One of the accepted truths of our faith is that God is everywhere. But here and there, now and then, the Bible tells us about a particular in-breaking of the Divine Presence into someone’s life in a most extraordinary manner.
One of the best known and most important of these stories is the encounter we just heard about between God and Moses on Mt. Horeb.
The back-story to this event starts with the migration of Hebrews to Egypt during and after the time of Joseph, where they increased in number and flourished.
But a new Egyptian king, or pharaoh, came to power who hadn’t known Joseph, and he was threatened by the presence of the Hebrews and he subjected them to slavery.
This is the world Moses is born into, a world where his people are oppressed, and his own life is in danger. This paranoid king orders the Hebrew midwives to kill all the Hebrew boy babies, but in an act of revolutionary daring they disobey him.
You all know the story of how the baby Moses was hid in the bulrushes along the Nile River, and was discovered by Pharoah’s daughter. And how when Moses grew up she adopted him, and he was treated like an Egyptian prince.
So Moses escapes the plight of his people, but not for long. One day he saw an Egyptian overseer beating a Hebrew slave, and Moses rushed to defend the slave and in the ensuing fight he killed the man.
Fleeing for his life he ends up far away on Mt Horeb, where he settles down with a wife and tends the goats for his father-in- law.
That brings us to our story for today. It is not a very promising story, Moses wanted for murder, running away from his home and his people. And he knows that his people suffer terribly under the authority of pharaoh, who is the king of the most powerful empire in the world. Moses may have just been relieved to get out of town with his life.
So it’s just another ordinary workday for Moses, keeping an eye on the flocks as they forage for food on the side of the mountain. And then, suddenly, the ordinary day is transformed by this extraordinary sight, a flaming bush that seems to burn but is not consumed. And there is a divine messenger in the fire, for that is what an angel is. The angel never speaks, but the voice of God speaks directly to Moses, calling him by name, “Moses, Moses.”
Moses knows he is the presence of something or Someone much greater than he, and so he says, “Here am I.” Then God warns Moses to come no closer: “Take off your shoes, for you are standing on holy ground!”
What makes it holy ground? It is holy ground because God is present there. God is holy, and where God is present it is holy ground. Did you know that the Latin word, sanctus, meaning holy, is where we get our word sanctuary? A sanctuary means “a container for holy things.” This room is called a sanctuary because it has been set apart as a place where we may know the presence of God. There is nothing intrinsically holy about this room, or Mt. Horeb, for that matter. They only become holy ground because God becomes present there.
I need to say a word about mountains. The ancients often viewed mountains as holy places where the gods or the larger powers dwelt. They were places best left alone. I recently learned that there are very few Native American artifacts on the tops of mountains. For example, Darby Field, who was the first European to climb Mt Washington in NH in 1642, could convince only one of his 26 Indian scouts to approach the summit with him.
They discerned that holy ground can be dangerous ground. Something Moses sensed as well. On Mt Horeb he finds himself suddenly on holy ground, that sacred space where heaven and earth meet.
One of the things I love about scripture is that I notice new details every time I read a passage, even a familiar one like this. Here’s what I noticed about this one: first, it doesn’t say that God is invisible. On the contrary, Moses turns his face in submission to that which is greater than he. The belief was if you looked at God you would die. Later in Exodus, after a long and complicated relationship, Moses gets bolder, but here he turns his face away from God.
The other detail I had never noticed before was the angel. And why doesn’t the angel speak? That’s their job as intermediators. But here it is God who speaks directly to Moses.
Think about it. This encounter with God must have been both terrifying and amazing, both awesome and awful, two words that used to be synonyms but have evolved to being opposites to show the tension that exists in any encounter with God’s presence. Was it awesome? Or was it awful? Both.
There’s an old hymn that captures the former use of awful, “Before Jehovah’s awful throne.”
So Moses finds himself on holy ground, and knows there are dangers. What are some of the dangers of holy ground?
- The first is that you are on holy ground but don’t know it. The great English poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, wrote: “The world is charged with the grandeur of God . . .” and it is true. You may not see a burning bush, but if you are paying attention something of the grandeur of God is everywhere apparent. But you might be busy or distracted and miss it. You were on holy ground and never knew it.
- A second danger is that you are on holy ground and you do know it, find it awesome, but then don’t want to leave it. This is the punch-line of the Transfiguration story, when Peter’s answer to the divine encounter is to want to pitch his tent right there and stay. Recall how Jesus said, “No. We’ve got to go down from the mountain. We have work to do. I have a cross to face.”
And that is the essential truth about all divine-human encounters. They always come for a reason and a purpose. They are always attached to a call. They are not information about God, but an invitation into the work and will of God. We don’t discover God, like the New Yorker cartoons where the pilgrim climbs a mountain to find the solitary guru to tell him the truth about God. Our God is not a God we can discover, but a God who reveals himself to us, for a purpose, the divine purpose.
That’s what makes these encounters so dangerous. Moses recognizes that this invitation is fraught, because God’s work is not safe. This is why Moses offers excuses and alibis to get out of it. And I love that God never refutes his excuses and alibis, but simply ignores them.
It’s a great story, but is it our story? I think it is. And here’s what I think we may need to hear from this story. Moses is going about his day job, and he thinks he is autonomous and answerable to no one. In that way he is like us, because that is the great myth of our time: that we are both autonomous and accountable to no one.
So on this ordinary day on the mountain God breaks into Moses life, calls him by name and tells him he has a job for him. The sudden presence of God, the bush, the angel, the voice, make it clear to Moses that he is not autonomous, that there is something, Someone, greater than he with whom he is in relationship, and he is accountable, he is called. In the face of the divine presence and before the divine authority Moses realizes he has a vocation, and that his own fate is closely linked with the fate of his people, who are enslaved. The very people he has run away from.
Something else I noticed for the first time in this story. In the beginning of Exodus Moses’s people are called “the Hebrews.” But here there is a shift. God says to Moses, “The cry of “the Israelites” has come to me.” This naming creates a new identity. I am reminded of the line from the 1 Peter 10:2: “Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people.”
So Moses wants to know who is this God? We assume monotheism, but in Moses time there were lots of gods around. God says this is who I am, and discloses the divine name: Yahweh, which means I am who I am. “Tell the Egyptians I am sent you.”
And now that God has identified the Hebrews as Israelites, recall that Jacob’s name became Israel, he explicitly identifies himself as not any old god, but the same God who made covenant with the ancestors. “I am the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.”
This is the central story that constitutes a people, Israel, and by extension the church. It is not the end of the story by any means; later on this very same mountain God will give Moses the Ten Commandments. The book of Exodus tells us God bestows on his people Presence, Law, and Covenant as the abiding features of a new community set apart to be holy. They are to be slaves no longer, but to live for his will and way on behalf of the whole world.
And on every Passover Jewish families repeat this story at the Seder table. They don’t say, “when our ancestors were slaves in Egypt.” They say, “When we were slaves in Egypt.” In doing so they collapse the time from then to now.
In much the same way when we Christians hear this story and think about this story we know that it is our story too. It is a story of liberation. It is the Passover from slavery to freedom. It is the Easter from death to new life.
The story reminds us that we are neither autonomous nor accountable to no one. That is a lie our society tells itself. But it is not true. On the contrary, our God sees, hears, knows, calls us by name, and invites us to share the divine work of liberation from every form of bondage, and every structure of oppression, whether it is personal or societal.
The bush still burns. The call still comes. “Who will speak for me? Who will hear and respond to the invitation to work for my will and way?” Amen.
I preached this sermon on August 31, 2014 at the First Congregational Church of Stockbridge, Massachusetts. To hear a podcast of the service that contains this sermon go here.