Scripture Reading: Exodus 3:1-12
Moses at the Burning Bush
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.”
When your pastor first asked me to come tonight and speak to you, I’ll admit I was a bit flattered. Then I saw the promotional material for your Lenten series. “Sinners, Knaves, and Fools Who Served God.”
Really? I’m Moses—Moses the liberator, Moses the lawgiver, Moses who stood in the breach between God’s wrath and the sins of God’s people, “Holy Moses” to some of you. Sinners, knaves, and fools, indeed!
Then I saw the overall theme, “Failure Isn’t Final.” That’s why I’m here. Honestly, I’d also have to confess that I’m as much a sinner much as any of you, though I have a bit of a harder time calling myself a knave or fool. You know how that goes.
I flatter myself enough to think that you know at least most of my story. Long after the days of Joseph, the pharaohs saw the Hebrew people in Egypt as a threat, and so enslaved them. One of the pharaohs, to keep the Hebrew population in check, ordered the death of all newborn Hebrew males.
That’s where I came into the picture. My parents Amram and Jochebed hid me for about three months in all, and then knew they had to do something to save my life.
My mother set me adrift down the Nile in a reed basket lined with tar. It was no accident that Pharaoh’s daughter found me as she and her royal court were bathing. Intrigued, perhaps, at the prospect of defying her father by raising a Hebrew boy in the royal court, she accepted me as her son.
The Princess raised me as a prince of Egypt. Educated in religious, civil, and military matters, I had a general understanding of the cultures and the peoples around Egypt. I received my share of military training as well, reared as I was to become a warrior.
As I grew, the rumors always muttered behind my back became louder. Eventually, I learned the truth about my heritage. Anxious to see what had become of my people, I took an inspection tour and saw the oppressive conditions under which they worked.
On that tour, I found an Egyptian task master beating a Hebrew slave. I couldn’t let him get away with that. I looked around, made sure no one was watching, and made quick work of him, burying his body in the sand.
I left feeling pretty good about myself, honestly. I know, I was a murderer. But at that point I felt more like Moses, superhero—righting the wrongs of the evil Egyptian court, saving the life of a poor, helpless Hebrew slave.
The next day, I decided to give it a shot again. I intervened in the quarrel of two Hebrew slaves, only to have one of them ask me, “What are you going to do? Kill me like you killed the Egyptian?”
Suddenly I didn’t feel so super anymore. What a lowly slave knew, Pharaoh surely did. I left Egypt and headed for Midian. Once there, I married Zipporah, daughter of the Midianite priest Jethro. I settled into life as a shepherd and that, I thought, was that.
You know, of course, it wasn’t. It all started with that darn burning bush and, as far as my old life was concerned, everything unraveled after that.
The God of my people told me to go back to Egypt and free the Hebrew slaves. As most would, I had my excuses.
- “I’m not qualified,” I said.
- “I don’t know your name,” I said.
- “I have no proof you sent me,” I said.
- “I’m not a good public speaker,” I said.
- Finally, I just said, “Find somebody else.”
None of it worked. God met my every objection, and a lifelong adventure began.
Plagues and miracles, freedom and grumbling, Sinai, a glimpse of the Promised Land—it all flew by so quickly. What I discovered along the way was that what I thought made me ill-suited for the task was exactly what gave me the ability to carry it out.
I always considered myself a lost soul. The Egyptians saw me as a Hebrew. The Hebrews and Midianites saw me as an Egyptian. I had a foot in each of those worlds, but a home in none of them. I had no home, that is, until Sinai.
When God told me to take off my sandals it was, first, a sign of respect. It was also a very commonplace gesture that people in my time did when they came home. And it was there, at Sinai, in God’s presence, that I finally found a home.
The nomad so good at straddling borders and crossing boundaries found himself negotiating between God and Pharaoh, between God and the Hebrew people, and, later, between quarreling factions of the Hebrew people themselves.
God wasn’t a passive bystander in all of this, nor was I in charge. It was a partnership, as any relationship with God is.
Sometimes, God’s work and power become visible through us, God’s human agents.
Other times, however, God steps in directly, and it’s up to us to see those signs of God at work and help others see them, too.
The struggles of society and politics are inextricably bound with those of faith and our lives. There is no separating them, much as we would sometimes like to try.
And as for failure, I had my share, that’s for sure. I was a murderer, a coward, and one who argued against God’s call to serve. I lost my temper more than once, and often became frustrated with the grumbling of my people.
But that failure was never final. It never is, if we can lay aside our excuses and acknowledge God’s call in our lives.
Your pastor tells me that in ordinary times he would place ashes on your foreheads, reminders of our own human mortality as well as of the sacrifice of God’s son, Jesus.
Nice young man, that Jesus. Elijah and I had occasion to speak with him before his final trip to Jerusalem, encouraging him for what lay ahead. Not that he needed it, not at all.
I was proud to see much of my own life visible in his.
He fasted forty days in preparation for his temptations in the wilderness, just as I fasted forty days in the wilderness of Sinai.
He fed the 5000, just as God and I supplied food and drink for the people in the wilderness.
He called himself the Bread of Life, a reminder of the manna that sustained my people along their way.
And, just as I lifted a bronze serpent to heal and save my people, afflicted by a plague of poisonous vipers, so Jesus, lifted on the cross in his dying, heals the breach between God and all of us.
The writer of your gospel John said that the law came through me, but that grace and truth came through Jesus. That’s true enough, I suppose.
I don’t think he meant that one took the place of the other, though. Both are part of the long, continuing story of God’s involvement in our human lives.
We fail, and fail quite often. We struggle with our human frailties, much as I struggled with my fear and my temper. And yet…and yet…the God of Sinai still parts life’s waters and overcomes even the most impassible of wildernesses and the most intractable of obstacles.
In Jesus, the God of Exodus liberation freed humanity from the power of death itself, in a way that even one as schooled in God’s ways as I am still struggles to understand. Maybe that’s the point. The gift is beyond understanding, as love always is.
It’s up to us, instead, to accept that gift and to move forward in faith, remembering that whether we face Pharaoh’s army or the gathered powers of death itself, the God of freedom, liberation, and new life will always triumph.