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God in 'Our' Desert

Your desert may not stretch through endless sand. It may be bills to pay, an argument at home, a sick child, or a thankless job. We may spend years in a desert. It can become so much a part of life that we don't even notice it's there. A desert of debt and sorrow can so deaden our spirits that we'd never expect to find God there.

Moses met God in the desert on an ordinary work day. He learned God's name, received a vocation, and envisioned deliverance from the desert as he never dreamed before.

Each year on the third Sunday of lent the first reading brings us into the story of Moses in the desert. Year A finds him striking water from the rock (Exodus 17:3-7); in year B he receives the ten commandments (Exodus 20:1-17). This year we hear the beginning of the story (Exodus 3:1-8a, 13-15), the call of Moses to leave his flocks and to lead his people from slavery into freedom--all under the power of God's name.

Moses labored as a simple shepherd. Still, his miraculous rescue from water by the daughter of Pharaoh foreshadowed that the hand of God was guiding him from infancy toward this day.

Curiosity serves as the catalyst. A burning bush beguiled Moses, and he symbolically left the path to investigate. He discovered God in a bush that burned but was never consumed. He spoke with God, removing his sandals in respect for the ground on which he stood.

There Moses learned his vocation, and his curiosity changed to fear. God chose Moses to tell Pharaoh to set the people free. As Jeremiah and Jonah would do much later in Israel's story, Moses resisted accepting the role of prophet.

Moses agreed when he learned the name of God. The name he heard is the one we pronounce "Yahweh". It means "I am who I am," but it can also mean, "I will be who I will be." Or it could even mean, "I cause what is to be." In any event, it reveals the presence of God, the future of God, and the creative power of God.

The name is so holy, that Judaism does not pronounce it aloud. Centuries before the birth of Jesus, where the scriptures read "Yahweh" the Jewish readers started to substitute the name "Adonai" or "Lord". Today many translations of the Bible will still insert the word "Lord" (often rendered in small capitals) where the original text reads "Yahweh". Contemporary Catholic hymnody has reclaimed the name "Yahweh" in many songs, and the Jerusalem Bible restored the name throughout, but most Christians still substitute "Lord" to respect God and the ancient Jewish tradition.

Although the name "Yahweh" was revealed to Moses at this point of the story, it appeared earlier in the book of Genesis. Clear back in chapter two, the alternate creation story told of Yahweh's work. At the end of chapter four, Genesis claims that the name "Yahweh" was used in worship by Adam's grandchildren.

However, the tradition we meet next Sunday is that Moses heard the name first. According to Exodus 6:2-3, not even Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob knew the name of God. They only learned another title, "El Shaddai," or "Almighty." Indeed, in the story of Jacob wrestling with the angel (Genesis 32:22-32), Jacob repeated asked the name of his adversary, but God never complied. Moses alone received the privilege of knowing God's name.

Jesus, of course, borrowed the title in the gospels. "I am the bread of life." "I am the light of the world." And so on. The letter to the Philippians (2:11) also proclaims Jesus "Lord".

God revealed this title in the context of deliverance. Moses, in desert captivity with his people, was not expecting deliverance, and surely never dreamed that it would come by his leadership. Yet God revealed the divine name precisely in the context of the desire to bring freedom to those who are oppressed. God knew the misery of the desert-bound people and promised them a land of milk and honey.

Where is your desert this lent? At home? At work? In the habits you're trying to break? Is your desert a place you never dreamed you'd see God? God reveals the divine name next Sunday to proclaim deliverance to those who never dreamed it would be possible.

[Published in the Catholic Key on 3/08/98 for the 3rd Sunday in Lent, Year C]