The Bible gets used and abused in a lot of different ways. It’s a handy doorstop, it makes a great bookend for the shelf where the books just won’t stop falling over. Of course, for that you need a hard-bound version, preferably one of those great big family Bibles everyone used to have. The huge German subscription Bible in my office is of the sort that makes for a good booster seat for little ones at the Thanksgiving dinner table. As a paperweight, the Lutheran Study Bible is nice, whether in paperback or hardcover or even the nice vinyl cover. Frankly, I think all of these are perfectly fine uses of the Bible, because who knows, one of those times, it might fall open at the Book of John or Paul’s letter to the Romans and a little bit of Gospel might slip out. I certainly like that better than some of the other uses I’ve seen. What exactly is the right Bible for thumping in a political debate, I wonder? Whatever Bible is being used, it usually feels more like that big German subscription Bible, because it is brought down with the weight of a Mac truck with skull-shattering precision. There are, of course, a lot of other ways to use the Bible. Many of them very fine uses, like reading it for daily devotions; sharing it with the family; applying its words to our lives; setting its words to music; memorizing bits of it for recall at moments of need; praying in the words of the psalms when our own words won’t come; calling on it for comfort or advice or grounding when the world seems to be a shaky place. All very good ways to come at Scripture.
But I have to wonder, why were these words written in the first place? My first seminary Bible professor claimed that the Scriptures are best considered as “rescued responses to experiences of God.” In other words, someone had an experience of God. Maybe they were napping in the desert with their head on a rock, and had a dream about a ladder and a promise, like Jacob last week. Or maybe they were thrown into a pit in the wilderness by their 11 brothers, and taken captive and traded into slavery in Egypt and became Pharaoh’s right-hand man and then had those same brothers come begging for food and had to decide whether to forgive them and through all of that came to see how God redeems people and situations that feel irredeemable – that kind of thing is an experience of God that someone might share with others, as Joseph did. And the story might change and morph as it gets transmitted down through the generations, but the people who hear it over the centuries might feel that it is worth saving, worth sharing, worth rescuing for future generations. This would be a rescued response to an experience of God. And it would become, for example, the book of Genesis.
Or maybe a guy was on the run from the law. He was a troubled youth – born to a Jewish slave, but raised by a Pharaoh’s daughter, he never really felt at home in the palace, but he didn’t really belong among his own people, either. And then one day he saw an Egyptian abusing a Jewish slave, and he just kind of lost it, things got out of hand, and before he knew it, the Egyptian was dead, and buried in the sand, and Moses was an outlaw, on the run. And out there in the wilderness (it’s always in the wilderness, isn’t it? that seems like good news in and of itself) out there in the wilderness, this guy Moses found a little grace. He found a family, married a Midianite woman named Zipporah, and got a job with his father-in-law. It wasn’t much of a job, granted, pretty entry-level stuff, tending the sheep. But while he was out there one day, he found himself having a God experience, stumbling across a burning bush. A talking, burning bush. A talking, burning bush that told him to go back to Egypt, back to the place where he was an outlaw, and there to set the people of Israel free.
Did it seem like a God moment right then? Or was it only in retrospect, looking back on it from the shores of the Red Sea, or wandering for 40 years through the wilderness of Zin, or standing, finally, on the banks of the Jordan, looking over into the promised land that he would never enter? When did Moses finally get the perspective that we all eventually get, when we look back on those moments when God reaches into our lives and turns them upside down? Whenever it was that he finally saw it, this was one of those experiences of God that was rescued, passed down through the generations, until it eventually came to us, here, today.
There are a lot of things that we try to do with the Bible, a lot of ways we try to use it. For example, we bring all kinds of questions to the Bible – everything from “what should I do?” to “who should be allowed to marry?” to “how much should I tithe?” to “how many volumes do I need to get Elinor to reach the table?” – but these aren’t the questions the Bible is actually answering. Instead, there are two questions that frame the Bible, two questions that I think we could be asking of this sacred text, questions that I think would get us far more interesting answers, far more helpful answers, than the questions that we usually bring. And Moses asks both of these questions: Who is God? And who am I?
God tells Moses, “Go back to Egypt and bring the Israelites out of slavery!” And Moses wants to know, “who shall I say is calling?” On whose authority am I going to do this thing? How can they trust you? How can I trust you? And once you’ve answered that, God, let me ask you this: who am I?
These are actually the questions we’ve been asking of the text for the last several weeks, since we began, at the beginning, with Genesis and Creation. These are questions the text has offered up to us, questions the text has sought to answer for us. This image-of-God motif I’ve been preaching for the last 4 weeks? That’s what’s going on there.
Over and over throughout the Bible, different authors in different circumstances have asked the question: who is this God I’ve just encountered? There are a lot of different answers, but time and again, as here in Exodus, they are variations on an ever-expanding theme. This is the God who will not be put in a box.
Moses asks, “who will I say has sent me?” Maybe Moses is trying to pin God down. Maybe Moses is trying to weasel out of the call. Maybe Moses really isn’t sure which God he’s talking to – after all, he was raised in Pharaoh’s household, raised to believe in many gods, raised to believe his grandfather the Pharaoh was himself a god. It’s a pretty reasonable question to ask, given those circumstances: can you be more specific? who are you? if you’re going to make such a serious demand and claim and call on me, I need to know a little more about you. Do you maybe have a Facebook page I could check out?
And by way of a resume, God simply points to the stories, the rescued responses, the Book of Genesis. “The Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, … This is my name forever, and this my title for all generations.” And God adds this enigmatic name, “I am who I am” Sometimes translated, I am who I am, sometimes, I will be who I will be, sometime I have been who I have been, or some combination of these. It’s not much to go on, as a name. “Tell them I AM has sent you.” But when combined with these stories, the stories that the Israelites would know, these rescued responses that they have received down through the generations, when combined with these, God’s name means something. It tells us something. God has been, is, will be, the God of Creation. The God whose Word creates the world and the people, whose Word brings promise, and whose promise brings transformation and blessing. This God has been, is, will be, the God who shows up, time after time, in the middle of the wilderness, in the least likely places, in the moments of hopelessness, when everything has gone pear-shaped, this is the God who steps into our darkness and brokeness and pain with words of life and renewal and presence. The God who brought Noah and his family through the waters of the flood and set the rainbow in the sky as a sign of covenant; the God who led Abram into a new land and blessed him to be a blessing; who promised to be with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob. And now this God is doing again what this God has been doing all along – bringing new life into the heart of despair, leading the people of Israel into freedom. I Am who I Am. Tell them I Am has sent you.
Which leaves us with the other question, which is actually, I think the question we are all trying to ask the Bible all the time, even though we’re usually asking other questions like who can marry who and how can I lay some heavy judgment on that guy over there who does things I don’t like. The question we’re really asking in the midst of all of that is, “who am I?” Moses asks it right off the bat with this God: “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh?” And then Moses asks it again in a bunch of other ways: “Why would they listen to me? I’m slow of speech, I can’t talk in front of crowds! Please, send someone else! Who am I?” It’s the question we all come back to. Who am I? Standing in the wilderness, looking back on all the ways we haven’t quite fit – all the little disconnects, all the fractured relationship, the shattered dreams, the mistakes we made, the turns that we took that led away from what we thought was our destination, and now here we stand in the wilderness, in the desert, wondering, where do I fit? where do I belong? who am I? who am I, O Lord, that you would call me? Good Lord, don’t you know who I am? You really ought to call someone else. If you really knew, you would call anyone else.
And God responds. “I Am who I Am. And I Am with you. I Will Be who I Will Be. And I will be with you.” That is it. That’s God’s answer to all your questions about who you are. God’s answer is your baptism, when God named and claimed you, and made God’s name your own, made God’s story your own. God’s answer is that God knows exactly who you are – knows you head to toe, inside and out; knows all the cracks and heartbreaks and everything that you’ve done that makes you feel unworthy and everything that’s been done to you that makes you feel undeserving and unqualified and unfit for God’s love and God’s trust and God’s call. And God’s response to all of that is to say, “I Am with you.” God’s response to all of that is to show up, in the desert, in the wilderness, in the most unlikely places, in a manger, on a cross, standing next to you. And it turns out that the answer to Moses’ question, to your question, “Who am I?” is simple. You are the one who God is with. You are the One who God has named and claimed as God’s own. You are the One who God loves and longs for and lives for and dies. “Who am I?” we ask. God’s answer: “I Am with you.”