Let us pray: Holy and loving God, your ways are higher than our ways and your thoughts are higher than our thoughts. We confess that we are creatures of habit, and even we begin a new thing, that new thing wears into routine and we are unaware. We pray that your Spirit will speak to us when we grow comfortable in our complacency. Lead us beyond the wilderness, help us to ask the questions we need to ask, and seek your presence with us. O God, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be pleasing and acceptable in your sight. For you are our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
Some stories in Scripture are so familiar and so well loved that we tend to think of them as greatest hits. Take for example, our two readings from this morning. They show up in Christmas carols and hymns; they show up on church bulletin boards, church banners and in logos. The story of Moses and the burning bush is a classic way for us to describe the call experience: that moment when we hear and feel God calling us to go somewhere we never expected to go and do work or ministry we never felt capable of doing. Burning bush moments are watershed moments; they are moments that mark a point in our journey, like the day you first met your spouse. Like that story, our burning bush story is one we will tell many times over the years.
Yet, the older we get, the further we move from that burning bush moment. Life happens, work continues, and that burning bush looks like a tiny star light years away. It is a script we played once back at the beginning, and now it is tucked away in our memory box in the drawer of our bedside table for safe keeping. When we hear the story now, in the middle of wherever we are: our relationships, our jobs, our partial government shut-downs, it just doesn’t sound the way it once did, almost as if we have forgotten that it belongs to us.
But, Anna Carter Florence, questions, what if this story from Exodus 3 is not just for beginnings? What if it is a script we get to play more than once over the course of a life? What if we listened to this narrative from Exodus 3, not like when we first had that burning bush moment, but like we are now, in the middle of our own stories? What would happen if we, like Moses, changed our verbs in the very first verse?
“Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God.”
Trolling through my pictures on Facebook recently, I came across a picture of my son from a couple of years ago. Actually, it was two pictures: the first and last days of Pre-Kindergarten. He looked so much different in June than he had in September. In September, he had the deer in the headlight look. Sure, he had been in the school building, but he had never been to school. By the end of the year, he was standing up tall, eyes slightly more focused on the camera. I remember having that first day of the school year look: when I went from elementary to middle school, middle school to Junior High, Junior High to Senior High School, high school to college, and I remember having that look my first day of seminary. It’s the look of “Maybe, this is not a good idea, and when God called me here, maybe he didn’t mean here. Maybe I read the bush wrong.” You’ve been there. Wondering, did God really call me to this?
This text is a great text if you are in a moment of second-guessing your call. Moses provides all the dialogue you will need: “Who am I that I should go…?” “If I go, what do I say?” “If I say that, what if they don’t believe me?” “Oh yeah, I stutter, so please just send somebody else.” Moses was the great Staller before he was the Great Deliverer. He tried every tactic before he ran out of excuses; that is why, like Jonah, he ranks up there in go-to narratives for the beginning, when we are scared or just don’t want to go.
But, when we are in the middle, what do Moses’ words have to say to us? When we are in the middle of our call to work, to relationship, to ministry? When we are mid-school year, mid-life, mid-winter in a church that may be past its mid-point of life as well?
At some point in your journey, the burning bush experience happened a while back. You saw the bush that was burning but not consumed. You turned, you looked, you listened, and now you are in Egypt—whatever that means to you. You are helping others to experience freedom from the bonds of oppression that hold them down. You are sharing God’s love by selflessly caring and doing for others, and with each work of mercy and piety, you are defeating the Pharaohs that exist in our world today: the ones who promote fear, hate, revenge, and selfishness. And, yet some of this work has become routine, daily, and repetitive. It just doesn’t seem like the task it once did.
Moses was in a season of middles. He was in the middle of Midian, which is just what it sounds like. Somewhere, way back when, there had been excitement and drama, and he was even Pharaoh’s most-wanted man for murder—for Egyptian law enforcement, but that was long ago, when he was young. Now, he was settled in Midian. He had the family, and the job. He worked for his father-in-law, Jethro, in the flocks and herds business. Moses was in charge of keeping the flock, but he did not own it. Jethro did, and so Moses worked in the business, but he never had his own shop, and maybe he was okay with that. Maybe, that is what suited his gifts and temperament the best.
This is how our text, this morning, opens. Moses is keeping a flock in the middle of ministry, in the middle of Midian; there’s nothing flashy about keeping. It is maintenance work. It is the ordinary Wednesday when you get up with the alarm, and you keep your schedules, and you keep your budgets, and you keep your appointments, you keep up with trends in the market, and kids and their screen time and social media use, you keep the peace. It is not flashy work. It is what you do when you are in the middle of ministry in the middle of Midian.
And then there is this slight shift; the verb and the place change, and suddenly we are not in ordinary time any more. “Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law, Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God.”
He led his flock beyond the wilderness. No more keeping. No more maintenance. Moses got up and led that flock, which shepherds do from time to time: beside still waters, green pastures, through the wilderness—all of those are common places, but Moses didn’t lead the flock there. He led it beyond the wilderness. He led it along the west side of the wilderness or to the desert or to the far side as the New Jerusalem Bible translates it. These places are not just remote and hard, they are further than that. Think about what a wilderness looks like to you, and now go one step further. Moses took his flock to eight & plum: eight miles from nowhere plum out in the sticks. We are given no clues as to why he did this. He was keeping the flock in Midian, took it beyond the wilderness, and then he came to the mountain of God. Maybe Moses wasn’t looking for Horeb; maybe he was looking for better grass and stream that wasn’t dried up, and then, there they were beyond the wilderness with the mountain of God in front of them.
”There the angel of the Lord appeared to Moses in a flame of fire out of a bush.” If you are in a season of middles, this is a perfect way for an angel to show up. Not in Midian, while your sitting on the couch watching Netflix or the Sabres, which an angel could do, but it doesn’t seem to happen often. Maybe, we have to leave Midian. Maybe, we have to go to our limit and then push a little further, so that we can go somewhere new and look. A burning bush, on a mountain of God, close to Midian is perfect. It’s not too far where you can’t get there and not so off the grid that you can’t find it. It is just far enough to require some skill and maturity to see: a bush burning but not consumed. Moses turned to see why the bush burned but was not consumed, but in order to be able to look, he had to beyond the wilderness.
Moses was not going to see the bush by keeping them in Midian, nor was he going to see the bush by leading his flock and checking to make sure he had not forgotten anything and rushing them to and from the grass and water before nightfall. Moses had to stop what he was doing. He had to stop. His work had to be interrupted. And when it was, he chose to look and see why the bush burned but was not consumed. Carter Florence writes, “Turn aside. Take a detour. Get distracted. Interrupt. This is a great sight, or an awful sight, or a disturbing, confounding, heartbreaking sight, and it deserves our full attention. Turn aside, and then look. Really look. Put down the iPhone, Crouch down, climb up, get close, as close as you can look.” We don’t do this anymore. We troll Instagram, SnapChat, and Facebook, so that we do not have to turn aside and see. To turn aside and look, though is an act of reverence and resistance. When we turn aside and look to see why—why the bush burns but is not consumed, we begin to ask questions. And we all know that asking questions will lead to disturbing, disrupting, and dismantling all of those systems of the status quo that all of those Pharaohs we know have worked so hard to keep going.
As soon as Moses made the choice to turn aside and look, Moses found himself on holy ground—ready to be addressed by God, and after a handful of excuses, Moses was sent. As a member of the Board of Ordained Ministry, one question I frequently ask candidates is to share their call story: that burning bush moment when they knew they were beloved by God and set apart for a lifetime of ministry. But I wonder, if I am missing part of the story. What would happen if I asked, “When is the last time you left Midian?” “When is the last time you led your flock beyond the wilderness and found yourself at the mountain of God?” Of course, this question isn’t just for pastors, now is it? When was the last time you left Midian? If it has been a while for you, then I think it’s time to take the flock and lead them beyond the wilderness.
The trek won’t be easy, and there will be more questions than answers, but when you get beyond the wilderness, and you find yourself at the mountain of God, I want you to do something. Turn aside and look. There is a burning bush waiting just for you.