3rd September 2017 - Hugh Perry
Exodus 3: 1-15
As the story opens we find Moses going about his regular shepherding duties for his father-in-law. There is little hint that all of life is about to change for him.
The angel of the LORD appears in a burning bush. Moses is mystified by what he sees and approaches to satisfy his curiosity.
The burning bush is both a symbol of theophany, which means an appearance or experience of God, and a symbol of the people oppressed in slavery but not consumed. When Moses approaches to see why the bush is not consumed God addresses him directly and personally. God is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, God of the past but God who is also aware of the present distress and announcing future liberation.
In response to Moses’ question about the divinity’s name is God responds ‘I am who I am’ and that could be seen as evasive but it also signifies that God is with people and gives promise for the future but cannot be captured to do just what people want.
Matthew 16: 21-28
Jesus predicts his death just as other great figures in ancient biographies do such as Socrates in Plato’s Apology, and Moses in Philo’s Moses. Jesus must suffer in Jerusalem because that is the centre of their world. The centre is always threatened by the margins and the empire strikes back at those who expose its injustice and promote an alternative empire.
Jesus’ suffering and death will expose the limits of the ruling elite’s power to punish and control. God’s sovereignty asserts life over death and even a power that has the ability to torture and execute will not prevail.
However the disciples do not understand and when Peter confessed Jesus as Christ earlier he got the words right but did not understand the teaching so he wants to protect Jesus. Peter does not envisage apparent defeat and suffering and perhaps sees Jesus as a triumphant Davidic king.
The rebuke of Peter by Jesus identifies Peter with those who are opposed to God’s purpose by putting their own agenda and their own perception ahead of the divine purpose.
Warren Carter concludes this section by noting that the disciples are sent in mission to humanity but humanity threatens the discipleship mission with distractions, false values and hostile opposition because they do not understand. Peter, in this section, joins the religious elite in preferring ‘human precepts’ rather than God’s will.
The image of the burning bush is a powerful illustration of God’s presence and the power of the Divine Spirit to call people way beyond their limited expectations.
The burning bush is Pentecost’s divided tongues shimmering in the wilderness of human uncertainty, wanting to empower whoever is willing to be ignited by its presence.
No matter what stage we are in our life this burning bush episode in Moses’ life is a challenge to us all to be open to the unexpected challenges the Spirit puts before us.
Moses had lived a privileged life but that was threatened when he attacked and killed an Egyptian who was beating a slave. Facing a charge of murder he was forced to flee from Pharaoh’s justice.
He settled down and married into a family in Midian had his own family and was a shepherd in the extended family enterprise. I can imagine he believed he was settled comfortably in his new life and grateful for the way life had turned out for him.
Drawn to the burning bush he makes a whole series of excuses for not taking up the challenge and these excuses take the narrative beyond today’s reading. In chapter four Moses first suggests that people won’t believe him and he is given a number of signs to perform. Then Moses makes one of the most universal excuses people including us use to avoid leadership challenges.
But Moses said to Yahweh ‘O my Lord, I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor even now that you have spoken to your servant; but I am slow of speech and slow of tongue’. (Exodus 4:10)
That reminds me of choosing to write out three pages of the Oxford Dictionary instead of entering the school public speaking competition. But God has exactly the right rebuttal for Moses:
Then Yahweh said to him, ‘who gives speech to mortals? Who makes them mute or deaf, seeing or blind? Is it not I Yahweh? (Exodus 4:11)
Like Moses we are so often the ones that limit our potential by our self doubts and it is the Divine Spirit that not only calls us beyond the limitations we impose upon ourselves, but also empowers us to rise above our narrow expectations.
That call and empowerment need not necessarily be as dramatic as the divine voice from a bush that burns without being consumed. Indeed we could imagine Moses alone with his sheep continually reflecting on the memory of the mistreatment of the Hebrew slaves and wishing he could do something about it. His many excuses recorded in chapter four may well have been rolled over and over in his mind as he rationalised his inaction to himself.
It was not long after leaving school that I began to realise that my chosen career would continually put me in front of people and the ability to speak in public would be a valuable tool in promoting my business.
Going to the JC debating trials seemed a harmless way of dipping my toe in the frightening waters of public speaking. Obviously I would not be selected for the team and it would be a safe learning experience in front of a few friends. However it certainly was a burning bush transformation moment when our team, with me in it, won the regional debate.
Such rationalisation does not eliminate the possibility that some unusual natural phenomenon may be startling enough to bring random regrets, rebuttals and resolves into a plan for affirmative action. That is the mountaintop effect, the spiritual experience that transforms lives in the same way Moses’ life was transformed.
There is a herbaceous perennial plant, native to warm, open woodland habitats in southern Europe, north Africa and much of Asia. In the summer months, the whole plant is covered with a kind of flammable substance, which is gluey to the touch, and has a very fragrant, lemony aroma; but if it ignites it goes off with a flash all over the plant. One of its common names is the burning bush plant.
That may well be the plant an ex-soldier I went to school with saw in a monastery when he was peace keeping in Israel. That plant was labelled as Moses’ burning bush and kept in a glass case, which my friend said was to stop Kiwis from taking cuttings. However that probably has more to do with religious tourism than scientifically verifying Moses’ experience. Wandering around the wonderful world of Google I also discovered various volcanic and electrostatic explanations. But the real core truth of the story is that out with the sheep Moses had a transforming experience and the narrative builds up the enormity of that transformation with symbolism and metaphor. With that understanding we can see that the story has its own power to open our minds to our own transforming moments and see the spiritual significance in moments of challenge.
Peters challenge in our Gospel reading was completely different to Moses’ but nevertheless was part of Peter’s transformation.
Jesus had been talking about the risky necessity of his mission and the possibility of his death. Jesus was talking about an alternative way of living to the slavery that feudalism under the Roman Empire had become for so many people. Their political system avoided the tedium and confusion of claim and counterclaim that is a feature of our democracy but still managed to deliver a world where the rich got richer and the poor got poorer. The big difference of course was that even if they could be bothered there was nothing the poor could do about it apart from armed revolution. History in fact proved that against Imperial Rome armed revolution was disastrous.
To many Jews of that time, including Jesus’ disciples, the way around Rome’s superior military strength was a reincarnated David leading a heavenly army. What they needed was a messiah to call down such a force and Peter and the disciples thought they had found one in Jesus. The problem was that Jesus didn’t agree with them and in today’s episode he is trying to explain that his vision of a heavenly kingdom is not a political system like anything they have experienced. Indeed it might not gain any traction until after he is killed. Following Jesus risked confrontation and death and history proves that to be true. For Jesus and his disciples the risk was that, just as they did not understand, the Romans were even less likely to understand and interpreted Jesus’ activities as a treasonous risk that would be better eliminated. Arresting suspected terrorists is not just a twenty-first century invention.
Peter does not understand which is not surprising. Many Christians today don’t understand and are still waiting for Jesus to come out of the sky riding on an intercontinental ballistic missile that Trumps the bad guys and restores the pure in heart. Peter sees his vision of hope sliding away and suggests that Jesus must be protected at all costs. Jesus rebukes Peter and even suggests his vision is even evil. But if we read on we discover that Peter never really grasps what is happing until he sits by the fire on the night that Jesus is arrested. It is only when the night is gone, the cock crows and the prisoners are prepared for execution that Peter gets a glimpse of the apostolic journey ahead. Peter’s burning bush is the fire in the courtyard and like Moses’ burning bush it is a moment of reflection when events of the past connect in a clarity of thought that defined his future. For Peter the voice of the rooster was the voice of God.
The challenge for us in both these episodes is to be open to the burning bush moments in our own lives. These readings challenge us to allow our doubts, fears and hope to be brought together in a fire of enthusiasm that empowers rather than consumes.
 Maurice Andrew The Old Testament in Aotearoa New Zealand (Wellington: DEFT 1999)pp.89,90.
Warren Carter Mathew and the Margins: A Socio-Political and Religious Reading, (London/New York: T&T Clark International 2004) pp.341-343.