The I AM: A Sermon for MLK Sunday (Exodus 3:1-15)

Sermon given at Colonial Church on the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Sunday, January 19, 2020. You can listen to the sermon online.

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. 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. Then Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.” 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.” Then he said, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” 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.

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, 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. 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.[1] 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,[2] 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.


Beyonce free

Freedom
Freedom
I can’t move
Freedom, cut me loose
Singin’, freedom
Freedom
Where are you?
‘Cause I need freedom, too
I break chains all by myself
Won’t let my freedom rot in hell
Hey! I’ma keep running
‘Cause a winner don’t quit on themselves

-Beyoncé, “Freedom

Good Morning. Welcome back to our series this January, in our Year of the Good Neighbor, entitled “Love Moves Into the Neighborhood”. The series is based off the beginning of the book of John, from The Message translation where it reads, “The word became flesh and moved into the neighborhood.” John 1:14

Today we’re going to talk about how the word BECAME flesh through this God who moves into our neighborhood. I’m also going to talk a little bit about one of our core values, Welcome, Beloved, and how our value of Welcome and the song we just heard about freedom are realized in the invitation of the word that has become flesh; the invitation of welcome and the longing for freedom– going way back — has been the cry of our souls and the call of God to us, to be a people who are free, to be a people of deep and profound welcome where home is a space for everyone.

Will you pray with me? Oh, love that has indeed become flesh and moved into our neighborhood, may we be a people who move with you, into your good news, into your freedom, and into your promised land. Amen.

Now it’s not every sermon that seeks to bring together Beyoncé, Martin Luther King Jr., Moses, Jesus, and us… but that is what I am attempting to do today… are you ready? Okay. Here we go!MLK

The good news proclaimed in John 1, my friends, is the movement of God’s freedom. This is the movement that MLK called us to see, that of which he preached: God’s long work of bringing freedom to all people. And I want to spend some time today tracing the theme of freedom through Scripture. To do so we could go way back to the book of Genesis, but I figured you don’t want to be here all day, so we’re going to start with Exodus three where it talks about God showing up and calling Moses. Next we’ll move forward to John, chapter 1 and the verse on which our series “Love Moves Into the Neighborhood” is built. Then, I’ll end by talking about the ways that these invitations to be a people of welcome and freedom echo through the life and the work of Martin Luther King Jr. (which Beyoncé’s song, “Freedom” also calls us to) as it invites us to be people who are, indeed, good neighbors.

So, starting with the passage from Exodus… what’s happening here? There are a lot of things going on in this text and I want to highlight just a few of as we move into the conversation.

This summer we did a series on the “I AM” statements in the book of John and we talked about how the echo of God as the “I AM” goes way back into the Older Testament in the Hebrew tradition and Scriptures. The I AM is the name for God. One of the most common words that’s utilized to refer to God throughout these texts is the name YHWH, which is often translated as “Lord “into English. This isn’t exact though as YHWH is connected to the verb, which means I AM or “I will be who I will be.” So when you read LORD, you’re actually reading about this God, the I AM, the I will be who I am will be.[3]

What I love about this invitation to think of God as the I AM, as I preached on during our summer series is how God as I AM invites us to understand God as the ground of being; God as our source, as the place of all life where we are invited to find our connection to true life and being and live from that place. And so what’s happening in the book of John is that by his employing the language of I AM in connection to Jesus’ words and ministry, John is echoing a narrative and deep understanding of God that would have been central to the Jewish people’s conception of God as YHWH…the “I AM”, thus both arguing that Jesus is divine AND that Jesus is the one who was and is and is the ground and source of all of our life and being.

John invites us to encounter Jesus as the word become flesh….the I AM in human form. Jesus who then, throughout the book of John says, “I am, I AM.” This is the signal that he is God who has become human and is in our midst dwelling with us. This “I AM” is the light that the Israelites follow, it’s the light that we ourselves follow, it’s the North star that black enslaved persons followed to freedom. This is the “I AM”, the word who has become flesh.

Returning back to this third chapter of Exodus, there are so many different things that are happening in addition to the announcement of God as the I AM. One of the additional things that I want highlight is how here, with the call of Moses, he becomes a paradigm and a prophet of God’s freedom. God has heard the cries of God’s people who are enslaved and then calls to Moses (who’s an unlikely hero!) to say, “It’s you that I want to help bring my people to freedom!” In this way, Moses is the first prophet of freedom, Jesus is both the second Moses plus the I AM become flesh, and MLK is another Moses, inviting the people out of oppression and into God’s freedom.

The first Moses had a storied background and life where, first of all, when Pharaoh was going to have all of boys his age killed, he was put into the water and gets picked up by Pharaoh’s daughter and brought into and then raised inside of Pharaoh’s home –even though he’s actually an Israelite– and then he ends up killing an Egyptian who is being unfair and unjust to one of the Israelites. After this he flees into the desert. And so, in Exodus chapter three, we find him living where he had been with his father-in-law and his wife’s family in the desert of Midian in the wilderness and he comes to this mountain.

Now this mountain, Mount Horeb is also thought to be the same mountain by another name Mount Sinai. Mount Horeb/Sinai was known as the place where God dwelt, the mountain of God, a.k.a. YHWH’s place. This is where Moses will receive the plan for the tabernacle, this is the place where the Israelites will worship God, this is where the Ten Commandments are given by God to the people.

This mountain features as a prominent place throughout the life of God’s people. And it’s here, at this place, that Moses is first encountered by God in this burning bush, this sacred mountain where the divine dwells. In the ANE world, mountains were thought to be the locations where the divine resided. Do you remember when Jesus meets to the woman at the well she says to him, “You Jewish people say we must worship God on this mountain but we Samaritans, we worship on this mountain?” And Jesus then says, “No, it’s no longer on mountains where people must worship for now the time is where all people will worship in spirit and in truth.” By saying this Jesus as the word become flesh counters the long-held belief that mountains are where God meets humans as God now comes to earth and meets us.

But here, in this time in Exodus, Moses is on the mountain and there’s a fire burning the bush. Fire is another important theme for the ways in which God shows up.[4] Recall to mind what happens is as the Israelites are moving through the wilderness on their way to the promised land… a fire guides them at night! This fire stays with them until they arrive safely in their new land. Thus, when Jesus is recorded in John as saying, “I am the light of the world,” John is hearkening back to this fire, the consuming fire that doesn’t actually burn up the bush, nor does it actually burn us up. It just makes us different. So here at this place, Moses is encountered by God and he’s invited to remove his sandals because it is holy ground.

One of the wonders that I have about this section of the passage as you read about YHWH calling Moses to remove his sandals is how, in the Ancient Near Eastern context, you would remove your sandals when you came home. I wonder about that… What does it mean if in this encounter of God, Moses, who has been wandering in wilderness, who is not been a “fit” or at home anywhere– first removed from his own family, brought up in another family, then he has to leave that place and he’s been wandering in the desert–he now comes to this place and God shows up and says, “You’re home, this is sacred ground. Take off your shoes. Welcome beloved. Live from that place now and lead my people into freedom.” So here he encounters God and God partners with Moses to then lead God’s people to freedom. What does it mean if he is finally home and seen when here in chapter three God shows up and says, “I AM is my name.”? What might such an invitation call to us as we think about what it means to live Welcome, Beloved?[5]

As I noted just a few minutes ago, I AM here in Exodus three is connected to the Jewish word for God, YHWH. The sense of really deeply that I AM, I will be who I will be, the God who is with them, the God who is there holding space, the God who brings them into freedom, “I AM the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt that I might dwell with you,” which we then read in John about how the word becomes flesh and dwells with us. The great I AM holds us and so we don’t have to be afraid.

In the Greek translation of Exodus 3 (in the LXX), It says of God that God is the ego eimi, which is picked up later in John, where it talks about Jesus as the I AM. However, an interesting thing happens here in John 1:14 where Jesus is not yet refered to as the I AM (ego eimi), but as the logos(word) egento (become) flesh.  What I would argue is that what’s happening here is that Jesus is being positioned as both the new Moses, inviting people to the promised land of freedom, but also God (thus John 1 features so prominently in early arguments about Jesus’ divinity). Jesus is also the I AM who shows up in the burning bush, who shows up with the people.

Let me say more about this…

Here in John 1:14 where the word becomes flesh in Greek is egeneto. Some of you may be happy to know that the nerdy part of me got to spend some time hanging out with my Greek to English lexicon yesterday (and it was really fun!)…the rest of you are like, “That’s nice, Sara.” Egeneto shows up here in John 1:14 as an aorist verb, which means basically it’s something that happened in the past, one time. So the word become flesh and this becoming in Greek and the range of meaning for it is means something like that which came into being through the process of birth, to be born, to be produced. So egento is talking about something like how God becomes human.

This verse itself was so important in the early church as they tried to make sense of who Jesus was….wrestling with questions like; “Is Jesus God?” Because what we’re told here is that the Word (God, the I AM), becomes, takes on a new form and actually becomes flesh in our midst. The Greek-English lexicon talks about how this verb, egeneto, doesn’t quite have the permanency of the verb eimi (the I AM), but it’s a sense that what happens, I would argue, is that Jesus, as God who is the eternal eimi (YHWH) becomes (egento) flesh and then later, as we go down the passage to verse 18, where it is translated in the NRSV as “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.” That Jesus is the Son who is…which has the same connection back to the verb eimi, thus the word who egentos is the ego eimi…the I AM, in whom we live and move and have our being!

So what I’m saying here is that there’s this way that the word is becoming flesh — the God who always was, now takes on human form in Jesus and comes to earth! What happens here then is that this word is now in our midst as the God who was and is who now, in Christ, is inviting us into freedom.

And one of the things that’s important to know about Martin Luther King Jr. is that he was both deeply steeped in seminary training and had his doctorate in theology, AND he also grew up in the Black church knowing these stories of Moses and Jesus and freedom.

We first see the people call out to God when they are enslaved –they long and cry for freedom. God utilizes Moses and encounters Moses as the I AM and they move to freedom. And then Jesus comes, as the human form of God, leading us to freedom. He calls out to us: “Follow me into the truth and the promised land of where you were meant to dwell!” And Martin Luther King shows up in the 1960s following in that tradition to say: “We are called to be a people of freedom, to be a people who both in our spiritual lives and in our embodied lives together, march and move towards freedom!” And we as God’s people, following the I AM who has encountered us have likewise become radically changed, for we have found ourselves at home in the presence of the I AM and we are invited to take off our sandals and be at home in God that we might likewise, be people and prophets and midwives and sisters and stewards of freedom, creating more of God’s kingdom here on earth indeed, as it is in heaven.

Some of you may recall that the night before Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, he gave his last sermon, entitled, “I’ve Been To The Mountaintop”. As I was working on my sermon for the Sunday where we honor his work and legacy, I wondered about what it means to be a people who go to the mountain, who are willing to let ourselves be encountered by the I AM who is the God of freedom, the God of profound welcome, who invites us– in all that we are–to be changed and transformed, that we will be encountered by a fire that doesn’t burn us up, but makes us truly who we were called and invited to be. The night when he gave this last sermon, MLK was encouraging and challenging the people, naming the injustices that were present and against which they labored, protested, and worked. Let’s pick up from the end of his message…

I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead, but it really doesn’t matter with me now because I’ve been to the mountain top. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place, but I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain and I’ve looked over and I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land! And so I’m happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything, I’m not fearing any man. My eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.[6]

So question that I wonder about for us today is this: Have you been to the mountain? Have you encountered the I AM in the burning bush? Have you found your heart transformed by this God of love and freedom, who invites you to move into the rhythm of the I AM where you no longer need to struggle to protect you own ego, because you know that you are welcome and home?

For indeed, we are held in the love of the God who says, “Take off your sandals and stay awhile, but don’t just do that…then put them back on and go down to do people who are crying out and do the work in the neighborhood that I’ve called you to be…a people who midwife freedom, a people who are prophets of freedom, a people who are mothers and daughters and sons and friends and neighbors who bear witness to that mountain of God’s freedom, a people who say, ‘I see that promised land. God’s kingdom is coming. It’s not yet, but I know it’s real and I want to live my life oriented to that mountain.’ ” Living from the place of the vision from the mountain is living from the place of being held in the I AM, a place where we don’t need to fear for there’s space enough for each of us. It’s a movement of God’s kingdom and God’s freedom for each of us and all of us, not just us as this people of Colonial Church, but us as all of our neighborhoods here in the Twin Cities, and us as a people around the world…people who follow the I AM who became flesh and moved into our neighborhood.

And so I wonder today… Have you been to the mountain? Can we go to the mountain together? Can we stand and sit with one another as we are encountered by God’s love again? And sometimes, yes, this is scary because freedom asks something of us, but freedom is indeed the promise and the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ, a freedom that is rooted in the I AM who is the I am and the I will be who I will be. The I AM reminds us that God has heard our cries so keep on marching friends because the Promise Land is a place of home for everybody. May we be a people who follow Moses, our brother, who follow Jesus, our I AM, and who follow our brother MLK in the long march and the journey of freedom as we seek to be people who join with this Jesus in moving into the neighborhood, living from a place of welcome and freedom.

Let us pray together. God, we give you thanks for the ways in which you encounter and join with real people to bring about your freedom, your light, your good news, and your life. So God, even now as you hear the cries of both our hearts and the cries of our siblings around the world, God, may we be willing to take off our sandals and let you love and change and transform us, that our fears or our excuses or insecurities aren’t going to have voice in the face of your great love that says, “I’m asking you to lead anyway. I’m asking you to love anyway. I’m asking you to move anyway.” So might we indeed be a people who join you in your becoming flesh to become humans made in your image, formed by your love as the great I AM, to then indeed be the people of your freedom and good news in this world and all of our neighbors. For it’s by your Spirit and your great love…not by power, nor by might, that we indeed cry FREEDOM.

AMEN.


[1] Exodus 3:14 Or I am what I am or I will be what I will be.

[2] Exodus 3:15 The word “Lord” when spelled with capital letters stands for the divine name, YHWH, which is here connected with the verb hayah, “to be”

[3] I preached three times in this series, but the one where I most focused on the connection between “I AM” in Exodus to the book of John was given on June 30, 2019. “I am the Light of the World.”

[4] See, for instance: Genesis 15:17; Exodus 14:24; 19:18; Leviticus 10:2; and Acts 2:3.

[5] I am grateful to Dennis Olson for his insight about the removal of sandals and its connection to home in the ANE on Working Preacher.

[6] You can read the full message and listen to the audio here.

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