"Call to Freedom"
A Message By Dr. Bruce Havens
BASED ON THE THEME: "Reading the Bible again, for the FIRST time"
ARLINGTON CONGREGATIONAL CHURCH, U.C.C.
July 14, 2019
“Call to Freedom”
a message by Dr. Bruce Havens
based on the theme: “Reading the Bible Again, for the First Time”
Arlington Congregational Church, U.C.C.
July 14, 2019
Exodus 3:1-15 (NRSV)
1Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. 2 There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. 3 Then Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.”
4 When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.”
5 Then he said, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” 6 He said further, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.
7 Then the Lord said, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, 8 and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the country of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites.
9 The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. 10 So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.”
11 But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” 12 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.”
13 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?”
14 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.’” 15 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 forever, and this my title for all generations.
Who are you? Who am I? Who is God? Who are we to think God – God Almighty and Everlasting – would have any interest in us or our human affairs? Pretty important questions, wouldn’t you say? How we answer these questions ultimately defines our faith, our priorities, and our lives. These questions are at the heart of this story of Moses.
If we ask ourselves “Who am I?” most of us would have a number of ways to answer that. We may define ourselves by our careers – I am a professional clergyperson. Or we may define ourselves by our relationships – I am a husband, father, etc. We might [especially since we are sitting in church and feel obligated] say, “I am a Christian!” defining ourselves by our faith tradition. Some of us may be young enough to not be able to fully answer this question to our own satisfaction. Those of us getting close to a transition in our lives – like retirement - or even more dramatically, those who see our transition from this life to the next on the next horizon may be reconsidering or reflecting on this question in a new way. Who are you? How would you answer that question? Turn to someone nearby and share what you think is the first way you would define yourself if someone asked.
Look at the story of Moses. He was born to a Hebrew family in Egypt, child of slaves, what could he have hoped to be growing up? It’s not like he could work hard as a slave, work his way up the slave chain and become a higher paid middle – class slave. But, miraculously he ends up growing up in the household of the King of Egypt. He is adopted by the daughter of the King and grows up with all the perks of being royalty. Pretty good job description, huh? Anyone here want to be King of Queen of Something growing up?
But those two diametrically opposed identities must have created a fair amount of inner conflict for Moses. By the time we meet him at this point in his life story, standing before a burning bush, that conflict has exploded his life. He evidently knew his racial and ethnic bloodlines because in the book of Exodus we read that Moses went out to observe the treatment of the Hebrew slaves and when he saw an Egyptian abusing, torturing, one of the Hebrew slaves Moses murders the Egyptian and hides the body in the sand. But his actions are not without witnesses and the very next day when he tries to stop two Hebrew slaves from fighting among themselves asks him if he is going to kill one of them like he did the Egyptian. Terrified that he will be punished for his crime, Moses escapes into the wilderness. Time passes and he does a kindness for a group of women at a well and ends up marrying one of them.
Then one day he goes out with the sheep that he is tending for his father-in-law and comes to the mountain of the Lord and he sees a bush burning, but not being consumed by the flames. When he gets near, the bush introduces itself as God and tells Moses God has a purpose for him. He receives a vision if you will of his calling. His identity has been redefined by God. Moses, born to Hebrew slaves, adopted grandson and ultimately a prince in the household of a foreign king, becomes a murderer and then a refugee, a fugitive, is called by God to be the deliverer of those same slaves, a savior of his people. Talk about a change of roles.
The fact is all of us have our roles change as we go through life and we often have to juggle more than one role at a time. We may be spouse, employee or employer, or parent or parent and child at the same time. Think about all the roles you have played in your life and may still play. Which one was or is the most challenging for you? Maybe it was being the child of parents who were abusive or addicted and unpredictable. Maybe it was your role as manager in a company where you felt ill-equipped. The challenge may have been difficult but you may have learned lessons that helped you become a better person. I have always said that being a parent for the first time taught me more than my Harvard education – taught me about love, about being unselfish. If that child was hungry, or crying, or needed changing that was more important than whatever my needs were at the time, even if my diaper needed changing and I was hungry and ready to cry! Turn to someone different than you spoke to last time and share briefly what role in your life has been a challenging one and if you can, share why briefly.
For Moses, being the leader of a slave revolt may have been even more difficult than being a murderer, a fugitive, or even being the child of slaves adopted by the King’s daughter. Savior of a people, liberator of a nation – and by the way they proved to be what the God called a “stiff-necked” people to lead, this was a difficult task. Moses was not a natural leader. He did not want the job. He told God he wasn’t a naturally gifted spokesperson. God had a ready response – I will be with you. Have you heard that promise before? Remember Jesus Christ make that same promise to you and to me? “Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of time and eternity itself,” Jesus told his disciples and the same promise is for us as well.
This is the central power of this passage for you and me. Sure it is important historically for us to know that this God as more powerful than the most powerful king of nations at the time. It is important to know we are heirs to a God who hears the cry of those who suffer injustice, who are enslaved physically, mentally, spiritually or in any other way. God is a liberator. Rarely a Sunday goes by that I don’t make that same point in some way or another. But I want to turn to something in this passage that intrigues me more today than any other question. It is the question of that burning bush.
Now if we think about that burning bush, I am not interested in how it burned without being consumed. I am not interested in the science or the factual historicity of it. The burning bush was the way God got Moses’ attention. I think that is a point we should not ignore. What a strange way to get someone’s attention. If you and I want someone’s attention we send them an instant message, or if we want the waiter’s attention in the restaurant we wave our hands. If we want our spouse’s attention we may give them a hug or a kiss. But if we were God how would we go about getting someone’s attention? Sure the Bible is full of times when God speaks to someone and they say “Here I am, Lord.” But why a burning bush?
I don’t really have an answer but here’s my question for you. What is God doing to get your attention? What would or has God done to get your attention in the past? Can you think of a time when you suddenly realized something strange, out of the ordinary, unbelievable was happening and it made you stop and take notice? Maybe you didn’t think it was God at the time. I suspect God often does “burning bush” miracles right before our eyes to get our attention and we miss it. Now God’s purpose isn’t always to call us to liberate anyone or to do something tremendous. Sometimes it is just a way for God to say to us – “I am who I am!” – and the appropriate response is to fall down in worship before God! Sometimes I think it is to remind us that God is God and we aren’t. Other times it may be that God has a calling for us. I wonder how many of us have turned away from that burning bush. I wonder how many of us have – by our actions if not our words – told God in effect, “unh, unh, no way, not me God, I can’t do that, I won’t do that, forget it!” It may not have been something as impossible as leading an enslaved people out of a foreign country. It may have been to take on a responsibility for someone or something we did not expect or realize we should take it on. Maybe it is simply a bush burning to call us to trust and believe in this God who is the great “I AM” and to believe God is with us.
David Lose, [“Get off the Couch …”, workingpreacher.org, 8/20/11], makes this point about this story of Moses and YHWH. In the Scriptures the importance of names is twofold. First, the fact that naming something or someone always had a meaning behind it- a way of describing that person’s character or the importance of that place. Second, they believed that knowing someone’s name gave you power over that person. It was as if in knowing their character or nature it gave you a power to control that person in some way. David Lose suggests that the conversation between God and Moses about God’s name is a subtle power play between Moses and God. Moses, in asking what name God is called by is certainly clarifying which God Moses is claiming as his source of authority and power. It was not one of the Egyptian gods. It was not one of the gods from other tribes back in Palestine where they lived hundreds of years ago before coming down as immigrants into Egypt. This God was YHWH. And that name is actually unpronounceable from its original spelling. We use the translation YHWH but it is only a guess at what the word sounded like coming from God’s own voice. The point is not the spelling. The point is that God is not going to be controlled by humans. God is not giving power over to Moses to control him. “I will be who I will be,” God says to Moses, as if to say, don’t try to manipulate me for your own purposes. Don’t try to think you can take my power and make me your slave as Pharaoh has enslaved my people.
Today the most serious challenge to the Christian faith is the way everyone on every side of every theological or sociological question in the Church Universal is that folks are trying to manipulate God for their own agendas. This televangelist is claiming God believes this and everyone who doesn’t agree is going to hell. That denomination is deciding that God hates people who are not straight. Another uses the power of God’s name to exclude women from being ordained leaders in the church. The UCC claims that YHWH is still speaking. Some claim we are heretics and apostate for such claims.
I think the best way we can test whether what we are seeking to do, or feel called to do is truly from God is simply this – when we claim to speak for or use God’s power or the power of God’s name are we doing it for our own benefit and the benefit of our own beliefs or are we doing for the benefit of others? Are we speaking up for the ones the Bible speaks up for? Those who use human power to cage others up like animals in any way I can confidently say are generally not following the way God works very accurately. I think we often cling to the status quo, to the way things are, so that we do not have to change our thinking, our lives, or our false beliefs. I think God is burning bushes everywhere trying to get our attention. I think God is trying to liberate us from false beliefs, from enslaved thinking, acting, and living. I believe the bush is always burning somewhere to get someone’s attention to find people who will lead others to blessing, to freedom, to life.
God has often used some form of burning bush to call people to freedom. God is still calling us to share in the work of freeing others. That is probably the best way to judge what it is God is calling you to do in any given moment. If you are striving to free yourself at the expense of someone else that probably isn’t YHWH. If you are working to help someone else be free – from any kind of suffering- then that probably is a burning bush God is call you to come and see. AMEN.