Beyond the Wilderness

Cynthia K.R. Banks. Lent 3—Year C; Exodus 3:1-15; Psalm 63:1-8; I Corinthians 10:1-13; Luke 13:1-9

I love Lent. There is something in this season that appeals immensely to my reflective soul. I love to look deep within, I love the notion of stripping away layers, I love the image of the wilderness because it fits where life sometimes takes us—times when you’re in unfamiliar territory, seasons when things are baffling, places that feel desolate, dynamics that you have to sort out for yourself. The wilderness. I love the wilderness stories, whether it’s the one we hear today, or the Israelites who keep going around in circles unable to find their way out of it, or the one where Jesus wrestles with the voices of the False Self—the wilderness and the people of God just seem to go together.

But today’s story takes us beyond the wilderness. Have you ever been there? Have you ever felt yourself to be beyond the wilderness? That sounds a little scarier to me. That’s a place where even the familiar outlines of the unfamiliar wilderness give way to something else. This is truly unchartered territory. There are no landmarks here. No signs by which to chart your progress. This is a place of total nothingness. You are flying blind. Moses led his flock to this place. Most of us don’t go so willingly. Like the tornado that dumps you into Oz or the Island of Avalon that is only found through the mists or the land of Narnia that is only entered by falling through the wardrobe. Most of us don’t intentionally set out to go beyond the wilderness—it is a place where we land; it is a place we tumble into.

And strange things happen when you are out beyond the wilderness. Already in a state of disorientation, you can start to see things, strange things. For Moses, an angel of the LORD appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and that bush was blazing, yet it wasn’t consumed. Now, don’t go and try to figure out the scientific laws around this—you are beyond the wilderness and the normal laws of this world just don’t apply. It completely captivated Moses. He didn’t know anything else, but he knew he had to turn aside and look at this great sight. And yes, the why of it gave him pause—“Why isn’t this bush burned up???” And the pause was all God needed. As soon as Moses paused, the angel of the LORD becomes God Godself. When God saw that Moses had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And Moses said, “Here I am.” Three little words that have been the response of people to God throughout our sacred history. Abraham, Esau, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Samuel, Isaiah, Mary. They all uttered these same three words…“Here I am.” Sometimes we think that answering God’s call is about saying an unequivocal “yes,” but before it is about saying “yes” it is about being here, being fully present, acknowledging that an encounter, that a relationship is in the making, right here, right now. God calls your name, and all you can say is “Here I am.” That’s where it all begins, and that changes everything. When you acknowledge the voice that has called you, and you agree to stay put in the presence of that voice, then the ground shifts beneath your feet; it becomes holy ground. In fact, God told Moses, “Come no closer, take off your shoes, you are standing on holy ground.”

God went on to tell Moses a little about Godself—namely that God had been around for a long, long time and had been in relationship with God’s people for a long, long time. Moses realized that this was like God—like the God he had been hearing about in the stories of his ancestors, like God. And from what he had heard, you didn’t much try to look at that God. But God looked past all of that.

God had far too much to communicate to get hung up on Moses’ projections about the nature of God. God had Moses’ attention, and that’s all God needed.

Now, God had some real specific things that God wanted Moses to do, namely go to Pharaoh and get Pharaoh to let God’s people go. God had observed their misery, had heard their cry on account of their taskmasters, God knew their sufferings, and God was determined not to keep distance from all that pain. “I have come down to deliver them from oppression and to bring them up to a good land. Oh, and Moses, you are the flesh that I am going to embody to do it.” Incarnation didn’t just start with Jesus—God has been taking on flesh in God’s people since the beginning of time.

Moses, of course, resists—“Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” God said, “I’ll be with you.”

“Well, what if I say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they like say, ‘What is his name?’ what am I supposed to tell them? Hmmm?” You can almost hear a little bit of attitude in Moses—oh, resistance puts on such a brave face.

But Moses’ question gave God pause…you can almost see God thinking, “What is my name? Hmmm, how do I want to be known? Ah, presence. Sheer presence. Total mystery. Not to be contained in a box. Not to be defined in a human definition. A name that represents that which can only be experienced—Got it! I AM Who I AM. That’s it. Tell them ‘I AM has sent me to you’…This is my name forever, and this is my title for all generations. My name is ‘I AM,’ now, spend the rest of your life figuring out what that means.”


So, how does call work for you? The Bible is full of call stories. And the people whom God calls are not special people. They are from all walks of life, they are infinitely human, they have feet of total clay, there is nothing special about them, some of them are way out beyond the wilderness. The only requirement is to be willing to pause at an unusual sight. The only requirement is to be open to a voice that calls your name—it may be an external voice; it may be an internal voice. The only requirement is to stay put and engage the voice, to say, “Here I am.”

And that voice may call you to do something way beyond your capacity to imagine—like free the Israelites or reform the church, take on environmental degradation, end hunger, stop violence against women and girls. That voice may call you to go into the heart of some oppression that is the last place you want to go (think about it, did Moses really want to go back to Egypt where he was wanted for murder?), that voice may send you to an immensely uncomfortable place, that voice may send you to work to bring someone or something that is enslaved into a place of freedom, to bring them into a good land.

Or, that voice may call you to reach out to someone who sits across from you at your kitchen table, or who lives across the street, or who sits in the next cubicle, or at the other end of the pew. The suffering can be big and societal and global, or the suffering can be intimate and personal and close. Are we willing to allow our eye to be caught by a look spoken between the lines or a story on the news? Are we willing to pause long enough for the voice to have a chance to speak to our hearts? Are we willing to say, “Here I am,” or do we just want to keep moving on?

But there’s also good news, if we are willing to say “Here I am,” and then move from “Here I am” to “I will go”—God promises to be with us.

And just to be clear, full disclosure here, if you say the “yes” that comes after “here I am,” you will never be able to explain that voice to anybody. Try to explain I AM Who I AM to somebody. All you will be able to do is to invite people to experience it—to experience the power of its love, its compassion, its mercy, and its fierce desire to liberate those who are suffering. There is a lot of mama bear energy in this God. Are we willing to allow the possibility that God just might be calling us and longing to infuse us with that energy for the sake of the world?

I AM Who I AM isn’t just a name—it is an invitation to be in a relationship with the Holy Mystery who is woven into every aspect of existence and who longs for all of creation to thrive. That God is here. I AM is here. I AM is calling. It doesn’t matter if you are out beyond the wilderness, if you can turn aside and look, if you can pause long enough to listen, you just might find that that place beyond the wilderness has become holy ground. Amen.

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
March 3, 2013