Moses, the Burning Bush, and Hearing God’s Call to Justice

When I read the story of Moses and the burning bush, I wonder what it might have been like to be Moses that day.  The story says that when Moses saw the burning bush, the messenger from God, he was amazed and said to himself, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.”  I am always struck by this verse, by this little bit of internal dialogue between Moses and himself.  It always feels to me like a doorway. A doorway into the life that Moses was living in this moment, and maybe even a hint at a part of the story that may not seem apparent at first.  We are told at the beginning of the story that 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.  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.”

The way the story unfolds makes it seem like things are happening quickly.  Moses is out with the sheep, walking in the desert, and suddenly a bush bursts into flame next to him and God begins to speak.  But if we look closely, there might be something more going on than that.  I am struck first by the fact that Moses says to himself that he must “turn aside” in order to see the bush, and then in the following verse, that God only finally calls out to Moses when “the Lord saw that he had turned aside.”  It would seem like things are not really happening as quickly as we might have thought at first.  It seems that, at the very least, this burning bush is not so much popping up right in Moses’ path, but somewhere off to the side, maybe tucked around the corner of one of the mountains edges, or just barely visible through a hole in the rocks.  Thus, Moses must “turn aside” to examine it.  And not only that, but when he does finally turn aside, he starts to walk towards it, as if it is at least some ways away from his path.  And then we learn that God calls out to Moses, only after “the Lord saw that he had turned aside.” Meaning that it was not so much that Moses is reacting to the message from God, but that God is responding to Moses.  God responds, but only when Moses finally notices.

And so I wonder about Moses in this story.  If God appeared with a message for Moses in a burning bush, slightly off the beaten path, waiting for Moses to notice before calling out to him,  I wonder how many times Moses passed by this bush before he finally turned aside.  I wonder how many days he might have spent leading his flock up and down this mountain. How many cool mornings and still evenings he walked this patch of land that he would eventually learn had been holy all along.  I wonder how many minutes and hours and days God spent waiting for Moses to see this miraculous message hiding in plain sight.

And in pondering these things, it is important to remember how Moses came to be here in the first place.  Not just his own journey from member of pharaoh’s house, to wanted murderer, to shepherding son-in-law, but the whole journey of the Hebrew people into Egypt.  Because part of the message God has been waiting so long to tell Moses is that God has heard the cries of the Hebrew people, God knows the suffering of God’s people, and God has come down the mountain of God to lead these people out, but it is worth noting that what God does not do is swoop in and instantaneously rescue the Hebrew people from oppression in Egypt.  God does not strike all the Egyptians dead.  God does not overthrow pharaoh.  God does not magically transport all of the Hebrew people out of Egypt into the promised land. 

No. Instead, God moves through people, God’s saving, liberating, work is done through people. The work of freedom from oppression is done through these pillars of our faith.  God works through the suffering of Joseph to eventually save the Hebrew people from famine.  God works through the courage of the Hebrew midwives and the covert works of salvation they perform in rescuing an entire generation of Hebrew children, God works through the sacrifice and ingenuity of the mother of one of those children, Moses, to deliver him from danger and reunite him with his family, and God now is inviting Moses in this burning bush message to take part in the next phase of God’s liberating work in the lives of the Hebrew people, working through Moses’ fear and anxiety, his reluctance to return to the people from whom he just fled after killing an Egyptian overseer in the defense of one of his fellow enslaved Hebrew people.  And even more amazing than the way God works through people to bring about God’s mission of liberation, is the process by which God appears to do it.  God does not search out Moses for this mission. God does not descend in a cloud on Moses’ flock in the wilderness. 

Instead, God dwells in the burning but not consumed bush on Horeb, the mountain of God, and waits.  Waits patiently, while Moses passes back and forth by this mountain with his flock.  Waits while Moses, the next great liberator, tends his father-in-laws sheep hour by hour and day by day, feeling the distance between himself and his people.  God waits, until Moses finally turns his head one day and recognizes what has been right in from of him for so long, and finally turns aside from the well worn path of his life, and encounters God face to face.  And as he turns, God sees that Moses has finally recognized the bush, the dwelling place of God, and God cries out Moses!  Moses!  Stop.  Do not come any closer.  This is Holy Ground on which you stand, for I am about to deliver to you your vocation, your mission in the world.  I am about to give you a place in this long line of saviors and liberators and justice bringers and repairers of the breach.  I am about to set you up as one of these pillars of the faith.  I am the God of your ancestors, of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and I am about to add your name to that list.  I am the God of those in the past, and I am the God inhabiting what is today, and I am the God of what is to become.  And you have a role to play in this story, and this story, this I am, does not continue without you.  Moses! Moses! Come, receive your mission, and take your place.

I wonder what it was like for Moses to hear God call his name like that.  I wonder if he had ever heard his name spoken like that before.  And I wonder what emotions coursed through his heart, body, and mind when he heard God identify God’s self for the first time.  What it felt like to slide of his sandals and press his bare feet to the holy ground on which he stood.  Excitement, awe, certainly fear, evident in the fact that he turned his face away out of reverence for the divine, and the overwhelming feeling of being in the presence of presence itself. 

What we do know is what Moses said in response to God.  Almost immediately he comes up with reasons why he cannot do what God is asking him to do. No one will believe me, no one will listen to me. What could I say to get them to believe I spoke to you today?  This is all so crazy.  And of course, we can identify with this reaction.  We have felt this same way at times.  Even Jesus experienced this, as we saw in the gospel reading today, of course in a slightly different way, in that the voice of doubt did not come from inside of him, but from one of his closest friends.  Peter, who had just been so bold in proclaiming him the messiah, the son of the living God.  As we heard in the Gospel, Jesus shares with them what he knows to be true of his mission, of what it really means for him to be the messiah, the son of the living God.

Hundreds of years after the burning bush, Jesus, the living legacy of Moses’ vocation and mission, stood with his disciples in the story from Matthew 16 and shared with them what had been revealed to him about his own mission, that he must go to Jerusalem, be arrested, crucified, and resurrected, and thus take his own place in God’s work of liberation, justice, and repair.  He was explaining to them that what Peter had just proclaimed about his identity, that he was the messiah and the son of the living God, meant that he would most certainly be rejected, persecuted, and killed at the hands of those in power. 

In the face of his closest friends, who out of their own fears, their own preconceptions about his identity, and their own opinions about his mission, questioned the very nature of what he felt called to do next, Jesus persisted in his vocation.  Even though it was complicated and painful and uncertain, he marched on.  And his words to Peter, “Get behind me Satan,” were not so much a rebuke of the person standing before him, but of the ideas coming out of him.  What is Satan to Jesus?  Satan is the voice that tells you that you are not meant to do what you know you are called to do.  The voice that spouts all the reasons you are not good enough, or well informed enough, or strong enough, or courageous enough, to fulfill your call to participate in God’s mission in the way that you know is yours to do.  Jesus knew what almost certainly lay ahead for him, and what he wanted behind him was not Peter, but the voice that told him he was wrong, that he couldn’t do it, that he was not capable of participation in God’s mission.

Because, like we see in every great leader before him, and after him, Moses, in all his doubt and uncertainty and resistance, will be equipped by God every step of the way with exactly what he needs to do God’s work in the world.  It will not be solely on his shoulders to confront pharaoh, to bring the plagues, to duel the magicians, to part the sea, to lead the people, to feed the people, to write the tablets.  No.  At each step of the journey, Moses just needs to be open, to say yes to God, to wonder, and to participate in God’s movement, so that he becomes a window for God’s power in the world.

And as we see Moses March on, and Jesus march on, we can look around now and see who is participating in God’s liberating mission in the world, who is becoming a window for God’s power to make change in the world.  We can see who is marching, marching in the streets of Kenosha, marching in the streets of Washington, marching to the drumbeat of freedom that has never been drowned out by the persistent hum of oppression in our country.

In these last weeks we have been reminded again how much of God’s work of liberation, and justice, and repair is left to do in our community, our country, and the world.  After months of protest, and discussion, and action, and debate, following George Floyd’s murder at the hands of the police, Jacob Blake, a father, a cousin, a friend, was gunned down by police in Kenosha, Wisconsin.  Days later, thousands of people marked the anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s March on Washington, with a march of their own, calling for criminal justice and police reform.  The voices are out there.  They are calling each and every one of us.  Can you hear it?  It is the voice of God calling us by name to take part in the mission of liberation from oppression. 

And it is no less complicated or us that it was for Moses in that moment.  There is no less doubt for us than there was for Moses in that moment.  There are no fewer voices in our heads telling us why we cannot participate than there were for Moses in that moment.  There are no fewer voices around us, even from our closest friends, trying to convince us that our sense of call is misguided and misdirected, than there were for Jesus that day with the disciples.  And yet, like Jesus and Moses before us, there is no less of a call from God to turn our faces toward liberation and justice and to march on.  To march on for freedom.  To march on for change.  To march on with the names of Breonna, and Trayvon, and Freddie, and George, and Ahmaud, and Jacob on our lips.  For the God of Jacob is calling.  The God of Breonna is calling.  The God of Trayvon is calling.  And we must ask ourselves, what is my role to play in this liberating mission of God, and what do I do next.  And when we hear the great I AM call us to action, we must be able to say “I AM HERE TOO.”

We must ask ourselves in this moment, where is the burning bush that I have been passing by for too long as I walk the familiar path of my lives?  What is the message God has been waiting for me to hear?  Where do I hear God calling my name, and am I willing to turn aside when I hear it ?  Where is that holy ground, on which I know I am receiving my vocation?  What is my mission in this moment?  What is my work to do, no matter how big or how so mall?  How am I being called in this place, in this time, in this moment, to take my place in this long line of liberators, justice bearers, and repairers of the breach, following our ancestors, the Hebrew midwives, and Moses’ mother, and pharaoh’s daughter, and today Moses and Jesus, to do God’s liberating work in the world?

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