A sermon preached at St Martin-in-the-Fields, on October 25, 2020, by Revd Dr Sam Wells.
Why do we read the Bible? Because, Christians believe, it shows us the truth about ourselves and the truth about God. Here’s the difference. When you discover the truth about God you’re reading the Bible. When you realise the truth about yourself you’re letting the Bible read you.
I want to look with you at the third chapter of the book of Exodus. This chapter shows us the heart of ourselves and the heart of God. And that’s as true today in the midst of a pandemic as it was 3000 years ago when this story was written.
We find out four things in this story about us and God. Have you noticed how strange it is right now not to shake anyone’s hand? God doesn’t shake Moses’ hand. But God does say to Moses, ‘This is my name.’ It’s a funny name: I am who I am. God is personal. God is not dependent on us. But God also knows our name. In this case, Moses’ name. Moses is frightened. For all our bluster about understanding the universe and following the science, when it comes to the awesome questions of eternity and mortality, we’re actually frightened. We read the Bible, and we find an overwhelming, yet personal and intimate God; we let the Bible read us and we find our fearful and timid selves.
Then, second, it turns out God sees us. ‘I have observed the misery of my people’ the story says. ‘I know their sufferings.’ How much we need to hear those words today. The pandemic has laid bare our fragility, our fear. We flail around, blaming each other, raging at our precarious existence. God says, ‘I see you. I understand you. I know you. I will be with you.’ Feel the power of those words. Right now many of us feel so powerless and insignificant. We know we shouldn’t complain because so many people’s hardships are so much greater than ours. God says, ‘I see you. I understand you. I know you.’ We’re not alone. God is with us. That’s God: but what about us? What we discover in Moses is we’re not bad people. Moses says some of the simplest and most important words in the Bible. ‘Here I am.’ The words that start every prayer. Here I am. I don’t know what I can offer, I’ve got a lot wrong; but put me to work. We read the Bible and find God sees us; we let the Bible read us and we find ourselves eager to respond.
Then, third, God says, ‘I want to set you free.’ For many of us, the last seven months have been a prison. We can’t see the people we want to see, do the things we want to do. We’ve lost money, confidence, hope. And yet, in the midst of this crisis, we each meet people who get the important things right – kindness, gentleness, patience; people who have time for us, and seem able to rise above the climate of fear. Friends and strangers. People who’ve been set free. Maybe God’s not going to set us free outside for a while yet. But we can still let God set us free inside. What does Moses do? He says, ‘I think this is beyond me.’ He’s daunted. We’re daunted. It’s looking like the journey from here to the end of the pandemic is going to be longer and harder than the one we’ve already made since March. We read the Bible and find God wants to set us free; we let the Bible read us and we find we’re shaking in our boots about what lies ahead.
Finally, fourth, the greatest discovery of all. God says, ‘I am on fire with love for you.’ We meet a God who loves us a burning passion, but a passion that’s never exhausted; with a love that’s on fire, but a love that does not destroy. Here’s a God who shapes that burning passion in such a way that it will catch our attention, bring us into relationship, transform us, and set us free. It’s not just that God is a personal being, with an unshakeable purpose to set you free: more than that, the reason for the story, the dynamic at the heart of creation and salvation and Bible and church is this: God is on fire with love for you. This is the discovery that makes sense of all the others. The burning bush is not just some visual aid. Neither is it a warning of hell or a threat of agony for the unwary. It’s a picture of the very heart of God. Moses discovers the truth at the center of the universe. God is on fire with love for you. And Moses feels the joy of that fire. He does go to Pharaoh. And God does set people free. And those people come back to this very same spot and make a covenant with God. We read the Bible and find God is on fire with love for us; we let the Bible read us and we find this discovery transforms us, our lives, our fears, and our future.
See how all four of these discoveries point in one direction. There’s a name for the heart of God. That name is Jesus. God comes close to us and we find out God’s name. God’s name is Jesus. In Jesus God sees our sufferings, knows, understands and shares our lives, and is with us. In Jesus, God is saying, ‘I want to set you free.’ And in Jesus, God constantly, quietly, gently whispers to each one of us, saying, ‘I am on fire with love for you.’ A fire that doesn’t consume, doesn’t destroy, and never goes out.
That’s what we find when we read the Bible. That’s what we discover when we let the Bible read us. God sees you, is with you, wants to set you free, and is on fire with love for you. We fear, are drawn in, step back, and are finally consumed with God’s passion for us.
Our greatest challenge in this pandemic is, we don’t know what story we’re in, how long it will last, or where it’s going. God says, ‘Enter my story. May you feel its fire today. May it draw you without consuming you, embrace you without destroying you. May it give you identity and purpose. May it fill you with love for people and longing to deliver them. And may it set you free.’