Behind and Beyond the Backside of Wilderness
But Moses said to God, “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 shall I say to them?”
Today, we close out our summer sermon series on Dysfunctional Family Vacations. We have vacationed with Jacob wrestling along the river, with Joseph stranded on the roadside, and with Moses in a floating basket down the Nile. Now, Moses is out in the edge of the desert.
Some English translations say that Moses is behind the wilderness, others say he is beyond the wilderness and still others say that he is on the backside of the wilderness. He is out there – behind and beyond the backside of the wilderness, in no man’s land, beyond human civilization.
It is almost already a mystical place, a thin place, a place beyond places, and just knowing that much, we can almost guess that Moses is going to encounter something holy.
Please read Exodus 3:1-15
Moses was born at the center of history. The events unfolding in Egypt affected him completely. Moses’ life is guided first and foremost by the historical context of slavery in Egypt and the Pharaoh’s mandate to kill all Hebrew baby boys. He is sent down the Nile river for no reason other than because his life is in danger.
Moses, at the center of history, is helpless. He is a victim of his historical context, fully relying on those around him to save him. Otherwise, he would have died.
Then, of course, as you know, Moses is found by the Pharaoh’s daughter, she draws him up out of the river, names him, and takes him as her own son. Moses is now at the center of history, yet this time, he is the benefactor, not the victim of history. He grows up, not as a slave like the other Hebrew people, but in the center of Egyptian life, in the Pharaoh’s daughter’s household.
Yet, in chapter two of the book of Exodus, the chapter leading up to today’s wilderness encounter, Moses’ dual standing in both the Hebrew and Egyptian cultures begins to turn his mind towards his heritage. Moses’ bicultural context causes him to interpret the world differently. He knows his origin story, he knows where he comes from. He knows that in some way, the Hebrew people are his people, despite the fact that he stands apart from them by living among the Egyptians.
Then, Moses becomes an adult and sees the suffering of his people. Maybe it is literally the first time that he sees Hebrews suffering, or maybe his eyes become open to see how bad things truly are. Either way, seeing an Egyptian man strike a Hebrew man, Moses does not stand idly by. Moses strikes the Egyptian, and the Egyptian man dies.
As if in an action movie, Moses looks left and right, up and down, hoping that no one saw him kill this Egyptian. Seeing no one, he assumes that he has gotten away with murder, and he buries the Egyptian man in the sand. But, the next morning Moses learns that the Hebrew people saw what he did to the Egyptian man, and that the Pharaoh knows, and now wants Moses dead.
At this point, Moses could have been brought back into the fold of the Hebrew people. Seeing that Moses was standing up for his people, the Hebrew people could have brought him in and hidden him, keeping him safe. Yet, instead, the Hebrew community rejects him, and they distance themselves from him. Moses is rejected from his native community, and now wanted for murder by his adopted family.
Now a fugitive, Moses escapes Egypt and goes to Midian, a place in what is now known as the Sinai Peninsula. It is, as we now know, on the edge of the desert, behind and beyond the backside of the wilderness.
Moses settles down. He meets a Midian Priest and marries his daughter. They have a child. Some time passes.
Then we find out that the Pharaoh dies. The man who wanted Moses dead is now gone. The way is clear for Moses to return to Egypt.
It is only when the way is clear, from the land of Midian, on the edge of the wilderness, when God calls Moses out. He is called out of the wilderness, back into the center of history. He is called out of his routine, back into the chaos of Egypt. He is called out of his home, and back into the unknown of the historical realities of his people.
In his call story it is important to consider that Moses would not have had an orthodox religious upbringing. As soon as he was weaned, Moses was brought to live in the royal palace. So maybe, just maybe, as a young, young child, Moses learned the lullabies of his mother, the songs of the Hebrew people, the spirituals that point to God’s presence.
But then, growing up in the palace, he would have been exposed to Egyptian religious practices. And after that, when he escaped Egypt, Moses married the daughter of a Midian priest, and would have been daily exposed to the priestly tradition of the Midian people.
All of that matters in today’s story. The Dysfunctional religious history of Moses’ family matters. Because, when God calls out to Moses, telling Moses that here, now, Moses is standing on Holy Ground, God says to him, “I am the God of your father, Abraham’s God, Isaac’s God, and Jacob’s God.”
In part, Moses understands. Like God, Moses also saw the suffering of his people. The suffering of his people made Moses so mad, he struck and killed an Egyptian, causing him to be rejected by his people and wanted for murder by the Egyptians. Seeing the suffering of his people caused him to go out to this place in the wilderness in the first place.
In part, Moses understands. And yet, Moses doesn’t get it. Moses has been on this most dysfunctional family vacation – first down the Nile river, then into the Pharaoh’s palace, then out beyond the backside of the wilderness living with a priest from Midian. So, who is this God?
Seeing how diverse his religious experiences would have been, we hear Moses’ questions differently, yes? He asks, “Who am I to go to Pharaoh and bring the Hebrew people out of Egypt?”
His questioning is not just an attempt at humility. It is not just Moses trying to shrug off responsibilities. He has been rejected by his people, the Hebrews. He is wanted for murder in Egypt. How could he possibly…?
But, God says, “I will be with you.”
We have heard this before. God’s presence is affirmed again and again in scripture. And Moses accepts this, cautiously. But he continues to pepper God with questions. Moses asks, “If I now come to the Hebrew people and say to them, “The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,” they are going to ask me, “What is this God’s name?” What am I supposed to say to them?”
And God widens the gate. On the edge of the desert, God vows to stand both in the middle of history, and on the edge of history, beyond history, even. God says, “Okay, fine, if it is not enough for me to be known as the God of your ancestors, “the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob” then tell them this:
My name is “I am who I am” that infamous unpronounceable name in the Hebrew language that can be translated “I am who I am” or “I am who I will be” or “I will be who I will be.”
It is a name that looks not just to the past, or to the present, but to the future as well. It is God who stands in the middle of history, God who stands with us in and beyond time, yesterday, today and tomorrow.
About God’s name proclaimed here, one person says this: you cannot apply verb tenses like ‘was’ or ‘will be’ to God literally any more than you can apply the color yellow or blue to the sounds of someone playing amazing grace.
God doesn’t inhabit time like humans do. God invented time and is beyond time.
As we close up our Dysfunctional Family Vacations series, we are left with our God named “I am who I am” and “I will be who I will be.” God at once stands at the center of history and on the edge, behind and beyond the backside of the wilderness. God is both “Abraham’s God” rooted in our biblical history and also “I am who I am,” our God beyond historical understanding.
I can’t help but imagine how this might be true in our lives, today, as well.
For example, 75 years ago today, late into the night, Hitler gave the orders to invade Poland, beginning the war that we now know as World War II. Then, exactly six long years later, Japan surrenders to the United States. Just like in Moses’ story, God saw the suffering of the people and we saw the suffering of the people.
All of us hold in our hearts stories of how God was at work in our families during this time in history. Surely even today’s school children know these stories – stories of their grandparents and great grandparents who served and sacrificed, no matter where they lived in the world, and how God was at work in their lives at that time. As you talk to your children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren, the narrative of God’s presence from this time in history is part of the history of your family.
God stands with us as history unfolds.
Sometimes, like Moses, we are at the center of that history. The events happening globally affect us completely. If you have a friend or family member who lives in Ukraine or Palestine, Ferguson or Syria or Iraq, your whole being might be attentive to the history unfolding there.
At other times, we feel more as if we are standing on the edge of history, wondering how our lives could possibly go on as normal, when something so monumental is happening across the globe – like Moses behind and beyond the backside of the wilderness.
When we are in the wilderness ourselves, maybe that historical narrative is not enough. Maybe there are times when you ask God, “I know you are the God of my ancestors, the God of my great grandmother, my grandmother and my mother, but tell me – Who are you?”
I can imagine how this might be true in our own lives.
These days of late August and early September bring to mind even more historic events. Fifty-one years ago, Martin Luther King Junior gave his “I have a dream” speech. Seventeen years ago, Princess Diana and Mother Teresa died, just days apart. Nine years ago, Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans and the gulf coast.
Maybe you stood at the center of these historical realities, affected by the weight of these events unfolding. Maybe you called upon God to stand with you in the middle of history. Maybe you saw God through the faith of those who have gone before you, and in that faith history, you found God’s presence.
Or maybe, as those historical realities unfolded, you felt as if you were on the edge of the wilderness, away from the action, unable to do anything to accompany the world in its grief or loss or hope for justice or need for reconciliation.
It is here, on the edge, beyond and behind the backside of the wilderness that we need more, we need God to be more than just the one who was with us through our ancestors.
Like we sang this morning, “Morning by morning new mercies I see.” Maybe sometimes, when we are in the wilderness, we need to see God in the new mercies among us, not just in the historical ways that God has been present in the world.
Like Moses, we need God to call us out from the margins, to call us back to participate in the world – calling us out to do justice and love kindness and walk humbly in the world. It is from this wilderness place that we need God to open wide the gate, showing us that even when our historical memory falls short, even when our family story of God’s presence is not enough, that God is still with us – that God is the Great I Am who was and is and always will be.
Culturally, we are becoming more and more like Moses – we grow up in one religious tradition, are adopted into another religious tradition, and find ourselves marrying into yet another religious tradition. Our families come together with a wide variety of religious experiences, and we, too experience the mystery of holiness in a variety of ways as we travel the world, or even as we sit in front of our televisions. We live in a global religiously diverse world, and cannot help but try to understand how God might be present in all of that diversity.
So, no matter where we are when history unfolds – whether we are at the center of history, or at the margins – we need not just “God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob” and “God of our Lord Jesus Christ” but we need, now more than ever, our God who is “I am who I am,” “I am who I will be” and “I will be who I will be.”
We need God whose door is flung open wider and wider than we could ever imagine.
And yet marvelously, it is through our faith history, the story of faith found in scripture, that we become unencumbered, that we are freed to see God at work in new ways. It is in these stories from scripture that we see God in history and beyond history, in the middle of the global events and on the edge of the wilderness.
So, now, as we go out from here – as summer ends, as this summer sermon series ends and as we tie up our journeys from Genesis and Exodus – I hope that you will not close up the book. I hope that you will continue to read this story.
I hope that you will seek God in scripture, not looking for a rule-maker God, or a judging God who sits on high, but our God who surprises us again and again, opening up the gate wider to all of us.
Finally, I hope that as you read God’s story, you will seek God’s call. For it is God who is calling us out from the wilderness and back into the center of history to live differently – more justly, more kindly, more authentically – in response to the wide, inclusive, radical, welcoming love that God bears in the world.
 Frederick Buechner, Peculiar Treasures.