As the story goes, when Handel finished composing “The Hallelujah Chorus,” he fell to his knees, beside himself and overwhelmed because he had seen God. And the way Handel described it, the beauty, the power, and the majesty of God was extraordinary.
Centuries later, noted author and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel told the story in one of his books about watching a young boy his own age, around ten years old, being hanged by Nazi soldiers. As the boy writhed in agony, one of the witnesses asked another, “Where is God?” The response was silence. Again, the witness asked, “Where is God?” Still no response. When the boy finally took his last breath, the witness asked a third time, “Where is God?” And this time a fellow prisoner answered. “God is there—hanging on the gallows.”
A God of power and beauty and majesty. And a God who hangs on the gallows utterly helpless and lifeless. There is a vast space between these two nearly contradictory images of God. So who is our God, then? Who is this God we follow, this God we serve, this God we worship?
In the beginning, the Bible declares that people were created as sons and daughters of God in God’s own image. When life first took shape, human beings were formed as reflections of God’s possibility and God called us good. Very, very good.
Why did God create human beings? Was it because God was lonely and God wanted companions? Was it because God needed human beings to help God grow and become God in all God’s fullness? Was it because it’s simply in God’s nature to create? Was it because God yearned to experience life so much that God decided to share life in us and through us?
Maybe one of those notions is most true. Or maybe they are all true to some extent. But way back in the beginning God created us in God’s own being so that we might move with God and be in God and feel loved by God, right here amid the pain and the wonder of the world God made.
From that creation moment on, human beings have been asking the question I’m asking in this sermon. Who is our God? Long before Jesus came into the world to embody God and live out God’s mission and give us a window into God’s identity, God was busy immersing Godself in human affairs. And human beings, going back to the earliest stories in Scripture, have been trying to discover more about God all the way along…
Moses was one of those people trying to know God. As a leader of God’s people, Moses spoke to God through a burning bush in this morning’s Scripture lesson and asked God who God was. So that Moses could be clear about God and report back to the people of Israel.
If nothing else, Moses just wanted to know God’s name. A small, but really important, clue to God’s identity. If Moses could only figure out what to call God then he and the people of Israel would at least know a little bit about what to expect from God.
Well, God responded. But not with a long list of credentials. And not with a speech indicating God’s power or transcendence. In fact, to claim that God offered any sort of clarity would be a stretch. Instead, God answered Moses with five simple words. “I am who I am.”
Not much by way of transparency. A more evasive, enigmatic reply from God would be hard to imagine. It’s the sort of reply that would get a student in trouble if he or she was asked by a teacher. “Who are you?” “I am who I am.” Smart aleck.
It’s the kind of response that wouldn’t go over too well with an employer in a job interview or a counselor in a private session or a judge in a courtroom. To call the answer defiant would be charitable. To call it rude would be more accurate. Out in the wilderness, in the middle of a burning bush, Moses asked God to fill in the blank. And God offered Moses a riddle in return.
I am who I am. The only thing I can think of is that God was trying to make a point to Moses. Frustrating as it might sound in today’s Scripture lesson, God refused to be pinned down and put in a box. God was and is evasive and elusive.
Our God is the kind of God who hung with a ten year old boy on the gallows. And the kind of God who overwhelmed Handel with majestic splendor. Our God will be battered and harassed and violated. And our God will judge with righteousness those who batter, discriminate, violate and harbor prejudice.
God will experience the wonder of giving birth. And God will have a mastectomy. God will be disabled. And God will complete a triathlon. God will win and God will lose. God will be down and out, suffering and dying. And God will burst free and spring to life. God will be who God will be.
The second we think we have God figured out, God surprises us. While we are busy searching for God in the fire and the earthquake, God appears in the silence. And while we are meditating quietly by a pond near our house, God shouts words of protest out in the street. Just when we think we have God pegged, God calls us forth into some unknown place.
All of which presents a challenge. It’s hard to follow a God who is an enigma. A God who is mysterious and puzzling and sometimes bewildering. When God says, “I am who I am,” it’s tempting to shake our heads and say “whatever’ and walk away.
Then again, if we hang in there with the mystery, God may push us towards greater growth and deeper faith. If we always imagine God as light, God moves us towards the God who comes to us in darkness. If we avoid change, we might miss God’s invitation to pursue an unknown possibility.
If we see God only in our own colors and shapes and styles and ways of life, we blind ourselves to God’s presence in people of different colors and shapes and styles and ways of life. If we look for God only in the magnificent and the extraordinary, we overlook God in the unremarkable places in our lives.
If we constantly run from death in an effort to hold onto life, we miss out on God’s blessings promised to us when we age and learn to let go. If we only seek God in sacred places and religious traditions, we avoid seeking God in the secular worlds of home and work and office and classroom and community.
In the meantime, we return to the original question. Who is this God whom we know through the story of the burning bush as “I am who I am?” And what about you and me, made in God’s image and reflections of God’s being? What does it mean for us to say, “we are who we are?”
For any one of us to be a godly person, I want to lift up four qualities that lead us close to the heart of who God is. First, we need to be people of wisdom. The wise person, like God, knows that there is more to life than our own microcosm. A wise person looks out and around and sees a world full of beauty and a world full of terror and can live in the tension between the two. Moreover, a wise person works for the good of the whole and not simply for the narrow, self-defined good.
Second, we need to be people of passion. If wisdom allows us to see the scope of God, passion enables us to see the depth of God. People who live with passion are people who dive in, immersing themselves in life. Passion is what allows us to find our energy, our courage, and our motivation for living fully. And passion is what moves us beyond the false contradictions we construct in order to realize that God, for example, is present in the kitchen, the classroom, the hospital, the prison, and the church sanctuary.
Third, we need to be people of justice. A person who is aware of their birthright and responsibility to be God’s instrument in the world cannot sit idly and silently by. We are compelled instead to stand up and be accountable. To do everything we can to build and then nurture a climate in which all people can be who they are.
Finally, we need to be people of prayer. Prayer opens us up to the power and the presence of God. Without prayer, wisdom becomes nothing more than “intellectualizing” or trying to comprehend God in our minds without ever drawing nearer to God in our hearts. Without prayer, passion becomes nothing more than restless activity or trying to do something simply for the sake of doing it without being grounded in God. Without prayer, justice is doomed to disillusionment because prayer allows us to see beyond what our eyes can see.
Without prayer we get stuck in the frustration and the rage injustice produces. And with prayer, we know because we hear from God that something is going on. Something new is stirring and moving and coming to life even if we can’t see it with our own eyes.
Wisdom, passion, justice, prayer. As we practice each of them, even in a world full of contradictions, you and I come closer to the godly people we are. And when you and I know better who we are we also know better the God who sometimes feels like an enigma. Amen.