THE ONE WHO IS
TEXT: Exodus 3:1-15

As a minister, I get asked a lot of questions by people. The most common question I hear is "Where is the bathroom?" but running a close second to that is the question, "How do I know when God is speaking to me?" Should I listen for an audible voice? Should I be expecting a telegram? And when I feel that inner turbulence that some call the "still, small voice of God," how do I know it's God and not just the effects of eating that pizza with all the toppings? It's a very real question, and I promise you that I will deal with it in a lot of sermons.

No matter how you come at it, however, the answer is always basically the same. You learn to recognize the voice of God just the same way that you learn to recognize anybody...by getting to know them over days, months, and years of spending time and sharing experiences together. Take, for instance, my brother Rob. I was terribly negligent at the blessing of the animals last week and did not introduce him. I introduced my sister-in-law, who was the veterinarian, but left Rob as the unknown guy who was running the sound system.

Anyway, Rob is my only brother, and despite my mistake last week, I love him just as much as I can love anybody. After spending 38 of my 40 years with him, I know him very well, and it would be very difficult to disguise him from me. If we were at a costume party, I would know his walk, his voice--even all his disguise voices, and I'm pretty sure I would know him just by the nature of the costume he would pick out. If a wizard came along and turned Rob into a newt, I think I could easily distinguish Rob from all the other newts...I know him that well.

Now take the opposite extreme. At my farewell reception at Trinity, a couple came through the receiving line. "Guess where we were last week?" they asked. I had no idea. "Dover, New Hampshire," they said. We were in New England and just had to go visit the place where you were going. They drove around and found the church, came in and met Sandy as if arriving at the destination of a pilgrimage. Their story fascinated me because I didn't remember ever seeing this couple before in my life. I didn't know their names, didn't recognize their faces, and probably wouldn't be able to pull them out of a crowd now, either. Trinity is a church of 3,000 people, and I left not knowing a huge number of people who felt like they knew me.

We all start out on our faith journey, knowing God about as well as I knew that couple. God knows who WE are and is interested enough to be a part of all of the details of our lives. But we don't know God from a prickly pear. One way of thinking about the goal of our faith journey is to move from that place to knowing God as intimately as I know my brother...so that no matter how God might speak or appear, we can pick God out every single time.

OK...so how do you do that? Glad you asked. It just so happens that the Exodus text for this morning has some keys. Here God makes a miraculous appearance to Moses...but Moses could easily have missed it. Notice how this encounter comes about. God does not shout at Moses..."Hey, Moses...over here...in the bush. It's me, God." No, a bush is simply on fire. That probably was not too uncommon in the desert, because Moses is not surprised by a bush being on fire. It's not the fire that attracts him. He goes over there because he notices that the bush is on fire, but it is not being consumed.

Remember, this is before gas logs...a bush on fire should soon be ashes. At least you should see branches dropping off and leaves withering. Moses would have completely missed God if he had not been alert and paying attention and watchful. In fact, I think it is possible that God appeared many times to Moses before this, and he never noticed. Follow me back a couple of chapters for a minute. If you have time in the next couple of months, read through the book of Exodus...I'm going to be preaching from it a lot. You'll read about Moses being born and about Pharaoh's thwarted attempt to kill him, ending up with Moses being raised right under Pharaoh's nose, by Pharaoh's own daughter.

Moses grows up and begins to see how his own people suffer as slaves of the Egyptians. One day a Hebrew slave is in a brawl with an Egyptian and Moses intervenes and kills the Egyptian. Word gets out and Moses flees to the Sinai desert. There he meets his wife and becomes a shepherd. If you went to any of my open house nights this month, you will know that I have a bias toward sheep, but I think the tending of sheep was a key part of Moses' training. To be a shepherd, you had to be constantly alert, even though most days were dull and boring. You never knew what rock or bush hid a wolf or lion or where thieves were waiting for your first moment of inattention.

I think that God might have been appearing to Moses for years, knowing that the day he was attentive enough to notice God's appearing was the day that his training with the sheep was complete and he was ready for larger things. We can learn from this. To know when God is speaking, we have to first be watching for God. If I go through my day never expecting God to say or do anything, I will miss even miracles like the burning bush. This is lesson one...Pay attention and expect God to speak. Expect God to be trying to communicate with you in any and every way imaginable. Try to go through just one day being completely alert. Assume that every ring of the phone, every interruption, every bird that flies by, every event of the day might be God trying to tell you something. If you can learn to be that attentive, I promise that you will begin to hear God. If you can't be that attentive, try getting some sheep.

But being attentive is only a very early step, and it is not enough because there are other messages coming at us that are not from God. To sort them out, we have to begin the process of really getting to know God on a personal level...a process that takes a lifetime. When someone tells me that Rob said "Mr. Spock is an airhead and Star Trek is a waste of time," I know that either Rob has suffered a stroke or that they are wrong. How do I know that? I know Rob. Rob is a trekkie. Rob once scoured New England for Star Trek regulation-sized boots. He would not be making disparaging comments about Star Trek. But if any of you heard the statement, you would have no way of judging...you don't know him. It's the same principle with God. You will only get better at sorting out God's voice from the others as you learn to know God better.

When Moses turns aside to check out the burning bush, it seems he does know some things ABOUT God. But this is his first step of really KNOWING God one on one, and it begins with a simple, but important question. "Who are you?" "What is your name?" Moses wants to know of God. And in the answer to that question, God reveals a bundle. The name that God gives is a form of the Hebrew verb meaning "to be." Hebrew is delightfully imprecise as a language and so the translation of the name varies. It can mean, "I am what I am" or "I am who I am." It can mean "I am the one who causes to be" or "I will be who I will be" or my personal favorite, "I am the one who is."

It is hard to overstate the importance that this revelation has had for Jews and Christians alike. In both Disciple classes we will talk about this in more detail, but suffice it to say that the name of God as revealed here has resulted in new denominations being formed, in people being stoned, and in people spending their entire lives meditating on the four Hebrew consonants that make up the name.

While some of that has gotten extreme, I do think it's safe to say that this is the place that begins to define the nature of God. God doesn't reveal anything here that hasn't already been seen in Genesis. It just begins to put God's nature into words. "I am the one who causes to be." Yup. We saw that big time in the opening chapters of Genesis. God spoke and there was...and the whole earth and everything in it was created. God as the first cause...Plato and Aquinas take credit for that philosophical argument, but God laid it out almost a thousand years before Plato was a gleam in his father's eye.

But my favorite translation of the name is "I am the one who is." God is simply the one who is...the one that exists...the one that is real. When somebody wants to know what God sent you, say..."Duh...the real one...the only one. The one who is as opposed to those that are not." This is a theme echoed again and again in the prophets as they rail against the senselessness of people worshipping pieces of wood and stone that are nothing but hand-carved objects. They don't exist. The true God is defined and named by existence. God is real. God exists.

We have got to have that understanding deep down in our bones before we can talk meaningfully about God speaking or interacting with us. "Oh, I believe God exists," say the majority of people. Do you? Can you prove you believe it by anybody who knows you? If it were a crime, would there be enough evidence to convict you? What we say with our lips is important, but what we do with our lives shows what we truly believe. If I am sitting with you in a coffee shop, spending a leisurely morning, and I say...you know, I believe my house is going to burn down this morning...you are going to question how much I really believe that.

If I truly believed my house was about to be ashes, I would be scrambling either to prevent it, or to save what I could out of it. It's the same with our belief in God. If you really believe in God, your life is going to show it...plainly. Now the way it shows may be different, depending on what you believe God's nature to be...but anybody who knows you should be able to tell what you believe, because our belief and our actions are linked. What we think about ourselves, the world and God shows up in how we behave. That's why James says faith without works is dead. What we really believe is evident in our actions...that's our nature. God's name says, first of all, that God is the one who is. God exists. God is real. God is not first the one who does X,Y, or Z...God is first simply the one who is. We don't get to advance to "Go" and collect $200 until we get that much.

So lesson one is: Be attentive. Lesson two is: really absorb the fact that God exists. Lesson three comes down in verse 12. This verse has always seemed a bit odd to me...kind of like God has a sick sense of humor. Moses has been asked to do something really, really dangerous and understandably, he wants some reassurance. God responds in verse 12, "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." Great, God. Big help. The only sign I get happens after the fact. By the time I'm back here to this mountain...if I live that long, I won't be needing a stupid sign.

That has always bugged me. In preparing for this sermon, however, I read the passage in the Tanakh...the Jewish translation of the Hebrew Scriptures. Remember that the original languages of the Bible do not have punctuation of any sort...just putting in punctuation is a form of translation. I read nine different Christian English translations, and every one of them had punctuation that indicated that the sign was worshipping God back on Sinai after they got out. But the Jews don't translate the verse the way we do. All the words are the same, but they put the period in a different place so that it reads: "I will be with you, and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you. Period. When you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain." The sign is God's presence, not worshipping on the mountain. Well that makes a whole lot more sense to me.

And it fits better with what follows in the next chapter. There, in this same conversation with God at the bush, God gives Moses evidence of God's presence...his rod turns into a snake, his hand becomes leprous and then whole again. In our translation, Moses gets no sign until after the whole campaign is ended. In the Jewish translation, he has his sign before the end of the conversation and those signs are with him every single time he appears before Pharaoh. Big difference.

Like Moses, God's presence with us is the proof we get of God's existence...that God is real...that God loves and cares for us. We can't produce a logical proof of God anymore than we can produce a scientific proof of God...the proof is in the pudding, as they say. The proof is in our experience...in what happens to us when we live our days with full attention, looking for the God we know to be there. We can't have the proof until we step out in faith...until we take actions that reflect a belief in God. The rod of Moses didn't turn into a snake until he threw it down on the ground, and it didn't turn back into a rod until he reached out and picked it up by the tail. Faith is not something we think...faith is what we do in response to our thoughts.

God will be present with us, that's the promise and the proof...God with us...Emmanuel ...Jesus. Jesus is, ultimately, God's proof of existence. "I will be with you," he says to Moses. "The Kingdom of God is within you," says Jesus to his Disciples. "Neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us" says Paul to all of us.

How do I know God is speaking to me? It will take time to be absolutely sure...a lifetime, in fact. But we can begin from wherever we are. We can begin by being attentive to everything around us. Next, we need to ask ourselves, Do I really believe in God? Do I really want God to be real to me? Am I ready to throw down my rod and see what God does with it? If you do, your experience will prove to you what no philosopher or scientist can...that God exists, that God is the one who is, that the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Moses is still at work causing things to be...causing you, also, to exist...perhaps for the first time.

Are you ready to start becoming real? Have you tended sheep long enough? Are you ready to throw down the rod and experience God's presence with you? If you're ready to take the next step on the journey, whether it is the first step or the fiftieth...if you're ready to move beyond where you are and know God better, I invite you to come.

Amen.

1999, Anne Robertson


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