The I AM 

The I AM 

Exodus 1:1-15

by Sara Wilhelm Garbers
January 19, 2020

Good Morning. Welcome back to the 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 the word became flesh and this God who moves into the neighborhood. I’m going to talk a little bit also about one of our core values, Welcome. Today, I will talk about how Welcome Beloved and freedom go together and how this invitation of the word that has become flesh — going way back — has been the cry of our souls and the cry 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 someone would preach, that would bring together Beyonce, Martin Luther King Jr., Moses, Jesus and us… but that is what we are indeed going to do today. Are you ready? Okay. Here we go!

This, my friends, is the movement of freedom. The movement that MLK indeed called us to see, that he preached of, and it was one that I want to trace back. We could really go to Genesis, but I figured you don’t want to be here all day so we’re going to start with Exodus chapter three and talk about Moses. Then we’ll move forward to come to our passage on which our series is built from John. Move forward then to talk about the ways that these invitations echo through the life and the work of Martin Luther King Jr. That even Beyonce’s song, Freedom, calls us to, that then invites us to be people who are indeed good neighbors.

Starting with the passage from Exodus… what’s happening here? There are a few different things that this morning I want to pause and highlight for us as we move into the conversation.

This summer we actually did a series on the “I AM” from the book of John and one of the things that we talked about was how this echo of the “I AM” goes way back into the older Testament in the Hebrew tradition and scriptures. It’s the word and the name for God. One of the most common words that’s utilized to refer to God is the name Yahweh, which is often translated as Lord into English. Actually, it’s a cognate with the verb, which means I AM or I will be who I will be. So when you read that, you’re actually reading about this God, who is the I AM, the I will be who I will be.

One of the things we talked about in our summer series was how God then is the ground of being, as our source, as the place of all life that we are invited to find our connection to and live from that place. And so what’s happening in the book of John is that John is echoing a narrative and an understanding of God that would have been central to the Israelite and Jewish people’s conception of God as Yahweh,
the “I AM”.

Jesus then comes on the scene as the word become flesh. 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 and slave persons followed to freedom. This is the “I AM”, the word who has become flesh.

As we go through this chapter of Exodus, we see so many different things that are happening. One of the things to highlight is about Moses and how he becomes a paradigm and a prophet of God’s freedom, right? 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.”

He had had a background and a life where, first of all, when all of his people were going to be killed, he was then put into the water, and he gets picked up, brought into the 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. Then he flees into the desert. And so, in Exodus chapter one, we find him where he had been with his father-in-law and their family in the desert and the wilderness and he comes to this mountain. Now this mountain, it’s also thought, is another name of Sinai, is another name for Mount Horeb. It was known as the place where God dwelt, the mountain of God, Yahweh’s place. This is where Moses will receive the plan for the tabernacle, this is the place where they will worship God, this is where the Ten Commandments come from.

This mountain features as a really 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 place where the divine dwells. Do you remember even how Jesus then later says to the woman at the well, “You say, Jewish people, that God is on this mountain and you worship there. We Samaritans, we worship on this mountain.” And Jesus then says, “No, now it’s everywhere.” But this is what’s happening back here in Exodus —  it’s this mountain where God is thought to dwell and reside and these holy things are happening here on the mountain.

There’s the fire that is burning, which you may remember. Then what happens is as the Israelites are moving through the wilderness, a fire actually guides them at night. This fire stays with them. When Jesus then says in John, “I am the light of the world,” he’s 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 as he comes to the place to remove his sandals because it is holy ground.

One of the wonders that I have about this passage as you read about it in the ancient near Eastern context, is that you would remove your sandals when you came home. I wonder about that. What does it mean if this is the place where in the encounter of God, Moses, who has been wandering in wilderness, who is not been a “fit” anywhere –He first got 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 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 out of freedom as we will then read happens throughout the book of Exodus. The people are led to the promised land. Here in chapter three God shows up and says, “I AM is my name.”

As I noted just a few minutes ago, I AM is connected then to the Jewish word for God, Yahweh. 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 this text, the way that it is translated is picked up here in John, where it talks about God and when Jesus is said to be the I AM. It’s the same exact wording that’s utilized both in this context in Exodus and then as we move forward into John. But an interesting thing happens here in John chapter one verse 14 as we move forward. What I would argue is that what’s happening here in John is that Jesus is both the new Moses, inviting people to the promised land of freedom, but Jesus is also God. Jesus is also the I AM who shows up in the burning bush, who shows up with the people. This passage here itself with the word became flesh is in Greek, it’s egeneto.

Some of you may be happy that the nerdy part of me got to spend some time hanging out with Greek yesterday and it was really fun. The rest of you are like, “That’s nice, Sara.” The egenetohere, it’s an aorist verb, which means basically it’s something that happened in the past, just one time happened. So the word became flesh and this becoming in Greek and the range of meaning for it is to come into being through the process of birth, to be born, to be produced. That’s some of the meaning, or it might be something where you change a tire or it might be something a little bit more like how God becomes human.

This verse itself was so important in the early church — trying to understand who Jesus was, trying to understand is Jesus God? Because what we’re told here is that the word, 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 where it says I AM, but it’s a sense that what happens, I would argue, is that Jesus is becoming flesh and then later, as we go down the passage to verse 18, it has the same connection back to the verb eimi, which is
the I AM, which is the solid one.

So what I’m saying 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 himself in Christ is inviting us into freedom.

Now one of the things about Martin Luther King Jr. Is that he was deeply steeped both in seminary training, in the different techs of the Theology Academy, had his doctorate, and he also grew up in church and grew up here in the Bible. And in this way, you see the way that these texts shape his own understanding of what his call and his work is.

We first see the call of the people 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 human form, as God saying freedom. 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. That we joined together as God’s people following the I AM who has encountered us and we become radically changed, for we have found ourselves at home in the presence of the I AM and we live from that place inviting each other, 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, his last talk is called, “I’ve Been To The Mountaintop”. As I was working on this sermon and thinking about this day and context, I wondered 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 speech, I would call it, he was encouraging and challenging the people, naming the injustices that were present and the work that was necessary. Here is when Dr, King said and shared some words from his final talk. Let’s listen to this together.

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.

The question that I wonder about for us today is. 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 we no longer need to struggle to protect our own egos, our own selves because we know that we are welcome?

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 the work in the neighborhood that I’ve called you to. To be a people who midwife freedom, a people who are profits of freedom, a people who are mothers and daughters and sons and friends and neighbors who bear witness to that mountain, 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.” It’s a place where we don’t need to fear for there’s space enough for each of us. It’s a movement for each of us and all of us, not just as this people, but as our neighborhood here in the twin cities and as a world to be a 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 I am and I will be, who I will be and I have heard your cries and keep on marching friends because the Promise Land is a place of home for everybody. So may we be a people who follow Moses, our brother who followed Jesus, our I AM, and who follow our brother MLK in the march and the journey of freedom as we seek to be people who join with this Jesus in moving into the neighborhood from a place of welcome and a place of 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, 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 and all of our neighborhoods. For it’s by your spirit and by your love, not by power, nor by might, that we indeed cry freedom. Amen.