A sermon preached at St Martin-in-the-Fields on September 3, 2023 by Revd Dr Sam Wells
Exodus 3: 1-15
When I go walking in the hills I always stay in the same little cabin. It has no connection to the national gas supply or electricity grid, and it’s practically a single room. There’s a great view out the window, but often the clouds completely obscure it. The sofa and two chairs are all pointed in the direction of the single source of heat, which is a wood-burning stove. The stove sits in the corner on four curved feet and has a glass door. It’s designed to maximise every ounce of energy in the logs, so once everything’s really caught alight, the fire goes silent and the flames lick in every direction. I call it the TV, because the glass door is like a screen in the corner and the spectacle is mesmerising and you can stare into it and lose yourself in it for hours.
Today’s Old Testament reading is about a fire. A fire appears unexpectedly, but compellingly, in the desert. The fire is mesmerising. The fire never goes out. But here’s the big reveal in the story: the fire is God. The story’s about who God is and what God wants for us. It turns out it’s the whole Bible in 15 verses. I want today to look closely at some of the details of this story, because in those details I believe we find the answer to perhaps life’s two biggest questions: ‘Who is God?’ and, ‘What does God want for us?’ Listen closely, because I believe the answer this story gives to those two questions will set you on fire.
I’m going to give you four words that crystallise people’s negative perceptions of who God is. The first is distant. God seems preoccupied with things or people other than us. Then inscrutable. It’s impossible to follow God’s logic. Next, contrastingly, controlling. Those who maintain everything happens for a reason portray God as an extreme micromanager. Last, vengeful. God seems to have a lot of wrath and an inexplicable dislike for some kinds of people. These four words aren’t consistent, but I suspect they’re comprehensive in articulating why people distrust, reject, or even hate God.
Now just look what we discover in the story of Moses and the burning bush. God isn’t distant – God is intense and close. God isn’t inscrutable – God speaks and explains and persuades and reveals. God isn’t controlling – it’s Moses that’s going to do the work. God isn’t vengeful – God is about setting us free. All of those transformative discoveries are contained in this simple, astonishing realisation: God is on fire. God is on fire with love – liberating, mesmerising, empowering, intoxicating. God is on fire with love for you. That’s a totally, exhilaratingly different understanding of God – this is an overwhelming, thrilling, absorbing notion of God.
Fire can give heat and warmth. Fire can give light and illumination. Yet fire can also be devastating and destructive. But the fire Moses sees isn’t that last kind. How do we know? Because, we’re told, ‘The bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed.’ The fire that is God is hot and enlightening but not in the business of destruction. It enfolds but doesn’t consume. It enlivens but doesn’t engulf. It licks but doesn’t bite.
Now we discover the two fundamental things about who God is. The first comes in the simple repetition of a name: ‘Moses! Moses!’ What does this tell us? It tells us God already knows our name. Out of the myriad peoples on earth, past, present, future, out of the infinite complexity of the universe, God knows your name. God the blazing fire loves every single one of us but loves each one of us as if we were the only one. But it also tells us God from the very outset is seeking to be in relationship with us. God starts a conversation. God is looking for companionship. God is wrapped up in our world, our life, our identity, our purpose. God is essentially, originally, and always about relationship.
The second fundamental thing arises when we start to engage with the context of this story, the backdrop against which this conversation takes place. God is especially eager to be in relationship with those who are downfallen and downtrodden. Moses is downfallen: he was Prince of Egypt, exalted in Pharaoh’s court, yet he killed a man, fell from grace, found himself in the wilderness, and is disconsolate, depressed and dishevelled. The Hebrews, meanwhile, are downtrodden. They are in misery in Egypt; they cry out in their sufferings; they labour under their taskmasters: for they are slaves.
What does God the blazing fire say to Moses and to Moses about the Hebrews? Just look at the concatenation of verbs. God sees – God sees their misery. God hears – God hears their cries. God knows – God knows their sufferings. Nothing the slightest bit distant, inscrutable, controlling or vengeful here. This is a real relationship, where God doesn’t just look but sees and perceives, God doesn’t just hear but listens and appreciates, God doesn’t just know but learns and understands. This is what we call paying attention. The blazing fire of God’s love isn’t just about doing and ordering – it’s about perceiving, appreciating, understanding. It’s a truly two-way relationship.
But now behold the truly astonishing two verbs that complete this sequence. We’ve had see, hear, know. We’re beginning to comprehend that the blazing fire of God’s love knows our name, wants to be in relationship with us, and especially with those of us who are downfallen or downtrodden. Now just get ready for the remarkable two verbs that follow. Here’s one: ‘I have come down.’ Focus on those two words, ‘come down.’ For Christians, they mean one thing and one thing only: they mean Jesus. Jesus is God come down. Jesus is God who makes a two-way relationship with us. Jesus is God who sees us, hears us, knows us. Jesus is the blazing fire of God’s love. What these words meant when they were written, maybe in the sixth century BC, I have no idea. But what these words mean for Christians I have no doubt. Jesus is God saying, ‘I have come down.’
And before you’ve digested the wonder of that, the wonder of Jesus planted right in the middle of the story of Moses and the burning bush, just get yourself ready for the last of the five verbs of God’s announcement to Moses. Here it is: ‘bring them up.’ It sounds like a geographical reference – it sounds like going down is going south to Egypt and bringing them up is bringing them north or at least north east to Canaan, the Holy Land, the Promised Land. But to you and me, to anyone who’s just discovered the dynamite that’s in the phrase ‘I have come down,’ these words mean far more than that. They mean, ‘I will raise up.’ If I have come down means incarnation, I will raise up means resurrection. Why did Jesus come down? To be in relationship with us and share our downfallenness and downtroddenness. Why did Jesus rise up? To raise us to life in relationship with Father, Son and Spirit forever.
We’ve stumbled on the whole gospel and we’re only three chapters into the second book of the Bible. But I told you this story was going to set you on fire. And that’s because we haven’t yet even reached the best bit. We’ve discovered God is on fire with love for us. We’ve seen that God longs to be in relationship, most of all with the downfallen and downtrodden. We’ve realised that God’s two-way relationship means perceiving, appreciating, understanding. We’ve found that Jesus’ mission to come down among us and to raise us up to be with God are right there in the DNA of the Old Testament, the beginning of the exodus story.
What more could there be? I’ll show you. Moses has two complaints to God. Complaint one is, ‘I can’t do this.’ Complaint two is, ‘I don’t even know your name.’ Now get ready for what we discover when God responds to these two questions. When we learn God’s name, it is, ‘I am who I am.’ It’s the essence of existence. It’s that thread that links earthly existence to eternal essence. It’s being itself.
Now let’s turn to what we find when God transforms Moses’ inadequacy and isolation. God says, ‘I will be with you.’ What the English doesn’t tell you, but is the key to the whole story, and the whole of the Christian faith, is that the word for God’s identity, ‘I am what I am,’ and the word for God’s action, ‘I am with you,’ is the same word. So to say ‘being,’ and to say ‘with,’ and to say ‘God,’ is to utter three words that mean the same thing. God discloses God’s identity in the word ‘being’ and God’s purpose in the word ‘with.’
Behold what these 15 verses of the third chapter of Exodus tell us. Who is God? God is being, the essence that brings forth existence, the love that engulfs but doesn’t consume, the fire ablaze with love for us. What does God want? God wants to be with us. God wants to be with us in our downfallenness and our downtroddenness. God’s name is being. God’s purpose is with. God’s identity is being with us.
Sit down in one of those chairs, or that sofa. Stare into that wood-burning stove. Be enfolded by the flames that enliven and enlighten but don’t engulf. Be entranced by the fire of love that never goes out. Be mesmerised by the God who is being. Be thrilled by the God who longs to be with. Put away all those false and diminishing notions of God. You’ve found out who God really is: the one whose being is forever and whose with is utter and who never wants to be unless that being is with you.