“Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law, Jethro, he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to the mountain of God. 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. God called to him out of the bush, ‘Moses, Moses!’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’ Then he said, ‘Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.’ He said, ‘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 to look at God.
Then the Lord said, ‘I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cries. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of the land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey. So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.’ But Moses said to God, ‘Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?’ God said, ‘I will be with you.’
But Moses said to God, ‘If I come to the Israelites and say to them, “The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,” and they ask me, “What is his name?” What shall I say to them?’ God said to Moses,’I am who I am.’”
In the Book of Exodus, we learn of the cruel oppression of the Israelites by the Egyptians and their deliverance. Exodus focuses in on the familiar story of Moses whose parents “cast Moses into the Nile” in a woven ark. He easily could have died but instead he was rescued by Pharaoh’s daughter and raised as her son in the palace. Moses grew up and began to claim his own identity as an Israelite. This led him to visit the Israelites, and unfortunately he killed an Egyptian and had to flee to Midian to escape Pharaoh’s attempts to take his life. Moses settled down, married and had children. At this point in the story, we might expect Moses to go on living a peaceful ordinary life in the countryside, minding his own business for the rest of his days. God had more in store for Moses.
Let us go back in time and imagine this important day. Moses is tending the sheep as usual except that he has wandered a little farther than usual when he notices a bush that appears to be on fire. This is not particularly noteworthy in and of itself because he was in a dry and arid land where the shimmering heat may have played tricks on the eye, but after a while Moses realizes that it looks
like the bush itself is not actually burning. This sparks his curiosity and he moves in for a closer look. The closer he got to it, the more strange it must have seemed, and then he heard a voice speaking to him. Scholar Kate Huey notes that “Here the story somehow pulls together the indescribable, inexpressible, awesome presence of God and the most mundane of things: shoes. God warned Moses to take off his shoes. Taking our shoes off on sacred ground is a familiar idea, but so is “kicking off our shoes” and getting comfortable. In those days, inviting someone to take off their sandals was a sign of hospitality. Moses finds himself in a presence that invites him to be at home at the same time that it claims his profound respect.” At this point in the story, if I were Moses I would have been questioning my sanity.
Even though Moses seems to be in awe of God’s presence, when he hears the request being made of him, he is resistant and seems to think that he is not the man for the job. This is somewhat surprising considering that God is miraculously appearing in front of him and telling him to do something. If God showed up in front of you with an angel and special effects, wouldn’t you feel inclined to agree with the Almighty? What do you think your reaction would be?
Readers throughout history have found the story of the burning bush confusing, and many have tried to come up with natural explanations for the occurrence. Here are some of the things they have said that it was:
(1) Reflexes of light, which most often have occurred in dry lands with an abundance of storms.
(2) A volcanic phenomenon.
(3) A myth, based on ancient accounts of burning objects which were not consumed.
(4) A flake of gypsum blown against a twig may have set a bush on fire.
(5) A beam of sunlight, piercing through a crack in the mountain.
(6) A purely psychological experience, a figment of Moses’ imagination.
(7) The brilliant blossoms of a desert flower.
Do any of those explanations sound more reasonable to you? My guess is that some of them do seem easier to believe than the story at face value. So why is it that we have this tendency to explain away miracles, to turn them into ordinary events? Does it scare us to think that God might be so dramatic? Or does it seem far-fetched or even impossible to believe that God would show up like that, given our own experiences of God’s presence? I have never had such a dramatic experience of God’s presence, and so I have a difficult time believing that God has appeared or still does appear to others in such a way.
If we believe that the voice speaking through the bush is in fact God’s, then we learn some significant things about God from this encounter. God reveals that God desires respect through his request for Moses to remove his shoes. The God of the burning bush is a relational God who makes covenants and keeps them. In verse 6, God declares to Moses: “I am the God of your father, the God of
Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” (Exod. 3:6). God is saying, I have been there and I have come through for your ancestors and I will come through for you too. What I love most is that God reveals compassion. I want so much to believe that God cares deeply about us. In this story, God has seen the suffering of the people and responds. God’s people back in Egypt cried out to God. Perhaps they wondered if there was anyone there, listening to their cry. In the Westminster Bible Companion J. Gerald Janzen writes that “Every cry, is falling not on deaf ears, but on the heart of God. If God is hidden, God is hidden within the suffering.” God’s words to Moses show that the cries of the people have not been in vain. God says: “I have heard them crying out and I am concerned about their suffering. So I have come down to rescue them”(Exod. 3:7-8a). This paints the picture of an active, loving God who does not sit idly by while we are in pain, and I find great comfort in that. God’s talk with Moses also reveals that God does not work alone. This is another very important point. God seeks people to actively participate in God’s plans. While God is going to be directly involved in the deliverance of the people, God will do so through human actions. Theologian Bob Deffinbaugh states, “God has manifested Himself to Moses because He intends to manifest Himself through Moses.” If God moved in the world through Moses, this suggests to us that God could be acting in the world through each one of us too. I wonder when I say that, how many of you have your doubts about how or if God is present in the world through you. I talk to so many people who say that they find it difficult to feel God’s presence and to trust that God is really there. They think God may have been present in their lives at some point but they don’t know how to be certain about it and they are hesitant to claim that God is present in the world through them.
It would be so much easier to believe if God would just give us a sign. And that’s exactly what God does in Exodus. God performs signs to convince Moses of his presence. Have you ever felt like God is giving you a sign that God is present with you? I have heard stories of people seeing a bright white light that covered them and gave them a sense of peace. Others have told of visions of Jesus appearing before them, and still others have heard voices or music that they believed was from God. Not all of us have had such experiences. Many of us are waiting for God to give us a sign. We are waiting for God to make it abundantly clear who God is, what God wants, and what it is that we are to do. We want our lives to have meaning and purpose beyond the ordinary. The wise and well-known biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann writes that in the burning bush encounter God gave Moses, “a larger purpose for his life that refused everything conventional.” In our lives today we must feel lost at times and that is why we must hold onto this story, Brueggemann says, “because we know there is more to our life than the ordinariness of life without the holiness of God.” Deep down, we hunger to discover our lives, like Moses, “saturated with the reality of God.”
We might also consider the alternative: living a life that is not open and desiring of the sacred. We could close ourselves off from the holiness that pursues us. In his commentary on Exodus in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Brueggemann thinks: “We may imagine in our autonomous existence, that no one knows our name until we announce it and no one required anything of us except that for which we volunteer. The life of Moses in this narrative, as the lives of all people who live in this narrative of faith, is not autonomous. There is the One who knows and calls by name, even while we imagine we are unknown and unsummoned”. In the end, the question, then, is whether we’ll have the courage to listen and respond, trusting that wherever we go, we will never be alone.
Ted Loder in his book Wrestling the Light has written a beautiful prayer, “God, I don’t have enough inspiration, wisdom, imagination, will, or faith to do what seems to lay its claim on me, have mercy on me and cover me with grace…find a way to me…” (Wrestling the Light). Isn’t that all any of us are longing for, not to be alone, not to have a meaningless life? In this story God says, I am with you. I am strong and powerful but also caring and personal. When you go out to face life’s challenges, I will be with you because I always have been and I always will be. God says, I want you to do something meaningful in the world. God’s voice and presence in your life might not be as dramatic as a burning bush, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t there. Let your heart cry out to God, like the Israelites did and God will respond, maybe not in the way you expect, possibly through the actions of others around you, but God hears every cry and God’s heart aches when our hearts ache. Our God is the great “I Am.” Not “I am” just for this moment or just for one person but existing for eternity for all.