Becoming God’s People: Moses and the Burning Bush

Scripture: Exodus 3:1-12

We are spending this fall in the story of Exodus, and as you may remember we began last week, in chapter 1, with the Israelites enslaved in Egypt, making bricks and working in the fields, and with Pharaoh’s attempts at genocide by commanding that all the Hebrew baby boys be killed.  This is the scene that Moses enters onto, the baby boy who didn’t get thrown in the Nile, but placed there in a basket, only to be rescued by Pharaoh’s daughter herself, who gives him back to his mother to nurse and then adopts him as her own.

Today we’re going to fast forward twenty years or so.  Presumably Moses has grown up as part of the Egyptian royal family all this time.  He speaks Egyptian, probably as a first language.  He knows Egyptian customs and Egyptian social mores and moves easily in this culture in which he has been brought up.  He has probably learned to worship Egyptian gods.  He has had every privilege granted to an Egyptian prince.

And yet one morning Moses goes for a walk and sees the Israelites, slaving away in the fields and making bricks.

On the one hand, it’s hard to imagine that anything about the scene is really new to Moses.  The Israelites have been slaving away in those fields for Moses’ whole life.  Surely he has gone for walks before.  Surely he has been well aware of the situation, eaten food the Israelites grew and harvested, lived in houses they built.  Their slavery hasn’t been a secret.  Nor has their brutal treatment.

It’s hard to say what makes this walk different from all other walks, except that sometimes we don’t see things till we see them, right?

On the other hand maybe this wasn’t just any morning stroll.  Maybe there’s a part of Moses, now a young adult, that wants to know more about who he is and where he came from.  Maybe recently he’s found himself singing under his breath the Hebrew lullabies his mother used to sing. Maybe as an adult he has more awareness of being different from the people around him.

Maybe this is a more intentional kind of seeing.

We don’t know how much Moses actually knows or remembers about his own history, but he knows that these are his people.  And that means enough to him, now, that when he sees an Egyptian taskmaster beating an Israelite, he looks to make sure no one is watching, and he kills him.

The next day he goes out again.  The draw is strong, apparently.  This time he sees two Israelites fighting, and he calls them out on it.  He almost seems to invoke his own newfound sense of identity when he says, “Come on, why are you hitting your fellow Israelite?”  We Israelites have to stick together.  The two guys fighting are not impressed.  “Why?” they say.  “Are you going to kill us too?”

Their words are chilling for two reasons.

The first is, they know what Moses did.

But the second is – they are quite clear that Moses is not one of them.

I have often heard immigrants to this country talk about being in this kind of in-between place, with one foot here and one foot in the place they came from, but never really feeling like they fully belong in either.  Maybe that’s a feeling you know.  I think it is safe to say here that Moses does too.

On that day, he went out to see “his people,” but he comes back realizing he is a person with no people: neither fully Hebrew, nor fully Egyptian.

Even worse, when word gets back around to Pharaoh about this little unpleasantness with the Egyptian taskmaster, he tries to kill Moses.  Apparently Grandpa Pharaoh is doing a little soul-searching of his own these days – if, that is, he ever really accepted Moses as his own at all.

So Moses runs.  The text tells us he is fleeing from Pharaoh, but I don’t think it takes a great leap of imagination to think that he is fleeing from much more than that – that he is fleeing from this place where he’s just learning he doesn’t quite belong.

He ends up in the wilderness of Midian, where he sits down at a well for a drink.  There he meets a group of girls, coming to get water for their father’s sheep, and fends off some shepherds who are acting aggressive toward them.  When the girls get back home they tell their father an Egyptian helped them.  Moses gets an invitation to dinner and then to marriage to one of the daughters.

It is with Moses finally settled in Midian that we hear the news: Pharaoh has died.  But this fact hasn’t helped the Israelites.  They groan under their burden and cry out to God.  And God, we are told, remembered them.

I told you last week that Exodus, besides being the quintessential story of liberation, is also the story of the forming of a new relationship – of God and God’s people getting to know each other.  When you hear that God remembered, you might naturally ask: Had God forgotten them?  That’s in fact precisely the question I have scribbled in the margin of my Bible, and I don’t know the answer.  I don’t happen to believe that God is a God who just forgets when people are suffering.  I also know that it seems sometimes like God does.  But either way, God does not wait forever.  Liberation AND relationship are both set in motion in three short verses here.

And that brings us to today.  Moses, one day, is looking after his father-in-law Jethro’s sheep, and comes to a mountain named Horeb, in other places called Sinai.  Out of the corner of his eye he sees something.  A bush, on fire.  And yet as he looks closer he realizes the bush isn’t burning up.  He stops.  Have you ever been stopped in your tracks like that in the middle of a normal day?  Has God ever tried to get your attention like that?

As he stands watching, he hears a voice: “Moses, Moses!”

And, like I guess you do when you hear a burning-but-not-burning-up bush calling your name, he says, “It’s me.”

And he hears: “Take off your sandals, for you are standing on holy ground.  I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.”  (Your people, Moses, you are still one of them.)

Moses looks away.

But God goes on.  “I’ve seen the suffering of my people in Egypt,” God says.  “I’ve heard their cries and I’m about to make good on my promises to them.  I’m going to bring them out of Egypt and bring them to a land flowing with milk and honey.”

And then God lowers the boom: “And you’re the one who’s going to make it all happen.”

Well, what do you say when God says God has a job for you?

You say NO!  Everyone in the Bible always says no, at least at first.  Everyone always has some reason why they are the wrong person for the job.  They’re too young or too old.  They’re not holy enough.  They’d rather get eaten by a fish.  They’re a virgin, and they know how biology works, thank you very much.  If you’re in the Bible and God says God has a job for you, you say no.

By the way, all those people end up doing the job God has for them.

Moses is no exception.  “Who am I to do all that?” he asks God.

And the thing is, you can see his point.  There he is in Midian, a fugitive from justice, fallen a long way from his rather privileged upbringing.  He’s a person with no people.  He’s not even sure he’s one of the people God is telling him to liberate, let alone someone with any authority over them; the predecessor of the Pharaoh he’s supposed to confront has already tried to kill him.  Who am I, indeed.  There are so many good reasons why this will never work.

We Christians love this storyline: the unlikely person called by God in spite of everything.  But as it turns out that is only half of the story here.  Because yes, Moses has a point, yes, he’s a fugitive and an outsider, but actually, if you think about it, Moses is exactly the right person for this job.

Who better to go to Egypt on behalf of the Israelites than this person who stands perfectly poised between those two worlds?

Who better to go demand freedom for Israel in fluent Egyptian than this man who once fell asleep to his mother’s Hebrew lullabies?

Who better to approach Pharaoh than this person who was once at home in Pharaoh’s court, but who saw the injustice done to the people who were his brothers and sisters and aunts and uncles and cousins, and who got mad about it?

But when God calls Moses, Moses doesn’t see all that.  Moses only sees his failings. He only sees his limitations. He only sees the ways he doesn’t quite fit in, doesn’t quite measure up.

But God sees more than that.  God sees qualities, abilities, history that God can put to use for all that God wants to do next.

I think that sometimes when we talk about being called by God, the problem is we end up being kind of vague.  What does it mean to be called by God?  What does God call us to, and how do we know?  Not all of us get a literal burning bush or its equivalent.  Yet all of us, I think, have things that get our attention once in a while, whether we’re looking for them or not.  An article in the paper or shared online about some injustice in our world.  A friend or neighbor who’s suffered in a way we feel compelled to respond to.  A flier posted at Starbucks asking for volunteers.  Maybe even a hymn that makes us feel like God is asking us to do something even if we don’t quite know what it is yet.

You can be called to a profession, called to a cause that’s not your 9 to 5 job, or just called to respond to a certain person in a certain way at a certain time – any job that is God’s work in the world, that we sense somehow is our work to do.

And for any of these things, when the job seems too big or too risky or too hard, we may think that God must have made some mistake, that this job would be great for someone else to do, but not for me.  And it’s possible that, like Moses, we might be selling ourselves short.

Like I said, we love the narrative of the person called despite all odds, and while that makes for a good story, it’s possible to take this too far.  I wonder if over the summer some of you heard in the news the story of a white American woman, a Christian, who felt God calling her to start a center for malnourished children in Uganda.  She started out just feeding them, but soon children were showing up with complications from their malnourishment, and they needed medical attention, and she started giving it to them.  Only the thing was, this woman had no medical training whatsoever, nor did anyone on her staff.  Over 100 children died.[1]  I heard this story and I wondered if our narrative had failed her, because when we say “God doesn’t call the equipped but equips the called,” maybe we forget to add that God can equip the called with a degree from an accredited med school.  There is an arrogance in thinking that we can do anything, no matter how unqualified, just because we are called.

And yet there’s also this risk that we’ll miss the boat because we can’t see beyond our limitations to the gifts and resources God has already given us.

I’ve told you all before that I started seminary before I knew I was going to be a pastor, though I didn’t really know what other work I planned to do.  What I knew is that I wanted to help build the Kingdom of God here on earth and I wanted to invite people into it.  At the end of my first year of seminary, one of my professors made a comment wondering if the reason I didn’t want to be a pastor was because I didn’t think I could.

I was offended, at first, because of course not everyone is called to be a pastor; people are called to other equally good and valid things, and why would he make it about that?

But in the next year or so I began to wonder if he was right.  Because the truth is I had this image of what a pastor was and I could count all the ways I didn’t really fit.  I didn’t think I could stand up and have something to say to people every week.  I’m shy.  Charisma has never really been my strong suit.  Could I really be a leader?  And yet gradually I realized – you know what I like?  Words.  And maybe I can lead through them.  It’s not that I didn’t have limitations, but it’s also not that I didn’t have any gifts.

Take someone like Greta Thunberg, who has been in the news a lot lately as a leader of a global movement of young people against climate change and the inaction of so many of us in the face of it.  I don’t know that she sees this as a divine call, but I see her as doing God’s work in the world.  She’s been open about the fact that she has Asperger Syndrome, which makes her awkward and means she doesn’t always pick up on social cues.  I imagine there might have been a time when she wondered if she could really do this – as a teenager and one on the autism spectrum at that, but as it turns out, both are part of what makes her a powerful leader. Her age gives her authority to speak about the future.  Her Asperger’s means the comments and insults hurled at her roll off in a way they might not otherwise. She calls being different her “superpower.”[2] And her passion is fighting climate change. You see – she’s the perfect person for the job.

Yes, God may call us to things we never thought we could do, and things we may well need to be further equipped to do.  But God also wants to put to work our gifts, our passions, our experiences, our stories – even our brokenness.  God, most of the time, doesn’t call us despite those things.  God calls us because of those things.

Well, Moses has his arguments at the ready.  He says I’m no one.  God says I’m someone.  Moses says, Who are you? God says I am who I am.  Moses says I’m not a good speaker.  God says I will give you the words.  Moses says Please just send someone else.

As much as Moses protests, God doesn’t let him off the hook.  But God also works with him.  God recognizes his limitations as well as his gifts.  God gives him Aaron, who can speak in a way that Moses can’t.  But Aaron also can’t do this work on his own.  He isn’t Moses.

Because the truth is also that we are all a jumble of gifts and passions and limitations and imperfections and experiences who make us who we are.  And we are all called to do God’s work in this world.  But we are never called to God’s work alone.  We are always called together.

How does God want to use your particular jumble of those things to further God’s story of liberation?

Because that’s where we’re headed.  God’s people are enslaved and they must be made free.

And God knows the perfect person for the job.





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