Exodus 1:8-14; 3:1-15
+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +
Have you ever just wanted to be forgotten? Have you ever wondered if your life would be better if you could just disappear? It might seem strange to start out today’s sermon with a question like that, but as we encounter Moses – perhaps the most widely known figure in the Old Testament – we’re encountering a man who, more than anything, was desperate to be forgotten by all but a few people.
What makes that desire to be forgotten so ironic is that the tragic story which begins in chapter one grows out of a failure of memory. A new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. (Exodus 1:8-14) Joseph, you’ll remember, was the favorite son of Jacob, the man who was renamed Israel – he who struggles with God – after he wrestled God to a draw. Jacob may have loved Joseph, but Joseph’s brothers didn’t share that sentiment, especially because he had this annoying habit of telling them about his repeated dreams of becoming the most powerful and respected of Jacob’s sons. In fact, they hated him so much that they conspired to fake his death, then sold him into slavery so that they could be rid of him once and for all. The slave traders that bought him eventually made their way west into the Nile River delta, where they sold Joseph to a man named Potiphar, a high-ranking official who served the king of Egypt – the Pharaoh. Joseph’s integrity led him to be unjustly imprisoned until his knack for interpreting dreams elevated him from the dungeon to the court of the Pharaoh and, eventually, to a position as second-in-command over all of Egypt. In time, famine struck the region, and Joseph’s brothers traveled to Egypt to barter for grain and feed their starving families. They had no idea that they were bartering with their long-lost brother until he finally cracked and revealed his identity. At the urging of the Pharaoh, Joseph invited his brothers to bring their father and their families to Egypt, where they would resettle and become prosperous neighbors to the Egyptians.
Today’s reading takes place centuries later, when memory had faded and the shared history of the Israelites and the Egyptians had somehow been lost. Where previous kings had recognized their indebtedness to Joseph and his kindred, this new king saw only a faceless, numberless horde who might someday turn on him if he didn’t bring them in line. The oppression and cruelty unleashed by that Pharoah, born of ignorance and fear, would last centuries, until God, whose name had also been all but forgotten, determined that something had to be done. That something was liberation, and the “someone” whom God chose to make it happen would be about as unlikely as anyone could have imagined.
Moses – the man we started our sermon talking about – was born to descendants of Israel, who by this time had become so numerous that the Pharaoh had decreed that every male Israelite child was to be thrown into the river and drowned as soon as they were born. In a desperate effort to save his life, Moses’ mother placed her newborn son in a tightly-woven basket and floated him down the Nile in hopes that he would be found and raised in safety. Moses’ little basket eventually washed up on shore and was recovered by the Pharaoh’s daughter, who saw the child inside and decided to adopt him as her own son. And so it was that Moses, born of Israelite parents under the threat of death, was instead raised among Egyptian royalty and destined for a life of greatness… until he lost it all. One day, Moses came across an Egyptian overseer beating an Israelite slave. In a fit of rage, he murdered the Egyptian and buried him in the sand. When he realized that his adopted father, the Pharaoh, had found out about his crime, he bolted for the wilderness, leaving behind everything and everyone in a desperate search for anonymity.
To his credit, he’d eventually found it. At the beginning of chapter three, Moses was out there in the middle of nowhere. The Bible tells us, in fact, that he was beyond the wilderness, in a place so remote that it almost defied description. Then, it happened. In an instant, he heard the crackling sound of flames. He saw the flashing of fire. A mysterious voice called out to him and shattered his hopes of being forgotten. Moses! Moses! I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob! (Exodus 3:4, 6) Suddenly, Moses was standing on holy ground, in the presence of the Almighty, and his identity, his life, his people’s history – everything that he had tried so hard to forget – came flooding back. What followed can only be described as an experience of divinely-inflicted whiplash. It began as a bitter moment with God recounting how the cries of the Israelites had reached into the heavens, spurring God to action. Who wants to be reminded of violence and oppression? Who wants to be confronted with the on-going reality of suffering? It quickly turned to joy at the promise of deliverance. Finally, something was going to happen! Finally, the pain of the Israelites had been heard! But then, just as quickly, it turned sour again. Wait a minute… You want me? Who I am? Don’t you know what I’ve done? Don’t you understand what I’m capable of doing now? And just who are you, anyway?
As if this emotional roller coaster wasn’t enough, God’s answer to that last question – Who are you? – represents perhaps the most profound and mysterious statement found anywhere in Scripture. In essence, God responds twice, and those responses are incredibly different and equally important. The first answer has baffled interpreters for centuries, and continues to defy our attempts to understand it: EHYEH-ASHER-EHYEH – I am who I am, I was who I was, I will be who I will be. The second answer is a reminder of the covenant that still bound God to the people of Israel: [I am t]he Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob… This is my name forever, and this is my title for all generations. (Exodus 3:15-16, NRSV) To a man who had become disconnected from his people, and to a people who had lost touch with their own history, these words were life, grace, peace, and promise.
This is the story of Moses, the stuttering son of Israel who escaped death twice only to be called back into the fray in service of a long-forgotten God. This is the story of the God who attended to the cries of the people, who remembered Moses even when what he wanted more than anything was to be forgotten, and whose very name represented a promise to heal the pain brought on by broken memory and lost hope. It is also our story, brothers and sisters, the story of an existence marred by the persistent problem of amnesia, both welcome and unwelcome. Like Moses, we sometimes want desperately to be forgotten, because we’ve convinced ourselves that if God ever found us and truly understood who we are, it would all be over. In our quest for anonymity, we are guilty of forgetting who we are, whose we are, what our purpose is in the world, and what God is calling us to be and do for the sake of our neighbors. God chose Moses with full awareness of all his faults and flaws, because God knew that together they were capable of leading Israel from slavery to freedom, from ignorance to intimacy, from a strange land to a homeland. In the same way, God has chosen us with full awareness of all our faults and flaws, because God knows that in Christ we are capable of being instruments of grace and peace in a broken and hurting world.
As we go out this week, let us do so with the awareness that we may find ourselves on holy ground when we least expect it. Let us pray that God will continue to bless us with the memory of who we are – God’s holy people – and whose we are – children of the one who is, who was, and who will be. Finally, let us pray for the courage to respond to God’s call as Moses did, confident that the one who calls us is faithful, and that when we turn aside to encounter God, we will never be led astray. Thanks be to God! Amen.