Peace be with you.
Friends, we come to the Third Sunday of Lent,
and we have the privilege of reading one of the
most important texts in the Bible, period.
We’re in the third chapter of the book of Exodus.
It’s the text in which God gives himself a name
—if you want, defines himself,
but as we’ll see, in a way that’s really
no definition at all.
But God’s manifestation of his own identity.
And so we’re on very holy ground with this story.
Let me just get into it
by rehearsing a little bit of the narrative.
The biblical authors, with typical laconicism
and understatement, will often just sketch
a character in a few deft strokes.
Moses, what do we know about Moses?
Well, he’s found by the daughter of Pharaoh,
this little baby in the basket.
And so he’s raised among the Egyptian gentry upper class.
We don’t have to give into all of Cecil B. DeMille’s imaginings,
but Moses was raised in the very high culture of Egypt,
that seems clear, and probably like a lot of
aristocrats was used to having things his way.
And so when he sees this Egyptian who’s mistreating
one of his fellow Hebrews,
he just promptly kills him and buries him.
This is not exactly a man who’s under control emotionally.
And then when he finds out the word has gotten out,
he then leaves the country and he goes off into the desert.
So you see this aristocratic figure,
certainly, a man used to having things his way,
suddenly in trouble.
And now he has to go through, as so many biblical figures do,
a time of trial and testing.
And the typical place for this
—we saw it a few weeks ago with the Lord himself—
the typical place for this is the desert.
So Moses, for years, this Egyptian aristocrat,
lives the simple life of a shepherd in the desert.
Well, the refinement of his personality,
the limiting of his sinfulness.
Think of Joseph having to spend years in an Egyptian prison
before he was ready to assume his role as vizier of Egypt.
So now Moses, before he can take on
the task of liberating his people,
has to have the rough edges of his personality smoothed.
And it’s only after this long time of trial
that the Lord appears to him.
And here’s this famous and beautifully told account.
“An angel of the LORD appeared to Moses in fire
flaming out of a bush.
As he looked on, he was surprised
to see that the bush, though on fire,
was not consumed.”
We have to pause there.
Such an important moment.
The fire of God’s presence, yes indeed.
But it doesn’t consume the bush.
In fact, it simply makes the bush more luminous
and more radiant and more beautiful.
So it goes, everybody, with the God of the Bible.
Unlike the gods of the ancient Greeks and Romans
who, when they broke into human affairs,
destroyed things, incinerated people,
because they were in a competitive relationship
with this world.
For the gods to assert themselves,
something in this world had to give.
That’s not the God of the Bible.
Well, it’s very clear.
Because God’s the creator of all things.
There’s nothing in this world that can compete with God.
God gave whatever the world has.
God is not one more item in the world.
So I can look around this room and see various items in it.
What don’t I see?
The one who designed this room.
He’s not here, he’s not in the room.
And so God, the Designer and Creator
of the whole universe,
is not competing with us
but rather —listen to me, now, listen—
as God gets closer to you,
you become more luminous
and more beautiful and more radiant.
That’s the God now who manifests himself to Moses.
But now, watch this very interesting dynamic,
which encapsulates in many ways a dynamic
you can see throughout the biblical narratives.
“When the LORD saw him coming over to look
more closely . . .”
“Look, what’s going on? Let me find out.”
Well, there’s the aristocratic Moses
used to having things his way.
“Here’s this weird sight. Let me go and investigate.”
“When the LORD saw him coming over,
he called out from the bush, ‘Moses, Moses.’”
Well, here’s the Lord who knows this shepherd,
this nobody who’s tending sheep in this mountain range
in the Sinai peninsula.
Boy, this God must be a very local,
very intimate deity.
“Here I am.”
And God says,
“Come no nearer!
Take off your sandals, for you are on holy ground.”
Now here’s the rhythm I want you to see.
Is God close to us?
See, we don’t believe in a deist God,
which is to say a distant cause of the universe
that way back then or way up there somewhere
did his causal thing and then went into retirement,
who doesn’t really know the world.
Look at a lot of mysticisms where the divine is
sort of a principle or a force
but doesn’t really know us.
Look at the Star Wars mythology,
which sums up a lot of the spiritual traditions
of the world.
There’s the force out there which can be used
for good or evil,
but the force doesn’t know me.
The force doesn’t know my name.
The distant deist prime mover doesn’t know my name,
but God knows the name of this little nobody
tending sheep in the Sinai Peninsula,
because the true God, Augustine put it this way,
is “intimior intimo meo,”
closer to me than I am to myself.
Now, see, why? Why?
Because God is here and now bringing all things into being.
The Creator didn’t do something long ago then retire.
God continually creates the universe.
All things, moment to moment, depend upon
the causal influence of God.
So of course God knows me better than I know myself.
Of course God knows my name and knows your name.
What does Jesus say?
Every hair on your head is numbered.
That’s how intimately God knows us.
But now wait, but wait.
Lest this draws me into a kind of
too chummy intimacy with God,
“Back off, Moses.
Take off your sandals because you are on holy ground.”
Mind you, why would you take off your shoes
when you’re on holy ground?
Well see, what do shoes enable you to do?
Well, they enable you to go anywhere.
If I got shoes on, I can walk confidently
over all kinds of terrain.
I am in command.
Now take your shoes off, well you’re much
more vulnerable, right?
You’re not going to be climbing that in bare feet.
Take off your shoes, Moses.
You are not in control here.
You’re on holy ground.
Now that word, holy, “kadosh” in the Hebrew.
The angels in Isaiah six,
“kadosh, kadosh, kadosh,” holy, holy, holy.
You know what it means?
It means “other.”
Well, you just told me he’s intimate to us.
He knows us better than we know ourselves.
And at the same time, as Augustine put it,
he is “superior summo meo.”
He’s higher than anything I can possibly imagine.
Now, do you see why?
The Creator of the universe
is not an item within the universe.
That which gives rise to the whole being of the
finite world is not himself a being among beings.
The true God who appears in the burning bush in such
a way that he enhances and makes beautiful
that to which he comes close, that God is both
intimior intimo meo et superior summo meo.
Closer to me than I am to myself and
greater than anything I can possibly imagine.
Now we’re talking. That’s the true God.
Now, this play of imminence and transcendence continues.
Listen to what the Lord says.
“I am the God of your fathers,
the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac,
the God of Jacob.”
Well, I know your name.
I know the name of your ancestors.
I know the name of the patriarchs of your people.
More to it,
“I have witnessed the affliction of my people in Egypt.
I have heard their cry of complaint.
I know well their suffering.”
Now think about this for a minute.
Who’s the most forgettable people in the ancient Near East?
It would’ve been this poor enslaved
tribe of the Hebrews in Egypt.
They’re not some great empire.
They’re not some great cultural force.
They were enslaved nobodies.
And yet God knows them and has heard their cry.
“I have come to rescue them from the hands
of the Egyptians, to lead them into a
land good and spacious and flowing with milk and honey.”
How intimate, involved, how aware of the people
of Israel this God is.
So Moses might be thinking,
“All right. He told me to take off
my shoes and I’m on holy ground and all that,
but now he seems again, pretty, pretty intimate.”
And so what does Moses do?
And here we come to the climax of the story.
He says, “All right, if you send me to Egypt
to lead these people out and they ask,
‘Well, what’s the name of this God who spoke to you?’
What will I tell them?”
Now, it’s a reasonable question.
That means, who are you?
What kind of being are you?
If you ask my name, I’m going to specify.
I’m a very, very particular human being.
I’m Bishop Robert Barron.
I was born at this time and this place and I live here.
I’m specifying exactly who I am when I give you my name.
So Moses is asking a reasonable question.
All right Lord, what’s your name?
And then comes the line now, which is the most famous line.
It’s the hinge, in many ways, everybody,
upon which the biblical revelation turns.
What does God say?
“I am who I am.”
Now, you might say it’s a bit like
“Take off your shoes, you’re on holy ground.”
It’s a bit like saying,
“Hey Moses, stop asking me such a stupid question.
I am who I am.”
But see, press it even further.
What’s your name? Who are you?
How can I specify you?
Which being are you among the many beings of the world?
Which god are you?
There’s a god of the river, god of the mountain,
god of this people, god of that people.
Well, you’re a god clearly.
Well, which one are you? What’s your name?
No, no, no. No, no, no.
The God that Moses is dealing with is
not one of those little petty deities,
not one little divine potentate among many.
The Creator of the universe, as I’ve said,
is not an item within the universe.
“I am who I am.”
See, I am a human being. I am Bishop Robert Barron.
I am someone who lives in Santa Barbara.
I am someone giving you a sermon.
See, what I’ve done with that “I am” is I’ve specified
and defined precisely what kind of being I am.
That’s what God won’t do. That’s what God can’t do.
“I am who I am.”
To be God is to be “to be.”
That’s Thomas Aquinas.
In God, Thomas says, essence and existence coincide.
Now what does that highly abstract language mean?
Well, think of there’s this camera in front of me
I’m speaking into.
That’s a type of being.
It exists in a particular way.
It’s got the form of camera.
There’s all these items around me I can see.
There’s people around me I can see who are typical,
they’re types of being.
I can look up at the planet Mars,
the planet Jupiter, I can look at the Milky Way
and I can say, all these are types of being.
I can name them. I can define them.
Their existence is received and delimited according
to certain essential principles.
Excuse the philosophy, but that’s the way
that our tradition has translated this language.
They’re all beings of some type.
And then there’s God.
“I am who I am.”
To be God is not to be this or that,
up or down, here or there, big, small.
To be God is to be “to be.”
where is this being itself?
Well, everywhere in this room, of course,
because nothing in this room would exist apart from God.
Where is God?
He’s in you in the most intimate way possible.
Where is this God who’s being itself?
Nowhere, because nothing in this room is God.
Nothing in this whole cosmos is God.
He’s intimior intimo meo et superior summo meo,
closer than we are to ourselves,
greater than anything we can imagine.
And see, everybody listen, it’s that God
whom we can neither control
nor hide from
that addresses Moses in the burning bush.
The two paths of sinners, by the way,
and we walk them all the time,
is we try to control God for our purposes
or we try to avoid him.
They’re both hopeless paths.
And rather surrender to the God
closer to you than you are to yourself,
greater than anything you can possibly imagine.
And you know what he wants to do?
You know what he wants to do?
He wants to set you on fire
with his own presence
to make you as radiant and beautiful as possible.
That’s the God who addressed Moses.
That’s the God that we’re talking about.
And may that God bless you.
Thanks so much for watching.
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