Moses used to be somebody. Born an Israelite in Egypt, he was raised in Pharaoh’s household and given a lot of authority and responsibility. One day he came across an Egyptian overseer haranguing an Israelite slave, and he stepped in to save the Israelite slave. One thing led to another, and somehow in the struggle he killed the overseer.
He knew he was in big, big trouble. People were looking for him, to get revenge. So he ran away. He left everything and everyone he had ever known and fled to a land called Midian. There he met a woman and got married, settled down, had a few kids, and tended the sheep of his father-in-law. He had a quiet little life. No one was looking for him to punish him for what he did back in Egypt. He was broken, not at all like the person he used to be before. It’s like he ran away and hid under the covers.
And then God comes along in a burning bush and tells him to go back to Egypt—back to the scene of the crime—to rescue not just one Israelite slave, but all the Israelite slaves.
You can hear in the conversation between God and Moses that Moses is reluctant, to say the least. He says, “Who, me??? Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” He keeps trying to convince God that he, Moses, is not the right guy. This is actually a much longer conversation than what we read today. Moses keeps bringing up excuses: I stutter, I’m not a good public speaker, oh, and I killed someone back there—do you remember that? And each time, God says, “I’ve got you. I’m with you. It’s going to be okay.” Finally Moses stops beating around the burning bush and says, “Please find someone else.” And God says, “Enough excuses. Pack your bags. You’re going.”
Have you ever been in a situation that was outside your comfort zone, where all you wanted to do was go home and hide under the covers? Maybe it was the first day in a new school, where you don’t know anyone, don’t know your teacher, don’t know the rules or where the lunchroom is or when you’ll get to go to recess. What happens if you need to use the bathroom in the middle of a class? Will you be allowed to go, or do you just have to wet your pants? What if another kid makes fun of you? What if no one wants to be your friend? What if the teacher asks the class a question and everyone raises their hand but you don’t know the answer? It’s so stressful!
On my first day of first grade, I was starting at a new school: Laurelhurst Elementary. Over the summer we had moved to Seattle from California, and all my friends were a thousand miles away. I didn’t know anyone, didn’t know where my classroom was, didn’t know my teacher, and I was scared. My mom walked me into the school, and we found room 6, Mrs. Johnson’s first grade class. The room smelled like crayons, which seemed like a good start. Mrs. Johnson was this small, hunched woman with grey hair and glasses, and she showed me where to put my lunchbox in the coat closet. Then we came back out into the classroom. On a low table there were all these red paper apples, and they all had names printed on them. My name was there, and it was even spelled right, which was a minor miracle. My mom pinned it onto my dress. Then she walked me back out to the playground, because it wasn’t time yet for school to start. She said goodbye. And then she left. And I was alone on the playground with all these screaming, kids playing with each other. In front of me, another little girl was sobbing, and her mother crouched down, saying, “It will be all right, Ilona.”
I felt very alone and overwhelmed. But when the bell rang, I found room 6, along with a bunch of other first graders, and we started the day. I don’t remember what all we did, but I met the other students, we were shown where the bathrooms and the lunchroom were, and when my mom came to pick me up after school, I ran out to the car to introduce her to my new friend, Ilona.
What didn’t occur to me until many years later was what the first day of school must be like for teachers, especially brand-new teachers. It’s the same anxiety. Will I learn all the students’ names? Will they engage with the lessons I’ve prepared? What do I do when they act up or disobey?
Perhaps you’ve had the student nightmare where you show up for the final and realize you forgot to attend all the classes. The teacher version of that is that the students are coming into the classroom, you don’t know their names, you don’t have a seating chart, and you don’t have lesson plans. You feel ill-equipped and overwhelmed. Just like Moses.
Or maybe you have felt alone and overwhelmed on the first day of some other new job. You get up early, eat a good breakfast, brush your teeth, brush your hair, put on nice clothes and matching socks. Maybe you dreamed during the night that on your first day you would be told, “You have a 10:00 meeting with the president of the company and our most important clients. They are eager to hear your ideas for how to turn this company around.” You show up at your new job, and someone greets you and says, “Your orientation will begin in half an hour. Can I get you a cup of coffee? I’ll be your mentor this week to help you get your feet on the ground.”
I once worked at a job where I was given an employee manual to read during the first week. And in the preface from the organization’s founder, he wrote something along these lines: “We’re so glad you have joined us. In the coming pages you will read the rules and policies that we follow. I’m confident that you are the right person to be here. That’s why we hired you.” Something like that. It was so affirming.
I know we don’t always get that kind of a welcome. Sometimes it’s closer to the nightmare version. But it feels to me that God offers that kind of affirmation to us, just as God offered it to Moses. Yes, first grade is going to be all right. You can do this. Yes, you’re the one I choose for this job, and I’ll be with you all the way. There will be bumps in the road. But I won’t abandon you.
That is the most profound affirmation there is. It’s like the Carol King song, “You just call out my name, and you know wherever I am, I’ll come running . . . . You’ve got a friend.”
So we know we have a friend in God. But it’s so intangible. Moses says, “If people ask me, ‘What God is this that sent you?’”—because people believed in many different gods in that time: Baal, Asherah, many others—“What shall I say?” And God says, “I AM WHO I AM.” Which, frankly, is not very helpful. It is kind of every name and no name all at once. People have wrestled throughout the history of religion to define who or what God is. When Moses asks for a name, God defies the request for a label, because once you have a label, you want to stick it on a box somewhere and think that this box can contain everything there is to know about that thing. So if God had a regular name, like Fred, we might think we could put Fred in a box labeled “Fred” and know all there is to know about Fred. But “I AM WHO I AM” leaves things much more open. God is who God is, and we can seek to know more about God all our lives long, but we will never know God entirely.
And yet, we do know that God loves us, God calls us to do things that take us out of our comfort zone, and God is with us all the way. When Moses says, “Who, me???” he has all the reasons to think he’s a terrible choice. But God sees in him the potential that he himself has lost sight of—the potential to be a great leader of God’s people. And God sees in us the potential to be more than what we ourselves can imagine.
So when we feel that call, when we turn aside to look at a beautiful burning bush that is not consumed by the flame, God will be with us on this great adventure that starts when we stop making excuses and just say Okay, yes. Whether that is starting a new school year or a new job or a new phase of life, may God bless us and keep us on that journey. Amen.