“When You Encounter a Burning Bush”
A Sermon by the Rev. Marek P. Zabriskie
Rector of St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church
In Fort Washington, Pennsylvania
On Sunday, September 3, 2017
More words in the Bible are attributed to Moses than to any other figure or writer. Moses’ words are foundational to the Judeo-Christian story and play a significant role in each of our lives. In Judaism, everything ancient and modern is essentially commentary on the writings of Moses. For Moses is said to have written the first five books of the Bible.
Today’s story from Exodus marks the turning point in Moses’ life, when he encountered the burning bush and heard God speak to him, an event which catapulted Moses from an obscure shepherd in Midian to a determined leader liberating God’s people out of slavery in Egypt. This scene is captured in one of our stained glass windows, and a photograph of that window appears on the cover of program guide which was mailed to every church member’s home this week.
It is one of the great stories of the Bible. But when God called out to Moses and invited him to help God’s people, Moses was at best reluctant to do this. Moses responded to God’s voice speaking to him from a burning bush by begging off on the grounds that he was a stutterer and no good with words. “I am slow of speech and slow of tongue,” Moses told God. (Exod. 4:10)
What good is a stuttering and inarticulate leader? Yet forty years later in the closing scene of Moses’ life, this one time “slow of speech” shepherd stuck in a Middle Eastern backwater held forth from his pulpit on the Plain of Moab, pouring out a torrent of articulate words – thirty-one pages of words in English to be exact, seventy pages if you read it in Hebrew.
The years transformed this once tongue-tied and hesitant shepherd into an impassioned orator who could eloquently summarize the promise of salvation for the Jewish people whom he led forth from Egypt to Sinai and finally to Canaan. How ironic it is to watch the transformation of this shepherd who could not speak into a preacher who could not stop talking.
By the time he was done, the first five books of the Bible were attributed him. They were simply known as the books of Moses. These books provide an introduction into the ways of God and the language that God uses to reveal himself to humans. In a way it is our story and the story of every human being ever created, for it is the story of salvation, which culminates in the Word made flesh in Jesus Christ, our Lord.
So, what makes this story of Moses encountering the burning bush so significant for us thousands of years after the event occurred? The answer is that these ancient stories are archetypes of the ways that God interacts with humans like us. What occurred in these ancient stories continues to occur in our daily lives, but we must enter the story in order to see it.
Moses was said to have lived to be 120 years old. Numbers in the Bible are often exaggerated. You do not have to believe, for example, that Methuselah lived to be 969 years old and begat a son named Lamech when he was 187 years old, even if the Bible tells us so. What’s important to know is that Moses’ life was divided neatly into three 40-year segments. Moses spent the first 40 years of his life in Egypt. He was raised in Pharaoh’s palace and educated in fine Egyptian style. When he was 40, he saw an Egyptian brutally mistreating a Jew and Moses killed him.
Marked as a murderer, Moses fled to the wilderness and spent the next 40 years of his life as a shepherd, holding down the worst possible job in the ancient Near East – a job that every Jew despised since shepherds were dirty and could rarely worship. The number 40 is a Hebraism meaning “a time that seems to have no end.” Hence, it rained for 40 days and night after Noah built his ark. The Jews wandered for 40 years in the wilderness, and Jesus fasted for 40 days in the desert. The number 40 means a time that seems unbearably long.
Moses must have wondered whether he had squandered the best years of his life doing meaningless work after having been raised in the Pharaoh’s palace. One day he wandered with his flock beyond the edge of the wilderness, which symbolizes a bleak place or an ungodly experience that has the power to destroy us. Think of the wilderness as a time in which you or someone you loved battled with alcohol or a drug addiction or lost your job or battled an illness and wondered whether you would survive. That is the wilderness.
Moses had walked beyond this bleak place after being in a situation he never imagined that he would be in for an unbearably long time. Then he ascended a mountain called Horeb, which in Hebrew means “the wasteland.” It must have been the pinnacle of despair, a breaking point where he wondered if he could carry on. Had his life been wasted? Did God have nothing more in store for him than dying an obscure figure in an obscure land?
It was then and there that he had an epiphany which changed the course of his life and of history itself and which still has major ramifications for each of us. Moses encountered a burning bush. There are bushes in the Middle East that secrete oils, and in the hottest seasons of the year these plants can literally catch on fire and burn. This was no surprise. What was surprising is that this flaming bush was not consumed by the fire. So, Moses turned aside and paid attention to it.
Seeing him turn aside, God spoke and said, “Moses, Moses!” And he responded, “Here I am.” God said, “Come no closer! Remove your sandals…for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” Then God revealed to Moses that he had seen the suffering of the Jewish people and had heard their cries for help. God had a plan. Moses was a Jew, who had been raised in Egypt and knew the Egyptian language and customs. He also knew how to care for a flock. He was the ideal person for God to use to shepherd God’s people and liberate them from slavery.
Today, we could replace the word “Egypt” with Texas, Venezuela, Syria or many other places where people are suffering. God responds by seeking our attention, calling our name and inviting us to be an answer to problems facing God’s world. Will we stop? Will we turn aside? Will we pay attention to burning bushes and accept God’s call to fulfill his mission? Watch out for burning bushes, for holy ground is found in the most unlikely of places. Epiphanies occur after a time that seems to have no end and in the bleak and barren places of life.
Tim Johnson was raised by parents who frequently fought and whose fights became physical. At the age of 16, he threw his father out of the house for assaulting his mother, yet Tim notes, “I still loved my father.” His father was a successful dentist, but an alcoholic who grossly mismanaged money. He wanted his son to become a dentist, but Tim had no interest. Instead, he became a Marine and served in the Korean War. Tim led a rough and tumble life as a soldier. Whenever he visited the city of Seoul, young children who were victims of war clung to Tim like fleas seeking shelter. He wondered what would become of them.
Young Tim was thinking that there must be more to his life than serving as a soldier in this wasteland when the chaplain delivered a telegram informing him that his father had died. Because he was on active duty in a war zone, Tim could not fly home to attend his father’s funeral. But the chaplain, whose own father had recently died empathized, with Tim and said, “I’m putting you on light duty. Why don’t you walk over to that hillside and take some time to reflect on things?”
Tim climbed the hill, sat down and surveyed the wilderness around him and reflected on the war and on his parents’ destructive marriage, his father’s alcoholism, and now his unexpected death. “I thought to myself, ‘I’m going to become a dentist and make something out of my life,’” Tim told me over lunch. This had been his father’s dream, but the voice was stifled until a long time had passed and Tim had experienced the wilderness, sat atop the wasteland, reflected on the wreckage around him and had a burning bush moment.
Many years have passed, and Tim is a happily retired dentist. He sold his successful practice. He did not liberate slaves in a foreign land like Moses, but Tim has served wonderfully in his vocation. Tim and his wife raised three fine sons and now spend lots of time with their grandchildren. As Tim shared his story, I realized that stories like Moses encountering God in the burning bush are stories about how God is still intervening in our lives. They are not idle tales from the past, but signposts for our hope in our future. They remind us that God continues to call our name and invite us to discover significance by contributing to the common good and reaching out to others who need our help. I conclude with the words of Elizabeth Barrett Browning from her epic poem Aurora Leigh:
Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God:
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes,
The rest sit round it, and pluck blackberries,
And daub their natural faces unaware….
There’s nothing wrong with picking blackberries, unless we miss out on seeing burning bushes, hearing God call our name and discovering the significance that we seek in our lives. Amen.