Date: 19 Febru­ary 2023 | Pre­a­cher:
Series: | Bible text: Exodus 3:1–6
Hint: This ser­mon has been machi­ne trans­la­ted. Plea­se note that we can­not accept any respon­si­bi­li­ty for the accu­ra­cy of the content.

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.

Human reaction

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

  1. Talk about the pha­se of life Moses was in befo­re the thorn bush experience.
  2. God drew atten­ti­on to hims­elf through the bur­ning bush. Have you also had thorn bush expe­ri­en­ces? What could be «thorn bus­hes» in ever­y­day life?
  3. What do the ele­ments «thorn bush» and «fire» say about God?
  4. Why should Moses not approach and take off his shoes? What does this teach us for our dealings with God?
  5. What has chan­ged through the sacri­fi­ci­al death of Jesus? What has remain­ed the same? What does this mean for our com­mu­ni­on with God?