In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus unequivocally identifies Himself with God. He says “before Abraham came to be, I AM.” Here, Jesus claims the holiest and most sacred name of God known to the Israelites. This name was so holy that it was not spoken out of fear and reverence. It is translated often as LORD in the Hebrew Scriptures we have today.
With all the creeds, church teaching, and early ecumenical councils we have been blessed with, it can be very easy for us to overlook how radical this claim of Jesus was at the time. We can imagine the looks of absolute shock on the faces of those hearing these words. The mind draws a complete blank before even formulating a response. The God that spoke to Abraham and made an everlasting covenant with him, the God who spoke to Moses from the burning bush and disclosed this holy name…was now speaking directly to them as a man. Unthinkable. Unspeakable. Blasphemous. Or, maybe, just maybe, it was true. And if it was true? Wow! The implications.
Sometimes our senses controvert what we take as firmly established in our minds. This can be painful and causes a range of possible reactions. We can lash out, sulk, or stumble around. I think this is because we can come to interpret experience in a set way, such that a practically immutable paradigm governs all new inputs. Our thinking about the way things are is the way they must always be, here and everywhere. It is very difficult to change or shift such paradigms. It causes us a certain fear of losing something or destabilization of the self.
What we see in Jesus’ exchange with His opponents is a visible, tangible upending of their paradigm about God. A large part of the error in this is the very Scriptures they claimed to love and affirm warned them against presumption about God. He was always doing something surprising. The great I AM was not to be placed inside man’s paradigmatic expectations, such that He should act always in thus and such a way.
The connection to Abraham in today’s verses is therefore especially instructive. God’s call to Abraham, the covenant, the progeny, and the entire life of the great patriarch was a paradigm-upending story. God uproots a man from his homeland, has him sojourn among hostile tribes, provides children for him and his wife in old age, and so forth. The same is true of Moses. From his miraculous adoption to his time in the desert to the contest with Pharaoh and the exodus, the story of Moses challenges the set of preconceived notions one could have about God. In fact, I would argue entirety of the Hebrew scriptures, their very existence, is a living example where God was doing the astonishing.
God is a God of surprises. He is a God of wonder. A God of mercy. A God of grace. His revelation to mankind demands the utmost humility, awe, and reverence. If there is anything we should ‘expect’ from God, it is that He will shatter any box we try to place around Him in our own minds. We must live with a constant openness to His action in our lives and the world around us.