I have always had an appreciation, perhaps even a fascination, with a good fairy tale. Our children grew up having fairy tales read to them until they could read them themselves or even read them to each other, and not just the usual ones from the Brothers Grimm. No, over the years we managed to collect quite the library of fairy tales on our bookshelves at home. Tales both ancient and more modern, curated from around the world, provided a foundation for our kids. Fairy tales are important. They teach us about the nature of story itself. They are a world we enter where there is real good and real evil, where danger lurks in the darkness and choices have consequences. But one of my favorite things about a fairy tale is how things are not always what they seem. This is what makes the surprise so good, the tragedy so painful and the happiness so rich. You learn to search for clues beyond what your eyes can see. Just as the villain is not always the one you expect, so the hero often comes from the least likely place.
Take a more modern story like Tolkien’s famous Lord of the Rings. The main story line, the central key to the events taking place, is the journey of two small hobbits; little child-sized creatures who are carrying the one ring of power to Mount Doom in the heart of the evil land of Mordor in order to destroy it. They are the most unlikely of people to be entrusted with such a task. The future of all Middle Earth hangs in the balance as they go into the heart of enemy territory to do the impossible. I think what I love about these sorts of stories is the way they reflect the beauty and power of our own story. The story of our creation, our rebellion, our salvation and restoration possess many of these same surprising turns.
Take Moses as a perfect example. Moses was an Israelite by birth but was raised in the palace of the Pharaoh. He saw with his own eyes the cruel beatings his people endured at the hands of his adopted parents. When he could not stand anymore, he rose up and killed an Egyptian and buried him in the sand. He soon realized the news of what he had done was getting around and he fled. He ran as a coward and a murderer to the land of Midian and assumed a new life, a private life, a life where he was unknown and happy. He settled down, married and became a shepherd under the authority of his new father-in-law. But all the while his people still endured hash suffering and oppression. Then, one day, as he was leading the flock up the side of Mount Horeb, the Angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire.
And there the unthinkable happens. There, through a burning bush, God calls to Moses, “Moses, Moses!” He says, “The cry of the people of Israel has come to Me, and I have also seen the oppression with which the Egyptians oppress them. Come, I will send you to Pharaoh that you may bring My people, the children of Israel, out of Egypt” (Exodus 3:9-10). He calls Moses to go back to the land he fled, back to the people he betrayed, back to the place he was wanted for murder, where there would be no rest, no comfort, no peace and no harmony. What is he supposed to do there? Why he is supposed to deliver all of the Lord’s people, not just his family, his mother and brothers and sister. No, all His people, all the Israelites, the entire slave force that functioned as grunt labor for the building of the great cities of Egypt. He is supposed to bring them out from under the oppression of Pharaoh.
His response to this idea is fitting. It makes sense. He asks, “Who am I?” “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the children of Israel out of Egypt?” In other words, I think you have the wrong guy for the job.
We know what this is like, do we not? I mean, sure we may not necessarily meet God in a burning bush, but He comes to us in equally strange ways. Think about it. Moses was not seeing God in a powerful vision of some large and imposing image towering over the top of the mountain and shaking the ground with His voice. No, he saw a small bush which was on fire, though it was not being consumed. How exciting it must have been to hear the call of God. How wonderful to encounter Him in such a way. Your encounter is different. You encounter God in the preaching of His Word and in the proclamation of His promises; the burning Word of the Lord on the lips of an ordinary sinner. You heard His call as He declared you were His own in the washing of Holy Baptism. As He placed His name upon you, He set you apart as His chosen people.
What a thrill it is to be called by God like this, to be set aside as His own children for His own work. But then, like Moses, you get sent out. You are turned toward this world to now live as His people in this age. You are to love and care for and forgive others as you have been loved and cared for and forgiven. Perhaps you are not to lead a captive people out of their bondage from a world superpower, but you are, in your own way, to set the captives free; free from their false beliefs, free from their prison of self, free from doubt and confusion, and free from sin. And as you, like Moses, take a good look in the mirror, you take stock of yourself and rightly ask, “Who am I?” Who are you to do such a thing? The way you see yourself, the way this world sees you is not as those who are beacons of freedom and hope and deliverance.
But to a hesitant Moses, God says, do not worry so much about who you are, worry about who I am. He says, “I will be with you.” So, Moses asks, “Well, who then are You?” Actually, he says, “If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is His name?’ What shall I say to them” (Exodus 3:13)? Who is this God speaking through a burning bush? And God answers, “I am who I am.” He says, “Say this to the people of Israel, I am has sent me to you.” I Am. His name is the Hebrew verb to be. He is being itself. This is the divine Creator of all things, the beginning and the end, the Alpha and Omega, the One in whom and through whom we have our being. If the great “I Am” sends you to set captives free, then you go and set captives free. Not because you are so qualified, but because He goes with you.
And this same God who delivered the captives from Egypt, this same Lord who sent the Passover Angel to break the heart of Pharaoh, this same One who parted the Red Sea so the children of God could walk across on dry land, is the same God who sent His only begotten Son, born under the Law to fulfill the Law, and set the captives free – once for all. The same God who spoke to Moses through a burning bush speaks to you through Word and Sacrament. By these gifts you go forth to hand on what you have received. You are truly free to live as His children each and every day.
The great fairy tales only echo the greatest story ever told. The story of your life and salvation, the story of your hope and strength is rooted in Christ alone. The lowly and unseemly are blessed and given heavenly gifts. The unworthy are declared righteous as God works under the form of opposites to save the world from sin. It turns out you are the beloved of God. You are the jewels in His crown. You are forgiven and washed clean in the blood of the Lamb. Therefore, you are a force to be reckoned with in this age.
You may like to think of yourselves as little hobbits, moving unseen toward a greater goal as you endure the ups and downs of life’s daily struggle. Or you may prefer the heroic knight who, moments before, was a poor unnamed squire, yet now wields a weapon of decisive power. I, on the other hand, like to think of you as Gandalf, the central wizard in Tolkien’s stories about Middle Earth. There is this great scene where a massive, evil creature is pursuing him and his companions. A huge mixture of flame and smoke, it drives fear and despair into their hearts. But at the critical moment, Gandalf makes his stand on a bridge between the demon and his friends. Unmoved and full of courage he declares, “Go back to the Shadow! You cannot pass.” He possesses a power beyond what we can see with our eyes and stops the demon in his tracks; and so did Moses and so do you. You have a power, a gift, a boldness beyond what we see with our own eyes. It is rooted in who you are in Christ, who you are in the love of God, who you are as the baptized and forgiven. You, yes you, will boldly set the captives free.