Moses and a Burning Bush
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. Then Moses said, ‘I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.’ When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, ‘Moses, Moses!’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’
“Say goodbye to one of the most ancient Christian communities in the world,” the article published in First Things began, in the middle of July (2104), “members of ISIS—the “Islamic State in Iraq and Syria,” a Sunni Islamist group that recently has captured parts of Iraq and declared a new caliphate—began going through the northern Iraqi city of Mosul and marking the homes of Christians with the Arabic letter “Nun.” “Nun” stands for “Nasara,” from “Nazarenes,” a word that refers to Christians. The implications were clear. Mosul’s Christians faced the same fate the Christians of Raqqa, Syria, had when ISIS captured their city last spring. “We offer them three choices,” ISIS announced: “Islam; the dhimma contract—involving payment of jizya (poll tax); if they refuse this they will have nothing but the sword.”
The relative silences of our era with regard to the ill treatment of Christian people speaks volumes. In addition to scant attention, voices that point out such things are often unwelcome. “Then the Lord said, ‘I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them ….” (Exodus 3:7-8) The enslavement of the Israelite people by an Egyptian Pharaoh wasn’t news many cared about. Few noticed. This is not a measure of what God notices.
The context of the story of Moses and the burning bush is that God observes the misery of his people and he is not indifferent. God acts to deliver. He calls and equips people to join his work for this deliverance. The God who sees such misery and delivers is the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ; indeed we see his face in Jesus.
1. The Greek Orthodox monastery of St Catherine’s is the oldest continuously inhabited Christian monastery, with a history that can be traced back over seventeen centuries. It is located at what is believed to be the place where God appeared to Moses in the burning bush. So what is the significance of this burning bush that triggers such effort to commemorate the spot?
Moses is working for his father-in-law Jethro, the influential priest of Midian. He is guiding Jethro’s great flock to places where there is sufficient pasture to sustain them and comes to Horeb, the mountain of God, in the course of his work. A lot of water has gone under the bridge, so to speak, in Moses’ life. The days of living as a prince in Pharaoh’s court are a distant memory. He used to care passionately about the ill treatment of his fellow Hebrews; in fact he had murdered an Egyptian for beating a Hebrew slave. He had to flee Egypt. Compared to Egypt he now lives in obscurity—the life of a Bedouin. He is married to Jethro’s daughter Zipporah, a shepherd in the family business; the days of hotheaded youth behind him.
“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. Then Moses said, ‘I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.” Whenever you see “the angel of the Lord” in scripture, it refers to God himself acting as his own messenger, stamping himself unmistakably upon a person. Very soon Moses knows himself addressed by God.
Moses is not particularly looking for God to show himself. The author of the story tells us so we know it was the angel of the Lord appearing in the flame of fire. For Moses he is observing a strange occurrence. A bush is on fire—common enough—but somehow the bush is not burning up. He thinks,” I need to see this and figure out why it isn’t consumed.”
Moses was doing what needed to be done to put bread on the table for his wife and son. He was on the job, tending sheep. Today we might say he was just sitting at his desk, working on the assembly line, driving his bus, getting the groceries. He was doing the same things he'd done a thousand times before when suddenly he saw something out of the ordinary. It seemed worth a second look, and it was that willingness to pause, to turn aside, that he heard the voice of God. It is an important truth that in very few lives the decisive moment comes just when it is expected or when we planned.
Remember that the context of God’s meeting with Moses is God’s action to do something to relive the misery of his people. A burning bush not consumed by the fire. It is a picture of God’s grace. The bush represents his people who are under threat of being consumed but the bush is not destroyed. In the scripture it is here in this story that these Hebrew people are first called “my people” by God. However despised God’s people are by the world God is at work to preserve and keep his own.
But there is more. This meeting with Moses will eventuate in the freeing of Israel from slavery commemorated every year by the feast of Passover. It was at a Passover meal with his disciples that Jesus declares that his coming death will be the fulfilment of what all these Passover meals pointed toward. He is the world’s great deliverer and deliverance. God’s creatures are threatened by sin and evil. We are in bondage to our own sin. God’s love is great; God is not indifferent to our plight. He has come among us to do something about it. The evil that seeks to consume will not be victorious; sin need not triumph.
We have seen a great sight. Jesus Christ on the cross looks like he is being consumed but in the resurrection from the dead we see that he is not. Will we turn aside to look at this great sight and see why “the bush is not burned up?”
2. It is fundamental to the faith witnessed to in the Bible; that God is the one who initiates encounter with himself. We see it in the story of Moses. God makes an incursion into his life; facilitates Moses’ curiosity to turn aside to see this sight; addresses Moses is such a way that Moses knows that it is God who addresses him and Moses understands what God says to him.
We often make the assumption that religious people are looking for God. The Bible says we have turned away from him. Religion is humanity’s attempt to say we can discover this on our own. We can find out who God is—or if there is a God—with our human faculties of discovery. Faith, witnessed to in scripture, says something else. It is not religion in this sense. Yes, Christians do certain things religiously, if we use that word to mean routine. But Christians do not trust in these activities—church, Bible reading, prayer—to save us. Yes, they have a proper place in the rhythm of faith life but we do not read the Bible daily because we think this will grease the hinges on the pearly gates to open more easily when we arrive.
When God addressed Moses and gave him this commission to be the instrument through whom God would emancipate the Hebrew people Moses is hesitant, to say the least, and asked a series of questions. And God patiently answered them. It tells us that God is more than willing to engage with you and me in our questions. Questions he has already answered in some respects and he answers them in the history of his people. The Bible is recorded for just such instruction for us if we will be attentive to it. “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching,” wrote the Apostle Paul (2 Timothy 3:16)
Moses asks God how he is to answer people who will ask his about the God who sent him—what is his name? This is to ask, who is God? Notice the implication of the story here. We don’t name God; God names himself. Beginning from ourselves we can’t name God—say who he is—for this would imply an ability to put parameters around God. The answer God gives is “I am who I am” or “I will be who I will be”.
“Who is God?” Scripture never answers this question directly. Scripture answers this question indirectly by posing two other questions. “What does God do on our behalf? What does God effect within us?” The answers to these two questions add up to the question “Who is God?”
Note that God’s answer is a verb “I am who I am.” God is who he is in his doing—he is acting to make himself known to Moses. Yes, this implies permanence, consistency. Further, God declares that the God who is acting through Moses is the one who did so in Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
The New Testament bears witness that who we see in Jesus is God himself and nothing other than God himself. Consider the number of Jesus’s claims beginning with “I am”; “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” What God does for us on the cross—bearing our sin for us; and what he has effected in us by his Spirit—release from the power and penalty of sin—tells us who God is. He is the one who will spare not even his own son for our sakes. (In baptism we are initiated into this faith. God has come among us and calls us to trust our lives to him. In baptism we say yes. Our prayer for these children will be that they too will own faith as their own)
What the believer comes to understand about her faith is that it was God who made the move to encounter us. We may not have anything that we could classify as dramatic as a burning bush experience. However can look back over life and see the various people and incidents and moments when God was calling to us. Some have sudden experience like an alarm clock; for others it is more like waking up slowly. In either case the believer comes to faith—and faith is a kind of knowing—aware of God’s presence at his initiative and enabling.
3. Moses understood what God was calling him to do and he wasn’t all that eager to sign on the dotted line. He tried a series of evasions. “I am nobody so no one will listen to me.” “You put me in an impossible place with only my personal word to claiming that God sent me.” “But I can’t see them listening to my voice.” But I’m not an eloquent speaker.” God patiently answers question after question with provision after provision. Until finally Moses pleads—please send someone else. Then we are told that the Lord because angry. (Exodus 4:14)
God is not indifferent to the misery of his people. Herein lies our calling as well. To relieve the misery of God’s people and more generally to relive suffering of others as we are able, is to do what God does; it is to be instruments in God work.
4. And finally a brief word about leadership. Moses knew his vocation to be that of leader. He knew too that hardship in the wilderness was vastly preferable to the security of slavery in Egypt. Through this leader God thundered to Pharaoh, “Let my people go!” Eventually Pharaoh did just that. Pharaoh would have laughed, however, if he could have overheard the people railing against Moses for forty years. Life in the wilderness was certainly hard; so hard, in fact, that they clamoured for the “meat, fish, cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic” they had had in Egypt (forgetting, of course, the wretchedness of the captivity that had reduced them to well-fed domestic animals.)
Leadership anywhere in life entails loneliness. To be summoned to lead in business, industry, government, church, university, hospital, community organization; to be summoned to lead is to be thrust into a wilderness of loneliness where few others (if any) understand or care. Yet while Moses alone of all the people of Israel knows the loneliness of leadership, it is to Moses alone that God speaks in a burning bush and God’s scorching truth brands itself upon him indelibly: “Take off your shoes, for the ground on which you stand is holy!” Moses speaks to all who are called to lead, and who know the loneliness that leadership entails. Moses also tells them that faithfulness to their vocation will render their wilderness holy ground. As often as their spirits sag God’s fiery presence and word will remind them.
“When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, ‘Moses, Moses!’ And he said, ‘Here I am.” And so may we.