Proper 17 A Exodus
Theme: Expect the unexpected
Let us pray.
Most holy, Lord God, you surprise us; we dismiss your commandment to love and we are still surprised by your unconditional love of us; help us to match our actions through your love and the through the love of your son, Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.
De Queen, Arkansas is a small town of about 5800 people. The town is too small to keep the fire station open on weekends. It doesn’t mean that they don’t take fire calls – they do. It’s just that in case of fire, the town firefighters need to drive to the station to get their gear and ride out in their fire vehicles.
A couple of weeks ago there was a telephone pole fire on a Saturday. It wasn’t anything like a burning bush, but it was a fire. When the firefighters arrived at the station, they smelled smoke. Sure enough, the fire station was on fire. One of the firefighters called the fire marshal to tell him that the station was on fire. Fire Marshall Dennis Pruitt thought the caller was pulling his leg.
The firefighters called Southwestern Electric to disconnect power to the station. The power company responder said, “Yeah, the fire department has a fire.” A dispatcher was able to convince them to send a crew out.
Lightening started the fire. Most of the station’s equipment was saved by surge protestors. The original call was a limb on a power line and not a fire. If that call was not made, it would not have gone well for the fire station.
Firefighters know to expect the unexpected. The unexpected happens too many times not to. Still, through training and experience some things can be anticipated. This is what makes a firefighter a good firefighter. Of course, going on a fire call to find the station on fire is unexpected. They even had trouble convincing others that the station was on fire.
By the same token, who would have expected to see a bush burn, but the bush isn’t harmed? Now that’s unexpected. Moses had the curiosity to see what was going on.
When we last left Moses, he was a baby adopted by Pharaoh’s daughter. A lot happened to Moses since then. He grew up in the royal palace. He learned about his Hebrew heritage. His people suffered under the yoke of hard labor in slavery. When he witnessed an Israelite being beaten by an Egyptian, he killed the Egyptian. When he thought that Pharaoh had found out his crime, he fled to the Sinai wilderness.
There he met Jethro, a priest of Midian. He married Jethro’s daughter, Zipporah, had children, and continued to work for his father-in-law. Moses was a murderer on the lam, working as a shepherd.
One day, while he was tending Jethro’s sheep, Moses needed to find fresh pasture. His search for grass, any grass, in Sinai led him to mountain. Mountains tend to get more rainfall so there would be better pasture there. For all we know, this is not the first time Moses tended sheep on the mountain of Sinai. Another biblical tradition calls the mountain Horeb, but it is the same mountain. (The editors didn’t change the name, they just wove both traditions together.) We are prepared to hear something significant here, because we are told that this particular mountain is the mountain of God.
While Moses is on the mountain, an angel appears to Moses as a burning flame on a bush. Though burning, the bush remains. There may have been other shepherds who went by the burning bush, but Moses was the one who stopped. Moses was rather taken by a bush that burns but is not consumed, so he walks over to check it out. God noticed that Moses was approaching the bush and called Moses by name. Moses’ response is a response that people in the Bible use to answer God’s call. Moses said, “Here I am.”
Now that Moses is there, God orders Moses to remove his sandals because he is standing on holy ground. God announced his calling card. This is the God of Moses’ father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. In fear of seeing God, Moses hid his face.
God has heard the misery of the Israelites for whom God has great affection. They are suffering under their taskmasters. God came down to earth to rescue the Israelites and bring them to a land flowing with milk and honey. It is a land that is already peopled by many nations.
So God tells Moses, I am going to do something about this and what I am going to do is send you to Pharaoh. And you are going to lead God’s people out of Egypt. Moses replied, “Why me?” God answered, “It’s okay. I will be with you. And as a sign you will lead my people to this very mountain to worship God.”
So Moses said, “If, if, I go to the Israelites and tell them that the God of their ancestors sent me to them and they ask what your name is, what shall I say?” God answered, “I am who I am. So tell the Israelites I Am sent you to them. You will tell them the God of their ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob sent you to them. This is my name forever and this is how I will always be known.”
God says that the name of God is a verb, not exactly proper grammar in any language. This is the creator. The creator is action. This is a God that cannot be pinned down. This is a God that cannot be sculpted. This is a God that cannot be put in a box. This is also a God that cannot be grasped, physically nor metaphorically.
God continued, “Assemble the elders of Israel and tell them that the God of your ancestors appeared to you and I saw how you are being treated. I promise that I will rescue you from your misery and bring you to a land flowing with milk and honey (that is already occupied by some other people). The leaders will listen to you. Take them to Pharaoh and tell him that God appeared to you and to let you go and worship God a three days journey into the wilderness. But Pharaoh will not let you go unless he is forced to.
“I will intervene and strike Egypt where it hurts. After that, he will let you go. I will hurt them so bad that they will cheer to see you go. You will not leave Egypt empty-handed. Every Israelite woman will go into an Egyptian’s house and ask for jewelry, silver, gold, and the finest clothes. You will put them on your sons and daughters and so you will plunder Egypt.”
What we didn’t hear in this story was a long list of objections that Moses gave God to this particular calling. Eventually, God wins out. God usually does.
It was custom for a victor to plunder the vanquished. The upcoming war does not involve armies. It is a war between Gods. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob intends to be the victor over the gods of Egypt and, in particular, the god-man, divine Pharaoh. This God gives instructions how the plunder will be taken. We should hear this with distaste.
How can God give instructions about plunder only to later in the story give a commandment to not steal?
How can this God send an angel to kill the first born of Egypt and then later give a commandment not to kill?
How can this God give a commandment not to kill to a known murder? And, pick this known murderer to be the leader of God’s people.
These are disturbing questions of divine hypocrisy.
We need to remember that these stories were told over and over again and later written down by the people of a culture that is very different than ours and existed many centuries before us. Life was very different then. To the ancient Israelites, the story of the exodus is one of divine favor and honor. They did not see any ethical lapses. To them, the story is very consistent. Plunder and murder is what you do to your enemies before they do it to you. Their God was bigger than the Egyptian gods and their God will beat them up.
In this light, it is an immature view of God. It is through God’s graciousness that our view of God matured as we, as a total people, matured, theologically. This maturation reached its pinnacle in Jesus Christ. We still have more maturation to do to do what Jesus wants for us.
It is unexpected that the Old Testament hero is a murderer. It is unexpected that a God who kills tells us not to kill. It is unexpected that a God who orders theft tells us not to steal. The only record we have of what happened then is the Biblical record, written by a people whose values are different than ours. They would think it consistent for God to conform to their culture. To them, the Ten Commandments must have been very unexpected.
We now pray: Gracious God and giver of all good gifts, give us the gift to see the world through your eyes, so that, we may better emulate your son and so that the world will know that we are truly yours, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Text: Exodus 3:1-15 (NRSV)
3 Moses 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.”a 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,b 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.
a Or I Am What I Am or I Will Be What I Will Be
b The word “Lord” when spelled with capital letters stands for the divine name, YHWH, which is here connected with the verb hayah, “to be”
 The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. 1989. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.