August 31, 2014

Exodus 3:1-15
Romans 12:9-21
Matthew 16:21-28

“Here I am, Lord”

The Hebrews were a group of marginal, oppressed people, living in the land of Egypt long ago, and in an attempt to keep their population under control, the king of Egypt ordered that any male babies born to the Hebrews be thrown into the Nile river to drown. And that’s when Moses was born.

After hiding the little boy for three months, Moses’ mother placed him in a basket and released him to float down the river, from which he was rescued by the Pharaoh’s daughter, who took him in and raised him as her own son.

We don’t know anything about Moses’ life as he grew up in Egypt, just as we don’t know much about Jesus’ early life. But the book of Exodus indicates that although Moses had the privileges of royalty, he did know that he was born a Hebrew, and he had a certain amount of identification with their plight as an oppressed People.

The first story about Moses’ adult life is about him trying to stand up for a Hebrew who was being beaten by an Egyptian. But rather than just order the Egyptian to stop, Moses’ anger takes over and he kills the Egyptian oppressor. No one in the story is impressed by his action. The Hebrews are horrified and a little scared of him, and the Pharaoh is angry too and wants Moses killed. So Moses runs away.

He goes to a place called Midian where he gets married, has a son, and starts a new way of life as a shepherd. It’s at this point that today’s story from Exodus takes place. Moses is looking after the sheep and goats of his father-in-law, Jethro, when he has a miraculous experience of God’s presence and reluctantly receives a commission to go back to Egypt, meet with the Pharaoh, and lead the Israelites out of slavery and into a promised land.

Just think about it. Moses was born into poverty and the threat of death. He grew up with the tension of being out of place – a slave being raised in the palace. A hasty decision got him in hot water with both his own people and the Egyptians, and he ended up running for his life. And now, just as things are starting to settle down, just as his life is starting to seem normal and peaceful and secure, God shows up and tells him to leave it all and go back… back to the people who wanted him killed, back to the people who didn’t want his help, back to conflict and risk and danger.

We shouldn’t be too surprised to read that Moses doesn’t want to go back. And so, the conversation between God and Moses is not a quick one. God has some fairly concise instructions to give to Moses, but Moses doesn’t just nod agreement and do as he’s told. He takes the time to question, to challenge, and to raise a whole series of objections to which God patiently responds.

Moses’ first protest is to claim that he is not sufficiently important or worthy to carry out such an enormous commission: “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” And to this, God doesn’t respond by assuring Moses that he is important enough…. “Of course you are worthy! You underestimate your own importance!” Instead, God essentially tells him that his worthiness is not the issue. “I will be with you,” God says. God is going to be his partner in accomplishing this task. Not to worry.

But Moses is only just getting started in enumerating his objections, and his worries are still plaguing him. Next, Moses wants to know God’s name. Who is it, really, that is speaking to him out of a burning bush? The Egyptians, with whom he lived his early years worshipped many gods. What is this God of the Israelites called?

Moses claims that he wants to know it so he can tell the people what god it was that sent him, but to ask God’s name was a momentous question, not just an extra tidbit of information. In the ancient world, to know someone’s name was to know something of the essence of that person. Thus, to know the name of God is to know something deep about the nature of God.

“I am who I am,” says God, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I am’ has sent me.” There is certainly a connection between the name “I am” and the personal name of the God of Israel, “Yhwh” which sounds like the basic form of the Hebrew verb “to be.” The name might indicate that God is associated with the idea of “being” or it could be an affirmation that this God is the Creator – the God who brings all things into being.

Perhaps the name indicates that this God is the only god who truly exists, who truly “is.” Or maybe it’s just an evasive answer, like a teen responding to a parent’s “Where are you going?” by saying, “I’m just going out.”

Moses asks, “What’s your name God? Who are you really?” And God replies, “I am who I am.” You’ll just have to wait and get to know me. Just watch and see what I do, how I act, how I love. Then you will know who I am, what I’m called, what I’m like.

And that’s where our reading this morning ended, with the revelation of God’s name to Moses, as mysterious and confusing a name as it was. But Moses’ objections were not yet finished. He was still too scared to pack his bags and head back to Egypt.

Moses complains that the people might not believe him, so God teaches him some magic tricks to get their attention and convince them.

Then Moses claims that he’s not a very good speaker. He won’t know what to say. So God encourages him even more… “I’ll be with you. I’ll give you the words.”

You can’t blame Moses though, can you? We’ve probably all had the feelings of self-doubt and worry and fear that he must have been feeling. Whether it was getting up to speak in front of an audience, bringing a child into the world, or taking on a large project or great responsibility, we can probably all relate to Moses’ fear.

By this point, all of Moses’ defences have been stripped away. He is out of excuses, but he is still terrified. And so he tries entreaty instead of argument: “O my Lord, please send someone else!” And the endlessly patient and sympathetic God lets him take his brother Aaron along to help, and Moses agrees, finally, to God’s call.

Whether it’s Moses, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Gideon, Paul, or the fishermen beside the sea of Galilee, when we read the stories of God calling the figures of the Bible, we begin to think about how we might react to God’s call as well.

We observe as Moses stands nervously on the top of the mountain… shoes off, knees shaking, sheep wandering away… and wonder what we might do if God were to speak to us like that. And for a time, we may be able to put such thoughts aside. We haven’t seen any burning bushes, and we’re not likely to any time soon. And after all, that was Moses, the great liberator of the People of Israel, and we’re just regular people. We’re not important enough for God to speak to us like that. We don’t have the skills or the talent needed to do the kinds of things that Moses did.

But even as we begin to think like that, we must realize that we are starting to sound a lot like Moses – making objections, struggling with self-doubt, arguing with God. The fact is, God calls each and every one of us to a task that is just as challenging as the one Moses took on. God calls us to live as followers of Christ.

Paul describes what that involves in Romans 12, and boy, it is quite a list, quite a challenge to live up to. “Be sincere in your love for others. Hate everything that is evil and hold tight to everything that is good. Love each other as brothers and sisters and honour others more than yourself. Never give up. Eagerly follow the Holy Spirit and serve the Lord. Let your hope make you glad. Be patient in time of trouble and never stop praying. Take care of God’s needy people and welcome strangers into your home.”

In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus emphasizes the enormity of the challenge his followers are called to when he compares it to “losing your life.” Answering God’s call means denying self, taking up a cross (an instrument of death) and following Jesus – being willing and ready to lose our life.

Like fishermen who left their nets to follow their teacher and Lord. Like Moses who gave it all up to go back to Egypt and do as God commanded. That is the kind of thing that we are being called to each and every day… to give up our own priorities in order to help those who are being oppressed, or who are starving, or who are dying of preventable diseases… to let go of our own desires for comfort, security, and a peaceful life in order to love our neighbours as ourselves and to spread the good news to all the world. And to do it – to say to God, “Here I am. Send me,” — despite the fact that we are terrified.

It was as I was reflecting on the hymn that we’re going to sing after the sermon that I noticed something that I think is a very important part of this story of God with Moses. Let’s turn to the hymn right now… #592 “I, the Lord of sea and sky.”

Let’s start with the chorus. This is Moses’ eventual response to God’s call. “Here I am. I will go if you lead me. will hold your people in my hand.”

As we sing the hymn, we speak those words ourselves, and perhaps we recommit to listen, to follow, and to act as God calls us. I’ve always thought of that as the essence of the song and the essence of Moses’ call story. But have you noticed the verses? They’re not about our response, about what we will do. They’re all about what God is doing.

I have heard my people cry. I will save them. I will make their darkness bright.

I have borne their pain and wept for them. I will teach them how to love. I will speak to them.

I will heal them. I will feed them. I will save them. I will give my life for them.

It’s not up to us, you see? It’s not down to our skills, our talents, our worthiness, our ability to work miracles. If it were, we’d be doomed for sure.

When God first began to speak to Moses, God said, “I have come down to deliver my people from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land… So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people out of Egypt.”

It’s not that God needs us. It’s not that we’re that important. But we are called, and God has a part for each of us to play in the redemption of the world. We don’t need to be scared [although at times we will be anyway], but God will be with us. God will work with us.

May God bless us as we learn to say, more and more, “Here we are, God. Send us.” Amen.