God Hears Their Cry
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. 2 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. 3 Then Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.” 4 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.” 5 Then he said, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” 6 He said further, “I am the God of your fathers, 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.
7 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, 8 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. 9 The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. 10 So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.” 11 But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” 12 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.”
13 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?” 14 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.’” 15 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.
16 Go and assemble the elders of Israel, and say to them, ‘The Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, has appeared to me, saying: I have given heed to you and to what has been done to you in Egypt. 17 I declare that I will bring you up out of the misery of Egypt, to the land of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, a land flowing with milk and honey.’
The story of the Exodus is the foundational narrative of the Jewish faith. It is a story of oppression, cruelty, and helplessness and it is a story of God’s presence, liberation and ultimate redemption. The Exodus narrative has resonated for thousands of years because the issues and themes have never lost their relevance. In fact there are so many parallels, it is difficult to focus on just one or two. Here are a few foci that were tumbling in my mind before we actually sat down to talk in FIRL.
1. The people God chooses are unlikely. By every secular standard the Hebrew people did not really count. They had no land and no social standing. And they certainly had no advocate. They voice they had was their lament. The entire Exodus narrative describes how this marginalized group of nobodies came to see themselves as God’s chosen people. The real life questions become: “When do we feel similarly helpless and despairing? Especially in the midst of our personal laments, how do we see ourselves as God’s children?”
2. Likewise, the leaders God chooses to serve him are unlikely and reluctant people. Moses was an abandoned child who sought justice by murder. He was a fugitive when he was called to confront the man who wanted to kill him. No wonder Moses was hesitant. Throughout the bible, I don’t remember a single example of someone called by God who said in response: “No problem, I’ve got this.” It seems to be that if you think you can handle the job, you are probably ill equipped to be a leader in God’s kingdom. What God expects and needs is far different than our human criteria and expectations. In God’s kingdom, there is a place and a purpose for each of us regardless of our personal history, sense of adequacy or particular competence.
3. The holy name, ‘I am who I am’ gives us a dramatically different view of God, what is Holy and what God wants for us. In Moses’s day, the gods were thought of as superior beings who took sides. If a group was defeated or oppressed, their gods were viewed as weaker. It was important to have the biggest, baddest god on your side when facing adversaries. It is not much different today. We give extra weight to all kinds of criteria. We seek powerful allies, premier education, stronger armies, specialized knowledge to justify and enforce our positions in life. Moses did not want to go before Pharaoh without backup. His question was a critical one, ‘Who shall I say sent me?’
But standing before Pharaoh, all Moses had was ‘I Am Who I Am’. The locus of power and authority had shifted from external to internal criteria. This changed is lived out over a thousand years later in the life of Jesus. When standing before Pilate, Jesus did not defend. He stood upon his “I Am” whether or not he was understood, rejected or killed.
In our lives, what are the roles or credentials we lean on? How do we measure our importance or the importance of those around us? Who do we listen to and why? In real life, we listen most to those who speak from the heart—not necessarily to the person with the best resume. “I am who I am” has more authority than any earthly measure. Our job is to trust God’s creation of us and use what we’ve got—not to try to decide what we would need to be better or what we need to discard. Our resumes are important and our inadequacies are real—but they are not our measure. We are who we are. Each of us is God’s creation. Each of us is God’s child. Unfortunately trusting ourselves with God —as we are—is no small task.
In FIRL we managed to touch on each of these themes but the first question and the question that had the most impact upon the group was: ‘Why did it take so long for God to act?’ The people were slaves for a long time. Whole generations died in lament before God acted. What kind of God does that? And somewhat parallel? Why did God choose the Isrealites? What about the people’s that were displaced—-the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites? Did they do something wrong? This sounds very much like a capricious God who takes his sweet time and who plays favorites. That does not sound like a particularly caring God.
These questions reveal our often-unconscious expectations of God.
In real life, we regularly struggle with God when we are depressed, in despair, anxious about our loved ones or ourselves. We want and need a God who will hear our prayers, who will protect us when we are in peril, who will rescue us from danger. But often as not, we just as likely to feel like our prayers are echoing in a hollow well. How can anyone feel loved in such a time? Even as a community of faith, remembering those dark moments in our lives called up sadness. There are moments in virtually every person’s life when we feel abandoned by God. These moments can last an hour or extend for generations but they include feeling helpless, despairing, lost and bereft. All of that belonged to the Israelite slaves in Egypt.
The Exodus story is told in retrospect. Looking back, the people could feel chosen and redeemed but not so much in real time. If you recall a time you have been lost, deeply grieving, depressed or anxious—a time of lament, what did you wish for? What did you cry out for? Most of us want someone to ‘make it better’—make the pain stop. But if you’ve lived such pain, you know, more often in retrospect, the relief and deep support we can feel when someone shares their helplessness with us. It may not change outcomes but it will redeem us.
And looking at the same experience from the other side, when you have been with someone in that amount of pain, what did you have to offer? The most well intended and caring of us will feel helpless in the face of pain. Advice, suggestions and ‘fixes’ are rarely helpful and are more likely to distance people than help them. Holding a crying child matters. Sitting with someone taking chemo matters—even when ’there is nothing we can do.’ It is a huge faith claim.
We all want more —we all want to be able to do more. We want to receive specific relief when we are in pain and to have something concrete to ease pain when we meet others. What we have is ‘I am who I am’,—that rarely feels like enough but it is our greatest gift. Pay attention to what has helped you when you felt most desolate—and it will almost certainly be relationship—not answers.
Remembering such relationships allows us to have life when we are in the darkest place. It means trusting God with who we are—even when we are lamenting, doubting and angrily questioning. It means feeling desperately inadequate in the face political chaos, mass shooting, rising temperatures, etc., etc. It means entering into pain when we can see no way out and we feel ill equipped to help (’who am I that I should go’).
It means trusting “I am who I am”—whether we are lamenting or listening. For Moses, and for us, it is a brand new way to experience God. The deepest Hebrew faith is that God was and is present in every part of life. It is the same faith we profess when we ‘nothing can separate us from the love of God.’
God will be with us and God will hear our cry. It is a faith we share and it is a promise we remember. Let it be so.
Vernon Gramling is a Parrish Associate at DPC. He has been providing pastoral care and counseling for over 45 years. You can find more about Vernon, the Faith in Real Life gatherings and Blog at our staff page or FIRL.