Note: The following is the manuscript of the sermon that I preached this morning on Exodus 3:1-15.
The wild has an almost mystic or alien quality to us. People head out into the wilderness to find God or find meaning. Many others do not like the wild because it is so unexpected, dangerous, or at the very least lacking the modern amenities that make our lives comfortable. But the wild is something strange to us. It’s unexpected. It’s foreign. It’s dangerous.
We look at our Old Testament passage today in which Moses has this life-altering encounter with God at the burning bush and we say, “Well, of course that happened. That kind of thing happens in the wild all the time in the Old Testament.” Back then you couldn’t get through breakfast without an angel bring you a message from God.
Yet it seems like the text wants us to know how strange it was for God to show up in this place to this particular guy. Horeb, which becomes known as the Mountain of God, can translate to “wasteland.” We are told that Moses is not just going to the wilderness, but beyond the wilderness. This is the middle of nowhere; not where one would expect to encounter the Almighty.
Moses is just doing his normal, everyday job as he makes his way out beyond the wilderness. He is leading his father-in-law’s sheep out to graze. This is just a Tuesday for him. Plus if God were to show up to anyone, it would be this shepherd’s father-in-law who was an actual priest. Not Moses, a former prince that fled Egypt as a fugitive whose best days seemed behind him. There was no reason for Moses to believe that he would encounter God in such a life-changing way.
So many times we have these parameters for how the world works: this is safe, this is dangerous. This is the wild, this is civilization. This is where God speaks, this is where God doesn’t speak. This is the kind of person that God uses, this is not. Yet again and again, those assumptions are obliterated. While we are at the doorstep of this passage, let me emphasize this: Do not box in where God can speak to you.
God can be experienced here in church and out there in the rest of the world as we go about our normal Tuesdays or Thursdays, any day. God may not speak to us through burning bushes, but God can and does speak to us through all sorts of things, people, and situations every single day. Moses was going about his normal day when he saw something that piqued his curiosity. He stopped and investigated and the experience transformed him. We need to be a spiritually curious people aware of the truth that God speaks in all sorts of unexpected places.
Yet the encounter with God does not stop with a warm and fuzzy moment with the Almighty. Moses is given a mission, a calling. We often think of callings as being reserved for only a special kind of people like the Moseses or Jeremiahs of the Bible. Growing up, whenever I heard about calling in church, it concerned someone going into the ministry. If you were going to become a pastor or a youth minister or a missionary, that was a big deal. God had placed a calling on this person’s life. They were going to do something that mattered. Of course, the unintentional message that sent was that the vocations of people that did not go into the ministry did not matter as much. It also sent the message that what rest of us did was not considered ministry.
Of course, this is not true. Whatever vocation to which you feel called matters, whether it is working in a church or anywhere else. And whatever you do, can be a ministry because ministry is something to which each and every single one of us is called. A few weeks ago, this church commissioned teachers and students as they went back to school. I think that is fantastic. It reminded us, it reminded me of the purpose and importance of what we do in the classroom. It makes me wonder what would happen if all churches began to see vocation in such a way. What if the church church celebrated someone deciding to become a teacher or a chef, a nurse or an engineer the same way we celebrated one becoming a minister?
Granted the calling that we are given is not just a matter of what makes us feel good. Our calling can be difficult. In our text, God has seen the misery of the people of Israel. Indeed it says that God knows their suffering. Scholars suggest that this means God does not simply have knowledge of the people’s pain, but that God intimately understands this anguish. God sees those suffering and wants to save them. Thus God wants Moses to go to Egypt and lead the people out of this land of oppression. God’s mission for Moses is God’s mission for us: As God is compassionate towards the oppressed so are we to be compassionate.
Earlier this week, I went for a run with my friend T.J. and afterwards we were talking about various things: his new job, my time transitioning from a job I’ve had for many years, and this sermon. I mentioned to Teej this idea about calling and that I wanted to somehow convey that our calling—wherever we are and in whatever we do—involves this idea of rescuing or freeing the oppressed. Teej reminded me of something that the author Donald Miller had once said.
Miller looked at the life of Joseph and other biblical characters and found that there main reason for existing was to help save lives. That is what Joseph did in helping Egypt prepare for famine. That is what Moses eventually does by going to Egypt and leading the people out of slavery. God is in the art of saving lives, of freeing people from oppression, and God wants us to be part of that.
And you may be thinking, “That’s great, but how am I supposed to help save lives in what I do? How do I bring hope to others as a businessperson or a parent or a student?” Your vocation—no matter how pedestrian it may seem—can be full of redemptive action. The teacher can help save students from ignorance. The artist can help save us from a world without beauty or a world where people go unchallenged. The garbage collector save from a world where our waste suffocates us. The parent saves their children from a world without love or guidance. The student learns and is therefore equipped to help save from all sorts of different maladies that oppress others. And those are just ways that we can help save that are related to our vocations. In every thing that we do, we are called to love God with all of our being, to love those that we encounter as we love ourselves.
And God calls us to help with things that are outside our normal day-to-day life. There is a world that is full of hurt. You only have to look at the news to realize that there are people that imprisoned in worlds of violence and poverty. There are men, women, and children that live in situations where they are treated as subhuman. And we have seen with our own eyes that though there are many people like this around the globe, there are many brothers and sisters of ours that live under this oppression in this country, in our own backyard.
What do we do? We listen. God listen to the cries of the oppressed, that was the first action in the redemptive arc of Israel. When people are being trampled under foot, when their rights are not what they should be, we must listen. And we must not assume that we have all the answers or that we are the ones that are doing all of the saving.
And we must realize that we are parts to a whole: that some of our roles might be big and some of our roles might be small. But we must do whatever we can with all of our might to help. This past Thursday, our youngest son Liam had a fever-induced seizure. My mom was putting him the car and he just went limp and started convulsing. It was the most terrifying moment that I ever had as a parent. The only prayer that I could muster as I drove him to the hospital was "Please God help."
At the hospital, we were helped by the people that registered us, the nurses that checked Liam's vital, people in the waiting room that offered a blanket for our child, doctors, nurses, people that brought food for us because all of this happened at lunch. So many people brought peace into an incredibly difficult situation. They helped us in ways big and small, some probably didn't even realize what their smallest of gestures meant. Liam is perfectly fine now. He was back to running off with his brother's toys that evening. The problems in this world can sometimes seem to big for us, but there is no doubting the power of small rebellions against the evil in this world.
But helping save lives is not easy by any stretch of the imagination. It means listening well. It requires patience. It can be risky. When Moses received his calling, he recognized the gigantic task to which God was calling him. So Moses pushed back. He wasn’t sure he was the man for the job, he needed proof that God would be with him, and he needed to know what would happen if the Israelites asked for God’s name. God responds with something that we often translate to mean “I Am Who I Am,” “I Am That I Am,” “I Will Be Who I Am,” and the list could go on. It should come as no surprise that scholars are in disagreement about what this means. Some say that God is dodging the question about a name. Some say that God is rebuking Moses for even asking that question.
Yet others say that God reveals God’s self as best as humans can comprehend. John I. Durham says that Moses’ question is couched in the context of going into Egypt: a land where many gods exist that are said to give that nation its great power. And thus he renders God’s name as “I am the One who always is.” In other words, despite the power that evil holds over these people, despite the fact that it looks like all of these other so-called gods are running roughshod over creation, the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob is the one that truly and actually exists. The question is, “What is God really like?” and the response from God is “I really Am.”
In a world where it seems like evil sometimes has free reign, when it is difficult to imagine that that there is a God, much less a good God out there, God reminds us “I really Am.” God is really here. God is really with us. And God really cares about what happens here on earth. God is at work in the world saving lives and wants us to join in.
What an incredible call. What a wild and unbelievable call, that this God that is greater than our comprehension wants us to join in the work of breathing love, joy, compassion, and redemption into the world. We have a calling and that calling is sacred. We are here to help save lives in ways big and small. We are to point to the compassionate, saving God in all that we do. You have an incredibly important sacred calling. May you not wait on a burning bush to go about it.