Text: Exodus 2:23-3:15, 4:10-17
Last week we were with Jacob, who has this dream in which God speaks to him. God will make his descendants into a great nation. But at the moment, this dream is not doing so well.
Jacob’s son Joseph had been sold in to slavery in Egypt by his own brothers, but God had 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 - so numerous they were feared. They were made slaves and treated ruthlessly.
Pharaoh was so fearful of the Israelites 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 the Egyptian women in the process – they told him that the 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 Pharaoh’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 country of Midian. He married a woman there, Zipporah, and he got along well with her family. She was from an important family – her father, Jethro, was the local high priest. Moses had settled into life as a shepherd. That morning, he got up and had his eggs and bacon - turkey bacon, of course – read the Midian Tribune, saw the kids off to school and headed out to the fields. It was just a regular day.
Moses was out tending the flocks when he noticed something that did not seem right. A bush was on fire but was not burning up. It just kept burning but it was not consumed. This bush drew him like a magnet. And when he came closer, he heard his name being spoken. He knew that it was God. The voice said, “Take off your shoes, for you are standing on holy ground.”
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.
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.
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, who are important to us.
Moses wants to know who this God is. “Who shall I say sent me?”
But God would not be controlled by Moses or anyone else. God understood what Moses was asking, and responded by simply saying, “I am.” It is the Hebrew verb “to be.” I will be. I am who I am, I will be what 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, it is generally written as LORD, in capital letters. God’s actual name was thought of as so holy that it was not spoken.
Moses had other questions for this God who spoke to him from the burning bush. He really did not want this job. God offered some party tricks to impress people – to show that God had sent him. He could throw a rod on the ground and it would become a snake. He was given a couple of other signs, including pouring water from the Nile onto dry ground and it would turn to blood.
Even with all of this, Moses tried to get out of God’s call. He tried to beg off as a poor public speaker. But God would not be deterred. Moses was the guy. God becomes a little perturbed at Moses’ hesitance and tells him he can enlist his brother Aaron as his spokesman and press secretary.
Now there were good reasons for Moses’ reticence. He had grown up in Pharaoh’s household. The Israelites may not really trust him. I mean, he had fled the country after killing an Egyptian in anger. But Moses was uniquely qualified for this job. Moses was educated, he was familiar with the workings of the state, he knew Pharaoh. And he was free. How many Hebrews could say that? God used the unique qualities that Moses possessed.
God speaks to Moses’ concerns, and I think the role of Aaron is so important. When we are called to a difficult task, when God wants us to do something really tough, how important it is to have help. To have a community, to know that you are not in it alone.
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?
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 be tended to 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.
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. They were pretty 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 – a place where God may speak to us.
As we walk this Holy Ground, let us be open to those burning bushes. And let us walk alongside each other as we answer God’s call. Amen.