This story of Moses and the Burning Bush is one of encounter, identity, and purpose. This is true for Moses as the object of this story, but it also anticipates the experience of the Children of Israel. In both instances we encounter God, we learn something of who he is and who we are, and we grapple with the road that has been revealed to us; the road that will shape us and lead us into the people that God would have us be.
This story also helps us explore those internal challenges that might prod us to reject encounter, identity, and purpose in our own experiences. What Moses experiences at the beginning of the greatest chapter of his life can help us to navigate the beginnings of our own new chapters. For Moses, the challenge was fear. The same was true for the Children of Israel as they stepped into the wilderness, and I suspect that the same is true for us when we find ourselves on unfamiliar roads.
The Wilderness is that part of our lives that is unknown and uncharted. Moses lead the people into the wilderness. There was fear at the beginning, and there was fear within. Sometimes we go into the wilderness to run away from or escape from what we fear. Then again, sometimes life takes unexpected turns and we just find ourselves there. Once there, the wilderness can itself be a source of fear and anxiety and we don’t necessarily see how such an experience can benefit us. As we journey with Moses and the Children of God in what we call the Exodus, we are invited to face and overcome our own fears. In Moses we find a man who was redeemed from his own fears in order that he might help others face their own, so that they might reach a place of peace and contentment.
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. There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. Then Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.” When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” Then he said, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” He said further, “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. Then the Lord said, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the country of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.” But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” He said, “I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain.”
One important question to ask at this point would be, “why is Moses in the wilderness tending sheep?” In the chapter which precedes this one in Exodus, we learn that Moses, an adopted prince of Egypt, is on the run; he is afraid.
One day, after Moses had grown up, he went out to his people and saw their forced labor. He saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his kinsfolk. He looked this way and that and seeing no one he killed the Egyptian and hid him in the sand. When he went out the next day, he saw two Hebrews fighting; and he said to the one who was in the wrong, “Why do you strike your fellow Hebrew?” He answered, “Who made you a ruler and judge over us? Do you mean to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?” Then Moses was afraid and thought, “Surely the thing is known.” When Pharaoh heard of it, he sought to kill Moses. But Moses fled from Pharaoh. He settled in the land of Midian…
Moses’ motivation for escaping to the wilderness is fear, fear for his life. He is using the wilderness as both a refuge and a place to start over. He is wanting to escape from the source of his fear. The next important question we can ask at this point is directed at ourselves. You might ask, “am I trying to run away or escape from circumstances that causes me to fear?” If so, in the words of a popular television therapist, “how’s that working for you?”
Moses might think its working for him. The fugitive murderer has a new life. He’s married. He has a new job. One might think he had made a clean getaway. And then one day, he has an extraordinary encounter and his past comes flooding back over him. God has a task for Moses, but it will involve a reckoning with the skeletons he has been trying to keep hid in his closet. The excuses come; other fears are expressed. Perhaps, as God speaks, Moses comes to think that he should not have paid any attention to the burning bush, so Moses hides his face because he is afraid of God. Perhaps it has more to do with being afraid of the commitment related to the task that God is calling Moses to. And so, we ask the same question of ourselves, “Am I afraid of committing to this job, this relationship, this new challenge that awaits me? What if they want more than I can give? Am I afraid of what the future holds for me?
Then there is self doubt; that is fear too. “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” asks Moses. What if somebody calls me out for the fraud that I am? What if I don’t have the skills to perform the job? What if nobody pays any attention to me? What if? What if? And what about us? Do we ever think ourselves too small or ill equipped for the task that has been set before us? The story continues:
But Moses said to God, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” Could it be that the need to drop names comes from a fear of rejection? A fear that we’re not good enough on our own or that the only way we’ll be noticed is by riding on someone else’s coat tails? And what of performance anxiety? Moses says to God, “O my Lord, I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor even now that you have spoken to your servant; but I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.”
Fear at every turn, but as we know this is the beginning of an epic adventure. Through it all, God reassures Moses and reminds him that he is with him. Over time, Moses learns to not be mastered by his fears, but to trust that God will be true to his word; that he will be with him through it all.
Fear not! Do not be afraid! These words will echo in Moses’ ears time and again, until he himself is saying it to others on behalf of God; saying it to others in their own wilderness experience en route to the Promised Land, and they too learn to trust God and not be mastered by their fear.
The refrain echoes on down the ages to lift us up. We are invited to trust God and not be mastered by our own fear. Fear not! Do not be afraid!
O God our defender, storms rage about us and cause us to be afraid. Rescue your people from despair, deliver your sons and daughters from fear, and preserve us all from unbelief; through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and ever. Amen.