This is the third Sunday in Lent and I was preaching for the first time in many months. The comic from earlier this week is (probably) a coincidence.
Third Sunday in Lent, Year C, RCL
Jesus on the cross is an image embedded in our faith, worship, and even in our culture. The Cross is the goal and the end of Lent. For many, it is simply a piece of jewelry. For artists it can be an expression of faith or merely a clever or even cheeky juxtaposition to their main object of commentary. In Jesus films how one depicts Jesus on the cross (and whether or not his resurrection is depicted) is often key to understanding the movie maker’s intent. For Monty Python it is a pathetic and pointless end. For Mel Gibson it is nothing less than salvation.
Yet I don’t think there is a better known biblical movie than the Ten Commandments with Charlton Heston and I don’t think that there is any more iconic scene than the burning bush. We find it in our readings at this time of year not least because of its wilderness theme. Moses has fled his home in Egypt, wrestling with his identity as both an Israelite and an adopted Egyptian and afraid that his murder of an Egyptian would be discovered. He is literally and figuratively in an in-between-time, unsure of where to go or what would happen to him.
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.
The exchange that ensues is at once well known to us and yet because we think we know it so well, we often miss the challenge and the lessons contained in it. For example, we often miss the fact that Moses is arguing with God! The Lord begins by telling Moses that he has heard Israel’s cry and complaint and that he is going to lead Israel to freedom by sending Moses back to Egypt. We often think of the biblical figures as always responding to God with an immediate “Yes Sir!” But not Moses (or Abraham or even David for that matter). In fact, in this passage Moses offers four different objections to God, trying as hard as he might to get out of this task. Our reading this morning presents us with the first two objections and they provide us with ample and appropriate Lenten reflections.
But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?”
It is a reasonable question. Why should God choose Moses for such a task? And I imagine that Moses was expecting God to say something like, “Don’t you realize that you are uniquely talented for this mission? Don’t you realize that this is why I preserved your life and had you grow up within Pharaoh’s palace even while you mother raised you for your first few years so that you alone are able to walk in these two worlds? Don’t you realize how special you are Moses?” But that is not what God says.
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.”
“I will be with you.” God doesn’t even answer Moses’ question. Instead he reminds Moses that who he is makes little difference, what matters is who God is. He is the God of his fathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. That is, he is the God who has taken care of his people in the past and will continue to care and provide for them now. And you Moses, you are my servant.
It is a pretty humbling message. God could have replied with any of the comments I suggested a moment ago and they would have been true. God had uniquely prepared Moses for the task ahead. But Moses needed to be reminded that it really isn’t about us, even while God is caring for us.
It is a curious paradox. We must realize that ultimately all of history is about God, the creator and caregiver. Yet history itself has been created because and by virtue of the fact that God created us. Good Friday and Easter are the suffering and resurrection of Jesus and yet they are the sacrifice and salvation of the world.
God has uniquely prepared each of us to do…we don’t know what! Often, we will not understand how or why we have been able to accomplish incredible tasks that God puts before us until they are complete. But God has been and is with us nonetheless. Consider again what God told Moses.
“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.”
“I will be with you.” God is present, he is with us in our most difficult struggles, our greatest challenges. That is, as they say in business nowadays, the “game changer.” God’s being with us makes all things possible and is far more important than who we are or how skilled or prepared we are for the task at hand.
And notice “the sign” that God offers Moses. “When you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain.” Aren’t signs usually supposed to be before the event? Like Gideon setting out the fleece, we want to know that we are making the right decision ahead of committing ourselves. God tells Moses and us that all we need to know is that he is with us and that our faith in him will be affirmed. When the task is done we will know that it is God who has guided us and we will worship him.
God answered his first objection but Moses was not satisfied, he continued to challenge God.
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’”
Here we find God’s most intimate name revealed. It would be easy and it is all too tempting to delve into a lecture here about the Hebrew name of God. I shall try and avoid that, but it is important that we understand that God’s name is nothing less than the verb of existence. His name is the verb “to be” and when God speaks he speaks in the first person, “I am.” When we speak, we say “He is” (which we “translated” as “The Lord”). God’s identity, his name, cannot be defined in any other terms than the simple yet powerful and inscrutable statement that he exists, He Is.
The message is the same as God’s first response to Moses. I am with you. Just as I was with your fathers and your mothers before you, I am and will be with you now. Thus it is that in John’s Gospel, when Jesus responds to those questioning him by saying, “Very truly, I tell you, before Abraham was, I am.” And when the soldiers came to arrest him in the garden and said they were looking for Jesus of Nazareth he replied, “I am.” The power of these words knocked them to the ground, because he was not simply declaring his identity he was also revealing his divinity. Jesus is the God of our fathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and He Is, The Lord, ‘ehyah ‘asher ‘ehyah.
We too are in the wilderness, in the in-between-time. The story of Moses, the Israelites’ 40 years in the wilderness, Jesus’ 40 days of fasting, and our own discipline of Lent simply remind us that we are at all times “not yet home.” We are in this world (but not of it) and we have been blessed by God with a calling and a duty. The details of a specific task may not yet be known to us, although we always know that we are to love as Christ has loved us. What we do know and must never forget is that in all things and at all times God will be with us.