Presented on The Lutheran Hour on November 6, 2022
By Rev. Dr. Dean Nadasdy, Guest Speaker
Copyright 2022 Lutheran Hour Ministries
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Text: Exodus 3:1-6 (7-15)
Hear the Word of the Lord from Exodus 3:1-6 - Now Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law, Jethro, the priest of Midian, and he led his flock to the west side of the wilderness and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. And the angel of the LORD appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush. He looked, and behold, the bush was burning, yet it was not consumed. And Moses said, "I will turn aside to see this great sight, why the bush is not burned." When the LORD saw that he turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, "Moses, Moses!" And he said, "Here I am." Then he said, "Do not come near; take your sandals off your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground." And he said, "I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob." And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.
This is our text. Let us pray.
Lord of the burning bush, put us in touch today with Your holiness, and what that holiness means for us. Speak to us. Humble us. Shake us up. Call us to what's next, set us apart, and empower us to be who You say we are. Amen.
American poet Robert Frost made this observation: "In three words I can sum up everything I've learned about life: It goes on." We could add, "It goes on and on and on." As cartoonist Charles Schultz had Snoopy say, "Yesterday I was a dog. Today I am a dog. Tomorrow I'll probably still be a dog. Sigh! There's so little hope for advancement."
We live a life that is so, so daily with very few interruptions. A friend of mine, who is a commercial pilot, describes his career as 30 years of boredom and five minutes of sheer terror.
The story of Moses and the burning bush is a story for people who know life with very few interruptions. It's a story for those who claim membership, some willfully, others unknowingly, in The Society of the Same Old Thing, otherwise known as SOTSOT, in which life just goes on and on and on. And hidden underneath all that same-old, same-old is God, who can seem distant, uninterested, or irrelevant.
Moses is 80 years old when the LORD visits him in the burning bush on Mt. Horeb. Using the Christian martyr Stephen as a source in Acts 7, the life of Moses can be divided into three chapters of 40 years each. Adopted by Pharaoh's daughter, he lived his first 40 years as a prince of Egypt. After killing an Egyptian who was abusing a Hebrew slave, Moses escapes to Midian and spends his next 40 years shepherding his father-in-law's flock. And now here at the burning bush, at 80, he is called to go to pharaoh and demand the freedom of his enslaved people. Then for his last 40 years he will lead his people to the edge of the Promised Land.
Along the way of leading his people to freedom and a new home, Moses would not forget what happened at Mt. Horeb when he turned to see a bush on fire but with no ashes. Moses writes it down so that we won't forget it either. The bush was on fire, but it was not consumed. The rabbis had a tradition that others saw the burning bush but had turned away from it. Not Moses. He engaged. Or better, we should say the LORD engaged. Hidden in the fire of the bush was the LORD, who twice called out his name: "Moses! Moses!" If the flaming bush didn't get his attention, this would. Centuries later, God would call the apostle Paul by calling out his Hebrew name twice, "Saul! Saul! Why are you persecuting Me?"
It's important to note that the one speaking to Moses from inside the flames is not an angel but God. A long tradition within Christianity identifies that figure in the fire as the second Person of the Trinity, the Son of God. Artists over the centuries have depicted this event by placing an iconic figure of Christ hidden there in the flames, speaking to Moses. More on this later. The point is that the voice Moses hears is the voice of God, perhaps even the voice of the Son of God.
These same paintings all show us what happens next as well. They show Moses barefoot or in the process of taking off his shoes. So God commands Moses to take off his shoes, and he does. That may seem strange to us, the command to go shoeless. God explains why going barefoot is necessary: "the place on which you are standing is holy ground." We take off our shoes to get comfortable or to save the carpeting. In Minnesota where I live it's not uncommon in winter, when friends or family gather, to see our shoes neatly arranged in rows at the front door. Moses is told to take off his shoes here because the space he is in is holy, that is, it has been set apart for the presence and action of God. There may have been other reasons for going shoeless, too. The leather of his sandals may have been considered unclean. What's more, he could have taken off his shoes because he will serve God on this mountain, and servants go barefoot. When Moses takes off his sandals, he humbles himself before God. And just maybe, Moses is told to go barefoot because he shouldn't plan on going anywhere. God has an appointment here that Moses must keep. There is no quick exit down the mountain with his flock. God is saying, "Take off your shoes. You'll be staying awhile. We've got business together."
So what's going on here that makes this place holy, so holy that Moses needs to go barefoot? First, God is present, here in the fire. Where a holy God is present, that place becomes holy. Second, God is speaking here. Where God speaks, that space becomes holy. Notice that God assures Moses that the God speaking from the burning bush is the same God who guided Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. This holiness of God has a history, a holy history, which Moses knew. Third, here God reveals the name God has chosen to be known by, the Name Yahweh, the great "I AM," the "I am who I am" God above all gods. The LORD's Name is holy and meant to be held sacred and cherished. And fourth, here a holy God calls Moses to a holy task—to lead God's people from bondage to freedom. Moses has good reasons to go barefoot on Mt. Horeb—all centered in God.
Like so many after him, when God calls, Moses objects. In Exodus 3, for each objection Moses offers, for each reason he has to decline God's call, God has a response.
"Who am I to lead, Lord? Who would even follow me" I will be with you.
"What if they want to know who You are? Who shall I say has sent me?" Tell them "I AM WHO I AM" has sent you, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
"What if they won't believe me?" I will give you powerful signs.
"What about my speech impediment?" I will give you what you need to say, and your brother Aaron will be your spokesman.
Let there be no mistake. This is a huge transition for shepherd Moses, from moseying around with Jethro's flock in search of green pastures to leading two million people to spiritual and political freedom. And this is a major move for God in our salvation history, freeing God's enslaved people, rescuing them, teaching them how to worship and how to live, redeeming them, forgiving their sins. What God does in the exodus from Egypt becomes a picture of what God would ultimately accomplish for us in Jesus Christ, freeing us from slavery to sin and death and bringing us to our eternal home. It all turns here in the burning bush and a barefoot Moses.
So what are the take-homes from this holy history for you today? My guess is we need a burning bush and words from God today. We are like the characters in an old, clever play titled "Six Characters in Search of an Author." These six characters are lost and show up in the theater looking for a script. They need a playwright to give them a voice and a director to move them through their actions. They need a why, and a what, and a how. They need a call. Moses needed all of that. We need that.
Like Moses, when God is trying to get our attention, we need to turn and see. We have to go where the bush burns without any ashes, where God speaks and calls us to action. Sometimes, it's only the look back over our shoulder that has us hear the call of God in our lives. For me I can hear it clearly years later in the words of my childhood pastor, asking me if I'd ever thought about being a minister. I can hear it in the voice of my high school speech teacher, forcing me to give a speech at a school assembly. I see it now in the woman sick with cancer who taught her young pastor how to gently swab her dry lips with water and what it means to serve.
If you are looking for a burning bush, where the presence of God is strong and the call to serve is clear, put yourself where God is—in the Word, at the table of Communion, at your Baptism. That's where God calls, always somewhat hidden in the words, in the bread and wine, in the water but always wanting to be known and loved. Turn to see. Turn to hear. That's what Moses did.
In her epic poem, "Aurora Leigh," Elizabeth Barrett Browning gives us these memorable lines:
"Earth's crammed with heaven, And every common bush afire with God, But only he who sees takes off his shoes; The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries."
For Browning, God is busy with burning bushes every day, cramming earth with heaven, giving us the script and the direction we need for life. He gets hidden, though, in the everyday Society of the Same Old Thing, the commonness of life, "a dog yesterday, still a dog today, and a dog tomorrow." If we turn to see and turn to hear, though, and stay long enough with a passage from Scripture, or a conversation with a Christian friend, or a Lutheran Hour sermon, if we stop "plucking blackberries" and just take off our shoes, maybe then God will get through to us.
I am captivated by the Christian tradition and the repeated image in art history of Christ in the fire of the burning bush. I am haunted by it, taken by it, and comforted by it. There Christ is, the Son of the Father, where Moses could not be, in the very presence of the Father and the Spirit, in the actual Holy of Holies, where the fire of God burns in all of its beauty and power. Christ was his substitute. Christ took the place of Moses in the fire of the bush. Because Christ was there, Moses could experience the presence of God and live. Someone has always taken our place in that fire where none of us can stand on our own. In the Old Testament, animals were consumed by that fire as sacrifices to atone for sins. In His sacrifice on the cross for us, Jesus endured the fire of God's holiness and was consumed by it so that we today can experience the presence of God, confident and unafraid. What Moses saw on Mt. Horeb is a glimpse into the ultimate substitutionary work of Jesus Christ.
As Pastor Tim Keller has written: Jesus Christ would enter into the fire of God's holiness on the cross and be consumed by it so that the people of God could enjoy the presence of God without fear. This is a new way of framing the Gospel for many of us—Jesus willingly being consumed on the cross by the fire of God's holiness so that we can know God's holiness unafraid.
There can be no doubt that this is serious business. This is not entertainment. The God of Mt. Horeb is not one of the boys or one of the girls. God is not some secret light within everyone, whom we can shape into what we would like God to be. God is not a make-me-feel-good divine grandparent with delights to distribute at the asking. God's holiness does not change to fit the times or to meet our preferences. When God sets a bush on fire, it stops being a common bush. What God says in Deuteronomy 4:24 is repeated in Hebrews 12:29: "The Lord your God is a consuming fire." Our God is Yahweh, I AM WHO I AM, the great I AM. Finish it anyway you like—I am love. I am gracious. I am just. I am powerful. I am holy. That's it. God is holy. So when God shows up, we turn and we see and we listen with respect and humility. We take off our shoes.
That burning bush moment changed everything for Moses. He left Mt. Horeb with a holy calling. Like those six characters in search of an author, Moses got his script and direction. His days as prince of Egypt were long passed. Now his days of shepherding sheep were over, too. Moses that day himself became holy, that is, set apart for the purposes of God. He would fail and falter, doubt and disappoint. He was anything but morally perfect. Yet Moses had this—he knew the why of his life, his reason for being, and the holy purposes for which God had set him apart.
This explains at least in part, why on the other side of the cross and resurrection we Christians are described as "saints." Paul, for instance, in Ephesians 1 addresses his readers as "saints." That word means "holy ones." How does that feel? You, a "holy one!" We are made holy by the perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ, ours by faith in his life, death, and resurrection. Yet we are holy in another sense, too. We have been set apart, called out, by a holy God for God's holy purposes—to love God and the neighbor, to serve, to make disciples. We have been set apart to serve as spouses, parents and grandparents, citizens, workers.
This holiness is kindled and rekindled by one burning bush after another, where God speaks, and we turn to see and to listen. And each time God calls and recalls, we take off our shoes because, after all, we are nothing less than God's own barefoot saints. Amen.
Please pray with me. Lord, turn our hum-drums into holy callings. Keep us shoeless long enough to hear Your voice, to worship You in spirit and in truth, and to be who You say we are: Your barefoot saints. Amen.
Reflections for November 6, 2022
Title: Barefoot Saints
Mark Eischer: For FREE online resources, archived audio, our mobile app, and more, go to lutheranhour.org. Joining us now, Lutheran Hour Speaker, Dr. Michael Zeigler.
Michael Zeigler: Hello Mark.
Mark Eischer: I always learn things from Dr. Nadasdy's sermons.
Michael Zeigler: Me too.
Mark Eischer: For example, that voice in the burning bush possibly being that of the pre-incarnate Christ. I'd never heard that before.
Michael Zeigler: Yeah.
Mark Eischer: Now Christ is acting here I think almost as an intermediary or maybe even a protective heat shield—
Michael Zeigler: Yeah, it's a good image.
Mark Eischer: Between Moses and God the Father. Because Christ was there, Moses could experience the very real presence of God and live, is what Dr. Nadasdy said. And that reminds me of how we experience God's presence in the Sacrament.
Michael Zeigler: There's a title of a book that we read in seminary called The Word Becoming Flesh, and it is an introduction to the Old Testament by an author named Horace Hummel. And it summarizes, pretty well, what the whole Old Testament is about. It's about the Word becoming flesh, the New Testament the Word became flesh, but in the Old Testament it's about His becoming, how the holy God, who is a consuming fire wants to dwell with us, but He also knows that His holy presence because of our sin is going to burn us up. And so He starts to make a way, first through the people, Israel, through their rituals and experiences, and then ultimately through His very own Word and personal presence becoming flesh, in a human being in Jesus. And Jesus continues, like you said, to connect His Word with human elements. You have the sound waves of a preacher, or any Christian who speaks the Word of God, but also the visible physical elements of water and Baptism, bread and wine, and Holy Communion.
Mark Eischer: The message is also a good reminder of what it really means to be holy, that is, to be set apart for God's purposes, and also the word "saints." Those who are made holy by the perfect righteousness of Christ.
Michael Zeigler: I appreciated how Dr. Nadasdy's sermon reminded me again to seek God's holiness in ordinary situations, in everyday situations. I certainly like—our listeners can relate to the opening of the same old thing, The Society of the Same Old Thing, and poor Snoopy never has any chance of advancement. That's how life is; it's just this grind. But then the sermon also calls me to remember that I as a baptized follower of Jesus have been called to holiness, called to something extra ordinary. But that doesn't mean it's going to be flashy, or just going from one emotional high to the next, an adrenaline rush. We have these holy callings, but they happen in very ordinary circumstances. He offered those examples of a mentor who encourages him to be a pastor, a teacher who makes him give a speech when he feels nervous and uncomfortable, or the woman with cancer that he visited in the hospital, who taught him how to swab her dry lips, gently. Those are holy moments, not because they're exciting, but because God's Holy Spirit is present in us and with us.
Mark Eischer: Now in the movie, The Ten Commandments, I'm told that the voice of God was actually that of Charlton Heston slowed down to make it lower in pitch. And I'm wondering, what do you suppose the movie-makers were trying to say by doing that? Was Moses actually hearing the voice of God within Himself?
Michael Zeigler: That's a good observation. They did the same thing in the more recent animated version, The Prince of Egypt. Val Kilmer was the voice actor for Moses. He was also the voice actor for God, but they didn't even slow it down. It sounds very similar. Maybe they just made it a little echo-ey. I don't know what the directors are trying to say by that, but I do know in our culture, there is a common conception of God as this voice within you, or your deepest feelings and longings, that's God for you, or there's this divine spark in each of us. And Dr. Nadasdy addressed this in the sermon. Remember he said, "God is not some secret light within you, that you can shape into whatever you would like." Instead, the Bible reveals God as a personal being who stands apart from us, against us, outside of us, but also wants to be with us, and sends His Word to become flesh in Jesus. So, God's not leaving us alone with our thoughts. He's not calling us to practice more self-talk, but rather a real conversation, and as Dr Nadasdy said, "Real direction, a real Author, who gives us a script to lead our lives."
Music Selections for this program:
"A Mighty Fortress" arranged by Chris Bergmann. Used by permission.
"Sing with All the Saints in Glory" setting by Henry Gerike. (© 2003 Augsburg Fortress - 1517 Media) Used by permission.
"For All the Saints" From The Concordia Organist (© 2009 Concordia Publishing House)