Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God.
– Exodus 3:1
When we pick up the story of Moses here in Exodus chapter 3, he’s been on the run for some time. Born a Hebrew child and adopted into the Pharaoh’s family, he grew up in a powerful and privileged home. He seems to have known his heritage, however, and in an emotional moment he took the life of an Egyptian who was beating a Hebrew slave.
When I was just a baby, my mama told me, son,
always be a good boy, don’t ever play with guns.
But I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die,
when I hear that whistle blowin’, I hang my head a cry.
– Johnny Cash
The writer says that Moses was working as a shepherd “beyond the wilderness.” It’s a subtle phrase that comes with deep imagery. The wilderness is an image often used in the Bible for the experiences of trial and testing, of temptation and refinement. Think: Jesus praying in the wilderness for 40 days or Israel wandering in the desert for 40 years or Noah in the ark for 40 days (and nights). It’s a thing, this number 40. And in many cases, like our story today, it has a double-meaning: Moses really had fled the more civilized region for the solitude of obscurity that comes with life in the wilderness, and, he also was in the middle of remaking his life after such a moment of rage and failure.
Then Moses thought, “Surely the thing is known.” When Pharaoh heard of it, he sought to kill Moses. But Moses fled from Pharaoh.
– Exodus 2:14-15
It is here in Moses’ new world that God reaches out, and in the strangest of ways: God speaks from within a fire that was surrounding a bush, and yet the bush remained intact and unscathed. It’s no surprise that Moses thought, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight.” (Exodus 3:3) The reason for God’s call was to ask Moses to lead the fight to free the Hebrew people who were living as slaves in Egypt, to which Moses predictably tries to let God down easy with his own perceived unworthiness and lack of leadership capability and so forth. Typical dodge in these call stories, especially if you’re riddled with guilt and shame.
Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh?
– Exodus 3:11
We can’t miss the power in this scene. Moses was living in an exile of sorts – “beyond the wilderness” – and it was there that God reached out. And not just to check-in on Moses, but to call him back into the flow of God’s work in the world. When Moses felt extracted, God showed up with a plan for re-entry. (And I must note how God never once addressed Moses’ sins or wrongdoings or bad decisions; he simply came to the door of Moses’ hiding place with an invitation to come back outside and carry on.)
Dear Prudence, won’t you come out to play
Dear Prudence, greet the brand new day
The sun is up, the sky is blue
It’s beautiful and so are you
– The Beatles
Lent is a wilderness season. We go intentionally into a 40-day journey to look closely at both Jesus and ourselves, and to point to the things in our lives that need repair and mending. Each of us has lived in the wilderness (or beyond) at one time or another; it is a normal part of being human. It’s usually in those wilderness spaces that we imagine God having moved on to someone more qualified, someone less torn and frayed. But somewhere in those wilderness spaces is a bush that’s on fire, and the voice from within is not a voice of judgment, but a voice of invitation.
The power of God (the fire) does not overtake the frailty of humanity (the bush). The voice of God in our wanderings is not to be feared. He never brings up our past. He comes instead with a map for the days ahead.
There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.
– 1 John 4:18
Almighty God, you know that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves: keep us both outwardly in our bodies and inwardly in our souls, that we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen.
– Collect for the Third Sunday in Lent
Grace and peace,