Sunday 30 August 2020
The saying: “Familiarity breeds contempt” is basically self-fulfilling. We are so familiar with it that we tend to regard it as some sort of cliché. Cliché or not, I think the saying is all too true.
The reading we had this morning from the Book of Exodus tells us of an event that most of us have heard time and again. It is one of the stories that most of us have been familiar with since we were just children.
So there is a real need for us to revisit it with new sight, so to speak, because it is one of the greatest accounts of the experience of human encounter with God within the whole Judeo-Christian tradition.
The scene begins with Moses looking after his father-in-law’s sheep. He was just going about his normal business. There is no hint that he has somehow gone out of his way to encounter God.
So as he goes about his ordinary life, he catches sight of something to which he gives his attention. There is a bush aflame. Not only is it burning, it doesn’t seem to be being consumed by the flames. That can’t be true. He needs to check this out. We are told he “turns aside and looks at this great sight.” Other translations of the Bible use the expression that “he went across” to look at it. In other words, he moved away from his current occupation to explore.
He is instructed by the voice of God from the bush to remove his sandals for he is standing on holy ground. Presumably the ground was not holy before the bush caught on fire. The ground only becomes holy because of God’s presence. God’s presence makes things holy.
Moses is then told who the God is that he is encountering. It is not some Egyptian god. It is the very God of his ancestors Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. And now, after having gone out of his way to go over and look at the burning bush, now that he realises that the great God of his ancestors is present, he hides his face because he is afraid to look on this God.
And then we have the reassuring words of God: “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters…The cry of the Israelites has now come to me.” God hears his people in their pain.
So God determines to do something. Moses will advocate on behalf of the people with Pharaoh. But Moses is only too well aware that he did not grow up amongst his people. Remember, he grew up in the household of Pharaoh. What credibility did he have? Why would the Israelites trust him? What name should he tell the Israelites is the name of the God who sends him? I am who I am. The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob sends Moses.
Let’s draw out some of the powerful lessons that lie enmeshed in this beautiful story of encounter.
Firstly, we learn that the place where we meet God is in our ordinary lives, as we go about our ordinary business. But we need to be alert, to be on the lookout for signs of God’s presence – just as Moses was alert enough to notice the burning bush.
We learn that holiness comes from God. It is not our doing. Any holiness that we carry is complete gift. God makes the ground holy. God makes us holy.
We learn that the encounter with God in our lives is one that reveals to us our unworthiness. We dare not look upon the face of God because in God’s light our pettiness and sinfulness are fully revealed to us.
We learn of the enormous compassion of God for his people. He hears the cry of the Israelites. He hears our cries too when we call out to God in humility and with faith in his boundless love for us.
Furthermore, we learn that God uses us as agents for his will, just as he used Moses and sent him to advocate for God’s people. We are all called to make God’s compassion known for all of his people.
We learn that God is prepared to reveal Godself to us as the source of all being. I am who I am. There is nothing that is but that its existence comes from God.
And finally, we learn that God has been with God’s people throughout history – from Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. God is involved in history.
That is an awful lot of information. This is a packed text of scripture. What does it mean for us to say all these things about God? What can our response be?
Can I suggest to you that the only genuine response we can make to the God who engages us in our ordinary lives, who makes us holy, who is endlessly compassionate towards his people, who acts on behalf of his people, who is always present within his people’s history, is that of humble praise. The technical term is doxology. Our only genuine response can be that of the doxology that we use in various parts of our worship. Glory to God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit: as in the beginning, so now, and forever. Amen.
This is a text which puts us in mind of just how great and loving our God is and it directs us: “Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” If only we would realise that.
Archdeacon Allan Paulsen