As we are all staying at home during COVID-19, Knox is providing podcast services. Not everyone can access these, though, so we are also posting my sermons on our Knox Talks blog. I would like to thank Shelley Rose for transcribing my notes into text for the blog.
— (Rev) Andrew Jensen
Meaning and Intent
The burning bush episode is wonderful. It is so rich with information I could preach on it for weeks. I could follow up on Jethro, the Priest of Midian. What kind of priest? Not Hebrew, but Midianite! So the God of Israel was working through the priest of another religion!
At the core of this passage, as I’ve said before, is the revelation of God’s name:
God’s name is NOT Jehovah. That came about as a mistaken transliteration from the Hebrew. The original pronunciation has been lost for centuries, as the Jewish people avoided taking God’s name in vain by never uttering it out loud.
God’s name probably sounds like Yahweh and is related to the Hebrew verb for being. God’s name means “I Am who I Am” and also means “I Will Be who I Will Be.” That’s a linguistic feature of Hebrew: the verb form can mean both depending on the context, and in this context, either is possible. In fact, both are likely.
God is claiming to be the ground of being, to borrow a phrase from theologian Paul Tillich: the source and definition of existence itself. Ironic, since Tillich meant this as a definition of God as an impersonal force, while this passage is full of personality. God is also claiming the future and the option of self-redefinition. In other words, God claims the freedom to change.
That is uncomfortable for a lot of traditional theologians; the idea of God changing is scary. We even write into our hymns that God is “unchanging”.
What we really want out of that is the promise that God is reliable and we struggle with the idea that God is perfect. So what kind of change could be possible? How can you improve on perfection?
This just proves that our minds can’t encompass perfection, so we want to limit God to make ourselves feel better.
We were warned in other passages of the Bible: in Isaiah 43 God says “See, I am doing a new thing”. I hear a tone of delight in those words. God is creative, and delights in doing new things.
But for all the possible deep meanings we could dig out of God’s name as revealed at the Burning Bush, “meaning” is not the core of the event. This is all about God doing something!
God had heard the cry of the oppressed people of Israel and intended to save them. God planned to reach into the world, to intervene in history and rescue a nation from slavery.
That should tell us more about God than any abstract debates about the meaning of God’s name. God’s name is about “being,” yes, but God is about “doing”.
God’s name is revealed as a detail in the plans to save Israel. A significant detail, of course, and one that deserves the centuries of study it has received. But we are told God’s name in the context of God’s work.
Everything that follows the Burning Bush is remarkable: persuading Moses to actually be a prophet and a leader; sending him and his brother Aaron to confront Pharaoh; the plagues; the very first Passover;
the flight from Egypt through the Red Sea; the giving of the law on Mt. Sinai; the failed attempt to enter the promised land; 40 years in the wilderness; and ultimately the (mostly) successful invasion of Canaan.
Two generations of the people of Israel seeing God at work; not just “being,” not remote or abstract but right there: a column of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night; the clouds and mysterious lights on the mountaintop where Moses came out with the tablets, his face glowing with divine light; the manna in the wilderness . . .
This is no passive God! All this freaky, miraculous stuff shows us a God who wants to be active.
We can certainly debate the reality of particular events and miracles; scholars have done a lot of this in the past century or so. Questions have been raised about the Red Sea vs. the Reed Sea. I don’t propose to get into that right now because it’s not the point of the lesson.
God called Moses over to the Burning Bush because God intended to act and wanted to involve this man who didn’t want to be a leader; who was wanted for murder back in Egypt after he killed an Egyptian slave driver who was beating a fellow Hebrew.
Moses wasn’t an obvious choice to speak on God’s behalf; he even had a speech impediment and was prepared to argue with God to get out of this job.
Still today God wants to act and God is able to see possibilities in us that we can’t imagine in ourselves. Revealing the name of God was a fascinating digression but even with Moses, God didn’t allow it to become a topic: God immediately brought Moses back to the job at hand.
The situation facing us today is obviously different. We’re not enslaved but we may feel as helpless as the Hebrews did. We should remember that God has never stopped being an active God. We may not be faced with pillars of cloud and fire, or divided seas or other obvious miracles, but we do know what it is like when God chooses to work through reluctant people to make things change.
Because that has never stopped happening.
Somehow, God’s people are reluctant time after time. We never feel good enough; we don’t feel like we have the skills, or we have an impediment in life that stops us. And if we don’t have those issues then we can think up some excuses or demand more information before we proceed: “just one more thing, God, what was your name again? And what does that mean? Very interesting. I’ll have to contemplate that for awhile. . .”
God wants to do something now, to help us. We don’t know what it is. Maybe we can’t even imagine anything working. We certainly don’t feel very prepared and it’s so tempting to distract ourselves with fascinating discussions of theory . . .
So let’s resolve, in this challenging time, to be willing to respond to God’s call without demanding all the answers to our questions; without feeling like we know what we’re doing; without feeling like we’re good enough.
Let’s be willing to take that step of faith into the future and allow God to do things through us that may surprise us.
Let’s try to calm our fears so that we can work beyond all the ways we have to say “no”, and find the place where we can say “yes” to God’s leading. And if we can’t say “yes, I can do that” we can at least say “yes, I’m willing to try.”
God led the people of Israel out of slavery in Egypt through 40 years in the wilderness, through all kinds of dangers and difficulties. I believe that we can trust God to lead us through this time and out into a future where God will do new things through us.