The Extraordinary in the Ordinary (Exodus 3:1-15; Matthew 16:24-26)
Many people say they believe in God, but don’t go to church. This fact has led to a multimillion dollar industry that aims to get those folk in the doors. Many of the resources suggest that if we’ll just get the marketing right or the sociology or the doctrine right, we’ll succeed. Some of these resources even confuse “outreach” with “in-drag.” My own conviction is that much of what isn’t right is more basic than these things. Nonetheless, it is a problem that people claim to believe in God, even in Jesus, but not in the church. But, let me put the whole matter differently. Is discipleship (including being a part of some kind of a community of faith) more about God or about us? It’s probably a bit of both, but which is primary? Let’s think about this.
The Old Testament Lesson is part of what most commentators name the “Call of Moses.” This story stretches from the last few verses of Exodus 2 about halfway through chapter 4. I would hold that the crucial part of Moses’ call to leadership, just as it is with our call to discipleship, is primarily the part about catching a vision of God. I think that it’s fair to call it “catching the vision” rather than “figuring out who God is for me,” although, in the end, I don’t deny that perception plays a shaping role in all of it.
The story goes this way. The clans that looked to Jacob or Israel as their “father” or “source” had gone to Egypt in a time of famine in the land of Canaan, only to find that God had already prepared a way for them to live in Egypt. Joseph, one of their “brothers” was already there, dumped into Egypt by his “brothers” to get rid of him. By God’s bigger plan Joseph was now in a position of power in Pharaoh’s court, so as to preserve the family. Jacob’s family found a good place to prosper in Egypt, and they did. Or did they? Today’s story begins when a new pharaoh came to Egypt’s throne. One thing we have learned about the pharaohs is that a new one often sent workers out into the empire to deface the name of the old pharaoh on monuments. The old was bad, only the new was good. What goes around comes around. I think every president now for the past five or so has said “I inherited a mess.” We still like to deface that old pharaoh’s cartouche on a monument.
This new pharaoh had no interest in Joseph or Jacob or the Hebrews. They were “not us.” He was interested, however, in transforming the Hebrews from a liability, a threat, to an asset, a commodity, capital for the work of building the empire. The new pharaoh enslaved the Hebrew people. And they cried to God.
The story then shifts to Moses. If we would read early in chapter 2 we’d find that he had killed an Egyptian who was mistreating a Hebrew, and fled to the Sinai desert to escape punishment of the old Pharaoh. In Sinai Moses found a family and comfort as a shepherd in the wilderness. There he could forget Egypt and Empire and Hebrews and all the rest of it. Or could he?
One day he saw something that he’d probably seen before there in the wilderness, where it’s hot and arid –a bush that was on fire. As he looked at this particular bush however, he realized that this sight wasn’t as ordinary as he first thought. The bush was burning all right, but, unlike any he’d ever seen before, it wasn’t consumed by the fire. We find out before Moses did that it was an angel of the LORD (or Yahweh) who was appearing as a flame in the bush. And it was God who would speak from it. But Moses didn’t know that at first. This whole extraordinary incident began in something that looked so ordinary. The ordinary actually masked the extraordinary, the visible masked the invisible. What’s really going on is not what it looks like.
Paul wrote in Romans 15:4, “What was written in former days (he meant in the Old Testament) was written for our learning.” It seems to me that in order to catch the vision of God in any day we must be alert to looking beneath the surface of the ordinary to find the extraordinary – to looking at the visible, with the goal of seeing the invisible God who waits to be with us. Of course, sunrises and sunsets, mountains, lakes, rivers, and the sea all can be the visible garments of the invisible God, as much as a burning bush can be. But it’s also possible to catch the vision of the invisible God in the faces of children or the poor and needy. Moses did not yet know that he would catch that vision of the invisible God in a burning bush once, but in the faces of ordinary Hebrews many times over the years to come as he led those people to a new place.
Notice that Moses approaches this ordinary/extraordinary sight with the right attitude: “I will turn aside and see this great sight, why the bush is burning, but not consumed.” He’s challenged by the possibility of finding the extraordinary within the ordinary and wants to investigate. The lesson is to keep our spiritual eyes open as we move through the world for the shadow of God’s own being, and our spiritual ears open to the rustle of the divine garments.
Someone has characterized our time as “bored with the amazing.” It is true that everyday we see so many things that would, not long ago, have simply been considered miraculous, that we CAN, to protect ourselves from being overwhelmed, at least fain boredom with the extraordinary. If we would catch the vision of God in our world, however, we must not only be alert to see the invisible God clothed in garments of “ordinary-ness,” we must cultivate a sense of wonder that allows us to investigate it when we sense it. I don’t know what Moses hoped to discover that day when he looked, with wonder and curiosity, into a bush that burned but wasn’t burned up. I doubt very much he thought he’d find God, but he did.
When God found that Moses was alert to see the invisible and extraordinary, clothed in the ordinary and visible, God called “Moses, Moses.” And Moses said, “I’m here!” It’s interesting that Moses responded to a voice from the ordinary, and when he did, discovered that he was on holy ground, and needed to take off his shoes (a contemporary gesture of humility). Oft’ times people look for God in all the “right” places: cathedrals, shrines, churches, monasteries, temples, mosques, and so forth. And sometimes we find God in these places, but our story tells us not to be surprised when God is revealed in the fire of a bush in the desert, where we’d least expect to find anything remotely to do with deity or even interesting.
Wherever and whenever the God who speaks from the flame of ordinary things utters a word, it is a word that addresses us by name. And we are constrained to respond, if only by our silence. We discover that we are on holy ground, and need to bow before God and worship. The text even says that Moses was afraid when God said, “I am the God worshiped by your ancestors, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” “I’m the extraordinary, powerful, invisible God who has been worshiped by your people, Moses, since the oldest stories you know.”
What God says to Moses will change his life. Moses the shepherd is going to become Moses the shepherd in a wholly different way. God’s word is not about Moses, however, but about others who are in the misery and injustice of slavery. The God we know from the Bible does show, again and again, this concern, not primarily with the religiousness of our confession, but with the justice of our action. If we truly hear and know this extraordinary God who speaks in the ordinary things of the world, we will hear these words: “I have seen the misery of my people…I have heard their cry…I know their sufferings.”
Then, as we say, the other shoe drops, and Moses does hear a word about himself. God has said, “I have seen them…I have heard them…I know them,” but God says, “and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians.” But how has God “come down,” and how will God deliver? Moses, I want you to see and hear them and know them too. “I will send you to Pharaoh…you will bring the Israelites out of Egypt.” Wow! Can you imagine it? Moses’ worst nightmare is that he would be sent back into the cauldron he had escaped. Sometimes God calls us to do things for which we’re equipped, but, tolerably often, God pushes us out of where we’re comfortable into places that make us sweat a little. And this is how God comes to people, through other people, the people of God.
Moses replies with reasons for not going (all the way down into chapter 4). He begins: “Who am I to go to Pharaoh”? Of course, Moses is right. Who is he? He was raised in Egypt, he knew the palace, he knew the plight of the Hebrews. But who is he? Nobody really. But God replies: “I will be with you.” This is a crucial statement from the Almighty: “I will be with you.” “And I will bring you all back here to worship me as you do now.”
I’ve sometimes heard sermons that get a little impatient with Moses for questioning his call and negotiating with God. But God’s call to discipleship is a serious matter and Moses’ caution is not to be despised. In our Gospel Lesson this morning, Jesus himself says that the call to discipleship means taking the way of the cross. It means the way of denial of self, which does not mean self-denial, in the sense of self-effacement, but in the sense of understanding ourselves and our own goals as subordinate to the values of Jesus and the Gospel, as children of God. That’s serious business. Our Lord himself told the story of one who started to build a tower and did not count the cost first and couldn’t finish it. He was saying, “Count the cost of discipleship. It’s expensive!” Be careful, Moses! Moses said:
If I come to the Israelites and say to them. “The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,” and they ask me, “What is this God’s name”? What shall I say to them?
Then God responds by saying, “I am who I am”…God said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I Am’ has sent me to you.” What’s that about? The four consonants of the Hebrew name Yahweh (YHWH) sound like those in the verb “to be,” translated “I Am.” This text connects the name of God with the verb for being or becoming, but doesn’t say why. The lack of clear explanation has led to a centuries’ long discussion
Let me make two points. The first is to connect the personal God of the Bible and the verb that indicates constant being, becoming, unfolding, revealing. Like the images of a kaleidoscope God is ever appearing in new configurations as the God of the ancestors. The second point connects the name of Yahweh with PRESENCE, “I am the God who is present.” Wherever you are today, I am present. The God of the Bible is known in constant being, becoming, and in presence. Although Moses doesn’t give in easily, he finally agrees to go.
So, “Is our call to discipleship primarily about ourselves or God?” It’s about both, but primarily about God, and about catching the vision of the one who is, and who is present wherever the call takes us. To come back to our Gospel Lesson, Jesus is, for Christians, simply the most visible beckoning of the invisible God who beckoned from the burning bush. He calls us, to give our all to a way of life that is centred in that God who has seen and heard the cries of people, and wants to be with people through us. Every time we come to the Lord’s Table, it is a renewal of that response that takes discipleship seriously.
In the name of the one who is: Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer, AMEN.