Sermon on Exodus 3:1-15 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.
I have to be honest. Before I had a child of my own, I never changed a diaper. It’s not that I actively avoided it; it’s just that if the opportunity ever presented itself, there were always people around who were far more eager to take advantage. Of course, that changed when a baby moved into my house full time. I’ll admit, I was intimidated by the process. To my mind, changing a diaper was a little like changing my own oil: I knew that it was a fairly straightforward process and that people do it every day, but I couldn’t imagine being one of those people. Naturally, I eventually overcame these misgivings and have changed many diapers more or less successfully. Nevertheless, though all it really required was a willingness to get a little dirty from time to time, those initial feelings of trepidation and anxiety were very, very real.
In our reading from Exodus this morning, we hear of a similar trepidation from Moses when he encounters God at Mount Horeb, though his was arguably more justified. The Exodus is the defining story of the Hebrew Bible. Its narrative of liberation and redemption shaped the way Israel understood itself and its relationship with God. The prophets recall the Exodus both to offer comfort to their people in exile and to challenge those who mistreat the downtrodden. The New Testament uses the imagery of the Exodus to describe our liberation from the bondage of sin. The Exodus, in other words, is a potent reminder that God offers freedom to those who are oppressed. There is, however, another reason that this story exists at the very heart of our faith, a reason that is beautifully illustrated by Moses’ encounter with God at Mount Horeb.
In many ways, Moses was an unlikely candidate to be the agent of God’s liberation. Though he was a Hebrew by birth, he grew up in the household of Pharaoh’s daughter. He lived a comfortable existence until one day, in a fit of righteous anger, he killed an Egyptian for beating a Hebrew slave. Moses fled into the land of Midian, leaving his cares behind and embracing a new life in a foreign land. He tried to forget everything he knew: the family he abandoned, the misery of his people in Egypt, and his own violent anger. He sequestered himself from society and tried to outrun his human frailty. It was in the midst of this self-imposed exile that Moses came upon the burning bush.
This encounter is more than an a call story. Sure, it is the commencement of the greatest prophetic career in the Hebrew Bible. Moreover, it is the ultimate illustration of that oft-quoted truism that God does not call the qualified, but qualifies the called. God commissions Moses in spite of his inadequacies. Yet this story is less about Moses than it is about God. Moses, deeply aware of his failings, responds predictably to God’s commission: “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” Moses couldn’t imagine being the kind of person who could lead his people out of bondage. God’s call forces Moses to confront the human frailty he had so desperately tried to forget. Yet, God doesn’t dispute Moses’ human frailty. God doesn’t encourage Moses or tell him that liberating the oppressed isn’t all that hard. Instead, God responds with a powerful articulation of who God is: “I AM WHO I AM.” Another way to translate this is “I will be who I will be.” God is the one who will be God; God is is not hamstrung by expectations or beholden to the powers of the world. Moses has it exactly right when he questions his ability to bring the Israelites out of Egypt. It is not Moses, but God who will liberate God’s people. Moses acknowledges this on the far side of the Red Sea when he sings, “I will sing to the LORD, for the LORD has triumphed gloriously…The LORD is my strength and my might and has become my salvation.” The encounter between Moses and God at Mount Horeb is the ultimate expression of a truth at the very heart of our faith: we are to locate our trust, not in our own strength, not in our own power, but in the very being of God.
On this third Sunday in Lent, we are well into this season of penitence and renewal. We often think of Lent as a time of spiritual accomplishment. We heroically forego chocolate or doughnuts or strong drink for 40 days and 40 nights, proving our mettle and our worthiness of God’s favor. This perspective, however, misses the point of this holy season. On Ash Wednesday, we are reminded of our mortal nature and and our utter inability to save ourselves, and then we are invited to put our trust in the grace and love. The disciplines and deprivations of this season remind us that we are dependent not on ourselves, but on the salvation that comes from God alone. The journey of Lent is about standing with Moses on that holy ground and recognizing our inadequacy, acknowledging that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves, and then turning and locating our trust with the God who will be God, the God in whom we live and move and have our being, the God who is the source of our life and salvation. The message of Lent is simple: we are frail, but God is God. In this political season, it is easy to pin all of our hopes for the future on individual candidates, frail human beings all. Moses’ encounter with God at Mount Horeb, however, reveals that no candidate, no policy, no campaign promise can save us: only the God who will be God can bring us into the fullness of life and joy.
Shortly after my daughter was born was born, my wife had a brief illness that landed her in the hospital overnight. Because I wanted to remain with her and we both wanted to have as much time with our newborn as possible, the baby stayed in the hospital room with us. As it turns out, hospital rooms are not an ideal place for a 10 day old to rest. Indeed, she refused to sleep for the duration of the night. At one point, my daughter was inconsolable and my wife was in excruciating pain. As I rocked the baby and patted my wife’s shoulder, I wept, because I realized there was nothing I could do. My love for these two people far outstripped my capacity to bring them comfort. I was utterly inadequate to the task. Though both eventually fell asleep, this moment was a potent and painful reminder that I have no power in myself to save myself or those closest to me. All I could do in that moment was put my trust in God.
There are moments in our lives that we are confronted with our incapacity to save ourselves. It is in these moments that we are called to put our trust in the one who keeps us, both outwardly in our bodies and inwardly in our souls; to surrender ourselves to the one who liberates us from anxiety by offering a peace which surpasses all understanding; to remember the God who will be God.