Whom Shall I Say is Calling? On the Burning Bush, Freedom, and the Mysterious Name of God.
This sermon was preached at Knox Presbyterian Church on September 3, 2017. The text was Exodus 3:1-15
How many of you answer the phone when an unfamiliar number comes up? I did it yesterday because it was a local 707 number. Of course, it was a telemarketer. They’ve started using local numbers. You don’t even have to be local now to set up a number that looks local to fake people out to try to sell them something.
Remember the time before caller ID? Or even before you could screen on an answering machine? You actually had to pick up the phone to find out who was on the other end. Phone etiquette was different. The phone would ring. You’d pick it up and say something like, “Hello.” Or more formally, “Smith residence.” And the other person would say something like, “May I speak with Moses please?” And you’d say, “Whom shall I say is calling?”
We’d say, “Whom shall I say is calling?” before handing the phone over because until the person on the other end of the line said their name, their identity was a mystery.
Whom shall I say is calling?
I was thinking of this phrase because in the scripture from Exodus, Moses receives a call from an unknown party. He thinks he recognizes the voice but he wants to know the name, because he needs to tell the Israelites who is calling them.
Before we dive into Moses’ mystery caller, some brief background on Exodus. Exodus is the second book the Bible, in Jewish and Christian traditions. Exodus doesn’t stand alone: it continues the story started Genesis, and isn’t complete with Leviticus, Numbers, and Deutoronomy. Those 5 books together are called the Torah, or the Pentateuch. Tradition says Moses himself wrote the 5 books, including Exodus. Modern Biblical scholars think it’s likely that the books are a mix of all different kinds of materials, woven together over time by people who that though all the material was important and belonged together as one story.
The gist of the story of Exodus is that it’s about the flight of a group of oppressed people out of Egypt to a sacred mountain where they enter into a covenant with the God that rescued them. The verses from today are the beginning of the rescue operation.
Moses - our hero - was born as an Israelite, one of the oppressed and enslaved Israelite people in Egypt. At the time of Moses' birth, the Pharoah - or king - of Egypt ordered all the Israelite baby boys to be killed. Moses’ mother hid him to protect him, floated him down a river in a basket, and eventually he was saved by an Egyptian princess who adopted him as her son. Moses grows up, gets married, and recognizes that his people are being abused by the Egyptians.
This is where today’s story begins.
Moses now a young married man, is keeping the flock of his father in law Jethro who is a priest. While Moses is out wandering around in the wilderness with the sheep, he sees an angel in a bush that’s on fire. The bush is on fire, but it’s not burning up.
So, Moses thinks, “I should really go check this out.”
Moses gets a little closer to the bush. And the voice says, “Moses, Moses.”
Moses answers, “Here, I am.”
And the voice tells him to take off his shoes, he’s on holy ground and the voice goes on, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.”
Moses hides his face, for he was afraid to look at God. 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, 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.”
Then God tells him that he, Moses, is the one getting sent. That Moses is to answer God’s call go to Pharaoh and to bring the Israelites out of Egypt.
Then Moses says to God something like: “Well, when I go to the people and tell them about you and this whole ‘God of your ancestors thing’...whom shall I say is calling?”
God said to Moses, “I am who I am.” He says further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’”
God gives the answer “I am who I am.” Except...that’s not really what God said. That’s just the English translation. It’s also been translated “I am what I am” or “I will be what I will be” Except...that the Hebrew is grammatically “problematic” and totally untranslatable.
Nobody knows what God says here to Moses: something about “being-ness” that probably encompasses all time and space. God’s name is closer to a verb, like “BE” or “EXIST”, except those aren’t right, either. In the Hebrew, it is written as four Hebrew letters יהוה, but there’s no vowels in ancient Hebrew, so that’s incomplete. In English, it's written YHWH. It has been historically considered disrespectful to use even those four letters, because it’s too close to God’s real name, which is absolutely sacred. So, when you see “LORD” in capital letters in your Old Testament, this is an acceptable, polite substitute for YHWH.
The point is: God’s name is an eternal mystery to us.
When we hear the account of Moses’ call to leadership, the name remains a mystery, but the voice is familiar.
It’s like, back in the days without caller ID, sometimes you’d pick up the phone and you’d know just from the tone that who was calling before they said their name.
In Moses’ call, we know the voice and the tone because the same voice rings through the Bible from the burning bush, through the prophets, to Jesus. It’s the voice of freedom. The call is a call to freedom.
The voice in the burning bush down says God has heard the groans of the oppressed people and has called Moses to be the one who challenges Pharaoh to set them free, and to walk with them towards a land of freedom.
There’s a second point to notice in the message to Moses. Notice God doesn’t say, “Hey, Moses, thanks for stopping by my bush. Now that we have such a close personal working relationship, why don’t you jet on out of Egypt on your own. You can build a nice little life for yourself, all on your own.”
Instead, God calls Moses to go get all the other people together, to stand up to Pharoah, and to get out of there together. It’s a call for collective freedom. Group liberation. In this situation, Moses individually might not have felt too terribly free, following God’s instructions. Moses has a hard job to do. To tell truth to power, and then lead a bunch of cranky, disobedient people in the wilderness for 40 years. Moses is only free if everybody’s free.
As we reflect on the burning bush today: where are we each hearing that call to freedom?
How is God asking you to live and serve?
Maybe you’re hearing a little voice nagging you to let go of bad habits or addictions in your own life that hold you back. Habits and addictions ripple out to loved ones. Your own freedom will bring freedom to others.
Maybe you’re in a life circumstance where you feel trapped, something that happened to you, that isn’t your fault. Illness. Finances. Family concerns. Maybe you're being called towards freedom from bitterness or anger? That kind of emotional freedom ripples out and touches people around you, too.
Maybe you’re called to be a voice for your community. To listen to the cries around you and speak up. To rally, to donate, to serve, to march. One step at a time. Where are you called?
Listen for the call to freedom. It’s there. It's an eternal call.
Our own good news is that Jesus, too, spoke words of freedom. Freedom from sin, freedom from greed, freedom from hunger, hate, from oppression. Like Moses’, Jesus’ call is a collective call for all of us together, to move towards freedom.
God promised to be with Moses on his journey towards freedom. God promises us the same presence. And like Moses, when we hear the call, we are to answer, “Here, I am” and walk in faith into the wilderness towards freedom. May it be so. Amen.