(RCL C) Exodus 3: 1-15
Moses Before the Burning Bush
Domenico Feti 1613-1614
What you some of you may know is that this is one of my favorite stories in the Bible, and that I often talk about it when I preach at weddings and baptisms and the couple of times over the years when I’ve been asked to preach at services when friends of mine were celebrating new ministries and their institution as rectors. It is always something I like to imagine at these vocational moments, these moments at the threshold, moments of new beginning. A key event and story in the long unfolding of salvation history. And so a critical memory for us in this Lent as we return to these stories again and again in the process of finding our own roots and uncovering our deep identity.
Moses out and about the daily business of his herding in the wilderness. The burning bush in the distance, roaring along in flames. And then as Moses stands in wonder and amazement, flames shooting up before him, the voice—which I always do imagine as the voice of James Earl Jones: “Take off your shoes, Moses, for the ground on which you are standing is holy ground.” Just this great moment, as the path and direction of Moses life for all these years is suddenly turned in a new direction.
He had run away years ago from Egypt. Now he is to return. A 180 degree reversal. No more a private man with his family out there in the quiet hinterlands of Midian. Now to move to center stage, with a direction and purpose of historic and universal meaning and importance. To speak on behalf of God. To confront the powers and principalities of this world fearlessly. To rally the hearts and minds of God’s people, with all their fears and hesitations, and to lead them forward boldly into their great and historic and universal destiny. No longer to live for himself alone, to serve his own purposes and satisfy his own ambitions and desires. He is called now to a greater work. A man on a mission. The meaning of his life transformed.
In a way it is no longer his life at all. He is now inextricably bound up with God’s people. Their concerns his concern, their destiny his destiny. A moment of decision. Vocation. Calling. And we hold our breath for a moment as Moses sorts things out. So much hangs in the balance. No Moses, then no David. No Moses, no Jesus. The story comes to a dead end. No Moses, no us. And then we exhale. He moves forward. Just like that moment when Mary answers the Angel. Let it be so. Moses now is God’s man. And the new story begins.
And a good story for us on this Third Sunday in Lent, and as we would think in this Lent about who we are. About our identity, our calling, our place in the story as it still unfolds. Which is the point really that I’ve been thinking about these last few weeks in talking about all these Old Testament readings of Lent—readings about Covenant and Renewal.
Because what Covenant does—God and Adam and Eve, God and Noah, God and Abraham, God and David, and then the New Covenant for us in the Cross of Jesus—what the Covenant does is give us a map to use to find ourselves. To see Moses at that Burning Bush in that moment, to understand then more deeply the moments when we stand there too. When that voice calls out to us. To give us a window into our own hearts and souls and lives. From a time of wandering in the wilderness to a sense of direction and meaning and purpose. So much depends on the moment. On how he answers: on how we answer.
That is holy ground for Moses. But not just that one little plot of wilderness sand where he was standing in that moment. That was holy. But from this time forward, wherever he would stand. It would all be holy. In Pharaoh’s court, or at the head of the line as they approached the Red Sea, or at Sinai, or as he stood at the verge of the Jordan to point the people toward the Promised Land. All of it holy, every inch, because he was in God’s hand. God at his side.
And what I say at those weddings is that they should take off their shoes. Bride and groom, first of all. "Take off your shoes!" (Which usually sparks a moment of anxiety . . . .) At this moment of decision, and new direction. Vocation. Hearing and responding to God’s call.
To say that the ground under their feet at that moment, as God’s word is spoken over them, as they exchange their vows and rings and set out for the life he has called them to live together—the ground under their feet is holy ground. And that it would remain holy ground, down the aisle in the recessional and out into the world and into their lives, at home and at work, in their joys and in their sorrows, for better and for worse all the days of their life. Answering God’s call. Faithful to the claim he will have on their lives from this day forward.
And for all of us. At the burning bush. To know who we are. Our eyes opened as if for the first time. To hear his voice calling our name. To find ourselves in the mind and plan and purpose of God. Take off your shoes!
This is finally and fundamentally what all the business of Lent is about. These purple Sundays before the festivities of Easter. Days of standing at a crossroads. “By self examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.” How we would live always, every minute and hour of our lives. On holy ground. How we would be refreshed in this season. As winter turns to spring around us, to find that same transformation in us anew.
“Make me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from thy presence, and take not thy Holy Spirit from me.” The words of Psalm 51 that we read and prayed together in the Liturgy for Ash Wednesday—and that monks in monasteries recite and pray in the early hours every morning, again and again, year in and year out. Renew a right spirit within me.
That we would be refreshed and renewed in Christ. Today, in this Lent. That we would hear his voice. Know his hand on our shoulder. And that we would find ourselves in him. So that as we come forward this morning to share the Bread of Life, he himself, as he gave himself for us, we would know our life in his life. That as we would share the Cup of Salvation, it would be in the new day that is his and ours together. That here before this altar and that every day and everywhere—again, in our kitchens and while we’re in line at the Giant Eagle and at work and in every corner of our lives, from this day forward, for better or for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and health, we would know that the ground beneath our feet is holy, holy ground.