A G*d beyond any words

Christ Church Cathedral Grafton 
13th Sunday after Pentecost 
30 August 2020 

Mosaic of Moses at the burning bush, St Catherine's Monastery, Mt Sinai

[ video ]

This is one of those Sundays when the lectionary offers more than one really attractive pathway for a preacher.

In the Old Testament reading we have the classic tradition of Moses encountering God at the burning bush while in the gospel we have Jesus calling on those who would be his followers to take up their own cross and come after him.

Each of those readings offers us some really good material to work with this morning, but I am going to go with the first reading: Moses and the burning bush.

If the custodians of Saint Catherine’s monastery at the foot of Mt Sinai are to be believed, then I have seen that very bush with my own eyes. During one of several visits to Mt Sinai about 30 years ago, I went into the Chapel of the Burning Bush which is inside the walled compound of the monastery. There inside the Chapel we were shown a small bush growing up against the interior wall and we were told this was indeed the bush through which God had spoken to Moses. When we asked our hosts how the bush came to be growing inside the church building rather than beside a wadi where a shepherd might take his father-in-law’s goats, we were assured that the bush had once been outside but had been trained to grow inside the building by the monks over many hundreds of years. 

I am really not all that interested in the historicity of the exodus traditions including the stories about Moses in the desert prior to his return to Egypt to liberate the Hebrew slaves, and I am even less interested in the pedigree of the little green bush inside the chapel at Saint Catherine’s monastery. 

What does interest me is, first of all, the way that God is spoken about in this story and secondly, the kind of religious experience or perspective which this brief passage in the Old Testament has promoted over the past millennia.

The history of both Judaism and Christianity has been largely a story of people seeking to capture, define, and control how God is best understood and also how God is best experienced. 

We have taken this very seriously. It really mattered to us.

We have written millions of words in theological documents and church liturgies to ensure that there can be no ambiguity about what is expected—whether in belief or action—and no deviation from the approved interpretations of religion. 

Indeed we took this all so seriously that we broke into factions, we persecuted each other, and we even killed each other over differences in theology and prayer.

All this is to our shame and must never be forgotten when we criticise other people for the religious violence to which they are sometimes drawn in our own time. 

Let’s go back to Moses and his amazing combustible shrub, a bush which was ablaze with fire but apparently was not being consumed by the flames.

Even that description, of course, uses symbolic language. We are not dealing with history in this passage, but with one of the most important texts in the western religious tradition. 

The importance of this text is not what it says about Moses but rather what it says about God and about us.

As the story goes, God has a pretty amazing project for Moses to undertake. Moses is to leave his wilderness sanctuary—where he fled to escape the consequences of his own violent rage which caused the death of another person—and he is to go back to Egypt and indeed into the courts of pharaoh no less, to demand the release of the Hebrew slaves.

Again, it’s important to remember but this is a story and not an historical narrative. Leaving aside the fact that Moses is said already to be 80 years of age before beginning his life’s project, it is equally true that he would neither have secured the release of the Hebrew slaves nor evaded incarceration himself had he returned to Egypt. 

So let’s put aside the larger story in the book of Exodus and just focus on this amazing episode in which the character of Moses in the exodus tradition has a life-changing encounter with God. 

First of all, we notice at the outset, that Moses does not even know God’s name.

Actually, none of us know God’s name. This is not to say that we do not have names for God or for “the Sacred,” but is to remind ourselves that we can never know God and in ancient terms, that means none of us know the name or the identity of G*d. 

G*d is always beyond any name.

We can never capture G*d by pronouncing a magic phrase which will bind G*d to wait upon us and serve our desires. That kind of God would be a house elf from Harry Potter on steroids.

Secondly, we notice when asked for a name, G*d evades the question. G*d is not be defined by the past nor constrained by some label in the future.

I AM who I AM
Ehyeh asher ehyeh
I shall be what I shall be

Finally, God gives Moses a name—Yahweh—derived from the same verb “to be” (EHYEH) that was pronounced twice over in the theophany at the burning bush. The meaning of this mysterious new name is to be inferred from the words of revelation which are simultaneously words of evasion, open-ended terms, possibilities beyond our comprehension.

The name which eventually given is not an answer to the question, but an invitation to enter the mystery of who God is, and what God shall become.

This divine freedom is the third thing I want us to reflect upon from this classic story.

When the haunting Hebrew words EHYEH ASHER EHYEH were first translated into koine Greek not long after the time of Alexander the Great—as with every translation of every phrase anywhere at any time—something was “lost in the translation.” 

As these words passed through the filter of Greek language and culture, divine disclosure itself changed as well. Instead of “I AM who I AM” or “I shall be what I shall be.” in the Greek version (the so-called Septuagint), we find: “I am THE ONE who IS”

The focus moved from action to being, from relationship to ontology.

And even that ancient attempt to define God fell short.

In this ancient tale of the Great Encounter—the encounter between a human and the divine—we don’t find a lot of words. Moses is mostly silent as he takes off his sandals to acknowledge that he is in the presence of the G*d beyond all words.

It is good for us to be silent in the presence of the mysterious divine Other.

But we have filled our liturgies with words, words, words.

In many forms of contemporary Western Christianity, it seems that everyone needs to be talking at once and in some places all the time. So much noise. So many words. So little attention to the Sacred Other who will not be defined by any of our words or any of our rituals.

In this pandemic period as our songs are silenced and our actions are more limited, there may be a fresh opportunity to recapture the inner essence of worship.

We are not here to chatter about G*d or assail the heavenly court with lists of requests.

At its best, worship is a time when we discover ourselves to be in the presence of G*d, and practise doing so in order to recognise that same sacred presence outside of worship in everyday life. It may not require many words, and the words used need not be passing our own lips.

Silence is golden.

Use the silences that occur in our Cathedral liturgy to draw close to the G*d beyond all words.

As the cantors sing, rest in your own silence and float on their cadences. The choral pieces are an invitation for us to be still and discern beyond all the noise of our lives that there is a Sacred Other who we can never capture, but who comes to us in Jesus, Emmanuel. Not in words, but in a courageous and compassionate human life.

We can never capture G*d with our words, but in the silence we may allow ourselves to be captured by G*d, the One who will be whatever They wish to be, and chooses to take us into the future blessing as well.

About gregoryjenks

Anglican priest and religion scholar. Senior Lecturer in the School of Theology at Charles Sturt University. Dean, Cathedral Church of Christ the King, Grafton and Rector of the Anglican Parish of Grafton. Formerly Dean at St George's College, Jerusalem. The opinions expressed in my publications, including my blog posts, are my own and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the Diocese of Grafton nor Christ Church​ Cathedral in Grafton.
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5 Responses to A G*d beyond any words

  1. Richard A says:

    Thank you Greg. Just what was needed.

  2. Anne Lynn says:

    Thanks so much, Greg. For those of us who only get to read your words rather than hear them, could you please provide some phonetics for EHYEH ASHER EHYEH? Just to give it some life….
    Many thanks.

    • gregoryjenks says:

      Hi Anne. (Anne Lynn as in formerly with AFEDJ? If so, it is so good to hear from you!) Meanwhile, before I offer some phonetic guidelines, every sermon I give these days is part a of live-streamed church service, and a link to the sermon video extract is subsequently posted at the top of each blog post.

      As it happens the little Hebrew phrase is quite easy to pronounce, although I am uncertain of regional accent variations between Grafton and Connecticut:
      e-yeh a-sher e-yeh

      There is a short video that gives the Modern Hebrew pronunciation at this link:
      https://youtu.be/MQVylNLIzFs

      Greg

  3. Anne Lynn says:

    Video was very helpful, and i learned a tiny bit of Hebrew. Will check out the blog video extracts. We may be on opposite sides of the world, but still friends. Many thanks and a hug.

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