Scripture: Exodus 2:23–25, 3:1–15
Let’s get caught up. We have jumped quite a bit between last week and this week. Since our narrative journey has begun, we have explored the story of Abraham and Sarah receiving the promise of a son and a land from God. We have read about that son, Isaac, and how God provided protection on Mt. Moriah. We read last week about Isaac’s son Jacob, and how God grafted him into the same promise as his grandfather, even though he was the runt of the family. After that, Jacob bore 12 sons, who became known as the 12 tribes of Israel, and again it was the runt of the family, Joseph, who saved them all by bringing them out of famine into Egypt. The book of Genesis ends happy and hopeful, with this family safe and secure within the protection of the king of Egypt.
But then we turn the page to the book of Exodus, and all of a sudden, things are not happy and hopeful any more. Several generations have passed, and the text tells us “a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph.” The king did not know Joseph. The old arrangements were ignored. The old relationships had grown stale. What began as a neighborly relationship had turned into suspicion, and then fear, and then violence, and finally slavery.
Before I read this morning, I want you to think about that experience of no longer being known. Perhaps someone used to know you, but you run into them at the grocery store or on Mass Street, and they have no idea who you are. Now, I am not talking about during a pandemic…I think we all have had the experience of walking by someone we know well, but not recognizing them behind a mask! But true failure to be known by someone important to you can feel like a gut-wrenching experience. It hurts. And it was that lack of knowing, that separation, that dehumanization that set up the slavery of the Israelites at the hand of the Egyptians, and introduces our experience of today’s reading…
Exodus 2:23–25 After a long time the king of Egypt died. The Israelites groaned under their slavery, and cried out. Out of the slavery their cry for help rose up to God. 24 God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. 25 God looked upon the Israelites, and God took notice of them.
Exodus 3:1–15 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.
What is a verb?
If you will bear with me a little, I want to take you back to elementary school. Back to the first time that you learned the parts of speech, and your teacher told you about what a verb is. Now, if you can remember back that far, you probably remember that they simplified the process for you. Perhaps they told you that there are a couple different kinds of verbs. Some verbs are action verbs: go, run, eat, think, smell, chew. But then there is a second kind of verb, often called a being verb. Examples of this are often forms of the verb “to be.” He is kind. They are angry. And these two kinds of verbs are used differently…one to talk about when someone does something and another to talk about when someone is something.
Now, I am going to stop right there because the English teachers in the room right now are gritting their teeth because I am way oversimplifying this beautiful thing that they call grammar. Meanwhile, others of you are gritting your teeth because you hated grammar in school and there is literally anything in the world that you would rather hear about than parts of speech and sentence structure and verbs.
That said, I want to bring up the importance of verbs today, because in the story of Exodus, the verbs matter. A lot. Including what kind of verbs they are. So understanding them helps us understand what is really going on.
The Verbs of Moses
Let’s look at the verbs on a couple of relatively parallel tracks. First, what I would call the “verbs of Moses.” Early in the book of Exodus, the life of Moses is like one big action verb! His birth was dramatic and miraculous; he was born to an Israelite woman who was supposed to follow the order of the Egyptian king and kill all of the baby boys. But Moses was saved by his mother and his sister and the midwives and all of the women in his life over and over again. He was adopted by the Egyptian princess into the most powerful Empire of the day. All around him was action and motion and power and strength. So it doesn’t come as a surprise when we read about Moses’ first story of his young adulthood. Moses, who must have felt stuck between his birth people and his adopted people, saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew slave, and in anger he killed the Egyptian. It didn’t take long for folks to find out, and so Moses escaped as a fugitive to a faraway land. He got married and got a job as a shepherd of his father in law’s flocks. From day one, the story of Moses is one of action. Like the old commercials of the Energizer Bunny, he keeps going and going and going.
Until we get to chapter 3. As the chapter begins, it says that Moses is keeping the flocks “beyond the wilderness.” What does it take to go beyond the wilderness? To get to the wild and unknown space and say, “this is a good start….”? Talk about going and going and going. Moses gets to the middle of nowhere, and then keeps going. Here, beyond the wilderness, Moses sees an amazing sight: a bush that was on fire, but wasn’t burning up. Usually, a bush in the dry wilderness that happened to catch on fire would be consumed in a few moments, but this one burned and burned without ending. So, Moses, the man of action, declares, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight.” Notice the action verbs again? Not just “huh…that’s interesting” but a dramatic, sweeping gesture to “turn aside and look!” Action Verb Moses.
But it is once he gets to the bush that his verbs—and his life—are forever changed. God speaks his name, and Moses responds, “Here I am.” Now, this seems like a simple, obvious response, but for Action Verb Moses, it is important. Because here he speaks a verb of being. “Here I am.” For the first time, maybe in his whole life, Moses goes from doing to being. To pause long enough to contemplate what it means to be. And I think that this is an important part of the story. The folks in the 838 service have noticed this theme throughout our readings. God speaks to Abram in a quiet moment alone and sends him on a journey. God meets Jacob in the wilderness in the passage that we read last week, and then God meets him again in the form of an angel who he wrestles with. And now Moses, beyond the wilderness, slows down long enough to hear God speak. There is wisdom there for us, and the 838 folks have named it. The power of slowing down to be. That when we stop phone-scrolling, or remote-flipping, or social networking, then we, like the patriarchs, can sit still long enough in the silence to hear God speaking. Just like the Psalmist who invited us to “be still.” Or as I have shared before, a better translation is “cease striving.” “Here I am,” says Moses. And in contrast to the violence and action and power-wielding of the first years of his life, now he is ready to hear God in a new way. Action Verb Moses is ready to be Verb of Being Moses…to hear God’s call.
The Verbs of Yahweh
So, let’s turn our attention now to God. God has been kind of hard to find in the beginning of the story of Exodus. God is not mentioned at all in Chapter 1, and is not mentioned until the end of Chapter 2, and then only by the narrator. But again, did you happen to notice in the passage I read a few moments ago how many verbs there were? The Action Verbs of God are important here. God heard their groaning. God remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God saw the people. And God knew them. Here, God is presented as the opposite of the king of Egypt, who did not know Joseph or his people. God knew them. God hears them and hears their cries. God sees them and their pain. God remembers the covenant.
Then, the story turns from Chapter 2, in which God is spoken about, to Chapter 3, when God actually speaks. This is God’s first direct speech in the book of Exodus. But it is an echo of the earlier passage. In Chapter 2, we learn that God heard, remembered, saw, and knew. Now, in Chapter 3, the verbs are exactly the same. “I have seen the misery of my people.” “I have heard their cry.” “I know their sufferings.” God still knows, in contrast to the Egyptian king who does not. God even repeats a couple of those verbs for emphasis. God’s point to Moses is that the suffering of his people, of their people, has not gone unnoticed.
But then an interesting parallel happens. Moses is a little confused by this encounter, and so he clarifies, “now wait, what did you say your name was again?” Now, to be fair, it has been a long time since God had clearly spoken to members of this first family, at least according what we have recorded. A long time since Joseph had been led by God…even longer since Jacob was visited by the angel…even longer since Abraham had begun the covenant with them. So, we can excuse Moses a little when he is a little confused.
But God’s response is where we see another shift. Up until now, God’s verbs have been pretty action oriented. Hear. See. Know. But now, Moses meets God in a way that no one ever had before: “God said to Moses, “I AM who I AM.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I AM has sent me to you…’ Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord, 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.”
Just like Moses, God moves from action verbs to this verb of being, but in a different way. Exodus works for a great lesson on verbs, until you get to verse 14. You probably would have been graded down in elementary school if your verb example was “I am.” Your teacher would have asked “I am what?” Being verbs usually don’t stand on their own, but point to an adjective or adverb, like Moses’ “I am here.” But here’s how we know that this is not a grammatical statement, but a theological one. I would suggest that theologically, this name for God blows up the grammar. It is as if God is at once the entire conjugation chart of the verb “to be.” I was. I have been. I could be. I will be. I shall be. I am. It is a name that includes being in all of its forms and times and places. This name for God is a whole category of verbs all at the same time.
The Missing Verb
So here are these parallel tracks: the Verbs of Moses…action and adventure until he pauses long enough to listen. And the Verbs of God…hearing and seeing and knowing until he teaches Moses his name. And it is here that these two grammatical anomalies converge to create this powerful moment in which Moses understands who God is and who he truly is and who God intends for him to be. Which gives us the final verb that I want to talk about this morning: the missing verb.
Did you all notice the missing verb? In Chapter 2, God hears and sees and knows and remembers. Then, in Chapter 3, God hears and sees and knows, but God does not say “I remember.” It is exactly the same list of verbs until then. Why? Did God forget? Did God fail to remember? Of course not. I think that the writer of Exodus does this on purpose. Because look what verb replaces it: “I will send you.” There is an important move from remembering the past to sending in the future. Both seem to be important in the mind of God. It is still important to remember the old covenant, for God to be faithful to that covenant. But, in God’s plan for Moses, future action is required. I will send you. The missing verb is God’s call on Moses’ life. And only when he is quiet, only when he pauses, only when stops to just be, is he sent. He receives a call to go. To act. But not act in the haphazard and violent way of his past, but now with purpose. With a vocation. “Bring my people out of Egypt.”
The story of Moses becomes our story. His verbs become our verbs.
• Do we hear the cries of injustice? See the broken in our midst? Know their pain?
• Do we remember the covenant of God, through Abraham and Amos, Moses and Malachi, Jesus and John?
• Are we willing to be still and listen for God’s voice in our lives?
• Are there ways that God is calling us to bring justice to our world?
• Is God whispering, “I will send you!”
Unlike the king of Egypt, God knew Moses. Knew what he was capable of. Who he could be. In the same way, God knows us and calls us and sends us….to be people of justice and grace.