We may have only missed a few verses since the reading we looked at last week, but quite a lot has happened! Moses has grown up and moved into the royal palace, but we might assume he has fond memories of his childhood in the Israelite community as he goes out to visit them on more than one occasion (2:11). Maybe this time he saw for the first time the violent treatment of one of the Hebrew slaves, or maybe this was the first time he really noticed what was happening.
We may have only missed a few verses since the reading we looked at last week, but quite a lot has happened! Moses has grown up and moved into the royal palace, but we might assume he has fond memories of his childhood in the Israelite community as he goes out to visit them on more than one occasion Exodus 2:11. Maybe this time he saw for the first time the violent treatment of one of the Hebrew slaves, or maybe this was the first time he really noticed what was happening. Maybe when he was younger he took for granted that he was living with a foot in both camps, and now his dual identity is causing him some issues. Where does he belong? As an Egyptian prince he should either support or at least turn a blind eye to the beating of the slave. But as part of that Israelite community (and he must surely have known the story of his birth, adoption and upbringing) he can’t do this. He is conflicted and doesn’t know what to do, so he takes the only course of action that seems to make sense. If he simply challenges the Egyptian he is likely to cause trouble for himself and risk exposure as an Israelite underneath all his fancy royal Egyptian trimmings. If he pretends he hasn’t seen what is happening to his natural people he won’t be able to live with himself. So instead he checks that there’s nobody around to see what he’s about to do, he kills the Egyptian and buries him in the hope that no-one will find out what he’s done. The next day he realises that he was observed. He becomes frightened because he realises that he’s distrusted by the Israelites. Far from getting the hero’s welcome he might have expected, he runs away in a panic. He realises that now, instead of having a foot in 2 camps, he doesn’t belong in either. He’s an outsider. So he makes a home in Midian, settles down, gets married, has a child, looks after his father-in-law’s flock. Quite a lot of time has passed. And we don’t know what Moses has said to his wife Zipporah and his new family about his past. Does she know that he’s run from 2 identities and is trying to fit in to a third? Does she know that he killed a man, apparently in cold blood?
As the years passed maybe Moses began to relax a bit. Maybe he began to feel that his new life was OK and that his old life wasn’t going to jump up and catch him out after all. He’s out with the flock, beyond the wilderness, and maybe this phrase is significant. Maybe it’s a metaphor - that he felt he’d been in a wilderness place, a place where he couldn’t make his home, for a long time, but now he’s come through it. Life is good. He has a place and a family and a purpose, even if looking after animals for his in-laws might be a far cry from what he imagined a prince of Egypt could be doing. He’d finally got away from his past, it didn’t have the hold on him it once did, he was able to get on with his life, minding his own business - then Boom! In the middle of nowhere, on the mountain of the LORD, suddenly God speaks to him and takes him right back into his past.
First we see the miracle - the bush is burning but is not burned up. This is one of the key images in the Bible for the presence of God. It symbolises an irresistible being whose energies cannot be contained but who is not personally subject to decay or deterioration. This is the God who’s selfdescription, “I AM WHO I AM” Exodus 3:14 implies a God who is so completely unlike all other persons and things as to make comparisons meaningless. This is the God who creates, and yet also stands outside the realm of creation and decay. Moses moves in to take a closer look at this incredible phenomenon. The command to take off his sandals reminds him (and us) that the real miracle is not the bush that is not burned up, but the God who is unlike any other. And Moses gets another surprise - this unknown and unique God of the burning bush just happens to be none other than the God who is known by Moses’ ancestors - the one who showed compassion to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. In Exodus 3:6 we read that “Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.” We might wonder what’s going through Moses’ mind - what is he feeling at this point? If he’s got over the shock of this bizarre sight, is he now feeling horror and dread at the thought that his past has caught up with him. Does he think that by hiding his face he’s actually hiding so much more?
After the miracle comes God’s declaration. This amazing God of the burned-but-not-burned-up bush cares about the people’s suffering. Moses would perhaps resonate with this aspect of God’s nature. Moses knew what it was like to try and protect and defend others, and Moses knew that it was costly and hurtful. Moses was probably really excited at the first part of God’s message - God says that God has heard the cries of the people and knows what they’re going through. God declares that God will act to save them and bring them out of Egypt into a land where they can settle down and be fruitful Exodus 3:7-9. You can imagine Moses inwardly cheering at this news. God cares about the Israelites, God cares about justice, God cares about protecting those who can’t protect themselves! But then God says, “So, I’m sending you to Pharaoh to get the Israelites out of slavery and out of Egypt.” I imagine then that Moses’ heart sank and his stomach twisted at this news! There were probably many questions in Moses’ mind, although he asks only one of them. You can imagine that he was probably thinking, “If you’re a consuming-God-who-is-not-consumed, why not deal with this directly yourself?” The question he does ask is, “Who am I to be able to do this?” Moses seems genuinely surprised, but perhaps he already knows that he’s ideally placed - the one who had a foot in both camps can legitimately mediate between Pharaoh and the Israelites. God’s response to Moses’ reservations is to say that Moses will not be alone. In the presence of this amazing God even Pharaoh is not a force to be feared. And the sign is the burning bush. A better way of translating Exodus 3:12 is perhaps to say, “God said, ‘I will be with you, and this experience of the burning bush will be the sign for you that it is I who have sent you. Thus when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain, in commemoration of the encounter with God here in the burning bush.’” The burning bush is the immediate sign, not the future worship on the mountain at some undisclosed time.
Only Moses is witness to this, and surely it will be firmly in his heart and mind in subsequent days, and especially as he stands face to face with Pharaoh. He’s been charged with a terrible commission - one that he faces with trepidation and reluctance, yet he knows he cannot ignore it. God of the burning-but-not-burned-up bush, the faithful God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, I AM WHO I AM has called Moses to be the one who will lead the people out of slavery. When faced with this vocation, not even Moses can say no. Moses puts aside his his instincts for comfort and safety and even perhaps anonymity, in the presence of the living God, a God whose call to service is one that he could not bring himself to ignore.
There’s one further thought about the burning-but-not-burned-up bush that I want to share. Perhaps it brings to mind the story in Acts 2 of events the disciples experienced on the day of Pentecost: “Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them and rested on each of them.” The disciples burned with the Holy Spirit, yet they were not burned, and they did not burn up, or burn out. And I think this is God’s calling for us - be people who burn with passion for God, for justice, for the liberation of all who are enslaved. Be people who burn with the fire of the Holy Spirit who makes us restless and uncomfortable and dissatisfied and engaged. But don’t burn out. God does not call anyone to burn out. We don’t read later on in Acts that Peter or Paul or any of the other followers broke down with stress and mental exhaustion. We are not called to burn out for God. We are called, like Moses, to stop and take notice and to move closer to take a better look at God at work around us. We are called, like Moses, to wonder at who God is, to listen to God’s terrifying call, and to follow. We are called, like Moses, to trust that the amazing God who burns-but-doesnot-burn-up, is with us and will give us all that we need to accomplish what God would have us do.
For further reflection…