A Flash in the Pan and the Great I Am

Most of us, as we get older, have trouble remembering names. That reminds me of the elderly couple having dinner together. The men, typically, were talking in the living room as the women cleaned up.

One man said, “Last night we went to a great new restaurant. I highly recommend it.” His friend asked the name of the restaurant. The first man thought for a while and asked, “What’s the name of that flower that is red, has thorns, and you give to someone you love?” “You mean a rose?” the other man said. “Yes, that’s the one.” Then he turned toward the kitchen and yelled, “Rose! What’s the name of that restaurant we went to last night?”

You don’t have to be old to have trouble with names. If parents have more than one child, they will run through the list of names before they get to the one they are trying to address. “Will, John, Henry, I mean, you! The one I’m mad at!” I’ll meet someone new at Christ Church and try to remember her name. On Monday, I’ll say to the other clergy, “Who was that new person toward the back in the pew on the right side? She had hair, 2 eyes, and was wearing shoes? You know who I mean?”

Having your name remembered, being called by your name can be a powerful experience. Names are important, obviously. It is significant that the prime minister of New Zealand in her address to parliament said, “Speak the names of those who were lost rather than the man who took them. He may have sought notoriety but we in New Zealand will give him nothing – not even his name.”

In our passage from Exodus this morning, Moses asks God His name.  God has just appeared to Moses in the burning bush and has called him to free His people from their bondage in Egypt. I’ll give you just a little background to put this scene in context. A few weeks ago we heard about Joseph rising to power in Egypt during a famine. His family joined him in Egypt and settled there. But eventually Joseph died and was forgotten by the Egyptians. But, the Israelites grew in number and became a foreign nuisance.

Pharaoh subjected them to oppressive bondage. He wanted to kill them with hard labor, but they kept multiplying. So he tried to kill them by telling the midwives to kill the babies. And when that didn’t work, he decreed that all Hebrew baby boys must be thrown into the Nile. One of those baby boys was Moses—but his parents had faith and feared God. Moses’ mother made a little basket and put him in the Nile. He floated down the river and ended up on the doorstep of Pharaoh’s daughter. For forty years, she raised Moses as a kind of prince in the household of Egypt’s king.

At forty years old, he looked out and saw the oppression of his people. He tried to break up a dispute between a Hebrew and his taskmaster—and he killed the Egyptian. Moses thought, “Not only am I going to set this man free, but I’m going to set all the people free. They’ll come and rally behind me, and we’ll be set free from Egypt.” He was a self-styled activist and liberator.  However, it didn’t work out for Moses the way he had planned. The Jews didn’t follow him and the Egyptians wanted to arrest him, so Moses fled to the desert. It reminds me of the famous quote from theologian and boxer Mike Tyson, who said, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”

When asked to explain that quote, Tyson said, “People were asking me [before a fight], ‘What’s going to happen? They were talking about (my opponent’s) style. ‘He’s going to give you a lot of lateral movement. He’s going to move, he’s going to dance. He’s going to do this, do that.’ I said, “Everybody has a plan until they get hit.” Tyson said that’s just like life. “If you’re good and your plan is working, somewhere during the duration of that, the outcome of that event you’re involved in, you’re going to get the wrath, the bad end of the stick. Let’s see how you deal with it. Normally people don’t deal with it that well.” 

Tyson’s right. We normally deal with adversity as well as the cute but impish Capuchin Monkey. A recent podcast featured a capuchin monkey trainer who said that 2 monkeys were in separate cages. They each were given a cucumber slice as a reward for completing a task. Both monkeys were excited about the cucumber. Then they were both given a grape for completing another task. This got the capuchins very excited! Then, after a third task, one was given a grape and the other a cucumber slice. The monkey with the grape was thrilled. The monkey with the cucumber was outraged. Not only did he not eat the cucumber, he hurled it back out of the cage at the trainer!

Sadly, humans and capuchins have a lot in common. At least, this human does. When Moses plan to free his people didn’t work out, he ran away to the desert.

He married and raised a family and worked as a humble shepherd for his father in law. 40 more years pass. That’s where our passage picks up.  Out of the burning bus, God calls Moses by name and tells him to free His people from Pharaoh.

Of course, this is the very thing that Moses wanted to do 40 years earlier, but now, having been humbled by his previous failure, as well as his life as a lowly shepherd, he is reticent. I would say that reticence is born out of wisdom. 40 years earlier Moses trusted in his own name – the Hebrew Moses who was raised in Pharaoh’s house. It seemed that he was the perfect man for the job, except for the fact that he wasn’t. So why was God calling him now? What had changed?

Well, the answer is in the question I just asked. God was calling Moses now. Before, Moses was calling Moses. Now God was calling him. That makes all the difference. And Moses is right to ask, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh?”

And Moses is also right to ask, “If I come to the Israelites and say ‘the God of your ancestors has sent me’ and they ask me, ‘what is His name?’ what shall I say to them? He’s right to ask because it is God’s name that matters rather than his own.

God doesn’t answer the question with, “Who are you, Moses? Moses, you’re incredible! You’re so good. You’ve always been so great, you’ve got a heart for justice – you’ve got this! You’re just really special, Moses!”  God’s answer goes beyond PBS Kids.

Instead, God says to Moses, “I am who I am…thus you shall say to the Israelites, I am has sent you.” As one preacher says, “I am who I am” means: “I am the God who sees and hears, who knows and remembers, who cares and loves. I am the God who has a plan.” I Am does not leave you or forsake you. I Am does not let you down.”

You are not Moses, but you are you. You might even be someone who hurls a cucumber when punched in the mouth. The point is, it doesn’t matter. In whatever you are facing right now, the One that matters is I am who I am. As David Bowie once sang, “You are a flash in the pan, but I am the Great I Am.”

That term comes from a real flash and a real pan. Muskets had small pans that held gunpowder. An attempt to fire the musket in which the powder flared up without a bullet being fired was a flash in the pan. To trust in yourself is to be a flash in the pan. To trust in God is to trust the great I am.

Moses asks God’s name as he prepares to free His people. Centuries later, God answers that question for the world. When the Israelites ask a man from Nazareth His name, He answers, “Before Abraham was, I am.” I am the Bread of Life. I am the Living Water, I am the Good Shepherd, I am the Resurrection and the Life, I am the Way, I am the Truth, I am the Life.

What is God’s name? His name is Jesus, and at His name, every knee shall bow and tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.