Series: Holy – Holy – Holy | Bible text: Exodus 3:1–6
Moses is tending his father-in-law’s sheep in the desert when he suddenly becomes aware of a burning, but not incinerating, thorn bush. This encounter with the holy God fundamentally changes his life. From now on he lives with a passionate desire to see this mysterious God and his life is set on a new course. Moses» experience is an example of how a person can encounter the very Other and what the consequences are.
Meanwhile, our children are grown up. But I remember well the visits to Toni’s Zoo or the Roggenhausen Wildlife Park. All the animals in a petting zoo are lovely and completely harmless at the same time. What delights the children tends to bore the parents. The delight of the parents is primarily aroused by the joy of the children and less by the overfed goats or rabbits. As adults, we are far more attracted to wild, dangerous animals. Goats are nice, but what are they compared to an elephant, tiger or eagle. When we separate God from His holiness in our thoughts and actions, God comes across to us like a boring speaker or a tamed goat in a petting zoo. He no longer arouses any emotions in us and thus no fascination. Without the recognition of God’s mighty holiness, there is also no real fascination.
Our theme for the year is: «Holy, holy, holy – the encounter with the very other.» How can a person experience this fascinating holy God? The story of Moses gives us information about this.
Place of action
Moses grew up as the adopted son of Pharaoh’s daughter at Pharaoh’s court in Egypt. There he enjoyed an elite education. The doors to a great career in the control centre of world politics were wide open. But then he let himself be carried away by a tragic act: He beat to death a slave driver who was subjugating his countrymen, the Israelites. As a result, Moses fled to Midian and found shelter there with a priest named Jethro. He gave him Zipporah, one of his seven daughters, as his wife.
«Moses was tending the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian. One day he drove the animals through the desert and came to Horeb, the mountain of God.» (Exodus 3:1 NLB). What a social descent: from presidential advisor to shepherd of the father-in-law’s sheep! Shepherds did not have a good reputation and were considered outsiders in society. The advantage: Moses lost the whole insulating layer against God. With the proud, arrogant and elitist, God’s attempts to reach them readily roll off.
There are two important landscapes in the Orient: cultivated land and steppe and desert. These two different landscapes are right next to each other. The book entitled «We are having fun to death» describes the postmodern man in the cultivated land. He lives in a multi-option society and gives everything to have fun and never has to think about himself. The desert is the place where we cannot avoid ourselves, where we hear the signals from the depths of our soul. The status, the salary, the title from the cultivated land does not count here. In the desert, one becomes realistic and modest. We are happy about a little shade, a drink of water. In the process, we realise that we do not live out of ourselves, but are completely dependent. Moses is in the desert when he has an impressive experience of God. When was the last time you were in the desert? It is good ground to encounter the very other.
Moses is probably also inwardly in a steppe landscape, since he has murder on his conscience. This is best terrain to get close to the Holy God. «For thus says the High and Lofty One who dwells in eternity, the One whose name is the Holy One: I dwell in the high and holy place, and with them that are of a bruised and humbled mind, to revive the humble, and to revive the brokenhearted»(Isaiah 57:15 NLB).
Initiative of the Saint
«Then the angel of the LORD appeared to him in a flame of fire coming out of a thorn bush. Moses saw that although the bush was on fire, it was not burnt up»(Exodus 3:2 NLB). In the Negev it can happen that a thorn bush is ignited by a steppe fire in the wind. What is special here is that the bush burns but does not scorch. Moses experiences something unexpected, something that does not fit his previous life experience. The thorns, which can grow up to 8 cm long, can cause the worst injuries. No one can snuggle up to a thorn bush or make themselves comfortable in a thorn bush. The fire stands for the holiness of God. «For our God is a consuming fire»(Hebrews 12:29 NLB). A fire warms, fascinates, creates atmosphere and is dangerous at the same time. We would never think of putting ourselves in the middle of the fire, because we know that although we humans can enjoy the power and beauty of fire, we have nothing to oppose the flames themselves. God often comes in a completely different way than we think. He cannot be calculated. It often starts with oddities and unexpected things that do not fit into our pigeonhole. In everything, He is and remains the unavailable.
Someone challenged me with the following statement: The quality of a Christian grouping depends essentially on how seriously they take the holy God. Do we feel a reverence for the strange, mysterious, unavailable God or have we degraded him to an avuncular über-good guy?
Whoever encounters this holiness, this beauty and majesty, wants to experience it again and again. Moses, too, was seized by a longing that would not let him go. There is nothing greater than being near Him, before His face, and looking at Him with the eyes of the heart. Later Moses asks: «Let me see your glory» (Exodus 33:18 NLB). God’s answer is: «I will make my goodness pass over you and will proclaim my name «the LORD» before you. I will give my mercy and my grace to whom I will. But you cannot see my face, for every man who sees me must die.»(v.19f NLB). God is too holy, too different for our senses to grasp Him and for us as human beings to stand before His purity.
This is probably the reason why Moses sees neither a figure nor a face of God, but only hears a voice: «Mose, Mose!«Moses is called by his name twice. The strange, incomprehensible God knows his name before Moses knows the name of the one who speaks to him here (Exodus 3:13). God is like that: on the one hand holy, unavailable, mysterious, but also personal, merciful and close. The double naming is typical of when God begins to write a new story with a person. When He calls, something happens. When He does not call, nothing happens. At the beginning of every human story with God, there is always the holy God who takes the initiative.
Moses says to himself: «That’s strange. […] Why doesn’t this bush burn? I need to take a closer look»(Exodus 3:3 NLB). Moses allows himself to be drawn into the unexpected. In our lives, too, there are burning briars by the wayside. The question is whether we take a closer look at them. Do we let ourselves be lured out of our daily routine or out of our own plans? On 13 August 2006, I discovered a burning thorn bush during a normal service in what is now the youth centre. Some time before that, we were approached to fill the position of pastor in this church. This task held no attraction for us at that time. We had completely different plans. But then the fire of the briar jumped into my heart and set it on fire. It still burns today. Watch out for the unusual occurrences around you and don’t miss the briars.
«Don’t come any closer,» God commanded him. Take off your sandals, for you are standing on holy ground. I am the God of your forefathers – the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob» […].»(Exodus 3:5f NLB). Especially in the gloomy winter time we look forward to every ray of sunshine. The sun exerts a fascination on us. It warms, gives light and makes life possible. But if we get too close to the sun, it becomes dangerous. The same is true with God. Its beauty, its otherness and purity captivate, but require a distance.
The ground on which Moses stands is holy only because it is sanctified precisely by the holy God. Everything that comes into contact with God becomes holy. Our annual verse is: «You shall be holy, because I, the LORD your God, am holy.»(Exodus 19:2 NLB). The only way to do this is to encounter this holy God. The place where this can happen is a special place. It must be clear to us that we are facing the Creator, the LORD of the galaxies. He towers over everything by far. Compared to Him, I am a small worm – but loved by God. In this attitude I can meet God.
Moses should take off his shoes. Without shoes you burn your feet in the desert or cut yourself on sharp stones. Only slaves have to go barefoot. Shoes means that with which we master our lives and get the difficulties under our feet. Shoes are everything that we have learned, that we imagine ourselves to be, our status. It is appropriate to put all this away if we want to meet God.
«When Moses heard this, he covered his face, for he was afraid to look at God» (Exodus 3:6b NLB). Man’s adequate response to God’s holiness is awe, respect and worship. The encounter with God’s holiness does not first and foremost trigger joy or enthusiasm in us, but the realisation that we cannot actually stand up to the holy. The encounter with God at the burning bush set Moses» whole life on a new course. Encounter with the saint leaves its mark.
Perhaps you are now asking yourself whether our encounters with the holy God have not changed fundamentally through Jesus Christ. Is distance, taking off shoes and reverence still an issue? We can all be thankful that through the sacrificial death of Jesus the chasm between us and the holy God has been filled up and we can approach Him as the loving Father. But in this important step that we may take towards God, we sometimes overlook that it is not God’s holiness that has been poured out. He has not changed, but we have been given access to Him in order to encounter Him in His holiness, from which also springs His Fatherhood. The terror of confrontation with the sacred is transformed by Jesus» great «fear not» into life-changing wonder at its beauty. «Therefore I kneel before God the Father and worship him»(Ephesians 3:14 Hfa). I talk to my loving Father and fall silent before the holy God.
Possible questions for the small group
Reading the Bible text: Exodus 3:1–6
- Talk about the phase of life Moses was in before the thorn bush experience.
- God drew attention to himself through the burning bush. Have you also had thorn bush experiences? What could be «thorn bushes» in everyday life?
- What do the elements «thorn bush» and «fire» say about God?
- Why should Moses not approach and take off his shoes? What does this teach us for our dealings with God?
- What has changed through the sacrificial death of Jesus? What has remained the same? What does this mean for our communion with God?