This Great Sight

© Michael Clarkson, 2019.  Preached at St. John’s Ithaca, March 24, 2019, for Lent 3, Year C.  Texts:  Exodus 3:1-15, Psalm 63:1-8, 1 Cor 10:1-13, Luke 13:1-9.  Image:  God Appears to Moses in Burning Bush by Eugene Pluchart.

“The angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire…Moses said, ‘I must turn aside and look at this great sight’.” [Ex 3:2-3]

The wilderness is a place of preparation.  In Advent, as we prepare for Christmas, the voice of the prophet cries out in the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord.”  In Lent, as we prepare for Easter, Jesus prepares for his public ministry and goes out to the wilderness.  There, he has a visionary experience, as we read two weeks ago on the first Sunday in Lent.  Today we read of Moses’ visionary experience as he prepares —or, rather, is first scared then prepared—  for his own kind of public ministry to the people of Israel.  Moses goes to the wilderness, the vision appears in the form of a bush that is blazing yet not consumed, and Moses responds, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight.”

Go, look, turn:  let’s contemplate what those actions meant for Moses, what they mean for us, and what they mean about God.

First, “go.” Moses was not from the wilderness.  He was born in Egypt, raised by his Hebrew mother for a time, and adopted by Pharaoh’s daughter, who gave him the name by which we know him, Moses.[1]  It’s unclear the extent to which Moses identified with his Hebrew ancestry; nonetheless, one day when he stumbles upon an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, he kills the Egyptian and hides the body.  Pharaoh finds out and seeks to kill Moses in reprisal.  Moses flees to Midian, a good 250 miles or so away.  There he marries the daughter of a prominent citizen and retires to the bucolic life of a shepherd, if such a life can be called “bucolic” in the late Bronze Age near the edge of the Arabian desert.  So, on the surface of the story, Moses goes to the wilderness just doing his new job tending sheep, completely unprepared for what God has in mind.

But, as in any good origin story, there is depth of meaning here.  To become a shepherd is hardly an obvious career transition for a man reared in the decadent luxury of the Egyptian court.  What would Moses know of sheep farming, of breeding, lambing, or shearing?  Maybe his father-in-law provided good mentors.  Even if so, why did they allow him to stray so far as Horeb, whose name literally means “wilderness” or “desolate region,” when shepherds usually stayed within a day of their home?  What food would he find for the flocks there?  What kind of shepherd is that?

To be a shepherd has deeper meanings, though, in the ancient Near East.[2]  Political leaders came to be called shepherds, because they protected and provided for their people.[3] Kings, priests, and prophets of Israel would be called shepherds.  So, to identify Moses as a shepherd in this origin story is to prefigure his role as the leader of the people who, in the rest of this book of Exodus, would become the Israelites.

And, to wander in the wilderness has deeper meanings.  There is a tradition of seeking visions in the desert, of searching for signs, of encountering the holy on the edge of reality.  Maybe Moses was seeking an oracle about whether it was safe to return home to Egypt.[4]  Or maybe he felt lost in his life, bereft of his home and kin, a stranger in a strange land [Ex 2:22], abandoned by whatever deities he previously had worshipped and yet feeling some inchoate call deep within his heart.

So, whether by accident or by choice, Moses goes to the wilderness.  And during this season of Lent, we’re invited to explore the wilderness, too.  To find space in our crowded lives for emptiness, quiet, and solitude.  To reflect on where we feel lost and where God is calling us.  To seek an encounter with the holy, and to discover that God is right there waiting for us.

To make that discovery, though, requires attentiveness on our part.  It isn’t enough to just go to the wilderness.  We, like Moses, must open our eyes to see the smoke coming off that burning bush, attracting us toward some great sight.

Second, then, “look.”  Moses begins by looking at the bush.  We don’t know botanically what kind of bush it was; the Hebrew word might mean a bush that is prickly or brambly.  Some have suggested a blackberry bush.  At St. Catherine’s Monastery in modern day Egypt, you can remove your shoes, enter the Chapel of the Burning Bush, and view the purportedly 3000-year-old still-living bush that Moses himself encountered.  Its scientific name is Rubus sanctus, holy bramble.

Regardless of the species or the historical, rather than spiritual, truth of that tradition, the bush Moses encounters is burning.  In a dry land you would expect such a fire to quickly incinerate the bush, yet as Moses looks, he sees that bush is not consumed.  As he draws near to look more closely, God’s voice breaks through into Moses’ reality:  “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob.” 

Moses’ first response is natural and spontaneous:  to stop looking.  Suddenly confronted by the awesome power of God, by the gulf between the human and the divine, Moses hides his face.[5]  And as if God had not already sufficiently scared Moses, God continues:  Moses, I want you to confront the emperor of the world, to convince a people you abandoned that I haven’t abandoned them, and to conquer a new land you’ve all never seen.

In the face of that absurd demand, Moses has nowhere to turn his gaze.  There is only desolation in the wilderness behind him.  There is unviewable deity in front of him.  So he looks toward the one remaining place he can look:  his own heart.  Who knows how long he spent looking, or what longings there were as he looked?  And out of that looking comes the one question, the only question, the question that drove him out into the wilderness, the question he’s afraid to ask and afraid to know the answer, but cannot avoid asking any longer: “Who am I?”

Much later in Israel’s history, David would ask the same question; first of Saul, then of God.  Solomon also would ask it of God.  Jesus would ask it of his disciples, and maybe before that in the wilderness he asked it of himself.  We, in Lent, are called to ask it of ourselves.

Who am I?  Have I lost my way?  Have I become lazy and indifferent?  Have I been angry and resentful?  Have I committed violence against the people and the Earth around me?[6]  Who am I?

Moses, according to the author of Numbers 12:3, was “very humble, more so than anyone else on the face of the earth.”[7]  It has been said that “humility is not a phony attempt at constant self-effacement, but the selfless respect for reality.”[8]  In the moment Moses asked “Who am I?”, he revealed that kind of extraordinary humility.  His question came not from polite reluctance nor fishing for encouragement.  He looked at himself and asked, “Who am I really?”

I imagine there was silence after that.  The wind that had been blowing across the wilderness stilled.  The dust settled.  The crackling of the fire hushed.  Out of that silence, the same voice as before spoke.  But it was no longer scary.  It no longer seemed to cross an infinite gulf.  God looked at Moses, saw him, loved him, understood perfectly and completely—as only God can—the pain and the fear and the isolation in Moses’ heart.  And God said, “I will be with you.”

I will be with you.  I will be your help.  Under the shadow of my wings will you sing for joy.  [Ps 63].  I will be your shepherd; my rod and my staff will comfort you [Ps 23].  I will send out my light and my truth and lead you to my holy hill [Ps 43].  I will be your refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble [Ps 46].  I will have plenteous redemption; I will redeem you from all your sins [Ps 130].  I will be with you.  Be still, then, and know that I am God [Ps 46].

I imagine Moses taking a slow, deep breath, in, then out, and raising his face to look at last at God.  In that visionary experience, in that liminal moment of selfless reality, with all false conceptions melted away, Moses was finally prepared to ask the ultimate question: “Who are you?”  And God answered, in Hebrew, “Ehyeh asher Ehyeh.”  The Bible in the pews (NRSV) translates it as “I am who I am”[9] and, in a footnote, “I will be what I will be.”[10]  The verb tense is in the Hebrew is neither present nor future; rather, it denotes an ongoing process of accomplishment. [11]  I Will Become What I Will Become.  “Who are you?”  “Wait and see.  I’m not done yet.”

That enigmatic answer is really the answer to both questions Moses asked, “Who am I?” and “Who are you?”  Moses will have to keep looking to learn who God is.  Moses will have to keep looking to learn who Moses is.  I will have to keep looking to learn who I am.  You will have to keep looking to learn who you are.  We all have to keep looking, together, to find out who God is.

As we look in humility at ourselves, not posturing, not pretending, but with eyes that see the reality of our being, it’s possible we’ll encounter visions we’d rather not see.  That leads to the third action, “turn.”

Moses turned aside in the wilderness, and his life changed.   His life became something new in God.  The Israelites, after they were freed from Egypt, spent a generation wandering in the wilderness, where they frequently entered into idolatry —into worshipping other gods or images.  They had to turn aside again and again.  Paul, in his inimitable style, reminds us in today’s reading that the history of Israel is our own history, too.

We, in this season of Lent, are called to turn aside from idolatry, from our own sins.  Jesus, in today’s gospel parable of the fig tree, warns us of the importance of that turning:  unless we repent, we will perish.  Now is our time to begin bearing fruit.  We’re not own our own, though: “I will be with you,” says God.  The gardener in the parable promises to take care of the fig tree.  Recall, Jesus himself was mistaken for a gardener immediately after the resurrection.  Jesus will get down in the dirt with us, nurture us, be our water in a dry and weary land, and help us grow, until his Holy Spirit becomes the inner fire with which we blaze.

Moses goes to the wilderness and says, ‘I must turn aside and look at this great sight.’”  Go, look, turn:  so we are called to do in this season of Lent.

Acknowledgements.

Donne, John.  “Because thou hast been my help (Ps 63:7).”  In Ellen F. Davis, Wondrous Depth: Preaching the Old Testament, pp. 33-61.  Westminster John Knox Press, 2005.

Dunn, J. D. G., and Rogerson, J. W., eds.  Eerdmans Commentary on the Bible, 2003.

Kugel, James L.  How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now, p. 209ff.  Free Press, 2007.

Williams, Michael E., ed.  The Storyteller’s Companion to the Bible, volume 2: Exodus–Joshua, pp. 35-41.  Abingdon Press, 1992.

Footnotes.

[1] That name can be given both Egyptian (“to be born” or “son”) and Hebrew etymologies (“drawn out”; Moses was drawn out of the water by Pharaoh’s daughter.)

[2] Paraphrasing the entry on “Shepherd” in The Eerdmans Bible Dictionary, 1987.

[3] Hammurabi, for example, claimed, “I am the salvation-bearing shepherd, whose staff is straight, the good shadow that is spread over my city.”  From the Epilogue to the Code of Hammurabi, translated by L. W. King.

[4] Thus suggested by note on Exodus 4:18-20 in The Harper Collins Study Bible.

[5] Paraphrasing the note on Exodus 3:6 in The Catholic Study Bible.

[6] See the “Self-Examination” part of the Sacrament of Penance in Saint Augustine’s Prayer Book, Holy Cross Publications, 1967, for other such questions.

[7] Fans of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 might recall the approving words of Drax, “Humility.  I like it.  I too am extraordinarily humble.”

[8] Stanley Hauerwas. “The Significance of Vision: Toward an Aesthetic Ethic.” In Vision and Virtue: Essays in Christian Ethical Reflection, p. 41.  University of Notre Dame Press, 1981.

[9] The Geneva Bible of 1599 is the earliest English translation I can find that sets this phrase in capital letters.

[10] The commentators of The Jewish Study Bible (second edition, Oxford, 2014), an English translation of the Hebrew Bible, prefer the future tense in title case.

[11] Biblical Hebrew grammar does not have the kind of present and future tenses we are accustomed to in English.  Instead, there are two tenses:  one denoting completion; the other denoting continuation, as in an ongoing process of accomplishment.  Both tenses can be used to speak of the past, present, and future. See Genesius’ Hebrew Grammar, second English edition, sections 106 and 107, Oxford, 1910.