3rd Sunday of Lent C

There is nothing more boring than a homily focused on the history of how a single verse in the bible has been interpreted through the centuries.  I will now prove this point.

While tending the flock, Moses happens upon the remarkable sight of a bush that is burning, but not consumed by the fire.  From that bush comes a voice that speaks of God’s decision to free the Israelites, God’s chosen people, from their slavery in Egypt and take them to a new, fertile land all their own.  Astounded, Moses asks a question of the bush that might astound us for its relatively lack of importance, “If they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what am I to tell them?”

Shakespeare once said, “What is in a name?”  For the Jewish culture and those of the near east, the answer I pretty simple, “Everything.”   One’s name revealed who they were, their mission and their status in life.  It was absolutely critical.  We do not have that same sense.  We think of a name as simply how we identify ourselves or distinguish one from another.  If I say Fr. Bob, you know who I mean. But in the culture of the Bible, I would not be simply telling you my name is Bob, I would be sharing my Bobness with you.

How is this paramount question answered?  I AM WHO AM.  Now a couple of things about that answer.  God did not take the name Joe, Bill, Steve or Helen, Carol or Janelle.  I AM WHO AM is hardly a direct name; it is meant to be mysterious.  God’s name cannot even begin to convey all of who God is.  But it is still a name that speaks of mission and position.  And when the Hebrew Scriptures met Greek philosophy, the meaning was evident.  God is being, the ground of all existence and the creator of all things.  This implied that God was all-powerful, mighty and somewhat aloof.  Being is not a category of intimacy, but of structure and our idea of God grew around those images.

The problem with that is that the concept of being did not exist in Jewish thinking.  They likely took the idea of I AM WHO AM as a promise to be present to God’s people.  As I heard sung in Niskayuna’s tremendous production of “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” – “Children of Israel are never alone.”  The great American theologian John Courtney Murray considered the context of the statement and the culture and translated the name of God to “As who I am I will be present to you.”  In other words, this is and always has been a God of mercy; a God of intimacy; a God of compassion.  God always hears the cries of the poor. “I have witnessed the affliction of my people in Egypt and have heard their cry of complaint against their slave drivers, so I know well what they are suffering.”  God identifies God’s self as the one who has seen suffering and is literally on a rescue mission to relieve it.  And God still is.

This meshes with the greatest explanation of God’s name, the life of Jesus, whose name incidentally means “he who saves.”  Jesus defines God as ever close, ever caring and ever loving.  Jesus’ time among us was marked by friendship, compassion and blessing.  He touched the leper and forgave the sinner.  But if you want to know what it means to be God, look no further and look nowhere else but the cross.  The cross defines God because the cross defines love.

It is heartbreaking when people lose their faith, but it is maddening when they lose it for the wrong reason.  People reject the Christian God as uninvolved, uncaring and distant, as detached from the relevance of their lives as possible.  And I too reject that God.  But don’t give up on Christ without encountering the intimate God of mercy, who listens to the poor, fights for justice and heals the wounded. Encounter the true and living God of the Bible, and make up your mind.  I know fewer would leave and even more would fall in love with the God I know.  They would know they were remembered and treasured and loved by the one God of all the universe.  They would know the name of God is mercy.