What’s in a name?

What’s in a name?

August 30, 2020                     Exodus 3:1-15 Romans 12:9-21, Matthew 16:21-28

What’s in a name?

        The one was a deeply flawed individual with a complicated past. He had a slow tongue but a quick temper. He was ruthless and dangerous, once killing a man in cold blood, hid the body, fled the scene and moved to another country.

          There he met a woman, married her and hoped to lead an ordinary, happy life. This, however was not to be. His life was everything but ordinary. He turned out to be a rather remarkable person. The man’s name of course was Moses and his name referred to him “being pulled out of water”.

          The other one’s tongue was as quick as his temper. He was not an educated person.  He was rather impulsive but not particularly brave. He did show determination and good leadership qualities. He was called Simon, but we know him as Peter. Peter means stone/rock.

          Moses and Peter are two of the most famous men in the Judeo-Christian tradition.

           The Book of Deuteronomy describes Moses as follows: “Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses whom the Lord knew face to face. He was unequaled for all the signs and wonders that the Lord sent him to perform in the land of Egypt against Pharaoh and all his servants and his entire land, and for all the mighty deeds and all the terrifying displays of power that Moses performed in the sight of all Israel.

          And in the New Testament Jesus himself said this of Peter: “Blessed are you Simon son of Jonah! You are Peter and on this rock I will build my church. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven…

          Let me introduce you to a third person: He was gifted, a great student, hard worker, born from good stock, and very ambitious. Nothing would stop him from reaching his goals – even if it meant throwing people under the bus or literally killing them with stones. He was described as: “…. a man little of stature, thin haired upon the head, crooked in the legs, and eyebrows joining……”  His Hebrew name Saul, means “he is lent to the Lord.”  But we know him as Paul, which means “small or humble”.

          There is nothing special about the three of them. And yet, somehow, for some strange reason, they changed the world, they are remembered after all these years and we honor them in spite of their flaws. What happened that transformed these flawed men into significant and influential people? And what can we learn from their stories? Our readings today give us some idea of the common denominator, the one event that changed them. And the transforming power is to be found in the Name of the Person that cross their paths!

Let’s first take a close look at what happened to Moses at Mount Horeb.   The initial encounter between God and Moses reflects a remarkable mixture of ordinary with the extraordinary. Moses is shepherding the flock of his father-in-law. Perhaps in search of fresh pasture, he arrives at Mount Horeb, the mountain of God. Here he notices a common desert bush on fire and he decides to go over to look at it more closely. The burning bush is not consumed by fire. What began as just another day doing the same thing, turned out to be an absolutely new experience for Moses. The old life of shepherding was ended; the new life of deliverer was beginning. The transformation is recorded in the interaction of God with Moses. The initiative is shifted from Moses to God. The ordinary experiences emerge as extraordinary. The old has been transformed into the new.

          You see it was his encounter with “I am who I am” that transformed Moses. The old is changed into something new!

          The first observation from this episode is that whenever people enter into the presence of God, nothing ever stays the same. Why? I believe that the answer is to be found, at least partially, in the name of God. A lot has been written about Yahweh, the Name of God: “I am who I am, or I will be who I will be” Some scholars have suggested that it should be translated “I cause to be what comes into existence.”  Walther Eichrodt is correct when he says this about the name of God: “The name of God means this:  God is, God exists, God is present. When God says “I am that I am”, it means that God is really and truly present, ready to help, ready to act, as God has always been.”

          God revealed God-self to Moses as the Creator God, as the One who calls into being, as the One who is intensely interested in human beings. When God again appears to Moses later in the book of Exodus, the Lord proclaims: “The Lord your God is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin.” Moses responds by bowing his head toward the earth and he worships God!

          This is how it is in the Bible: Sinful, broken, and desperate people, like Moses, become brand-new when God steps in. People who are sick of the old, people who are tired of their own failures, people who are prisoners of sin and people who are despondent that they disappointed again, are transformed by God’s presence, the assurance that they are forgiven, that they are loved and accepted by a merciful, active and transforming God. In the presence of a merciful God no-one has to remain damaged goods! This in essence is what the good news is all about. Moses’ past does not matter anymore. His sins, shortcomings, and blemishes don’t matter. What is now important is the future God has in store for Moses and his people.

          Many of us are prisoners of the past. Regrets and guilt about decisions made or not made make us prisoners of the past. Our sins, our shortcomings and our mistakes too often keep us hostages. Here is the good news! “I am who I am”, the One who liberated Moses from his troubled past, He who transformed him and prepared him for the liberating work of God’s people, is liberating us from our troubled pasts and prepares us to be part of God’s work in this world.

          It is interesting that Moses is very good at making excuses. Brevard Childs comments: “The Divine seeks to transform the human, but the messenger continues to resist. The one called is dragging his feet.

          All of us certainly can relate!

 “Who am I that you call me?” Moses asks. He grasped the enormity of the task . Once again, most of us can relate: “I am not able, I am not worthy! I cannot do it! Look at my past!”

          God reassures him: I will be with you! You see, it does not rest on his ability to succeed or not – he is only a vehicle for God’s plan. For some strange reason God uses human beings as a vehicle for God’s plan-in spite of the gaping discrepancy between our own ability and the enormity of the task!

          “But who shall I say sent me?” As one commentator says: “The question reflects doubt and outright excuse making!” The answer is: “I am who I am is sending you!” Moses realizes that “I am who I am”, and not he, Moses is in control. “I am who I am” is the One who takes initiative. 

          As human beings we need to accept that when we talk about God, we are not in charge and not always able to figure out everything. There will always be more questions than answers. But we need to be willing to say: “I don’t know!” We need to know our limits as human beings. God is way more than we can ever fathom. At the same time we know that “God is forgiving, God is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love!”

Moses has a few other excuses: “Suppose they don’t believe me?” “Oh my Lord I have never been eloquent!” God answers him every time. At last Moses, when he ran out of excuses he says: “O my Lord, please send someone else!”  Not me! Someone else please!

          People cannot remain the same in the presence of God! The Holy One transforms us and makes us new. We often look for excuses not to be a vehicle for God’s plan! Sometimes we too conclude by saying: “O my Lord please send someone else!”

          There is one more observation. What does God want Moses – and us- to do? Moses had to liberate his people from oppression and injustice. He had to confront those with power! He had to speak the truth even if it was not an easy thing to do. I mentioned that as human beings we don’t know everything about God. What we do know is that God does not want people to be oppressed, God does not condone prejudice, and God’s name points to the fact that God does not remain on the sideline when people suffer. God is on the side of those who are vulnerable and who are without power. God hears, and acts when people cry out in desperation! God does not look the other way when people are hurting, when they feel vulnerable, scared and overwhelmed.

          There is absolutely no doubt in my mind, that people who worship “I am who I am” can never stay on the sideline when people suffer, when people are oppressed. People who worship God will never be unmoved by the plight of other human beings.

          The Apostle Peter, in last week’s reading, for a fleeting moment saw who Jesus really was: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” But in today’s reading we see that Peter’s own ideas about the Messiah, the Son of God, were different from God’s plan was for the world. You see, Peter was not comfortable with Jesus, the Messiah suffering. He rebuked Jesus that he dared to suggest that the Messiah would suffer. It was not acceptable to Peter that the Messiah would show weakness by suffering. For Peter, the Disciples, followers of Christ, would share in the Messiah’s power to rule over enemies. Suffering was for the weak. Certainly the Messiah would not expect his Disciples to suffer or to take up their cross, which literally means to die?  Peter was wrong! Being a Disciple of Christ is dangerous, sometimes painful and always about putting Christ’s priorities above my own. Suffering was part of this journey. The Messiah after all suffered. It was only later that Peter understood this truth. Yes, he did deny Jesus when Jesus was arrested, but later on he followed Christ to the end of his days. He truly became the rock.

          It is strange that many followers of Christ want power and they don’t think that suffering, taking up the cross and being the least are part of the journey.

          And lastly, you know the story of Paul who, on the road to Damascus, encountered the living Christ. “Who are you?” Paul asked. “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting”, Jesus answered. His encounter with Jesus not only changed Saul’s name but it changed his entire life. Paul became a follower of Christ and wrote the biggest part of the New Testament.

          And his letters show how radical Paul was transformed. He who persecuted Christians, he who was so focused on his own career that he stepped on others and approved killings write these words as a guideline on how we ought to live a grateful life for the marvelous transformational work God has done for us: “Let love be genuine, hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good-love one another. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.  Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.  Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are.  Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.  Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.”Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

Three men, Moses, Peter and Paul in their encounter with the “I am who I am”, the Messiah, the Son of the Living God and Jesus, were radically transformed. They were flawed, they resisted God’s work, they tried to make excuses however the transformative power of God was too strong; God changed them to be faithful, hardworking, sacrificing people of God. In spite of their weaknesses and reluctance, God used them to bring hope, liberation, redemption, love and goodness to God’s creation. They did so by the grace and power of God. “I am who I am” is still at work. God, the “I am who I am”, the Messiah, the Son of God, Jesus still calls  – God calls us –  and God’s grace and power are still available to us! ! Amen