RESTIVE IN THE EMPIRE
Exodus 12: 1-14
A Communion Meditation by Thomas R. McKibbens
Who is this YHWH? sneers the god-king Pharaoh. Most scholars believe that the voice was that of Rameses II, who reigned midway through the 13th century B.C. These are the first recorded words of the Pharaoh in the book of Exodus, but they are a kind of recurring refrain, not only for this Pharaoh, but for all of us to this very day!
Who is this YHWH? is the recurring question of all religion, and it is THE recurring question of modern history. In the Middle Ages, the Crusaders asked, “Who is this God?” and they concluded that this was solely a Christian God who wanted all non-Christians to be put to the sword. In the 20th century Hitler asked, “Who is this God?” and concluded that this was a fair-skinned God of Aryans only. All others, especially Jews, were to be eliminated.
Thirteen years ago this week, a group of fundamentalist Muslims hijacked three planes asking the question, “Who is this God?” and concluding that this God is only for radical Muslim fundamentalists like them. All others should be killed or at least convert to their radicalized, politicized, violent deviation of an historic religion that has for many centuries lived peaceably with Christians and Jews. And now, thirteen years later, their brutal ideological offspring are beheading journalists under the delusion that God approves such savagery. So once again, the world is asking, “Who is this God?”
The search for the answer has taken us on a journey of multiple and sometimes conflicting conclusions. Phil Robertson, one of the stars of Duck Dynasty, declares that he believes God has one answer to the threat of ISIS: “…either convert them or kill them,” he says. His is a tit-for-tat God, a “my God is bigger than your God” approach.
Then some have concluded that religion itself is the problem, not a solution, given the fact that so much violence over the centuries has come in the name of religion. That charge conveniently ignores the violence stemming from non-religious issues such as race or land or treasure, but this is not the time to debate contemporary atheism.
For others, the question of “Who is this God?” has deepened their faith, even if that faith is more sober. For all of us, the atrocities we have witnessed both on 9/11 and in recent days have raised feelings of deep emotion and understandable anger, and we struggle along with others while we maintain and work hard on our own faith. Each year’s anniversary of 9/11 is sobering, and we would not want to conduct worship on the Sunday before that date without recognizing and offering our prayers for those who still suffer from the memories of terrible day.
So Pharaoh’s question to Moses turns out to be a contemporary, recurring, habitual inquiry. Who is this God? When you read the story of the life of Moses, we might be tempted to ask, “Why ask Moses? He had just met this God himself! It was back there beyond the wilderness, back on that holy mountain, that he had heard a voice coming out of the vision of a burning bush. That voice called on him to do something both politically and personally dangerous: to go back to Egypt and demand that the slave system on which their high standard of living had been constructed should be abolished!
Moses asked the Voice from the bush the same basic question that Pharaoh would later ask of him. Here is the way Moses worded it: 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?
And the answer that comes out of the burning bush constitutes one of the great mysteries of the Bible…of the human race. God tells Moses his name all right, and it is an unpronounceable word: YHWH! Four consonants! But ancient Hebrew was written without vowels. Vowel subscripts were only added to Hebrew script in the Middle Ages. By then the name of God had become so sacred that it was never uttered. Faithful Jews avoided speaking the name of God by substituting the word Adonai, meaning “the Lord,” in the text of the Bible whenever they came to the word YHWH. So, after such a long succession of centuries we have lost any certain knowledge of the way the name of God would have been pronounced even if they were willing to pronounce it!
We do know that YHWH is a form of the verb “to be.” God’s essence, in other words, is not a noun, but a verb. God is not a thing: God is being itself. All other beings come from God. But a more precise translation of the word could be, I am who I am. In other words, “Moses, my name is none of your business. I am not one of your household gods that you take along for good luck. I am not an icon, a rabbit’s foot, an amulet, a wishbone, a horseshoe, or a lucky charm. I am not a dashboard Jesus. Don’t try to control me by giving me a name.”
But of all the ideas about the meaning of God’s name, I am most fascinated by the thought of Thomas Cahill, who wrote The Gifts of the Jews. He suggests that we try to say the consonants without resort to the vowels. YHWH—when you try to say those consonants without using vowels, you find yourself just breathing in, then out. In this pronunciation of YHWH, God becomes the breath of life!
Who is this YHWH? says Pharaoh. Answer: this God is the source of the breath of life for all people. It is with this God that you are dealing! This is not the god of partisan politics. We do not come to church for a rehearsal of the political maneuverings that attempt to put God on the side of whatever candidate they are promoting. When we come to church we are dealing with the God who spoke from a vision of a burning bush to Moses long centuries ago, the God who gave us the breath of life and called us to this place, and the God who will still be God when political elections are long forgotten and the United States of America is a blip on the screen of history. This is the God who was, who is, and who forever will be, the God who is the judge of all our politics, and we will not shrink our worship to fit any narrow political, social, or even religious ideology!
The story of Moses and the first Passover is a story of a people who were restless for freedom in the empire of ancient Egypt. The story of Jesus and the early church is also a story of a people restless for freedom in another empire. They lived in a cookie-cutter world: it was conform or die. Jesus compared their restlessness to new wine in an old wineskin. Others compared it to the rush of a mighty wind.
They were restless in the Roman Empire, and Jesus died a cruel death when he refused to conform. Others followed, and many of them died for their restlessness. Yet by the second generation the Apostle Paul could write to the church in the very heart of the Roman imperium: Be not conformed to this world! This God, this YHWH, always calls for freedom and justice, and this God is greater than the shape of whatever imperial restrictions on faith that any Roman emperor could proclaim. Be not conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. They were restive in the empire of Rome!
When we worship in this place we are worshipping in the very epicenter of the American experience of religious non-conformity. That little band of early Baptists in 1638 was called every name in the book by the Puritan Empire of New England. “Scabs to be contended against,” sneered Urion Oaks, the second President of Harvard College. He was referring to Baptists, and was surely facing south and thinking of that crowd of Baptists down in Providence. We Baptists may have been scabs, but what he failed to see is that the purpose of a scab is to protect a wound and let it heal! Those early Baptists did just that—they protected the jagged wound of religious coercion until it healed into the jewel of religious liberty that this nation eventually proclaimed in the First Amendment!
And now, we are the inheritors of that jewel of freedom, thanks in large part to those who worshipped on this very spot and within these sacred walls. They, like us, heard the words, This is my body…this is my blood. And they, like us, took that bite of bread and that sip of wine and knew that their faith in Christ set them free from the conforming religious strangulation of any empire. For freedom Christ has set us free! insisted the Apostle Paul.
Christian faith is always about a people who are restless with the worship of any god lesser than the liberating God seen so clearly in the life, death, resurrection, and present Spirit of Jesus Christ. To follow Jesus means to be continually restive in the face of injustice, but continually free in being transformed into God’s people for this time and place.