When you want to catch someone’s attention, but they are just not noticing! That. You might wave at them, or call their name, but they just don’t see and they just don’t hear. And it doesn’t help that the person you want to encounter doesn’t even know you. But you know them. Why should they pay any attention?
Moses was out with his father-in-law’s sheep. He was out of his normal territory. In more than one way! He had been brought up as an Egyptian prince, though born a Hebrew. He had killed an Egyptian who was maltreating a Hebrew slave, and had fled the country, a fugitive. He had the good fortune to fall in with Jethro, the priest of Midian, by protecting his daughters, and had thereby found himself a new home. He was settled enough in this adopted way of life – he had a job, a wife, a family. Did he miss the politics and parties, the glamour and the gossip of the royal house? They were a distant memory. He was glad to be alive and safe. And this day, he and the sheep had gone further away, looking for pasture. Working with sheep gave him a lot of time on his own. You had to be alert at all times, certainly, but the silence honed and shaped you day by day. It was an intensely practical and demanding job dealing with pasture, water, danger, disease – you had to have your feet on the ground.
So how do you jerk Moses out of his thoughts and memories and make him notice?
It was the flame he saw first at the edge of his consciousness. Fires were common enough, though why should there be a fire here, in a bush on the lower slopes of the mountain? He went to look. And he saw that the bush itself was not burning up. The flame blazed higher as he came near. And a voice said: Don’t come any closer! Take your shoes off, this is holy ground.
And its holy ground not because the place is special or the bush is special. Holy ground is every square centimetre of this planet and beyond as made by God. Holy ground is your every day at the moment when you notice how special it is.
Sometimes, it takes something extraordinary to grab someone’s attention, when you want them to see a blazing flame and to hear your voice and to feel the hot sand under your bare feet and to attend with that inner spiritual sense – that’s the difficult bit, engaging the inner spirit.
The voice tells Moses that he is the God of all his ancestors, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, right down to his own father. And the voice of God tells Moses that he has a job to do in bringing the people of the Hebrews out of Egypt where they are being oppressed, and leading them to a new home, a good land, where they can thrive and flourish. Moses does not accept the calling with joy. He starts a whole series of excuses, most of which take place after our reading ends.
The first barrier is about who this is who is talking to him out of the fire. Moses wants tangible proof but God offers him a sign. A sign is different from proof. A sign is a visible presentation of a divine truth. The fire is a sign, a sign that God is present, and it says something about what God is like. God is like a fire that purifies and cleanses and is active and changes things. A sign is a bit like a sacrament, a physical thing that is done but points to an inner spiritual meaning.
Moses asks God-whom-he-encounters-in-flame what his name is. And the answer is strange. Our translation says “I am who I am” or it could just as well be “I will be who I will be”. Some read the Hebrew letters as Yahweh, others as Jehovah. It is a brush off. God is not giving a name to Moses, but a pointer.
Moses wants a name, a label for the God he encounters, but as soon as you put a name to God, you make God smaller, more manageable. But the God who is with us cannot be controlled by our will or maniputated by our prayers. God was. God is. God will be. That’s it. It took a vision of a burning bush for Moses to encounter the inner truth that God was with him; God was always with him, and God would always be with him.
Behind Moses’ question is another: What is God like? How do we talk about God? ‘God’ is not a name, it is a role, a place. And it raises that question for us: Who is God? And there’s no easy answer. There is no pat answer, no definition, just a relationship, a relationship that is there whether you like it or not. It’s when you acknowledge it and choose to be part of it that you feel its presence.
And what Moses is discovering – and enables us to see – is that God is with us. That’s who God is. God is always with us. Moses’ mission will happen because God is with him. This is how we encounter God, because God is with us. Even when we don’t notice God, God is always there. Let God be God. Let God be with you. God is always with you – just open the door.
Stop what you’re doing.
Step aside from the daily path.
Take off your shoes, for you are treading on holy ground.
Open your eyes to see the glory.
And open your ears to hear the whisper of God’s voice.
It is a movement that happens every day.
Your God is calling you.