The Thirteenth Sunday after Trinity
3rd September 2023
In the name of the +Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
As we approach the start of a new school term I suppose it’s not surprising that this morning’s Old Testament reading has put me in mind of my own school days. And in particular, that rather harsh transition from primary to secondary school. One of the big changes that I had to get used to was that people started calling me by my surname. I had always been Jeremy; now I was Tayler. Once my younger brother joined me at secondary school, I became Tayler, J. Of course my friends called me Jeremy, and for that matter many of the nicer teachers, but otherwise I was Tayler. And of course this felt rather stiff and impersonal.
It goes without saying that names are important. One of the great difficulties of the job that I do is remembering everyone’s name. I meet so many people in the course of my work, and many people in Henley who rarely or never come to church feel that they know me. Most people know who I am, but I don’t know who most people are, and it’s terribly embarrassing when I meet someone who knows my name and I just can’t quite recall theirs!
One of the interesting things about the bible is that God is portrayed as knowing everyone’s name. Of course, you might say, God knows everything, of course God knows everyone’s name. But it’s actually quite interesting to see how often, particularly in the Old Testament, that God doesn’t behave in ways that fit the script that theologians would give Him. In particular, God is more than once quite explicitly described as changing His mind, which is something that ties up theology in all kinds of knots. But as in today’s Old Testament reading, God does know everyone’s name. The voice from the fiery bush does not say “Oi, you!”, but rather, “Moses, Moses”.
Given that God already knows Moses’ name, I suppose it’s only natural that Moses should want to know God’s. But Moses also has a particular interest in knowing God’s name because of the task that he has been given by God. He quite understandably worries that when he goes to his people, they will question his authority, and so he asks God for His Name hoping that it will give him credibility and authority with his people.
God’s answer comes in two parts.
The first answer is the Tetragrammaton, the four letters YHWH, a name so holy to Jews that it is not pronounced. The name is derived from the Hebrew word “to be”, and so is sometimes translated into English as “I am” or “I am that I am”, although it is said that it could equally well be translated “I will be that I will be” or even “He who causes to be”. This answer has appealed to theologians and philosophers through the centuries. “I am that I am” as an answer to Moses suggests a divine refusal to be assigned a name in the conventional human way, and a pushing back against human categories. It also suggests a sense of pure being, of sheer existence, that resonates with certain ideas found in Greek philosophy, such as Aristotle’s concept of a first cause. This mysterious Name tells us that the God who addresses Moses from the fiery bush is no mere tribal deity or local God. “I am that I am” is the One in whom we all live and move and have our being, the pure existence on whom all existence depends.
The second answer is radically different.
‘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 for ever, and this my title for all generations.
We’re used to the idea of naming people in terms of other people. For example it’s quite common for certain Christian names to run through families, and names such as Anderson or Johnson have their origins in a time when people were known through their parents. We might remember the words of the people of Nazareth to Jesus: “Isn’t this the carpenter’s son?”. The extraordinary thing about this second answer to the question about God’s Name is that God names Himself in terms of human beings: “The Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob”. To name God by using the names of human beings feels rather like the tail wagging the dog. And yet this is how God chooses to refer to Himself.
This is all the more extraordinary in the context of the previous answer. “I am that I am” is rather abstract, a name that works well in the world of ideas. But there is nothing at all abstract about “the God of Abraham”.
And more than that, “I am that I am”, “I will be what I will be”, “He who causes to be”: this mysterious Name for God expressed in those four Hebrew letters presents us with a God who falls entirely outside of normal human categories, in whom all else exists, and by whom all else is defined. All the more extraordinary, then, for this God who is pure being or sheer existence, the first cause, the unmoved mover, all the more extraordinary that this God would deign to name Himself in relation to mortal men long dead.
And here once again we see this strange Divine Humility that we have noticed before in our Old Testament readings. The God who says “I am that I am” and demands that Moses removes his sandals, the God who sternly warns Moses “Come no closer”, this God is nevertheless willing to be named in relation to His own creatures, courteously allowing Himself to be defined in categories that His people will understand.
And here once again we see the marked continuity between Old and New Testaments, as the Divine Humility and Courtesy that we find hinted at in these ancient stories is brought to fulfilment in Jesus Christ, who humbles Himself to share in our humanity, to whom with the +Father and the Holy Spirit be all praise and glory now and unto ages of ages.