Do you know the old saying, “Curiosity killed the cat”? People use it too often to discourage new knowledge, but it does have some truth to it. Curiosity can get you into deep trouble. It all depends on what you see. Look at what it did to Moses. He’s out tending sheep when he sees this flaming shrub that just won’t burn up. And he’s curious. Like a tourist out west who sees a turn-off advertising some bogus wonder—a two-headed goat, maybe—Moses says, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight.” So he hauls out his smartphone in hopes of getting a few good pictures to post. He has no idea that his life won’t ever be the same after this.
Before Moses can snap a picture, this flaming shrub starts calling to him, and he knows it’s the God of his ancestors. What started as a roadside tourist attraction now becomes holy ground. And he’s afraid. He should be. He knows that meeting God changes you. It can really spoil your plans.
Or in Moses’ case, it can really spoil your working at not having any plans. After all, he’s run away from a place of privilege and influence in Egypt. He’s run away from a chance to learn about his own people, his own birth family. He’s run away from the anger he felt at their mistreatment, from his own failed attempt to do something about it that turned him into a criminal and a fugitive. Once he was a prince, without any aims to speak of. For a brief moment he tried to make a difference and failed. Now he follows sheep around the countryside, without any aims to speak of. Maybe he thinks he’s come to terms with living a life that won’t ever make much of a difference. He’s been letting go of any dreams he may have toyed with when he was younger.
And now he’s on holy ground listening to a God who won’t let him bury his past, or his failed dreams. Why? It’s because all of that past is too much of who he is. And it’s not just his past to bury by himself anyway. It’s his people’s past, and they’re part of who he is too. And it’s God’s past, and God is also a major part of who he is. This is not a detached God. God says, “I knowtheir sufferings.” “I’ve been there all along—in your people’s past, in your past, in their sufferings, in your failures. Maybe you didn’t notice me then, but now you do.”
Maybe you’ve had one of those clarifying moments where everything that got you there starts to look totally different. You thought your life was just one damn thing after another, and now you look back and see hints of all kinds of patterns, still taking shape. It happened to the writer Frederick Buechner. After his first successful novel he started going to the church around the corner from his New York apartment, just because he’d heard the preacher was worth hearing. And one day the preacher said something off the cuff that brought tears to his eyes. He said it wasn’t so much that a door opened, but that the door had been open for him all along and he just now noticed. His haphazard past was transfigured, filled with clues of God’s presence all the way through.
If you’ve never had one of those clarifying moments, don’t think it won’t happen. They almost always happen when you didn’t know you were looking for them. And when they do, you can’t live quite the same life ever again. “So come,” says God to Moses, “I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people … out of Egypt.” And Moses comes up with a whole list of reasons for why he’s not the right person for that job. The trouble is, part of him already knows it’s too late to get out of it. He can’t get back to that aimless life he was leading until just a few moments ago. He’s begun to share God’s longing for justice, he’s begun to see how he’s included in that longing, and he can’t really turn his back on it. He can object, he can grumble, which he does all through the rest of his life, but the one thing he can’t do is go back. And neither can we, not after we start sharing God’s longing.
Today’s lesson only shows us two of Moses’ objections. But they’re good ones. One is, “Who am I to try such a thing?” The other is, “Who are you to tell me this?” Frankly, there’s really nothing wrong with asking either question. There’s no hint in this story that God’s put off by questions. And if you ever find yourself about to embark on some life-changing venture, it won’t hurt you to live with questions like these all along.
“Who am I to try such a thing?” says Moses. And God says, “Well, it’s not just you. It’s us—you and me and the people who worship with you. I was with all of you then, and I’m with all of you now. We’re all in this together. You’re not being asked to do this all by yourself. You have a community, a communion, that nobody can break.” And of course that’s what God still says to us. You’re not alone, so don’t try to go it alone. Stay together.
But the more nagging question is, “Who are you to tell me this?” How do we know it’s God we’re following and not some ego trip of our own? How do we know it’s not some pointless ambition that our parents or our culture laid on us? How do we know that we’re not setting ourselves up for some major disappointment? How do we know this is really God?
And God’s answer here is really annoying. “I AM Who I AM.” That doesn’t exactly settle anything. Of course the answer can also be translated, “I will be who I will be.” Or it might even be, “I am who I will be.” In Hebrew it all spells and sounds the same. There’s no reason not to hear it all three ways. But however you hear it, it’s still an irksome answer. What does it settle? Nothing.
But irksome as that is, it may just be the only answer that turns us to God. God says, “I am who I will be,” because God isn’t in the business of settling things. Instead, God’s in the moving business. God’s in the business of moving us because even God is on the move. God is moving us, and moving with us, toward God’s own celebration of justice and peace and wholeness and liveliness that can’t be contained or controlled. And the only way to know this God is to let ourselves be caught up together into that motion. It won’t prevent our making mistakes. It won’t prevent disasters. But it’s all that life was ever meant to be, and the best we can do is let it happen.
You see, God’s name isn’t just, “I am who I will be.” It’s, “I am who we will be.” The God who moves us toward this endlessly unfolding celebration is the God who’s been our God all along—the God of our ancestors, of our friends, of people we don’t know or don’t like, of everybody’s past celebrations and failures. God is moving all you and I and they have ever been toward celebrating a communion we still only glimpse in fits and starts. “I am who we will be.”
Here in Lent we follow who God became with us in Jesus’ movement with God. We follow how Jesus lets himself be caught up into God’s celebration of communion that even a painful, unjust execution couldn’t cancel. We focus on how costly it can be to live into that vision. Moses knew all about that too. But what kept him faithful, what kept Jesus faithful, and what can finally keep us faithful today is nothing more or less than the promise of God’s name: “I am who we will be.”