For worship on Sunday, July 14, at The Stand (casual and contemporary, 9 a.m.) and Blandford UMC (traditional, 11 a.m.) Reading Exodus 1-5 isn’t required, but it wouldn’t hurt!
As we continue to weave our way through the Old Testament, we find ourselves engaging the life and legacy of Moses, an Israelite son who rose to prominence in a home that was not his own, before experiencing disgrace and wandering, and finally being lifted up again and used by God for greater glory. This is the story of Moses, of Israel, … of us.
When we return to the story of Israel in Exodus, the good times of Joseph’s influence have been replaced by a new Pharaoh who has no love for the Israelites and who puts them to work as slaves. When the Pharaoh orders all of the Israelite boys of a generation to death, Moses escapes execution thanks to his sister’s quick thinking. He winds up being raised in the Pharaoh’s household, and assuming all of the rights and privileges of an Egyptian ruler.
But one day, Moses has one of those moments. We’ve all had them. Sometimes we act on them, and sometimes we don’t. We see a situation where something is so wrong it needs to be righted: we hear about someone experiencing financial losses that they can’t overcome; we see a person being abused physically or emotionally and are unable to stand up for themselves; we recognize that an institution or situation is unjust in its very essence. And we have to choose whether or not we will be part of it being fixed.
So here’s Moses, we assume in his young adulthood watching a bunch of Israelites struggle against their oppressors, and he watches an Egyptian beating a Hebrew. And he kills the Egyptian and hides the body, thinking no one will know. It’s not the sort of thing that Moses has any intention of making into a practice; he’s not trying to start something. He just saw a situation and he responded immediately and without thinking. It was wrong and he made that thing right. But he didn’t actually mean to address the overall institutional problem.
Moses is suddenly a persona non grata in Egypt and he flees to Midian, fleeing his adoptive father. He sees a group of women caring for their father’s flock, and watches a band of shepherds attend to drive them off. But Moses intervenes (see, there’s that instant hero brewing) and battles off the shepherds. Moses is welcomed into the father’s house and soon marries one of his daughters, Zipporah.
In the meantime, the Pharaoh died, and the Israelites cried out to God for his deliverance. And God decided that the time was right to deliver his people from Egypt.
And Moses, oh Moses, he has no idea what is about to happen.
See, Moses is taking care of his father-in-law’s flocks in Midian. He’s settled into being a Midianite, having shed his Israelite skin, and his Egyptian skin. Now, he’s the good Midianite son-in-law, a former Israelite-turned-Egyptian overlord-turned-murderer-turned-shepherd. He’s an anonymous man forgotten and alone. He’s hiding out with the sheep where it’s safe, and his responsibilities are pretty boring or blah.
He’s just out caring for some sheep that aren’t even yours. You’ve been there, right? Taking care of someone else’s dirty work? Laboring to make it through the mundane day-to-day. Figuring this day will just be like every other day before it, and every other day after.
And then God shows up.
It says that the angel of the Lord appeared to him in the flames of fire from within a bush.
Um, what exactly does that look like? Phoenix fire like the X-Men? A small supernova? Staring into the sun?
Moses sees that the bush is on fire but it did not burn up. And he says something like, “Hmmm… that is strange. I will go get a better look at it… it doesn’t burn up but it is in fact on fire… Yes, let’s get CLOSER to that thing which is on fire.”
Are you that kind of person? Are you like the people who responded at the Boston Marathon bombing that ran TOWARD the explosions while everyone else ran away? Are you the kind of person who could be one of the nineteen firemen who pursued the wildfire while other people found somewhere else to be? Are you the kind of person that gets closer to a burning bush that is in flames but not consumed?
And to reward Moses’ curiosity, his natural boldness, God speaks to him.
God calls him by name, and says, “Do not come any closer. Take off your sandals because you the place you are standing is holy ground.”
God doesn’t say the ground Moses is standing on is holy. He says WHERE Moses is is holy ground. Where Moses and God are communing is holy ground. They place they are PRESENTLY, currently, absolutely is holy ground.
And Moses is supposed to be reverent because he and God are there together. And God wants Moses to recognize that he SHOULD be afraid- not stuck in that fear but righteously aware of what it means to be communicating with God in that place. That the God of the whole universe would know his name and would want to be in a single, sentient, human lifeform conversation with JUST HIM.
Because God has a plan that is bigger than Moses, bigger than shepherding a few sheep that weren’t his. Bigger than whether Moses was Israelite or Egyptian or Midianite.
God tells Moses, “I have seen how my people are suffering and I am going to rescue them and give them back heir own land. And I am going to choose you.”
Okay, a few minutes ago, Moses is investigating a cute little bush that’s on fire but isn’t consumed. A few minutes ago he’s trying to figure out how the laws of science and physics have been overcome and how a BUSH IS ON FIRE BUT ISN’T BURNING UP!
And then God decided he was going to use Moses, who in short unpremeditated bursts was brave but who was really no different than you or me, not knowing how to overcome evil precedents and organizational structures that held people down and corrupted them, to do something amazing and liberating and freeing and empowering and ARE-YOU-OUT-OF-YOUR-MIND-CRAZY?
Moses seems to be dealing with this the way I would, or maybe it’s the way Vampire Weekend would, given their song, “Ya Hey”: “Through the fire and through the flames, You won’t even say your name, Only ‘I am that I am,’ But who could ever live that way?” It’s a ludicrous, unbelievable situation. So Moses argues (wouldn’t you? I would! …okay, I have.)
Argument #1: Who am I? …. God: I will be with you.
Argument #2: What if they ask who you are?…. God: I am who I am. The God of your ancestors.
Argument #3: What if they don’t believe me?… God: Check out the snake that was your staff a minute ago.
Argument #4: I don’t talk good…. God: Who allowed people to speak?
Argument #5: Please send someone else! … God: I will send your brother with you! Now, get out of here.
So God sends Moses back to the place where the bounty is on his head, back to the court of his own adoptive family, back to a horrible situation where his real people pre-Stockholm Syndrome in the Pharaoh’s palace, to lead a bunch of unhappy, beaten down people into a journey that they don’t know or understand.
Now, Moses will become the guy who will deliver twelve plagues on Egypt, who will cause the Red Sea to be parted, who will receive God’s Ten Commandments from God that are still studied, followed, and obeyed to this day.
Moses, the unprepared hero. Moses the “if I think about it too long, I’m going to run.” Moses, the one with five arguments for why he couldn’t do what God was telling him to do.
Moses the man who lead a nation out of the hand of oppression, who helped fulfill the promises of the covenant that God had made to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.
Moses the hero.
But what happens if Moses doesn’t see the burning bush and go closer? Does God just choose someone else, or does he send a whale like he sent for Jonah (I guess a land animal would be required for Midian… a giant camel, maybe?) Or do the people of Israel labor longer and longer under the cruel hands of the Egyptians?
Which begs the question: what holy ground are you standing on? What does God want you to do? How can you move from selfish to selfless?
It seems like we’re always waiting for God to act and do something spectacular, and somehow God’s waiting for us to act and do something spectacular, too. Maybe like Branch Rickey or Jackie Robinson, the stars of the biopic 42.
In 1945, Branch Rickey, the manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, challenged Jackie Robinson to be the kind of man who didn’t need to fight back when challenged by racists or battered by pitchers fastballs. He challenged Robinson to be the man who would let his religious convictions speak more strongly than his fists. And in the process, the world of baseball was changed irrevocably.
What happens if Rickey doesn’t challenge the racial stereotypes in baseball? What happens if Robinson can’t keep his fists by his side, and swing the bat and field the ball instead? What if he accepts his teammates’ offers to get back at the inside pitches and the nasty cleats he receives by the rules of baseball instead of killing his opponents with kindness? What happens if Rickey and Robinson don’t realize that the place they are standing is holy ground?
These men realized they weren’t called to live boring or safe lives. They were called to live boldly and brightly, not just for themselves, but as a blessing to others. They had to experience their own holy ground movement for themselves, but it is everyone who benefited.
God calls us from the dark, from the burning bushes that are not consumed, from the conversations we have with our wiser peers and our elders, from the cries of our hearts when we see injustice perpetrated against those who can’t fight back. And God calls out to men and women who will stand on holy ground, who will be wonderfully fearful of the God of the universe who knows them by name, who will stand up and be counted for the moments and times such as these when God says, “I am sending you in my name to the least and the last and the lost that they may know that I have heard their cries and I have not forgotten.”
Friends, there are many who are oppressed by poverty, by loneliness, by strife, by hate, by being unloved. And our excuses, although they be many, do not stand up to the words of God in response: “Go. I am sending you and I will be with you. This is holy ground we are on together. I am and always will be. You go. And you. And you. And you.”
The bush still burns miraculously without being consumed. Are you bold enough to go closer to look? Will you accept the challenges that it voices back to you?
“You are on holy ground.”