of the speaking for him. Moses feels utterly inadequate for the task before him: he does not know where to begin, and this is probably how we often feel. Nevertheless, God chose to use him.
This was Moses at this point in his life, there on the mountain. Just after birth, he became an asylum seeker, fleeing Pharaoh’s decree to kill all male babies, and ironically finding refuge with Pharaoh’s own daughter. He was a man with a temper, a man capable of violence, even to the point of murder. Again, he fled into exile, in fear for his own life, and sometime later, God sought to use this man to be at the heart of a great story of liberation from oppression.
Maybe we feel inadequate and unworthy for what we have to do. Returning now to a verse earlier in the text, in which God commands Moses to take off his shoes, for the place on which he stands is Holy Ground: holiness is another one of those concepts which are difficult to understand, and even harder to explain in our contemporary culture. The definition I find most easy to explain “holiness” is to be set apart for God. We set apart this building to worship God; we have set aside this time in our lives to worship God, to learn of God’s word and to pray. The Communion we shall share later in the service, often called Holy Communion by many churches, is indicative of us setting ourselves aside for God’s use, in whatever we might be led.
On a human level, we might feel ourselves unworthy and not up to the task for which God call us; but we are in good company! Here is a list a few of the Biblical characters whom God did use. We have already mentioned Moses:
- Adam and Eve were disobedient
- Noah was a drunk
- Abraham was a liar, and his wife, Sarah, was impatient
- Jacob was a cheat
- Miriam, Moses’ sister, was a gossip
- Aaron, Moses’ brother, lost faith quickly and built an idol (Golden Calf)
- Samson allowed his sexual desires to get the better of him and was entrapped by Delilah
- King Saul was arrogant and hot-headed, he even tried to summon up the spirits of the dead
- The prophet Elijah was moody and depressed
- King David was consumed with lust, committed adultery and murdered
- The prophet Jonah was a coward and ran away
- Jesus’ disciple Peter had a temper and denied knowing Jesus
- Jesus’ disciple Thomas doubted in the resurrection
- Jesus’ friend Martha was a worrier
- One of Jesus’ followers was a prostitute
- Judas betrayed Jesus
- Except for John, the other Disciples fled when Jesus was arrested
- The apostle Paul ordered the execution of many early Christians
- …all of these Biblical characters were very human, with very human shortcomings, just like us
Moses is uncertain as to who God is, after all, he had spent much of his life in Egypt in the royal palace surrounded by the Egyptian religion of many gods. Today, many, if not most people in the UK, have little understanding of who God is.
God’s reply as to God’s identity is curious: “I AM who I AM”. “I AM” is a present tense verb, and thus firmly grounding God’s presence in the present moment – “in the now”. For Moses and his dark past deeds, and for those others in the Bible I mentioned, their past deeds were exactly that, past deeds. Our God, who is called “I AM”, is a God of the present.
Our past deeds, whatever they might be, are past. God, the “I AM”, is here in our present moment, ready to meet with us in our “now”. That to which God called Moses, to be against injustice and oppression, God call us to do. God also calls us to be holy, that is, to be set-aside for God’s purpose. May God, the Great I AM, be present with all of us now, and in every moment to come.