Sunday, February 28, 2016

Burning Bush [Lent 3C]

The Rev. Jeremiah Williamson
Exodus 3:1-15

Burning Bush

If you are hoping for a burning bush, remember: it was never enough. For the slaves suffering in Egypt, a fiery bush in the middle of the desert did nothing to ease their pain. It was just God at a distance. For Moses, God started as just a flame on the periphery, something one sees out of the corner of an eye. God as little more than a curiosity; I guess it is a good thing Moses was curious.

On occasion, in the Scriptures, God makes a big splash – like splitting the sea in halves. On occasion, God makes a grand entrance – like a series of devastating plagues: frogs, locusts, and rivers of blood. But mostly we are Elijah waiting out the whirlwind and the earthquake and the firestorm desperately listening for the voice of God in the sheer silence. It is as confusing as it is frustrating as it is sometimes devastating.

Who are you?” It seems like a fair question. Moses was raised in Egypt as an Egyptian. This God, this burning bush God, did not have a place in the Pharaoh's pantheon. And so Moses wants a name – a name to take to the slaves in Egypt, a name to take before the Pharaoh, a name to make sense of this strange divine encounter.

It was as if the name would help cut through the mystery. As if the name was the answer to an impossible question. Maybe the name would give Moses the confidence to take on the most difficult challenge he has ever faced. This God is asking him to risk his life, to walk into the courts of perhaps the most powerful person in that world with a demand that would obviously be unwelcome. It was a suicide mission and so it seems fair that Moses would ask this demanding God for something in return, something as simple as a formal introduction.

It is the eternal human struggle with the divine – a puzzle that continues to baffle the faithful. What does it mean to serve a God who chooses to dwell in obscurity? Indie pop band, Vampire Weekend captures the tension in our Exodus text well in one of their songs, singing:

Through the fire and through the flames
You won't even say your name
Only "I am that I am"
But who could ever live that way?”1

This mysterious God “of a secret career.” We see only glimpses – mostly from the corner of an eye. Invisible hands into which we place of hopes and fears. Invisible hands in whom we place our trust. Invisible. And yet we are asked to shape our lives around this mystery, to live in such a way that honors this unseen God – to do ridiculous things like love our enemies and respect the dignity of every human being, to dip our children in fonts, and to feast on the body and blood of our God.

Moses finds in the desert a bush, blazing, and yet not consumed. God as little more than a curiosity. And finds in this curious encounter a God in love with a pitiful bunch of suffering slaves. He finds in the flames a crazy deity who decides to work with a murderer turned shepherd. He finds a God whose best plan is to send a wanted criminal back to the scene of his crime to demand the king do his bidding and free all of the land's unpaid laborers.

So Moses has his doubts. If you are hoping for a burning bush, remember: it was never enough. The miraculous brush fire did not remove his doubt. Five times, of which we heard two today, Moses declines God's offer. The bush only got him in the door; it did not seal the deal.

Moses is justifiably hesitant to become a co-conspirator in this mysterious God's plot. But he stayed with the conversation. He could have walked away, went back to the flock. But he stayed. He stayed and he asked for a name – just a name. God knew his name; Moses just wanted God's name. But “Through the fire and through the flames / You won't even say your name / Only "I am that I am."

We have spent centuries trying to grasp the flame. We have tried and tried to unravel the mystery. We have hoped to saddle God with a name that might just make the divine a bit more accessible and maybe a bit more domesticated. And for all our theologies and philosophies, for all our striving and pleading, we are left with an invisible God – untamed and elusive, dwelling in obscurity. We are Moses in the desert trying to understand the ineffable – bare feet and stammering tongue.

And as Moses would discover, the deeper his relationship with God grew, the more elusive God became. Old Testament scholar Terence Fretheim writes, “Both God and Moses recognize that God is not demystified through further understanding. In fact, the more one understands God, the more mysterious God becomes. God is the supreme examplification of the old adage: The more you know, the more you know you don't know.”2

20th century Jewish poet, Melech Ravitch, wrote a poem called Twelve Lines about the Burning Bush. In it he writes:

What’s going to be the end for both of us—God?
Are you really going to let me die like this
And really not tell me the big secret?
Must I really become dust, gray dust, and ash, black ash,
While the secret, which is closer than my shirt, than my skin,
Still remains secret, though it’s deeper in me than my own heart?...
...Not for nothing is one of your thousand names—thorn, you thorn in my spirit and flesh and bone,
Piercing me—I can’t tear you out; burning me—I can’t stamp you out,
Moment I can’t forget, eternity I can’t comprehend.”3


Burning me – I can't stamp you out. We have been set on fire by a God we cannot understand – burning bushes, each of us. We blaze but are not consumed – in the presence but still alive. We find ourselves both intimately captured by the loving heart of God and yet still finding that our divine lover is a mysterious other.


And so we stumble through, like Moses, stammering and exposed, and yet still here, unable to escape the beautiful mystery before us. Of course we stay: the same mysterious God who fell in love with a bunch of suffering slaves, is now in love with us. And while we protest and while we can conceive of better plans, rather than make a big splash or a grand entrance, God is setting little fires, planting tongues of flame, making an appearance through us. Who could ever live that way? Just an invisible God, with a hidden name and a lot of love, hoping to catch the eye of someone curious.



1“Ya Hey” from Modern Vampires of the City
2Exodus, Interpretation, 62-63.

3An Anthology of Modern Yiddish Poetry: Bilingual Edition, 163.


2 comments:

  1. The first portion of this entry is very difficult to see. I think the don't colour is black when you usually use white.
    I really look forward to your sermons! Thanks for posting them! Prayers!

    ReplyDelete
  2. The first portion of this entry is very difficult to see. I think the don't colour is black when you usually use white.
    I really look forward to your sermons! Thanks for posting them! Prayers!

    ReplyDelete