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?” God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” – Exodus 3:14
Who is God? It seems a straight-forward enough question to ask during church, right? But the truth is, it’s an easy question to overlook. As we attend church week after week, we often assume we already know what we mean when we say “God”.
But there’s a danger in not occasionally asking ourselves, “who do I really believe God to be?”. The danger is that we carry many images of God with us that are overly simplistic. Oftentimes, we carry notions about God we learned as children, but don’t improve upon them or let them grow as we get older. The trouble with this is that we end up with a childhood version of God in a world of adult challenges. This is not quite what Jesus meant when he said have “faith like a child”!
For example, we might have an image of God primarily as miracle worker, whose function is to do wonders. Yet when we ask for a miracle and it doesn’t come, we’re confused. Or God primarily as cosmic giver of solace – a divine spouse, boyfriend, or girlfriend. But when we have some lingering sadness that we just can’t shake, it seems as if God isn’t comforting enough. Or God primarily as transcendent creator, but that God seems remote. Or God as supreme governor – as if the world’s micromanager – but when wrong happens suddenly God seems capricious. To be clear – aspects of all these images have a basis in scripture, but when they become the primary aspect of God we find ourselves disappointed. In the words of 20th century Anglican priest J. B. Phillips, we say to ourselves, “our God is too small.”
Enter our Old Testament reading this morning from Exodus 3. Moses is going about his ordinary business, taking care of the family livestock, only to be interrupted by an encounter with the divine. He sees a burning bush, set aflame but not consumed. God speaks, telling Moses that God has seen the suffering of the Hebrews and will come to save God’s people from oppression, with Moses as his prophet. Moses, befuddled, wants to know God’s name. “I AM WHO I AM,” God says.
Rarely in scripture does God speak so forthrightly about God’s self: “I AM WHO I AM.” It’s a strange answer – is God just being evasive? Over the centuries theologians have wondered that, and generally said no, there’s more going on in this answer.
Saint Augustine, for example, said this verse means that God is Being, or “One who truly is” or “Being unqualified”, Being Itself. I admit, when I first heard Augustine say “God is Being” I said to myself “this doesn’t help because I have no idea what that means!”. But with a little unpacking, it really gets us somewhere in this question “who is God” – it gets us toward a God who is not quite so small.
What Augustine meant is that God is the source of all that exists. God is the Life that gives life. God is, as Paul says in Acts, the One “in whom we live and move and have our being.” God as source, God as the one in whom we live.
By this account God is not a God whose only task in this world is to work wonders, God is the One who sustains and gives the breath of life at all. This God is not a remote creator, but rather the One who – through constantly giving us life – is continually creating . . . every moment of every day. This God is not a micromanager who rules creation with an iron fist. It’s a God who, in giving life, also gives freedom to God’s creatures, who gives free will to human beings.
This notion of God as source, as grounding, as the one in whom we live goes a long way toward getting past some of our incomplete versions of God. So often when we feel disappointed with God it’s because we wish God would act more like we’d expect a human to act – just a much bigger and more powerful human. Why doesn’t God just stop this coronavirus? Why doesn’t God end racial hatred in our own country? As if God should be doing this or that – a divine to-do list. But having a mature concept of God also means having a mature concept of humans and how much responsibility we bear.
So often in these questions, we’re asking God to do the things that we human beings should be doing. Instead of asking “how can we end racism”, we ask “how come God doesn’t do it?” But God is not accountable to us, we are accountable to God! We are accountable to that source, that grounding of life, for what we do to one another. God has given us life, given us breath, shown us that what matters more than anything else in this life is how much we love. God has already done quite a lot!
We find an image of how we might respond to this God from an unexpected place in this story of Moses – the burning bush itself. As a living thing, the bush’s source of life is God. It is full of God’s light and fire, yet is not consumed – it takes in and gives out ever more of this divine light. Let us be that burning bush: those who have our life and breath in God, who radiate this divine source of life more and more, never consumed by but always sharing this divine light. AMEN.
— The Rev. Dr. Ross Kane, August 2020
The Rev. Joani Peacock, Editor for Emmanuel Voices: A Parish Blog