by David Baer, October 1, 2017
Have you ever seen anyone try to get out of jury duty? It’s amazing the lengths some people will go to. Now, I know that there are certain things about you that can get you excused. For example, defense attorneys tend not to like victims of crime to sit on juries, because they think these people won’t be sympathetic to their client. Sharing the fact that you have been the victim of a crime might make it more likely that you get to go home. But you do have to be sensible about it, people! In 2008, one woman in a Bronx courtroom claimed that she couldn’t be an impartial juror in a murder case. Why? She said that she had been a murder victim herself.1 What an amazing recovery that must have been! Now, I support our country’s jury system, and I would never advise any of you to make excuses if you really can serve. But if you must make excuses, you need to think them through!
Now, there are jobs that we don’t want to do because we feel they’re tedious and time-consuming, and there are jobs we don’t want to do because we don’t feel up to the task. In today’s scripture, God recruits Moses to lead the Israelite people out of slavery in Egypt. And Moses offers excuse after excuse. Here’s the thing he doesn’t get, though: when God gives you a job, it’s not about you. It’s not about what you can and can’t do. It’s about who God is, and what God can do through you.
For the last two weeks we’ve been talking about a special family. God came to Abraham and Sarah, an old and childless couple, and God promised them that they would have many descendants, that they would inherit the land of Canaan, and that through their family all the families of the earth would be blessed. The name the Bible gives for this kind of promise is a “covenant.” God’s covenant was threatened, first when God told Abraham to sacrifice his only son Isaac, and then spared him. It was threatened when Jacob, Isaac’s son, decided to trick his father into giving the blessing to him, rather than his brother Esau. The story of the Old Testament is the story of this promise and how God renews it and makes good on it in the face of these many, many threats.
Jacob, much later, became known by the name Israel, and from here on the Bible talks about his descendants as the “children of Israel,” or the Israelites. Jacob became the father of twelve sons, and the family migrated to Egypt in order to survive a famine. They stayed there, and in time their descendants became more and more numerous, and they were enslaved by the Egyptians, who were afraid of these foreigners living among them. So now God’s promise, God’s covenant, faces a new threat. The Israelites aren’t living in the land they were promised. They are living as captives and slaves in a foreign land. The story says that they cried out to God, and God did three things. God heard their groaning, God remembered the covenant, and God looked on the Israelites and took notice of them.
Now all God needs is a leader. And Moses, the man God chooses, is probably the most unlikely leader of all. He’s the son of Israelite slaves living in Egypt. He was adopted by a princess in Pharaoh’s court, and he spent his early life enjoying the privileges that come with being on top. But he has a temper that flares up when he sees injustice. As a young man he saw an Egyptian beating an Israelite slave, and he killed the Egyptian. Moses went on the run as a fugitive from justice, a wanted man. He left his life in Egypt behind and headed for the desert, where he was taken in by a people called the Midianites. There he met his wife Zipporah. He’s spent the last forty years as an exile, working as a shepherd for his father-in-law, Jethro. And that’s what he’s doing when God comes to him in the form of a bush that is aflame with fire, but isn’t being burned up and consumed by that fire.
God asks Moses to bring the Israelites out of Egypt, and Moses gives every excuse he can think of. “Who am I,” Moses asks, that I should do all these things? But Moses, it’s not about you. It’s about God, and what God can do through you. “I will be with you,” says God. Well, OK, says Moses, then who are you? What shall I tell the Israelites when they ask who sent me? Who are you, God? What is your name?
And maybe that’s the most important question Moses asks. In the ancient world, name is identity. A name captures the essence of something or someone. If you know someone’s name, you have the power to bless or curse that person. For example, Jacob’s name meant “supplanter.” He was named for the way he came out of his mother’s womb, grabbing at his brother’s heel. And sure enough, that’s what he became. A name is an identity. It pins you down. It defines what you can and can’t be.
Against that backdrop, the answer God gives Moses is really stunning. What is your name? Moses asks. And God says this: ʾehyeh ʾašer ʾehyeh. “I AM WHO I AM.” Moses is looking for something to pin God down, something to hold onto, and instead, God answers with a declaration of complete freedom and self sovereignty. I am who I am. Or, because the verb tenses in Hebrew are flexible, it could also mean “I will be who I will be.” God can’t be pinned down and contained. God is whatever God chooses to be. God’s name is not a definition. It conceals, as well as reveals who God is.
But God does have a name. Almost everywhere you see the words “the LORD” in the Old Testament, written in capital letters, it’s standing in for the unpronounceable name of God. We can’t pronounce it because we don’t have the vowels, but the consonants are Y-H-W-H. And some people used to think it was pronounced Yehovah, and some people now think it’s pronounced Yahweh, but we don’t know. And we don’t know exactly what it means, but the closest guess is that it means something like: “He causes to become,” or “He makes things happen.”
Now, knowing that this is who God is, a God who can’t be pinned down or held back, makes it completely absurd for Moses to throw up all his objections the way he does. Who am I, he asks, that I should free your people? I’m a nobody. I’m not an eloquent speaker. They won’t believe me. As if any of that matters. The plan to liberate God’s people is coming from a God who says I AM WHO I AM. And somehow that train is going to be stopped in its tracks by Moses’ weakness, by his limitations?
Here’s the short version of the story: “Moses,” God says, “you are going to rescue my people.” And Moses says, “No way!” And God says, “Yahweh!”
Moses asks, “Who am I?” and so do we. I’m too young, I’m too old, I’m too busy, I don’t have the skills. Churches do it sometimes, too: we’re too small, nobody will listen to us, we can’t make a difference. Who are we to do what you call us to do, God? But that’s the wrong question. The right question is, “Who is God?” And God says, “I am who I am, I will be who I will be.” God won’t be limited by our weaknesses, our objections, and our fears. God is the one who hears the cries of oppression, who remembers promises, who acts, delivers, saves. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Larry Larue, “Excuses endless when trying to evade jury duty.” The News Tribune (Tacoma). 5 Nov 2012. Archived at https://web.archive.org/web/20130530154208/http://www.thenewstribune.com/2012/11/05/2355840/excuses-endless-when-trying-to.html. Accessed 9/29/2017.