Thursday, 30 September 2021

The God who Is

A sermon for Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
3rd October 2021

Exodus 2.23-25; 3.1-15; 4.10-17

There is a wonderful scene in the TV show The Big Bang Theory
            where the lead character Sheldon is showing his girlfriend Amy
            one of his all-time favourite movies, Raiders of the Lost Ark,
only to have it spoiled by her analysis of what she’s just seen.
According to Amy, the movie has, what she rather dismissively calls,
            a ‘glaring story problem.’
She tells Sheldon, in no uncertain terms,
            that : ‘Indiana Jones plays no role in the outcome of the story.’
When he looks at her in horror, she explains:
            ‘If Indiana Jones weren’t in the film, it would turn out exactly the same…’
And then to prove it, she goes on,
            ‘If he weren’t in the movie, the Nazis would still have found the Ark,
                        taken it to the island, opened it up, and all died, just like they did.’
The end.
And the question I want to pose for us this morning,
            is similar to the challenge from Amy to Sheldon.:
What role does God play in the outcome of the story of your life?
Does God’s presence in my story, in your story, actually make any difference?
            Does it improve things?
            Does it make them worse???
This is a genuine question, as they say on Twitter,
            because one of the accusations often levelled at people of faith
            is that the world would be a much better place
            if we could just rid it of the idea of God.
So let’s journey back to ancient Egypt,
            and to the story of Moses in the wilderness,
to see if we can get some insight
            into the significance or otherwise of God’s presence in the story of humanity.
Liz and I recently went to see the Show, ‘Prince of Egypt,
            which is showing just round the corner from here at the Dominion Theatre.
First things first, I love the Dreamworks movie.
            But the stage show certainly isn’t the movie.
Sure - the great songs from the movie are all there,
            and are performed beautifully.
The dancing is energetic, sexy, and creative:
            I thought the chariot chase was a particularly clever scene,
            with actors playing both tumbling chariots and racing horses.
And then there are the additional songs,
            written by Stephen Schwartz of Godspell fame,
            who also wrote the songs for the original Prince of Egypt movie.
Some of these new songs are great:
            ‘Footprints on the Sand’, and ‘Always on your Side
                        both add to the relationship between the two princes
                        and are worthy additions to the book.
But the most interesting addition
            was Moses' song, ‘For the Rest of My Life’,
where he rails at God
            for making him the instrument
            of God’s vengeance against the Egyptians:
For the rest of my life
            I will have to live with this
For the rest of my life
            I’ll have to face the part I played
These faces filled with grief and with despair
            Every morning when I wake up they’ll be there
            Seared into my memory
            With a cruel burning knife
For the rest of my life
            there’s a weight on my soul
            Like a pyramid of stone
There’s a weight on my soul
            A ransom never to be paid
The crimes I do, I do them in your name
            I feel just as guilty, all the same
Like a brutal soldier
            Who does anything he’s told
There’s a weight on my soul
            For the rest of my life
When you know you’re in the right
            It’s so easy to be wrong
You have to win the fight
            So you close your mind and heart up tight
            And go along
            Tell yourself you’re staying strong
You ramp up your ferocity
            Excuse any atrocity
But once you’ve won
            You have to live with what you've done
And for the rest of my life
            I will have to live with this
For the rest of my life
            These questions haunting me like ghosts
Does a noble end mean any means will do?
            Is your power the only reason to follow You?
And one final question I see no answer to
            For the rest of my life
            How will I get through?
Unlike so many of our victims
            I have the rest of my life
            To get through
For me, this exploration of Moses' guilt and anger
            is not only the high point of the musical,
            but also the gateway to where I think it falls down.
Because it reveals the underlying theology of the show,
            which is that The only baddies in this story are the deities.
Moses is an ‘innocent puppet’
            (to quote Pontius Pilate from Jesus Christ Superstar)
            and we see exactly the same thing happening with Pharaoh.
Possibly the most bizarre twist of the musical
            is the revisionist retelling of the character Rameses,
                        who comes across as a thoroughly nice, if slightly na├»ve, ruler,
            who wants to do nothing more than give Moses everything he is asking for,
                        but is constrained by the ghost of his father
                        and the demands of the high priest.
Several times in the musical Rameses releases the Israelites,
            only for a word from the gods to countermand his decision
            and send in the army to oppress the Israelites instead. 
This is, in the end, playing to a zeitgeist
            that sees all the evils of human warfare and violence
                        as the end result of religious belief;
and the subtext is clear:
            if only Moses and Rameses had been left alone by their gods
            to become the mature, fully-integrated humans they were longing to be,
                        without divine interference,
            then everyone would have lived happily ever after. 
They’d have got away with it, if it hadn’t been for those pesky gods.
And this feels like a betrayal of the story -
            it sanitises the complexities of the Passover,
                        it excuses the excesses of the empire,
            and ultimately it silences God as a player within human drama.
From the point of view of this show’s version of the Moses story,
            the answer to my question is clear:
            God’s presence makes things considerably worse.
But I’m not convinced that this does justice to the text,
            so rather than coming at it through the lens of West End Glitzy Theology,
let’s go back into the biblical story, to see what we can find,
            that might help us answer the question of whether God’s presence
            makes any meaningful difference to the human experience of life.
Last week, you will remember,
            we were with Jacob, on the run in the wilderness,
            receiving his vision of a stairway to heaven.
Well, with Moses, we’re back in the wilderness,
            with another anti-hero of the faith
            also on the run from the consequences of his actions.
And as with Jacob,
            the Moses we meet here isn’t all that likeable as a character.
He’s murdered an Egyptian,
            left his people in slavery, and turned his back on his family.
We meet him as he find himself in conversation with God,
            who has rather strangely appeared to him
            in the form of a burning bush.
Just as an aside here, Liz and I visited Mount Sinai a few years ago,
            and at St Catherine’s Monastery we were shown a bush
            that the guides claim to be the very bush where Moses met God.
In fact, our guide broke a couple of twigs off,
            and gave them to us - so we have some of the burning bush at home!
And also, I couldn’t help noticing, just alongside this tourist attraction of a bush,
            sits a rather prominent fire extinguisher.
Clearly, if there are any further fiery theophanies in that place,
            God’s presence will be quickly extinguished.
But back to Moses, who we meet arguing the toss
            with God about God’s call on his life.
He’s making all the excuses he can
            to avoid having to take responsibility.
From his protestations about his lack of public speaking ability,
            to his straightforward cry, ‘O Lord, please send someone else’,
Moses doesn’t want to listen to the voice
            that is telling him to grow up, suck it up, and get stuck into making amends.
What’s interesting, though, is that God allows Moses agency here,
            God doesn’t just say ‘Do it, or else’.
Rather, God appoints Aaron, God works with Moses’ flaws;
            it’s more like a dialogue, a dance, or an improvisation,
            than it is a clear-cut-call with detailed instructions.
And there’s something comforting in this, I think:
            God works through us, not in spite of us.
God’s will is done, but God’s methods are not fixed.
The Moses from the musical,
            who feels God has forced him against his will
            into an impossible situation
is not quite the Moses of the book of Exodus,
            who is called to reluctantly play his part
            in God’s great work of freedom and liberation.
And crucial to all of this
            is the doctrine of continuous revelation.
This is the idea that
            not everything that can be known about God
            has already been made known.
Abraham had heard God’s call,
            but it was Moses who heard God’s name.
There is more to know about God,
            as God is progressively revealed
            through God’s ongoing relationship with humans.
So when Moses asks for God’s name,
            the response he receives is both fascinating and revealing,
            but also rather mysterious.
‘I am who I am’, says God;
            ‘I am the one who is’, might be another way of putting it,
            or possibly just, ‘I’m me!’
The point is clear, which is that God is known, not by a personal name,
            as you and I are known,
but by the simple fact of being there.
The starting point for understanding who God is,
            is the conviction that ‘God is’.
I was listening to a Radio 4 science programme recently
            and Jim Al-Khalili was interviewing Prof David Eagleman
            about his research into human perception.
David Eagleman’s point was that everything we see, taste, smell, touch and hear,
            is created by a set of electro-chemical impulses
            in the dark recesses of our brain,
and that what we call consciousness is our brain’s attempt
            to identify patterns in these signals and attach meaning to them.
From a purely subjective point of view,
            the world does not exist outside of our brains,
because our entire perception of the world
            takes place within the darkness of the inside of our skulls.
And yet, we might choose to say, ‘God is…’
This deceptively simple statement of naming God’s existence
            is a statement of faith that there is something in this world
                        that is definitively beyond ourselves,
            something other than ‘me’ and my own perception of reality.
The statement that ‘God is’,
            the great ‘I am’ statement of God’s existence,
is a statement that God is ... the one
            who is truly other to, and external from, ourselves.
The next question, then,
            and it’s a question predicated on the existence of the divine other,
            is what is this God who is, like?
Is God loving, hateful, angry, forgiving, or indifferent?
            These are the questions of theology,
                        and they are secondary and subsidiary questions
            to the primary question of whether God is.
Because if God is, then I am not all that there is,
            and everything else follows on from that.
And so Moses, asking God’s name,
            and hearing the answer ‘I am’,
is invited into a world
            where he is no longer the subjective master of his own universe.
In the story, God is not encountered in the abstract,
            as a kind of philosophical transcendent idea of existence.
Rather, God is known and made known through relationships with humans.    
            God is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,
            God is the God of Moses’ ancestors,
            God is encountered through a community of faith.
And there’s a profound truth for us here,
            which is that we do not encounter God alone.
Even when, like Moses, we are alone on the mountain in the wilderness,
            we are part of a longer story of God’s revelation.
And we always therefore encounter God
            in the context of God’s ongoing self-revelation,
            through our own communities of faith.
Sometimes I hear people wondering why we should bother with church,
            after all, if God is everywhere,
            we don’t need to go to church.
But I think Moses’ encounter of God in the context of his faith community
            speaks of a truth that God is made known
            through the relationships that God forms.
God is discovered in and through others,
            and God’s self-revelation occurs in the context
            of God’s people crying out for justice.
It is in relationships with people
            that God’s action in human affairs becomes manifest,
because God is revealed as a relational being,
            who is known in the effects of calling and claiming people
                        to become people of faith in a faithless world,
            making real in and through their lives,
                        the conviction that God is.
So how should we respond?
            What can we discover from Moses story
            that might help us understand our own lives before God?
Well - if we’re looking for God’s action in human history,
            we find it through Moses’ response to the call of God on his life.
Without the voice from the burning bush,
            without the revelation of God breaking into his world,
Moses would have stayed as a shepherd in Midian,
            and the Israelites would have died in slavery in Egypt.
But as God forms relationship,
            and calls into being communities of faith;
as God is made known in and through people,
            so lives are transformed,
            and the world is changed.
We, like Moses, are enlisted to the task
            of bringing God’s freedom to those enslaved,
as God’s promised, covenant faithfulness,
            is enacted in and through human relationships.
Sometimes we long for God to act,
            for God to intervene.
And those who would question God’s existence
            rightly point to the fact that the evidence for God’s direct intervention
            is conspicuous by its absence.
Well, I do not believe in an interventionist God,
            because that is not the God revealed to Moses on Mount Sinai.
The God of the burning bush
            is a God who works in and through flawed and fallible humans,
whispering to them from the flames of revelation
            that there is more to this world than they can see on their own,
            and calling them to action that brings liberation to others.
This is how God changes the world,
            through people like Moses, and Jacob, and you, and me…
When God speaks salvation,
            God’s work is made known through people.
John’s Gospel grasps this most clearly
            in the language it uses to speak of Jesus.
Those of you who have been joining me on Monday nights
            for my Biblical Studies masterclasses,
will know that in John’s Gospel, Jesus is described as being the ‘word’ of God,
            and that seven times in the gospel Jesus describes himself
                        using the words, ‘I am’,
            a deliberate echo of the revealed name of God to Moses on mount Sinai.
The God who is encountered by Moses
            as the God of community and relationship,
is the God of Jesus, God’s word spoken in human flesh.
This underscores that God is known in a person, through relationship,
            as God encounters people personally.
The God of the burning bush
            is known in Jesus as word incarnate, as word embodied.
And Jesus calls people into relationship with himself
            and through him into relationship with God.
As John’s gospel puts it in chapter 15:
As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.
If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love,
just as I have kept my Father's commandments and abide in his love.
(Jn. 15:9-10 NRS)
And so God is revealed,
            in community, in people, in relationship,
            in Christ, in the fire on the mountain.
But the revelation of God has to go somewhere,
            if it is to be transformatory of human lives.
Otherwise, what’s the point?
Does God’s presence in the story of human existence
            make any difference?
Does it improve things, or does it make them worse?
We’re back to the question I started with,
            and the answer is there, staring us in the face in the story of Moses.
The story of the Exodus is the foundational story
            of God’s deliverance of those enslaved to sin and oppression.
What happens next for Moses
            as he hears God’s call to look beyond his own world
            and to consider the world and needs of others,
is the same thing that happens in our lives,
            as we learn to listen to the divine voice that calls to us, too.
People are delivered from their enslavement to sin and oppression.
There’s something significant to note here, though,
            which is that the Israelites in Egypt were not enslaved by their own sin,
            but rather by the sinful actions of the Egyptians against them.
Not all sin is to do with personal morality,
            there can be structural and systemic sins in our world
            that oppress, and demean, and distort, and destroy;
and God’s intent for freedom and liberation
            is every bit as much focused on these
as it is on the sins of omission or commission
            that occur at the scale of our personal lives.
But of course there is a relationship between the personal and the communal,
            both in terms of sin but also in terms of liberation.
Just as our personal actions of sinful disregard for others
            can be the cause or continuation of their oppression,
            as Pharaoh discovers to his cost in the story of the Exodus,
so personal actions of turning towards those in suffering
            can become the method of God’s will for liberation
            taking shape in our world and in the lives of others.
The movement from death to resurrection
            is written through the story of the Exodus,
just as it is made known in and through the life of Christ.
The God who is made known in the wilderness
            as the divine other,
who is encountered in relationship
            through the community of faith,
who calls us to become
            agents of liberation,
is the God at work in our world
            by the Spirit of Christ,
drawing us to life from death,
            and inviting others to hear that call and respond.
The God who is known in the wilderness
            is the God of the cross, who knows suffering,
            and who takes action to deliver those who live in suffering.
What difference does God make to the story of humanity?
            All the difference in the world.
And we are an intrinsic part of that story,
            as we, like Moses, are called to play our part
            in the salvation of the world, the liberation of the oppressed,
            and the coming of God’s kingdom on earth, as it is in heaven.

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