On the Burning Bush
The Lectionary’s Old Testament readings are taking us through the Exodus narrative this fall. That’s why last week we were talking about Shiprah and Puah, the midwives who saved the boys of Israel from Pharaoh, and this week we’re talking about Moses and the burning bush. We won’t be looking at Exodus every week this fall, but we’re definitely going to see some highlights from that story, because it is one of the most important stories in the Bible. The Exodus story tells us fundamental things about the nature of God. It’s a sweeping epic that proclaims God’s deep love for God’s people, God’s calling of regular people to extraordinary things, and that God’s saving power is stronger than the mightiest armies. So we’re going to get to spend some time in Exodus this fall, because for thousands of years, people have read this story and heard echoes of it in their own lives that reveal God’s love and saving power in our world. And I believe that reading it today we will hear the same echoes in our lives, revealing the truth about who God is.
And the beginning of that story starts with a simple, but essential concept: God hears, and God cares. At the end of Exodus chapter 2, we read “The Israelites groaned under their slavery and cried out. Out of the slavery their cry for help rose up to God. 24God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. 25God looked upon the Israelites, and God took notice of them.” It might not sound like it, but that’s a huge deal. What it says is that when you call out to God, God hears it. And God answers. That was an unusual belief in that era, and it’s not all that popular of a belief now. In ancient Mesopotamia people built altars and burnt whole animals so that the sweet smell of the smoke would rise up into the heavens and lull their gods into a stupor. They did not want to get noticed by their capricious angry gods. The Epic of Gilgamesh includes an ancient Mesopotamian flood myth that parallels the story of Noah, and in that story the reason for the flood is that humans were making too much of a racket. The gods of the Sumerians destroyed all of humanity because it interrupted their beauty sleep. For the ancient Sumerians and Akkadians, the wisdom was that it was best to tread quietly around your god, lest you attract unwanted attention. But not so the God of the Israelites. Our God hears, and God cares.
Later, in the Enlightenment period, some thinkers proposed that God is like a watchmaker, who creates the watch and sets it ticking, but then steps back and doesn’t fool around with the gears. That’s a God that might hear your cries, but won’t answer.That’s not the kind of God the Bible tells us about either. God is not an impersonal, far away God who is too important to be bothered by our petty squabbles. God hears, and God cares.
This is the beginning of the Exodus story, a story about how God responds when God’s children are suffering. God hears, and God cares. This story was told and passed down by mouth and written down and clung to for thousands of years because people wanted their children and their children’s children’s children, and even us to know that. God hears, and God cares. God listens to us and hears us when we’re hurting and suffering. When you’re sitting in the doctor’s office waiting on an important diagnosis, God hears your prayers. When you’re staying up late on the computer trying to figure out how to pay the bills the next month, God hears your moans. When you’re lying in bed and you’re whole body hurts and you’re trying to get up the energy to put one foot in front of another, God hears your groans. God heard the cries of Israel because that’s who God is. God is the one who listens for the cries of people who are worn out, heartbroken, afraid, or beaten down.
And when the people of Israel, enslaved in Egypt cried out in toil and oppression, God heard their prayers. And God looked around, and thought, I know just who to send. God would answer the prayers of the people of Israel, by sending down an Egyptian-prince-turned-Midianite-shepherd named Moses.
Now Moses didn’t really want any part of that, which he tried to explain to the burning bush who called to him in the wilderness. “Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh and deliver the people of Israel?” We remember Moses from last week as a little baby placed in a basket on the Nile by his Hebrew mother, a last ditch effort to save him from Pharaoh. But since then, Moses has lived a privileged life. He grows up in the palace of Pharaoh, eating fine foods prepared by servants, while his Hebrew brothers and sisters make bricks and haul them around. The contradiction doesn’t seem to bother him, until one day he sees a slave-driver beating one of his kinfolk, and he snaps. He ends up having to bury the man. It’s the first indication that Moses will grow into a man with an acute sense of justice. But that sense of justice gets him into trouble the very next day, when two Hebrews are fighting, and he tries to sort them out. “What, are you going to kill us too?” one says, “Who are you to judge who lives and who dies?” Moses thought he was protecting his fellow Israelites, but at that moment, he realizes that they see him as nothing but oppressor. He decides to take that acute sense of justice somewhere it won’t get him in trouble anymore.
He ends up building a nice life in the neighboring country of Midian, married to Zipporah, daughter of a local priest, whose flocks he tends. And he thinks he has escaped his previous privileged life and the guilt that came with it. He’s no longer on the side of the oppressive Egyptians. But he no longer has to hear the cries of his Israelite kin. But the thing about privilege, is you can’t get rid of it. Moses is still living a privileged life. None of the other Israelites could run away to Midian. The ability to run away from responsibility is its own privilege. When God blesses you with resources, internal or external, you can’t hide from them by throwing them away. You can only learn how to use them for good.
When Moses asked God, “Who am I to go to Pharaoh?” God knew exactly who he was. He was an Israelite with an Egyptian pedigree. Because he had a foot in both worlds, he could speak to both Israelite and Egyptian. He was the exact right guy for the job. But that’s not what God tells Moses. Because that’s not what really matters. What God tells Moses, is “I will be with you.” We often don’t think we’re good enough or strong enough to make a difference in this world. But when we think that way we’re missing the point. It’s not about whether we believe we’re strong enough to make a difference. It’s about whether we believe that God is.
And that’s the subtext of Moses’ next question. Who are you? Asking for God’s name seems like an innocuous question. But in the Hebrew Bible, names matter. Everyone’s name says something about them. Jacob’s name means heel, but it’s also a pun on trickster. Abraham means ancestor. Moses means drawn out from the water. A name is a defining characteristic in the Old Testament. So when Moses asks for God’s name, he’s really asking who God is. What is God’s defining characteristic.
But God refuses to be defined. God declares that his name is “I am who I am.” It may be a little bit better translated “I will be who I will be.” Moses asks for God’s name, and God says, “I do what I want. That’s my name.” People have tried to define God for all of human history, but God has yet to be pinned down. God will not be limited by human ideas about God, because human ideas for God are always too small and usually end up being for our own benefit. God proclaims that God is completely free. And as the story of Exodus conveys, God insists on that same freedom for God’s people.
Moses ran away because he couldn’t bear the cries of his brothers and sisters any more. And he found himself a nice life far away where he could no longer had to hear those cries. But God didn’t deliver that boy from Pharaoh so that Moses could tend sheep. God raised up Moses, because God hears, and God cares, and Moses was going to be a part of God’s answer the people’s cries. Moses was delivered from Pharaoh so that he could deliver the Israelites from Pharaoh. If God has lifted you up, if God has delivered you from some trouble or pain, or suffering, or abuse, it is not time for you to go up on the mountain and forget about everyone else’s troubles. Either you are calling out to God, or you are being called by God to answer someone’s calls. God hears, and God cares, and God sends.
This is profound truth that Exodus has for us today. When you cry out to God, God hears, and God cares. And if you are privileged enough not to be calling out to God for help, then maybe you are a part of God’s answer to someone’s cries.
Our nation has suffered a terrible tragedy. A natural disaster of biblical proportions. And the natural inclination for us is to look to the heavens, and scream, “Where is God?” In Exodus, we have a key piece of that answer. God is with us. God hears the cries of people in Houston and across the world. God cares. And God is sending people like you and me, to do something about it.