God In the Every Day: A Burning Bush
The Season of Lent
March 10, 2019
Most all of us have a token or a memento or two from our past stored away for safe keeping. Maybe ours is a pair of worn ballet slippers that we wore when we danced in The Nutcracker as a teenager, a ticket stub from a favorite football game that we attended or the dog tags that hung around our neck when we were in the service. At our house, one of our collective mementos is a nice collection of seashells that have been gathered over countless trips to various beaches.
These things – the slippers, ticket stubs, dog tags and sea shells are not really all that valuable in and of themselves. What makes them valuable is that they are tangible reminders and representations of something else-a last dance, a great game, sacrifice and courage while serving our country or special times away with family. The objects point beyond themselves while helping us to remember and not forget.
The Bible pictures God the Father and ultimately Jesus the Son doing the exact same thing. In numerous places, God the Father and Jesus the Son compare themselves to tangible, real, every day things as a way of teaching us and giving us incite into themselves. The burning bush, the light of the world, the bread of life, the shepherd and sheep are all every day things that are used to help us as human beings to get our arms around the mystery that is God. In turn, like our mementos and special objects, it is not these things that are really important but it is what they help us to understand beyond themselves that really matters.
Likewise, in each of these moments, when a common object is used as an example of what God is like, the phrase I am or ego emi in the Greek New Testament is attached to the moment. Again, through the object, God as Father or Jesus as Son says, I am which is to say this is what I am like – I am who I am, I am the bread of life, I am the light of the world, I am the good shepherd. In this every day element, I am giving you a glimpse of myself. In this common thing, you meet me and I meet you as a God of and in the every day
As we make our way over these coming weeks toward Holy Week is this season that we call Lent, I want to engage us in a weekly conversation about these I am statements and every day objects that help us get our arms around a holy God. Through them, we will be reminded of who God is and what God is like. In every one of them, God as Father or Jesus as Son says “this is who I am, this is who I want to be for you.”
The first of these I am moments is unlike the others in several ways. For one, It is unique in that it is the only one we will consider from the Old Testament. It is found in Exodus 3 when Moses encounters God at the burning bush.
Moses is out tending the sheep of his father in law Jethro. He is not in a holy place but rather in an every day place doing a normal thing. He is taking care of sheep and traversing the landscape while both trying to watch what he is doing and where he is going. In the moment, he sees a common but also an unusual sight. Moses sees an ordinary bush that is on fire and that yet is not burning up. It burns continuously while never actually being completely consumed. In other words, Moses did not encounter a burned bush. Instead it was a burning bush. It was a bush that was on fire but not a bush that was burning up. This is what caught Moses’ attention – the perpetual nature of the flame.
If you have ever been to Arlington National Cemetery in Washington DC then you know that along with the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier that one of the other must see things there is the gravesite of John F. Kennedy with its eternal flame. That’s right, an eternal flame that come snow or rain, daylight or dark never goes out. This is what Moses was experiencing, an eternal burning bush that never went out or burned up.
Yet, it wasn’t really the bush that was important. Instead, it was what the bush led Moses to understand about God. God too was eternal. God didn’t change. God’s nature continued with the same intensity at all times – never burning out or up.
This is where we encounter the other interesting thing. No only is this the only I am statement which we will consider from the Old Testament, it is also the only one in which God in saying what He is like while never really referencing the object or image that is at the heart of the same moment. In other words, at other times, Jesus will say “I am the bread” or “I am the light” but here God does not say “I am the burning bush”. This is different and thus it feels more complicated. Yet, at the same time it is similar in that what God does say and what the continuously burning bush points to is God’s unchanging and continuous ways.
What God says when Moses asks God what name God wants to be called is this “I am who I am”. In other words, God says “I am the one who stays the same, I am the one who doesn’t change, I am the one who continues to do the same things in the same way”. In essence, God is like the burning bush, as hard as it seems to believe and as illogical as it sounds. God is a burning bush that doesn’t consume the plant or ever go out, God is the continuous, ever constant, never changing one.
I am who I am.
What is interesting about this is a few year’s back, one of the leading scholars in the translation of Exodus, a man named Everette Fox, said that perhaps there is a better way to translate this particular statement. According to Fox, the statement I am who I am is connected to what God says to Moses in the rest of this section which is to say that God repeatedly promises Moses that he would be with him, be present and available. Moses was to go from this moment and ultimately go back to Egypt and set the Israelites free. Here in our text for today, God is in the process of calling Moses to this task. As he does, God is clear that he would be with Moses and not leave or abandon him. Again, he would be the constant one.
In turn, what Everette Fox says is that this idea is embedded in the statement I am who I am. This was God once more emphatically saying to Moses, I am going to be in the future what I have been in the past. I am not going to change. I am not going to quit. I am going to be true to my nature. I am. Fox goes on to say that maybe our best way of thus translating this original language here for a modern audience is not “I am who I am” but rather “I will be there”. “Moses! you can count on me. Where you go, I will be there. When you are frightened, I will be there. My nature will not change. I will be who I am. Like a bush that keeps burning and never stops. Like an eternal flame. I am who I am. I will be there.”
For me, this modern rendering of this phrase puts this passage in a whole new light and it also takes God’s clarification to Moses on that day out of the philosophical realm and drops it down into the every day. After all, as much as anything else, one of the best things for us to hear is for someone to say to us “I’ll be there”.
When we are children and we have an important line in the school play, the solo in the band concert or a chance to start in the basketball game, all we want our parents to say “I will be there”. Even as adults, what we still long to hear in those situations when we just need the presence of others with us is the phrase, “I will be there”. This four word statement is the best thing we can hear and is indeed music to our ears. What is better than to know that the God of the universe, for you and I in our every day lives, has a similar commitment and devotion to us. God too says not generally but specifically to you and to me I will be there.
We have some dear friends who retired last fall. When they did, they moved to a new home in a different state to begin their retirement years. Since the cost of the move was on them now, they were trying to be cost conscious and do things themselves. Shortly before they were to move, a man in their church approached them one night with an interesting offer. “Listen,” he said, “my business is fairly slow this time of year and I have plenty of vacation time. You all have meant a lot to me and to our church. I would like to help you move. I can drive the U-Haul and pull one of your cars and then you two can make the ride together. When we get there, I’ll help unload everything and help get the beds set up. Then, I’ll just buy a ticket and fly back home. Now, don’t say ‘no’ and don’t feel bad, I want to be there and do this for you.”
In essence, what the man was saying was those four magic words “I will be there”. My friend, got a big smile on his face when telling that story. He said that gesture was one of the most memorable gifts and maybe the best retirement gift that they received.
This is God’s constant, ongoing, unchanging nature. This is God’s good gift and daily gift to us – “I will be there, it is who I am…and I am who I am.” Amen.