Burning but Not Consumed
It’s September 20, 2020. Our beloved 2020. And the world is burning, and burning, and burning. And we, here, in the near North of North America; we in the Pacific Northwest, and in Western Canada that is, have been breathing the detritus, i.e. the smoke, ever since. (And breathing, and breathing, and breathing, if you can call that. One part air; three parts smoke.)
In Washington, Oregon, and California, especially California, some 3.4 million acres, so far––that’s 137,593.1 square km, or 5312.5 square miles, by the way––have now been immolated; a record 3.4 million acres.35 people have died, so far, (mostly in California), including children; 5,500 structures have been destroyed, so far (mostly in California). And some 18,500 firefighters have been deployed . . .
Our experience with the Christie Mountain Fire in August, here in Penticton, frankly pales in comparison: but even then, our close encounter with the “world of fire,” the world of wildfire, to be exact, was deeply disturbing.
Forest fires have increased four-fold since 1979, mostly in California. Is it climate change? Or is bad forest management? Depends, of course, which side of political spectrum you consult.
Fire, it is said, was humankind’s first tool. Lightning had fortuitously ignited fires for centuries, indeed, millennia, but until those chance flames could be controlled, perpetuated, and ignited at will, the cold was still cold and the dark, still dark.
About 7,000 BC, however, men and women finally learned how to make their own fire in a reliable way, and so, anthropologists say, began a long and continuous rise to what we now call, for better or for worse, civilization.
Light a fire, and you could stay warm, cook food, flush out game, kill insects, and many other wonderful things:––and by so doing free up time to sit around and talk about what life really means, and why.
Light a fire, and you could clear the forest, plant crops, replace old grass with new grass; fertilize the ground, and eventually graze a whole herd of cattle, or sheep, or goats. Light a fire, and you could even begin to smelt ore and fashion tools. “This world order,” wrote Heraclitus of Ephesus, in the 5th century bce, “was created neither by a god, nor a man; it was, and is, and will always be, an eternally living fire, flaring up, and dying down by measure.”
This morning we read a very famous story from the Old Testament, as recorded in Exodus 3. It’s about Moses.
Confused and alone, Moses had fled to the desert. His whole life seemed to be on fire.
And all that he had cherished, beginning to burn up. On the run from nowhere to nowhere, he was burning––if not consumed. Moses had grown up as a man of privilege;
as a “Prince of Egypt”––or so it would seem––the adopted son of Pharaoh’s daughter, who had plucked him from the river Nile as an infant. And as a young man, Moses had become a glittering fixture at court, one presumes, in the greatest nation then known.
But “time had unfolded what pleated cunning hides,” and Moses soon discovered that he was not really a “Prince of Egypt” at all! He was instead an adopted child, the son of a Levite priest, and his wife. He was a Hebrew, not an Egyptian, a slave and a child of slaves (perish the thought!) and not the son of Pharaoh.
For those of you who were adopted as children, who never knew your biological parents, you will perhaps understand only too well how Moses felt. He was an orphan, as it were, in his own home; a stranger in his own house; an alien:––both to the Egyptians, and to the Hebrews!!! “One foot in sea, and one on shore/to one thing constant never.” It was an identity crisis if there ever were one. In the words of Robert Heinlein, the great science fiction writer, Moses had become “A stranger, in a strange land.”
“Out of place/Out of time/Out of sight/Out of mind,” writes an Internet poet, “The Stranger walks alone, in a strange land that he will never call home.”
Moses no longer knew who he was. “Am I a Hebrew? Am I Egyptian?” he must have thought to himself. “Am I a slave or am I free?” “Am I rich, or am I poor?” “What am supposed to do here? Who side am I on anyway?” Most of all, Moses had become a stranger to himself.
The immediate cause of his flight to the desert, was, of course, a Mosaic fit of pique.
Moses had witnessed an Egyptian abusing a Hebrew; one part of himself abusing another part of himself. In a towering rage he killed the abuser, and hid his body in the sand. He knew he would be probably be executed for this crime, and so he skedaddled out of court, faster than lightning. Moses was not unlike the very first murderer––in biblical terms, that is––i.e. Cain himself, cursed by God for killing Abel, and then lying about it to God.
Cain was forced to wander the earth, having been given a mark that no one finding him should kill him, peremptorily.
By the time we join the story at Exodus 3 Moses has been in desert, in the region of Midian,for many years. It was a desolate, desolate country; the kind of place where people throughout history have gone to find themselves. It is there that Moses marries,
and fathers a son whom he names, of all things, Gershom, a pun on the Hebrew word ger,
which means “stranger,” or “foreigner.”
In any case, one day Moses is tending his new father-in-law’s flocks, aand finds himself at foot of Mount Horeb, unbeknownst to him, the very mountain of God. There, the angel of the Lord appears to him in flames of fire from within a bush. Now if you look in front of this pulpit, you will see that very thing. The burning bush, for the burning bush was adopted as a symbol of the Presbyterian church a very long time ago.
Moses had no doubt seen bushes with brilliant, flamelike blossoms, but this bush literally burned––literally!!!! And not only did it burn, but it talked, too, warning him, one, to not come a step closer, and, two, to remove his sandals, because the ground whereon he stood
––so said the bush as it were––was holy ground,and the voice which spoke, God’s voice.
This bush actually called Moses by name!! “When the Lord saw that he had gone over to look, God called to him from within the bush, “Moses! Moses!”
And Moses said, “Here I am.”
Do not come any closer,” God said. “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.” Then God said, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.”
At this, Moses hid his face, because he was afraid to look at God.” In a word, Moses was “slain.” Bowled over; blown away. Why? Because after time out of mind of not knowing who, nor what, nor even why, he was; Moses had finally met the One whom to meet is life itself––in a burning bush!! Burning, but not consumed.
It was a voice like no other. It was a voice that brought Moses home: home to himself, and his true identity––i.e. as a child of God––and home to the most important work he would ever undertake. Whether he was a Hebrew, or an Egyptian, a prince or a pauper, a stranger or a familiar, no longer mattered. He was now to be God’s person, living God’s way under God’s voice, and doing God’s work.
As Paul later declared to the Galatians, “So in Christ Jesus, dear Galatians, you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ . . . And so there is now neither Jew nor Gentile, now neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female––for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Which is one of the most astonishing things Paul ever said.
How do you regard yourself? Do you see yourself as Canadian, or non-Canadian, European, or Indigenous? British, or Scottish? German or Czechoslovak?
What is your true “identity,” so called? Are you rich, or poor? Free, or bond? Old or young? At home, or on the move? On the in, or on the out? Happy or unhappy? Stodgy, or cool? Presbyterian or Catholic? Conservative or liberal?
Who are you? What are you?
These two questions (more than any other now posed) forming the ruling engine of modern politics: i.e. identity; hence the term “identity politics.” Nowadays, of course, is customary to identify oneself by assembling a whole host, a chain, of adjectives.
“Hi, I’m a straight white cis-gendered able-bodied male How do you do? I’m pleased to meet you.”
“Well, I’m in fact, I’m a disabled indigenous trans woman of colour, and I am very displeased to meet you.”
And why would the latter be displeased to meet the former? Because according to some,
white males now occupy the bottom rung of the social order. Or if they don’t occupy that rung, they certainly should, having been privileged to occupy the top rung for far, far, too long.
But once God speaks, I daresay none of these questions really matter to the extent we think they do––nor the exaggerated chain of descriptors with which we think to answer them, as moderns. They really don’t––or shouldn’t.
Yes, many people now build their lives around a whole series of said attributes, or adjectives, or descriptors . . . as if being Canadian, or being rich, or being young, or being in is the be-all and end-all of meaningful life. They really don’t.
For when you meet the Lord, none of these things really matter.
You are now to be God’s person, ––that’s your real identity––living God’s way under God’s voice, and doing God’s work.
And what is God’s work now to be, at least for Moses?
“I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt,” God declares to Moses. “I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering. So I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey. So now go. I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt.”
“But who am I???? Who am I?? ––the question of the ages!!!–– that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” Moses replies.
“Moses,” says the Lord, listen . . . “I will be with you!!! I will be with you, and that will be enough.”
“But God, suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The god of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what do I tell them?”
“Tell them, I am who I am. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: I am has sent me to you.”
“O Lord, I have never been eloquent. I am slow of speech and tongue.”
“Who gave man his mouth? Who makes him deaf or mute? Who give him sight or makes him blind? Is it not I, the Lord? Now go; I will help you speak.”
“O Lord, please send someone else to do it.”
Moses knew that he was about to pass through the fire, in obedience to the Lord. But like the burning bush, Moses would suffer to burn, but not be consumed. This was his new identity. His real identity.
Do you feel like you’re passing through the fire? Do you feel like you’re burning, if not with indignation, then with sheer despair––especially in a time of Covid? Especially at a time of such despair and uncertainty and unrest??
Don’t despair. As God’s person, you may feel the heat altogether too often, but you will not be consumed by it. Neither you, nor Moses. With Paul, you will be able to say, and here I will read again what we have been hearing from Paul in recent months and weeks, yes this is from 2 Corinthians 4:
Therefore, since through God’s mercy we have this ministry––and what is that ministry but the same one given to Moses?––we do not lose heart. We do not. “We are hard-pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.”
And as Moses might say, “burning, but not consumed.”
In like fashion, are you confused about who you are? The modern chain of descriptors having not quite hit the mark? Who you are, or what life means?
Then know this: you are God’s person, and that will be enough. I AM WHO I AM has shown you his love, and is calling you by name, with his voice.
Therefore listen. If you have ever loved, or inclined to, God, then listen:
God has shown you his love, and is calling you by name. And that, is enough.