The Reverend George C. Wong
The Church of the Saviour
September 3, 2017
“A Mid(ian)- life crisis”
Moses had likely witnessed the overseer beat, torture and kill slaves before. This man was a lifer in the service of the Pharaoh and had friends with clout, so good sense screamed out to Moses to turn a blind eye. But Moses pitied the workers nonetheless. One day, Moses spoke with the overseer in order to try and understand the reason for his brutality. The man said: “it is simple, Moses, these people don’t understand anything but the whip and the rod. If a few disappear into the sands, so be it to keep the order. You have lived in the palace, so you cannot possibly understand how to deal with these people” Moses turned a blind eye to the man’s brutality as long as he could, but eventually, something inside of him could no longer bear it. When he saw that no Egyptians were looking, he beat the man so fiercely that the overseer disappeared into sands. Sand for sand. Poetic justice. However noble his intentions, Moses feared someone would start chattering about what he did.
Indeed, some of the Hebrew slaves started gossiping both in admiration of and out of fear of Moses. With ears everywhere, Pharaoh heard what Moses did and wanted him brought in. Like his ancestors Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Jacob, who wandered the desert long before, Moses fled into the wilderness seeking safe haven. Raised in the lap of luxury where every one of his needs was attended to by a veritable flock of servants, he now found himself tending his father-in-law’s flocks in some forsaken place.
In the quiet of night under stars in the middle of nowhere in remote Midian, Moses must have reflected on how his life had amounted to nothing. He had:
no place to call his own,
no people to call his own,
no god to call his own.
He was a man in crisis burdened by some of the deepest doubts that might weigh on a person.
Then out of nowhere, in a way that only the God of Israel could have imagined, a burning bush would illuminate the sky and shed light on his identity and purpose.
Moses could not help but be drawn to the mysterious bush that burned brightly without being consumed. Moses was entranced by the visual spectacle, but he was also drawn in by the voice which uttered his name. Hearing his name must have startled him because, he sought out the expanse of the desert to be unknown. Anonymity was a good thing when you found yourself on the Pharaoh’s most wanted list. But at the same time, he must have found it deeply comforting to hear his name being uttered, far more than we know in the West, a name carried immense significance to people of the ancient Near-East. If the divine force behind this bush knew his name, maybe it also knew that Moses, the one who was drawn off the water and saved, had a soft spot for those in trouble. Maybe it knew that is why Moses came to the rescue of the Hebrew slave who was being beaten by the Egyptian overseer. In the middle of nowhere where he is nobody, Moses is known.
Moved by hearing his name and the prospect that he is known by the divine, Moses responds: “here I am.”
God then commanded Moses to “remove his shoes.” Many have interpreted God’s command principally as a sign that God demanded respect for the holiness of that ground. But there was also a more personal dimension to God’s invitation. In Near Eastern culture, shoes and hospitality are connected. A host invites close family and friends to take off their shoes upon entering their home. One would only be invited to take off their shoes in a place where they were welcomed, felt safe enough to be without the protection of shoes—in short, the vulnerability, intimacy and welcome were tied closely to belonging in a place.
By asking Moses to remove his shoes, God had invited Moses into the household of God. From then on, Moses would know he was no stranger on God’s holy ground.
With an increased sense of belonging, God felt that Moses was sufficiently grounded to take on a challenge relating to the people of Israel. God had heard the cries of his people, who were being battered and broken by Pharaoh. God asked Moses to retrace his steps back to Egypt to try to convince Pharaoh to let the Israelites go.
Moses’s response to God showed his angst and uncertainty about his identity: “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” Moses was saying he is a nobody in the eyes of both the Egyptians or the Israelites.
God does dispute the reservations of Moses. Instead, God answers him by saying: “I will be with you.”
Like a loving parent who knows not to deny the fears of a child, but who instead reassures the child that they will not be abandoned ever, God reassures Moses that he will not be abandoned. Moses remains unconvinced that he is the right man for the job. But God does not let Moses stay stuck in his fear, and further instructs him to tell both the Egyptians and the Israelites that I am having sent him.
“The Lord God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob has sent you.” This served to remind Moses that he came from a long line of people who had dealt with Egypt in times good and bad. Moses will take up that mantle- after being changed by the encounter with the God in the burning bush.
After his encounter with the burning bush, Moses would no longer feel like he had nothing and he would no longer lack a purpose.
His place was with God and his purpose was to carry out God’s saving work with the people of Israel.
What might we expect out of our own encounters with God?
God finds us in the places we inhabit even if those are places where we are hiding from something, somebody, even our innermost selves. Those places become the ground for seeing, hearing and knowing that God is real and dwells with us. And we are called to extend this same holiness, not just in the spaces we consciously and confidently mark as holy. Holy places are hospital rooms, board rooms and living rooms and rooms with flood victims.
God calls us to act in the world; in the words of Barbara Brown Taylor, to make the whole world the House of God. God also awakens the gifts and the desires that reside deep within each of us to carry out the work of realizing our freedom as God’s own.
Like Moses, we might be tempted to doubt that we are the right person for that kind of mission.
We might say that there are better choices for the job.
We might say that we do not have the right gifts or skills.
We might say we do not have the right look, or pedigree or cultural background.
Lord, can’t you find someone else besides me?
Despite our doubts and fears, when God shines a light illuminating our own deepest self meets the deepest needs of the world*, we are known in the deepest way, grounded by God’s holiness and sent out by God.
I pray that, like Moses, we say to the Great I am: “Here I am.”
*a paraphrase borrowing from the wisdom of Frederick Buechner