“What’s Your Name?”

Download a PDF of this sermon here.

 

Rev. Jocelyn B. Gardner Spencer

August 31, 2014 – Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost

Scriptures:  Exodus 3:1-15; Matthew 16:13-20

 

It’s an iconic moment—Moses standing by the burning bush on the arid slope of Mount Horeb, conversing with God.

Perhaps you picture the scene from Cecil B. DeMille’s Ten Commandments, with a bearded Charlton Heston in ragged robes and a headcloth, playing Moses, and the deep, booming voice of God emanating from an oddly glowing bush.

Or maybe you picture the scene from the DreamWorks animated Prince of Egypt, where Moses follows an errant sheep off the beaten track, and he comes across a bush that seems to be on fire but does not burn his hands, and he hears his name echo as though the hills themselves are alive with God’s words.

Or maybe you picture it from an illustration in a children’s Bible, or maybe you picture it in an image from your own imagination. However you picture it, it’s an iconic moment, this encounter with God in the wilderness. God speaks to Moses, calls him by name, commissions him for a holy purpose. (Don’t you sometimes wish you could understand God’s will so clearly and specifically?) God hears the cries of the Israelites in Egypt; God observes their misery and knows their sufferings, and God has come down to deliver them. (Don’t you sometimes wish God would come down to deliver the oppressed people in our world today?) God promises to be with Moses always as he carries out his mission. (Don’t you sometimes wish you could know God’s presence so assuredly?)

And then we come to the climax of today’s passage (though the conversation between Moses and God is far from over). Moses says to God, “Okay, suppose I do what you’re telling me to do. Suppose I go to the Israelites and tell them that the God of their ancestors has sent me to lead them out of bondage. Me—one who grew up in the house of Pharaoh’s daughter. Me—one who has spent many years here in the wilderness, far away from the people and their struggles. What if they don’t believe me? What if they ask me who the God is who sent me? What do I say then?”

This seems like a reasonable question. After all, if Moses is going to claim a divine summons to lead the Israelites, they will be well within their rights to ask which deity it is who has called him. But there is more to it than that.

In the culture of the time, names were powerful things. All throughout the Bible, there are names with particular meanings—Sarah, she who laughs; Nathaniel, gift from God; Bethel, house of God. New names, carrying with them new identities, are given at significant moments—Abram becomes Abraham, Sarai becomes Sarah, Jacob becomes Israel, Simon becomes Peter, Saul becomes Paul.

Names are powerful things, and Moses is attempting a power play, because to know the name of this divine being would give Moses some kind of special knowledge, some kind of power over God. But God is a step ahead.

With Charlton Heston on his knees, hiding his face, the voice of God booms out, “I am that I am.” Or, in the translation we read today, “I am who I am.”

A great deal of ink has been spilled by biblical scholars over this enigmatic phrase. In the original Hebrew, the name God gives is Ehyeh asher ehyeh (אֶהְיֶה אֲשֶׁר אֶהְיֶה). The forms of the words are unusual and hard to translate into English, but the phrase comes directly from the verb “to be.” It can be rendered in a number of ways:

 

“I am that I am.”

“I am who I am.”

“I will be what I will be.”

“I will cause to be what I will cause to be.”

“I will be who I am.”

“I am who I will be.”

 

Ehyeh asher ehyeh—however we choose to translate it, it is hardly a clear and easy-to-understand name… and I think that’s exactly the point.

God refuses to be pinned down, named precisely, restricted to the confines of our understanding. God’s name, God’s very essence, is complex and dynamic and alive. To give a simple name would serve only to diminish the love, wider than our imagining; the grace, deeper than our striving; the peace, beyond our understanding. God is too big, too powerful, too all-encompassing for words.

St. Augustine, a leader in the early centuries of the Christian church, once wrote, “If you think you understand it, it isn’t God.” And yet, it is only human to desire understanding, to want to name, to describe, to define, to comprehend the One who is the source and end of all existence. It is only natural to use our God-given gifts of thought and language to try to express, no matter how incompletely, the love and grace, the peace and purpose, the inspiration and identity we find in God. Words are the only tools we have, and so we use them.

Over the centuries, Christians have developed formulas by which to express our sense of who God is. There were endless debates in the early church about the precise doctrines that would be deemed correct and orthodox. There are the creeds, still recited in worship in many denominations (“God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made…”). There are the traditional prayers, known by heart (“Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name…”) There are the hymns through which we sing our faith (“Love divine, all loves excelling; joy of heaven, to earth come down…”) With all these words, we lift up aspects of God’s nature, and we remind ourselves and one another of who God is. With all these words, with our creeds and our prayers and our hymns, we seek to answer the question Jesus asked of Peter in today’s gospel lesson: “Who do you say that I am?”

“Who do you say that I am?” Now there’s a question for you. If God refuses to give a simple name when Moses asks who God is, it hardly seems fair for Jesus to ask Peter to define who he is. But then, maybe Jesus is asking the question more for Peter’s sake than for his own. Maybe Jesus knows that the attempt to name and describe God is necessary for us humans.

Even if our words are always inadequate, even if we can never fully express what we mean to say about God—still, the attempt, the wrestling, the effort to articulate who the God is whom we worship, love, and serve, is a fruitful and necessary practice. For without that, those three letters (God), or four letters (Lord), or five letters (Jesus)—they become exactly what God refused to give to Moses: a simple name, way too small for the Holy of Holies.

And so, Jesus’ question to Peter is a question for us today as well. Who do you say that I am? In your own life, in your own experience, in our ever-evolving world—who do you say that God is?

I invite you now to take a few moments and sit with this question—who do you say that I am?—and consider what words you would choose to name or describe God. It might have to do with a way that you experience God’s presence; it might have to do with a gift you have received from God; it might have to do with a gift you hope to receive from God.

For example, I might say, “You are the Love that cherishes me, even when I feel completely unlovable.” Or, “You are the Artist that created the deep blue of summer sky.” Or, “You are the Companion who accompanies me always.” Or, “You are the One who calls me do something new, just when I’m starting to get comfortable with the way things are.” There are as many right answers as there are people in this room, and then some, because each of us might name God in many ways.

So, take a little time to consider: Who do you say that I am?

 

[silence, then sharing]

 

Thank you for these beautiful answers to Jesus’ question. Thank you for your witness to how God is made known to you. You stand in a long line of witnesses in answering that question Jesus first put to Peter—“Who do you say that I am?”

I hope you will continue to share your names for God with one another, for it is in the combination of so many names, so many faces of God’s nature, that we begin to catch a glimpse of who God truly is.

And I hope you will continue to share them beyond this community, beyond these walls, because the world needs to know that there is a Love stronger than our unloveability, a Companion more loyal than our capriciousness, an Artist who paints beauty into our everyday lives, a Future that summons us into new adventures. The world needs to know that there is a Hope beyond our hope, a Power of acceptance and forgiveness, a Love desiring incarnation, an Answer for each of us, a Best Friend and Comforter by our side. The world needs to know that God is complex, and dynamic, and alive, and on the loose, right here and right now, making all things new.