The first time Moses saw the burning bush it was at a fair distance away. He didn’t watch it long because he felt the need to get his father-in-law’s sheep to safer ground. Though uncommon at lower elevations, wildfires sometimes started from lighting strikes on Mt. Sinai (also known as Mt. Horeb) and in this dry climate could spread fast. While he didn’t get a good look at it, he could swear the fire was neither spreading nor burning out.
The second time he saw the burning bush Moses was shocked. He was certain this was the same fire that he’s seen earlier. How could a bush continue burning without consuming the plant? If the fire had been burning so long, how was it that it didn’t spread across the hillside grasses that fed the sheep he’d led for the past two days? Since the fire obviously wasn’t spreading, he didn’t feel the need to move the sheep to safer ground this time. Still, he kept his distance, watching, observing, wondering. This was not natural. Could the gods doing this? After all some people called this place “the mountain of God.” As soon as the sheep had grazed enough, Moses hurriedly led them back down the mountain.
The third time Moses saw the burning bush his curiosity got the better of him. It obviously posed no threat to the surrounding area because the fire had not spread and nothing else was damaged. Leaving the sheep to graze, Moses walked to higher ground to approach the bush, which had been burning so long. As the Moses drew near, the author writes, “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 am I!’”
Of course we don’t know how many times Moses saw the burning bush before he approached it. The story doesn’t say. The common assumption is that this was the first time Moses had seen it. But I’m not so easily convinced. So, I wanted you to imagine with me. If the fire was not consuming the bush, there is no way to tell how long it had been burning. Days, weeks, years? If you know the Bible story, you know that Moses had been hiding for a couple of decades. He hadn’t shown any real initiative in all that time. His job was to watch his father-in-law’s sheep. In case you’re wondering, this was not a choice position. As you may know from other Bible stories, it was common for 12-year-old boys and older daughters to watch over a family flock – in fact this how Moses met his wife.
He had once been Pharoah’s – the great ruler in Egypt – adopted grandson. A Hebrew by birth, he had been raised in royalty, receiving the finest education in the world. Taught how to lead, Moses had once stepped in when he saw an Egyptian foreman brutalize a Hebrew slave. Moses, who had a growing disdain for the way the Egyptians treated his people, lost control of his anger and killed the foreman. The scandal forced him into exile. He’d been hiding ever since. Long forgotten in Egypt, he continued to hide in Midian, a nowhere place, doing a nothing job, with a life that had no purpose.
This is the portrait of a middle-aged man who spends most days playing video games in his father-in-law’s basement and the days he “works” he is doing a job a teenager could do, so forgive me if I’m a bit skeptical that he became suddenly brave enough to approach a supernatural fire on the Mountain of God the first time he saw it.
Riding on the team bus after winning Super Bowl 45 Aaron Rogers, the Green Bay Packers All-Pro Quarterback, held the championship Lombardi trophy in his hand, “I hope I don’t just do this,” he thought to himself. Reaching the pinnacle of sports accomplishment sent Rogers into a search for meaning that took him into a relationship with Rob Bell, the former mega-church, evangelical pastor who left that realm when he became more progressively Christian.
In the cover story of the upcoming issue of ESPN the Magazine by Mina Kimes, she quotes Rogers as saying, “I think organized religion can have a mind-debilitating effect, because there is an exclusivity that can shut you out from being open to the world, to people, and energy, and love and acceptance.” Three things about that quote: 1) Christians are going to be critical of it, 2) young people are going to say, “That’s right,” and 3) it’s a sad statement about the state of the Church.
Encouraged by Bell to let go of the narrow-minded beliefs of his childhood faith and explore his questions, Rogers found that following his heart-felt questions led him to a beautiful period where he began “to grow as a person.”
Moses once had a passion for justice for his people. He was bold. He stepped in to right a wrong. But he led with his anger and ruined his chances to change things. Ashamed, embarrassed at his failure, he now lived his life without purpose. And then he saw the burning bush.
For Aaron Rogers winning the Super Bowl and holding the trophy in his hands made him realize there was so much more to life. The Lombardi Trophy was burning in his hands; he was on holy ground.
Holy Ground is wherever you are confronted with the reality that your life is not what it should be, where you are willing to risk stepping into your calling.
To approach holy ground is to walk through your fears about change, your doubts about yourself, the safety and comfort of routine and to be willing to walk with God into the new and unknown. Moses, who had wasted years of his life hiding, changed his life and the lives of thousands when he finally risked walking towards the burning bush. Having the courage to face the unknown was the first step to responding to God’s call.
Frederick Buechner once wrote, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” [Wishful Thinking, p. 95] Is that where you live? At the intersection of your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger? What would it look like for you to go to that intersection?
Maybe you’ve had a good paying job, but without much purpose. Is there a burning bush you should be listening to? Maybe you’ve thought about reaching out to the Muslim community as a Christian offering an olive branch of peace, but you do not know where to start? Maybe watching the Weather Channel this week, not only do you want to send money for relief, but you are wondering what you could occasionally do to help people in need? Maybe you’ve realized you’ve just talked about religion, but you’ve never really committed yourself to following Jesus – do you want to start?
Maybe after Charlottesville you are asking yourself what you can do? Look at every social indicator and African-Americans are either no better or worse off than they were in the 1980’s. Fewer African-Americans go to college than they did in the ‘80’s. The wage gap hasn’t improved. School are re-segregating. Issues with police continue. And now white supremacists feel emboldened to speak their hate. Are white privileged Christians just going to sit around Midian and say, “That’s a shame about what’s happening in Egypt”? Is there not a burning bush we should be approaching?
At the core of the Exodus story is the reality that God was turning a nation, a people upside down – tearing apart the status quo and liberating those who had been oppressed. But before that could happen God had to get someone safe and comfortable in Midian to take a risk and approach holy ground.
Once Moses was willing to risk facing the unknown at the burning bush, God’s name was revealed to him. God is revealed to Moses in a profound and significant way once Moses was willing to challenge his presumptions and risk going into the unknown. And if you think “who am I to do this?”, remember what God said to Moses, “I am with you.”
If you want to know God, if you want God to reveal some truth, some sign, if you want to experience the sense you are doing God’s will, maybe you have to be willing to approach the burning bush in your life – to walk through your fears about change, your doubts about yourself, the safety and comfort of routine and to be willing to walk with God into the new and unknown.
How long are you going to sit at a safe distance and watch the burning bush?
May God help us to be faithful. AMEN.