Sermon: The Burning Bush

A sermon prepared by the Revd Andy Braunston for the United Reformed Church’s Daily Devotions

and preached by John Drew at St Columba’s United Reformed Church, North Shields, on 3 September, 2023

Exodus 3: 1-15

Watch the whole service on YouTube

Our reading today is familiar to us – that mysterious encounter between God and Moses, the bush that burns but is not consumed, and the commission to free the people are all the stuff of legend burnt into our psyches and familiar to us.  The Church of Scotland, and every other Presbyterian Church, has the burning bush as its emblem following the insight of John Calvin that the Church is like the bush in the story.  It is engrossed by persecution’s fire but never overcome nor consumed.  The Church is always renewed by God’s Holy Spirit, never overpowered by the forces of Hell.

The power of the story is, in part, due to following a familiar form that we see elsewhere in the Bible – with the calls of Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel each having a recognition of God, objections from the would-be prophets, and a commission.  Yet the familiarity of the passage means that things are hidden in plain sight; parts of the familiar story are yet unfamiliar to us:
•    Moses was at work in the ordinary things of life – tending his father in law’s sheep in and beyond the wilderness.
•    The land promised to Moses was, in fact, inhabited by others and Moses’ objections aren’t about those poor people to be driven off their land.
•    That image of the burning bush is both intriguing and frightening in an age where the very Earth itself is on fire.

God in Ordinary

Moses has fled Egypt and at this point in the story lived in what the writer termed as wilderness.  We skip over the implications of this naming, casually, of the wilderness.  Moses is making himself useful tending the sheep.  Humans are very good at dividing land into settled land, cultivated land, and wilderness which we see as being in need of either settlement or cultivation.  Moses’ father in law Jethro, lived, we presume, as a nomad, following his animals to new pastures to ensure their survival.  Selling or slaughtering what was needed but with minimal impact on the land.  We might see the Native American and Canadian peoples as living similar lives – nomadic and recognising how to live in harmony with creation.  The Egyptians had built great cities and had many farms to sustain those cities with the food they needed – just as we do.  The early European settlers in the Americas saw the land – which they called the new world –  as a wilderness which needed to be tamed, cultivated, and inhabited.  They removed the native peoples from the land through war, deliberate infection, and subjugation to make room for what they saw as civilization. We saw this in Scotland too as the Victorian improvers in the Highlands and Islands wanted to increase agricultural efficiency and cleared the people who knew the land off it.  As a consequence, we now have vast desolate Highland regions which don’t support the abundance of life they once did.

Living as a nomad Moses encountered God.  Living in the wilderness Moses was in tune with nature and its demands.  Tending animals he would have been more aware of nature’s awesome power than when living in the city – in the palace no less – where he’d been one step removed from the consequences of rain, wind, and poor harvests.  In the ordinary things of life, beyond the wilderness the writer says, on the mountain of God, Moses’ life is changed.  An experience of the divine in the midst of the ordinary everyday things of life changes Moses and human history.

The Contested Land

Another thing we don’t see in the passage is that the Land of Milk and Honey God is portrayed as promising to Moses and the Jewish people is already inhabited.  Just as the European settlers to the Americas, New Zealand, and Australia had to deal with those who were already there, so the Jewish people had to deal with those living in the land they wanted.  And here, at the beginning of that struggle we read the land already belonged to the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites.  The writer clearly couldn’t conceive of God being a universal God – if God was seen one who loved the Canaanites, the Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites,  and Jebusites then He’d not have promised it to Moses and the Jewish people.  Here at the start of the history of the Jewish people is an age old, and contemporary, struggle about land hiding in plain sight.   Of course the passage was written long after the events they purport to show; Moses didn’t take a scribe with him to take notes of his encounter with God!   So when these stories were written down Israel was in conflict with other tribes and nations.  Writing into the story a divine command to take the Land would have been useful.  Even now some use the Biblical narratives as justification for more land seizures in Palestine and an expansionist Israeli state.  These narratives were used by European Christians to justify taking land from native peoples all over what was called “the new world.”  Conquest, of course, always had environmental consequences as well as social and political ones.  The conquest of the peoples of South America led to their cities being overrun by nature again – it’s why we find amazing cities in South American jungles.  Trees grew, sequestering carbon and so lowering the earth’s average temperature – the opposite of what’s happening now – this was a huge contributory factor to the 200 year-long Little Ice Age in the 16th to 18th Centuries in the north Atlantic region.  Our battles and wars change the world, damage the Earth, and have consequences we can only begin to imagine – something we’re all too aware of with the war between Ukraine and Russia with all those nuclear power plants being in harm’s way.

The Burning Bush

And then there’s this burning bush at the heart of the passage.  We read and are amazed.  We read and see the power of God allowing a bush to burn yet not be consumed.  We may think, of the apostles alight at Pentecost yet not harmed.  Such is the power of fire in religious story that we take comfort in such images.  Yet fire itself is rather a two edged sword.  We need warmth; those nomadic peoples knew they had to keep warm and learned to make fire.  Farmers knew that ash was a good fertiliser; forest fires often lead to new growth.  Until the 1990s farmers in the UK would burn stubble to combat pests and weeds and to reduce the built up of nitrogen in the soil yet the pollution that resulted led to it being banned.  Farmers around the world still burn stubble and it’s a vexed question of how best to achieve the results needed without heating the planet.  The rising temperatures lead to out of control forest fires.  In Europe this summer countries planned for temperatures of up to 49 degrees.  People were being warned to avoid going out between 11am and 6pm for fear of heat stroke.  The bushes may not burn but the heat is likely to consume us.

In Greece they closed the Acropolis on some days to protect visitors from the heat.  In Spain the Red Cross told people near wildfires – where the bushes are both burning and being consumed – to keep their doors and windows shut.  The weather pattern named Cerberus after the many headed dog in Greek mythology is leading to extreme heat as well as flash flooding.   The next weather pattern was named Charon after the figure in Greek mythology who carried the dead to the afterlife – and came with temperatures over 40 degrees.  These news stories are in plain sight but we ignored them preferring scandals about Huw Edwards and Philip Schofield.  This year the media ran over 10,000 news stories about Philip Schofield but just five on a scientific paper showing the chances of simultaneous crop losses in the world’s major growing regions have been dangerously underestimated.  These crops are endangered by climate change.  Our bushes are burning in plain sight but we ignore them.

And So…

Moses encountered God in his ordinary everyday work – for him tending his father in law’s flock.  In the simple things of life he found God and a call to set his people free.  A call he was neither expecting nor prepared for.  We too can find God at work in the everyday and ordinary facets of our lives – as we tend to our work, our pets, our gardens, our crops, our animals we can find God at work there with us, hiding in plain sight.

We like to think that things aren’t connected.  Sorting our rubbish isn’t connected to the war in Ukraine, or food shortages in the developing world.  Yet they all are connected as they are all about how we work with the Earth our mother.  Wars of conquest have always had an effect on society and the Earth itself.  A stray drone in Ukraine could fatally damage a nuclear power station; a political miscalculation would end the grain deal ensuring crops get taken to Africa.  Every aspect of our lives is connected – often in plain sight if we but open our eyes.

Moses opened his eyes and saw a burning bush, aflame with God’s power yet not consumed.  Unless we soon wake up and open our eyes to the climate emergency our bushes and trees will be consumed in the flames of our greed.  There won’t be much of a world to leave to the next generations unless we change and change fast and deeply – even then we’re leaving a very different world which will soon have mass movements of people to cooler regions as both bush and people burn.  The truth is there, hidden in plain sight by the press and corporations that don’t want us to see what’s in plain sight.

Moses was changed by his encounter with God.  The flames of God’s power made him lead his people to freedom – even a freedom which came at the expense of many others.  The flames of God’s fury tell us we need to change – and those who have much need to change the most – if the Earth is to continue to sustain us.  There is no plan B despite wealthy celebrities holding out ideas about the colonisation of other planets.  If our people are to be free we need to be led into that freedom – a freedom from poisonous pollution, a freedom from dependency on fossil fuels which choke our planet, warm our atmosphere, and lead to our bushes burning.  A freedom to see what’s in plain sight.  Will you pray with me?

Open our eyes Lord to see what’s in front of us;
open our eyes to see a changing climate,
unbearable temperatures where the poor suffer most,
floods and rising sea levels leading to dispossession
and the movement of peoples.
Open our eyes Lord,
as once you opened Moses’
that we may be led to a better world,
a world of milk and honey for all,
where bushes blaze with your glory
not the fires of our greed.  Amen.

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