Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Images of God: House Fires and the Burning Bush

Exodus 3:1-15

**Remarkably enough - when I got home after church on this Sunday, I discovered that someone in my life lost their home to a house fire in the early hours of Sunday morning.**

This year on Pentecost Sunday, which was just on the long weekend last month, anyway on Pentecost Sunday, colleague of mine, who lives in a small town, went to church in the morning, as usual, and led worship. He preached, as I did that day, about the miracle that happened on the first Pentecost—he spoke how tongues of fire came down, as if from heaven, and rested above the heads of those followers of Christ who began to gather together in community in the days after his  ascension. Remember the fire represented the Holy Spirit moving in and amongst the people who were not giving up the teachings of Jesus, even though he was no longer there in body to lead them. God, through the Holy Spirit, inspired Peter to preach and three thousand were joined to their number that day. Anyway, my colleague preached about this fire descending upon God’s people and it did not harm or burn anything. He left church after worship and returned home as he normally does on Sundays. And then his beeper went off. Not his phone or an alarm. It was the beeper he carries everywhere with him because he is volunteer firefighter. He spent the rest of Pentecost Sunday trying to quell a fire that ended up consuming a family’s home that afternoon.

Several times in the Bible, God shows up in people’s lives as some form of fire. God was in the pillar of fire that went before the Hebrews as they escaped Egypt. God lit the way as a torch in Genesis. The Holy Spirit came as fire on Pentecost. And God is revealed to Moses in the burning of the bush that was not consumed by fire. The bush was at foot of what is now known as Mt Sinai. Fun fact, Saint Catherine’s Monastery has been built up around what is believed to be the bush that continues to grow from the roots of the original burning bush. The experience of my colleague was a sober reminder that fire is a force in our world that we have every right to be wary of—to be careful around and to be scared of in some circumstances. I’m sure the early Hebrew people had a similar relationship to fire as we do today. Fire is necessary in our lives but we very well know that fire consumes and it harms when it escapes our control. As an aside, when the alerts went off on all of our phones in May while I was at a large gathering of clergy for the Conference. When the alert sounded on the one hundred phones in the sanctuary, the minister from Fort McMurray, went into a bit of shock as the collective noise of the alerts sounded so very much like the alarms that rang through her town in 2015, telling people they had to evacuate in a great hurry.

The power of fire is incredible and immense. Maybe that’s why the Hebrew people used the image of fire when trying to explain how God was making God’s self known in their lives. But, rather than the fire being a frightening sight, the fire that represents God is a fire that continues to burn without having to consume anything. The fiery bush is an icon of the Divine—a biblical symbol that offers a window into God’s presence—an awesome and powerful holiness that is, at once, dangerous and attractive, frightening and comforting, untamed and reassuring. We have talked about humanity being made in the image of God and how an expansive view of God goes beyond the male imagery of our Creator to include not only women but also those non-human images. We need also to consider a vast range of imagery for God because no one image can encapsulate the totality of what or who God is in our world and universe. And, as I’ve said before, we, the people of God are perfectly imperfect and so we do not have enough understanding of the mystery that is God and, as such, we cannot give a comprehensive description of the God of Abraham, the God of Jacob, the God of David, the God of Jesus. We do, however, have enough imagination to use metaphors and similes to describe our God whose face has been seen only by one person—Moses in his old age, just before he died. Each of these comparisons give a small picture of God but when we all share what we believe to be true about God, the mystery of God is revealed a little more every time and what we understand about God is increased bit by bit.

So, we have this story and the others, that are images of God filled with the immense power of fire and yet the fire is not destructive, affirming that our God is a Creator not a destroyer. Just as when the breath of God moved over the earth, it created the world, it did not destroy it. Just as the wind of Pentecost did not blow apart the gathering place of God’s people. Just as the hen of Jerusalem protected her chicks, she did not force them to stay out in the cold, all these images tell of a God that continues, without ceasing, to care for our well-being. We don’t name God after these images. They are metaphors and similes. They paint for us a picture from which we can discern the nature of God. And so, we don’t call God ‘Fire’ but we call God Powerful. We call God Beloved. We call God Creator. We call God Lover.

Later, in this story of the burning bush, God reveals something akin to a name for God’s self, which, in turn, reveals more of the character of God. Moses is being difficult with God. God tells Moses to go free the people of the Egypt and Moses is resisting. Because I have a somewhat belligerent sixteen-year-old, I can imagine the non-edited version of what this discussion with God sounded like:
  • Moses, you aren’t doing anything important right now, go set my people free.
  • Do I have to?
  • Yes, they are enslaved, they need freeing!
  • Right now? Because I’m in the middle of a game of Fortnight—I might win.
  • You have to go now, it’s important – go before I unplug the PS4.
  • It’ll be a waste of time because they won’t listen to me.
  • Oh, for the love of Pete, will you just go already? They’d be free by now if you had left when I told you to go.
  •  What if they ask for a password or something so they know it’s you that sent me? I know, why don’t you tell me your real name? Better include your middle name, so they know it’s you.
  • Arg! Just tell them I AM WHO I AM has sent you. No middle name. I AM for short. Now go!
  • Alright, alright, I’m going already. Sigh.
So, God very cleverly avoids giving Moses a name but does give this expression of I AM WHO I AM. I can’t help but think it’s like responding to the kids after they’ve asked why they have to do what you say and you say, because I’m the mom that’s why! So, Moses is resisting, and God says I AM WHO I AM and that’s plenty enough authority for you to do what I need you to. The scholarship around this great I AM suggests that this phrase could be more accurately interpreted from the Hebrew as I WILL BE WHAT I WILL BE. Either way the expression ends up as YHWH in the scriptures—there are no vowels in Hebrew. In English, we pronounce that as Yahweh, which we use as an alternate name or title for God. The name Yahweh is built upon the Hebrew “to be”. Through saying, I will be what I will be, God reveals that God will be made known through God’s actions for others. And, as you make your way through the Bible, it is easy to get caught up in the chaos and turbulence in the lives of God’s people. No one would blame a first-time reader if they judged God as being harsh and unforgiving. But upon closer inspection, we realize that it is not God who is harming and punishing people (let’s not get into a discussion right now about the flood or Lot right now, shall we? I’ll need another hour of worship time to talk those ones through). If we look more closely at the Old Testament, the Hebrew Scriptures, you will see that the misfortunes that befall the people of God were because of their own actions or inaction. King David asks for a lot of smitting to happen by God in the Psalms that he composed but there is little evidence that God responded to his requests of vengeance.
If we can agree for now to set aside the flood and poor Job, it can be said that the God of the Hebrew Scriptures offers again and again for humanity to return to righteousness. To remain in relationship with their Creator, to be welcomed back again and again into the love that is God. God freed the slaves of Egypt, led them through the desert despite their contentiousness, led them into the Promised Land. God did not set aside Jacob for his greed and his betrayal of his brother Esau. God gave the exiles living in Babylon hope through the words of the prophets. God gave the people Jesus to live the love God knows that is possible in our world. God did not let Jesus perish but rose him from the tomb to declare to the world that hate and terror will never win out over the power of love. I will be what I will be – God has shown that God will be many things. God will be just, kind, loving, compassionate, forgiving, merciful, full of hope, peace and joy. There are so many images we can use for God and how the Holy Spirit moves in our life—fire, wind, the majesty of the mountains, the perfectly formed intricate flower, a crop of wheat rippling with the breeze, the open sky of the prairie, the crashing waves of the ocean.

God is seen even these goofballs and my friends Andrew and Samson. But let us remember that images are only perfectly imperfect glimpses of our God. God will be what God will be and so take you the images you have of God, lay along beside them, what characteristics of God you know to be true to help make the picture you have be less fuzzy and more in focus. We each may only have a limited ability to see and understand God but if we can share our images with one another and talk about how God will be through describing God’s characteristics, together we might better reflect the God that made humanity, made each and every one of us, in God’s own image. May it be so.

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