However, they are still foreigners, and when enough generations of both the Israelites and the Egyptian royalty have passed that it is now difficult for the new king to remember why these illegal immigrants are in town, the Israelites find themselves enslaved and oppressed in their adopted homeland. The very covenant God made with Abraham and Sarah, the covenant in which God promises a homeland and a nation to live in it, the covenant where it is promised that Abraham’s family will be blessed to be a blessing to others, seems at risk as Pharaoh orders the slaughter of all the boys born to the Hebrews.
But hear what happens in Exodus 2:23-25.
2:23 After a long time the king of Egypt died. The Israelites groaned under their slavery, and cried out. Out of the slavery their cry for help rose up to God. 24 God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. 25 God looked upon the Israelites, and God took notice of them.
We don’t get their exact words of their groaning and crying here, but the psalms are full of heart-wrenching laments that echo the prayers of the Israelites in Egypt.
O God, you have rejected us, broken our defenses; now restore us!
O God, why do you cast us off forever?
How long, O Lord? Will you be angry forever?
Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel, you who lead Joseph like a flock!
Stir up your might, and come to save us!
Will you be angry with us forever? Will you prolong your anger to all generations? Will you not revive us again, so that your people may rejoice in you?
“How long, O Lord?” they groaned and cried as they were being held down in slavery. How long, O Lord?
Lament is an important, but often ignored part of the biblical tradition. These days we get way too apologetic about our complaints to God. Maybe we should be about some of them. Some of our complaints are what have become called somewhat jokingly on social media, "first world problems." A quick search of Twitter reveals a few of these:
"Standing on a wet floor in socks is the worst thing ever" #firstworldproblems
"Bus driver groaned at me for only have a $20 bill" #firstworldproblems
"Forgot to pack my headphones for today's flight" #firstworldproblems
These are not lament-worthy problems. These are not the stuff of ritual, heart-felt complaints and prayers to God. But sickness that just won't go away? ANOTHER friend diagnosed with cancer? The crumbling of marriages and relationships? Crippling depression? Or even when we simply just can't make emotional, spiritual, or financial ends meet - - We don't need to be apologetic about groaning and crying out to God, "How long, O Lord?" because look at what happens when we do.
God took notice or more accurately, God knew.
And God knew.
I love the verbs in these verses. They are important verbs. The whole rest of the Exodus narrative flows directly from these verbs. The whole rest of God's relationship with the Israelites and even us flows from this series of verbs. God hears us when we cry out. God remembers the promises that have been made with creation. God looks upon us with grace and mercy. And God knows. In the Hebrew there is no object to this last verb like there is in the English translation. Instead God just knows. It's a verb of intimacy for a God of intimacy. Let's see how God reacts with increasing intimacy.
God decided to get involved because of the groaning and crying of God's people, and so God appeared to one man, to Moses in the flames on bush that burned, but would not be consumed by the fire. And God spoke.
3:10 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.
God responds to the lament of the people not with a public shaming for their complaints. God responds to the lament of the people not with a frustrating sigh because these people are too needy. God responds to the lament of the people not by turning away from their trouble. God responds, in fact, by coming closer. God responds by showing up in a bush. God responds with increased intimacy.
Up until this point in the history of God and people, the people have just called God "God." For us that sounds like God's name, but it isn't. All the ancient people would the word "god," like with a lowercase "g" to describe their heavenly being, the same way that word is an indescriminate word in English, too. People of other faiths had names for their "little g gods," names like Ba'al and Asherah in the Canaanite religions, Ra and Isis in Egypt, but the Israelites had nothing special to go on. They just used the generic word "elohim," god, for their own. Sometimes, they even just borrowed the names of other gods for their own God - - You may have heard the name "El Shaddai" for God. This is a name or title used for a Canaanite god, meaning God of the mountain. "El Elyon" is another name the appropriated from the Canaanites, "God Most High." Up until this point in the history of God and people, they had no special name for their God, but God heard. God remembered. God looked. And God knew.
God gave Moses God's name. As names go, it's sort of stranger. It isn't like the names of other gods that tells the people where to find God - on a mountain or in the sun - or how great God is - most high or almighty. The Israelites and we today, got a God with a name that's sort of a mystery. The translation possibilities of God's name are literally endless. I am who I am. I will be who I will be. I will be where I will be. I could go on filling the rest of this service with ways to say the name of God. It's a mystery. It's a holy mystery, but it's the name of our God.
Our God isn't a place. Our God isn't a single attribute. Our God is being. The essence of the divine name is the verb "to be." The essence of the divine name is simply, mystically, enigmatically,being. God is. God is with us. God is for us. God is in us. God is knowing us - becoming more and more intimately connected to us each and every moment if we just open ourselves to be with God, in our joy, in our sorrow, in the everyday being of our own lives. God is "I AM."
Another preacher, the Rev. Kathryn Zucker Johnston, said it this way this week:
I AM the only one.
I AM not defined by you.
I AM your God.
I AM with you.
I AM enough.
God is - - I AM.
At a conference some time ago, Richard Rohr, a Franciscan friar told this story about a conversation with a rabbi friend: a rabbi friend told him once, "You Christians really don't understand the commandment, 'You shall not take the name of the LORD you God in vain.' It's not so much about swearing, which is bad, but failing to appreciate the depth of the mystery of God's revelation, even the very name itself." "In Hebrew," he said "The name emulates breathing, wind, like the breath of Creation and the breath into Adam's nostrils, like the breath we take each moment." Then Rohr demonstrated how his friend breathed in as he said, "YH" (the first two letters of the name God revealed) and out as he expelled, "WH" (the last two letters). Over and over again, Rohr breathed in and out into the mike "saying" the name of God. "You Christians," he said taking up his friend's voice again, "Miss the essential closeness of God. Every breath, God is there. Every breath is a prayer. It's the embodiment of God everywhere we go." (Story told as remembered by the Rev. Martin Eldred from a conference in 2009)
God heard. God remembered. God looked. And God knew. God knows that we need more in our deepest hours of despair. God knows that we need the divine presence so intimately that God comes even in our sighing, even in our breathing. God knew and God let himself be known. Moses came to know God, and then he in turn let himself be known to God, too.
4:10 But Moses said to the Lord, "O my Lord, I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor even now that you have spoken to your servant; but I am slow of speech and slow of tongue." 11 Then the Lord said to him, "Who gives speech to mortals? Who makes them mute or deaf, seeing or blind? Is it not I, the Lord? 12 Now go, and I will be with your mouth and teach you what you are to speak." 13 But he said, "O my Lord, please send someone else." 14 Then the anger of the Lord was kindled against Moses and he said, "What of your brother Aaron the Levite? I know that he can speak fluently; even now he is coming out to meet you, and when he sees you his heart will be glad. 15 You shall speak to him and put the words in his mouth; and I will be with your mouth and with his mouth, and will teach you what you shall do. 16 He indeed shall speak for you to the people; he shall serve as a mouth for you, and you shall serve as God for him. 17 Take in your hand this staff, with which you shall perform the signs."
Moses started this whole conversation in humility. When he first came to the burning bush, the bush ablaze with fire, but not being consumed, he turned his eyes away, recognizing that God was being revealed to him. God affirms his impulse and tells him to remove his shoes, for he is standing on holy ground. Later when his call to be God's agent before Pharaoh has been delivered Moses asks, "Who am I that I should go?" In response, still God is patient, giving Moses a promise of the divine presence and God's own name by which the people will recognize his intimacy with God. His humility is admirable. He doesn't think so highly of himself to assume that this is deserved attention.
But after a while... well, at some point humility just might start to look like pride. At some point humility just might start to look like we assume we know more than God. In the fourth chapter when Moses again announces that he doesn't think he's the right person, when in the midst of all this intimacy with God he lifts up what he thinks are flaws in God's decision, God starts to get a little annoyed, angry even.
God knows who we are. Remember how we start this whole story four weeks ago? God created us from nothing. God's words spoke us into being. God was revealed as our creator inviting us to join in creation, our provider inviting us to join in providing for others, our divine companion inviting us to join making heaven visible on earth. God knows far more than we will ever know and understand, so who are we to hide behind our perceived flaws and imperfections?
It's not our flaws that stop us from serving God; God can work with flaws. It's not Moses's slow speech that will get in his way. It's not a stutter or some other hesitation. It's not our shyness or our feelings of inadequacy. It's not our false humility that fools us into thinking there must be someone better to do God's work. It's not lack of knowledge about the Bible and all that "religious stuff" that is blocking us from answering God's call. God can work with all of that. It's our pride that makes us think we could be perfect,that we should be perfect, that we know more than God and could presume to stop God's call that gets in the way.
God knows. God knows all of that. God knew how Moses talked, and God most certainly had a plan for dealing with it. God gave him the words. God gave him the community. God gave him the call and the passion and the mission. God gave him God's own name that in his darkest hour Moses could call out, Moses could simple breathe and God would be there.
God is as close as breath. And God picks us. God picks imperfect, flawed us. God picks imperfect, flawed, prideful us and by revealing to us with divine intimacy, by telling us her name that is being, that is life itself, we can know and be known by God. Let's trust this God.