Thursday, October 19, 2017

"Seeing the Burning Bush" - September 24, 2017

Text: Exodus 2:23-3:15, 4:10-17

Have you ever noticed something that just doesn’t look quite right?  Something seems out of place, something seems amiss.

I once saw some Amish kids playing baseball.  A young girl came up to bat – and something seemed wrong about the whole picture.  I looked again and it was obvious - she was wielding an aluminum bat.  The bat just screamed modern technology.  I didn’t know what to think about it.

I remember pulling into our driveway one time and seeing what looked like black mold along the front of the house.  I was instantly mortified.  I went to take a look.  It turned out that it was just a bunch of box elder bugs, warming themselves in the sun on a cool fall day.

Maybe you have been away on vacation.  You come home and something doesn’t look right to you.  It’s the lawn.  What’s wrong with the picture?  The grass is not knee high.  It’s neatly manicured.  A thoughtful neighbor mowed the lawn while you were away, without you knowing about it.

Or you open the paper and look at the baseball standings.  Something is not right.  You look closer.  The Chicago Cubs are still in first place.  Something is clearly wrong here.

When things do not appear to be right, when something look out of place or are unexpected, it pays to take a closer look.  You don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to know that.

This morning, we come to a story that involves a closer examination of something that just doesn’t look right.  It is an experience in the life of Moses.

We are moving fairly quickly through the early stories of the Old Testament.  Last week we were with Jacob, who has this dream in which God speaks to Jacob.  God will be with him and make his descendants into a great nation, and as numerous as the dust of the earth.  But in today’s scripture, that dream seems a little iffy.

Jacob’s son Joseph had been sold into slavery in Egypt by his brothers, but God has used this for good.  Joseph rose to a position of power and prominence in Egypt, and in a time of famine, the whole family had settled there.  But generations go by, and the Israelites were no longer honored or welcomed in Egypt.  Jacob’s descendants were numerous, like in the dream. but they were so numerous they were feared by Pharaoh.  And do they were made slaves and treated ruthlessly, but they only became more numerous, which made Pharaoh fear the Israelites all the more and treat them even more harshly. 

Pharaoh was so fearful, in fact, that he ordered the Hebrew midwives Puah and Shiprah to kill the male Hebrew babies when they were born.  They ignored this directive, however – they were in the business of life, not death - and when Pharaoh learned the babies were living, he called the midwives in.  They had an explanation and even managed to insult Egyptian women in the process – they told him that Hebrew women were not like the Egyptians – they were strong and vigorous, and by the time the midwives arrived the baby had already been born.

So Pharaoh took the next step of ordering that every boy born to the Hebrews must be thrown into the Nile River.  This was at the time when Moses was born.  In an act of desperation, Moses’ mother put him in a basket and set the basket in the bulrushes along the river.  Pharaoh’s own daughter found the child, took pity, and took him in and raised him as her own.  So rather than be thrown into the Nile, Moses was raised in Pharaoh’s palace.  Moses’ mother was hired as a nurse for him.

So Moses grew up as a part of Pharoah’s household.  But as a grown man, there came a time when he witnessed an Egyptian overseer beating a Hebrew slave.  Moses was so angered that he killed the Egyptian.  He wound up having to flee the country.

He wound up in the land of Midian.  He married a woman there, Zipporah, and he got along well with her family.  Moses settled into life as a shepherd.  It was a comfortable life.  Sure, he remembered his people back in Egypt and wondered about them from time to time.  But he took a certain satisfaction in being a shepherd – an occupation that was detested by the Egyptians.

And now Moses was out tending the flocks when he had that experience of seeing something that did not seem right.  It was a most curious sight.  A bush was on fire but was not burning up.  It was not being consumed.  Moses drew closer.  The bush drew him like a magnet.  And when he came closer, he heard his name being spoken.  He knew that it was God, his God.  God said, “Take off your shoes, for you are standing on holy ground.”

Moses does as he is asked.  It was no small thing to stand in bare feet on the hot sandy ground in the heat of the day, but this was a sign of reverence and respect.  God had a message for him.  Moses heard the words of God as both good news and bad news.  The good news was, God would deliver the Israelites from bondage, out of Egypt.  The bad news was, God wanted Moses to be the one to lead them.

Our Nominating Committee will be meeting soon, and it occurs to me that this is a great text for Nominating Committees.  Moses says, “Gee, it sounds like a great opportunity and all, but I’m just not sure that I’m qualified.”  God says, “I know what I’m doing and I will be with you.  And the sign will be, after you lead the people out of Egypt, you will worship me right on this very mountain.”

Now what kind of sign is that?  You are supposed to get the sign first, not after the fact.  It’s not really a sign at all.  But Moses has other questions.

“If I go to the Israelites and say that the God of your ancestors has sent me, and they ask me, ‘What is this God’s name?’ what shall I say to them?”  Moses wants to know God’s name.

It would be hard to overemphasize the importance of names in the scriptures.  In Genesis 2, the man names the animals.  Later Abram and Sarai receive new names – they become Abraham and Sarah.  Last week, Jacob named the place where God had spoken to him in a dream Beth-El – the House of God.  Later God changed Jacob’s name to Israel, and Israel becomes the name of the nation.

Names are of great significance.  To know another’s name is to know something about them, to have a handle on them.  The Hebrews believed that by knowing another’s name, you knew what another was about – in a sense, you had some measure of control over them.  But then again, names are connected with intimacy.  We know the names of those who are close to us, those who are important to us.

How had Moses come to this place?  His life was saved because of Hebrew midwives Puah and Shiprah.  It was saved because of his mother Jochebed who hid him in the bulrushes and his sister Miriam who stood watch and who offered to find a nurse for this Hebrew child.  His life is saved because of Pharaoh’s daughter who is not named here but whose name is later in scripture suggested to be Bithia.  And then we have Pharaoh – who is unnamed.  These five women act subversively to save the life of Hebrew children and specifically of Moses.  And we know their names.  Pharaoh, the most powerful man around, is fearful and his name unknown.

Names tell us something important.  And Moses wants to know who this God is.  “Who shall I say sent me?”

But God would not be domesticated.  God would not be controlled by Moses or anyone else.  God understood what Moses was asking, and responded by simply saying, “I am.”  That’s it.  “I Am.”  It is the Hebrew verb “to be.”  I am who I am, I will be who I will be, I am up to what I am up to.  I am in charge, I am in control, I am God.

And this actually becomes God’s name.  The proper name of God is “I am who I am.”  In Hebrew it is the consonant letters YHWH, usually pronounced Yahweh – and this is where Jehovah comes from - but this name was considered so sacred that the Hebrews did not utter the name itself.  And so throughout the Old Testament, when we have these letters YHWH, or Yahweh, it is generally written as LORD, in capital letters.  God’s name was thought of as so holy that it was not spoken.

There are other words for God in the Hebrew scriptures, such as elohim and adonai, but when in English we read LORD in the Old Testament, it is this sacred name of God, “I am.”

Moses had other questions for this God who spoke to him from the burning bush.  He really did not want this job.  He tried to beg off as a poor public speaker.  But God would not be deterred.  Moses was the guy.  God becomes perturbed at Moses’ hesitance and tells him he can enlist his brother Aaron as his spokesman and press secretary. 

It is interesting that God appears and speaks to Moses right smack in the middle of an ordinary day, while he is tending the flock.  We may think that God speaks to us at church, or while at prayer, or when reading the Bible.  And don’t get me wrong, that happens, but God is not limited.  God will be who God will be and God will do what God will do.  God may speak to you in the middle of a hard day’s work.

It also strikes me that Moses was uniquely qualified for this job.  Moses was educated, he had grown up in Pharoah’s household, he was familiar with the workings of the state.  And he was free.  How many Hebrews could say that?  God used the unique qualities that Moses possessed.

At the same time, God’s call can be challenging and it can frankly be a little scary.  When we are called to do something that is important and worthwhile, that responsibility can be very sobering.  It certainly is for Moses, and he tries to beg off.  He comes up with excuses.  God speaks to Moses’ concerns, but here is the thing: in the end, it was still up to Moses.  There was still freedom involved.  We always have a choice.

What if Moses had said, “No way God, find yourself somebody else?”  What if Moses just flat refused? 

And beyond that, what if Moses had never noticed that burning bush in the first place?  What if he had never stopped to look closer and investigate?  What if he had never heard that voice speaking from the burning bush?

The answer to these questions is, “I don’t know.”  Could God have found somebody else?  Of course.  Could God have spoken to Moses in another way?  Of course.  On the other hand, do our actions change the outcome of things?  Do our choices matter?  Of course they do.

Thankfully, despite some hesitation, Moses said yes to God.   

I’m wondering this morning, where is it that we meet God? How do we experience the Holy?  Where do we find our burning bushes?  Where is our Holy Ground?

For Moses, it is out in the field.  It’s while he is in the middle of a workday.  This certainly was not something he had planned on.  Often as not, God is found not so much in the spectacular but in the commonplace, not so much in the dramatic but in the simple things, not in the expected but in the unlikely.  The possibility that God may meet us anywhere and everywhere makes all ground in a sense Holy Ground.   

Rita Nakashima Brock told about visiting an ancient church in the Mideast.  High over the altar was a mosaic of Moses kneeling in front of the burning bush.  Behind Moses’ back, where he couldn’t seem them, the mosaic was filled with bushes, every one of them on fire.

Part of finding Holy Ground is being open to the possibility that God might speak to us.  It is being open to potential and possibility.  It is being open to life. 

Mesa Verde National Park in southern Colorado contains the remains of the cliff dwellings of the ancient Pueblo people.  Park rangers lead walking tours to some of the less accessible sites.  Just before an arduous trek a ranger sat the group down for an explanation of what they were in for.  “Folks,” she nearly shouted, “in the next two hours you will hike into a canyon, climb rope ladders with at least 300 rungs, and crawl through narrow passageways on your hands and knees.  If any of you have any history of heart disease, I do not recommend you coming.  Now, are there any questions?”

The group was silent, intimidated.  Many were wondering whether they would be able to make it.  Finally, up popped the hand of a twelve-year-old girl who was just breathless with excitement.  “Do we really get to hike into a canyon and climb 300 steps on a rope ladder and crawl on our hands and knees through the rocks?  Is it true?  Do we really get to?”

The ranger smiled, “Now that’s the spirit I’m looking for! Let’s go!” And so off the group went.

God spoke to Moses through the burning bush, but it took Moses being open and curious and interested for it to work.  I wonder how many times God may be speaking to us but we are too preoccupied or disinterested or unengaged to notice.

Whenever we stand in the presence of God, we’re on holy ground.  We follow Jesus, known as Immanuel – God is with us.  And since God is with us, even here, since God is all around us, even now, that makes every inch of this planet holy ground.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

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