“I am” and “I will be”: Whispers of grace and possibility in the wilderness. Keith Rowe

“I am” and “I will be”: Whispers of grace and possibility in the wilderness. Keith Rowe

Exodus 3: 1 – 14

Sun 22 May

The idea and reality of God, once commonly understood as the ‘glue’ that held western society together is under threat. The idea of God and the meaning and purpose of human life when lived within a God-horizon is being rethought and re- imaged in our time. The inherited view of God as a heavenly super person, all powerful, miracle working and judgemental ‘eye in the sky’ is quite simply no longer credible. For Christians sensitive to the way of Jesus all this represents a massive denial of the love within which Jesus lived and embodied. The idea of ‘no-god’ has seeped into the common mind. A growing number (both outside of and within the church) declare themselves to be ‘atheist’ – though what they mean by the term and which version of God they do not believe in needs to be ascertained in each case. ‘No God’ has become the assumed default position in places of higher learning even while busily introducing students to economic and political structures that operate with god-like power. Public talk of God, even in conversation among friends and colleagues, is likely to be met by embarrassed silence.

However, whatever the dominant mood of our age, the idea of God lives on, sometimes overtly, often implicitly and unnamed, as a mysterious call and presence that continues to haunt human living. There is plenty of evidence to support this, not the least being our own experience as members of the Community of St Luke. In our desire to live within the way pioneered by Jesus we find ourselves affirming a sense of purpose, forgiveness, hope and meaning we’ve learned to associate with an elusive presence we call “God’. Sensitivity to God, spirit-presence, wind-like energy, disturber of complacency, love that gives purpose to life represents the taken for granted milieu in which we live and which we name and celebrate in Sunday worship. Over recent months I’ve enjoyed reading some thoughtful probing by influential post-modern philosophers who, running against the academic tide of our times, suggest that our culture has been too hasty in setting aside the idea of God. Some of them are lapsed Catholics who while strongly rejecting inherited images of an all powerful and judgemental deity retain a sense of the sacramental dimension of all of life. They’ve pushed me to re-enter foundational Biblical stories and to rediscover overlooked clues as to what the word and experience of ‘God’ might refer to in our troubled times.  

So today, a little journey into the story of Moses and his tantalising encounter with a strange and empowering presence to which we give the nickname “God.”  There are many things in this suggestive narrative that cry out to be explored but I’ll need to slide over them leaving you to ponder the significance of: wilderness as the place of encounter with God; a claim that God hears the cries and feels the pain of those who suffer; the way Moses’ question ‘who am I?’ morphs into a question to God, ‘who are you?; a sense of humility by Moses while standing on ‘holy ground’ and receiving new truth; Moses’ call, apparently in the name and spirit of the suffering God, to challenge those who enslave the poor.

Moses was brought up in palace luxury but broke with royal privilege and was at the time of our story learning how to identify with the urban poor (who as we know were his birth-tribe). The issues troubling him are political and economic, personal and communal but underneath it all is a question about the reality and nature of God. The Pharaoh of the time was an ardent believer in a supervising and controlling God of immense power  – indeed the Pharaoh, like rulers before and since, claims his royal power to be a natural and appropriate extension of the rights and privileges of an all-powerful Deity or taken for granted truth. In Egypt at that time cruelty, injustice and violence was permitted if it served royal comfort. The ancient Hebrew story of how God once whispered in the ear of Abraham and assured him of support on a difficult pathway into a just and peaceful society was drowned out in Egypt by the shouted tale of God made in the image of an all powerful Pharaoh. The tragedy is that even the enslaved had internalised this image of God even though it directly contributed to their hardship. It was Moses’ task to jolt them into a new awareness of God.

Confronted by a strangely burning bush Moses senses a call to confront the Pharaoh and to seek the freedom of those oppressed by royal power and privilege. Before accepting such a demanding and life threatening task Moses enquires as to who he should say has sent him – what is the name of the God in whose spirit he is to act?

God’s reply is enigmatic: ”I am who I am…tell them that ‘I am’ has sent me to you.” It’s a strange name to apply to God. We might expect: ‘Tell them that the ruler of the universe’ or ‘the all powerful judge of all humanity’ or ‘the king above all kings’ has sent me to you. The title ‘I am’ is worth pondering – not a person like figure, not an accumulation of power or a judge before whom humanity should crouch in fear – more like a sea in which one lives, a spirit that surrounds all humanity, an ever present but unseen reality, the bedrock truth, the deep mystery of life lying beyond the reach of human words. The image of God as ‘I am’ suggests reality that is lived in rather than something proved by rational argument or scientific proof.  God, understood, as ‘I am’ is more akin to a sea in which we live than a heavenly person or object that might be analysed, dissected and whose actions and character might be predicted or described in meticulous detail. ‘God’ is more like the taken for granted background music within which life is lived.

One of my favourite twentieth century thinkers is Michael Polanyi (died 1976), a chemist turned philosopher.  Polanyi describes two modes of human knowing. The first he calls ‘Tacit knowledge’. This is knowledge we dwell in, or live within, rather than analyse and dissect. It’s akin to knowledge or awareness of the love of a longtime friend or marriage partner – it’s deep truth, beyond the need of rational proof, yet the very foundation for our living and dying, our sense of meaning and purpose, the bedrock reality without which our life would be sadly diminished or even fall into disarray. Speaking of tacit or indwelt knowing Polanyi claimed that ‘we can know more than we can tell.’ We dwell in deep truth that we find ourselves unable to fully explain. Sometimes we don’t know what we most deeply believe until it is drawn from us in conversation or in writing. Even then what we most deeply believe may be difficult to put into simple words. God-belief of the ‘I am’ variety is a form of tacit knowledge. It is confessed rather than proved, explored rather than catalogued.

Polanyi’s second form of knowing is ‘focal awareness’ – knowledge gained by rational analysis, scientific experiment or human argument. It is the necessary foundation for all scientific discovery and is to be prized. However we make a grave error, according to Polanyi, if we confuse these two forms of knowing and subject our deep knowledge, the truth we dwell in, to be subject to overly rigorous or destructive dissection. We simply kill the deep truth in which we dwell. I recall as a young biology teacher trying to explain to students that when we dissected a small animal we were studying a dead creature – the mystery of life eludes us in the laboratory. In my experience theologians and preachers worth heeding are those whose words arise from their dwelling in the mystery that is God rather than being simply rational critics and dissectors of dead or dying theological concepts.

There is a second legitimate way of translating the Hebrew word for “I am’ and it’s important to recognise this possibility as a further pointer to how we might image God. A footnote in the NRSV indicates that the words in question may also be translated, as “I will be what I will be.” According to this translation God is understood as the power of an as yet unrealized future- a voice inviting us to build paths toward a more humane future. Central in the story of Moses is the hope for a new society, one where the poor are cared for, the stranger accepted, peace is valued and people are learning to live together in community. Moses’ mission represents a new possibility for Egypt – one where people like lowly Hebrew slaves are respected and enjoy freedom from whatever diminishes their humanity. God in whom we dwell (I am) is also God (I am who I will be) who summons us to share in the building of this peaceful and just human society. The suggestion is that God is incomplete as long as humanity is fragmented, unjust and wracked by violence. According to this image God apparently has no power or observable reality apart from the cooperation of human agents who heed the call to be builders of good human community. God, according to this image is a disturber of human lethargy, pestering and disturbing humanity, an insistent call at the heart of every person with an invitation to share with neighbours in building a genuinely humane world, weaving love and compassion into the structures that shape our living. I’m sure we’ve all felt the questioning of the ‘who I will be’ God in the depths of our being – the insistent voice-like urging that asks where we and with our particular gifts fit into the healing of our world, asking what our particular role might be in the service of peace, justice and generosity in a wonderful but bruised world. According to the Moses story questions like these stirring within may well be the insistent call of “I will be what I will be” along with a personalised invitation to build pathways or even modest footsteps into a truly humane future.

The two translations of the same Hebrew images: ‘I am’ and ‘I will be who I will be’ reflect two traditional and complementary images of God. The first, the ‘I am’ option represents mystical sensitivity to God’s presence. God simply is and we dwell in God. Our task is to grow in sensitivity to the presence of ‘I am’- in ourselves, in our world and in every person we meet. The second, the ‘I will be who I will be’ option represents prophetic sensitivity to God’s presence. It is the fountain from which creative ethical living grows. According to the prophetic way the word God comes alive in the presence of compassion shaped events in the service of our neighbour and the needs of those damaged by the ways things are. I think most of us have been shaped by both God traditions, the mystical and the prophetic, but experience suggests we fluctuate between the two, and at any time one may predominate. Perhaps its more important for us that within a Community of faith, like St Luke’s both forms of sensitivity to God are present, the mysticism of ‘I am’ and the prophetic passion of ‘I will be who I will be.” 

I’m aware I’ve done little more today than scratch the surface of big questions. Next time I preach (26th June) I’d like to explore choices Jesus made and the image of God that guided him in his ministry. In the meantime I include some things to ponder:

Some things to ponder:

* How has your view or image of God changed over the course of your life?

Alfred North Whitehead (another helpful twentieth century philosopher) suggested a movement from ‘God the void, to God the enemy, to God the companion’. 

* On a continuum running from Mystical (I am) awareness at one end and Prophetic (I am who I will be) awareness at the other end, where would you place your awareness of God – now, ten years ago, twenty years ago, in youth?  


 ‘I am’                                                                                                  ‘Who I will be’

* Re- read the story of Moses and the burning bush (Exodus 3:1-14) and ponder the suggested themes/questions in paragraph 3.