Birth to Exile: Hearing Who You Are

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Note: This script was used for a sermon delivered at Revolution Annapolis in April 2018.

This morning, we are continuing in week 2 of our new series on the Christian doctrine of the imago Dei, called “I.D.” The goal of this series is to challenge each and every one of us, first, to arrive at a deeper recognition of what it means for all human beings to be made in the image of God, and then, second, to invest our time, our mind, and our actions in seeking out how God’s image, or His fingerprint, deep inside of us is leading us to be positive, Christ-like agents of change in our community; or, to put it differently: to discern, by listening to God through prayer and through Scripture, what roles God has for us to play in HIS work of bringing HIS KINGDOM down here, to Earth, which includes our individual lives, as well as our neighborhoods, as well as the city of Annapolis.

Or, to again put it differently: this is a series about becoming who we were made to be.

I actually want to start this morning right there, by digging in to that one, key word: becoming.

I think it’s easy for us to try and skip ahead to the end when it comes to becoming, and to assume that what the word is really getting at, what it really means, is something closer to existing or being. But I think that’s all wrong! Although “becoming” is a word describing a period of transition–it refers to a state in between two other states; namely, not being and then being–it isn’t a transitional word! The space–and the time–and the journey–that are all encompassed in a period of “becoming” still matter, and when we fast-forward our way through it; when we think of “becoming” differently than we think of the states of “not being” or “being,” when we think of it as a non-state, or something that doesn’t really exist at all, or that is trumped by either what something has been or will be, we end up making a pretty important, and pretty terrifying, existential argument about ourselves and what we are doing on this planet!

I promise we’re going somewhere with this, but consider the polliwog: a polliwog is the larval stage of a frog, or, for our purposes, it is a frog in the process of becoming a frog. It is no longer an egg or an embryo; it is not yet a juvenile frog. It is transitional…but it still is.

polliwog

A moment ago, I said that confusing becoming for being poses an existential threat to us, and this is why: the problem with thinking that a stage of becoming–a life stage as a polliwog–is best understood as merely the “arrow” between what something started as and what it eventually becomes trivializes the lived experiences of the creature while it is there: I imagine that, if polliwogs have much in the way of consciousness, the notion that one day they will be complete and have purpose and definition when they finally become frogs would do little to alleviate the stress of what they are doing right now. It might be true that nature isn’t through with them yet…but what about right now?

Similarly, if we take seriously what the Bible says about being made in God’s own image, and we join that with the promise we have as followers of Jesus that we are being made into the image of Christ…then that means we, even though we might have made a pivotal decision to become His followers, and prayed a prayer asking for Him to save us, and followed Jesus in the step of baptism…WE are STILL POLLIWOGS. The work is begun…but it isn’t complete.

In this series, we are looking at the story of Moses as a kind of case study for what it means to walk with God over the course of a lifetime. And that means that, even when we are reading about the life of someone who plays an enormous and formative role in the culture of an entire people, as well as the religion that many of us have chosen to adhere to several thousands of years after he lived!, we are still reading about a polliwog. Moses wasn’t finished, he wasn’t done, being conformed into the image of His maker, even over the course of his extraordinary lifetime.

But when we look at his story piece by piece, it’s hard not to see the points where Moses seemed to think he had become a frog.

Today’s talk is going to eventually center on an enormously significant story in Moses’s life: his encounter with the presence and spoken voice of the God of the Universe in the form of an ever-burning bush on a mountainside. But before we get to that moment, I want us to take a look at Moses’s early life–which, amazingly, the Bible considers his first 80 years–before he is set out on the mission for which he is most well known.

mosesbaby

Moses’s story begins in the second chapter of the book of Exodus, when he is born to a Hebrew slave in the kingdom of Egypt. At the time of Moses’s birth, the Hebrew people had been slaves to the Egyptians for four hundred years, and in that time, they had grown in such numbers that the current pharaoh had begun to fear their capacity for rebellion. So, prior to Moses’s birth, the Bible tells us that the pharaoh issued an edict, that all male children born among the Hebrews should be put to death. Fearing for her son’s life, Moses’s mother places him in a basket and then sends that basket floating from a river bank where, downstream, it is found by the daughter of the pharaoh. The princess recognizes the baby as a child of a slave, but she nonetheless decides to adopt him as her own son. She is the one who gives him his (distinctly Egyptian) name, and she appears to raise him for perhaps as many as 40 years in the palace.

But, at some point, it appears that Moses becomes aware of his heritage, and the Bible says that, one day,

Exodus 2:11b-15

He went out to his people and looked on their burdens, and he saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his people. 12 He looked this way and that, and seeing no one, he struck down the Egyptian and hid him in the sand. 13 When he went out the next day, behold, two Hebrews were struggling together. And he said to the man in the wrong, “Why do you strike your companion?” 14 He answered, “Who made you a prince and a judge over us? Do you mean to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?” Then Moses was afraid, and thought, “Surely the thing is known.” 15 When Pharaoh heard of it, he sought to kill Moses. But Moses fled from Pharaoh and stayed in the land of Midian. And he sat down by a well.

moseskills

I think this story is significant for a number of reasons, but the most important of them is that it is our first glimpse into who Moses is, and what is driving him. It would appear that Moses is transformed by the knowledge of his relationship to the Hebrew people, and in this story, I would argue that we see him acting–to go back to our opening illustration–like a frog. Suddenly empathetic with the plight of the slaves, Moses seizes an opportunity to return to his people as a rescuer, saving one of his kinsmen from an Egyptian (who, we might conjecture, he would have previously seen as one of “his people”), and then burying the murdered man’s body. In the way of analysis, Moses has boldly declared his allegiance to the Hebrews by staking his own future on theirs: He is, now, one of them. It’s settled!

But the next day, he encounters a different scene, where two men, both from his newly adopted tribe, are quarreling not with their masters, but with each other. Moses jumps in again, passes judgment on the argument, and then asks the aggressor: “Why do you strike your companion?” His question suggests that he is surprised to see internal disagreement among the Hebrews, and I would imagine that, as someone who, in his mind, just took a bold action in order to join them, he is disturbed by what it is that he has gotten himself in to. It’s a poor analogy, but it might help to think of Moses as a new employee, who visited their new job, learned about the breakroom and the vacation package and the benefits, and signed on with tons of enthusiasm…just to show up to work on the first day and find people feuding in the office: “what if this place isn’t all it was cracked up to be?” “Did I leave my old job for this?”

The point is that what Moses believed was settled, in terms of his identity, or his “becoming”–I’m a Hebrew now!–is immediately revealed to be turbulent: there is more to being a Hebrew–more trauma, more baggage, and more uncertainty–than he seems to have initially expected. And to make matters worse, his new kinsmen seem to have no loyalty to him whatsoever: the man he confronts immediately questions just who, exactly, Moses thinks he is–”Who made you a prince and a judge over us?”–and he reveals that Moses’s secret is widely known: “Do you mean to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?” In this moment, Moses is thrown right back into a middle ground: he’s not “one of them”…but he’s no longer a loyal Egyptian, either! Still a polliwog!

And so Moses flees. In the next chapter of his life–from the age of 40 to the age of 80–Moses is on the lam. At some point, he ends up in the hill country of Midian, on the other side of the Red Sea from Egypt, where he drives away a group of shepherds from around a well so a group of women can draw water. Grateful, the women eventually take Moses back to their father, who first offers Moses a job tending his own flocks, and then permits Moses to marry his daughter, Zipporah. Some time later, the Bible says that Moses and Zipporah have a son, and they decide to name him Gershom because–and there is so much dramatic irony in this it’s stunning–Moses says,

Exodus 2:22

“I have been a sojourner in a foreign land.”

This is notable for two reasons: the first is that, if you know the rest of Moses’s story, you know that he hasn’t even started to be a sojourner! He’s going to spend the next 40 years of his life sojourning! And second, this moment matters because again, Moses is looking to be something–in this case, a sojourner–even if the thing he is “being” is by definition transitional. He is grounding himself here by tying himself to an identity as a wanderer. Or, to again go back to our tadpole illustration, Moses is saying that now, finally, I can be a frog. Maybe I’m not the frog I expected to be–I’m not a prince, I’m not a rescuer–but at least I’m some kind of something. I’m finished.

But, of course, this isn’t going to be the case.

In the last few verses of chapter 2 of Exodus, we have a dramatic aside, wherein God “hears” the “groaning” of Hebrew people as they suffer in Egypt, and God

Exodus 2:24-25

“remember[s] his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. God saw the people of Israel–and God knew.”

This is such a lovely part of the story, in part, because it functions aesthetically in a way that still resonates with the narrative traditions of our own culture: it’s the “cliffhanger” moment at the end of the movie when, just as the plot lines of the main characters seem to be completely resolved, the camera cuts away to that one loose thread that you almost forgot about: it’s the child walking on the beach finding the message in the bottle we almost forgot about; it’s the spark from the crockpot in the kitchen, after everyone has gone to bed (don’t even start with me on that show; it’s sooo dumb); it’s the eyes of the monster popping open just before the end credits. It’s the teaser that clues us in to the fact that we are not finished yet.

And, of course, that’s what we find out in Exodus 3. God’s not done with the Hebrew people in Egypt…and He’s not done with Moses, either.

We’re going to look at Chapter 3 in a bit more detail, so we’ll read for a few minutes here:

Exodus 3:1-12

Now Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law, Jethro, the priest of Midian, and he led his flock to the west side of the wilderness and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. 2 And the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush. He looked, and behold, the bush was burning, yet it was not consumed. 3 And Moses said, “I will turn aside to see this great sight, why the bush is not burned.” 4 When the Lord saw that he turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” 5 Then he said, “Do not come near; take your sandals off your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” 6 And he said, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.

7 Then the Lord said, “I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters. I know their sufferings, 8 and I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the place of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. 9 And now, behold, the cry of the people of Israel has come to me, and I have also seen the oppression with which the Egyptians oppress them. 10 Come, I will send you to Pharaoh that you may bring my people, the children of Israel, out of Egypt.” 11 But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the children of Israel out of Egypt?” 12 He said, “But I will be with you, and this shall be the sign for you, that I have sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall serve God on this mountain.”

There is much to discuss here, but I want us to zero in on the two things Moses says to God in this passage:

  1. “Here I am.”
  2. “Who am I?”

Moses starts with that first statement: when God calls to him from the bush, he draws near and says what confident people say in moments like this: “Here I am.” He identifies himself, and he makes a verbal (as well as physical) step towards this encounter with God.

And so I think it’s pretty amazing that God responds to Moses’s step forward the way that He does!

burning-bush-1

First, God tells him to stop: He says, “Do not come near…for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” Why does God start here? I think He starts here because the most important thing God has to say to Moses is that Moses isn’t God. And I don’t think this is important because Moses necessarily thought that he was a god–I don’t think it’s a sin to say, “Here I am,” or to otherwise declare your presence!–but I think it matters because it forces Moses to see that he hasn’t arrived. Wherever Moses thought he was going to go, he can’t get there without God’s permission. At this point, Moses is 80 years old, and a self-declared “sojourner”…so I think for God to start things off by saying Moses can’t walk where he wants to matters, and it is, in its own small way, our first suggestion that what God really wants Moses to see in this encounter is that, no matter what he thinks about his own life, in God’s view, Moses is not done becoming who God wants him to be.

The second thing God says to Moses is that he needs to take off his sandals. Again, Moses is wanderer, and a shepherd; few articles of clothing–maybe no other article of clothing–was important to him as what he wore to protect his feet. So, what God asks Moses to do–His request that Moses take off his sandals–forces vulnerability on Moses in a way that I don’t think Moses was expecting.

So, in just a few words, God challenges Moses in two important ways, which are worth noting for our own sakes, as well: 1) he has to accept God’s boundaries, and 2) he has to be vulnerable.

And then, God says something else interesting: he tells Moses about his ancestors. He says,

“I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.”

This is the first we’ve heard about Moses’s father, and it sets Moses back among the Hebrew people. After Moses’s first attempt to “be a Hebrew” failed, it would seem that Moses left that identity behind him: he married a Midianite woman, and, as we learn in chapter 4 during an altogether unexpected and kind of horrifying scene that I’ll absolutely let Josh handle next week, Moses didn’t circumcise his son, which means that, after leaving Egypt, he also stepped away from the covenant relationship with God and his own ancestors. So, challenged by God’s presence and having the identity he had assumed for 40 years stripped away by God in just a few words, the Bible says Moses doesn’t speak but rather “hides his face, for he was afraid to look at God.”

God responds to Moses’s silence by telling Moses about what He will do: He is going to rescue the Hebrew people from the pharaoh, and moreover, He is going to send Moses to do it. At which point, Moses speaks for the second time:

“Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the children of Israel out of Egypt?”

After 40 years as an Egyptian…and then a brief try at being a Hebrew..and then another 40 years as a sojourner…Moses says to God, “Who am I?”

And at this point, the story stops going where I, at least, want and expect it to. Because what I want God to do is to answer Moses’s question: I want Him to tell Moses who he is!

But God doesn’t do that.

I think this frustrates me because–if I can once again go back to our opening illustration–the last thing I want to be is a polliwog. I get that I can’t stay who I was when I was born, or when I was young, forever: I know that I’m supposed to grow up, and to be someone more than I used to be. I especially get this, as a Christian, because I know that, after reaching a point in my own life where I came to realize that I couldn’t do things on my own, and that my own mistakes, my own sin, and my tendency to keep sinning, was crippling me, I made a decision that changed things for me: I surrendered my life, and my control over it, to God by asking Him to take me over, and to make me into the person He designed me to be. To frame that in our conversation about the imago Dei, I know that I want to be remade in the model and image of Jesus…I want that with all of my heart!

But I also want the question of my identity to be settled. I want to imagine that the transitional stage, the stage of “becoming,” the polliwog stage, was what happened when I made the choice to become a Christian…and now, that I am a Christian, I can declare that identity in the same way that a tadpole might want to claim to be a frog: I want to be something; I want to be finished.

And so, what I want the burning bush to tell Moses is that yes! Now he has his mission! And, by extension, now he has an identity that can be solid and stable and settled!

There’s a kind of cheesy Christian expression that “God doesn’t call the qualified, he qualifies the called”…and what I want is to be qualified! Or, to make it even more personal to my own life, I want God to tell me what it is that He wants me to do…and then I can go do it. I’ve wanted that for as much of my life as I can remember! And I’ve prayed for that, over and over and over again…

…and maybe you have, too. Maybe this makes sense to you: to desire clarity and direction from God so that you can go and do what He asks you to do, and you can be confident in that.

I wanted that when I was a student. I wanted it when I became a teacher.

I want it now, as a pastor.

But it isn’t what usually happens. And I think the reason that it’s frustrating is because, even though my heart isn’t set on the same selfish ambitions it used to be, and now, the things that drive me really are a desire to see God’s work done in the lives of the people around me…I still want to be the one who does it. I want to be someone, now.

But, in this story, that’s not how God operates. When Moses says, “Who am I?” God doesn’t answer that question. Instead, he answers Moses’s self doubt by saying,

Exodus 3:12a

“But I will be with you, and this shall be the sign for you, that I have sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall serve God on this mountain.”

He tells Moses that the confirmation he is looking for–the “sign…that I have sent you”–comes at the end of the story. Moses will be a “servant” once he’s served.

And, along with that promise, God offers this assurance, too: He will go with him.

If what we are looking for is a task from God that we can go complete, we are going to be disappointed. But what God offers us is something greater: He offers to lead us. And to lead us not as a dictator, issuing instructions or directions from somewhere else…but as a relational God, walking with us and guiding our steps as we go where He shows us to go.

God shows Moses, in the encounter with the burning bush, that He isn’t through with him: even at the age of 80, He has a job for him to do. But God also isn’t finished with who He is shaping Moses to be. From this point on, Moses is going to have near-constant doubts about what God is calling him to do…and I find that deeply reassuring! There are times when I feel so sure that if God just spoke more clearly to me, everything would be okay–I wouldn’t have any more worries or questions or insecurities. If only I could get a talking bush!! But Moses’s story challenges and comforts me by showing me that even when the signs are incredibly clear, the real work of our faith isn’t being faithful to the instructions, it is listening to God as He walks us through them. Moses’s questions and doubts are evidence of his complete dependence on God…and I think that one of the hardest things for us to accept about living our lives as people in the process of becoming who we were designed to be is that our designer never intended us to be self-sufficient. When we accept our dependence, and acknowledge the limits of what good we can do on our own, we aren’t failing to live as God commands us to live, we are starting to. Because we’re not finished….until He is.

Which is the point that makes what God says next so important. After God promises to go with Moses on this mission to save the Hebrew people from slavery, Moses asks Him,

Exodus 3:13-14

“If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel: ‘I AM has sent me to you.’”

What God says is huge and important and mysterious, and there’s no way I can sufficiently unpack all of that right now, in these last few minutes. But I do think we can make one observation about God’s response that has a profound bearing on what we’re talking about this morning: even though Moses isn’t (and, by extension, we aren’t) finished “becoming”–even though we’re all polliwogs–God isn’t. Because God is. His identity is settled. It is finished, and complete. God tells Moses “I AM WHO I AM.” And the hope of that, for Moses, as well as for the Hebrew people languishing in slavery, is that the certainty of God can be an anchor to their own identity as a lost and broken and wandering people.

This is also our hope, as followers of that same God: that, as He walks with us, His completeness comes to fill us up, more and more, and gives to us a confidence that is not born out of who we are, but out of who He is…and what He is doing inside of us. What He is making us into. What we are “becoming.” God’s presence at the center of our lives is a fire, burning without destroying, and making us what we can’t be on our own…which is: holy.

I know that’s a pretty deep dive into symbolism and abstraction, so I want to close this morning by bringing things back to what might be a more personal and helpful place: the big point we want to make today is that we are all unfinished. But, because we have already been created in God’s image, we are started. There are the beginnings of who we were made to be within us.

But instead of thinking that we become who we were made to be by declaring it or by trying to perform it, so that we can be “finished” and “complete”…what we’re actually called to is a life of transformation. We begin by recognizing the image of God in us, and then, in response to seeing that reality, we listen and followwalk and obey…and through humility and worship and love, God brings to completion the work He has begun in us. Just like Moses, what can seem like the “mess” of our lives has a purpose, but that purpose isn’t typically to bring us to big, bright moments of sudden epiphany, where suddenly we are someone new! It is to shape us, little by little, for the work He is leading us into. And how do we know what that work is? We can ask Him. We can listen, as He speaks through His Word. And we can watch for what He is doing already and serve alongside others.

In closing this morning, I want to do something unusual, and I want to preface this by saying that it’s completely optional: if this isn’t for you, please don’t feel pressured.

Last week, Josh asked you to get out your I.D.s and to look at them. He goal was to lead you into a tangible encounter with how we often confuse who we are with things that are true about us. This week, I want to challenge all of us to pause and reconsider whether we are more focused on what we do or what is being done in us. In Moses’s story, God guides Moses towards that question by insisting that he remove his sandals, which gave him a sense of security and safety, in order to remind him of his own vulnerability. This helped Moses to see more clearly who he really was, in God’s eyes, and what God wanted to do through him.

As we move into a time of communion and then, into a time of worship, I want to invite you to do a similar thing: I want to invite you to remove your shoes, and to consider what it means to stand on “holy ground.” Let that question resonate in you for the rest of this service, and consider: “where am I over-confident in myself? And what would it mean for me to surrender more fully to the God whose image is within me?”