A congregation of the United Church of Canada
Yr A ~ Pentecost 13 ~ Exodus 3:1-15
It begins with an invitation, which opens up a revelation, which inspires a mission. Moses lived that rhythm out in one of the most powerful and well-known stories in religious history – the story of the burning bush. Hopefully through our pondering and praying this morning we’ll catch a glimpse of that rhythm and leave this place ready to notice our own burning bushes – because, and this should come as no surprise, they’re everywhere! But first, Moses.
3:1 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.
Where does this story take place? Near a mountain that would be embraced as being very holy – but more importantly that mountain was “beyond the wilderness”. Remember, every time you hear about wilderness in the bible it’s a sign that a transformation is coming. The wilderness is a place away from the hubbub of our daily lives where the distractions are few and the possibility of noticing God’s Presence is dramatically heightened. So Moses was in the right spot!
3:2 There 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.
A fiery bush that was not consumed or devoured by the flames, and a messenger of God somehow present in the middle of it.
Not your everyday occurrence! (or is it?!?!?!)
So Moses was tending his sheep in this liminal, transformational space, and a fiery bush appears. He now has two choices, but choose he must. Read it carefully:
3:3 Then Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.”
He must turn aside to see it.
He has to change his direction, leave the path he was on, purposely take another path in order to experience it more fully. Just noticing wasn’t enough.
He could’ve noticed, thought to himself, “That’s curious,” and kept right on going.
But he didn’t. He noticed, and he turned aside and made the effort to draw nearer.
The burning bush was an invitation. Rabbi Lawrence Kushner says the burning bush was actually a test – a test to see if Moses was paying attention and would really see what was going on around him. Moses could’ve ignored the invitation – he could’ve RSVP’d “no” – but instead he did something rare and wonderful. He turned aside from his current path and changed the direction of his life – physically and spiritually.
And when we accept God’s invitation we put ourselves in position to receive God’s revelation.
3:4 When the LORD saw that Moses had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And Moses said, “Here I am.”
The Presence of God was there all along but that Presence didn’t speak until it was clear that Moses too was present!
3:5-6 Then God said, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.”
God 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 (awed) to look at God.
When we answer God’s invitation we can receive God’s self-revelation. And what a revelation it is!
The language is important here. Saying that God is revealed is distinctly different than saying God appeared, or even worse, God came down! The subtle meaning of ‘revealed’ suggests that the thing was there all along, right in front of our eyes, but something was preventing us from really seeing.
The space that we thought was ordinary becomes extraordinary – it is holy ground.
The same ground that Moses was standing on obliviously 5 minutes before was suddenly, indescribably holy ground now.
The ground didn’t change – Moses’ perception did! And as he became aware he realized how awesome God’s Presence was and Moses was awed.
And the taking off your shoes thing? Maybe that’s nothing more than a tangible indication that you’re going to linger. You know the saying, “Take off your shoes and stay awhile!”
So we’ve had invitation and revelation. Now we’re in the right head space and heart space and spirit space to receive the mission.
The rest of this pericope describes Moses’ mission from God, a mission that he would’ve totally missed if he hadn’t experienced God’s self-revelation, which he would’ve totally missed if he hadn’t turned aside from his path when he noticed something wondrous.
Rather than explore the details of Moses’ mission I’d like to use his story to draw out some principles for us. God says to Moses, “I have seen, I have heard, I care (or I know), and I am going to act. And here’s how I’m going to act – I’m sending you!”
The mission God wants to send Moses on is massive! Free an entire race of people from a despotic Pharaoh – ok, but what do you want me to do after lunch?
So Moses does the most human and relatable thing you could imagine. He says, “But!” In fact, he says “But!” 5 times!
Even after accepting a wondrous invitation, even after receiving an awe-inspiring revelation of God, Moses resists the mission.
Because it’s hard!
To allay Moses’ fears God says the greatest thing a person could hear: You are not alone. “I will be with you!”
Later in the chapter Moses gets some tools to help him but the most powerful weapon in his arsenal is simply God’s name – Yahweh – one interpretation of which is that this is the very breath of life – inhaling Yah and exhaling Weh – which demonstrates how fundamentally God really is with us – as close as our breathing!
Now, I doubt any of us is likely to get a mission from God that is so dramatic. But whatever it is we are called to – and make no mistake, every single person who calls the Holy Mystery we call God “God” is called to a mission – whatever it is it’s never just up to us – we are never alone as we strive to accomplish it. At least, we’re not alone as long as we’re breathing! (And when we stop breathing we’re not alone in a totally different sense but that’s another sermon!)
When Jesus burst on the scene around what we call the year 30, do you remember how he got started in ministry? In the gospel of Luke we hear about how Jesus who was presumably headed for life as a carpenter or a labourer apparently heard about some crazy man named John (who happened to be related to him) baptizing people – where? – in the wilderness!
And Jesus did what?
He turned aside from his path and went to John to be baptized.
And what happened when he accepted that invitation and turned toward that spiritual nudge?
As he arose from the water he had a profound experience of God’s Presence – a revelation! – in the form of the Spirit enfolding him and being blessed by what? By God’s voice!
It may have been in a river but that was certainly a burning bush!
And God said something like, “I have seen, I have heard, I care (or I know), and I am going to act. And here’s how I’m going to act – I’m sending you!”
And before Jesus could say “But” God sent him – to where? The wilderness! A place for transformation!
So Jesus had an invitation and a revelation. What does he get next – now that he’s really ready to receive it? A mission.
And when he returned from the wilderness his entire life became living out God’s mission.
And what was God’s mission? Luke 3:18-19 – Jesus said:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because God has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. God has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”
Friends, this movement from invitation to revelation to mission is a powerful spiritual rhythm.
It was the rhythm that launched Moses’ ministry and mission.
It was the rhythm that launched Jesus’ ministry and mission.
And it’s the rhythm that will launch yours!
But here’s the thing. The church loves to talk about mission these days. We’re consumed (pardon the pun!) by talk about being missional. And my great fear here is that we’re not paying enough attention to the rhythm – the rhythm Moses followed – the rhythm Jesus followed. I’m thinking if it was an important rhythm for them it really oughta be something we should pay close attention to, don’t you think?
And that means our mission can’t be something we dream up. Well, it could be, but then it would be our mission.
As followers of Jesus we’re supposed to be all about God’s mission, and God’s kingdom.
Well, how do we get that?
As we’ve just learned the way to get a mission from God is from a revelation of God’s awesome, wondrous Presence.
And the way to receive a revelation of God’s Presence is to be prepared to turn aside from whatever path we’re on and purposely turn toward the burning bushes that are all around. And they are all around!
The great Eastern Orthodox theologian Kallistos Ware said, “The entire cosmos is one vast burning bush, permeated by the fire of the divine power and glory.”
So in the end, or should I say in the beginning, it all comes down to this: noticing.
Poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning said it brilliantly:
“Earth’s crammed with heaven, And every common bush afire with God: But only he who sees takes off his shoes.”
Earth is crammed with heaven!
Everywhere you are, everywhere you look, everything and everyone you encounter, is crammed with heaven.
Every common, ordinary, non-descript bush, or flower, or sunset, or tree, or piece of music, or work or art, or smile, or act of kindness, or even church, is afire with God.
Burning bushes abound!
But only the person who sees, only the person who notices, only the person who turns aside, realizes that there is, in fact, nothing common about it at all – it’s a revelation of God, it’s holy ground – and it’s only this person that takes off their shoes, and savours.
Burning bushes are everywhere, but they’re not just to be noticed and marvelled at.
Burning bushes serve a holy purpose.
Burning bushes are invitations to a revelation for a mission.
Such is the rhythm that ushers in God’s kingdom.
So the question that faces the church, that faced Moses in his time and Jesus in his time, that faces each and every one of us, is clear:
What burning bushes have you noticed lately?
And when you noticed, did you accept the invitation?
Did you turn aside and take off your shoes?