All Saints Margaret Street | Choral Evensong & Benediction Sunday 22 May 2016

Sermon for Choral Evensong & Benediction Sunday 22 May 2016

Sermon preached by Fr Alan Moses, Vicar 

 “What is his name?”

A name in ancient times, carried more weight than it does now. It was closely bound up with a person’s being and essential nature; it expressed their character.  Names also conveyed authority: Moses is given God’s name so that he may act with divine authority.

Moses is pasturing his father-in-law Jethro’s sheep near Horeb, the mountain of God, another name for Sinai, Moses’ attention is caught by a strange sight: a bush burning yet not consumed.  When he turns aside to investigate, God addresses him by name from the midst of the burning bush:  Moses!  

When Moses responds: Here I am, God says:  Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground…..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.

God calls Moses to be a prophet, that is one who will speak on God’s behalf.  God will act through Moses to deliver the people whose cries under oppression he has heard. 

Moses’ response to this proposed career change is unenthusiastic.  He is in the wilds of Sinai to avoid the clutches of Pharaoh after killing an Egyptian.  Why should he want to return? So he comes up with excuses:

  • Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?
  • 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?

When Moses asks the name of this divine figure who has come into his life and made this extraordinary demand of him, he is not a philosopher  speculating abstractly about the nature of God, but a man who has encountered the living God and his calling.  He needs to know who this God is: “What is God’s relationship with the people?  He has been the God of their ancestors; who is he now?”  This is a matter of life and death for him.

God responds to the first objection with:  I will be with you, and to the second, with the name: I AM WHO I AM……Thus shall you say to the Israelites, I AM has sent me to you.

The first response, I WILL BE WITH YOU anticipates the use of the verb TO BE in the name of God revealed in the second, I AM WHO I AM. At the end of our passage it says, The LORD, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you. 

The name revealed by God and translated in our version, as it was in the King James Version, as LORD is YAHWEH.  This follows the Jewish convention of substituting for the divine name the word Adonai, or Lord.   After the return from Exile in Babylon, the Jews came to refrain from pronouncing the divine name out of reverence for God.  It was replaced by GOD-ELOHIM, or more often ADONAI – MY LORD.  So when the Hebrew scriptures were translated into Greek, the version used by the early Church, the Septuagint as it is known, never writes down the name YAHWEH, but always renders it as KYRIOS – LORD.

The name which God reveals to Moses is a word play on the Hebrew verb “to be”HA YAH.  The interpretation in Exodus takes the name to be the third person form of HAYA -TO BE, that is, HE IS, which humans must use when speaking of  God.  When God speaks of himself he says I AM.  So, the words I AM WHO I AM, explain the name YAHWEH.

The explanation reflects a Hebrew idiom in which something is defined in terms of itself.  So, for example, I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious and show mercy to whom I will show mercy (33.19) means

I am indeed the one who is gracious and shows mercy. So I AM WHO I AM, means I AM INDEED HE WHO IS.

It can also indicate something undetermined, open-ended, future-oriented, so it can be translated I WILL BE WHO I WILL BE. 

Exodus does not deal with philosophical statements, although philosophers have expended much effort on interpreting its divine self-description. They would come to understand these mysterious words as signifying that God, the one who utters them, is not dependent on any other being for existence and life, but only on God’s self.  Only such a being could be the creator as sustainer of all being and life.  And yet, this transcendent being graciously engages with Moses and Israel.  

So, the emphasis here is on relationship and its effect:  I AM HE WHO IS THERE FOR YOU – the one who is really and truly present, ready to help and act.   By revealing his personal name, God has made himself accessible to his people, in fellowship and in saving power. 

This will be echoed and amplified by the New Testament in the names given to the Son of God:

the first in Emmanuel-God-with-us;

And the second in the name Jesus itself. 

Jesus is the Greek version of Joshua or Yeshua, which means Yahweh, or the Lord, saves.  So, Joseph is instructed by the angel to name the child to be born of Mary, “Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” 

The God who had come to save his people from slavery in Egypt, has now come in Jesus Christ to save the world from the slavery of sin. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life. 

The application in the New Testament of the title LORD to Jesus is a pointer to his divinity; as, too, is Jesus applying to himself in John’s Gospel, the self-description of God in the series of great I AM sayings:

I am the bread of life,

I am the water of life,

I am the light of the world.

I am the good shepherd,

I am the resurrection and the life.

I am the true vine

I am the way, the truth and the life.

This is not to say that there is an explicitly worked out doctrine of the Trinity in the New Testament, but that God the Father, the Son Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit are seen as being and working together, in such a way as to point implicitly to it.  It would take centuries for the Church to work out what was implied. And from time to time, the dynamic relational nature of this would be lost sight of and people would opt for a simplified, unitarian view of God. But this simplification would prove incapable of expressing the mystery of that loving communion to which scripture and Christian experience witnesses.

The doctrine of the Trinity is not abstraction. It includes the fact that those who bear the name of Christ, who through their baptism have Christian names, share in the reality, the being of Christ and his relationship with the Father through the Holy Spirit, poured out on us as it had been on him in his baptism.

The Jews reverence the divine name by not uttering it.  Christians reverence the name of the triune God and of Jesus as we utter it.  In our worship, we see this in the traditional actions:

  •  Of bowing during the doxologies in the divine office,  in the opening versicles and at the conclusion of psalms, canticles or office hymns;
  •  Of the customary reverence in bowing at the holy name of Jesus: At the name of Jesus every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.
  • And in refraining from taking the Lord’s name in vain, using it as a curse or even just an expression of exasperation.

This signifies our sense that in uttering the name of God, we are standing on holy ground. The fire of the burning bush which is not consumed expresses that mysterious combination of the fascination of light and the fire whose heat prevents us drawing too close. The self-revelation which makes God known, both at the burning bush, and supremely in Jesus Christ lifted up to draw all to himself, does not remove the intrinsic mystery of God.  The name of God is not something we can ever have control of.  “The more we know, the more we know we don’t know.” 

But that is not the same as saying we are not to go on exploring and growing in the knowledge and love of God.  There is closeness as well as distance, relationship as well as separation, presence as well as absence. By our baptism in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, we are incorporated into the life of Christ and, therefore, into the life of the Holy Trinity; that perfect communion of loving relationship.

So we offer our worship and make our prayer to God through our Lord Jesus Christ and in the power of the Holy Spirit.

The risen Lord, the glorified Son of God, is the one who promises to be with us always, is the one who by the activity of his Spirit continues to speak to us in his word, to pray within us, to make himself known to us in the breaking of the bread.