It’s a curious thing about human nature that our daily experiences—our hunger, our thirst for life—seems to be heightened after we’ve gone through a time of trial. Maybe after a period of what feels like darkness, we’re more aware somehow of the shining of the light:
- After a long, gray winter, the colors of spring seem so vibrant!
- After a time of illness or setback, having energy and enthusiasm again feels great.
- After a time of intense yard work, resting feels wonderful.
- When we are really, really hungry, food just tastes delicious, no matter what it is.
- After a time of loneliness, connection with others feels even more meaningful.
- After an experience when we feel judged, being accepted and welcomed heals our hearts.
- After a time of conflict, peace feels like a gift straight from God.
During their time of exile and slavery in Egypt, the people of Israel were suffering and struggling and dying under harsh, inhumane conditions. Over and over again, the people cried out to God, asking for help, pleading to be restored to God’s favor once again. God didn’t seem to be answering.
Far off, Moses—himself a rightful prince who had long ago been exiled from his own land—lived a quiet existence, caring for his father-in-law’s flocks. His days were peaceful and quiet there on the slopes of Mt. Horeb. His priorities were his wife and children, his prayers, his daily needs, and the animals in his care. It was a pretty simple life for a gentle, faithful man. But on a day like any other, with the livestock grazing peacefully in the shadow of the mountain, suddenly everything changed when Moses saw a bush that burned and heard the voice of God.
Our Old Testament reading today is part of that divine encounter, when Moses experiences God coming to him, appearing right in the middle of his normal, daily routine. The subtitle for this story in my bible is “The Divine Name Revealed.” And God uses some drama and special effects to make sure Moses understood the otherworldly power of this event. First there was a bush that burned but was not consumed, and then a voice—God’s voice—calling Moses by name from the bush, not once, but twice.
Can you imagine? You’re just going about your regular tasks, maybe peeling carrots for dinner or sweeping out the garage, when all of a sudden, God calls your name—once, twice—from the garbage disposal or the lawn mower. How shocked would you be? What would you think? How long would it take you to get your bearings again?
In Moses’ case, it seems to sink in pretty quickly. He begins to grasp a sense of a larger purpose God has in mind. God says he has heard the misery of those in captivity in Egypt and is responding by equipping and sending Moses—the unlikeliest of spokespeople—to help them. It must have seemed impossibly crazy to Moses, but he accepted it. As Richard Foster’s commentary says, “God had been working in secret and in silence. The soul of Moses was being shaped by the Spirit of God long before Mt. Horeb and the burning bush. It is no different for us.”
Moses is obviously concerned that no one will believe him. He’s supposed to just go to the children of Israel and say, “Your God sent me to help you.” They might laugh in his face, or worse—attack him, thinking it was a cruel trick from Pharaoh, a way to test their loyalty. Moses says to God, “If they ask me, ‘What is his name?’, what shall I tell them?”
Without a moment’s hesitation, God says, “I AM WHO I AM.” And then God adds to that, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, “I AM has sent me to you.’”
And then God adds even to that, saying “ 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 forever, and this is my title for all generations.”
Isn’t it fascinating that God felt it was necessary to add—twice–to his initial answer about who he is. Each idea he added to the original “I AM WHO I AM” tells more about God’s connection with his children. Each phrase helps build trust that this is the One our souls know, who has been with his children across all time and is here in this exact moment—a living and immediate companion, caring for all generations past, present, and future.
Foster offers that God’s answer to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM,” has been explored many different ways by many different scholars through the years. Both “I AM WHO I AM” and its related form, Yahweh, come from the Hebrew verb “to be.” Some theologians interpret “I AM” as meaning “I exist.” Some think the way the name is offered–“I AM WHO I AM”–is meant to preserve the mystery of the holy name, so people won’t think they can use the name to manipulate God. Other scholars say, “I AM” points to God’s immediate presence, as in “I AM with you.”
And yet another approach suggests that “I AM” has more to do with the ongoing nature of creation, as in “He who causes to be.” Foster writes, “This points to God as the One who creates and sustains the world and who acts powerfully in it with loving purpose, two powerful themes throughout the Old Testament. This is the God who is mover and shaker, the One who makes things happen. This suggestion works well in this context partly because the exodus pits Yahweh against Pharoah, whom the Egyptians regard as a god. It also gives a stirring sense to the theme common in Exodus (and beyond) that God will act “so that you will know that I am Yahweh.” The God who sends Moses is the God who acts. What better God to announce to Hebrew slaves who long for deliverance? What better God to rely on in our own longings?”
It is this last idea—that God is a God not only of first causes but of the ongoing work of creation in our lives in and our world—that most aligns with Friends’ faith and practice. When George Fox had his encounter with Christ on the hillside in England in the mid-1600s, he believed the realization given him—that Christ comes to teach his people himself–was a restoration of the original spirit of the early church.
Because the light of Christ continues to guide us through our lives, we Friends believe in continuing revelation. For Friends, the story of God wasn’t written long ago by the prophets and writers of scripture; rather, God continues to act creatively and reveal himself in every life throughout all time and space. God’s truth is revealed continuously to us as we allow the inner light of Christ to teach and lead. It is from this idea that we get much loved Quaker sayings, like “live up to the Light you’ve been given,” or “follow your leadings as way opens,” or “I am holding you in the Light.”
Phil Gulley wrote about his experience of that beloved Quaker phrase, “I will hold you in the Light.” He was speaking at a Quaker event in Ohio when he started to feel faint and had to sit down. Friends came up to see what they could do, bringing him water and a sandwich. (He hadn’t eaten since breakfast and thought perhaps that was the cause.) Over and over again, Friends expressed their concern and shook his hand and said, “I am holding you in the Light.”
Phil said this was a much better experience than the time he’d felt sick at a rigid, conservative church and people kept asking him whether he was right with the Lord. But in this Friends meeting, people showed their care and concern and assured him that God’s Light was surrounding him and they were helping toward that end. About this experience, he wrote,
“I am holding you in the Light. We Quakers say that when we intend to pray for someone, when we want for someone what God wants for them—peace and healing and well-being and soundness of mind and body and spirit. Though we often say it very casually, without much thought, ideally, it is more than just words…To say to someone, “I will hold you in the Light,” is the verbal equivalent of lifting them up to God, lifting them up to light and goodness, so they can have hope and peace.”
We can hold one another in the Light of God, we can wait in the Light for way to open, and we can see that of God in others because God to us is I AM WHO I AM, an immediate, living, present God, who loves, guides, and travels with us through every single day of our lives. We may forget God for a time, but God never forgets us. We may tune out God’s promptings in our hearts, or turn our attention elsewhere for a season, but God never stops leading. All we need to do to find this intimacy and divine direction once again is quiet our hearts and let God’s love in.
What could we possibly want more than that? No promise of an eventual, heavenly salvation—security for the righteous on streets paved with gold—could replace the tender, life-changing experiential knowing of God-with-us right now, right this minute, in our present circumstances, whatever they might be. This is what I think Jesus’ words about treasure were all about. He’s saying, don’t put so much stock in things that in the end will rust or get stolen or fade away; notice the heavenly things that are happening right here, right now, in the quiet of your own heart. Connection with God is possible—this minute. Love and truth and light are possible and are in fact, already here. This is not a pipe dream or a carrot at the end of a stick, designed to keep us on our best behavior. This love, this presence, this life is God’s promise and living hope, realized right now.
The only suitable response, I think, is something we Friends do naturally—settle into stillness in a kind of awe and gratitude. London Faith & Practice, puts it this way:
“Worship is our response to an awareness of God. We can worship alone, but when we join with others in expectant waiting we may discover a deeper sense of God’s presence. We seek a gathered stillness in our meetings for worship so that all may feel the power of God’s love drawing us together and leading us.”
What an honor it is to realize—and to know experientially–that the creator of the universe cares enough about each of us to come to us—as he did with Moses–and meet us in the tender stillness of our very own hearts, our very own meeting. What more could we possibly want? What other treasure is there?
In closing, I have a poem called “Light Shining out of Darkness,” by English poet William Cowper, who was born about 100 years after George Fox:
God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform;
He plants His footsteps in the sea,
And rides upon the storm.
Deep in unfathomable mines
Of never-failing skill,
He treasures up His bright designs,
And works His sovereign will.
Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take,
The clouds ye so much dread
Are big with mercy, and shall break
In blessings on your head.
Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
But trust Him for His grace;
Behind a frowning providence
He hides a smiling face.
His purposes will ripen fast,
Unfolding every hour;
The bud may have a bitter taste,
But sweet will be the flower.
Blind unbelief is sure to err,
And scan His work in vain:
God is His own interpreter,
And he will make it plain.
- OT Exodus 3: 13-15
- NT Matthew 6: 19-21
- Gulley, Phil. https://philipgulley.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/Quaker-Sayings-9-SECURE.pdf
- Cowper, William. “Light Shining out of Darkness,” https://www.poemhunter.com/poems/light/page-1/34853/