Scripture: Exodus 3: 1-15; Matthew 16:21-28
Last week, we heard the story of the birth of Moses and how this Hebrew baby grew up to be a Prince in the court of the pharaoh of Egypt. Today, we have picked up the story years later when he was wandering in the wilderness, herding the flocks for his father-in-law, Jethro, in the Sinai desert. What a fall. Quite a change.
From Prince to Shepherd
Let’s fill in some of the details. Moses was brought up by pharaoh’s daughter but he always knew that had been born one of the enslaved Hebrews. One day, he went out to see where his own people were and watched them at their hard labour. Seeing an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, Moses killed the Egyptian. When the pharaoh heard about this, he wanted to kill Moses and Moses fled from Egypt. He ended up in Midian, a region believed to be in northwestern Arabia.
There he married Zipporah, a daughter of the priest of Midian, and worked in his father in law’s shepherding business. Eventually, the pharaoh who wanted to kill Moses died. And that’s where today’s story starts – with Moses pasturing his flock in the desert. He comes to Horeb (called Sinai in another tradition of the story), the mountain of God. And it is there that he sees a bush afire but not burned up. And, as if that were not enough, the bush starts talking!
A talking bush
“Moses, Moses,” intones the bush, and Moses responds, “Here I am.” Then the bush reveals itself as the “God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And Moses, being nobody’s fool, “hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God. So far, so good. Moses up to now has responded as he ought to have.
Through the bush, the God of the Hebrews proceeds to announce the reason for this particular appearance to this particular man at this particular time. He – let’s use the masculine pronouns since that’s how Moses would have spoken – he knows the sufferings of his people, and is ready to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them to a new land, a land flowing with milk and honey.
Who, me? Not me!
I often picture Moses at this point, face down in the sand in front of the bush, listening to this mighty announcement of God about oppression and God’s decision to act against it on behalf of Israel, and noting an important fact: every pronoun has been a first person one. It is obviously God who has made the decision to intervene in the world for Israel and Moses is surely thinking, “I am behind you God, way behind you. Go for it!” But unfortunately for Moses, the pronouns take an abrupt turn “So, come, I will send you to pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.”
Yes, you, Moses
Oops, that’s a different story! And it sends Moses off into a series of questions that have one purpose, namely, to get Moses off the hook of this preposterous command. It takes him only the blink of an eye before he shouts, “Why me! After all, God, I am a fugitive from Egyptian justice, and besides I have a wife and child and a steady job. God calmly responds, That’s OK. I will be with you.
What’s your name?
Then Moses comes out with a zinger. He asks God what his name is. Was this as innocent a question as it seems to us, or was it a power play by Moses? A person’s name was supposed to tell you some thing about them. After all, Moses own name meant “Pulled out” in Hebrew, and in Egyptian meant Son. What did Moses expect to learn from God’s name?
God said ” Ehyeh asher ehyeh“. Since original Hebrew script did not have vowels (they were added in the Middle Ages) this is written in our script as YHWH, known as the sacred name of God, and pronounced as Yahweh.
As an aside, Father Richard Rohr says of this “All people have access to their True Self from their very first inhalation and exhalation, which is the very sound of the sacred. It is the literally unspeakable Jewish name for God, YHWH. It cannot be spoken but only breathed: inhaling and exhaling with open lips.  It is the first and last “word” you will ever utter—most likely without knowing it.” Try it.
God of the Future
In our Christian bibles Ehyeh asher ehyeh is translated “I am who am”. But this is a translation of a translation of a translation. So, the Hebrew to Greek to Latin filtered through the theologians ends up in English as: “I am who I am,” or, “I am He who is.” Rabbi Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, points out that, “Ehyeh asher ehyeh” means none of these things. It means ‘I will be what, where, or how I will be’. These are words in the future tense! Here is the God who will act in history now and in the future. Here is the God of Israel and the God of Jesus and the first followers. Here is a God who will continue to participate in and within the arc of creation. We have here too a revelation of creation and history as an environment of change.
God who shapes the futute
This passage reveals to us a new God, one who acts. Rabbi Sacks points out that until this point God was only known through creation. But now what we begin to see is a revelation of a God who intervenes.
Peter faces the God of the Future
God is telling Moses, and us, that we don’t live in a world of our making; and our God will always be the one who decides what where and how God acts. Peter learned this in the Gospel passage we heard today. He has an image of God and how God might act in his life. The orientation for Peter as he makes both his confession and his mistaken assumption is that God is part of Peter’s narrative. But Jesus makes it very clear that Peter and the disciples, which includes us, are part of God’s narrative. That’s what it means to deny ourselves and take up our cross and follow Jesus.
Hope and justice
In this name is hope. Here is the idea that God will continue to act. Here is the idea of a God who will journey with us as we make our own pilgrimage. Our God has not left us to make the most of our lives until we die, after which God will raise us from the grave. No, here is the God who is active in the world he created and loves. The God of the Future. This God interacts for justice. Here is a God who desires kinship and faithfulness in all time and not only in one moment. Here is the God who has created humanity to be engaged in future thinking.
Like Peter, the disciples and Moses, we stand at the precipice of tomorrow with a God of the future. We are given an opportunity to change. We are given the opportunity to work beyond our own individual flourishing for the flourishing of others. We are given the chance tomorrow to do good and to change our lives and the world around us.
I’ll end with another quote from Rabbi Sacks: “When God said, “I will be what I will be,” He was telling us something not only about God but about us when we are open to God and have faith in His faith in us. We can be what we will be if we choose the right and the good. And if we fail and fall, we can change because God lifts us and gives us strength.
“And if we can change ourselves, then together we can change the world. We cannot end evil and suffering but we can diminish it. We cannot eliminate injustice, but we can fight it. We cannot abolish sickness but we can treat it and search for cures.”
May Yahweh, the God of the futute, the God who controls the furture, give us all the strength and wisdom for walk with hope and courage into this future. In the words of the prophet Micah, may we “do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with our God”.