I Will Be Who I Am
Pentecost 17 – Narrative Lectionary 4
October 1, 2017
Grace, Mankato, MN
Exodus 2.23-25; 3.1-15; 4.10-17
When I entered seminary, we moved to a small town outside of Gettysburg, PA, called, appropriately, Littlestown. In addition to lessons in theology, it was a lesson in rural life. Once when I was asked and told someone my name, I was asked if I was related to Olsons who lived in Hanover, the next big city to the east. I chuckled and answered that one doesn’t expect that question growing up in Minnesota, where there are dozens of pages of Olsons in the phone book. Later, I began to see that question as an attempt to understand who I was, what kind of person I am. If the person asking could connect me with someone else they could better understand how to relate to me.
Knowing God’s name and building a relationship is at the heart of our story today. About 400 years has passed between Jacob’s trickery last week, where he stole the blessing due to his elder brother, Esau, and the revealing of God’s name today. In the meanwhile, Jacob has married two women and, with and additional two others, has had 12 sons, and reconciled has with his brother Esau. One of the sons, Joseph, gets sold into Egypt by his jealous brothers, where through a series of ups and downs, rises to a position of prominence because he can interpret the king’s dreams. Because he can do so, Joseph helps the Egyptian people prepare for a famine, one that ultimately brings Joseph’s family to Egypt where they begin to prosper even more.
A king arises who doesn’t know the Joseph story and becomes fearful of the Israelite foreigners (where have we heard that before?). The king oppresses them, forcing them into slavery. Yet, despite his efforts they continue to multiply, and the king oppresses them more. The cries of the people get God’s attention and God “remembers” his people. God hasn’t forgotten them; he has merely set them aside for a time. To “remember” means he will now act. But, it seems there’s no quick fix to the problem and God, consistent with his purpose at creation, chooses to work in, with and through human agents, calling Moses to lead the people out of Egypt.
In the midst of an incredible dialogue with God, Moses wants to know who this God is he’s dealing with. Here, it’s important to remember the God has been silent all these years. The only thing that Moses knows of this God is from stories handed down through the years. God responds with a name that is almost untranslatable, one that says everything and nothing: “I am who I am.” This self-description is so different from other persons or things so as to make comparison meaningless. It’s as if you asked me my name and I said “I Golf” or “Coffee Cup.” But, I prefer the translation of Terence Fretheim: “I will be who I am.” As the person who asked me my name, through asking this God’s name, Moses finds a way to connect with God.
Revealing one’s name is risky and involves a bit of vulnerability because once we know someone’s name we can make a claim on that person. Amazingly, while remaining wholly other, God opens God’s self to us, inviting us into a relationship. Through the divine name, God assures us he will always be with us, working in, with, and through us.
1,200 years later, the “Great I Am” will again become vulnerable, taking on human flesh, revealing himself as the one who suffers with us in our suffering and by doing so brings us out of bondage to sin, death and the power of the devil. As Jesus says in today’s Companion Gospel reading, “Before Abraham was, I am.” In case you miss it, he’ll go on to say, “I am the Good Shepherd,” “I am the Resurrection and the Life,” I am the Light of the World,” and for us as we come to the Lord’s Table, “I am the Bread of Life.” The revelation of God’s name tells us everything we need to know and invites us into a living, loving relationship of service. Amen.