Skip to content

What Do You Say When a Bush Calls Your Name?

September 1, 2011

“What Do You Say When a Bush Calls Your Name?” Exodus 3:1-15 © 8/28/11 Ordinary 22A by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

One of my strongest memories of my late sister Carol Ann as a teenager is of an experiment she did for a class in school. Her hypothesis was that different kinds of music would have differing effects on the growth of house plants, kind of a variation on the “effect of gamma rays on man-in-the-moon marigolds” science project. Apparently, her hunch was right. Her ferns liked Mozart, but not the Beatles.

Whatever their taste in music, though, not one of her plants ever called her up and made a request for a favorite tune. Plants simply don’t talk, even if we talk to them. At least, they don’t speak in any language we can comprehend.

Except…there was this one time in the wilderness of Horeb when a certain bush spoke with the very voice of God. But the talking was later. That wasn’t what caught Moses’ attention. As much a sucker for a curiosity as any of us, he took a break from herding sheep to check out a true oddity. A bush: flaming, red-hot, but never burned up. What a sight to behold!

The special effects turned out to be gimmick to get the shepherd to come within earshot. Moses’ astonishment at a bush that burned without being destroyed was quickly replaced by an even greater surprise when the bush started talking. To him.

“Here I am” was all he managed to stammer out in response to the voice. Maybe at that moment he was tempted to look around to see if anyone were watching, if there were a video camera hidden in the rocks. Was this some practical joke by his wife’s brothers? Can’t you imagine his thinking something like this: “I am losing my mind! I’ve been in this sun too long. Out in the middle of nowhere, talking to a bush. Great, Moses, just great. What will it be next? Maybe the rocks nearby will grow hands and start playing a tune.”

How did he ever get into this fix, anyway? “Here I am,” he had said. Yeah, here he was all right, far from his home in Egypt, herding sheep for his father-in-law. But what else could he do? After he killed that Egyptian in a failed attempt to fight the oppression of the Hebrews, Moses had fled the country. Being in exile was bad enough, but what hurt more was the rejection by his own people of his attempt at leadership.

True, he had found a welcome here among the Midianites. He was married to Zipporah, the daughter of Jethro, the priest of these people. They had a son, Gershom, whose name sounded like Hebrew for “sojourner.”

Maybe he should have been content, but he was restless, unhappy. Spending his days with sheep could not be all he was meant to do. He had received the finest training available in government, diplomacy, languages, customs. And the passion for justice burned within him. One day he would return and use his education and gifts to free his people, the mission that he knew was his destiny.

Snapping out of his reverie, Moses moved closer to the bush that burned yet was not consumed, the thorn tree that talked. Perhaps he could find out what caused it to have such strange properties. He was a trained scientist, after all.

The inquisitive shepherd was brought up short by a warning from the midst of the flame. He must come no closer; there was mortal danger here. His sandals had to come off, as a gesture of respect. For this was none other than the God of Moses’ ancestors speaking, the God whose presence rendered an ordinary thorn bush an oracle and a piece of rocky ground holy.

Riveted to the spot, afraid even to move a muscle, Moses listened as the scenario of his dreams unfolded. God had seen and heard the suffering of Moses’ people. No, they were not Moses’ people; they were God’s people. And God had come down to deliver them. He would bring them out of their slavery and back to a land with plenty of everything—food, room, hope. And Moses would be the one to do it!

Yet, as is so often the case, wanting turned out to be better than having. With the opportunity before him, the chance he had been waiting for, Moses balked. A million objections raced through his brain. Not the least of which was that if he went back to Egypt, it wouldn’t be long before he was caught and killed, and hopes of deliverance dashed.

The shepherd made known his doubts, one by one, and every time God would simply offer assurance. All Moses needed to remember was that God was with him. God would be there. No explanation of exactly how. But questions of method were irrelevant. Moses had to trust it was so.

This God was worthy of such confidence, for it was his very nature, his essence, to be there. For that was his name: “The God Who Is There.” In Hebrew, Yahweh.

The story continues, of course. There is much, much more to come. And there is a great deal in this tale that piques our interest, grabs our attention. But I invite you to focus with me this morning on what is here about our own encounters with God, our own summons to service and discipleship.

Note first of all that the encounter came unsought and unexpected, in the midst of Moses’ daily work. His wanderings with the sheep, not an intentional spiritual quest, took him to Horeb. Moses did not even know he was on a holy mountain. For him, the place was just another stop, unremarkable. He would have passed it by had it not been for the unusual sight of a burning-yet-not-consumed bush.

It is no stretch to suggest that in the midst of things God comes to us as well. Worship on the Lord’s Day is vitally important, and not to be discounted or neglected. But our lives are lived primarily beyond these walls. Somebody once calculated that in a life of 70 years, we would spend twenty-four years sleeping; fourteen years working; eight years in amusement; six years at the dinner table; five in transportation; four in conversation; three in education; and another three, reading. This same statistician even figured out that if we went to church every Sunday and prayed five minutes twice a day, that would be only five months with God out of seventy years. So, I dare say if God cannot and does not come to us in other contexts, he is limited and unimaginative indeed. And if we have never encountered him as we do our work or engage in conversation with our family or pursue a favorite hobby, perhaps we need to be a bit more alert to possibilities and pay a little closer attention. God can come at what we know as “marker times,” like birth or death, marriage or divorce, starting a new job or retiring from the one you’ve had for years, the first day of school or the day of graduation from college. He can speak in our dreams during those twenty-four years of sleep or in the car during those five years of transportation or doing the dishes in the aftermath of those six years at the table. Any and all time is God’s time. Anywhere, a burning bush can sprout.

So, then, God calls our name in the midst of the everyday. But notice also that God engages us as real human beings. Moses first regards God with great fear. But soon he is questioning, debating, citing all sorts of reasons why God’s plan won’t work. Yahweh does not insist that Moses shut up and listen, that he stand before the Holy One in unquestioning obedience and subservience. Instead, what we have in the text is a genuine conversation between partners in an enterprise. And wonder of wonders, it is in such dialogue that there comes one of the greatest revelations of all time. I mean the name of God. I dare say if Moses had not pressed for answers, he might never have received that awesome and comforting word.

How different from the approach of those in our day who want to insist on a faith that is like a fortress that shuts all its gates against the outside world and anything that might present a different viewpoint. “Defend the proper doctrine! Ensure that procedure is followed to the letter!” they cry. How different, too, from the way of those who want a church that resembles nothing so much as a totalitarian state and a God who is its dictator, proclaiming an unchanging decree, with the slightest disobedience punished with the severest sanctions.

Much better, I believe, to be like Moses and keep asking those questions, raising those objections, probing and wondering and yes, at times screaming at God and pounding on the door of heaven for solutions. An elder in a former congregation of mine would always say in church school: “I have a question!” That’s the spirit of this text.

So, not only does God come to us in the midst of the everyday, he engages us in there as real and valuable human beings, who have something vital and important to contribute to the partnership. Classic Reformed theology calls that arrangement a “covenant.” But there is one final word. As valued and trusted as we are, we are not left to carry out the mission alone. “I’ll be there for you,” was the theme song of the classic TV show “Friends.” And that’s the theme of our lives as well. To be there is God’s very essence. This is the God who goes before us into the future, even as he has been there in the past with the ancestors, with Abraham and Sarah, with Grandma and Granddad, with Aunt Sally and Uncle Joe. This is the God who enters into suffering, yet is not disabled by suffering. Instead, suffering gets him going on behalf of the those who hurt. This is the God—when all is said and done, when all the questions have been asked, when all the issues have been raised—this is the God who keeps coming back to the one fundamental, glorious truth: “I will be there with you.” You are not alone. Do not be afraid.

There was another moment full of truth long years later, another unexpected appearance of God in the midst of life. An angel of the Lord appeared to a young woman in a little town and invited her to be part of God’s plan. A similar messenger came as well to her fiancé, a man struggling with a difficult problem, and summoned him to faith and action. They were to be parents, these two, and their baby would have a special name: Immanuel, which means “God with us.” Once again, the promise of the Presence.

Because that One was born, lived, died, and lives again we know with even more confidence than Moses that we are not alone. We are assured of the abiding and empowering presence of God with us. So when the burning bush calls your name and mine, summoning us to ministry, we can say “yes.” “Here I am. Send me.”


From → Uncategorized

Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: