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First Presbyterian Church, Nashville

Dr. Todd B. Jones

September 3, 2017

 Listening and Learning

Exodus 3:1-15; Romans 12:9-21

            It is college football time again.  If you haven’t noticed, you have probably been in a stupor, because it seems everywhere it is in the air.  It got me to thinking about campuses – a term that was developed in the nineteenth century by the only signer of the Declaration of Independence who was a clergyman.  He was a Church of Scotland minister, a Presbyterian named John Witherspoon, who coined the term “campus,” from a Latin word, that has become a part of the English language ever since. 

            The campus of Princeton University has a great statue of John Witherspoon on it, right outside the Firestone Chapel.  What I am thinking about this morning is a collection of sculptures, modern twentieth-century sculptures, that are on the campus of Princeton University, one of the most beautiful campuses in the world.  They are part of the John B. Putnam Collection of outdoor sculptures.  They include works by people like Pablo Picasso, Louise Nevelson, and the great British sculptors Henry Moore and Jacques Lipchitz.  (A name I hate to say in church for fear you will get the wrong idea!)

            There is a lesser-known artist I am thinking about this morning.  He was an American artist named Tony Smith.  He created a sculpture, an abstract steel sculpture, that sits outside Prospect House, a house in the center of the campus where Woodrow Wilson lived when he was President of the University, and today houses the faculty club.  It is called “Moses.”  It is larger than life, and though it is abstract, you can imagine that the two arms up in the air are holding the tablets before the children of Israel, as Moses did when he came down from the mountain, and smashed the Ten Commandments, protesting their disobedience.  On the base of the statue are these simple words: “Moses, the Liberator and Law-giver.”  Think about the impact that Moses has had upon human society!  (I love, Josh and Stuart, that you shared the story of how God saved Moses providentially at his birth, when his mother pushed him out into the Nile, knowing that only God could possibly take care of her boy.)

            This morning we turn to one of the most important passages in the Old Testament, perhaps in the whole of the Bible.  It is the call of Moses.  I want to say three things about this call.  The first is this: the story of Moses’ call is fundamentally a story of Divine revelation.  That is, Moses knows God, because God chooses for Moses to know who God is.  This call is a story about God’s initiative and God’s providence, more than it is a story about how clever Moses is, or how worthy Moses is, or how intuitive about God Moses is.  (Probably even I would have gotten the message given that God wanted Moses to know who was calling him!)  He is reminding Moses, “I am the God of your forbearers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.”  He is reminding Moses that God comes to us through the grand, magnificent, saving arc of the Biblical story.  God is also reminding Moses in that moment, that Moses has been saved from death itself at the hands of evil Pharaoh, but also saved from his own huge mistakes that he made.  Remember when he lost his temper as a young man, and he murdered, breaking one of God’s commandments, an Egyptian soldier?  Remember how God has saved him through the good things, and saved him through the bad things, for such a moment as this?  The call of Moses reminds us many things, but it should remind us of this: “that God works together for good in all things for those who love Him.”  Which means God is at work for good in the great things we do, and God is creative enough to be at work for good even in the foolish things that we do.

            Rudolf Otto was a Lutheran minister born in the nineteenth century.  He wrote a very important book about God he entitled, The Idea of the Holy.  He draws heavily upon this passage, and he says that God is the mysterium tremendum fascinans.  Meaning that when you meet the Biblical God, the Holy One, you encounter mystery, something larger than your own life and your own understanding.  You encounter the tremendum – a word that can mean “earthquake” as well.  You encounter power that is so great that it ought to put the fear of God into you!  And you encounter something altogether fascinating, alluring.  God is all these things and more.  

            Karl Barth said that God is the totaliter aliter – that is, “the Wholly Other” than what we humans are.  He said, “God is not a human being spoken louder, but God is completely other and holy.”  And yet this holy God wills and wants to be known, indeed, out of the vision (And isn’t it a great vision?) of the “bush that was burning and yet not consumed.”  I have often thought this image refers to the inexhaustible mystery and power that is God’s alone.  Out of that bush, God speaks to Moses.  He calls Moses by name.  “Moses, Moses, remove the sandals from your feet, for the ground on which you are standing is Holy ground.”  

            The first thing this passage tells us is that God is amazing … God is transcendent, God is mysterious, God is awesome, God is beautiful.  And all of these are wrapped up in the notion that God is holy.  Holy and Wholly Other.  God meets Moses here on the boundary between heaven and earth, between God and humanity.  Just as God meets us still in those ways.  One of the privileges as a pastor through thirty-plus years is to hear people talk about their own experiences with God.  God has never come to me out of a burning bush, but I can tell you God has come to so many people I have been privileged to know in remarkable ways, that were at that boundary between heaven and earth, between God and humanity.  That is the first thing this story tells us.  We know God because God wants and wills to make Himself known to us.

            The second incredible thing about this passage is the revelation of the Divine name.  When Moses says, “Who shall I say has sent me?  Who shall I tell Pharaoh your name is?”, God reveals the Divine name.  It is the name Yahweh.  I have a friend named Jim Butler who grew up in the South, went to Wake Forrest, and has taught Old Testament at Fuller Seminary now for over thirty-five years.  When he was a graduate student, he was invited to give a paper before the Society of Biblical Literature, a group that includes Christians and Jews.  Jim Butler did his dissertation on Jeremiah, and Jeremiah called God “Yahweh.”  So Jim, standing up there not knowing any better, kept saying the Divine name, Yahweh, over and again, until some Orthodox Jews up and left the room, because the name Yahweh is so holy among Orthodox Jewish people to this day, that they never utter it.  They do not even speak the name!  When they come to the name, they substitute “Adonai.”  And were you to go to a synagogue where they read the Torah, you would hear the word Adonai said over and again.  If you could read Hebrew, you would never read that name, because the name appears as four consonants, with no vowels.  The name means “I am who I am.”  Or it could just as easily mean, “I will be who I will be.”

            I had a great teacher of Old Testament in seminary named Bernhard Word Anderson.  (What a name, right?  He was given the perfect middle name for an Old Testament professor: “Word.”)  He once quipped, “The name means ‘One of us is God, Moses, and it ain’t you!’”  “I will be who I will be,” speaks of the utter freedom of God.  And the name, Anderson, says, speaks of power, of fidelity, and of presence.  To call God “Yahweh” is to call God “The Creator” of heaven and earth.  Remember how God speaks in the opening verses of Genesis, and God says, “Let there be light,” and there is light?  God’s word is creative, it is evocative, it is dynamic, it is powerful.  

            The name also speaks of God’s fidelity, God’s faithfulness.  This God is a covenant-making and covenant-keeping God.  Or a promise-making and a promise-keeping God.  “I will be who I will be.”  And you count utterly upon that.  God is trustworthy.  

            This name also speaks of presence.  Did you hear what God said to Moses when Moses says, “Who am I to go?”  God said, “I will be with you.”  This God Yahweh promises ever and always to be God-with-us.  The name Yahweh derives from the Hebrew word “to be,” meaning that God is the source alone of our being.  Brevard Childs taught Old Testament at Yale Divinity School for generations.  He said, “In the present crisis, we look to the past in order to envision an utterly new future, and all of this is possible because of who God is.”  

            The third thing about this passage that is really important is God’s call and Moses’ response.  Did you hear what God said as a part of the call: “I have heard the cries of my people.  I have seen their suffering.”  The God of the Bible is sensitive to His people.  It is part of the comfort and challenge of following Jesus, of being a Christian.  We cannot pretend that Texans live in a state that is different from our own.  Right now we are all of us Texans.  Just as on 9/11/2001 we were all of us New Yorkers.  All of us were citizens of our nation’s capital.  God is a God who hears the cries of His people, and is a God who is moved by human suffering, wherever it is found.  

            You heard what Paul said in Romans 12, that grand summary of Christian ethics.  He begins with these words: “Let love be genuine.”  Don’t be phonies.  “Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good.”  Then at the end of that passage, he returns to good and evil again.  At the end he says, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”  This God is on the side of goodness.  That is what Psalm 100 says: “For the Lord is good.”  And this God calls us ever and always to be agents of good, to be on the side of the good verses the evil.  To “hate what is evil, and to hold fast to what is good,” because “God works for good in everything for those who love Him.”

            Note as well that the vision that is given to Moses is not just so Moses will have this great experience.  No, the vision is given to Moses, so Moses will do something about the suffering of God’s people, about the cries that Yahweh has heard.  It is not just a name, but it is also a task!  A task that is always related to human flourishing, and always the enemy of whatever thwarts human flourishing, and God’s call is always a call to healing and to freedom.

            Bruce Feiler is a popular author.  My favorite book of all that he has written is called, America’s Prophet: Moses and the American Story.  Bruce Feiler, who is Jewish, in this delightful book he has written, wants to say, Moses more than Jesus, is THE American prophet.  I am not sure Feiler says this overtly, and that is probably the beef I would have with him in the book, but he paints an incredibly powerful picture of the positive influence Moses has had upon the whole world.  Remember that subscript on Tony Smith’s sculpture?  “Moses, the Liberator and Law-giver.”  Think about how Moses changed the world forever!  “Wherever freedom is spoken,” Feiler writes, “it is always spoken with a Hebrew accent.”  Note how Moses responds to the call: “Who am I that I should go and deliver my people Israel?”  “Who am I to go to Pharaoh?”  He feels inadequate to God’s call because the best prophets of God always do feel inadequate, because we are.  We cannot do it ourselves!  God does not only call the qualified, God qualifies the called over and over again.  Those who are called by God who are wise, know what Moses is saying.  Moses knows that by himself he cannot do it, and he knows, as Paul did, that if “God is for us and God is with us, who can be against us?”  He knows that evil does not stand a chance in the end of the day against God’s goodness!

            So today we pause and we reflect again upon this Holy God who wants for us to know who this God is.  This God reveals to us a name, a name that is to be above every name, so that at the name of Jesus “every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”  Yahweh is a God who calls, a God who calls us by name, and who calls us along with Him to hear the cries, the sufferings of His children, and to be a part of God’s amazing intention to redeem this world, and to enable human beings to flourish in peace.  That is our call.  In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

                                                                                    Amen.

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