What do you do to get someone’s attention? You call their name, you wave at them, you tap them on the shoulder. These days in the Parish Hall - now that our bell has been put back up - we ring the bell, teachers clap their hands in the classroom. My mother had the trick when we were out in public and she wanted to reprimand us, of very pointedly clearing her throat and giving us The Look. If you are at a distance maybe you put up a sign or wave a flag or flash lights.
The first reading today – from Exodus – is all about God trying to catch Moses’ attention. And how does he do it? God appears to Moses as a bush that is on fire, but is not burnt up. Well, that’s pretty eye-catching! This is a story that many of us know, or at least we have a nodding familiarity with: Moses and the Burning Bush – right – check.
But for us to really make any sense of this occurrence, we have to back up a little. So often these figures in the Bible have a hard and dingy veneer over them, and we forget that they were real people, who had a real story, and who put their pants on – as they say – one leg at a time. With Moses, especially, we tend to think of him as the little baby in the basket on the Nile River or as the Law-Giver, receiving the Ten Commandments from God – looking suspiciously like Charlton Heston!
So by way of reminding ourselves….. Moses was born into a Hebrew family in Egypt. Jacob and his family had gone to Egypt at least four hundred years earlier, to escape a famine in Israel. They settled there – at the invitation of Pharoah’s right-hand man Joseph, who happened to be their long lost bother (but that’s another story) and they prospered. Eventually the Hebrew community grew to the point where they threatened the balance of power in the wider population, and they were enslaved by Pharoah’s command. When hard labor did not diminish their numbers, the order was given that all the male children were to be killed. When Moses was born, his mother managed to keep him hidden until he was three months old. After that, she decided to see if she could do the ancient equivalent of leaving a newborn anonymously at a police station: she put him in water-tight basket and set him on the river’s edge.
We know, of course, that Pharoah’s daughter went to the river, found the baby, decided to adopt him. She knew he was a Hebrew child because he had been circumcised – a ritual the Egyptians did not practice. But Moses was taken to live in the royal palace, presumably raised and educated as an Egyptian.
Fast forward to Moses as a young man. Somewhere along the line he realized or discovered or was told that he was a Hebrew. He went out of the palace and saw a Hebrew slave being beaten by an Egyptian overseer. Moses was overcome with a righteous anger and furious sense of justice, and he killed the overseer and buried his body. The next day he went out again, saw two Hebrew men fighting and tried to reason with them, but they blew him off, and even asked if he was going to kill them as he had killed the Egyptian. News travels fast! Moses got scared, Pharoah put out a warrant for his arrest and execution, and Moses ran away – east into the Sinai desert. Eventually he got to a place where there was a well, and a settlement; he met a nice young woman who took him home and introduced him to her father. Moses needed a place to hide out, so getting married to Zipporah, and going to work for his father-in-law seemed as good a plan as any.
Meanwhile, back in Egypt, the plight of the Hebrew slaves had continued to deepen: “Out of the slavery their cry for help rose up to God. God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God looked upon the Israelites, and God took notice of them,” the end of Exodus chapter two says. And that brings us to Moses working as a shepherd, following the sheep and goats up the mountain that is called both Horeb and Sinai. And God decided to get Moses’ attention.
We don’t know what Moses knew or believed about God. As a member of the royal household he would have been raised with the Egyptian pantheon of gods and goddesses. Had he heard and remembered something about the Lord God Almighty from the stories told him by his Hebrew nursemaid (who also happened to be his mother)? Once he understood and embraced his identity as a Hebrew did he ask questions, go to the library to do some reading, do a Google search on Hebrew religious beliefs? Or did he get some grounding from his father-in-law Jethro, a priest of Midian; the Midianites were distant relatives, also descendants of Abraham. Maybe some sense of a single Creator God had been passed down to him. We don’t know.
Nevertheless, God had a job for Moses. He was going to be sent back to Egypt, to confront Pharoah, to lead the Hebrew slaves out of Egypt and into freedom. God was going to answer the cries and prayers of the people, and he was going to do it through a murderer and a fugitive who had no intention of ever going back to Egypt. Knowing all that, it’s no wonder God needed to get Moses’ attention in a pretty dramatic way.
God says the same thing to us. God will be with us. God will be with us, because God has work for each one of us to do, and for us to do together. God, indeed, hears the cry of those who are hurting, broken, isolated, sick, down-trodden, outcast, lonely, oppressed by forces beyond their control. And God calls and invites us to respond in some way - to be God’s agents of healing, and connection, and prayerful love with those to whom the Spirit sends us. But we can’t do it on our own strength; we need to be awake to the way God is trying to get our attention, and aware of the direction in which he is leading, guiding, pushing us.
So how do I know when God is trying to get my attention, you may say to yourself; how do I know what God is trying to tell me? Each one of us is different, and God will speak to us to whatever ways we can best hear and understand. But having said that, there are some basic things to think about:
• Don’t expect to hear actual voices, or see a banner with your name on it being pulled by an airplane across the sky.
• Do look for coincidences, for things that seem surprising or bring you up short. If you find yourself being moved to tears over something you hear or read, or there is an “ah-hah” moment that makes you incredibly glad, most likely that is God speaking to you.
• Other people just knows things in there gut – go with that.
• If the words of a Bible reading seem to jump off the page at you, pay attention!
• If you have been praying for guidance, and an hour later someone randomly has a conversation with you about the very subject you have been puzzling over, God is showing up.
In short, go through your day with your eyes and ears and mind and heart open. Don’t overlook the unusual. Be curious. Ask yourself what’s going on; ask other people what they are doing – on the train platform, in the deli line at Shop-Rite, at the Saturday sports games, across the driveway or the backyard fence. Take a deep breath, and tell God that you are ready and available to be of service – you may only mean it half-way, but that’s OK; God will more than make up the other half.
Our purpose, as Jesus’ followers, is not to have our theology all figured out, or to thoroughly understand the Bible, or to lead an exemplary life – although those are all good things and I hope you strive for them – but our purpose is to love and serve God in a way that will be part of bringing healing and hope to God’s world – whether we are ready or not.
Let us pray.
Dear Lord, you call us each day to attend with open hearts to your Spirit alive in us and at work among us. Lead us to the places you have need for us to go. Prepare the way ahead of us, and help us to remember that you are our companion in the way. We ask this all in Jesus’ Name. Amen.
Victoria Geer McGrath
All Saints’ Church, Millington, NJ
Third Sunday in Lent
February 28, 2016