27 October 2019 The Burning Bush Martin Baker
3 Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. 2 There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. 3 Then Moses said, ‘I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.’ 4 When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, ‘Moses, Moses!’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’ 5 Then he said, ‘Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.’ 6 He said further, ‘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.
7 Then the Lord said, ‘I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, 8 and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the country of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. 9 The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. 10 So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.’ 11 But Moses said to God, ‘Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?’ 12 He said, ‘I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain.’
13 But Moses said to God, ‘If I come to the Israelites and say to them, “The God of your ancestors has sent me to you”, and they ask me, “What is his name?” what shall I say to them?’ 14 God said to Moses, ‘I am who I am.’[a] He said further, ‘Thus you shall say to the Israelites, “I am has sent me to you.”’ 15 God also said to Moses, ‘Thus you shall say to the Israelites, “The Lord,[b] the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you”:
Occasionally you discover something, and it changes the way you see a whole lot of other things. For years on an off I’ve seen in various Presbyterian Churches this symbol of the burning bush engraved, emblazoned, crocheted, painted, appliqued or painted on stained glass windows. The Burning Bush, here it is here – beautifully done by Helen Lane - and underneath the words “nec tamen consumabtur”. The words and the image come straight out of our reading from Exodus today. The burning bush and the words underneath ‘yet it was not consumed’
The Burning Bush it seems was first used as a symbol in the reformed or Presbyterian Church in 1583 at the 12th National Synod of the French Reformed Church.
On the seal a Burning Bush, and round the circle “Flagror non Consumor". It means "I am being burned but not consumed".
1583 - If we go back just 11 years before, we come across the worst single massacre of Protestants in history. This is the killing field’s story in our reformed and Presbyterian faith. Any church that traces it’s origins to the French reformer Jean Calvin.
On August 24, 1572, the day before St. Bartholomew's Day, royal forces hunted down and executed over three thousand Protestants, in Paris. Within three days, armies had hunted down and executed perhaps over twenty thousand Huguenots, French reformed church or Presbyterian church people. This was the single most bloody and systematic extermination of non-combatants in European history until World War II.
We throw up our hands today in horror about religious extremists but in terms of catholic and protestant relationships this was a very bad time. Throughout Europe, Protestant movements slowly transformed into militant movements.
We can see our burning bush and see it as some benign symbol in the background of our protestant and reformed traditions and forget the terrible memories and turmoil and horrific conflicts in which this symbol emerged and gave meaning and symbolised some kind of hope. For the ancient Hebrew people too, it was about an encounter with God who spoke about a new future.
So what forms our identity. What about being a person of faith. What does it mean to trust God, to live as a person of faith?
First of all we find that it’s about being given something. Being given something that is like being given a new name or a new identity or a new reason for being. For the Hebrew people 4000 years ago - slavery does not define my future. For our protestant forebears 400 years ago horrible memories and experiences loss do not define my future.
Last week we hear of Jacob being given the new name Israel after the night of wrestling. Moses we are told turns aside to look at the burning bush. But it seems that when we turn aside to see a sight of this kind, we will never be the same again. We see the burning bush and we’re not meant to be the same again. And a lot of our gospel stories are about the things that happen that means that we will from now on be living life differently. This comes as a gift.
Moses, like Jacob, has an identity already. He is a shepherd called Moses just minding his sheep as he had done for so many many years. And then he encounters what scholars call a theophany. A visual encounter with God.
The whole image of a flame has been used through the history of our scriptures to symbolise God’s response. The flame that engulfed mount Saini when Moses received the ten commandments. The flame as a symbol of the holy spirit that dwelt on those who encountered God’s abiding presence in a powerful day at Pentecost. Receiving the holy spirit.
Our story today, the burning bush represented Israel’s oppression. The humble little desert bush and the fire that burned within, it gives a sense of what it is like to live in a land in which you are slaves. In which you are powerless. For generations now Moses people have lived liked this. Toiled under the Egyptian whip. The passions and hopes and longings that can burn within a people.
Our story has Moses encountering this bush with its holy fire which does not consume or destroy. What is burning within us? Nec tamen comsumbateur.
God speaks to Moses from the bush. Moses, Moses. In our ancient scriptures when you hear your name repeated twice it’s almost always the sign of some sort of divine call. God’s got your number and things will never be the same.
And classic responses to the divine call is to say “Here I am”. That is what we say when God calls our name. Her I am. And that’s what Moses says. Here I am. These words. It’s not a statement of the obvious, as if to say that God may not have been quite sure where you are. It’s more a statement that says who I am, my understanding of myself, my view of the future and my understanding of my own destiny and call has now become subject to a whole new and overwhelming reality in my life.
Whatever else may happen from this point, nothing can change that fact. Born again. Born from above. God calls Moses. Moses says here I am, and this new identity is brought into being. Moses argues that he can’t do what is asked. He argues from the point of view of His personal failures and shortcomings. (he’s had plenty) He argues from His insecurity and fears of the people and their unbelief. He argues from his view about His lack of eloquence and public speaking ability. He argues about his lack of qualifications. All these reasonable excuses and still he is sent.
Being born again, being born from above, as the Gospel of John speaks about it. That God speaks and we hear about the nature of this divine relationship. This relationship in which we can discover and know transformation. Discover this new identity. God says I have seen the misery of my people, I have heard their cry. I know their sufferings . And finally I have come to deliver them. That’s not so different from how we understand Christ in the world. The one who looks upon the loneliness and isolation of people and weeps. The one who embracing and eats and drinks with those who have been outcast. The one who shares in the suffering and rejection and the one who delivers. The one who brings forth salvation. When none of those things seemed to be possible
We stand in this history of the burning bush, people who are called. We believe that God still calls and in response to that call a new identity is brought into being which had not previously existed. And though we may look back to all those things and people that told us who we were, all those mistakes and triumphs that hurt or encouraged us. But then there is the burning bush, then here is the Messiah who says follow me. And there are things we have to relinquish, put aside today for us to do that.
And there are things we need to take up. To do that. Each of us knows what those things are. Those things that get in the way of bringing life and hope and freedom. For ourselves, for our world. But today facing all that we face we are also people given a new identity. An identity based on the certainty of the promise given by God. God says I will never abandon you. As the millions through history who have turned aside, who have seen a new future, who have been embraced by this promise know, nothing can separate us from the love of God made real in Jesus Christ our Lord. AMEN
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