At the beginning of the third chapter of the book of Exodus you will remember that Moses was a fugitive from justice. He had killed a man in Egypt. He had fled some two hundred miles to the land of Midian where he had married a Midianiate woman and had plans to live there the rest of his life. There was comfort in this exile. He had everything he wanted including a son, a father-in-law, Jethro, a well-to-do priest with plenty of land and livestock. So Moses went to work for him and gradually he forgot about Egypt.
Then one day as he is minding Jethro's flock in the desert country around Mount Horeb, Moses sees a bush out in the middle of nowhere burning but not being consumed. He considers the possibilities - maybe it was a bolt of wayward lightening that struck this bush. He also notices an odd thing: the fire won't quit. As long as Moses stands there watching it, he never sees a single twig turn to ash. Finally, Moses decides to take a closer look and he says to himself, "I've got to go across and see the sight. Why isn't this bush turning into ashes?"
When the Lord sees that Moses has turned aside to look, that he has let the sheep wander in order to pay attention to what is in front of him, it is then and only then that the Lord speaks to Moses out of the bush, calling him by name, and telling him to take off his shoes. As Moses listens, the Lord identifies God's own self. God announces a very specific identity. We discover in this reading that this is not a generic God. This is rather the specific God of the book of Genesis. I am the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob. The statement may very well have added, "I am the God of Sarah, the God of Rebecca, the God of Rachel. I am the God of the old ancestral stories, the one who came upon hopeless, old people and gave them children and a new life. The one who came among wandering sojourners and promised them land. The one who came where life was all closed down and promised them a future that was wide open."
God tells Moses that he has heard the people's cry, God tells Moses that he has seen how badly his people have been treated in Egypt, and God wants Moses to act as his agent in their escape. This probably sounded like a bad idea to Moses. In the first place, he is a fugitive from the law in Egypt. If he goes back to Egypt, he might as well give himself up for execution. In the second place, Moses has some rather major misgivings about his own leadership capabilities. "Who am I that I should bring the Israelites out of Egypt?" he asks God. "What will I do with an entire nation?" In response God does not offer much reassurance, at least not the kind of reassurance that Moses would want, not the kind of reassurance that would guarantee a safe passage and a good game plan. God does not say, "I will protect you." God simply says, "I am with you."
Looking for any leverage that he can find, Moses decides to try and find out exactly to whom this voice belongs. Sure, it belongs to the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Rachel, Rebecca. But what is God's own name? What is God's own essence? Moses knows that if he can discover God's name he may have some power over this deity who is asking so much of him. Moses is clever and doesn't ask directly, so he says, "If I go to the Israelites and tell them the God of their forebears has sent me and they ask me his name, what shall I say? If they should ask, who shall I say is calling?" And God responds to Moses, "I Am who I Am" or as Martin Buber rendered it, "I will be there as the one who will be there." God continues and says, "Tell them that I Am has sent you."
Now this is not a satisfying response for Moses. When God responds, God does not give Moses a long list of credentials or a speech about power, authority, and might. God does not spell things out for Moses. What God gives Moses is a very enigmatic reply, the sort of answer that would be totally unacceptable to most of us. We would likely hear "I Am who I Am" in the response to the question, "Who are you?" as an impudent and defiant response. Certainly evasive. But perhaps God intends to be evasive meaning that Moses cannot pin God down as we surely cannot pin God down. Approaching God in fear and tremors, seeking clarification, Moses has met with a riddle, "I Am who I Am." It would be good for us to consider this. As one theologian put it, "Could it be that God is not being evasive but straightforward and to the point? Could it be that the point is that God is in fact evasive, elusive, not one to be pinned down, boxed into categories and expectations?" If this is so, then God is suggesting to the people of Israel and to us, that the very minute that we think that we have God, God will surprise us. As we search for God in fire and earthquakes, God will be found in the still, small voice. As we listen for God in silent meditation, God will be shouting protests on the street. God seems to be warning us that we had best not try to find our security in any well-defined concept or category of what is godly. For the minute we believe that we are in the full knowledge of God, God is off again and calling us forth into some unknown place. I believe that God is saying something prickly to any of us who believe that our way is God's way, thus the only way. God is alerting us to the fact that God's own growth and movement will not be stunted by our low tolerance for ambiguity and change. God will not be confined to our expectations of what God ought to be. When God says, "I Am who I Am," our characteristic response is one of utter denial. Instead we opt for the creation of our own idol, one in which we can believe, one which we can hold in a box.
But what if, in seeking to feel better, we are avoiding God's effort to move us on. What if, in seeking God as light, do we then miss God as darkness? What if in avoiding change, do we miss God's plea for us to move into the wonder of some unknown possibility. What if in perceiving only God as father, are we refusing to be nurtured at the breast of God our mother? In seeing God only in our color, shapes, styles, and ways of life, are we then blinded to God's presence in other colors, forms, and ways of being? What if in running from death and trying to hold on to life, are we then utterly missing the presence and power of God in aging and letting go in growing old graciously with God? What if in perceiving God always in that which is sacred, holy, other worldly, religious, are we then failing to see God in the secular, the office, the home, the newspaper, the classroom, our day-to-day relationships.
The people of Israel had to struggle with this evasive answer. Their expectation of a messiah who was to save the nation, beat down the enemies, root out the wicked, never materialized. For them, "I Am who I Am" was hard to bear. For us Christians, Jesus the Christ did not come to clarify "I Am who I Am." Jesus lived and died to show us what being fully human is all about. In Jesus we see what it means to be a son or daughter of God, to bear God's name. In Jesus we perceive that being human in the image of "I Am who I Am" means simply that God calls us whom God has created us to be.
As God's namesake, Jesus was who he was. Jesus lived and died allowing himself by God's grace the freedom to be whom God created him to be, regardless of the customs, laws, and expectations that he be some other. The people who wanted him to be a political zealot found him to be a person of prayerful spirituality. Those who wanted him to be a pious sweet man discover that they had on their hands an offensive activist. To those who wanted him to be a pietistic Savior, he replied, "Get behind me, Satan," and in the presence of those who wanted him to explain himself, he stood silently. "I Am who I Am" reflected in person-hood.
When I probe the depths of Jesus the Christ, I realize that as Jesus was whom God created him to be, so too I am put here by God to be who I am. My vocation as a person of God is not to imitate anyone else nor to try to recreate the life of a person who lived in a different world and in another time with different life experiences. Our vocation as human beings created in the image of God is to be whom God created us to be so that we may be with God, in God, for God in our own time as graciously as we can. It is a way of life which will allow all our laughter to be at the heart of God and all our tears will then become streams of living water. Amen.