Recall the story of Moses, the Hebrew baby who was sent down the river only to be taken in by the pharaoh’s daughter and raised as an Egyptian. As an adult, he witnessed the beating of a Hebrew slave and killed the attacking Egyptian. He thought no one knew of his deed, but another Hebrew the next day called him out on it. Moses knew that others knew, and it wasn’t long before Pharaoh knew, too. So Moses fled to Midian, where he ends up defending the priest Jethro’s daughters from other shepherds and shortly thereafter marrying one of them.
Now Moses, our family man, was tending to his father-in-law’s flock, venturing a bit further than normal, perhaps. He came to Horeb, the mountain of God, which we commonly call Mt. Sinai. We’re told straight away that it’s an angel of the LORD appearing to Moses “in a flame of fire out of a bush,” but can you imagine Moses either suddenly seeing a shrub burst into flame or rounding a corner to see a ball of fire? Surely a fire in the dry mountains is a dangerous thing, and a first response would be one of fear in anticipation of the fire spreading. Whatever his first reaction, Moses looked at this sight, the bush blazing in flame, and observed that “it was not consumed.” He couldn’t know right away that the fire was the presence of God, but in his assessment of the situation, evaluating whether he and his father-in-law’s flock were in immediate danger, he observed that the fire wasn’t spreading, which would have been natural. More than that, the bush itself was not consumed. Instead of disintegrating into ash, this desert shrub was holding its shape, its form: it was holding this flaming fire.
Then the perception of what Moses is contending with shifts. He’s dealing with something unnatural. He must now turn to look at this “great sight” indirectly. He wants to know why the bush isn’t consumed, but he knows from his tradition that humans cannot survive the full presence of God. If this is something of God, he doesn’t want to take unnecessary risks. So he looks aside, sort of askance. As if now the possibility of the presence of God is an option for Moses, what happens next? The voice of God calls out to him: “Moses, Moses!” To which Moses responds, “Here I am.”
Transfixed by this voice emanating from a burning bush, Moses is told to come no closer and to remove his sandals because the ground he’s on is holy. The voice introduces itself as the God of the forefathers, and Moses is afraid to look upon God. God goes on to share that the plight of the Hebrew people hasn’t gone unnoticed, and now it is Moses himself who will go to bring the people out of Egypt. Moses protests, of course, but God reveals further the name above all others: the great I AM. God promises to be with Moses and the people.
Moses is called. The presence of God is revealed to him in a way that captures our attention, in a way mysterious and indescribable. Moses is given a mission, something that sounds so simple yet seems impossible. It would be impossible, without God’s help.
How is this familiar, this story of Moses? Is it solely emblazoned in our memories through movies or mere repetition in our lectionary, or is it more than that? Before Moses was the deliverer of the Hebrew slaves, he was a guy doing his job, being a good son. He had been a good and helpful stranger to Jethro’s daughters, but he was also a murderer fleeing persecution. At his birth, Moses was born in a time when his people were oppressed. The Hebrew people were growing too numerous, too strong, so the Pharaoh ordered the male babies to be thrown into the Nile. Moses was fleeing persecution the day he was born. He had been surrounded by so much, knew anger and rage, knew fear, yet he had not been consumed by them. He still had faith in God. All of who Moses was was known by God, and still he was called by God to do the impossible.
Does this story of Moses feel familiar, more deeply than that we know of the story or have seen or heard it before? Can it be that we’ve experienced it ourselves? Could it be that we are experiencing it now?
So much has happened between the time of Moses and today. Paul reminds us that the Jewish people were not perfect in their time of deliverance. They made mistakes along the way, as we all do. We know Moses himself was not above the crime of murder. We all go along our way and do what we do. Nations, empires, rise and fall, and people navigate the stresses and strains of living in relationship with one another, guided or not by their concept of the Divine and its import in their lives. In the unfolding of our world, we believe that God revealed God’s self again this time not in a burning bush but in the flesh of a man.
This time, in the Incarnation, God called not one but twelve to join in a particular work to deliver a people oppressed. Wearing their sandals they traveled around to share a message of peace, of healing, of wholeness, and even a message of repentance. The sick and the suffering flocked to Jesus, and they were numerous. The powers in charge did not want these people to gain strength as they were increasing in number. Jesus was crucified, seemingly consumed by the hatred and anger, the fear of others, especially those in power.
But death did not consume him any more than the presence of God consumed the burning bush. Instead, the resurrection of Christ revealed God again to those who believed, and brought a message of deliverance available to anyone and everyone who identifies this story with theirs, of being brought out of bondage into liberation, of living a life whole and restored to live and love as we have been loved by God.
These stories aren’t merely familiar, they are ours. We know the presence of God in our lives, and whether we realize it or not, that presence has filled us, especially at particular moments. While we may have felt broken wide open, filled with fiery passions that maybe even presented as anger or rage, we were not consumed. If we had the presence of mind and spirit to hear the prayers of our heart and the whispers of wisdom, maybe we, too, heard what God is calling us to do, with God’s help.
I realize this is a powerful theological claim: that the presence of God is not merely outside of us but that as Christians we also embody the presence of God. This means that at once we can be both the burning bush and the one being called.
In the context of the parable of the fig tree we also heard today, this feels pretty scary. If we can be a burning bush and a prophet, can we also be a fig tree bearing fruit or not? If we’re not fruitful, does that mean we’ll be cut down, judged to death? In my readings, this parable was offered as an impetus to repent, to bear fruits worthy of repentance, because the second coming was near–it hadn’t happened yet, but it was due any day. They were fortunate to have the extra time to do what needed to be done. They were fortunate to have the extra time in the first century, as we are fortunate to have the time now. The story itself gives us an impetus to act, as fear of death is very motivating.
There was a story I heard that described Inuit storytelling and how it conveys their values. The essay is about how Inuits teach their children to control their anger, and it also mentions how stories with a dose of danger are told to their children. The stories might involve scary monsters and dire consequences, which can raise caution in the children. They might be afraid of going into situations that could very well harm if not kill them, like getting caught in the frigid air or water, because they have an association of a monster. The emphasis is not on traumatic, paralyzing fear but a notion of playfulness, grounded in nurturing love and care.
I think of this means of storytelling to get us to do what we are called to do in relation to the parable of the fig tree. Yes, we need to repent for our sins, the myriad ways we turn away from God and don’t build up the Realm of God, which is what the Gospel according to Luke is all about us doing. And it doesn’t need to be done at a later time; it needs to be done now. We don’t have to, of course. We can get quite good at redirecting that burning we feel, the passion we have. We have many options for numbing or distracting ourselves, some even considered healthy. But that’s now what we’re called to.
On more than one occasion I’ve spoken with someone who rounds a corner in life and finds him- or herself completely consumed. Instead of a cautious, “Here I am,” it’s more of an on-their-knees, “yes, here I am but why me?” And perhaps we know what we are called to do, but it seems impossible. Others may laugh it off or shake their heads in ridicule. When we’re able to stand again, we can’t help but see it everywhere, this that we’re called to. Maybe we see it in ourselves or see evidences of it or its consequences all around us. No one else seems to notice, except maybe a few with whom we share what we see and feel to make sure we’re not crazy.
So here’s the thing: what is the seed that God has planted within you? What, given the nurturing of others and the unconditional love of God, would bear fruit in your life or in the community around you? Don’t judge yourself. Don’t listen to the judgment of others; we don’t know. God knows. You might not even know what it is exactly, and the mere thought of fueling the passion, the desire, the yearning, may be terrifying because surely it will consume you and lead to destruction.
Strangely enough, being consumed by love of God can be like death. There are lots of ways we die when we fulfill our relationship with God. Some of them may be consequentially negative, but they can also be rewarding in untold ways. We don’t know any more than we can know how a bush can burn without being consumed. But we do know or at least trust in faith, as Paul said, “God is faithful, and … will not let (us) be tested beyond (our) strength, but with the testing (God) will also provide the way out so that (we) may be able to endure it” (1 Cor 10:13b).
All the things we do and are called to do in this Christian life, we do them with God’s help, and God has a way of bringing us together so that we don’t have to walk this Way of Love alone. We do this hard and often scary work together, which will always make us stronger.