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. 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. Then Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.” 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.” Then he said, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” 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.
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, 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.”
But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” 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.” 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?” God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’“ God also said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you’: This is my name forever, and this my title for all generations.
Have you ever caught a glimpse of God out of the corner of your eye? Something shiny that grabbed your attention in an otherwise dull landscape? Something that made you turn your head and look twice, wondering if your imagination was playing tricks on you or if you really did just see a glimmer of God in the eyes of that homeless man.
I assume you’ve all had moments of glimpsing God; perhaps it is the very thing that has brought you here this morning. That moment when the quaking aspen seemed lit up from within, clapping its hands as its leaves shook in the breeze. That moment when you actually saw the hard set of judgment on a man’s face soften into compassion. That moment when you were finally able to forgive yourself. That moment when you recognized God’s presence where you had not noticed it before. Those moments have brought us to this moment, where we hope to catch another glimpse of God out of the corner of our eye.
Moses caught a glimpse of God just there on the edge of his vision. He noticed God. We don’t know if Moses had ever seen such a thing before and ignored it, if God had been waving God’s arms and shouting out of sunsets and canyons all along, or if this was the first time. But we do know that something caught his eye, and he turned his head and looked. Moses stopped what he was doing and paid attention. He noticed God.
Moses was minding his own business out in the middle of nowhere, tending the sheep of his wife’s father, when something caught his eye. A flash, a glimmer, an echo of a deep, pre-verbal memory of sunlight glinting off water as his little bullrush basket bobbed down the river. The glint in the pleading eye of the Egyptian as Moses beat him to death. Memories collided as Moses slowly turned his head to see what had snagged the corner of his vision, dredging up the narrative that had brought him to this place.
And there it was: a bush that burned but didn’t burn. A bush that was lit up from within with an incandescent glow that seemed more alive than a flame. Curiosity got the better of him as he turned his head toward the bush. For years Moses had trained himself to keep his head down, to be satisfied with the quiet life in the sticks. But now something beckoned him out of hiding.
As you may remember, Moses had a complicated history. Born to slaves in Egypt, Moses was slated to be killed at birth for the crime of being a male Israelite. Instead, Moses floated down the river in a bulrush basket until rescued and raised to a life of privilege by the Pharaoh’s daughter. His mixed identity meant he didn’t fully belong in either world, slave or free. And he was finally exiled from the world of mixed loyalties when in a fit of anger he murdered an Egyptian for mistreating an Israelite slave. He fled for his life.
Moses’ life in hiding was not a bad one. He had married well, had a secure livelihood, and he could pass his days in contemplation as he followed his grazing flocks across the landscape. Life was good. Except for the images that rose in the night to haunt his dreams and the voice that whispered his name as he drifted off to sleep. Was it his mother’s voice? If so, which one: Egyptian or Israelite? Or was it someone else?
The dreams disturbed him by night, but by day Moses lived a life that looked and felt steady. That is until one day, he noticed something. The bush that lit up like a nuclear reactor, all but buzzing with some life force that Moses couldn’t puzzle out. And then there was a voice that he had never heard before, and yet he recognized it as the voice in his dreams.
The voice called him by name: “Moses, Moses!” It sounded like the welcome of an old friend. “Moses, take off your shoes, for you are on holy ground.” And as Moses bends to remove his sandals from his dusty feet, as he measures up this talking bush, we see fear creep across his features. Noticing God is risky business. Or have we forgotten that?
In her book, Holy the Firm, Annie Dillard writes: “The higher Christian churches…come at God with an unwarranted air of professionalism, with authority and pomp, as though they knew what they were doing, as though people in themselves were an appropriate set of creatures to have dealings with God. I often think of the set pieces of liturgy as certain words which people have successfully addressed to God without their getting killed. In the high churches they saunter through the liturgy like Mohawks along a strand of scaffolding who have long since forgotten their danger. If God were to blast such a service to bits, the congregation would be, I believe, genuinely shocked.”
Noticing God evokes fear. Moses knew that fear. The fear that comes along with standing on holy ground, being aware only of the hot, burning sand beneath your feet, praying that you will live through the experience.
Noticing God is risky business, as Moses is about to find out. For this God has noticed the suffering of the people of Israel, and has decided to send Moses to do something about it. As Moses hears the invitation to be the one who will lead the people out of slavery into freedom, he’s beginning to wish he hadn’t paid attention to that glimmer out of the corner of his eye.
We understand that fear, that ambivalence about hobnobbing with God. It’s much safer to hide away in the life we have created than to yoke ourselves to this unpredictable, demanding one. Noticing God usually involves change, it requires that we grow, that we develop emergent parts of ourselves; that we become someone that we do not fully recognize as ourselves. Noticing the God who will be who God will be is signing on for a wild ride.
I’ve been told that in the Chinese language the symbol for the word “crisis” or turning point, can mean both danger or opportunity. For Moses, the burning bush was a crisis, forcing him out of his life of complacency into a future full of unknown risks. He risked losing everything as he went back to explore his roots, face the complexity of his origins, acknowledge his own rage that led him to murder, and face possible imprisonment. Moses had to come to terms with his own personal history as he aligned himself with the history of his birth family.
“Tell me your name,” Moses says. “Who may I say is calling?” God gives that maddening, mysterious answer: “I am that I am.” In other words: “I’m the one you can’t contain, control, or direct, I’m the one who is always beyond you, ahead of you, beyond your comprehension. I am evasive mystery.”
Noticing God is risky business. God’s purpose is and always has been to deliver people from oppression, to release them from a slave mentality. God’s habit is to push us out of our comfort zone. Like Moses, we tremble at the possibilities. Opportunity or danger? God held out, holds out, the possibility of a richer, fuller, freer, more abundant life for Moses, for us, to take.
Are we willing to turn and notice God when we catch that glimpse out of the corner of our eye? Are we willing to take the leap of faith and say yes when we finally notice God? He hemmed and hawed and made excuses and tried to make deals, but Moses finally said Yes to the God he could not help but notice. Will you? Will we? Amen.