Sermon: The Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost (A) – 31st August 2014

St Alban’s Anglican Church Epping 7am, 8am and 10am

Readings:  Exodus 3:1-15  Psalm 105: 1- 6, 23-26  Romans 12: 9-21  Matthew 16: 21-28

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Despite Juliet’s words to Romeo, names are pretty important.

At one level, a name is an identifying label. In the days which the Bible tells us about, names had real significance. Knowing someone’s name could open up a certain relationship. It could give you a certain power and influence over that person. Even today teachers will be aware of the value of knowing the names of their students. “That boy over there, stop talking!” is not likely to be as effective as “Bill Snoggs, shut your mouth!”

But beyond that, in the stories of the Bible, a name had a significance, a message. It was meant to tell you something about that person or to express a message linked to that person. Today we choose names because we like them: sometimes perhaps because of some association with our family or friends, or even our heroes. Generally the meaning of a name is of limited significance nowadays. I don’t think it was of great significance to my parents who gave me the name Paul, which means small – perhaps a bit of accidental prophecy – but called my brother Nigel, which means champion.

In the Bible, names and their meanings were very important. So important in fact that the ultimate response to the third commandment, not to take God’s name in vain, was that eventually people never used God’s name at all. God’s name was taken very seriously indeed. That’s partly why in different translations of the Bible you will find more than one version of God’s name. Perhaps it was the traditional Jehovah, but more likely it sounded something like “Yahweh”. And in our reading from Exodus this morning, we see something of the significance of God’s name.

It all happened in the wilderness of the Sinai Peninsula. Moses had fled there after killing an Egyptian who mistreated one of his fellow-Israelites. Pharaoh had found out about his violent crime, and so he left Egypt in a hurry to live in this desert land, cut off from his family and people.

Then something very strange happens to Moses. While he is tending his father-in-law’s sheep, he sees a bush that seems to be on fire. He goes closer and sees that it is on fire, and yet it is not burning up. The flames are not consuming the bush, and the leaves are not turning to ash. Very odd indeed! What is happening? Moses goes closer to investigate.

A voice comes from the bush, a voice of authority. “Moses! Moses!” I suspect that Moses was more than a little surprised. “Here I am”, he replies.

The speaker identifies himself. “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” Moses is terrified and turns away from this unexpected divine presence.

God goes on. “I know all about the suffering of my people in Egypt, and I am about to rescue them, and take them to their own land, a bountiful land, a land of milk and honey.” I’m sure Moses is pleased to hear this, and he’s probably thinking it’s about time too, after all those years of slavery!

But now comes the crunch. “So now, Moses, go. I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people out of Egypt.”

Now that is not exactly what Moses had in mind. Sure, it is forty years since he left Egypt, and he is probably not in danger from Pharaoh any more. Indeed, it may well not be the same Pharaoh.

But what a task! To persuade Pharaoh to release all these slaves, and then to get them organized so that they can leave, and then to lead them on a march that will take weeks if not months, to a land that he and they know virtually nothing about. Quite a challenge! And even more of a challenge when you are eighty years old, as we are told Moses was!

So Moses says to God: “Who am I, that I should be the person to go to Pharaoh and bring these people out of Egypt?” Moses is quite willing for the honour to go to some other person, and if he knew more of what the job would involve, he would have been even more ready to pass up this opportunity of a lifetime. “Who am I?” he asks. “You need someone better known or more experienced or younger or better qualified to carry out this task. Who am I to take it on?”

But Moses is asking the wrong question. It’s not a matter of how qualified Moses is – although God had actually prepared him in remarkable ways for the challenges he would face. So God says to Moses: “I will be with you. I will be with you.” And if the almighty God is with him, nothing that he wants him to do is impossible. As an old Youth Fellowship leader of mine used to say: “One plus God is a majority.”

But God then offers some encouragement to Moses. “I am going to give you a sign that I have indeed sent you to carry out this commission.” And what is this sign? “When you have brought the people out of Egypt, you will worship God on this mountain.”

Now that’s actually not much of a sign. Because he won’t see this sign until he has successfully got the people out of Egypt.

“You’ll come back here with all the people, and then you will know for sure that I have sent you. In fact, you won’t see this sign unless you do what I’m telling you… Trust me, Moses”, says the Lord. “Put me to the test. Trust me enough to do what I command you. Then you’ll find out that I can be trusted.”

But Moses has another question. “When I tell them that the God of their fathers has sent me, they might ask me what your name is. What shall I tell them? What is your name?” As I said at the beginning, quite a significant question!

God answers by saying: “I am who I am.” Moses was to tell the people, “I Am has sent me to you.”

What then does Yahweh mean? It has something of the idea of being. God is saying something like “I am”, or “I will be”, or even “I cause things to be, to exist”. God’s name then indicates that he is the God who is, the God who is there, the one who is self-existent. It may also suggest that he is the one who brings things into existence: in other words, the Creator.

But God gives Moses at first a slightly more complex form of the name: “I am who I am, I will be what I will be.” It was a mysterious answer, almost not an answer at all. “I can’t be tied down to a simple description, a mere word”. God seems to be saying: “Try me out and you’ll find out who I am. Don’t try to put me into a box, into a neat little package.”

To really know who God was, Moses would have to trust God, trust him enough to do what he said. He already knew that the Lord, Yahweh, was the true, living, powerful Creator. He was discovering that he was the speaking, calling and commanding God. And he would learn that the Lord was a faithful, loving, forgiving and saving God.

Of course, our finite minds can never do complete justice to the truth about God. There is much mystery about God, but we are not by any means in the dark. The scriptures show us important truths about him. And God can reveal himself in unexpected ways, as Father John loves to remind us. But above all, he reveals himself in the person of Jesus.

Jesus revealed the surprising God: certainly in our reading, Peter found him very surprising. In Jesus we meet the God who came among us to share our life, the God who suffers with us and for us, the God who humbles himself to serve us, the God who calls us to love our enemies – not to seek to destroy them, as Paul reminds us in our reading from the Letter to the Romans.

In our baptism service at 10am, we will enrol baby Javier in the family of those who trust and follow Jesus, whose name tells us so much about him. Jesus, whose name means: “The Lord is Saviour”. Jesus who was indeed the Lord, coming to save his people. As we look forward to welcoming Javier to the family, let us ask God to help us to renew our commitment to the God who is, the God who is there, and to deepen our trust in the Lord Jesus, and to strengthen our commitment to live and to love as followers of Jesus, the Lord who saves. Amen.

Paul Weaver