(Exodus 3: 1-14)
The first four words of the entire Bible are: In the beginning, God. Think about that: for all that follows in the remaining 783,133 words (and no, I didn’t count them all; I googled it) for all that follows – the stories, the people and places, the mountaintops and the valley depths – all of it is rooted in this single foundational truth: In the beginning, God.
You’ll recall that, earlier this year, we announced our ConnectTPC theme for 2020, an effort to encourage every member of the Trinity family to connect in three meaningful ways:
- Connect with God
- Connect with our church family
- Connect with our neighbor
One of the ways we want to explore this is through three sermon series; the first of which begins today on this first day of Lent. And we begin, as the Bible itself does, with God.
So our sermons for the next six weeks will take a closer look at instances in the Bible where people with names we know – and names we may not know – delve into what it means to connect with God. And together we’ll ask questions like: how “connected” do we feel to this God in the midst of daily living? Do we readily see instances where God is present and active in our lives, or do we struggle to see that? And is God connected to us – and us to God – even when we do not always feel that connection?
So we begin our connecting with God journey in this passage from Exodus, chapter 3, verses 1-17. It is the story of Moses, a young Moses, trying to find his way; and a God who makes God’s self known to him. As last week, I have some help reading the scripture. My friends, listen to this:
Take a trip with me, if you will; back in time to the first day of school. For some of us that may have been just a few months ago. For others, a little longer than that. There you are at your desk, surrounded by people you know and people you don’t. At the front stands your teacher, holding one of those old school attendance books, or a computer printout, or maybe an iPad. On it is a list of every person registered for the class, almost always in alphabetical order; and before the first lesson is taught, before the first student falls asleep in class, the teacher embarks on the time-honored ritual of taking attendance – reading all the names so that every student, upon hearing their name, can answer back with the one-word response:
It’s a formality, of course, but an important one. It’s your way of saying you are in the room, you are present, and you are ready to learn.
And it strikes me, as I read today’s passage, that Moses does much the same thing. He’s a class of one, about to be schooled by none other than God God’s self. Here I am, he says. It’s a little more than just “Here;” perhaps he needed to be a little more definitive, for his own sake.
After all, things had certainly taken a strange turn in the moments leading up to this. It had been as ordinary a day as far as days go. Moses had been doing his shepherding thing – lonely, solitary work, just him and the sheep wandering the wilderness. Crazy things happen in the wilderness, though. Crazy things like a bush that is burning, but not actually burning, or not burning up, at least. Nothing does that. Nothing burns without burning up.
Here I am.
It’s not like Moses needed to tell God where he was; God of course already knew that. God was the one who came to him. There’s a fancy word we use for this sort of thing: we call it a “theophany.” The simple definition is “the appearance of a deity to a mortal.” But there is nothing all that simple about this, because a theophany involves the intersection of two vastly different realities. The eternal and the temporal, the perfect and imperfect, the spirit world and the world of flesh and bone. The Bible has a host of theophanies: a cloud and pillar of fire for the wilderness Israelites, a six-winged creature for Isaiah, a chariot of fire for Ezekiel. And lots of angels.
And apparently, when God decides to appear to you in the Bible, it calls for more than a simple “here.” It was that way for Abraham and Jacob and Joseph and Samuel and Isaiah. They all answer God as Moses does:
Here I am.
If we are looking for the quintessential moment of a deity appearing to a mortal, this is it. The classic intersection of human and divine, of God connecting with Moses and Moses with God. As I mentioned earlier, our sermon series this Lent will focus on instances in the Bible where people make a connection with the God who created them, who loves them, and who longs to be with them.
To desire to connect with God is something that lies at the very heart of what it means to be human; to be in touch with that which is outside our own selves, that which is bigger than we ever will be. It is built into our DNA. And often it is children who seem to have the greatest sense of this. Even at their young age, or perhaps because of their young age, they see God where the rest of us may not. I have a book that chronicles some of the ways that children seem to be in tune with God’s presence around them:
Dear God – I think about you even when I’m not praying.
Dear God – it is great the way you always get the stars in the right places.
Dear God – I didn’t think orange went with purple until I saw the sunset you made this morning.
Dear God – trust me, I am doing the best that I can.
Dear God – I don’t ever feel alone anymore since I found out about you.
Children naturally know how to connect with God. But somewhere along the way, it seems, we lose that. We lose our sense of connection to this God of ours. Perhaps it is the busyness of life that overwhelms us. Or the way the tangible seems to take precedence over the intangible. Or the way we lose our sense of wonder. Says one young girl, “God lives wherever we imagine.”
Wherever we imagine….
Do you think Moses could’ve imagined the God who came to him on that mountain? The God who took on the form of a burning bush that did not burn up, the God who called Moses to call Pharaoh out; the God who, when asked for a name, offered up, “I Am Who I Am?” In Hebrew that name is ehyeh asher ehyeh; it was considered so holy and sacrosanct a name that no one was ever to speak it in prayer or in worship; so they settled for saying it with the vowels removed – YHWH, or, as we say today, Yahweh.
This God with the name too holy to even be spoken; this God that movies of the Charlton Heston variety depict with a deep, booming, resonating voice; this God who tells Moses to remove his sandals, for the place where he is standing is holy ground? So the removal of shoes becomes, as one scholar waxes poetic, “a confession of personal defilement and conscious unworthiness to stand in the presence of unspotted holiness.”
And yet the child in us wonders, how does one connect with a God like that?
“God lives wherever we imagine.” So imagine with me; as children do. Remember the reality Moses was living in long before he went up that mountain – a reality where he was a Hebrew raised in Pharaoh’s palace, where his own people had rejected him, where in many ways he was a man without a home.
And yet here on this mountain, he is invited by the Almighty to take off his sandals. Which in many traditional cultures was an intimate gesture of welcoming someone, of removing all previously binding social ties in order to create a new reality, new relationships. Making them feel at home.
Think of that. Moses, the man without a home, finds one in the presence of God – who, in asking him to remove sandals, more or less is saying to him, Draw away the covering that has protected you. Clear away the barrier between yourself and the earth so that your bare feet may touch and sink and take root in this holy ground. Let this living soil coat your skin….. Like the feel of cool sand on bare feet, no? Dig in, feel your way, and find your balance here upon this mountain, so that its life becomes your life, its fire your fire, its sacred rock the ground of your seeing, speaking, and calling.
Take off your sandals, Moses. Make yourself at home.
Take a load off your feet.
When you look at it that way, is this not a God we can connect with? Not the booming voice from classic movies; not those who draw contrasts between our “conscious unworthiness” and God’s “unspotted holiness.” No – we connect with a God who calls us by name, who makes us feel at home, who creates intimacy in the midst of our vulnerability. And a God who shares with us God’s very name – an act of vulnerability in and of itself.
That name, incidentally, that name we have heard for so long as I am who I am – the verb is actually in the future tense; so the more truthful rendering is not “I am who I am” but I will be who I will be. From the very moment of name-sharing, this is a God of promise; a God who is less interested in looking back and more interested in what is to come; a God not just with Moses on the mountain but longing to be in relationship with him down the mountain, down with us, in all that life in the valley can bring.
Do you see? God is inviting us into something more than a one-time event, more than a mountaintop experience. God wants to connect with each and every one of us in an intimate and lasting way that compels us to want to do the same, long after the mountaintop. I like the way one commentator puts it: “Faith is a participation sport,” she says. “You have to get up off the couch and get in the game, take a risk, reach for something you thought unachievable, step out onto the winding road the end of which you cannot see from your doorstep.
She concludes with: “To know God, you have to go with God.”
Which Moses does, of course. Not without a little pushback, not without some attempts at bargaining and deflecting. Eight attempts, to be exact. Eight times, Moses tries to talk God out of it.
But God would have none of that. I’ve invited you in, God seems to say. I’ve made you feel at home. Your bare feet have mingled with my sacred soil. You and me, we are bound to one another. You will go down the mountain. And I will go with you.
And the real beauty of it all, the true joy of this, is that we get to do the same. We, too, get to connect with a God who meets us where we are, who surprises us in wonder and awe, who calls us by name, and who says to us, in the midst of our crazy, hectic, worry-filled world, this:
My son, my daughter,
Remove your sandals.
Take a load off your feet.
For the place where you are standing is not just holy ground:
It is home.
In the name of God the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!
* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.
 Selected from Children’s Letters To God, compiled by Stuart Hample and Eric Marshall.
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