When I was at theological college, we had preaching classes. In one of these, the lecturer showed us clips from four different films, each depicting the scene that we’ve read about this morning. So many film makers have given us their version of this story, ranging from Charlton Heston in the 10 Commandments all the way through to the animation of Prince of Egypt. It was fascinating to see how different directors had emphasised different elements of the scene in the shot choice, how they’d decided to depict God’s voice, the way in which they’d imagined Moses’ emotional responses.
Let’s take a moment and focus our imaginations on being there, in that place, at that time, with Moses. I wonder how you see this playing out in your mind’s eye, how you would feel in Moses’ place, what your reaction is to hearing God’s voice and seeing the bush burning but not burning. I wonder how you experience the weight of the holiness of the presence of God. If you’re wearing shoes or slippers, take them off.
In this holy place Moses asks two questions that human beings through out the ages, and all over the world have asked, and this morning we’re going to explore those questions, and God’s answers.
The first question I’d like to focus on is this. Moses asks God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” It’s the first three words of that question that are at the heart of it. Moses asks God, “Who am I”. It’s not particularly surprising that Moses was uncertain in his own identity.
He’d been born as the son of a Hebrew slave, a foreigner. A Hebrew by descent, but an Egyptian by place of birth. He’d been entrusted to the river Nile in a basket by his mother, to escape the death ordered by the King of the land, found by the King’s daughter and raised as an Egyptian prince, in the palace. He must have been aware of this dual identity, when he’d grown up he’d seen an Egyptian slave master beating a Hebrew slave, and had killed him for it. When he found out that he’d been seen he fled to Midian, where he met a Midianite girl and had a son who he named Gershom, which in Hebrew sounds like “a foreigner there”. Now he’s working as a shepherd. So, who is he – prince or shepherd, slave or free, Hebrew or Egyptian, murderer or freedom fighter?
It’s not surprising he asks God, “Who am I”
On the face of it, God’s answer isn’t particularly helpful. God tells Moses that God will be with him. But in the wider conversation, it is clear that Moses is the one that God has called, the one that God is sending, and the one that God will be with. None of these things depend on who Moses is, but there is, in them a more secure foundation for Moses’ identity than anything else. Who we all are, more than anything else, are those created by God, called by God, sent by God, and those with whom God is present. These things about us are far more important and foundational than our nationality, our ethnicity, our sexuality, our education, our age, our wealth, our poverty or our past glories or shames. As those who are in Christ, we find our deepest selves in the reality of God’s call on our lives, just as Moses did.
I find it interesting that the sign that God gives Moses is a promise that the people of God will worship God together on this mountain. It takes my mind to the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness. Matthew 4:8-10 says this, “The devil took Jesus to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendour. ‘All this I will give you’ he said ‘if you will bow down and worship me.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Away from me Satan! For it is written: “Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.”’
The first two temptations that Jesus faced challenge his security in his own identity, they both begin, “If you are the Son of God then….” This third temptation challenges Jesus’ security in his understanding of God’s identity. The temptation to worship Satan in order to achieve Kingship challenges the Father’s place in Jesus’ heart. It asks the question of Jesus, who is God?
This question is the second one that Moses asks God. He does it slightly indirectly, “Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them the God of your fathers has sent me to you, and they ask me, what is his name, then what shall I tell them?” In short, having asked, “Who am I?” Moses now asks God, “Who are you?”
This is a perfectly reasonable question, not just in Moses situation, as someone who wanted some reassurance before going back to the place where he was wanted in connection with a murder inquiry. If we are to trust that our deepest understanding of our selves is to be found in God, then it’s really important that we understand who God is.
God answers Moses by telling him God’s name, “I am Who I am”. This is the great name, that is so holy that it is never said, or even written down in the Jewish faith. It is represented by four consonants without any vowels – YHWH. We usually pronounce it Yahweh, in past ages it has been pronounced Jehovah, however we say it, this name asserts God’s fundamental nature.
God was. God is. God will always be. The only being that is uncreated – God is – eternally, before and beyond all time and place. God is completely independent. God does not depend on anything or anyone for God’s identity or existence. In fact, God’s being is the source of existence and identity for everything and everyone else. God is the prime mover, the uncaused cause, beyond, beneath, through all things.
As well as this name, God reiterates that God is the God of the ancestors of the Hebrew people, of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. This isn’t just about linking back to the peoples’ history, it is about God claiming to be the God of relationship and covenant promise. God says, I am the God of Abraham, I am the one who called him, who blessed him, who talked with him, who promised him an inheritance and a great people who would be a blessing to the whole world. I am the one who had that relationship with Abraham, who made those commitments, and will keep them. I am the promise maker and promise keeper, that is who I am.
And what about God’s attributes, what is God like? Well we see some of them in this conversation with Moses -God is holy, in some sense set apart from creation in purity and majesty. But also intimately involved in creation – hearing the cries of God’s people, with a heart to rescue those who are oppressed and in slavery. God is the one who brings freedom.
But this is not all that we can say about God. When Moses heard the voice from the bush, he was afraid to look at God. Several hundred years after Moses another man was sent by God to bring freedom to God’s people. In John’s account of his life, we read of this man saying, “Before Abraham was, I am” and then, a little later, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father”.
This man was Jesus, God’s son, come to live among us. He shows us what God is like because he is God, he even claimed God’s name for himself. In Jesus we see God’s compassion, heart for those on the edge, hatred of sin, self-sacrificial love, and resurrection power. Also in John’s account Jesus talks about another Advocate he was going to send, the Holy Spirit, who would remind and teach his followers of all that Jesus had said and done, all of which was designed to show us who God is. God: Father, Son, Holy Spirit, is a God who loves to show us who God is.
So, what of us. It seems to me that many of us go through life with some insecurity or misunderstanding about who we are, especially in this time of identity politics. It feels like this passage gives us a timely reminder of the truest answer to this question, that we are loved, called, and sent by God as we are in Christ. And who is God? Not some grumpy old man on a cloud. Not Santa doling out gifts to the good little boys and girls. Not a figment of our imagination. We can spend a life time digging into the riches of the truth of God’s name “I am who I am”, allowing the Holy Spirit to reveal more about God to us, as we fix our eyes on Jesus, the very image of the invisible God. And then, at the end, when we see God face to face in glory we will know as we are fully known and will know for certain in all fullness who we are, and who God is.