Beyond the Wilderness, The Burning Voice of God
The story of Moses and the burning bush has me riveted just as it always has.
It’s a rich image throughout art and movies, and we think of the great quotes of the story, such as God’s commandment to remove our shoes because we are on holy ground, and God naming Godself as the Great I AM.
But when we go back and read the story carefully, there’s always some little detail that we hadn’t seen before that opens up new insight into the story and its meanings. That’s part of the richness of scripture.
The part that caught me this time around was the very first sentence: “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.”
“He led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God.”
That is one of the finest pieces of foreshadowing I have ever read.
Because it’s not just some literary device put in by a clever author.
God is helping Moses complete his mission before he’s even begun it.
Let me explain.
God wants to get Moses’ attention, so God manifests in the burning bush.
God explains a great, sweeping, complicated mission for Moses to complete, and Moses is understandably apprehensive.
Moses immediately starts bringing up objections. “Who am I to do this?” Moses asks. “Who are you to ask me?”
“I AM who I AM,” God answers. “And I will be with you. 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.”
See? We started the story with Moses leading his flock beyond the wilderness to the mountain of Horeb.
And God says that the sign of God’s faithfulness and the success of Moses’ mission will be that he leads the flock beyond the wilderness to the mountain of Horeb.
Moses can know that he will succeed because it has already happened as God ordained it.
That phrase, leading the flock beyond the wilderness, is fascinating in and of itself.
How can anything be “beyond the wilderness”?
The wilderness is already the most extreme territory that exists. How can there be anything beyond it?
What is beyond the wilderness is the holy ground, the place where God comes to communicate with us.
I know someone else who led his flock beyond the wilderness, far past the most extreme territory they could ever have imagined.
He starts to talk to them about it in our gospel today: “Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.”
The disciples were no happier about hearing from Jesus how things were going to go down than Moses was in hearing it from God.
But in order to enter into communion with the divine, they all had to be led beyond the wilderness.
I also am reminded of Jesus setting his face toward Jerusalem by another part of the story of Moses. The account of Exodus says that what caught Moses’ eye was that the bush was blazing, but it was not consumed.
That seems to me an intense but apt way of seeing the work of Jesus on the Cross at his crucifixion: he was blazing but he was not consumed.
He was entering into the fire and destruction of sin and death, and although it caused him great suffering, it could not destroy him.
Similar to the mission given to Moses but if nothing else perhaps even more frightening, Jesus asks us today to take up our own Cross and follow him. We too are expected to be part of the burning bush, on fire but not consumed.
How are we to do that?
Well, the story of Moses and the burning bush is one at heart about discernment of mission.
Are you paying attention to what God is calling you to do in life?
Are you paying attention to the ways in which God is molding you into an instrument to help bring in the kingdom?
What great thing is God calling you to do that you feel supremely unqualified to do, just like Moses?
To enter the great work of our lives, we often have to be led beyond the wilderness, beyond the most extreme territory we know and into a new place.
But to go beyond the wilderness, we first have to go through the wilderness.
When people experience a great crisis, a great failure, a great tragedy in their lives, they enter a wilderness of grief, of anger, of pain.
Some people get lost and stuck in that wilderness for years and decades at a time.
The truth is that you can’t back out of the wilderness.
As you know if you’ve been through a major wilderness time in your life, once that crisis or failure or loss happens, you can’t ever go back to the life you knew before.
You must move through the wilderness to the place beyond, a new place.
And the place beyond the wilderness is something we cannot imagine from this side of it.
It is holy ground.
Here, after all our searching and grieving and doubting and praying, the emptiness of the wilderness at last breaks and we see the most vivid manifestation of God imaginable: the bush that is burning with the voice of God.
By the time we reach the place beyond the wilderness, God knows how desperate we are for knowledge of God and God’s call to us.
Our strength is almost at an end and we need proof that God is real and that God cares.
And so we get that proof.
In the place beyond the wilderness, we learn God’s name.
When we are answering God’s call to do something that we know is good but is also big and scary, God understands our fear.
And so God reveals Godself in the most intimate way possible: telling us God’s name.
Names have power in every culture, and God is giving Godself to us in that revelation.
The knowledge of God’s name is a talisman of strength for us.
As the journey stretches out before us, rife with pitfalls and setbacks, we clutch the name of God close to us and remind ourselves with each step forward that we have been called by “I AM.”
This is another way of talking about Jesus’ call to us in our gospel today. He told us to take up our cross and follow him.
When you were baptized, you were marked with a cross in golden chrism oil on your forehead and sealed as Christ’s own forever.
That is the cross you take up each day.
That is the sign of the burning voice of God that reached out to touch you on holy ground, perhaps in a time when you had no idea what the wilderness even was.
Now it serves as a reminder of God’s name, and God’s naming of you as one chosen and called to do a great work.
Jesus says in our gospel today that “those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”
Notice he doesn’t say, “Those who lose their life for my sake will be saved,” or “those who lose their life for my sake will have a great reward.” He says, “Those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”
What does it mean to find your life?
It begins with spending time in the wilderness searching for it, sometimes willingly, sometimes unwillingly.
And according to Jesus, finding our life and the great work that will compose it means losing and giving up much of what we thought we knew and how we thought our lives would go.
The place beyond the wilderness where the bush is burning is not a comfortable place and it’s certainly not a familiar place.
But it is a place of rich intimacy with God, a place where we realize that confronting and accepting God’s most challenging work for us is what God calls holy ground.
And what God promised to Moses, God promises to us: that when our journey is complete, we will return to worship God in the place where we first learned God’s name.
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