Exodus 3 ‘An encounter with a burning bush’
Reflection by Anne Stewart
As we lean deeper into the story of Moses, we find him attending the flock of his father-in-law Jethro. Here’s a test to see whether you were awake last week. Trevor Agnew pointed out on Thursday that there is a strange anomaly around just who Moses’ father-in-law was. Does anyone remember who was named as his father-in-law last week. I was grateful to Trevor for the heads-up on this, given I wasn’t around last week. Anyway, we learned together that it is widely believed that Reuel and Jethro were one and the same man and that Reuel was most likely the name of the clan leader. This clan leader name was often given to the ‘head’ of the family, a role that Moses’ father-in-law is likely to have had.
So, with that cleared up, you should be able to sleep tonight! It’s a great story this one. Moses is out with his sheep when he comes across a bush that is on fire. Normally we might run a mile from such a thing but this one was on fire but the bush was not being burned. He stopped to have a look, as you would, and from within the flames a voice calls out to him. The voice names him, it knows who he is and it tells him to remove his footwear because he is on holy ground. Now I have a fairly active imagination and I have tried to imagine myself into that space. Freaked out, I think is the best description for how I might react to a burning bush calling out my name! If I settled for less than that I think I might be fascinated that the bush was on fire but not being burned. How does that happen? Why is that happening? I’d be freaked our either way and Moses got both!
From a ‘now’ perspective I want to know what this story has to tell us about God and our encounters with him, and what it might mean for us. I’d be interested anyway because this image of, a burning bush that is not consumed is also the logo of the Presbyterian Church worldwide! Our Scottish forebears, who made that call, obviously believed that this metaphor was strong enough and important enough to be the face and front window of their newly formed Christian splinter group. They had quite a number of images they could have chosen, such as a dove, a fish, a shepherd, a cross even – no, they chose a burning bush and the Latin words ‘nec tamen consumebatur’, which translates as ‘yet it was not consumed’. It was not until 1916 that the Presbyterian Church in New Zealand had an official symbol. In this, the General Assembly wished to reflect not only its link to the Scottish churches, but ‘it must indicate a church of the Southern Hemisphere yet not of Australia’. The Presbyterian symbols page on the archive section of the website tells me that St Paul’s Wanganui were the first to use this symbol and that church was built in 1868 and I do know of another church also formerly called St Paul’s, in Totara Valley, where they used this symbol in the stonework above the front door when it was built in 1890. This 1920’s symbol remained in use until the 1970’s, when a stylised version began to be used, and still is to this day. From my reading it seems that it was generally understood that this image depicts God as the fire that cannot be consumed, indicating that the fire of God will never go out, that God will be with us always.
As we will see over the next few weeks, this is the first of Moses’ encounters with God, where God gives Moses a task and Moses responds with ‘Really? Me?’ to which God responds with the assurance, Yes, you! And I will be with you all the way! These stories of Moses encounters are often highly valued and relied on by those who find themselves faced with a task they do not believe themselves to be equipped for, or qualified for. As you heard last week, God calls the flawed, the outsiders, often those who least expect it, and always with the assurance that God will be with them. We tend to forget that last bit and think it’s all about us, celebrating our successes and hiding our failures. But the fire is not consumed – God is there with us always! In the ups and the downs. You can see why those earlier Scottish characters chose this symbol on which to base their movement. It’s a great thing to remember when despair sets in around ‘the state of the world’ or the ‘state of the church’ being in hardship, decline or in a season of doom and gloom. Even doom and gloom cannot put the fire out; God is with us, still, and will be always! There is call here and something enduring.
Moses hears God say, ‘yes you’, but still, he is unsure. He argues that even if God is with him and he tells the Israelites that the God of their ancestors has sent him, they will ask him for the name of this God. “Who am I going to say you are?” he asks. And God replies, “I AM, WHO I AM.” In other words, you are asking the wrong question. I AM, WHO I AM, is in front of him so the question for Moses to confront now is, not who God is but who he is. Moses’ task is to go figure out who he is in the light of who God is. Where does that leave Moses? What is his posture now in the light of the great I AM?
Artists, such as our own Colin McCahon have sought to express the enormity of this statement, I AM WHO I AM. This one, from 1972, was on display for some time last year, here in Christchurch.
This story also tells us of a God who not only speaks to us but who hears us. A God who hears the anguish of the people, who gives heed to their cries, and who will do something about their plight. God hears us. The challenge for us is to hear God – to put ourselves in a place where we can hear God, where we are sufficiently quiet enough to hear God speak. I also think it is about our posture. Are we open to the possibility of hearing God speak? Are we far too sophisticated and learned, to allow for this possibility? I wonder if this is what our prayer is, submitting ourselves to be in a space where we can hear God. Maybe we have been too busy talking to hear God. Maybe we have been too busy asking for things? The story tells us that we should not presume that our needs and even our cries go unheard, unheeded, or unanswered. When we enter a prayerful state, however we might do that, be it quietly, by playing music, or running, or gardening – whatever way we do it, we are joining the flow of interaction, the stream of consciousness, with a God who hears us, is with us, and who cares enough to invite us into a place where we can be free; a land described as flowing with milk and honey.
In this story, and in all of our stories of God and us, God doesn’t act alone. The means of bringing freedom is not done at us, or by some magic ‘otherly’ power but always through one or some of us. In this story, it is through Moses. God uses the things of creation, to be the agent of power. We have heard recently how God used Esther to save the Jewish people, and Ezra and Nehemiah to rebuild the community of God’s people. God chooses to work through God’s created order, nature, animals, humans, never outside of it, because God chooses to be in relationship with the created order. Our witness is that the great ‘I AM’ so loves what he has created that he chooses to enter it fully, in human form in Jesus in order to lead all of creation to freedom.
Some time ago I talked about the three stories we are all part of, my story, our story, and THE STORY. If we apply that here, then we have Moses’ story, the Israelites story, and then the big story of God and God’s creation. Moses’ story is part of the Israelites story, which in turn is part of the big story of God redeeming humanity and the world. Sometimes this big story is called a meta-narrative. It’s the big story that is increasingly often disregarded within our Western culture. This big story is the one that many have felt distanced from because they can’t make sense of it, or it asks something of them that they are not prepared to give. They might mock a story that speaks of a burning bush calling someone’s name. Without maybe realising that this split from a big story may account for the lack of solid ground to be anchored in, or the understanding of life as something more than the immediate world around them. I have never experienced a bush on fire and not being burned, or a voice speaking to me by my name from within a burning bush but I can’t say it can’t happen. I have heard God speak, but not in ways that would make any sense to anyone but me. What matters is that what I hear God say, lines up with the God of love that I know in Christ and in the big story. If there is no meta-narrative then there is nothing to line anything up with. I AM can all to easily become ‘i am’, theology becoming ‘me-ology’, where I, a created one, become the great I am, the centre of all things.
A fire that cannot consume the bush it is burning, is a powerful image. The God who cannot be ‘put out’ is the God who will be with us always in all things and for all time. I think we need this reminder now as much as we ever have. We know we have some ecological disasters coming at us, at breakneck speed and that’s a terrifying prospect for those who follow on from us. We know we have to make changes that will directly affect us. This is not a problem for ‘them’ to fix ‘over there’, this is about every one of us changing our ways because the environment doesn’t care whether we have had enough of change; or whether there are too many new rules we have to find our way with – our rapidly changing environment is coming ready or not! We have become so comfortable that we think we are entitled to this degree of comfort. But what we know is that we are not alone in our changing lives. God, the fire that even we cannot put out, is in this with us. It doesn’t mean we sit back and wait for God to make something happen though, because maybe that is already happening. Who’s to say that God isn’t raising up leaders to bring us all to a better place. The question is, do we want to hear what these leaders are saying? Can we be shaken out of our comfort zones by anything other than melting ice-caps and dying rivers? God is speaking but are we listening?