The world divides into two kinds of people: those who divide the world into two kinds of people and those who don’t. Today’s story about Moses divides people into two—and in the course of the story Moses himself changes from the one kind to the other.
The story begins in chapter 2, which told how Moses, although he was a Hebrew by birth, was adopted by the daughter of Pharaoh and brought up as a prince in Pharaoh’s court.
Yet he must have been told the stories of his people, probably by his mother because, in the beginning of the OT reading we heard today, it says “he went out (from the palace) to his people” and saw an Egyptian foreman beating up a Hebrew slave, “one of his kinsfolk.” He was so angry, he attacked and killed the slave-driver. It’s understandable, isn’t it? It’s like seeing a Nazi officer beating up a defenceless Jew in the Second World War. How could you stop yourself trying to intervene? If we had been on a jury trying Moses for murder, I think we would have been inclined to be merciful, and call it “justifiable homicide.”
But even if it was understandable, it was not a smart thing to do, because news of what he had done got around, and he had to flee for his life to the wilderness of Midian to avoid the anger of Pharaoh. Here he gets married (Bible trivia: what was the name of Moses’ wife?) and has a son (question 2: what was the name of Moses’ son? It’s up there with the names of the midwives, isn’t it?).
Then for several decades he just lives as a simple shepherd, working for his father-in-law, as the KJV says, “in the backside of the desert.” And there life changes for Moses. This is a man who lived in the fast lane of Egyptian society, the life of a prince, the favourite adopted son of the princess. This is the man who tried to sort out the problems of his people single-handed. Now all that has changed. Now he’s a nobody, doing nothing very significant, in the middle of nowhere.
Then this fateful day comes when Moses sees the burning bush. It seems to us a weird thing—a burning bush? What’s that about? Well, God meets people in a way that makes sense to them in their culture, and in Moses’ life in the hot desert, burning bushes were things he’d seen before. But always in the past the fire used the bush as fuel, and when the bush turned to ashes, and the fuel was gone, the fire went out. But here was a bush that burned and burned and never changed. The flame needed no fuel from this material world: it was its own fuel. Moses leaves the path and goes to check it out.
And then God speaks to him. The Bible often talks about God speaking. But it is a bizarre idea, isn’t it? After all, in our world, when people say they hear God speaking to them, we put them on medication and hope it goes away. And it seems so naïve that God might use words in a specific language. What does God sound like? Charlton Heston? Arnold Schwarzenegger (“Hasta la vista, Pharaoh”)? But it’s a common theme of the Christian story that God can talk, and God does talk. And, after all, God has made us with language, and there is no reason God should not make use of what God has made to communicate with us.
So what does God say? The first thing he does is call Moses by name. This is not a generic, no-name kind of thing: “Hey you over there with the shepherd’s crook: yes, you! Get over here. I want to talk to you!” No, this is very personal, in fact frighteningly personal: this is for just one person, whose name God knows. “Moses. I’m talking to you.” Nobody else.
Then God says to him: “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob.” Well, Moses has heard the stories of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but they’ve all been just that—stories, from long ago. Sure, Moses knew about God. But there is a difference between knowing about God, and knowing God. So God is saying to Moses: You know that God you’ve heard stories about? That’s me. And Moses makes the transition from being a person who knows about God to a person who knows God.
Then God tells Moses what he wants. God had promised Abraham that he would make his descendants into a great nation who would bring blessing to the world. But here they have been stuck in Egypt for centuries, slaves in constant danger of ethnic cleansing: literally a dead end. Now their story is going to get back on track, and in the most amazing way—a way they would remember for all time—and Moses was to be the key player.
Moses’ response is very interesting: “Who am I to do such a thing?” Compare this with the Moses we saw in the last chapter, when he only knew about God, the self-confident young prince who took the law into his own hands, and tried to serve God by rescuing the Hebrews single-handed. That Moses would have said, “Sure, I’m the man you want. I’m strong, I’m rich, I’m influential. You made a good choice there, God! So what can I do for you today?”
But he’s not that Moses any longer. Now he says, “Who, me? You’ve got to be kidding! You’ve got the wrong man.” But God knows what he’s doing. And he makes Moses a promise that’s very simple, but it’s all Moses needs: “I will be with you” (12). (Someone once counted up that the Bible says that 366 times: one for every day of the year, including leap years.)
But then Moses begins to make excuses, and they go right on into the next chapter. “You’ll be with me? Well, that’s all very well, but anyone can see that’s not enough. What about this? What about that? What about the other? ” But it’s no use: God’s got an answer for everything: God is God, after all. One of those excuses is right here, in v. 13: “Who shall I say you are?” After all, people believed in various gods in those days, so which one was it that had sent Moses?
This prompts one of the most amazing statements of God in the whole Bible: “I am who I am.” In one way it tells you nothing. In another way, it tells you everything: God is mysterious, God is powerful, God is life, God is like the flame in the burning bush—the source of all the energy in the universe, not needing our help to keep going.
You couldn’t really say that from this day forth Moses never looked back. But he is certainly changed. Even after this, he doesn’t always do what he’s supposed to do—but in general he’s far better at it than he was.
You see why I said at the beginning that Moses represents two kinds of people? Before this incident, he tries to serve God in his own way, according to his own lights, using his own ideas and his own strength. And it doesn’t work. And the main reason it doesn’t work is very simple. He doesn’t know God: he just knows about God.
But then he meets God. And from then on, things are different: now he works in partnership with this God he has encountered. Now it’s not just the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob . . . it’s also the God of Moses. It’s a completely different thing.
And when you think about it, this is what the Bible is all about: sinful, self-centred human beings learning to live in relationship with their Creator, and serve God in God’s world. And isn’t this why Jesus came?—to reconcile us to God—not to give us information about God, but to bring us back to friendship with God. Jesus introduces us to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—so that we don’t just know about this God from a sermon on Genesis—but so we can know this God, in experience, firsthand. This means that God is not just the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (and Moses) thousands of years ago—but God becomes also the God of David, the God of Judy, the God of Sarah, the God of Ed, the God of Elsie . . . well, you get the idea. And, like Moses, we will find that the way we serve God when we know God is quite different from how we serve God if we don’t know God.
What does this mean? That we all have to have a burning bush experience? Not at all—though some (otherwise quite respectable people) still do. But there are other ways to experience God. Remember after all that the burning bush fitted right into Moses’ culture: in our culture, it may be something quite different. You can experience God in prayer. You can experience God in reading the Bible. (I know of one atheist who, to his great surprise, encountered God while reading this very passage.) I think of two friends (one now a Catholic priest, one a chiropractor in Australia) who have been changed by meeting God at the communion rail. I know people who have encountered God in nature, or in dreams or in visions, or in music or in conversation. There are a thousand ways.
Friends, the Christian faith is not about being religious. It’s not in the first place about being a good person or having Christian values (whatever those are). It’s not in the first place about being involved at church and putting your offering in the collection.
At its heart, the Christian faith is about knowing God. Jesus puts it this way: “This is eternal life: that they know you, the one true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” Eternal life is to know God. Nothing more, nothing less. Everything else is secondary.
As we begin a new year of learning to be followers of Jesus, and being a community of his people, let’s not just say, “Yes, I’ll take on this or that job at church,” or “I will try harder to be a good Christian”—that’s not what it’s about. Let’s say instead: Lord, reveal yourself to me this year. Help me know you. Help me stand before the burning bush (whatever it is). Let me hear you call my name.
St John the Evangelist, Hamilton ON, August 31 2008