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Proper 17A Alt 1st Reading

Exodus 3:1-15

Phil Hamner

Fire has always been mesmerizing to me. When I was a child, we would regular gather up limbs from storm damage and create a burn pile. My father would always start the fire, and we would just sit and talk and stare at it until the only thing left were barely glowing embers. Fire has the capacity to draw us in, and it consumes our attention, our awareness of the fragility of life. It is a terribly beautiful experience.

Since fire has been so interesting to me, I have insisted in living in homes with fireplaces. As a high school and college student, I would spend hours upon hours late into the night stoking the embers and adding wood, so that I could just stare and think. One night over a Christmas break from college, when I decided I would sleep in front of the fire, because by then this basement fireplace had become such a friend that I really had no fear over it. Even so, I was keenly aware of the power of fire.

There was that one night I slept in front of the fireplace on the couch. In order not to have to get up so regularly to add wood, I filled the fireplace with as much wood as it would hold. About an hour later I woke up covered in sweat, and the largest fireball I had ever seen. Panic set in. I was going to burn my house down! I ran for a bucket of water, actually two or three buckets until fire was under control. I sat up all night for fear that something worse would happen. The only scripture that came to mind was “our God is a consuming fire.” It was quite out of context, but it felt really true to me.

You can imagine, then, how fascinated I am by this story in Exodus 3. We have a full-fledged, fiery miracle on our hands. Moses encounters a bush that is set ablaze, except for one very incredible quality. Tending the flock of his father-in-law he wanders into unknown territory, where the angel of the Lord drew him to a bush burning, yet not consumed. This fire is more fascinating than any I have ever encountered. Everything is ablaze but none of it is disintegrating. How can this be?

Moses is drawn ever closer to this miraculous image, only to discover what all of us ever since have discovered about it: The burning-but-unconsumed bush is a symbol of the very presence of God. It shows us the irresistible One, whose power cannot be contained, controlled or cajoled into action. The burning-but-unconsumed bush is an image of the living God. This God who self identifies as “I AM WHO I AM” is a being so unlike existing persons and things that we should give up immediately trying to make comparisons. Moses has come face-to-face with an all-consuming fire that does not consume.

So drawing ever closer, Moses is given the command to remove his sandals. He is standing on holy ground. In churches today we sing of this holy ground, but I wonder if we are perhaps missing the point. Is it really the ground that must be hallowed? Perhaps the hallowing is a reminder of our meeting with God in that place. Better still, removing sandals is a clear and specific recognition that this God is like no other. As if this weren’t enough, the reader is astounded by the even more incredible discovery: this is the terrifying God of the bush, “the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” (Exodus 3:6, NRSV). Remarkably, Moses has met his God and the God of his ancestors in the middle of the desert tending sheep. Is that not the most remarkable thing about the one true living God? The Lord shows up when we least expect, and the presence of the Lord never fails to change everything about our lives.

A second important point to note is the declaration God makes from the burning bush. This God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is not ignorant of the cries of God’s people: “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, 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 flowing with milk and honey” (Exodus 3:7-8 NRSV). Moses understood what it meant to be a protector and a defender. The voice from the bush was speaking his language. This was a word of hope—400 years of hope channeled into one encounter between a shepherd and a burning bush that refuses to be consumed.

We are reminded in times like this that God’s ways are not our ways. God’s timing is not our timing. We will not fully understand the disjunction of time, space, and action, but what Exodus 3 does tell us is that God has an everlasting, compassionate memory. The Lord will not forget our deepest needs, even when it seems like everyone else has. We can be assured at each and every turn the blessed presence of the Life-Giving God of all creation is active in the work of deliverance.

There is a final note in this text, and I think we can understand why it is so terrifying to Moses. Listen to the message: “So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.” What?! Does this mean the burning-but-notconsumed bush, the conversation of deliverance, the compassionate promises of the Holy God are all part of some plan where Moses is the central player on God’s behalf?

Yes. Most definitely, yes. This is the point of the story. If you are the Consuming God who is not consumed, why not take care of it yourself? Moses uses every excuse he can muster up to deflect the responsibility. We have been there, too. “No, Lord, surely there are more qualified, more Spirit-filled people than me… Why me?”

In the end God reminds us in these theophanic encounters that we are not alone. We have never been alone. The Lord says, “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” (Exodus 3:12, NRSV).

No one is witness to any of this. It is a sign to Moses who now has the mission of God burning in his bones. It will be in his heart in the days to come when he must confront Pharaoh. This story reminds us of the event as old as the heavens, cached in all eternity. A Son, much beloved of the Father, freely and willingly emptied himself of everything in order to take on the dregs of humanity, and heal it all. “Were the whole realm of nature mine that were an offering far too small. Love so amazing, so divine. Demands my soul, my life, my all.”

About the Contributor

Pastor, Overland Park Church of the Nazarene

Phil Hamner



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