Rev. Jeff Chapman ~ Faith Presbyterian Church
1Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. 2 There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. 3 Then Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.” 4 When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” 5 Then he said, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” 6 He said further, “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 observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, 8 and I have come down to deliver them from 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 country of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. 9 The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. 10 So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.” 11 But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” 12 He said, “I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain.”
13 But Moses said to God, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” 14 God said to Moses, “I am who I am.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I am has sent me to you.’” 15 God also said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you’:
This is my name forever,
and this my title for all generations.” (Genesis 3:1-15, NRSV)
The one time prince of Egypt had fallen a long ways down the ladder. He used to spend his days in the glorious court of Pharaoh watching over the mightiest kingdom on earth. Now he spends his days in the forgotten backcountry of Midian watching over a mangy flock of sheep. And they’re not even his sheep! No Egyptian would ever even consider becoming a shepherd. Egyptians detested shepherds. The fact that Moses was now willing to take on the occupation of shepherd tells us that he no longer identified himself as an Egyptian. On the unlikely chance that Moses would ever return to Egypt, he would return as a Hebrew.
For 40 years Moses had watched these sheep. From time to time he must have thought about his people back in Egypt suffering in slavery. Clearly he cared about them. He was now in exile because he had once stood up for them. But what could he do now? What could a forgotten old shepherd do to help his people against so powerful an adversary?
Now, I’ve never been a shepherd. I’ve never even really spent much time around sheep. I wouldn’t mind giving it a try sometime though. It might be fun for a day, to be out there in the country fresh air guiding the animals to good pastures and watching out for potential predators in the tall grass. I’d like to be a shepherd for a day. But for 40 years? No thank you. Imagine Moses’ life. Up early every morning to greet the cold sunrise. Kissing his wife and children as he heads out to watch the same sheep in the same fields eat the same grass and drink from the same stream. Coming home at the same time every day. Washing his face. Eating his dinner. Saying his prayers. Crawling into bed. And then getting up the next day to do the same thing all over again. These sheep are your companions day in and day out for 40 years!?
Not one of you here is a shepherd and yet many of you know what this is like. On one hand the routines of our lives are comfortable and familiar. On the other hand, however, as we repeat them day after day after day we can begin to become numb to it all. One day blends into the next day. The weeks and months go by before we know it. Time marches on. And many of us begin to wonder if anything really important will ever happen to us. Maybe you have a sense that you were somehow made to do something more in your life and yet here you are, heading out with the sheep again every Monday morning wondering if any of it really matters.
In English we have just one word for time, which is unfortunate. Ancient Greek, the language of much of the Bible, has more than one word. One Greek word for time is the word chronos. This is where we get our word chronology. Chronos time is the kind of time we are all familiar with. It’s the ticking of the clock. It’s 60 minute hours, 7 day weeks, 12 month years. Chronos time can be measured. It’s the realm we all inhabit.
There is an entirely different sort of time, however, which is not subject to the ticking of the clock. The Greeks recognized this and called this time kairos. Kairos, you might say, is God’s time zone. In his own time and in his own ways, God regularly breaks into ordinary chronos time and does extraordinary things which fulfill purposes that stretch beyond even time and space. In Kairos time God’s purposes intersect with our ordinary lives and invite us into something greater. Kairos represents opportunity to meet God, to join God, to see God, to be used by God.
We meet Moses in the midst of 40 years of chronos, going through his motions as time marches on. But then at one point when he least expects it, kairos breaks in. One day Moses is leading his flock beyond the wilderness to slopes of MountHoreb in search of better pastures and all of a sudden in the middle of nowhere he comes across a bush on fire. It’s on fire but it doesn’t seem to be burning up. Naturally, Moses is curious. This was not his calendar. This was not in the schedule. And so for the first time in a long time his attention is diverted from the sheep and he goes over to check it out.
Give Moses some credit. A strange burning bush out in the wilderness could have meant trouble. His responsibility was to the sheep, not the bush. He very easily could have turned and gone the other way. His life, after all, may not have been exciting, but it was at least comfortable and familiar. This bush was neither, and who could have faulted Moses if he decided to keep his distance, to keep to himself.
What happens here to Moses happens to us all. I have come to believe that God is constantly breaking into our lives, every one of us. There’s a verse in the New Testament, in Revelation 3:20, where Jesus proclaims, “Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you and you with me.” I happen to believe that no matter who you are, God will break into your chronos life with these sorts of kairos moments. Might not be a burning bush, but one way or another God will come knocking on the door of your life and desiring you to hear him knock and then let him in so that everything can begin to change. The question, of course, is whether or not you’ll hear him knock and, when you do, if you’ll open the door.
Moses does. Moses gets up, goes over, and turns the handle. The text tells us that God noticed that Moses does so and so God decides to enter in. As Moses approaches the bush God speaks to him from the flames. “Moses, Moses!” God calls him by name, twice. In Semitic culture this was known as a “repetition of endearment”. When somebody called you by repeating your name it was a sign of affection. Immediately, Moses recognizes that he is being addressed by somebody who loves him and is concerned about him.
“Here I am!” Moses responds. Immediately the voice commands, “Stop right there. Remove the sandals from your feet at once because the place on which you are standing is holy ground. For I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” At once Moses realizes he is standing in the very presence of the God of his forefathers and without hesitation he hides his eyes. He dares not risk even a glance at the face of God.
In those days it was commonly understood that if a person looked on the presence of the divine that person would be in great danger. Most likely they would die. How tragically far we have come from this understanding in a world where now God’s name and presence are treated casually and flippantly. Yes, God is a friend. Yes, God is our Father. But God is also Lord, Creator, King, Judge. Angels and demons both tremble before him. One day every human knee will bow before the Lord in either adoration or terror and yet so many people today treat God and God’s name so casually.
Referring to this way so many in our day come before God, the author Annie Dillard once wrote,
Why do people in church seem like cheerful, brainless tourists on a packaged tour of the Absolute? Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us to where we can never return.
Do you ever approach God in your life the way Moses approached God once he know he was in his presence, barefoot, face to the ground unable to even look towards heaven? If not, maybe you ought to consider whether or not you’ve ever really been aware you are in God’s presence in the first place.
When Moses bows in humility God speaks. “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt,” God says. “I have heard their cry. I know their sufferings. And I have come down to deliver them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them to the promised land, a land flowing with milk and honey.”
1000 years before that time God had made a promise to Abraham, Moses’ great, great, great, great granddaddy. God would bless Abraham’s family, making them into a great nation in possession of a great land so that they, in turn, would be a blessing to all other nations of the world. 1000 years of chronos time has passed after that promise was made. But now, right on schedule, kairos time is going to break in as God, on a lonely mountainside with an old worn-out shepherd, is about to take another major step towards fulfilling his purposes.
This presents a great challenge for Moses, and for us. Can we trust that God truly does care about the suffering of this world while, at the same time, he allows it to happen. We suffer and watch suffering go on, sometimes seemingly indefinitely. 400 years the people were in slavery! Why doesn’t God act? Doesn’t God care? And if he does, why does he let so many seconds tick off the clock before doing something about it?
What do you think? Do you believe that God cares about your suffering and about the suffering of this world and will, in his time, make things right again? This is the question. This is where faith begins. Before God acts do you believe he will act?
Moses does. Moses has faith. I believe God knew that Moses had faith. That’s why God chose him. That’s why God suddenly breaks into his hum-drum life and calls him to the task for which he had long been destined. “Moses,” God says, “The cry of my people has now come to me. So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.”
And you can just picture Moses looking around wondering who God is talking to. He’s the kid at the end of the bench who’s never taken a snap in his life and the coach has just told him to get into the championship game under center and quarterback the team down the field in the closing minutes of the 4th quarter for the go ahead touchdown. “Me, Lord? Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” And he’s right. Who is he? He’s a tired old shepherd who’s been living in exile for the last 40 years. He’s not qualified in the slightest. And by the way, neither are you.
Listen to me. God will call you to some eternal work in your life, something for which you were destined. Whether you respond to that call is up to you, of course. Some of you will; some of you won’t. But if you do, get one thing clear. God did not call you because you were qualified or because God was especially impressed with your résumé or your skill set. You are not qualified. Neither am I. But God is. In fact, God is so qualified that he uses the least impressive among us to the most impressive things.
“Moses,” God says, “I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship me on this mountain.” Notice that God does not try to build up Moses’ self-esteem. God doesn’t say, “Come on, Moses, don’t be so hard on yourself. You’re a great guy. You’ve got a lot of strengths, a lot of ability. I see in you all sorts of potential.” No, God does not call us because we are qualified. Nonetheless, we can respond to the call because the One who calls us is qualified and he goes with us.
Moses trusts God. He’ll go to Egypt, but under one condition. He says to God, “When I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘the God of your ancestors has sent me’, they will ask me, ‘What is his name?’ When they ask this, Lord, what shall I tell them?”
Now, to understand Moses’ question we need to understand that the Israelites in Egypt lived at a time when all people believed that there were many gods, and that all of the natural world was itself divine, and that all religions, even when they presented radically different truths, contained some validity. This was true of every people group and nation at that time. There were no exceptions. So you see why Moses asked the question. There were countless gods known to the people of his day and he rightly wants to know, “Which god exactly am I speaking to?”
Surprisingly, God answers Moses. And for the first time in recorded history, the God of the universe, the only God of the universe, reveals his name to humankind. God says to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM. Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I Am has sent me to you.’”
I AM WHO I AM. What sort of name is that? The Hebrew text here literally reads, “Ehyeh asher Ehyeh.” The verb, which is repeated twice is most often translated into English as “I am.” That is inadequate, however, because Hebrew verbs are much more dynamic than English verbs. English verbs are what you might call chronos verbs. They are stuck in time. In general English verbs are either past, present or future: I sat, I sit, I will sit. But Hebrew verbs don’t break down that way. Instead of being related to time they are related to action. So when you say in Hebrew, “I sit”, you are saying all at once “I sit” and “I will be sitting.” The verb, you see, has to do more with the action of sitting than the precise time in which your butt actually hits the chair. Hebrew verbs, you might say, are far more kairos than they are chronos, much less subject to the time on the clock.
This is why biblical scholars have such a hard time translating the name of God given to Moses here in Exodus 3. It’s most often translated as “I AM WHO I AM”, but it can be just as accurately translated as “I WILL BE WHO I WILL BE”, or “I AM THAT WHICH WILL EXIST”. We don’t have to choose between these meanings but instead we must include all these meanings in the name of God.
So what does this all mean? God’s name points to the eternal “is-ness” of God. God is telling Moses, “In every place, at every point of time, in every circumstances and need, I AM. Always I am working. What I did 1000 years ago I am doing now. I sustain the world and act powerfully within it always. I am never on the sidelines, but always alive, and vital, and personal, and in the middle of the action. I was with you when you were born, Moses. I was with you in the reed basket on the Nile. I was with you, at work, when you grew up in the court of Pharaoh. I was with you when you fled to the wilderness. I have been with you and this flock every day for these last 40 years. And I will be with you when you go to Egypt to tell Pharaoh to set my people free. I go before you, and behind you, and beside you. I AM WHO I AM. I WILL BE WHO I WILL BE. I AM THAT WHICH WILL EXIST. I AM.”
Now it’s just my theory, but I think God gives Moses the burning bush as an example of God’s kairos presence in the world. It’s just a common shrub out in the middle of what most people would consider to be a God-forsaken nowhere. And yet even this bush is alive with the dynamic presence of God. A fire enlivens it but does not consume it. The fire needs no fuel. It burns on its own as it engulfs the bush. And if this is the way God’s presence can burn in a mere shrub, think of the way God’s presence might burn in the lives of human beings like you and me who are made in his very image, or in communities of people like this one gathered in his name, or in nations full of millions of people, each of whom he is calling out by name, repeating each name twice out of deep affection and compassion.
The burning bush is meant to show Moses and us that even the most insignificant corners of this world are afire with the loving, transforming, redeeming presence of a God who, in spite of how it may seem from our chronos time perspective, is always breaking in with kairos moments in a thousand different burning bushes to call those who are willing to turn aside and notice to join him in the fulfillment of his great purposes in the world.
By the way, let me remind you that we gather this morning in the name of the One who came down from heaven and broke into our world at just the right time and walked among us in the person of Jewish carpenter-turned-rabbi declaring to us that all ground was meant to be sacred and all people created to be holy. Coincidentally, people amazed by what he did and said began to ask Jesus, “Who are you?” In response, he gave an ancient reply.
After feeding 5,000 people with a few loaves of bread and a couple fish, he told the hungry crowds whose bellies were empty again, “I AM, the bread of life.”
To people who walked in great darkness he said, “I AM, the light of the world.”
To people who were lost sheep wandering aimless and scared through life he declared, “I AM, the gate for the sheep. I AM, the Good Shepherd.”
To a family who had just buried their beloved brother and thought death had claimed him forever he assured, “I AM, the resurrection and the life.”
To his friends who were afraid they would never find their way home to their Father in heaven he guaranteed, “I AM, the way the truth and the life.”
To people who knew from experience that they could not produce anything of lasting value on their own he promised, “I AM, the true vine and you are the branches. Abide in me and I in you and you will bear much fruit.”
Give the Jewish leaders of Jesus’ day some credit. They didn’t miss what many of us too easily miss. They knew what Jesus was saying. And when he stood before them one day and declared publicly in reference to himself, “Very truly, I tell you, before Abraham was, I AM”, they knew he was taking for himself the long-held sacred name of God first given to Moses on the slopes of Mount Horeb.
They killed him for it. Or at least that’s the way they saw it from their chronos perspective. From God’s kairos perspective, of course, the cross was in the cards all along. So was the resurrection. For Christ did, after all rise again. He is alive today! He is risen and in our midst. The fire of his presence, known to us in the Holy Spirit which descended in tongues of flames at Pentecost all those years ago, is burning all around us if we only have the eyes, the faith, to see it.
Life itself is ignited by the living I AM who was, and is, and always shall be. Every person, every square inch, every moment, every shrub, exists in the holy presence of a God who, all at the same time, has broken into our world, is breaking into our world, and will one day break into our world, bringing as he does freedom and peace and wholeness to any person, even you, who will take notice, remove your shoes, and bow before him alone as Lord.
It’s 9:52 a.m. chronos time, Sunday morning, March 23rd, 2014. But that’s not all. I guarantee you God, in his own time, is breaking in somewhere nearby. The question, of course, is whether or not you and I will take notice.
The Next Step
A resource for Life Groups and/or personal application
Read Exodus 3:1-15. There is a lot here. What stands out to you?
Why do you think God used a burning bush to get Moses’ attention? What if had simply begun speaking instead?
Moses wants to hide his face from God? Have you ever felt that way?
Can you remember a time in your life when you had a “burning bush” moment, a time when God broke into your ordinary life in an extraordinary way and you suddenly felt like you were standing on holy ground?
How did you respond to that moment in a way that led you significant change in your life, your faith, your relationships?
What would God have to do right now to get your attention and commitment to take you on a new mission in life?
Nobody has a name like God. I AM WHO I AM. What do you make of God’s name? What does it mean to you?
What does it mean to you that Jesus takes on this name for himself? (See, for example, John 8:58)
 Douglas K. Stuart, The New American Commentary: Exodus, (Nashville: B&H Publishing, 2006), 114.
 Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters, (New York: Harper & Row, 1982), 40-41.
 John 6:35.
 John 8:12.
 John 10:9, 11.
 John 11:25.
 John 15:5.
 John 8:58.