When I was in college, I took a course entitled Who Are the Soviets? It was meant for Russian language majors like me, history minors, like my good friend and suitemate Matin, and was useful as a General Education course. Toward the end of the course, my professor was conducting a review and said he’d be willing to answer any questions that students had about the material, barring super obvious ones like, “What’s the difference between the Russia and the Soviet Union?” Everyone laughed.
|About This Sermon
Rev. Mark Schaefer
St. Matthew’s United Methodist Church
August 30, 2020
Exodus 3:1-15; Matthew 16:21-28
Everyone except one student, an acquaintance of mine and Matt’s who leaned over, and in an anxious whisper asked Matin, “There’s a difference between Russia and the Soviet Union?!?” After a semester in a class called Who Are the Soviets?
Now, granted, young people today might not be as clear on that distinction. To be fair, I don’t think Vladimir Putin is clear on that distinction. But in a class in which the subject matter was built on knowing at least that much, not knowing that would be embarrassing. As it was for this acquaintance of ours.
In fact, not knowing something is frequently a cause of embarrassment. We might not know that the family member of a friend we had just asked about had died recently. We might loudly and repeatedly mispronounce a word, as one guest did repeatedly on a late night program I was watching some years ago declaring a certain heinous actions to be henious. We might respond to an ad looking for someone to do light housekeeping and say that we’re willing to try it, even though we’ve “never kept a lighthouse before.”
All of these are situations in which not knowing something is a source of embarrassment. But there’s nothing like the embarrassment of not knowing something that you should have known, as my poor classmate found out.
II. THE TEXTS
There is something of that going on in our scripture lessons for this morning.
A. Not Knowing God’s Ways
In the Gospel Lesson from Matthew, we pick up the story right after last week’s passage, right after Simon Peter has just declared that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God. Jesus follows this up by showing his disciples that “he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.”
It is at this point that Peter—who had been the star pupil only a few moments ago—objects: “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.”
Whereupon Jesus turns to Peter and says, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
In short, Peter knew the right answer to Jesus question, “Who do you say that I am?” but he didn’t really understand it. He didn’t know what it meant. Imagine going from “the rock upon which I will build my church” to “Satan” that fast. That would be embarrassing.
This is especially the case since it’s not just the fact that Jesus was telling the disciples these things; he was showing them. The Greek word δεικνύω deiknyō implies pointing out, presenting, permitting to see, cause to see, demonstrate, or prove. And then after this, Jesus has to instruct them further:
If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.Matthew 16:24
The disciples, Peter especially, should have known these things about God’s ways and the ways of God’s anointed one. But they didn’t.
B. Not Knowing God
When we look at the story from the book of Exodus, we find something even more shocking: complete ignorance of who God is at all.
We pick up Moses’ story after he has fled into the land of Midian to avoid the consequences of his having killed an Egyptian who beat a Hebrew slave. There he marries and starts a family. Around age forty, as he leads his father-in-law’s flock beyond the wilderness to Mount Horeb, he sees a bush burning nearby, aflame, but not consumed by the flames. As he approaches this mysterious sight, God calls to him: “Moses, Moses!” And Moses answers 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.Exodus 3:5–6
God reveals to Moses that God wants him to return to Egypt to lead his people out of bondage to Pharaoh. Moses objects, saying, “Who am I that I should go?” When God seems unconcerned by this objection and responds that he will be with Moses, Moses asks another, more revealing question: “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 responds:
“I AM WHO I AM.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’”Exodus 3:14
1. The Name of the God Who Is
“I am who I am.” In Hebrew this is אֶֽהְיֶ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֣ר אֶֽהְיֶ֑ה ehyeh asher ehyeh, which can mean “I am who I am,” “I will be what I will be,” “I cause to be what I cause to be” or “I am what I cause to be,” among other possibilities due to the vagaries of Hebrew grammar. But then God follows it up by saying, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord, 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.” God has answered “I am who I am” but then supplements that with “the Lord.”
Now, a couple of things here to understand. When it says in the English text “the Lord,” usually in small caps, that means that in the Hebrew is what is called the tetragrammaton, the Four Letter Name of God: י ה ו ה yod-he-vav-he, usually rendered into English as YHWH. Now, no one is really sure how this name is pronounced, but the best guess is that it’s something like Yahweh. (Other guesses include Yahu.)
But either way, the root of Yhwh and the root of the verb hayah meaning “to be,” appear to be the same. In fact, God’s name Yhwh looks an awful lot like a third-person masculine singular form of the verb to be. God says “I am,” and then instructs Moses to tell the Hebrews that “He is” sent you.
2. A Forgotten Heritage
Now, I want to pause here a second to note that Moses has just encountered the God of his people, the Hebrews languishing in captivity in Egypt, and he has no idea what the name of this God is And if God’s name means “he is” then it’s as if Moses doesn’t even know that this God is. Literally, he doesn’t know the first thing about this God.
Now, some will say that God’s name was a secret until this point and that it is only here that God reveals God’s name. But that’s not so, we read in the book of Genesis:
Abraham planted a tamarisk tree in Beer-sheba, and called there on the name of the Lord (יהוה), the Everlasting God.”Genesis 21:33
And Jacob said, “O God of my father Abraham and God of my father Isaac, O Lord (יהוה) who said to me, ‘Return to your country and to your kindred, and I will do you good.’”Genesis 32:9
It is clear that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob knew and called upon the name of God, but that some time over the ensuing centuries, not only did there arise a Pharaoh who did not know Joseph, there arose a Hebrew people who did not know God. Did not even know God’s name.
III. OUR KNOWLEDGE OF GOD
Lest we think we’re superior because we wouldn’t make a mistake like that, it would serve us to be reminded that we, too, are deficient in our knowledge of God.
Philosophers have long understood that there is a problem whenever we try to talk about God: we don’t know what we’re talking about and thus cannot find the right words to do so. The religious philosopher I.M. Crombie pointed out that even the simplest definitions of God rely on paradox: God is simultaneously transcendent and immanent or present with us. God is simultaneously beyond time and space and yet interacts and has relationship with it. The fact that we deal in paradox means that we lack understanding of God in a meaningful way.
It’s probable that this is why we always tend to conceptualize God in ways that are easier: as an old man with a flowing white beard who sits on a throne and who favors all the same political candidates we do. Because we can’t get our head around what God is, we define God down to our level. But then all that shows is that we really don’t know God at all.
Crombie points out that even the terms we come up with to define God (the first cause, the supreme being) are the kind of terms about which no one can say what it would be like for something to actually fit such a definition. For example, how do you know when you have encountered the supreme being? Ultimately, the very thing we would understand cannot be understood. Indeed, as many philosophers of religion point out, the moment we define God is the moment our definitions fall short.
So, it’s not simply that we fail to understand the particulars of God’s kingdom and of the work of the disciples of the Messiah. It’s not simply that we don’t know insider information about God’s Divine Name. It’s that when it comes right down to it, given the all-encompassing mystery that is God: the creator of all, the ground of all being, the truth, the ultimate reality—we lack anything approaching complete knowledge. All we are left with is metaphors as signposts to point us in the direction of the divine.
IV. God’s Knowledge of Us
But here’s the thing: on one level it doesn’t matter; what matters is that God knows us.
There is something often looked over in the divine encounter, the theophany at the beginning of the Exodus passage. When God reveals Godself to Moses at the burning bush, we read:
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.”Exodus 3:7
“Indeed, I know their sufferings.” At the heart of this statement is a simple, yet profound, verb: I know. In Hebrew, the verb used here is ידע yada, which means “to know” not through intellectual cognition, but through experience. That is, when God says, “I know their sufferings,” God is not saying that God is aware or that God has received information or that God conceives that the Israelites are suffering; God says, “I know their sufferings.” God has experienced those sufferings within God’s own being.
This is a stunning declaration and one that defines the Israelite God in a powerful and unique way. See, the other peoples of the ancient world believed their gods to be powerful. Only the Israelites believed their God to be vulnerable. To care. To feel what we feel. To experience what we experience. Whatever it is that we might know—or fail to know—about God, the fact remains that God knows us.
A. The Power of Solidarity
Our God does not stand aloof from the sufferings of the world; our God is in the midst of the suffering. This is why Jesus says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me,” because to follow the Son of God, means to follow him into the awesome declaration of solidarity with mortal humanity that is the cross. Our God knows our sufferings.
Our God knows what it’s like to hang upon a Roman cross until your diaphragm collapses and you die because you can’t breathe anymore.
Our God knows the sufferings of having your life drained out of you by the knee of armed authority on your neck.
Our God knows the sufferings of one shot seven times in the back.
Our God knows the sufferings of one erroneously killed in her apartment after the execution of a no-knock warrant.
Our God knows the sufferings of one who is killed by armed racist thugs while jogging in his own neighborhood.
Our God knows the sufferings of the churchgoers murdered by a White Supremacist in the middle of a time of prayer and study.
Our God knows the sufferings of the parents of a 12-year old child playing with a toy gun in a park, shot within seconds of the police arriving.
Our God knows the sufferings of all those who live under systems of injustice and oppression: from the Israelites in Egypt, to the Jews of Europe, to the Christians in Iraq and Syria, to the Uighurs of China, to the non-Hindus in India, to the Palestinians in Israel, to the Black, Indigenous, and People of Color in America.
Our God is in the red-lined neighborhoods. Our God is in the refugee camps. In the detention centers. Our God is in the working-class communities neglected so long by the interests of the rich and powerful. Our God is there in the midst of it. Our God knows.
And so why do we as Christians care about the shooting of Jacob Blake, the murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery,Trayvon Martin, Akai Gurley, Eric Garner, Terence Crutcher, Tamir Rice, Mike Brown, Freddie Gray, Philando Castille, Breonna Taylor, Atitiana Jefferson, Alton Sterling, Rekia Boyd, Antonio Martin, Walter Scott, Jamar Clark, Aiyana Jones, Korryn Gaines, Sandra Bland, Emmanuel AME Church, and so many others? Why do we care about these injustices and so many more? Because that’s where God is. Telling us, “I have observed the misery of my people… Indeed, I know their sufferings.”
V. END: The Knowledge of God
Our ability to know the fullness of God will always be limited. It is not possible for mortal minds to comprehend the infinite and the eternal. Even when we are standing in the presence of the Son of God, or before a miraculous revelation of God in the desert, we still come up short. We still fail to comprehend.
And, after lifetimes in faith, we still manage to get God wrong and fail to live up to the central points of our faith. A lack of knowledge that can be cause for a certain level of embarrassment.
But God comprehends us. God knows us. And in that is a powerful declaration of solidarity, and the basis of our salvation. For if our sorrows, our sufferings, even our deaths happen within God’s experience, then we are never truly separated from God.
Even more so, we are given a warrant for action. It is seldom that anyone truly comes into any kind of understanding of God from words alone. In fact, few people are convinced of God’s power by argumentation or by theologies, however much we theologians like crafting them. No, our main knowledge of God comes from our experience of God. It is the experience of love, and love in community, that shapes so much of the core understandings that we have of God. Frequently, we are left without words to adequately explain that experience. No definitions, no categories will do.
But this is a reminder for us: that just as we have experienced God in the love of others, so, too, will others experience the love of God in us.
If people are ever to come to knowledge of the God of love, then it will be on us to live lives of genuine love in the world, rejecting fear and hate.
If people are ever to come to knowledge of the God of hope, then it will be on us to live lives of hope, not surrendering to cynicism or self-interest, but modeling a powerful new way.
If people are ever to come to knowledge of the God of peace, then it will be on us to live lives of peacemaking and reconciliation, abandoning the tribalism and the parochialism that defines our age and to see a common humanity and a common destiny.
And if ever people are to come to knowledge of the God of justice, then it will be on us to live lives of justice, to seek to dismantle the structures that keep God’s children in bondage, that cause them to cry out to God on account of their taskmasters. It will be on us to be willing to walk down that road with Christ, even though it may cost us all that we have.
For it is in the experience of love that we know love. In the experience of peace that we know peace. It is in the experience of hope that we know hope. In the experience of justice that we know justice.
And it is in the experience of God in us, that all the world may come to know the God who first knew us.
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. So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.” But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” 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.”
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.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’”
God also said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘The LORD, 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.
From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?
“For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done. Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”