The Burning Bush

Last week we saw the early life of Moses.  And by early life, I mean the first 80 years of his life.  His life doesn’t really get interesting until he turns 80.  The first 40 years of his life were spent getting the finest education in the world by growing up in the court of Pharaoh.

At the age of 40, Moses had to flee Egypt after killing an Egyptian in order to defend an Israelite.  He ended up in Midian where he would settle down and get married.  He would spend the next 40 years of his life as a humble shepherd, taking care of the sheep of his father-in-law.

It would seem like Moses has wasted his life and blown whatever opportunities he had for him.  From a worldly perspective, Moses had it all in the house of Pharaoh.  He could have lived comfortably and done virtually anything that he had desired.  Even if he had desired to rescue the Israelites, it would be easy to justify the idea that he could do more as an insider to the Pharaoh than he could from outside of the system and particularly as one who had fled for his life.

Spiritually, it would appear that Moses has blown it as well.  No matter what plans God had for Moses, murder wasn’t in those plans.  It may have always been in God’s plans to get Moses out of Egypt to train him but God never intended Moses to do so while fleeing for his life.

The 40 years that Moses spent as a shepherd made him very familiar with the land.  It would be the same land that he would lead the Israelites through for another 40 years.  More importantly though, Moses is learning about God during these 40 years.

It’s basically impossible to say what the Israelites knew about God and what they believed at this point.  They were more than 400 years removed from their ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  They had no Bible at this point, there was no recorded history of their people or their dealings with God.  They had four centuries of word of mouth and traditions.  They were the children of Abraham more than they were the children of God because they at least understood their common ancestry.

To equate this to the modern day, what if they only thing we knew about Christianity was what the founding fathers of our country believed.  Depending on who you talk to, our founding fathers were deeply religious Christians – or at least many of them were, they were deeply religious but their religion didn’t much resemble Christianity today, or few of them had much religious conviction based upon Jesus Christ.  In short, it’s hard to really know what the founding fathers believed about God and that was only 220 years ago.  The Israelites had a belief in God but there’s no telling how accurate it was compared to what Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob believed.

Regardless of what the Israelites knew about God, Moses may have had little exposure to it.  Instead he would have been raised with the knowledge of the gods of Egypt.  Fortunately, he marries a priest’s daughter.

We aren’t told for certain but it would seem that Reuel as we are introduced to him in chapter 2 is a priest of God.  They Midianites were cousins of the Israelites – they traced their heritage back to Abraham as well but through the maidservant Keturah.  So it is possible that at least some Midianites follow God by virtue of being descendants of Abraham.  Or this could be a particular family that has chosen to follow God just as Abraham encountered Melchizedek who was a priest of God.  Whatever the case, it would only make sense that God would not have Moses leave Egypt only to marry the daughter of a pagan priest.  The thought that this is a priest of God is back up by the fact that the name Reuel means friend of God.  We will see him referred to as Jethro throughout most of Exodus however.

So, finally after 4o years of shepherding and learning the ways of God, Moses is 80 years old and God is ready to use him.  Now I know a lot of people who are 80 who are ready to pack it in and call it a good life by the time they reach that age.  Moses is blessed with a life that spans 120 years so he still has many good years left.  But let’s translate this into the modern life span.  Moses is called to an incredible task two thirds of the way through his life.

If God told you at the age of 50 that He wanted you to leave everything behind and do something new, how many of you would listen?  At that age you might be thinking of early retirement in a few years or at least you’re closing watching your pension to make sure that you have enough to retire.  Your kids are likely in high school or might be off to college.  Most people at 50 are thinking about enjoying the fruits of their labors rather than starting something completely new.  But that’s what Moses is going to be asked to do.

Ex 3:1-3

1 Now Moses was tending the flock of Jethro his father-in-law, the priest of Midian, and he led the flock to the far side of the wilderness and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. 2 There the angel of the LORD appeared to him in flames of fire from within a bush. Moses saw that though the bush was on fire it did not burn up. 3 So Moses thought, “I will go over and see this strange sight—why the bush does not burn up.”

As Moses is doing what he has done for 40 years, tend the flock, he encounters a bush that is burning but does not burn up.  I’m going to give away the surprise of the next few verses and say that this is God who appears to Moses in the burning bush.  But why does He choose this strange object?

For starters, this would differentiate God from the other gods of the Egyptians.  They were animals and made of gold or silver.  The burning bush is not an image to be recreated and worshipped the way that other things were.  In fact, it couldn’t be recreated by human hands if one tried.

More to the point though was the symbolism of the fire.  First of all, this is miraculous.  It is something that Moses must take seriously as it displays the power of God.  Those who discount miracles have noted that there is a type of bush in the region that has an oil in it that would allow it to burn for a long period of time without being consumed.  I don’t deny the existence of such a plant or that God could have used such a bush.  However Moses had apparently never seen anything like this before or even been aware that such a thing could happen.  Even if God used a natural phenomenon it doesn’t negate His power.

The burning bush is symbolic of the nation of Israel.  Time after time people have tried to extinguish the fire of the Israelites.  Egypt tried to subdue them in slavery.  The Assyrians attempted to destroy the northern kingdom of Israel.  The Babylonians carried the southern kingdom into exile.  The Romans destroyed the temple of Jerusalem and scatter the Jews across the world.  Even though they were no longer a nation, Hitler attempted to kill all of the Jews.  And yet they have survived to this very day.

The fire that Israel passes through is a refiner’s fire.  In a refiner’s fire, a precious metal is placed into the furnace.  There it is heated until all impurities are burned away.  What leaves the furnace is similar to what entered it except it is pure when it comes out because all of the impurities have been burned away.  Israel will walk through the fire many times through the ages but one day they will stand before the Lord completely purified.

Ex 3:4-6

4 When the LORD saw that he had gone over to look, God called to him from within the bush, “Moses! Moses!”

And Moses said, “Here I am.”

5 “Do not come any closer,” God said. “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.” 6 Then he said, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.” At this, Moses hid his face, because he was afraid to look at God.

Even if the burning bush can be explained as a natural phenomenon that Moses didn’t know about, the voice of God can’t be explained as anything other than God speaking to Moses.  God instructs Moses that where he stood was holy ground.

While the burning bush got Moses’ attention and displayed the power of God, Moses did not show any reverence to it until God spoke.  When God revealed himself to Moses, then he knew exactly what was taking place.

Ex 3:7-10

7 The LORD said, “I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering. 8 So I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey—the home of the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites. 9 And now the cry of the Israelites has reached me, and I have seen the way the Egyptians are oppressing them. 10 So now, go. I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt.”

At this point the Israelites have had it bad for some time.  Remember, Moses is 80 years old which means that it was 80 years before this that the Pharaoh ordered all of the baby boys be killed.  They were slaves before that, perhaps for several generations, we don’t know how long.

With this in mind, it seems like God is a bit slow on the draw.  His people have been suffering for generations at least and He’s just acting now?  The problem isn’t with God.  The problem is with the people of God.

Before Moses had to flee Egypt, he had tried to help on man who was being abused by an Egyptian but the man didn’t want help.  This is reflective of the attitude of the entire nation.  They haven’t had it bad enough yet that they have cried out to God.

Why don’t people cry out to God?  The answer is the same today as it was in Moses’ time.  It would seem that if we believe in a benevolent Creator of the universe who is active in the affairs of man, that we would want Him on our side all of the time.  Shouldn’t we want God on our side?

The problem is that we’re afraid of God’s response.  If we ask for God to respond, that means things are going to change.  Intellectually we can say that if God is doing the changing, then it has to be good.  But emotionally we’re not so sure.  We’re afraid of change, even if God is doing the changing.

There’s a saying that goes “The devil you know is better than the devil you don’t know.”  Using just this knowledge I can predict the 2012 election.  There will be a group of people who will vote for Obama no matter who is running against him and there will be a group who will vote against him no matter who runs against him.  And there will be a third group of people who will vote for Obama not because they necessarily like him but because they know what they have with him.  They might not be happy with him but they know that things could be worse with the other guy.  They could be better, but they will make their vote to make sure that they at least don’t get worse.

Now, this is the problem with crying out to God.  From our limited and often sinful perspective we think things can get worse when God starts changing things.  I want God’s help, but what if He expects too much from me?  What if He expects me to spend more time in prayer from now on?  What if He expects me to be serious about going to church now?  What if He wants me to stop whatever sin I’m unwilling to give up?

This is why people don’t cry out to God!  Yes God can and will help but they are afraid of what God might expect of them in return.  And in that regard they’re right.  If you cry out to God for help, God says, “Ok, you want all of me, well I want all of you in return.”  This doesn’t mean that God will only answer the prayers of people who have already given themselves to Him fully.  What it means is that God isn’t a fool.  There are plenty of people who try to make deals with God.  “God if you see me through this, I promise to go to church the rest of my life.”  We can’t bargain with God.  God knows our true intentions.

The Israelites have no cried out to God yet because they are afraid of what God will ask them to do.  Yes, they were slaves in Egypt but what was the alternative, wandering the desert with nothing?  Or perhaps a violent uprising that would leave many dead on both sides?  Or worst of all, what if the Israelites cried out to God and He said no?

We live too much of our life in fear.  We’re afraid of bad things happening but we’re also afraid of good things happening.  Even good things happening means change and we don’t like change too often.

Unfortunately we’re also afraid of God also, and not in the good kind of reverence type of fear.  We’re afraid of what God may ask of us and we’re afraid that we may not be up to the challenge.  There’s good and bad news in this.  The truth is that you’re never too old for God to ask you to do something or to make a change.  Moses was 80 when he had his encounter at the burning bush.

As we’ll see in the next few weeks, Moses wasn’t exactly thrilled about change either.  He had a direct contact with God and was given a very specific mission to do and he was still afraid to do it.  So, we’re not alone when we fear what God asks us to do.  But we also know that Moses went along with the plan eventually and God was with Him every step of the way.

In the Lord’s Prayer we’re taught to pray “Your kingdom come, Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”  There are a lot of people who pray that prayer but don’t really mean it.  God’s will scares a lot of people simply because they don’t know what it is.  It requires faith.  It means trusting God completely and believing that He’s going to be with us.

Yes, we fear the unknown but God is with us and we need to trust that His way is the best even if it requires us to do something difficult or uncomfortable.  The Christian walk isn’t always easy but rest assured that it is always worth the effort and sacrifice required even when it is scary.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *