A Thorny Encounter: February 28 2016

February 28, 2016

Year C, Lent 3             Exodus 3:1-15                                                                        

            I have often heard people say something to the effect of, “If only God would speak to me from a burning bush, then things would be so much clearer.”  I too have considered that at times.  In this day and age, God seems to communicate in much more subtle ways than he did in the Old Testament.   Yet when I find myself yearning for the clarity of a burning bush, I remind myself of what that burning bush did for Moses.  It changed his life forever.  It really complicated his life, and the life of his family.  It turned a shepherd into a leader of an oppressed people, a man who would challenge the Pharaoh of Egypt.  I am sure there were times when Moses wished God would have been a little more subtle as that would have made it easier to ignore him.

            But Moses did not ignore the bush.  It was curiously that drew him to the bush.  He was beyond the wilderness tending a flock.  He was alone.  I imagine he was a little bored, probably lonely.   From a distance he saw what appeared to be a bush that was on fire.  The fact that there was a bush on fire was not what interested him.  What interested him was that the bush was not consumed by the fire.  He was intrigued and decided that he needed to investigate this a little further.  It was only when he drew near to the miraculous sight that God called to him from the bush.  God called his name…he said it twice.  He then identified himself as the God of his father, the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob.  There could be no doubt of who this was or who he was calling. 

            If only God spoke to us all this way! God could create something shiny that would grab our attention.  God would then call our name and then in no uncertain terms identify himself.  That is the way that I want God to communicate with me.  It seems so straightforward.  It was this clarity that led Moses to hide his face.  It was common knowledge at this time that if you looked at God directly it would be the last thing you would do.  Seeing the face of God would end in your death.  Moses did the safe and smart thing.  He had responded to God by saying, “Here I am”, he followed God’s directions by removing his shoes and now he was shielding his face out of deference to the power of God.  So far, things are going about as well as can be expected when a burning bush is involved. 

 God has never been one for small talk and immediately got to the point. He knew what was going on in Egypt.  He knew that the Hebrew people were suffering at the hands of the Egyptians. He went as far as to say, “I know their sufferings…”  That meant that not only was he aware of what was going on, but he had experienced the suffering with the people.  He felt the pain and the desperation.  I imagine that this understanding was comforting to Moses.  Finally someone was on their side, someone with power and authority.  If this God could create a bush that would burn but never turn to ash, surely God could free his people.

But then God explained how this was all going to happen.  He was going to send Moses to the Pharaoh and he would lead the Israelites out of Egypt.  Suddenly Moses was wishing he had gone about his business tending his flock and not investigated this dangerous bush.  There is a little detail in this story that is usually left out.  The Hebrew word that is translated to bush is actually translated to thorn bush.  This wasn’t just any old bush.  This was a thorn bush and those bushes can be dangerous.  It was a dangerous bush and an even more dangerous message.  Moses argued with God for a little bit and was eventually worn down.  God did not promise Moses that it would be easy or that it would be safe and sacrifice free. He only promised that he would be with him through it all. 

Whenever I am asked to pray, I almost always ask for God’s presence and that God’s presence be known.  That’s because I believe that God’s presence is a comfort and reassurance in difficult times as well as good times. Yet as I consider this rather thorny text, I wonder if that is the right prayer when seeking solace and comfort. If God wanted to comfort Moses, he could have sent a rainbow like he did for Noah.  But that’s not what God did.  God lit a thorn bush on fire, a fire that could not be quenched.

God should be a comfort to us all. But God should also challenge us, challenge us to change.  When you have a personal encounter with God, you will always be changed.  You might even leave with a limp or a scar.  It’s like when you start exercising after not working out for a while, it hurts.  But you know that that the pain will lead to a positive change.  You know that you will endure.  It is the same with our encounters with God.  When we open ourselves to God, we will be changed and it won’t be an easy change.  I am reminded of a quote that I have seen and probably mentioned before.  “God loves you just the way you are, but God loves you too much to let you stay that way.” 

That to me is what the season of Lent is about.  It’s not about beating ourselves up for our deficiencies or our sins.  It is about opening ourselves up to new encounters with God, even if those encounters shake us up a little…even if God tells us the exact opposite of what we want to hear. 

Now you might be thinking, ok, I am ready for this new thorny encounter.  Where’s my burning bush? 

While the burning bush will probably not be your sign, there are some things we can learn from Moses’ experience. The only reason that he saw the bush was because he was looking at the world around him.  If we are perpetually gazing at a screen…we will probably not see the bush.  Our world is suffering from sensory overload.  It is suffocating.  Therefore we need to be deliberate about creating that space to encounter God.  It might just mean turning off the music or podcast.  It might even mean silencing the phone.  I realize these things sounds drastic, but we have to give God something to work with.  God did not call out to Moses until Moses turned from his task and went to investigate the bush.  My prayer for all of us is that God will be present with us and that we will know that presence.  I pray that presence will not only bring us the peace of God– but will also disturb our complacency and light a fire that cannot be quenched.