August 28, 2008


by Joel Shuman
(Exodus 3:1-15, Romans 12:9-21, Matthew 16:21-28) A good friend who teaches Theology at a seminary in another part of the country likes occasionally to begin his new classes with the pronouncement that “God is useless.” As you might expect, this assertion is usually not well received by the pious young women and men on the other side of the lectern, who find it shocking, offensive, and even blasphemous. My friend anticipates these reactions, of course, and I suspect he enjoys his students’ outrage (All of us professors have a bit of the ham-provocateur in us.). But he does not assert God’s uselessness simply for the shock value. The claim that God is “useless” is among the most important truths of Christian faith, and one of the central messages of this morning’s Old Testament lesson.

The story the passage tells is a familiar one—so familiar, in fact, that it tempts us to inattentiveness. Make no mistake about it, though: there is a lot going on here, and most of it is radically important to a proper understanding of the God of the Bible, and so to a life devoted to following that God.

We might think of the passage as a scene in a theatrical production. The dramatis personae are three: There is on the one hand Moses, who was enjoying a prosperous anonymity as the son-in-law of Jethro, the priest of Midian. Considering he had come to Midian on the lam, things had turned out pretty well for Moses; he had a new wife and a good job and was positioned to inherit a lot of wealth some day. One the other hand we have God—that is, the God of the Hebrew patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—who has to this point in the production been a shadowy, mysterious presence who tends to show up when he’s least expected. And finally, in the background—a few miles to the south and west, actually—we have the Hebrews, the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. At the end of the previous scene we learned that the Hebrews are in a bit of a tight spot; for the past 400 years or so they have lived in Egypt, first as expatriates, but more recently as slaves. The Egyptians, we are told, are not kind to their slaves.

The setting for the scene is the wilderness of Midian. Moses is working, tending the flock of his father-in-law near Mount Horeb (which is probably another name for Mount Sinai, although no one knows for sure) when he notices something … well, unusual. There is a bush, and it’s on fire, but the fire doesn’t appear to be doing anything to the bush. It just sort of hovers there. And Moses, predictably enough, feels the need to get a better look. As he approaches the bush (just imagine what that looked like), the flame begins to speak. More, the flame doesn’t just ask Moses how he’s doing; it identifies itself as the God of Moses’ ancestors—the God to whom the Hebrews had recently begun to call out, asking for deliverance from their oppression.

It is at this point that we get the critical element in all good drama: conflict. I am not referring here to the emerging conflict between the Hebrews and the Egyptians, although that is very much in the background. I am talking instead about the “debate” that transpires between God and Moses. After God has identified himself, he tells Moses why he’s there. He has a job of work that needs doing, and Moses, he reckons, is just the man for that job. The cries of the Hebrews have reached God, and God needs Moses to be God’s prophet, to go back to Egypt and to confront the Pharaoh and tell him that God wants him to free the Hebrews, whom God identifies here (for the first time) as “my people.” (Make a note of that—it’ll be important a bit later).

Here’s where we get the conflict: Moses doesn’t want the job. And really, who can blame him? He is, after all, just an “average Mo” for whom things have fortuitously broken the right way: he had a clever mother who saved his life when he was an infant; he was adopted into and grew up as part of the Egyptian royal family; he literally had gotten away with murder; and then he had married the boss’s daughter. He has a peaceful, well-to-do existence which will be seriously disrupted by God’s plans. Why should he give up everything to return to a country where is already persona non grata to lead a slave rebellion against the most powerful government in the world?

To which God replies, quite simply, “I will be with you.”

“O—kaayy” says Moses, “but who are you, anyway? I mean, what’s your name? If I go to the Hebrews and tell them that the God of their ancestors has sent me to lead them out of Egypt, don’t you think they’re gonna want some ID? Wouldn’t it help my street cred if I could drop your name on ‘em?”

This is where things get really interesting. Moses’ desire to know God’s name, it turns out, is not just small talk, nor is it just a way of avoiding the bigger issue. In the historical context in which this text is set, “What’s your name?” is no inconsequential question. The peoples of the ancient near east, most of whom worshipped the various tribal gods of their ancestors, believed that knowing and using the names of those gods lent to the user a share of the gods’ power. Thus to know a god’s name was to have a measure of protection from his or her frequent and sometimes violent capriciousness and to possess the capacity to use that capriciousness against one’s enemies, who presumably would be the enemies of one’s god(s), as well (This is why the Decalogue prohibits making inappropriate use of God’s name. That prohibition is against cursing, not in the sense of cussing, but in the sense of “putting a curse” on someone. God’s people are forbidden to do this because it is a way of trying to use God, another name for which is idolatry.) Anyway, Moses has good reasons for wanting to know the name of the deity who confronts him in the bush. Not only is the specter of a strange god speaking through a bush that burns but is not consumed sufficiently terrifying to move him to grasp for whatever trace of control over that god might be at hand, but the prospect of being sent by that god on a dangerous mission against a formidable enemy inspires him to accumulate of an arsenal sufficient to complete the job. Moses figures if he knows God’s name, maybe he can put a divine whammy on the Egyptians and he and the Hebrews can escape with their hides intact.

God’s response to Moses’ query is elegantly simple; it is also loaded with irony. To Moses’ query, “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 answers, “I AM WHO I AM.” The Hebrew here—a word regarded by the Jews as so holy that it can neither be spoken aloud nor written down—is sufficiently ambiguous to lead the reader to wonder whether God might be engaging Moses in a bit of verbal sparring. God’s admonition to Moses to tell the Israelites “I AM has sent me to you …. This is my name forever, and this is my title for all generations” could be read simultaneously as a refusal by God to play Moses’ game and an assurance that the identity of the God speaking from the bush renders the question irrelevant. God is telling Moses that he is an altogether different kind of deity than the Egyptian gods of Moses’ childhood or the household gods of the surrounding tribes. The God who speaks to Moses from the bush can in no way or for any cause be used, but who is also without caprice and therefore absolutely trustworthy. God’s is absolutely wild, but his faithful presence with (and for) Israel is nonetheless assured, not because Moses possesses the power that goes along with knowing God’s name, but because God, whose character is steadfastly and unconditionally to love his creation, has freely promised it. Israel can therefore be certain that regardless of whatever difficulties face them in their efforts to depart Egypt, I AM will remain their God and ultimately will secure their redemption. God will henceforth be known to Israel first of all by this signal act of liberation; that is, as the wild, uncontrollable God who against all odds delivered them out of Egypt and established them as God’s holy people, not because they possessed a secret formula that enabled them to use God’s power, but because God loves them and keeps his promises.

The God with the unusual name is useless precisely because he is wild. God cannot be used. But God makes himself present to the world through God’s people, whose name is Israel and the Church. This means that the people of God can be used, but only by God, for it also means that the people of God are called to be wild—rather like God is wild. Another name for that wildness is holiness. In this week’s Epistle lesson Paul admonishes the church in Rome to be different, to offer their bodies as a sacrifice to God, to allow God to transform them, in effect to allow God to make them wild. Paradoxically, it is becoming wild like God that the people of God become useful in the service of God.

What does that wildness look like? It is a wildness that rejects self-interestedness and instead operates through the practice of self-giving and forgiveness. It is a wildness that loves enemies and prays for persecutors and refuses to take revenge. It is a wildness that turns the other cheek and goes the extra mile, a wildness that eats with tax collectors and sinners, a wildness that recognizes God in the faces of the sick and the poor and the disenfranchised—those living in nursing homes and lying in hospitals, those who live as dumpster divers and bar flies and junkies and whores—and is willing to go where God is. It is a wildness that says “no thank you” to a way of life based on bigger salaries, bigger houses, and successively more expensive cars, a wildness that gives without thought of receiving, a wildness willing to risk being with the poor and disenfranchised, and so also to risk becoming poor and disenfranchised. It is a wildness that looks up from the daily grind and gazes expectantly at the eastern sky, waiting patiently and faithfully for the Kingdom of God.

God cannot be used, but God can use us, especially as we let God makes us wild. The wildness to which God calls us does not simply happen; it requires our working together to cultivate a way of life that can be sustained only as we encourage and support each other. Most importantly, it is a wildness that is sustained by our mindfully, faithfully, and regularly gathering around this altar to eat the bread and wine that by God’s Spirit become his very flesh and blood. What could be wilder than that? The God who rules the world from the burning bush and the manger and the insurrectionist’s cross shows up whenever we gather, giving himself to us, nourishing us, renewing our minds, making it possible for us, it we are willing, to see the world through his wild eyes. Thanks be to God.

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