September 29, 2019

“God’s Name”

Exodus 3:1-15

A sermon for Hawaii Kai UCC by Janice Ogoshi

September 29, 2019 (Pentecost +16)


God seems to favor those who will wrestle and argue with God.  Last week, it was an actual, very physical wrestling match with Jacob, who then became Israel, which means “struggle with God.”  This week, Moses struggles with God when God tells him to go to Pharaoh to demand the freedom of the Hebrew people.  I don’t blame Moses for questioning God, for asking, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” (v. 11).  This was the first of many objections Moses raised as he resisted the Lord’s call.


God saw something in Moses.  God created and saved Moses for this very purpose, to lead God’s people out slavery in Egypt.  God knew what God was doing in all the strange and amazing and miraculous stories that led up to this moment in the story of the Israelites and in Moses’s life.


There is a lot that goes on in today’s reading.  We could talk about how God heard the cries of God’s people and answered.  We could talk about how God called Moses to lead the Israelites out of Egypt, or God’s promise to be with him.  But what caught my attention this week was that as Moses wrestled with God and tried very hard to get out of doing this challenging and scary thing, he asked for and was given God’s name.  


We’ve been hearing a lot about names this month, and we’ve learned the importance of names in the interactions between God and God’s people.  Abraham and Sarah changed their names when God confirmed the covenant with them.  They named their son Isaac after they laughed when they were told they would have a son in their old age.  Last week Jacob’s name was changed to Israel, “he struggles with God”.  These names are full of meaning and are related to these individuals’ encounters with the Lord. 


So it is no surprise to us that Moses demands to know God’s name in today’s reading.  He has tried to get out of responding to the Lord’s call to lead the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt.  Even after God promises to be with him, Moses wants to wiggle out of the call.  He asked, “Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask, ‘What is his name?’  Then what shall I tell them?”  (v. 13).


Moses wants to know the name of God so that he can convince the Israelites to follow him.  By knowing God’s name, he could possess the essential character of this God who is calling him.  He believes he needs to know this so that he can go to the Israelites with authority.


God answers, “I AM WHO I AM.  This is what you are to say to the Israelites:  ‘I AM has sent me to you’” (v. 14).  The Hebrew is ehyeh asher ehyeh.  It’s interesting to note that in an English translation of the Jewish Bible, the name of God is given in Hebrew.  It is not translated, possibly because of the difficulty of translating it.  Other translations of this Hebrew name, which is often written YHWH and which the Jews never say out loud, include "I am becoming what I will be," "I am what I am becoming," and other constructions of the verb "to be."  Other possibilities offered include “I will be who I will be” “I am who I will be”…you get the idea.   The name God reveals to Moses is kind of slippery and indefinite, because God will not be limited by a name.  The main thing that this name tells us about God is that God is.


Remember last week, after wrestling all night, the stranger asked Jacob his name, then gave him a new name, Israel.  Jacob then asked for the stranger’s name.  The man answered, “Why do you ask my name?” and never gave it (Genesis 32:29).  The stranger would not be defined by a name, and Jacob inferred that it was God.  In this week’s reading, God revealed God’s name to Moses, but it still left God free and unbound.


This difficulty in translating the name of God tells us that God’s essence cannot be contained in a name, label or word.  God is God, and is free to be whoever and whatever and wherever and whenever God chooses to be.  


John Holbert wrote, “God’s so-called revelation is not a revelation in the usual sense.  It is a revelation that God’s name may not be known, and Moses and we must learn to live with that.”  Holbert went on to say that, “A completely free God, free of my calculation, my making small, my limited understanding is the God I need in any case.”  (“You Are a God Who Hides Yourself: Reflections on Exodus 3:1-15, August 25, 2014,  Accessed 9-29-2017)


We need a God who cannot be described or named or limited with words.  This is yet another reminder that God is God, and we are not.  And being in relationship with God, responding to God’s call continues to remind us that we are not in control.  And the more we understand that and can live in that space of not being able to control the outcomes of our efforts in ministry, the better off we are.  We can then be witnesses to the amazing things that God does for us, with us and through us.


It's God’s modus operandi, God’s M.O. isn’t it, to call people to follow in faith, without having a map, without knowing in advance where God is leading.  When God called Abraham to leave his homeland, he didn’t say go to Canaan, but to go “to a land I will show you” (Genesis 12:1).  And similarly, when God called Moses, God didn’t tell him how Pharaoh would be convinced to let the Israelites go.  Moses had no idea what the journey ahead of them would look like, and how God would actually deliver the Israelites.  He knew nothing of the plagues, the angel of death, the parting of the Red Sea, water out of a rock, manna and quail that lay ahead.  And if the Israelites knew all this ahead of time they may not have followed Moses, because the answer to their cry for help was absolutely crazy.  Even though they would be free, it would be a real stretch, a real test of faith for them to follow such a God.


Similarly, when Jesus called his disciples to follow him, he didn’t give them a syllabus.  He didn’t tell them that when they followed him they would witness many miracles, but also suffer a lot.  He didn’t tell them that he would end up being tortured and dying on the cross.  They knew nothing of the resurrection.  He simply invited them to follow him. They were challenged to follow and allow him to be who he was.  


We worship a God who is who God is, and who will be who God will be.  God’s name and our history with God tell us that God will be for us what we need when we need it and how we need it.  God will act and lead and bless on God’s own terms.  We are being invited on this adventure of faith in which we allow God to be God.


This is very difficult for us because we do want to know what the next step is. We want to know exactly where God is leading us.  We want to know what God is doing.  We want to know God’s name so that some of the risk and mystery and the necessity of faith can be taken out of our relationship with God, so we can have some control.  But that’s not letting God be who God is.


I’ve been thinking about this a lot because many churches in the Hawaii Conference and across the country are struggling.  I’m in a Facebook group for women clergy, and many are serving small congregations that are having to ask the hard questions about whether they can continue to be church together.  Many of my colleagues around the country are ministering to churches as they close.  We in the United Church of Christ are realizing that we can no longer do church as we have for the past few generations.  We are losing our younger people, our older members who have been faithful and generous supporters are dying, and it is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain church facilities given the large costs and decline in offerings.


And even though we here at Hawaii Kai UCC are blessed with resources, and even though we don’t have a facility to maintain, the question still is how we will continue to exist as our members age and few young people are joining our church.  


We know we need to change the way we live as churches.  But we don’t yet know what shape or form the church of the future will take.  During my years of service with Hawaii Kai UCC my conversations with members of other churches has changed from being asked when we will be a “real” church and have our own facility, to now being told we are fortunate not to have to reroof the sanctuary or pay for repairs or renovations.  Will churches no longer have or need facilities in the future?  Perhaps.  We don’t know what the church will look like in the future.  We do know that church as we know it is passing away, and that God is getting ready to do a new thing.  


What all this uncertainty tells me is that we need to remember that we follow ehyeh asher ehyeh, I AM WHO I AM,” the God whose name cannot be exactly defined, the God who will remain free and sovereign.  


While God cannot be pinned down and defined, we do know that God’s promise to bless us to be a blessing to the world still stands.  We know that God wants to be in relationship with us, with all people, and with all of creation.  God revealed God’s continuing, steadfast, longsuffering love for us in the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  


At the end of our reading, the Lord allows Moses to identify him as “The LORD, the God of your fathers—the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob,” (v. 15).  This is the God who has been with the Hebrew people throughout their history.  In the end, what we have is the assurance of God’s presence with us rooted in God’s faithfulness to us in the past.  The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God who called these imperfect, sometimes bumbling men to be the great ancestors of God’s people, is the same God who invites us imperfect, sometimes bumbling people into relationship, and is the same God who has blessed us to be a blessing to the world.


The challenge for us is to follow God, whose name is “I AM WHO I AM,” and to allow God to be who God is.  We need to trust that this God will be with us and is leading us out of slavery into a land flowing with milk and honey.  We need to trust that this God will help us to see the new forms and shape that the church of the future will take so that all people will continue to be invited into relationships with God.  The promise of Abraham that led to the hope we have in Jesus Christ, continues to bless us so that we may be a blessing to the world.  Let’s continue to follow “I AM WHO I AM,” into the future, assured of God’s presence and love.  Amen.