The Burning Bush

The Burning Bush, St. Catherine’s Monastery (6th century)

The Burning Bush
Trinity Sunday 2021
Rev. Doug Floyd
Exodus 3:1-6, Psalm 93, Romans 8:12-17, John 3:1-16

Today we celebrate the revelation of God in the person of Jesus Christ. In and through Christ, we behold the mystery of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: one God, three persons. Throughout Eastertide, our Gospel readings focused upon the communion of love between Jesus and the Father as well as Jesus and the disciples.

We also see images of Jesus all through culture and all through history. We can discover images of a blue-eyed Jesus, a black Jesus, an Indian Jesus, a Chinese Jesus, a Marxist Jesus, a chocolate Jesus, and even a statue of Buddy Jesus giving us a thumbs up! There are even images of a female Jesus hanging on a cross. While this image is shocking for some, it is less shocking to see a female character in a novel or film become a Christ figure. 

In the Christian film, The Spitfire Grill, a female ex-convict becomes a Christ figure that transforms a town through her conversion and eventual death. In the Dark Knight film series, even Batman becomes a Christ figure. And one of the greatest examples of a  literary Christ-figure is Prince Myshkin in Dostoevsky’s The Idiot

These images are human constructions of Jesus. Even explicit films about Jesus as well as thematic Christ-figures in art and literature are still human constructions. They reveal first and foremost our own human questions and thoughts about Christ or sacrifice or justice or love. But these most never be confused with Biblical revelation. 

The Holy Spirit can speak to us even through these human images, but the Scripture holds a unique place of inspiration and revelation concerning the work of God in Christ. As we read and study Scripture, we trust the Holy Spirit to guide us into all truth. Today as we think about the Trinity, I want to focus on our first lesson in Exodus. In this story, hopefully we can see part of a larger narrative that is progressively leading to the unveiling God in Christ in the New Testament.

Just prior to today’s story, we learn that Moses was a Hebrew child who is adopted by Pharaoh’s daughter and is raised as part of the family with all the privileges of royalty. When he is older, he must run from this life because he kills an Egyptian in defense of a fellow Hebrew. Moses becomes a refugee among a Midianite tribe in the eastern Arabian deserts. In Exodus 2:22, he refers to himself as a sojourner or alien in a foreign land. 

Meanwhile, the Hebrews in Egypt are groaning under the weight of their slavery. Their cry for help comes before the God of their fathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. 

This sets the stage for today’s story. Moses is keeping the flock of his father-in-law, Jethro. He ends up on the far side of the wilderness, at the mountain of God. The Angel of the Lord appears to Moses in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush. Moses turns toward this bush that burns but is not consumed. God calls out, “Moses, Moses.” He replies, “Here I am.” God says, “Don’t come any nearer.” Take off your shoes.” “You are standing on Holy Ground.” Finally, God says, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” “And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.”

Moses will never return to sheep herding. His life has changed. After this encounter, Moses will be raised up as a mouthpiece of God to Pharaoh. He will lead the Hebrews out of Egypt to the land of promise. In this little short story, we catch a glimpse of the grand work of God across the ages. This story is but one of many events that prepares the people of God for the Incarnation of God in Jesus Christ. 

I want to briefly consider four aspects of God’s revelation in this story. 

  • The Place of God’s Revelation (dwelling)
  • The Name of God in Revelation
  • The Person to Whom God Reveals Himself
  • The Revelation of God through a Burning Bush

1. The Place of God’s Revelation (dwelling)
In our story today, Moses leads the flock of sheep to the west side or far side of the wilderness when he approaches Mount Horeb, the Mountain of God. This is most likely the same mountain as Mount Sinai. In this place of desolation, the Lord appears to Moses in a flame of fire of the midst of a bush that is not consumed by the fire. Moses is told to remove his shoes because he stands on holy ground or literally the land of holiness.

When the Lord tells Moses to remove His shoes, he is not saying that this bush and this land are specifically holy. The revealing of God is the source of this holiness. The Lord has approached the very place where Moses stands and has unveiled His glory. The Lord is free to reveal His holiness on Mt Sinai, in the wilderness, and on Mt Zion. Later, He is also free to reveal His holiness in the land of Babylon, the place of captivity. 

He is free to reveal His glory in a high and holy place but also in the broken and contrite. The very place of loss and forsakenness and anguish and pain, can become the place where the Holy God chooses to reveal His glory. Death on the cross is considered accursed, but when Jesus refers going to the cross He speaks of going to glory. On this accursed tree, God reveals His glory. The cross reveals the very wisdom of God and yet Paul will explain in 1 Corinthians 1 that the cross is a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Greeks. 

Paul continues this theme in 2 Corinthians to argue that our own weak and frail bodies becomes the very place of God’s appearing, His glory. 

The place of God’s revealing is the place of His dwelling. Throughout Scripture we read see an emphasis on preparing a place for Him to dwell. But at the same time, He is free to withdraw. He leaves the Tabernacle: Ichabod. He abandons to the Temple to destruction. He is not bound by previous places of dwelling. He withdraws due to human sin and unrighteousness. But He keeps drawing nearer to humans. Eventually in Christ, we see the dwelling place of God has become a human. In the Son of God we behold the Father. Through Christ alone, we become the dwelling place of God. We’ll return to this idea in a moment.

2. The Name of God in Revelation
In today’s story, the Lord tells Moses, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” (Exodus 3:6). If we back up to chapter two, the Hebrews are groaning under the weight of slavery. “And God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. God saw the people of Israel—and God knew” (Exodus 2:24–25). This same God who covenanted with the Patriarchs and who hears the cry of His people, reveals Himself to Moses and simultaneously reveals Himself of the God of the covenant. 

The covenantal name for the God of Israel is YHWH. In today’s story that name is used twice and is translated as Lord. In verse 3:2 we read that, “The Angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of the bush.” This likely refers to a pre-incarnate appearance of the Son of God. Before He enters human flesh, the Son of God still reveals the Father.

In today’s story, the Son of God reveals God’s glory to Moses in a flame of fire that burns but does not consume the Bush. Moses turns aside and beholds this wonder. “YHWH sees that Moses turns aside to see.” 

YHWH is the particular covenantal name that Israel uses for God. This name is difficult to define but appears to be some form of the verb “to be.” Martin Buber suggested that it could be understand to mean, “I Am and Remain Present.” 

He goes on to suggest that this name would communicate that YHWH cannot be summoned like other gods because “He remains present.” He is always present even when He does not reveal Himself. 

He was present when the people cried out. He was present when Moses ran away from Egypt. He has been and will be present with His people. In the fullness of time, He reveals Himself to Moses and then to the people. And in the fullness of time, He reveals Himself fully in the person of Jesus Christ. 

3. The Person to Whom God Reveals Himself
In our story today, the Lord reveals Himself to Moses. This revelation changes Moses, will change the Hebrews, and will ultimately change history. 

In Exodus 2:22, Moses says that he has been a sojourner or alien in a foreign land. Jethro shows Moses hospitality and even welcomes him into his family. Jethro models the very generosity of God. Human hospitality is but a reflection of the generous God who shows his gracious love in creating this world and restoring us after we’ve become entangled in sin and death. 

Moses, the alien, wanders west of wilderness with his sheep. The wilderness is the haunt of malicious powers. It is but an image of the absence of God. Yet, in the middle of this far place God reveals his glory in a flame of fire that does not consume the bush. As Moses turns to behold this wonder, the Lord tells Moses to take off his shoes for he is standing on holy ground. Moses, the alien, has become the guest of God in the land of the holy.

When the Lord draws near, the alien becomes a welcome guest. This movement from alien to guest prefigures the work of Christ. Paul writes in Ephesians 2:13, “Now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.” And continuing in verse 19, “you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God.” We are welcomed into the household of God and become part of His family. 

Moses is welcomed and then sent as God’s ambassador, the mouthpiece of the Lord. Moses moves from alien to guest to witness. Moses will become as a god to Pharaoh for he will reveal the Lord. He is sent back to the Hebrews as the one who bears witness to the Lord before the Hebrews and the Egyptians. 

Think of a similar movement in the New Testament. Jesus welcomes a group of disciples as a new family. Then they will become ambassadors, witnesses who extend the generosity of God to other aliens. 

This is the image of Pentecost: But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth. (Acts 1:8). We become witnesses to the generosity of God revealed in Jesus Christ.

This brings us one last meditation: the burning bush. 

4. The Revelation of God through a Burning Bush
In today’s story, the Lord reveals Himself through a flame of fire in a blazes that blazes but does not burn. Moses turns away in fear. Later Moses will return to Mt. Sinai with the Hebrews, and he will both behold and dwell in the glory. Moses will become the bush that blazes but does not burn. For the glory of will shine out from Moses without consuming Him.

This gives us but a glimpse of the unveiling of God in Christ Jesus. For He is the burning bush: fully God and fully man. The flaming fire points to His divinity and the untouched bush points to His humanity. The divinity of God does not consume His humanity. He is both God and man, one person. He also shines out brighter than the noon day sun on the mount of transfiguration. As we behold Jesus, we behold the very image of God. Jesus reveals the heart of the Father to the world. 

To the unbeliever, this fire of God is terrifying. It is a sign of death, of destruction. To the child of God, this fire is the burning passion of love. Unstoppable and without limit. The Gospel is both the aroma of life and the aroma of death. 

We also see this image of the burning bush in the virgin Mary. The Holy Spirit calls this woman to give birth to Jesus. She will bear the mystery in her womb of God and man. She will bear this holy fire but she herself will not be consumed. Mary is called Theotokos. The God-bearer or the “she who gave birth to God.” This outrageous language is not meant to divinize Mary but rather to preserve the doctrine of Jesus Christ as fully God and fully man. The virgin Mary stands as a reminder that God has drawn near in the man Jesus Christ. 

At the same time, Mary becomes an image of the people are God. The church is the insignificant bush on the far side of the wilderness. We often seem unimportant and forgotten and as Chesterton reminds us, the church is always on the point of death. Yet, the fire of God flames out of this unimportant plant continues to reveal the love of God revealed in the person of Jesus Christ to a world in sin and death. We bear the precious Gospel of Jesus Christ in our hearts, our minds, and even our bodies. May we reveal the God whose love flames out like a fire that burns but does not consume.

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16)

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