Burning Bushes


A sermon preached on September 4, 2011 based upon Exodus 3:1 – 15.

Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. 2There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. 3Then Moses said, ‘I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.’ 4When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, ‘Moses, Moses!’  And he said, ‘Here I am.’ 5Then he said, ‘Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.’

Sometimes we wonder, why doesn’t God just reveal God’s self to us?

Why all the uncertainty?

We are made in the likeness and image of God, and that means that our essential nature is freedom.  We are free to reach out to God, or to curl up into ourselves and go it alone.  If God were to roll back the sky, so to speak, and make God’s self undeniably visible, well, there would be no freedom left for us.  We would be compelled to worship him.  But God does not force God’s self on us.  We are free to go our own way.

In the familiar routine of Moses’ life – doing his job – God placed an unusual sight.   A bush that was burning, but not consumed.  Moses has a choice:   to turn aside and pay attention, or to go about his same old routine.  He knows on some level that to turn and investigate will shake things up – something is happening here that challenges his usual thinking about how reality functions.

The story makes it clear that if Moses hadn’t turned aside, God would never have spoken to him.

I would like to suggest that God comes to us as well, as we go about our daily routines – doing our job.  The question is:  Are we willing to turn aside?  Or to put it another way, are we paying attention?

God comes in disguise, incognito, so as to respect our freedom and autonomy.

But God definitely comes.

Sometimes God is hidden in what is so ordinary and commonplace that we’ve seen it a thousand times before, but in all that familiarity, we have ceased to really see it at all.  It’s just a piece of bread, a sip of grape juice. That’s all.  So ordinary.  But God hides within.

Yesterday I helped my neighbor Ese and her family move out of the house she has called home for over 7 years in order to move into their new home in South Orange.   It’s the same space she’s looked at so many times before, but seeing it for the last time, she could not help but see it in a new way.  As precious.

Or Jim and Barbara Simmons looking at the house they have called home all these years, but destroyed irreparably by flood waters.   It is seen as holy ground.

Try this:  Go home today, look at your house as though you were about to leave it forever.

A woman once went to a priest seeking counsel for her prayer life.  She said that each day when she sat in her house to say her prayers, she was conscious only of a great sense of tedium and boredom –  no sense of the presence of God.

His advice was simple.  Go home and sit in the same chair you always do when you pray, and simply sit there.  Don’t say your prayers.  Simply look around and pay attention to your room.  That is all.

She thought it dumb advice indeed, but she did it.  She came back a few days later.  “What a wonderful little room it is!  I have sat there all this time and never really taken in the wonder of it!”

“Take off your shoes,” said the LORD, “for the ground upon which you are standing is holy ground.” Like Jacob, awaking from his dream in a barren place, “Surely God is in this place, and I did not know it.”

Here are some more suggestions for how to pay attention to the places where God may be trying to speak to you.  Pay attention to the places that move you to tears – the places that stir your heart.   Pay attention to the places of beauty that take your breath away.  Pay attention to the human beings who happen to cross your path, knowing each one is, in their own way, an unfathomable mystery a burning bush.

How easy it is to get stuck in tunnel vision, to focus only on the task ahead of us, and not see what is beside us along the road.

A thousand years after Moses saw this burning bush Jesus would tell a story about three travelers who were headed down what seemed like a God-forsaken road, all doing their job.

God was there in the form of a man beaten, lying half dead at the side of the road.  The tunnel vision of the Priest and the Levite (professional clergy people)  kept them from turning aside.  A Samaritan was willing to pause, even though there was risk involved.   And in doing so, he entered a God moment.

He said further, ‘I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’ And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.  Then the Lord said, ‘I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, 8and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the country of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. 9The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them.

Here is something extraordinary.  God reveals that God is on the side of the oppressed — those who suffer at the hands of the powerful.  God stands with the poor and the oppressed.  If we want to see God, then we too must stand with the poor and the oppressed.

We live in a strange time:  Many middle class people are sinking into the ranks of the poor and oppressed, in large measure because of the greed of the rich – modern day Pharaohs.

But be assured:  God hears the cries of the downtrodden, and God envisions a better life for them.   And God will have God’s way.

Long before apartheid was cracking in South Africa, whenever Archbishop Desmond Tutu would speak to the defenders of apartheid, there was a constant, ringing theme of triumph.  His message was this:

“We must assert, and assert confidently, that God is in charge.  You are not God, you are mortals. It is God whom we worship and God cannot be mocked. You have already lost.  Come and join the winning side.”

So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.’

God is on the side of the poor and the oppressed in every age.  But once more, God will not act alone.  God seeks human beings, made in God’s image and likeness, to embrace our destiny, and partner with God.

God will do the heavy lifting, but our willing participation is crucial.  God needs us to be instruments of blessing, of healing, of liberation.  Will we heed the call?

But Moses said to God, ‘Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?’ 12He said, ‘I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain.’

God calls, and we feel unworthy, unequipped, inadequate.   So it has always been the case.  So it was with Moses. It is as it should be.  We are called to tasks bigger than ourselves, so that we will be forced  to depend upon God’s power and not about us.

In the end, though, this isn’t about us.  It’s about God.

Madeline L’Engle writes in one of her books about how she came to overcome her innate shyness:

I was a tongue-tied, shyness- frozen adolescent and young woman.  In any public gathering I backed into a corner and tried to become invisible.  When I was first asked to give a talk in front of an audience, I had to hold onto the podium, quite literally, in order to stop my knees from buckling under me.  It was only when I realized that my shyness and awkwardness were a form of self-centeredness, and that I, myself (or what I thought of as myself) didn’t matter, that I began to be able to open my mouth and speak, to look at the other person’s needs instead of my own, to be able to reach out instead of drawing back…

Slowly I have realized that I do not have to be qualified to do what I am asked to do, that I just have to go ahead and do it, even if I can’t do it as well as I think it ought to be done.  This is one of the most liberating lessons of my life.

The qualifications needed for God’s work are very different from those of the world.  In fact, when we begin to think we are qualified, we have already fallen for the tempter’s wiles… We do not need to have gone to a theological seminary, or to have taken courses in Bible in or out of college.  We do have to be willing to open ourselves to the power of the living Word.  And sometimes that can be frightening.  (Madeleine L’Engle  And It Was Good pp.115-7)

But Moses said to God, ‘If I come to the Israelites and say to them, “The God of your ancestors has sent me to you”, and they ask me, “What is his name?” what shall I say to them?’ 14God said to Moses, ‘I am who I am.’  He said further, ‘Thus you shall say to the Israelites, “I am has sent me to you.” ’ 15God also said to Moses, ‘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 for ever, and this my title for all generations.

God is the great mystery.  God’s name is essentially unpronounceable, which expresses the truth that we can not control God.  God is wild – not a power to be tamed and put in our hip pocket.  In the end, the only peace is found in surrendering our will to the one who called us into being, without our permission, without our consent, and say, Yes, Lord, Here I am.”

A new monument remembering the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr.  was unveiled last week in Washington, DC.  Martin Luther King received his inspiration for his life’s work from the story of what God did for the oppressed Hebrew people because Moses was willing, feeling altogether inadequate, to respond when God called.

Martin Luther King, Jr famously said, “until you have found something to die for you do not have something to live for.  Is there anything in your life you are willing to die for?  If not, your life has not yet been abandoned to history’s one sure foundation.  Throw your life away to Jesus.  He alone is the rock that will not fall.  He alone gives life.”

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