This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 3/24/19, at Berkeley Friends Church. The scripture readings for this sermon were: Exodus 3:1-15, 1 Corinthians 10:1-13, Luke 13:1-9. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (The spoken sermon differs from the written text.)
It had been decades since Moses fled the land of Egypt. He made his way out to Midian, out beyond the Red Sea. Moses had been an Egyptian noble, but that was a long time ago. He was a shepherd now. A keeper of goats and cattle. Husband to Zipporah. Father to Gershom. A man of few words, accustomed to the deep silences of the desert wilderness.
Moses was an old man when he led his father-in-law’s flock near Horeb, the mountain of God. It’s here that the angel appears to Moses in the form of a bush, blazing with fire. The bush was burning, but it was not consumed.
I think we’ve all heard of the burning bush that Moses saw. It’s such a famous story that I suspect we often miss the full impact of it. But think about this for a moment. Moses has been moving through the empty expanse of the desert, alone with his flocks for days. He’s been surrounded by the majestic desolation of the Sinai – mountains, rocks, dirt. And then he sees this fire. A bush is on fire for no apparently reason. Weird enough, right? Maybe a lightening strike. But this burning bush is even stranger than it seems at first. First of all, where’s the smoke? There probably isn’t any, because the bush isn’t being consumed. It’s just covered in a plume of fire.
So Moses is curious. Wouldn’t you be? He turns aside from the path where he was leading his flock, and approaches this flaming desert plant.
And it says, “When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, ‘Moses, Moses!’”
And Moses says, “Here I am.”
Is this sounding familiar yet? Sounds a lot like the calling of a prophet, doesn’t it? Sounds like the calling of Isaiah the prophet, which we heard about recently. “Here I am, Lord. Send me!”
So God has Moses’ attention. And now that Moses is listening, God tells him not to come any closer to the burning bush. “Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.”
God introduces himself to Moses. “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.”
And it says that Moses covered his face and looked away, because he was afraid to look at God. It is said that no one can see the face of God and live.
At this point, God explains why he is appearing to Moses in this manner. God says:
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, 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. The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.
OK, that’s a lot. Let’s unpack that.
First of all, God says he has heard the cry of his people – the Israelites, the children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God knows their sufferings, and he has come down to deliver them from the Egyptians. God has heard his people’s cry. He knows their sufferings. He’s going to deliver them.
Deliverance. That’s important. We’ll come back to that.
Number two: Not only is God going to deliver the Israelites from Egypt, he has a plan to take them somewhere. The voice from the burning bush says that he will bring the children of Israel up from Egypt and into a good, broad land. The promised land. A land of milk and honey. Other peoples live there now – the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, and others – but God will make space for them. God will create a new homeland for the children of Jacob, just as he promised Abraham.
Finally, here’s how it’s going to happen. Here’s how God’s deliverance is going to play out in practical terms: God is going to send Moses to Pharaoh. God will send Moses as a messenger, to tell old Pharaoh to let his people go.
Everything was good until that last part. I’m sure Moses was nodding right along until that last part. “Amen, burning bush! Our people have been suffering. Oh, yes, Lord – take us to that promised land. Absolutely, Lord, send me to tell Pharaoh… Wait a minute. Me? Why me, Lord?”
It’s written that Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?”
God’s response? “I will be with you.” Trust me. It’s going to be alright. And when we’re all done and I’ve brought my people up out of Egypt, you’ll know I was with you, because you’re going to come and bring them to this very mountain. You’ll worship me, right here on the mountain of God.
I will be with you, God says. You can’t do this yourself. Liberating your people from bondage, that’s beyond you. But you don’t have to be scared. Because I will be with you. I will do it. I’m sending you as my messenger.
Moses is still scared, though, despite all this reassurance from the voice in the burning bush. God really wants him to go and tell Pharaoh what to do. Pharaoh. The god-king, who wields power of life and death over all the people of Egypt. And that’s not all. Ordering Pharaoh to release the captives is step two. Step one will be convincing his own people – who he ran away from decades ago – to stand with God in this struggle.
Moses says 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?”
What’s your name, God? Who are you, really? Reveal yourself to me, so that I can feel safe. Tell me your identity, so I can bound you and feel in control again.
God’s answer to Moses is: “I AM who I AM – I will be who I will be.” Don’t worry about my name, Moses. Go tell your fellow Israelites that “I AM” sent you.
I AM who I AM – I will be who I will be. “This is my name forever, and this my title for all generations.”
I feel for Moses here. I understand why he wants to run away, why he really doesn’t want to go toe-to-toe with the Egyptians. I understand why he doesn’t want to go back to his fellow Israelites in the land of Goshen, in Egypt. I wouldn’t want to go back there either. Because common sense tells Moses that he can’t beat Pharaoh in a straight up fight. And experience tells Moses that he can’t trust his fellow Israelites to back him up when push comes to shove.
This story of the burning bush comes from chapter three of Exodus. But the story of Moses starts in chapter two. And in chapter two of the book of Exodus, just a few paragraphs before our reading for this morning, Moses gets himself into a lot of trouble by sticking his neck out to help his fellow Israelites.
Moses has a really unusual background. He is a Hebrew, but he was raised in Pharaoh’s household. Adopted in infancy by Pharaoh’s daughter, he was raised in the royal household. He’s culturally Egyptian. His youth was one of privilege and luxury. He didn’t have to see what was going on out in the fields of Goshen. He didn’t have to witness his people’s slavery.
So when Moses finally does see the conditions his people are living in, it comes as a shock. It is written that, “One day, after Moses had grown up, he went out to his people and saw their forced labor.” He had spent his whole youth in Pharaoh’s court, blissfully unaware of the full brutality of the system. The violence and degradation of it. The power of the state that sought to destroy his people, to keep them only as instruments of economic benefit for the wealthy elite.
But then, one day, Moses took a field trip. And his life changed forever.
And it says that Moses “saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his kinsfolk.” So Moses looked one way, then the other, and seeing that no one was around to observe what he was about to do, Moses attacked and killed the Egyptian who was beating his fellow Israelite.
Moses saw an act of grave injustice. He saw the powerful mistreating the enslaved. He saw an Egyptian attacking a Hebrew. And Moses took it upon himself to enforce justice. He struck out with the lethal force that came so naturally to a grandson of Pharaoh.
Moses assumed that he was born to lead. Pharaoh’s system had taught Moses that his own might and violence could bring about justice. Furthermore, Moses thought his people would back him up when push came to shove.
But the very next day, when he tried to break up another fight – this time between two Hebrews – one of them said to him: “Who made you a ruler and judge over us? Do you mean to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?”
Bad news. Very, very bad news. “Surely the thing is known.” Word had gotten out about Moses’ act of revolutionary violence. His own people let word slip. And soon Pharaoh was ready to kill Moses.
That’s how Moses – a member of Pharaoh’s household – ended up as a nomadic goat herder in the first place. He fled to the land of Midian. He made friends with the locals by making a name for himself as a fighter. He provided protection to flocks, and married into the family of Jethro, the Midianite priest.
Moses was a failed freedom fighter. Moses fought the law, and the law won.
Moses saw the cost of sticking his neck out for his Israelite brethren. He knew what challenging Pharaoh could mean. He had failed to spark a revolution in his youth, and now here he was in his old age, with God talking to him out of a burning bush! Calling him to lead the exodus of Israel from slavery. Calling him to challenge Pharaoh directly. No more hiding.
“I will be with you,” God says. It’s different this time. Because this time, it’s not about Moses at all. Moses isn’t the tough guy. He’s not a guerrilla warrior, taking the fight to the Egyptian oppressors. He’s old man, a goat herder with a stutter. This time it’s different, because this time Moses is an instrument of God’s power rather than a slave to his own rage and vanity.
When Moses was a young man, he anointed himself to mete out violent justice to the Egyptian ruling class. Now in his old age, God is sending Moses to speak his word to Pharaoh.
I think if I were Moses, I’d be feeling pretty upset at this point. Maybe I even think the Hebrews deserve to be in slavery. Look at how they mistreated me! They sold me out, left me hanging when I put my life on the line for them! Why should I help them now? Why not just keep herding goats?
But God is speaking out of the burning bush. God is saying to Moses, “I will be with you. I am sending you. I will deliver my people and lead them out of Egypt. I will be who I will be. And you will speak my words to Pharaoh.”
I find it easy to relate to Moses. Because I’m a failure, too. I wanted so badly to see the world change. I wanted to be the change maker. I wanted to make it happen. But I wasn’t strong enough. I wasn’t wise enough. I wasn’t God.
I need God to be with me. I need the burning bush to redirect me. I need the pillar of fire and smoke to guide me. I need God’s presence and power in my life.
I can’t make the kingdom of God through sheer force of will. I can’t bring about God’s justice through my own violence. There’s no amount of my own bravado and cleverness that can set the world right.
“I will be who I will be.” This is the name of God forever. It is his title for all generations. He will not be contained. He will not be used for our convenience. God will not be moved, she will always be the mover.
But we can be moved. You and I can take off our sandals and wait before the burning bush. This is holy ground. The Spirit of God is present in this place, and we can hear God’s voice.
What we hear in the silence my surprise us. It may frighten us. We may be called into service that feels too big to us. God may call us into work where we feel like failures. But when God calls us, he also walks with us. We can trust him to lead us.
The apostle Paul writes, “God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.”
God is faithful. God is present. God’s strength is made perfect in our weakness. And just like Moses, God can use us to succeed where our own efforts have failed.
Let’s stand together in the presence of our burning bush, our living word, the risen Jesus. Come, Lord Jesus, and teach us. Be who you will be. Send us where you want us to go.