In the play “Into the Woods” by Stephen Sondheim, there’s a wonderful little scene between the two brother princes. The younger brother has met a girl, high in a tower in the woods, with whom he immediately fell desperately in love. Talking with his brother prince about it, he mentions that her name is Rapunzel. His older brother laughs mockingly and says, “Rapunzel, Rapunzel … what kind of name is that?”
I remember as a kid the first time I heard that God’s name was “I Am,” I had much the same reaction. What kind of name is that? I remember it specifically because I was in the junior choir at church. We were singing an anthem that later became one of my all-time favorites, “What Wondrous Love is This?” When we reached the third verse through, the song included a line that didn’t make sense to me. “To God and to the Lamb, who is the great I Am.” If I’d known the story of Moses, of course, it would have made sense to me. But as it was, I just thought it was a little weird. Sometime later, when I heard a version of that same song by Melanie I wasn’t surprised that she had changed the words. In her version, she sings “to God and to his man. Who is afraid? I am – not.” The original is actually better, especially when you understand it.
But children, you know, don’t need a lot of excuses to make fun of things. At the time, calling God “I Am” seemed like an easy target. And even after I learned the whole story, I could still imagine Moses thinking to himself, you don’t seriously expect me to tell the Pharaoh “I Am” has sent me? But apparently, God was quite serious. If you read through the bible, one of the things you’ll discover is that God is hardly ever anything but serious, which I think is probably an oversight on the part of the people who wrote it. I like the old bumper sticker I once saw that read, “If you think God has no sense of humor, just look at the Aardvark.”
It’s an interesting name though, isn’t it? “I AM. I AM Who I AM.” It’s like saying, “I am being itself. I cause all things to be, but I am myself not caused to be by anyone or anything outside of myself. I think it was Aristotle who referred to God as “the first cause” or “the prime mover.” As one commentator — I’ve lost track of who it was — but he put it this way. “This God is named as the power to create, the one who causes to be. This God is the one who will be present in faithful ways to make possible what is not otherwise possible. This God is the very power of newness that will make available new life for Israel outside of the deathliness of Egypt.”
“I Am Who I Am.” Beyond the power of anyone or anything to cause me to exist, I Am. “This is my name forever, and this my title for all generations,” God says. It’s quite a name actually, when you think about it. I’ve long since gotten over the desire to make fun of it. Now it seems to me that, of all the possible names for God, this is the one that makes the most sense; the one that comes closest, in words, to capturing the awe-inspiring nature of God.
So “I Am” calls to Moses in the wilderness and says: First of all, take off your shoes. You are standing on Holy ground, in the very presence of the Divine. Show some respect. And second, I’ve got a job for you. I have seen the misery of my people Israel, I have known their suffering, I have heard their cries. I mean to have them delivered from their slavery and you are going to help me.
Moses, as we know, wasn’t too keen on the idea. He had, after all, grown up with the Pharaoh. He didn’t have any illusions in his mind about the hornet’s nest he was being asked to put his foot into, or about how hard it was going to be to convince the Pharaoh to let him walk off with all those slaves. You know, from the Egyptian point of view, we’re talking about a major economic disaster here. And Moses had had plenty of opportunities to see first-hand how cruel and unrelenting his step-father could be. Whatever else this might turn out to be, Moses knew it would not be a cake walk. But God had come down to set the people free, and a little resistance from Moses wasn’t going to stand in his way.
You recognize, no doubt, this theme of God “coming down.” Jesus came down too. In our traditional theological understanding, God became human, was incarnate or embodied in the person of Jesus. We say “came down” as a carry-over from the old idea that heaven was up, and in relation to this “up” heaven, God had to come down in order to be with us. These days, lots of us don’t think of heaven as being “up” anymore. I don’t, especially. But the whole point of the story, the whole point of the bible in a sense, is that God takes our suffering seriously; so much so that God is intent upon entering into our human lives.
The direction from which it comes isn’t really all that important. What is important, is the purpose of God’s coming to be with us. The purpose is freedom. In the story of Moses, God came to deliver the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. In the gospels, Jesus came down to “proclaim release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free.” When God comes down, one way or another, it’s always about freedom.
The bible is very big on freedom. If you do a quick scan of passages in the bible relating to freedom, which is pretty easy to do in this computer age, what you’ll find is that in God, we are promised freedom from a whole collection of things: slavery, suffering, fear, disease, sin, our enemies, imprisonment, exile, oppression, ignorance, the law, death, anxiety, evil, and the love of money. It took me about five minutes on the internet to come up with that list. I’m sure we could make it longer if we wanted to be more thorough, but the point should be clear enough. The bible is very big on freedom, and so are we.
Archibald Rutledge used to tell a story about himself as a young boy. He said that, as a child, he was forever catching and caging wild things. He particularly loved the sound of the mockingbird, so he decided to catch one and keep it so he could hear it sing any time he wanted to. He found a baby mockingbird and placed it in a cage outside his home. On the second day he saw a mother bird fly to the cage and feed the young bird through the bars. He was pleased to think that the mother bird would care for the baby like that. But the following morning he found the little bird was dead. Later, he was talking to the renowned ornithologist Arthur Wayne, who told him that a mother mockingbird, finding her young in a cage, will sometimes take it poisonous berries. She evidently thinks it’s better for the baby bird to die than to live a life in captivity.
Can you relate to that? I imagine you can at some level. Freedom is very important to us. Some time ago, Pam and I noticed that the old original Star Trek series had become available on Netflix so we went back and watched the very first episode. It was pretty funny and campy actually. They hadn’t quite gotten all the sound effects worked out. The acting was … not terrific. It looked a little like some of our recent Facebook broadcasts. Anyway, the first episode was all about an alien race that lured Captain Kirk and his crew to their planet so that they could add a couple of human beings to their zoo. Of course, the aliens got more than they bargained for. Eventually they figured out that people have such an extremely high need for freedom that they would never accept being put in a cage. I know. It’s just science fiction. But the story captures an essential truth about our human nature. One way and another, we have been reaching for freedom ever since our ancestors started walking upright. So, it should come as no surprise that our sacred scriptures would talk about freedom so much.
It’s interesting though, the different categories the freedoms we crave fall into. In the bible, when the Old Testament talks about freedom, it is mostly from foreign enemies and external circumstances. Besides the Pharaoh and the Egyptians, there were the Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites, Jebusites, Edomites, Moabites, Babylonians, Assyrians and Philistines, to name a few. The ancient world was in an almost constant state social and political turmoil, which just goes to show that some things really don’t change all that much. On that level, freedom mostly meant to not be oppressed, impoverished, enslaved or exiled by enemies from other countries, or by a tyrannical king from within your own country. As the psalmist said, “O Lord my God, in you I take refuge; save me from all my pursuers, and deliver me.” (Psalm 7:1) This line from the psalms perfectly captures our need for freedom from forces outside of ourselves.
But, in those times when we’re not suffering from external enemies, an interesting thing often happens. Our longing for freedom doesn’t go away, it just turns inward. It turns in more local and personal directions. We start craving freedom from limiting physical conditions, like blindness, hunger, thirst and disease. We crave freedom from crippling emotional states like fear, loneliness, anger and greed. We seek freedom from oppressive social conditions like ignorance, intolerance, racism, and poverty. It’s interesting, I find, to look at our human lives through the lens of freedom, because so much of what we do is driven by our desire for it. In my walks with Coco recently, there’s a sign posted on my neighbors lawn. It says “Freedom is the Cure.” It turns out, that’s a reference to a movement of people who don’t want to wear face masks during our pandemic. Personally, I think we should all be wearing face masks in order to protect one another. But isn’t it interesting that they would paint this as an issue of freedom.
Even when we don’t have to worry about an enemy at the gates, even when our social, political, physical and emotional needs are mostly satisfied, still, our desire for freedom doesn’t just go away. It only goes deeper. We attain the objects of our desire for freedom – food, shelter and clothing, good schools for our children, fancy toys to play with and low taxes – only to learn that our soul’s hunger for freedom just keeps expanding to fill whatever space we create for it.
Now, why, do you think that is? Why is this desire for freedom is such a dominating force in our lives? Well, I’ll tell you, the best explanation I’ve ever come across was in Ernest Becker’s book, The Denial of Death. He talks about what Soren Kierkegaard called, The Existential Paradox; that is, the paradox of our human lives. We have built into our essential human nature both the finite and the infinite. We have, born in us, both the need to live physically on the earth and the need to expand spiritually out into the heavens. Our finite nature is limited. Our infinite nature is unlimited. We require all the basic necessities of life to keep our physical bodies functioning, but right at the core of our being, there is something in us that is one with God, and cannot abide being anything less.
These two parts of our nature are, typically, not at peace with one another. That part of us which is finite fears the vastness of true freedom, while that part of us which is infinite will never be satisfied with a cage of any kind. And often, the turmoil this tension creates, when we cannot reconcile it within ourselves, is projected out onto the world as conflict, violence and war. This is the essential paradox of human life. We are both finite and infinite. But we can never finally be free until we know the fullness of who we truly are, until we know the freedom of being bound heart and soul to God, until whatever it is that we think we are, apart from God, disappears altogether.
That’s what St. Augustine meant when he said that we have been created for God, and our souls will be restless until we rest in God. So long as we are alive, something in us will always strain toward the freedom of oneness with God. But we don’t have to strain all by ourselves. God has “come down.” The fundamental being of the universe, “I Am,” is invested in our freedom. God has come “to proclaim release to the captives … to let the oppressed go free.” And lest we imagine that “the oppressed” are all other people, we would do well to look within ourselves. Our desire for freedom, in all its many forms, is, at its deepest level, a desire for oneness with God. “And our souls will be restless until we rest in God.”
The poet, Kahlil Gibran, said much the same thing, but much more beautifully. He said…
You are not enclosed within your bodies, nor confined to houses or fields. That which is you dwells above the mountains and roves with the wind. It is not a thing that crawls into the sun for warmth or digs holes into darkness for safety, but a thing free, a spirit that envelops the earth and moves in the ether.
The paradox of our human lives is that we live in the tension between the finite and the infinite. Our desire for freedom, in all its many forms, comes from the deep knowledge that we cannot and will not rest, until we rest in God.