Preached by Rev. Gary Dalton, October 23, 2016
Taken from Exodus 3:1-15
Questions of identity— Who are you? Who am I?—seem to be a big theme running through this story of God calling Moses to go deliver the Israelites from their Egyptian slavery.
Starting with that bush. How do you identify a bush that appears to burn, and yet, it doesn’t? That’s pretty unusual. Moses wonders, “What’s going on over there?” So, verse 3 tells us, Moses says to himself, “I will turn aside and see this great sight, why the bush is not burnt.” That’s something for Moses to identify.
God’s identity comes into play. Moses gets over to the strangely burning bush and suddenly a voice speaks to him: “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” That seems like it should clear up any questions of identity right there. Four clear statements: I am the God of your father, I am the God of Abraham, I am the God of Isaac, I am the God of Jacob.
The problem is, though, what does that mean to Moses? Moses was raised in Pharaoh’s household. I really doubt they spent any time learning about the foreign gods of slaves. The Egyptians had their own gods, their own religion; Moses would have been grown up, learning about and worshiping the Pharaoh’s gods.
But this much Moses does know: he knows he is having an encounter right here, right now, and Moses is frightened, says verse 6. When God encounters us, the encounter may overwhelm us, and it may threaten us. As we all might do, Moses hides his face from the burning bush.
The question of God’s identity soon comes up again, in verse 13. God tells Moses that he is to go to the Israelites back in Egypt. Moses has a good idea of how that might go down with the Hebrews: If I come to the people of Israel, and they ask me, “This God of our fathers you claim has sent you, what is this God’s name? Moses, what God are you talking about?”
But, the real identity problem comes with figuring out, who is Moses? Really, at this point in his life, who is Moses? This God of the burning bush knows Moses’ name, of course. But, then, once God reveals to Moses the purpose for which God is calling out to him, Moses balks. He protests back to God in verse 11, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the children of Israel out of Egypt?”
Well, that really is the question of the day: who is Moses? “Who am I?” he asks of God. At this point in his life, Moses has put on and taken off several identities. It’s how Moses has managed to survive all these years: hiding behind false identities, then fleeing when his true identity is about to get him killed.
That’s what Moses is trying to do with God here and now: “God, you’ve got the wrong man! I don’t know who you think I am, but I can assure you, I am not that guy!”
Moses does not in any way, shape, or form, want to risk getting caught in the middle of what is sure to be a fight, perhaps even a slaughter, should anyone attempt to deprive Pharaoh of his slaves. “God, I don’t want to get caught up in whatever scheme you’re hatching here.”
One of the perks of having a spouse who works at UVA is that I get to use the gyms there for a pretty reasonable rate. Most of the time, I use the UVa Aquatics and Fitness Center. Great big complex with a tiny little parking lot, so parking spaces are a premium commodity. People circle in and out of the lot, like jackals circling a carcass to see who gets the next bite; lots of snarling and violent looks are exchanged.
So, one evening I pull into the parking lot, and amazingly there is an empty parking place not too far up the entrance. I speed on over to claim it before the next driver foraging for a spot could get it. I pull in and notice that whoever was there before me in the spot had written a note and stuck it in the doorframe of the van parked in the next space. Right in the little seam between the door and the post, was a piece of notebook paper all folded up and tucked in with these few words showing: “Your car door…” and then the fold of the paper hid the rest.
Well, you can easily guess what was in that note. Apparently the driver of the van had pulled in, opened the van door, and hit the other driver’s car door, and left a dint. And I thought, “Oh, great, I can’t leave my care here! If I park here, when driver of the van comes back from working out, they’ll see that note and think I wrote it. Then, they’re going ticked off at me and maybe do something to my car on purpose.”
Well, just then, the driver of van walks up on the opposite side of the van, slides open the passenger side door to put his stuff in the van. So, I get out of my car, go around, put my hands up and said, “Hey, somebody’s left a note in your driver’s door over here. It wasn’t me!”
The van drivers says, “What?!”, and comes around, grabs the note, unfolds its several folds, reads it, and then says something appropriate to the moment. And, I repeat, “Yeah, kinda figured that’s what it was…just wanted to let you, it wasn’t me. I just pulled in.”
In other words, I did not want to leave my car, only to come back later to find I had been dragged into somebody else’s fight because of a case of mistaken identity. This is what Moses is doing with God.
“Hey, God,” Moses says, “whoever you claim yourself to be, whoever you think I may be, well, I am not that guy!” Moses does not want to get dragged into this fight between this God and Pharaoh and the slaves. That’s why Moses is way out here keeping sheep in the desert. Moses has a lot of bad history going on back there in Egypt.
Moses is well-versed in hiding and letting other people think whatever they may want to think about who he is, as long as it works to keep him alive.
What was the story of Moses’ birth all about? You know the story of the sweet baby Moses. His mother puts him afloat in a basket in the bulrushes in the crocodile-infested Nile River. It was a desperate attempt at survival.
Pharaoh and his people were getting really nervous about all the slaves there among them. If the slave population kept on growing, well, the slaves just might reach a tipping-point where they decide to revolt. So, Pharaoh commands that every male baby born to the Hebrew slaves be murdered; the female babies are allowed to live to grow up as more slaves.
Moses’ mother somehow keeps his birth hidden for several months until it just becomes impossible to do. So, she makes a basket, waterproofs it with tar, sets it in the Nile among the bulrushes (sort of like cattails). She posts Moses’ older sister nearby to keep watch.
Pharaoh’s daughter comes to bathe and finds the baby in the basket. Moses’ sister conveniently comes up and offers to go find a wet nurse to care for the baby; she goes and get Moses’ actual mother who becomes wet nurse to her own baby. In essence, they’re hiding Moses in plain sight, keeping Moses alive.
The royal daughter, in turn, adopts Moses and presents him to Pharaoh as her own son. I’m not sure how she pulled that off; maybe the Pharaoh had lots of wives with lots of daughters, more than he could possibly keep up with. So here’s one of his many daughters whom he hasn’t seen in a long time, who shows up with her new baby boy.
So, Moses’ identity was hidden from the moment of his birth. He’s then hidden in the bulrushes. Then, he’s hidden right under Pharaoh’s nose under the false identity as one among the many royal Egyptian children there in the palace. Clearly, as Moses grew up, whatever he may have guessed or learned about his true identity, he knew well-enough to keep it hidden.
Apparently, though, Moses does learn something about his true identity. One day, Moses sees an Egyptian abusing a Hebrew slave. Moses steps in, murders the Egyptian, and then he hides the body.
When the Pharaoh finds out that Moses has murdered a fellow Egyptian over a slave, Pharaoh sets out to have Moses executed. That’s when Moses runs for his life, fleeing Egypt. He heads eastward, crossing the Sinai peninsula, crossing over into southern Palestine, entering the land of the Midianites.
Now, as a side-note, Moses is basically tracing out the path by which he will later lead the Israelites, but that’s way off down the road. For now, he is running, shedding his present identity, in order to save his own life by adopting a new identity.
Moses finally stops at a well in Midian where he steps in to rescue some women he sees shepherds abusing. The women, all sisters, will tell their father, in chapter two, verse 19, “An Egyptian delivered us out of the hand of the shepherds…” So, at least initially, these sisters and their father, Jethro, believe Moses to be an Egyptian.
Do you wonder whether Moses ever corrected them on that point, or did he simply continue under the guise of being an Egyptian? That certainly sounds better than saying, “Well, no, actually I’m a runaway Hebrew, the son of slaves, being hunted by the Egyptians.” Which identity would you choose to stick with?
Moses marries one of the daughters, and they have a son. So, now, Moses becomes part of Jethro the Midianite’s clan. That’s where he stays put until this day, when he comes upon this burning bush.
God says, “Moses, this is who you are…you are the deliverer of your own people out of slavery. You are the one through whom I will accomplish the ancient covenant with Abraham.” Moses says, “Nope, I’m sorry, God in the burning bush, but you’re wrong about that…that is not who I am.”
There’s a Broadway musical that opened in 1996, entitled ‘I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change’*. It’s a series of vignettes about courtship and marriage and all the ups and down and challenges that come with making a family.
The opening song is about a couple getting ready for a first date. They each ruminate on how much trouble they’re going to, in order to present the perfect version of themselves to this other person. They only want to show their date the best of themselves in hopes of finding love and romance and a mate.
Neither one of them can keep up the pretense, of course. If the relationship works, at some point they’ll each see the other person’s faults, and then, what? Change will have to happen, of course, if the relationship is to make it.
But, you can’t really say that up front. You can’t meet someone and tell them, “I love you. You’re perfect. Now, change.” But, that’s reality…we’ve got to change, to grow, to mature, if we are to realize the fullness of the dream that unites us to one another.
In many ways, God is saying to Moses, “Moses, I love you. You’re perfect. I choose you.” And if you think about it, Moses is perfect for the mission. He is an Israelite, which makes him part of the covenant with Abraham. He is a child of the slaves to whom God wants to send him. At the same time, though, Moses was raised in Pharaoh’s court. He’s educated; he knows the ins and outs of court protocol. He knows who the players are.
Moses has a disposition that leads him to step in to stop an injustice from being done. He stops the Egyptian from abusing a fellow Hebrew. He stops the shepherds from abusing the daughters of Jethro. He is a man in hiding since birth, and yet he’s willing to risk being found out in order to do these acts of mercy.
Moses has actually walked through the landscape the Israelites will have to walk, to get from Egypt to Canaan. Moses has now lived most of his adult life out in the wilderness as a shepherd. He knows what it takes to live in this rugged terrain. This guy is perfect for the job of deliverer! Except, of course, Moses is not perfect.
Moses has no aspirations to do anything more than what he is doing when God calls out to him. He’s a shepherd tending his father-in-law’s sheep; he’s a husband and a father; he’s an Egyptian who is glad to be long gone from Egypt. That’s all.
Moses keeps on arguing with God. Finally, Moses just flat out tells God, in chapter four, verse 13, “Oh, my Lord, send, I pray, some other person.” At this, the Scripture records, God says that’s enough. God agrees to recruit Moses’ brother, Aaron, to help Moses, but Moses still has to be the leader. God tells Moses, “I’ll tell you what to say, you tell Aaron and Aaron will speak for the both of us. Discussion time is over!”
So, yes, God loves Moses; yes, Moses is perfect for the mission; but Moses has a lot of changing that’s got to happen on the way to Moses fulfilling God’s call on his life. Moses is a man who, literally, has been hiding his entire life, hiding his true identity, from birth until the day he encounters this strange burning bush. But, God has found Moses and now calls Moses into his true self, into his true identity.
And the crazy thing is, God is calling Moses to live into the truth of who he already is: he’s an Israelite—a descendant of Abraham; a child of Hebrew slaves, yet he’s also a child raised in the court of Pharaoh; he’s a person willing to step in to stop an injustice being committed; he’s a person with hard-earned practical knowledge of surviving in the desert. But Moses can’t pull all that glorious truth about himself together, because Moses has been so busy hiding and pretending and avoiding and settling.
Before Moses can lead his people out of their slavery, Moses first will have to lead himself out of his own slavery. Before the people of God can be liberated to travel across the sands of the Sinai, Moses will have to make his own liberating trek back across the Sinai, back into Egypt, back into the very court of the Pharaoh. Moses can do that, because God will be with him; God will enable him, and in that journey, Moses can finally become Moses.
Moses’ story is our own. Few there are of God’s people whom God calls to lead others into any sort of Promise Land. But God calls on us all at least to lead ourselves to follow God into the Promised Land of God’s blessings. God calls us out, each and every one of us, to make a long trek, to travel with God, on a journey to salvation. We don’t make that journey alone. We travel that journey together.
We follow One who has also made the journey ahead of us. We follow the One whom God chose to lead us, who is Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ.
God says to you and to me, and God says to University Baptist Church, “I love you, you’re perfect, now change,” and thank God for that. God makes the change possible, God makes the journey possible, God makes salvation possible.
The journey from false identity to true is not finished for any of us, and the trek out of bondage and into promised blessing is not yet fully known, but success is sure as we follow our Lord.
* ‘I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change’, by Joe DiPietro and Jimmy Roberts, 1996.