When we think of Moses, we think of the baby in the basket in the bulrushes, the parting of the Red Sea, the 10 Commandments. We think of great, dramatic cinemascope scenes filling the movie screen with high drama and special effects.
Today, we encounter not the great leader, but a man on the lam: hiding out in the wilderness afraid for his life. Prior to today’s story, Moses had been living the good life: he was an official in Pharaoh’s palace. He had wealth, prestige and power, (beyond any Israelite’s dreams). One day he saw an Egyptian abusing an Israelite. Moses intervened & killed the Egyptian. He hid his body in the sand. Soon after he sought to break up a fight between two Israelites. They knew of his previous murder so they asked: “Do you plan to kill us too?” That’s when Moses fled for his life
So, here he is in this backwater wilderness tending his father-in-law’s sheep, which suggests that he has no property of his own; a long way from his day’s at the palace, a long way from his wealth, prestige & power. Moses reveals his thoughts and feelings in the naming of his son: “a sojourner in a foreign land”. He is a man without a country, a man without a tribe, a man without God. While in a boundless wilderness, nevertheless, he is bound by his fear. What does the future hold for such a man?
Moses situation touches all who feel trapped in their current life: a teen graduating from H.S. with no job future can identify with him; a retiree downsized early with no warning can identify with him; a parent caught in the middle of care-giving for the generations above and below can identify with him also. Moses’ situation touches all who live without hope without new opportunities without surprises. Living with the same old, same old day after day, such a routine may confine his fear, but it does little to enhance his life.
This day Moses leads his flock beyond the wilderness into God’s territory; and when one enters God’s domain – look out – a surprise is always in store. There, Moses encounters the burning bush. Now here is something that intrigues him the burning bush is NOT being consumed. All the laws of nature, as well as our experience, teach us that burning objects are consumed to ash. But that’s not happening here; the fire is not destroying the bush!
When Moses goes to investigate God calls him by name and tells him to take off his shoes, he’s standing on holy ground. Moses hasn’t discovered it yet but it’s not just the land that is holy, it is the ground of his ordinary being that is holy too. Moses is about to learn that he, the guy on the lam, living in fear for his life, is holy and special to God, wanted and needed by God for a special task. God’s identity is revealed to Moses as the God of Moses’ ancestors. And Moses is further afraid, for he’s been “discovered” by the highest authority there is, far more powerful than Pharaoh, and who knows he’s a murderer, and who knew where to find him.
God doesn’t talk about Moses past sins or his present situation; rather, God speaks of observing the misery of my people, having heard their cry, knowing their sufferings, and having come to deliver them. God has a plan and Moses is part of that plan. Moses balks: “I can’t!” Wouldn’t you balk too
if God asked you to go back to where the trouble began? If you saw yourself as a failure and not a leader, especially when called to lead against a mightier foe? Wouldn’t you balk if you didn’t feel intimate with God and had to ask “Whom shall I say is sending me?”
Can’t we all identify with Moses? If God tapped us for mission wouldn’t we make excuses? Wouldn’t we also ask by what authority? Wouldn’t we also be just as uncertain in hearing God’s call? What would others say?
“You talked with God – Sure!”
“Poor dear, don’t worry, this will all pass by”
“Umm -How long have you been hearing voices?”
What happens to us when we are confronted with a burning bush? What happens to us when we are confronted with a life-changing situation?
When I was in seminary in the early 1960’s, one of my professors told a story about himself that I’ve never forgotten. He was newly ordained and serving as the curate of a small parish out West. He had just preached what he considered a fine sermon and was standing at the back door greeting his congregation when a woman said to him, “Father, I’d like to know what you believe the Ascension means.” “Fine,” he replied, “Come to my office at three o’clock Wednesday afternoon and we can discuss it then.” He ran home, got out all of his seminary textbooks and began reading and taking copious notes. By Wednesday he was prepared. The appointed time came and went and the woman did not show. The priest was indignant; he had spent all that time studying for naught. On Sunday, after church he accosted the woman and said, “I thought we had an appointment at three on Wednesday. Why didn’t you come?” She replied, “Well, Father, I felt that if you couldn’t tell me then and there what the Ascension meant in your life, it probably wasn’t very important.”
In honor of my professor, I’d like to share with you what this story of the burning bush means in my life. Two weeks ago I was told that I have a malignant breast cancer. Last week I had surgery and will hear the final biopsy results on Tuesday. Nothing shakes up our complacency, or our lives, like the potential of a terminal disease. It’s like encountering a burning bush and, like burning bushes, we imagine a fire that destroys. Those of you who are old enough to have lived in the ’50’s remember cancer being called “The big C,”and it meant death – which was never ever discussed.
While I’ve worked hard to be optimistic during this trial time, to be honest with myself, I have had to encounter the fact hat life doesn’t always turn out the way you want it. Three years ago my best friend called and said, “I have cancer. I’m going to beat this thing.” Two weeks later he called again and said “I’m terminal. They give me a year to live.” Two months later he said, “What’s death like?” And a week later, he died on my birthday.
That same story could be my story. Why not? Why someone else and not me? What gives me any guarantee? What gives me hope; the kind that’s sure and certain – not false, wishful thinking.
Here I return to Moses and the burning bush and the question: What kept that bush from burning? God. God was in the center of the burning bush. It is God who turned fire from destruction to transformation. It is God who turned the barren and arid wilderness into holy ground. It is God who turned Moses from a guy on the lam into the leader of God’s people.
When God is in the center of our burning bush, be it illness, or crisis, or an unexpected trauma; we shall not be destroyed by the fire; we shall be changed, made new, transformed.
Thirteen years ago I nearly died. I had to have my heart cut open and a valve repaired. But there remained one problem – they couldn’t get me into sinus rhythm; that means a steady regular heartbeat. I was told that I needed a conversion. “I know what that means in my field,” I said, “but what does it mean in yours?” It meant having the two paddles applied to the chest and an electric current shot through you.
A nurse asked if I had been told the risks. There I sat, on the gurney in my flimsy hospital gown. “What risks?” I asked in a squeaky, high-pitched voice. “Well,” he said: 1.”We can speed your heart up and make it worse, but we’ll just zap you again.” “Oh, great!” I thought & began to sweat. 2. “We can shoot a blood clot loose and give you a stoke, but you’re on coumadin and we’re checking your blood levels. “What am I doing here!” I said to myself as the sweat began to really pour. 3. “We can kill you, but that’s never happened here.” “Get me off this table NOW!” my heart screamed. “Now, I need you to sign the consent form.” He said.
I took a deep breath and signed. What went through my mind was this: “The God who has sustained you every day of your living will sustain you now – even if you die. Living or dead, we are God’s.”
The burning bush reminds me of that this day. God is with us, in our trials and tribulations, and in the fires that would consume and destroy us. God is with us just as God promised to be with Moses. So in Christ do we claim this promise – “I will be with you.” God is with us to turn destruction into transformation and death into resurrection. God is with us to give us abundant life even in the face of death.
Go to the place of your burning bush; to that holy ground whereupon you say, “Here I am” to God’s I AM. Claim God’s presence in your life, God’s power to transform your being. Find in God the strength to walk that hard road ahead of you. Take off your shoes and discover your holy ground.
We may be only three weeks into Lent and I am living with cancer, but for me, hearing the story of the burning bush and God’s presence in the center of it, a taste of Easter is already here. Seek that place in your heart and join me in shouting Alleluias in our hearts, rules or no rules about what we may utter in Lent. As St. Augustine describes it, when we are alive, “We are an Alleluia from head to foot.”
Let us pray: O God, we thank you that by water and the Holy Spirit you have bestowed upon us your servants the forgiveness of sin, and have raised us to the new life of grace. Sustain us, O God, in your Holy Spirit. Give us an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and persevere, a spirit to know and to love you, and the gift of joy and wonder in all your works. Amen.
This prayer was said over each of us in our baptism. May these words describe our life this day. We have been raised to a new life and are rejoicing in it greatly! Alleluia! Alleluia! Thanks be to God.