The Call of a Burning Bush (September 29, 2019)
The Call of a Burning Bush
We continue our journey through the story of the Bible, and we take a little bit of a jump this week. We now move to Egypt, and we move to the Moses story. So very briefly, Jacob and his sons wind up in Egypt. One of his sons, through a long complicated story: Joseph, winds up as the basically the CEO of Egypt. And he is able to move his family into prime real estate for Shepherd‘s. But eventually that generation dies off and there arises a new generation and a new king who did not know Joseph, and did not know all the good that Joseph did it for Egypt. Instead he just sees a large group of minorities in his country and he becomes scared. He enslaved the Hebrews. And eventually there rises a king who decides that the Hebrew population must be curtailed, and so he demands that every male child be killed amongst the Hebrew people, at least for a period of time. During the midst of that time there were several boys who were saved, one of whom was Moses. And Moses actually winds up being raised by Pharaoh’s own daughter in the royal household. And one day Moses is out wandering the hillsides when he sees an Egyptian harshly treating a Hebrew. And we are told that he gets angry on behalf of his countryman (the Hebrew), and he fights the Egyptian, and ultimately he kills the Egyptian. And, afraid of the consequences if anyone should find out, Moses runs away. He winds up in the Sinai Peninsula tending the flocks of a man named Jethro, whose daughter he had married. And that’s where we come upon him as our story begins today.
I want to note a couple of things I noticed about the scene. First, because we know the story so well, we think we know the story so well, some things don’t stand out to us unless we’re reading it very closely. So the first is that this is the story of Moses and the burning bush, yet the burning bush has almost no place in the story. We’re told that Moses sees this bush that is on fire but not being consumed, and he said, “I must go and check this out.” And then it is never discussed again; it never shows up again in the story. The purpose of the burning bush was purely to get Moses’s attention.
And I want to be judgemental to Moses that it took a burning bush to get his attention. Shouldn’t he be listening for God? But then I think about today and I wonder what it takes for God to get our attention today. We have so much noise that mutes the voice of God in our world. Our gadgets that we fiddle with (and if anyone has paid much attention to me they probably know that that’s the first example for a reason in the sermon). Our gadgets, be they our phones, or the computer at home, or our televisions, or our radios, or even books. These things that just keep our mind busy, keep it from noticing the things on the side of the road like a burning bush. I wonder if even a bush on fire that’s not being consumed would get our attention today.
The second thing I notice that I think is overlooked, or just briefly mentioned and brushed over, is that Moses is told to remove his sandals for the place where he resides is holy ground. Now I am not going to ask you to remove your shoes today, in part because our ventilation system isn’t that good. But I wonder: do we treat this place with the same amount of reference and respect that Moses was being asked to treat the ground where the bush was burning? Because that’s ultimately what is actually happening here: he’s been asked to treat the ground with the respect of being holy by removing his shoes. Do we treat this place with the same amount of respect and reverence?
Now, I do not mean by that “do you come and be quiet?” There’s this idea that the only way to show reference to God is to be quiet. No, I think God loves to hear us laughing, and smiling, and sometimes even crying with each other. And that is of all ages from the youngest of the young, from the newborns that come in, to 100-year-old people. God loves a joyful noise. No, when I ask, “are we treating this place with reverence and respect?” what I mean is, “do we come in here on Sunday morning treating it as a place where we are going to encounter God? Or do we come in here treating it as a place we are going to encounter our friends, and catch up on the latest gossip, or just catch up with them?” Are we coming here to meet with God, or are we coming here to meet with people? That’s not to say that you can’t catch up with your friends, but what is your primary purpose?
With that observation stated, let’s get on with the story. Moses received a call from God. It goes like most prophet stories in the end, but God asks Moses to volunteer and Moses answers “here I am, Lord.” It’s a “I’ll do whatever you want, Lord.” And then he hears what God has in mind, and Moses is like, “God, have you thought about this complication?” Moses says no. He says yes originally, and then he hears what God actually wants him to do, and then he says no. And he actually says no without actually saying no 4 different times before finally saying, “God just please send somebody else.” And God gets a little frustrated with him. At the end he appoints Aaron to be the priest. But ultimately Aaron is his own role; ultimately Moses is not replaced. Even though he says no five times, God is patient and understands the reluctance of Moses.
And God continues that thread throughout all of human history. Almost literally everyone God calls, almost all of us, say no before saying yes. How often do we do that? We happily reply “here am I,” but it’s really a “here am I” that’s conditional upon it not being that hard, upon not having to change us that much, upon it not requiring too large of a sacrifice for us. One of the things I like so much about the Methodist tradition is that we don’t shy away from what the call of God can look like. One of the things we have is that Wesleyan Covenant Prayer. I’m not going to repeat the whole thing right now, but it is in the Hymnal on page 607. That prayer includes things like “put me to doing, or to suffering; let me be employed, or laid aside for you; exalted or brought low; let me be full or let me be empty; let me have all things or let me have nothing.” We recognize that when we say yes to God, it could go anywhere. And I love that about our tradition.
In the midst of his “nos,” Moses asked the question “why me?” And God replies with the answer “I will be with you.” Which isn’t an answer to the question of why Moses, but it seems sufficient for the story. It is ultimately God who’s acting anyway. Now there’s a concept in Scripture that I call the Mortdecai concept. It comes from the book of Esther, where her uncle Mortdecai says that maybe she has become queen so that there would be a Jew nearby the king at this time when all Jews were threatened by the king’s advisor, and maybe she has come to her position for “just such a time as this.”
Now, I don’t believe that God actually takes someone and molds them and morphs them into exactly the person God needs for a future situation. Rather what I think is that life happens to all of us, and that molds us, and that shapes us; and then when God needs someone God finds someone who is correctly molded in shape and calls them to go and fulfill the purpose that God has in the world. And I think that that is what really is happening when it appears that someone has been crafted for “just such a time as this;” it’s not that you were crafted for it, it’s that you were drafted for it.
And that’s what’s happening here. Let’s take a look at what happens to Moses. Moses is adopted by the royal family of Egypt in very strange circumstances, but because he was adopted by the royal family he knows the royal customs. He knows the language of the Egyptians. And I think it might be the fact that he grew up with Pharaoh, probably by this point it’s someone who he treated as an uncle and who treated him as a nephew who is now pharaoh; I think the face that they know who he is is the reason that he gains an audience with pharaoh in the first place. Have you ever wondered how a Hebrew, a member of this slave race, gained an audience with the king? Is it perhaps exactly because he was raised by the royal family?
But there’s another thing that I think makes Moses key to God‘s plan. And that is that after the Israelites are freed, we have a group of people who are used to being slaves who now are on the run in the middle of the desert. They leave Egypt, they’re on the run in the middle of the desert; they wind up facing down Pharaoh’s army at the Red Sea; they get across the Red Sea and travel through the desert for 40 years. They need a leader. They have a king, God is their king, but they need a leader. And wouldn’t you know it, there just so happens to be a man who was trained to be a royal in Egypt who’s available. If you take a look at say England’s royal family right now, all of the royal family is trained in public relations, trained to do royal tasks, even the ones that have zero chance of sniffing the throne are still trained and have royal responsibilities. I don’t think that was that different in Egypt. I would bet that Moses is trained on how to be royal. And here you have a Hebrew who can get before the king, and who can be a leader for the people when they’re leaving. It sure seems like Moses was the perfect man for God to call in “just such a time as this.”
The task before Moses and Israel is a very dangerous task. And that’s one of the reasons that Moses asks for the name of God before he agrees to go. He says, “if you are going to send me, and you’re going to send these people, on this dangerous idea of standing up to Pharoah, of rebelling against the king of the most powerful nation on earth, at least tell me your name. If you’re saying not to worry because you’ll be with me, at least tell me who you are.” And God replies that his name is a verb, right; that he is being. The name translates to something like “I am who I am” or could translate to “I will be who I will be.” In short, I’ve got everything in my hands. And that was comforting to Moses at that time.
And actually I think that that is comforting to us in our time as well. This idea that God holds the whole world in God’s hands, I argue that that’s a comforting thought for us. When we go to our children, what do we teach them? Arguably two of what I think are the three most popular songs that we treat teach children deal with this idea. And certainly the things we go to when our children are scared and when our children need comforting fit this idea: “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so;” and “God‘s got the whole world in his hands, he’s got you and me in his hands, he’s got everyone here in his hands.”
And I am sure that there were times when pharaoh was treating the Hebrews even harsher than he did before, when the Hebrews are yelling at Moses and telling him to just go away, that Moses needed reminding that God’s got the whole world (even Egypt) in his hands. And the payoff is the Exodus story: the night of the Passover, the night when Egyptians push the Israelites out of their land. The payoff was the God really was with Moses during all that time, that God really did win the battle, that God really was with the Israelites as they wandered through the desert for 40 years, and God really is with them as they head to the promised land. That was the payoff for Moses believing that God had everything in his hands. God was with the people even when they disappointed him, even when Moses disappointed him God was still with them; and God is with us, even now, 3300 years later. So now wherever we are, let us answer the call of God, and trust the God who is everything, and holds everything in his hands, will be with us as we answer the call. Amen.