Rev. Teri Peterson
God the verb
Exodus 2.23-25, 3.10-15, 4.10-17
29 September 2013, NL4-4
After a long time the king of Egypt died. The Israelites groaned under their slavery, and cried out. Out of the slavery their cry for help rose up to God. God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God looked upon the Israelites, and God took notice of them.
So God called to Moses: ‘come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.’ But Moses said to God, ‘Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?’ 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.’
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”: This is my name for ever, and this my title for all generations.
But Moses said to the Lord, ‘O my Lord, I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor even now that you have spoken to your servant; but I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.’ Then the Lord said to him, ‘Who gives speech to mortals? Who makes them mute or deaf, seeing or blind? Is it not I, the Lord? Now go, and I will be with your mouth and teach you what you are to speak.’
But he said, ‘O my Lord, please send someone else.’ Then the anger of the Lord was kindled against Moses and he said, ‘What of your brother Aaron the Levite? I know that he can speak fluently; even now he is coming out to meet you, and when he sees you his heart will be glad. You shall speak to him and put the words in his mouth; and I will be with your mouth and with his mouth, and will teach you what you shall do. He indeed shall speak for you to the people; he shall serve as a mouth for you, and you shall serve as God for him. Take in your hand this staff, with which you shall perform the signs.’
When I was in ninth grade, one of the things we had to do was memorize a list of passive and linking verbs that are often a hallmark of weak writing: am is are was were, be being been, do does did, have has had, shall will should would may might must can could. These words, when used in conjunction with more interesting vocabulary, create an impression of static action and passive voice. When used alone, they convey a sense of existence but not much else. That same year, I figured out that all these words were essentially ways of conjugating what turns out to be the most irregular and yet most foundational verb in most languages: the verb “to be.”
Without the verb “to be,” coherent language is almost impossible. I have used it eight times already in just a minute, and that’s after cleaning up the first paragraph of the sermon to use it less. While articles like “the” and “a” are the most common words, To Be is the most common verb. We rely on it to express our reality of existence, action, speech, desire, and identity.
It is this verb, slippery and essential as it is, that is the name God gives when asked.
When God called Moses to go back to Egypt and bring the Israelites out of slavery, Moses’ first response was “who am I to do that?” God’s answer was: I will be with you. Moses’ second response was: “well who are you anyway?” And God’s answer was the iconic: I am who I am. Or possibly I will be what I will be. Or some combination, because frankly this is the only time this particular form of the verb is seen, and it’s always written without vowels so it’s not possible to pronounce—because in the ancient world, as in some places still today, names have power that must be respected and never misused. To speak a name is to use power—which is why the second creation story in Genesis has God bringing all the animals to Adam to give them their names: it is a way of saying that humans have dominion and are to be good stewards, because we were the ones who spoke the names of every living thing. And as the Thursday morning Bible Study has been learning, every name has a meaning!
For God to reveal God’s name to Moses is a powerful thing. Still today, Jews do not speak this name. And the meaning of the name is simultaneously ephemeral and persistent, foundational and yet always moving. God’s name is a verb that can’t be pinned down and that can’t be lived without.
Sounds about right.
And yet even knowing God’s name, and having the promise of God’s presence, is not enough for Moses. He still has excuses—he stutters, he doesn’t want to go…this verb of a God is hard to nail down. But God doesn’t really take no for an answer when justice and freedom are on the line. So there’s a compromise: God will still go, of course, and so will Aaron. Moses will not have to face Pharaoh alone. He’ll have his brother by his side to do the public speaking, and God within and among and around them to give words and power.
There are scholars who say that this verb that is God might best be translated as “I am who I will be.” With a God like this, is it any wonder that we, who are made in the image of God, are called to action? Or, more specifically, to transformation? While God comes to us, loves us, accepts us, and calls us exactly as we are in this moment, God also has hopes and dreams for all creation, that we will all be transformed into the kingdom of God. The purpose of our life with God is to be transformed more and more into God’s image, not to simply stay exactly as we are now. This change happens when we, like Moses, turn aside to see, stand barefoot on holy ground, and allow the Spirit to live and work in us. It’s a long and slow process, sometimes painful and sometimes joyful, just like any growth process. Sometimes we are transformed in growth spurts and other times it feels like nothing is happening. But the mark of a person in whom the Spirit dwells is a transformed life—a life turned toward grace, justice, love, peace, generosity. Our time spent in worship, in fellowship, in study, in prayer, in service—that time is supposed to lead us into a life changed, an attitude adjusted, a way of being shifted, as we seek to be who God desires us to be.
Just one chapter ago, Moses was a hotheaded murderer. His crime was discovered and he ran away from the law, hiding out in the desert. He stutters, he’s quick tempered, and his leadership skills, as we will see as we turn the pages of Exodus, are mediocre at best. And yet God calls him. And Moses argues, pointing out all the ways he’s not the man for the job, and finally just flat out saying he doesn’t want to do it. And yet God calls him, and works in him, and Moses is transformed, bit by bit, into one of the greatest prophets and leaders in our faith history. He slowly, very slowly, learns to trust God, to heed God’s word, to follow where God is leading. He becomes a conduit for God’s Spirit to enter the community and fill the people. He moves his ego to the side and allows God to dwell in him, and he is changed, and his whole nation is changed. He doesn’t become perfect—his temper still flares now and then, he still does some rash things occasionally, and he still argues with God to try to get his own way. But those incidents become fewer and farther between as he continues to follow God’s lead and becomes more and more in God’s likeness. There is even a point in Moses’ life when the people can literally see God’s Spirit shining in Moses’ face.
That’s the kind of transformation we are called to embody, to move our egos out of the way and to allow the Holy Spirit to do her amazing work in us, until the light of God shines in our faces. God, whose name is “I am who I will be,” calls us to also live into who we will be, right here and right now.
May it be so. Amen.