Try to look at this thing from Moses' point of view: it was all just so, well, implausible. Oh, yes, there had been the dramatic circumstances of his early childhood—the threatened baby, hidden as long as possible by his mother and then set afloat in a little basket-boat, in hopes that somehow he might survive: one pictures the desperate contemporary mother leaving her baby on the doorstep of a stranger, hiding in the bushes, watching, desperately hoping that the doorstep was a good one. Moses hit the lottery that time: what could be better than to be rescued by Pharaoh's daughter and reared with every privilege. It was as if that contemporary mother had somehow gotten her child to the very steps of the White House, and Mrs. Obama took a fancy to him. A happy ending, fit for Sunday School stories for ages to come.
Except that wasn't the ending. Not yet. Moses still, somehow, identified with his own people—he was not really an Egyptian; he was a Hebrew; and his first attempt at providing some deliverance for his people didn't go so well. Killing Egyptians was frowned upon, even when done by Pharaoh's adopted son, who was soon a felon on the lam. He landed in Midian, married the daughter of a Midianite priest, and ended up as the shepherd tending his father-in-law's flocks—a job a bit shy of what one might have supposed to be his potential. All the bright promise of his miraculous youth had come to this—tending somebody else's sheep: an outcome that has almost no potential as fodder for the children's sermon or, for that matter, for the motivational speaker's barrel.
Oh, I know, that wasn't the ending, either. But linger here awhile. Moses had to. Forty years. Forty years tending those sheep, Acts 7:30 tells us. It's a symbolic number—think of the forty days of Noah's flood, the forty years in the wilderness, the forty days of Jesus' temptation, even the literal 40 lashes that were the maximum that could be imposed: forty of something is a severe testing; it is about all you can bear of it. It feels like forever—interminable and intolerable. Not to mention that you don't get any younger as those days and years elapse, and Moses wasn't a kid when he left Egypt. By now he was a "senior citizen," or mighty close to being one. Time, surely, to make his peace with the deadly ordinariness of a life that was winding to an entirely unspectacular close. Long past time to be done with youthful dreams and ambitions. Just play out your hand in the circumstances you've ended up in, tending sheep that aren't even yours.
That the struggle is so ordinary—like so many long struggles—doesn't mean it's easy. Even forage for sheep can be hard to come by, and this time Moses had gone a long way looking for it—"beyond the wilderness," says the text, to "the mountain of God." Not that Moses knew Horeb (the same place, we assume, as Sinai) by that name then: that identification would come only later. He didn't even know who God was at this point, for goodness' sake, much less expect anything from him. As we'll see, that's not the only thing that seems sort of backwards in this story. But the point at the moment is just that he was a long way from home, anticipating nothing, oblivious to new possibilities, looking only for food for his father-in-law's flock. Not quite the sort of thing that inspires us with sure-fire new techniques for deepening our spiritual lives.
An unexpected interruption
Then God just shows up. Entirely on his own initiative. All Moses saw at first was a blazing bush, but a very funny one, one that wasn't getting burnt up. Those of us who live in brush-fire zones wouldn't mind a few of those. The spectacle surprised him, of course; and there was enough life left in the old man yet that he turned aside to investigate. Something in him was still curious; something in him could still respond. Only then did a Voice come from the bush, and what it spoke was Moses' name: "Moses, Moses." Something—Somebody?—knew him by name, called him by name. That must have been at least as disconcerting as an incombustible talking thorn bush.
What do you say to a talking thorn bush that calls you by name? I mean, if you haven't already high-tailed it out of there? (Picture the psychiatrist, prescription pad in hand, trying to look serious while she asks the patient how he responded to this altogether improbable situation. Talking bushes are not a good sign. Answering them doesn't help.) Our "here I am" translations of Moses' words tend to evoke the solemn, "Here I am, send me" of Isaiah 6, and the pious chorus based on it. Really, though, he wasn't saying anything much weightier than "yes," or, I like to imagine, "uh—huh?" What would you expect him to say, for goodness' sake? The warning from the flaming bush not to come closer might, under the circumstances, seem superfluous; but the command to take off his shoes and the word about the ground being holy ground begins to shed a little light on who the speaker might be. Note, though, that the caution—the emphasis on holiness, a holiness that one does not approach casually, any more than one just saunters into a blazing flame—comes before any sort of more reassuring identification.
Backwards again, as we tend to see it. There is no sentimentality here, no casual familiarity.
Then the identification comes: "I am the God of your father … ." It's a singular, Moses' own father, as if there is in fact something personal going on here, something evoking an old covenant promise that had not yet altogether faded away in the hopes of Moses' own natural family. The voice continues, "the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob." Yes, the old promise, linked to the old heroes whose still-familiar names echoed down old corridors not traversed for a very long time. This God was showing up again? Now? Here? Speaking to a nobody in the middle of nowhere? But it wasn't a time for questions. "Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God."
God keeps talking, not just renewing the promise of the Land, but saying explicitly, twice, that he has seen the misery of the people, and that he has come down to bring them up—that pattern prefiguring the Incarnation, God's great act of coming down to bring his people up. It's a magnificent moment—a magnificent moment, provided one doesn't stop to ask too many questions, all those questions later applied to the Incarnation itself, and, now, to the Lord's promised return. Mainly questions about the long delay and the vast, incomprehensible evils suffered in the meantime. People suffer and endure oppression and die for years, generations, now even millennia—and we have this strange assurance (is it an assurance?) that the Lord sees, the Lord hears. But we haven't the faintest idea why he steps in when and where he does. Times and seasons are not ours to know, Jesus himself would later say.
Still, God steps in at just this point, and as far as Moses is concerned, the news is suddenly not so good: the God who had said he had come down to help suddenly turns the project into Moses' responsibility. "So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt." What?! Hasn't this God, who says he sees and hears things, noticed that Moses was in Midian precisely because he wasn't exactly popular in Egypt? And that he's old, and that there is, after all, only one of him? Imagine an elderly African in old Mississippi, known to be guilty of a murder for which he has never been apprehended, going to the governor of the state and demanding that his people be set free. Right. Plausible, this is not. You can hardly blame Moses for objecting.
An un-reassuring assurance
To the objections, God says that the proof that it was he who sent him will be that when he returns—after he had delivered the people from Egypt—then he would worship God on this mountain. Oh, yes, God also said he would be with him, but I suspect that reassurance was rather buried under the promise of a sign that would come only after the fact. Backwards! There Moses stood, surrounded by vast implausibilities and a demand to do what was clearly beyond his power.
It's the very nuttiness of it all that I find oddly comforting, for if your life is anything like mine, it fits the messiness and implausibility and unpredictability and yet sometimes compelling reality of God's involvement, of the way he does things. Let's take the narrative in reverse now, beginning with this business of confirmation not before the fact, but after the fact. It's astonishing to me how much ink commentators have spilled trying to rationalize this piece, trying to make it fit the proper sort of sign that comes as a confirmation before the event. How is it that it doesn't seem to occur to them that most of life is actually much more like this narrative: we know only afterwards that God has led us all the way. There's something about the life of faith that involves uncertainties in an essential way. In fact, in a fallen world, it's precisely the folks that are altogether certain of what God wants, altogether certain that he is on their side, who may be especially dangerous, whether they be today's Muslim extremists or Christian abortion clinic bombers, or the Germans of WWII who had "Gott mit uns," "God with us," on their belt buckles. Someone said that we never do evil so completely or cheerfully as when we do it from religious conviction. Disconcerting as uncertainty is, it sometimes spares us from becoming monsters. Jesus is reported to have said, "Anyone who resolves to do the will of God will know whether the teaching is from God or whether I am speaking on my own" (Jn. 7:17): you find out after the fact, in the course of seeking to obey. It's a fallible sort of operation, but one that protects us, and others, from ourselves.
But the risks are so overwhelming—obviously so for Moses, perhaps not always so obviously, but still truly, for the rest of us. So God's promise of his presence matters supremely, lest we think we are simply abandoned to whatever fate or the currently ruling powers might bring about. We try to obey, we try to be faithful, knowing that we will surely foul up in a thousand different ways and that most of the time what God is doing in it all will not be obvious—a lot less obvious, actually, than in the very particular case of Moses. Perhaps only at the very end of our lives do we say with full assurance, "Yes, God really was with me all the way. In spite of everything. And, yes, in everything."
A key thing here is that what God is accomplishing in and through our lives both does and doesn't depend on us. It depends on us in the limited sense that God uses every aspect of what he has made us to be—including Moses' curiosity and his identification with the people of Israel; including our particular gifts, and also our courage and hope, our dreams and energy, our determination, our faith. Availability to God does not involve passivity. But it does involve a sort of humble recognition that what counts most does not finally depend on us. "Apart from me you can do nothing," said Jesus (Jn. 15:5). One of the more bracing features of the whole biblical narrative, Old Testament and New, is how impossibly flawed every last hero of the faith was. It's not just old and reluctant Moses. Yes, no doubt David is the textbook case, who seemed to go out of his way to break every last one of the commandments; but remember the finagling Abraham and unbelieving Sarah, the scoundrel Jacob, or the impulse-control deficient Peter. Make your own list; add your own name. We should have learned by now that if what we bring to the table is finally determinative, we are quite definitively sunk. Oddly enough, God's power really is made perfect in weakness (2 Cor. 12:9). And we're just sinful enough that we really wish it were otherwise, that we could get more credit.
This business of sin brings us to what God is up to, which always seems to involve dealing with sin one way or another. Here, it's specifically the matter of Egyptian oppression, leading to the prolonged suffering of God's people. Somehow—we can't quite see how—that he has waited so long to deal with this problem does not mean that it doesn't matter. It feels that way to us, of course: we tend to identify delay with indifference. But what we know of God's character as revealed in Christ tells us he does not less but more than just see and hear of sin and suffering; he takes it upon himself. God "comes down" not to inspect, but to take our troubles to himself.
Whatever the meaning of the long periods of seeming inactivity may be, it cannot be that they represent the behavior of a God who doesn't care. In fact, more emphasis is given to this matter of deliverance of God's people, deliverance to blessings that he has prepared for them, than to anything else in my text. The promise of a just God who cares is central to everything. Lose any thread of that fabric—of the justice, or the caring, or the sure promise—and the whole comes unraveled. We cannot shape godly lives without all three. Obviously, the justice, the caring, the promises, are not just for us; the focus of the passage is outward, toward taking impossible responsibility for the welfare of others. God doesn't say a word about, say, Moses' wishes or thwarted dreams or unfulfilled longings when he tells him to go talk to Pharaoh.
But—but—he does something still more important. He addresses him, he calls him by name—the surest way of saying that he does, after all and in spite of everything, know him. And it is in that context that he gives him a task that is not some generic task, not some encouragement to pursue his passions or work on his deficiencies or hire a career counselor to figure out what's next, but the particular task for which God has chosen him.
A burning call
One more thing, and an important one, given the small point that this task was on the face of it altogether impossible. God said all of these things from the middle of a bush burning but not consumed—a fairly impressive demonstration that he is precisely the God of the impossible. Moses did, after all, already have his sign.
The God of the fire that burns without destroying: old commentators on this passage, both Jewish and Christian, fancied that this is how God works in his servants, burning within them without harming them. That part applies to us, too, when God calls our names. Have you heard him?
Your task, my task, might not be a grand one that will go down in history, but it still almost certainly has to do with something more than just ourselves—something to do with justice, something to do with care for the suffering of others and most especially powerless others, something to do with clinging to God's promises for others as well as for us, since that is the sort of God who calls us. If the task is incompatible with God's character, we should strongly doubt that it's God's task at all. Our proper task is probably, in our own strength, a task that is quite impossible: imagining everything to rest on us and that we must be perfect and indomitable is a recipe for murderous hubris, or fatal despair, or both. We likely won't know for sure that we've understood our task aright until after the fact, possibly a very long time after the fact. Maybe not even in this life. But in it all, perhaps we, too, will discover something of the inconceivable power of the strange God of the fire who burns and does not consume, the God who calls those who belong to him by name, and calls them to something far too big for them.
Dr. Marguerite Shuster is Senior Professor of Preaching and Theology at Fuller Theological Seminary and the Harold John Ockenga Professor Emerita of Preaching and Theology.