The Holy One: The God of Moses
This is the third in our series of sermons answering the question, “Who is God?” Today, we find ourselves with Moses in the back of beyond – the wilderness. Moses is not only in a literal wilderness – a place uninhabited by people – he is also in a figurative wilderness. He was a great man among the Egyptians, but he is in exile now. The prince of Egypt has been reduced to marrying a nomad woman and keeping the flocks of his father-in-law, Jethro.
Having been raised as an Egyptian, he is also separated from his new Hebrew identity. He can no longer follow the Egyptian gods, and he does not know the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob. Jethro does, however; like Abraham’s contemporary, Melchizedek, he is a priest who worships this god, though he cannot claim the special kind of relationship that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob could. Still, he knows where he is to be found, and he names Mt. Horeb in the Sinai as the mountain of God.
Two minor, but interesting points need to be made here, just so we understand the story better: First, the burning bush. God is present everywhere throughout his creation, and there is no place where he is not, but when he desires to “locate” himself, so to speak – to meet someone face to face – the sign of his personal presence throughout the Bible is typically blazing light – or sometimes smoke or cloud. The Eastern Orthodox say that no one can ever see or know God in his essence, only his energy, and something like that is in play here. God is not in the bush, he is at the bush, and the uncreated light that signifies the presence of God in his own proper person makes the bush appear to burn without being consumed.
Second, Moses is very interested in knowing God’s personal name – and God gives him a name to identify himself by: I am who I am, or perhaps, I will be what I will be (the Hebrew languages lacks tenses as we know them). This is the name that is written as LORD in capital letters in your Bible, since later on, the Jews came to be reluctant to pronounce it; so they would write “Yahweh” – the sacred Name – but say “Adonai,” which means, “the Lord.”
And this may have been important to Moses because his name is Egyptian in form, but seems to be lacking an important element. There were plenty of princes and pharaohs with names like his: the first element would be a god’s name, and the second element would be a form of mosis, meaning, “dedicated to.” So you would have Thutmosis (dedicated to Thoth), Ahmose (dedicated to Amun), Ra-mosis [Rameses], dedicated to Ra – but Moses by itself? “He who is dedicated to” – nobody?
I wonder: did Moses lose the first element of his name, or was he never given it? Does his own name tell us something about his loss of identity, that he had no god to serve, to be dedicated to, to name himself by? Well, now he does. For the God of his fathers is calling him to return to Egypt to face down Pharaoh and lead the people of Israel to freedom. And Moses – some day, he will be known as the Friend of God, the one with whom the LORD spoke face to face.
But what I mostly want to call your attention to this morning is here in his passage:
And the angel of the LORD appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush; and he looked, and lo, the bush was burning, yet it was not consumed. And Moses said, "I will turn aside and see this great sight, why the bush is not burnt." When the LORD saw that he turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, "Moses, Moses!" And he said, "Here am I." Then he said, "Do not come near; put off your shoes from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground." And he said, "I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob." And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.The ancient Israelites did not like the wilderness. They were not romantics. They liked towns and farms and places with roads and walls and the comfort and security of other people. They were spooked by lonely places, which they thought were inhabited by demons and/or bandits. And yet, time and again, when some great man is looking for God, and cannot find him in the usual conduct of life or piety – or when God wants to break through and call someone who hasn’t been listening for him – that encounter happens in the wilderness.
Moses meets God on Mt. Horeb. Later on, Elijah loses confidence in his call right after his triumph over the priests of Baal and runs away to this very spot, and it is here he hears the “still, small voice” that he couldn’t identify back home. In the New Testament, Jesus was in the habit of dropping everything and going into the wilderness to pray when the pressures of people and events pressed upon him too closely. The wilderness may be dangerous, but it is also a place of immense possibilities.
And this is why I like to take people there. I’m a great camper, a hiker, a backpacker. And I know, some people think we’re all crazy to go hiking in the mountains and live in tents and go without a shower for days at a time; but I tell you, important things happen in the wilderness. I love to take kids out beyond the usual, the safe, the ordinary – out beyond what most people call “camping,” which is a faux wilderness, a Disney-fied park where we pretend to have adventures, and get out to where you can touch the edge of the raw for yourself.
What I tell the youth and adults I take on those trips is that I can only guarantee two things about this trip: You will meet God; and you will meet yourself. And I can’t guarantee what either of those encounters will be like. It’s different for each person. Either or both of those encounters may be joyful and uplifting – or they may be painful and embarrassing. My job is to be there when it happens, to help you process the experiences – but I cannot script them.
To give you an example of the second encounter, two years ago at Philmont, T.J. Nichols encountered himself, and liked what he saw in himself: he realized that this was something he was good at; that he wasn’t clumsy or scatter-witted, he was strong and he was capable. I see this kind of growth all the time as people match themselves against new challenges and grow to meet them. It’s a wonderful thing.
But I’ve seen lots of other people – including myself – have an utter meltdown in front of God and everybody, because they were tired, and things weren’t going well, and you’re rubbed raw by these people you’re with, that you can never get away from as long as the trip lasts. And when you freak out or do something stupid or say something regrettable, where you just want the earth to gape and swallow you whole – you know what? You can’t run home and pretend it didn’t happen. You can’t “make it right” by running away at all. You’re stuck with this trip and this group, and – worst of all – you’re stuck with yourself. And you’ve got to deal with it.
Everybody who goes into the wilderness eventually meets oneself. And that revelation may be wonderful, or it may be dreadful, but there you are. And the same thing is true with God. Somewhere, someday, in some circumstances, while you are on that boondocks sabbatical, God is going to show up. You may or may not be prepared for him when he does. And you may be exalted to the skies or brought low or simply freaked out.
I remember an early trip to Philmont, hiking in the high country, where the immensity of rock and sky made me feel so small. I thought to myself, this is an image of the majesty of God. And I was exalted to be in his presence, but I didn’t feel like singing or shouting, because the overwhelming space all around me would have swallowed it up. “Be still, and know that I am God,” says Psalm 46, so I did not clamor, but I walked amidst wonders that day. The next year, we went to Isle Royale National Park, and we were hiking along a trail through some wetlands, where everything was cool and dewy and oozy, and the overgrown bushes all around made even the light filtering down to us green. It was like being in a green womb, like the garden of Eden. We walked along in silence, as if every tree and flower were saying, “hush.” And I thought, this too, is an image of God. Not God immense and powerful, but God protective and nurturing. But again, I did not clamor, for I was walking on holy ground.
On the other hand, not all encounters with God in nature are so re-assuring. I had a friend in Kansas, another minister, whom I went to seminary with; Lane is his name. and when his sons were old enough to join Boy scouts, he signed up and went camping with their troop. And they were down in Arkansas someplace on a troop campout when one of those sudden storms that go howling over the prairies came up, and there was no time to get anything under cover. The boys and their leaders just ran for the lowest spot they could reach, which was a gulley behind their campsite. It’s all they had time to do, for they no sooner got down there, than the first huge gust of wind tore through the camp, and WHOOM! all their tents and flies were gone. And the lightning flashed and the thunder cracked directly overhead and the rain came down like a firehose and the storm raged all around them while they clung for dear life to the roots and grasses on the side of the gulley.
And in the midst of the storm, Lane said he became aware that the little eleven-year-old boy next to him was shaking in fear and saying over and over, “It’s my fault. It’s my fault. God’s out to get me.” Lane was stunned. What could this kid think he had done to deserve the wrath of God to be visited upon his head in an Arkansas ditch? But before he could think of anything to say to comfort this poor child, the young Scout on the other side of him cried out, “Noooo, it's me he's after!" When Lane told me this story, I said, You have your work cut out for you with that troop of boys. I don’t know whether they needed absolution or therapy, but they obviously had a lot on their minds.
Now, “I’ve seen the lightning flashing,” as the old song has it, “and dark is his path on the wings of the storm,” to quote another. The raging of a prairie storm is as legitimate a demonstration of the power of God as the emptiness of a high mountain or the quivering dampness of a temperate rainforest. The question is, what will you do with that experience?
“Put off your shoes from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” . . .And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.
Our God is a holy God. “Holy” originally meant, simply, “belonging to a god,” and therefore “taboo.” You had to tread carefully, so as not to offend the god of the place. But the God of the Bible is an ethical God. He is called Good. And when we meet him, even when he comes to us in less alarming ways than a storm, we are often abashed, for we know ourselves to be unworthy. Sinners. His goodness contrasts with our not-goodness. In recognizing him, we recognize ourselves. And we can play all kinds of games with other people. We can even play self-justifying games with ourselves. But faced with the Holy One himself, we know that we are deficient. And unless he takes the lead to quiet our hearts, we are likely to be very afraid.
This is why some people go to enormous lengths to avoid that encounter. Sometimes, God has to drag them halfway around the world on some trip or another in order to get them to face him. And there’s no guarantee that they won’t just run away.
But this you should know. The Holy One does not desire our condemnation, but rather our restoration. He has sent to us Jesus, so that we can have our sins forgiven and live at peace with God. He has given us his Spirit to dwell within us, to work from the inside out to restore us to righteousness, to make us worthy to be called his children. You are right to fear God. But you are also right – and blessed – to know him as a loving God, a Father to his children, who wants only to clean us up and make us fit for his company. Don’t run away any longer. For if you keep running away, you will never know the peace and joy of being forgiven and restored. Rather, draw near with faith, and accept the gift of his salvation. And be exalted with him to the heights, and praise his name. Amen.