Burning Bush

Barely two months ago I was sat in Bristol Cathedral ready for Elveen’s ordination. The cathedral authorities have obviously realised that people are a captive audience while they’re waiting, so on the first few pages of the order of service are potted biographies of those about to be made deacon

One in particular caught my eye. He wrote‘God is never in a hurry! Forty-five years ago, when I was lodging in a Leicestershire farmhouse, the farmer’s wife said to me: ‘You’ll be ordained one day.’ Her vision was greater than mine, but I prayed about it and saw myself as an old man wearing a dog collar. Spurred on by that I’ve tried the ordination door more than once over the years but it was always closed. God had more shaping to do on me…but he gave me a promise to hang on to: ‘My word will accomplish what I desire’. So in God’s timing the old man with the dog collar is here at last. Thank you Lord. He is the God who fulfils his purposes for us all.

Moses’ experience was like that, waiting a long time, being shaped by God before he was finally ready to fulfil his call. Forty long years ago, the young man Moses had left the palace of the Egyptian princess who had adopted him, and gone to discover his roots. Finding his own people, the Israelites, enslaved by the Egyptians, Moses was furious. He attacked and killed a slave driver. But Pharaoh heard about it and Moses fled into the wilderness

He survived by working as a shepherd. Humbled, and probably believing this was now his life, he married the daughter of a local priest. We can only imagine what the journey he travelled: of frustration, wasted talent, regret, humility and finally acceptance. Only then, forty years later, was God able to use him

It was only once he’d learnt to listen, to trust, once he’d learnt to do things God’s way, that God could use him. The Israelites would never listen to a spoilt Egyptian princeling. But a man who had suffered, who like them had endured hardship – they could respect him. Sometimes we too need work done on us, character honed, before we can fulfil the call God has given us. Sometimes, like Moses, we have to be set aside for a while, become insignificant, in order to be used

If so, God may need to reassure us that his plans for us are faithful. As he guides us, we learn more about him. In this passage about the burning bush from Exodus chapter 3v1-15, the story of Moses call is interwoven with the revelation of God

Why did God appear in a burning bush? It’s really odd. To Abraham and Jacob, God appeared as a person, or they heard his voice. To Samson’s mother and to David, God came as the Angel of the Lord, a heavenly messenger. The only other time I can think of that God appears not as a personal form but through an object is when Abraham sees a burning brazier making a covenant. There again fire speaks of the presence of God.

 

The thorn bush, most useless and lowliest of plants may encourage Moses. There is nowhere God is absent, nothing God cannot use. Moses feels his life has been wasted, he has lost all confidence. He is like the thornbush – but the fire of God can blaze in him. Thorns also may speak of suffering, the slavery of the Israelites and the hard road Moses must travel. God is not absent when we suffer – we may even feel his presence most strongly. After all, it is on the cross when Jesus wears the crown of thorns, that we see the love of God revealed most clearly. Perhaps the burning bush even anticipates the incarnation: God’s presence united with frail human flesh yet not consuming it.

There is a mystery here, and I think that’s deliberate. The burning bush speaks to us of a God who is both with us, and yet greater than we can imagine. Who appears in a blaze of fire, but we cannot get too close. Who speaks rational words so that he can be heard, yet you must take off your shoes because you stand on holy ground. Who is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – they are alive with him and in heaven behold his face – yet sinful man covers his face because he is afraid to look on God

This is the God we worship, who makes himself known but cannot be fully comprehended. Who reveals himself as a mystery, and calls us on, deeper and deeper into that mystery. A God who when he is asked says name says ‘I will be what I will be’ – in other words he has the complete freedom to be himself, not to be tied down by our classifications., no-one can have power over him by knowing his name

In our prayers and worship we must hold both of these insights together: that God reveals himself to us and makes himself known, but that he is always greater than we can imagine. In our prayers we might imagine pictures of God, but be ready to lay them aside as inadequate. In our hymns and preaching we use words to describe Him, but we must always remember that words cannot encompass his majesty. Our creeds speak of how God has made himself known, but they cannot exhaust the mystery. When we come to worship, let’s not expect it to be as it always is, but be ready to let God be God

In speaking of a God who is transcendent, we should not imagine that he is distant or uncaring. The God who spoke to Moses did so because he had a task for Moses to do: to set God’s people free.  Just look at the verbs in v.7: ‘I have observed the misery, I have heard their cry, I know their sufferings and I have come down to deliver them.’ God has heard the cry of the Israelites, he has seen how the Egyptians are oppressing them, and he has come to rescue them.

God does see. He observes the misery of human trafficking, he hears the cry of the bonded labourer, he knows the suffering of the refugee, he sees the racial divisions – and he still sends his people to rescue and heal. This is part of our vocation as followers of Christ

Of course, there are people who say that the gospel message must come first, and that therefore the church ought to leave social action to the state or to non-Christians. To say that is to ignore the nature of God. It forgets that wherever Christ went he both preached the message and healed the sick. The proclamation of the Kingdom cannot be separated out from the acts of the Kingdom, for it is about life in all its fullness.

People know this – a church which preaches without acting will be accused of hypocrisy, but those like HtB which have a prison and homeless ministry gain the right to be heard. The mission of the Bible Society is to give people Scriptures in their own language, but they also give tents and food to Syrian refugees – you can’t read the Good News if you’ve got nowhere to sit and a hungry stomach. Christians must follow the heart of God and act in love, as well as explaining what we believe. Neither is complete without the other

Making a difference in the world is a long journey. It’s over a year since Jonathan’s campaign began – to give children with special educational needs a genuine opportunity to be taught to read and write. It’s been a long haul. The Government has been enthusiastic, there have been great photo opportunities, videos blogs and articles which have impacted thousands, but no policy has yet changed. Whenever there is the prospect of change, vested interests oppose you. Some you hoped would be allies just don’t get it, or disagree on the right approach. As Moses found, even the ones you hoped to help turn out to be discouraged, tired, too busy just coping, maybe even unable to dream that things could be different.

Perhaps sensing this, Moses objects in v.11: ‘Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?’ Who indeed is up to this task

But the point is not who Moses is, but the key thing is who is with Moses. ‘I will be with you’ says God. We may say ‘Who am I? The task is too great. I have no experience, ability.’ But God says ‘I will be with you’. With God all things are possible. When his Holy Spirit moves we just need to get on board

He longs to bless his people. He promises Moses that he will set them free, he will bring them up to a land flowing with milk and honey. One day soon they will worship God on that very mountain, and receive the law which outlines their relationship with God. God wishes to bless his people, to set them free from captivity and bring them into a right relationship with him. This is about the message of the gospel, and the liberation the gospel brings. He calls us all to work and pray in that great task. Amen.

 

 

 

 

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Freedom

The Fourth of July was coming up and the American nursery school teacher was taking the opportunity to tell her class about patriotism. ‘We live in a great nation’, she said ‘One of the wonderful things is that in this country we are all free.’

One little boy stood up, with his hands firmly on his hips. ‘I’m not free’, he said, ‘I’m four!’

The little boy said more than he knew. Can you be free if you are four? When you are four you spend a lot of your time doing what you are told. But if my four year old was free to do what she wanted, she’d quickly get addicted to crisps and bad habits and wouldn’t be free at all.

So is freedom all about being able to do what you want? And does the idea of freedom as liberty end up making freedom the opposite of responsibility? What about all those people who have found freedom of the soul despite living in oppressive societies?

Today’s reading from the book of Acts Chapter 16 verses 16-34 tells us a lot about freedom. How freedom can take many forms, how someone can be free even in prison, how Christ sets us free. If you want to follow it you can find it on the inside cover of our Gazettes.

This passage follows on immediately after the reading we had last week, in which we heard how a merchant called Lydia was converted in a Roman colony called Philippi. St Paul and his companions had met Lydia at a place of prayer on the riverbank. What I find interesting in verse 16 is that they’re still going there.

Lydia was a wealthy woman, so now she’d become a Christian, why didn’t they meet in her house? It would have been nice and comfy, they could have enjoyed food and drink, they could have adapted the room for their own needs, they could have worshipped God in their own way without worrying about what others might think. But they didn’t.

Paul and his companions deliberately go to the public place of prayer because they want to be seen and heard. They want everyone to hear the good news about Jesus. Christ gives us the freedom to speak about him so that others may have the freedom to respond. Christians shouldn’t spend all their time shut away in churches. It’s good to get out into the community, to be visibly present and to worship outdoors.

Palm Sunday processions, Good Friday walks, Pentecost and Boules services, that kind of thing give a positive message. Of course, it’s got to be high quality and well supported – I’ve been to too many cringeworthy outdoor events attended by one man and his dog. Let’s go outdoors, and if we do let’s make it a priority, doing justice to our faith.

There’s a saying that ‘any publicity is good publicity’. Paul doesn’t think so. Being followed by a slave girl shouting out ‘These men are servants of the Most High God who are telling you a way to be saved’ annoys him. He turns, and says to the fortune telling spirit ‘I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out’. And it does.

As a vicar I occasionally get phone calls from people who feel that something spiritual and unpleasant is troubling them or present in their home. It doesn’t happen often but perhaps more often than you might think. Sometimes a tragic event has happened in that place, or a previous occupant was involved in the occult. I go round the house with a colleague, praying in each room, splashing holy water, listening and blessing in the name of Christ. It’s amazing the peace that Christ can bring. It’s only not worked once: and that was when the person was leading séances and wouldn’t give them up. Christ allows us freedom. If we want to be free from darkness he has great power.

It’s remarkable how many people, even Christians have tried out Ouija or tarot, consulted a medium or similar. People offering this may be charlatans who cold read customers to give false comfort. But that may be less dangerous than those who open people up to unwelcome forces.

While they may seem to give insight into the future, I’ve known people say that such foretelling does not bless – it can cause great anxiety.

The Bible is clear that fortune telling, mediumship and all other forms of spiritism are forbidden to God’s people. It is not our place to know the future. God can prepare us, even tell us what is going to happen if we need to know. But usually God’s emphasis is on giving us the strength to get through whatever the future might hold. Trying to see the future through tarot or palmistry or even horoscopes won’t give you the ability to avoid it or the strength to endure it. If we want to be held through the unknown, we must step out in faith with God’s Holy Spirit.

I much prefer the approach taken by Her Majesty the Queen as she speaks about her own faith on her 90th birthday. In a foreword to a book about her faith, she quotes this poem: ‘I said to the man who stood at the gate of the year: “Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.” And he replied: “Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God. That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.”

If anyone here had been involved in Spiritism or the occult, Christ can set you free. Renounce it, ask for his forgiveness and his peace. It may be surprisingly difficult to do so – that emphasises how necessary it is.

When someone turns away from evil and the Kingdom of God grows, often there is a backlash. In v.19 the slave girl’s owners see that their hope of making money is gone, but rather than complain about this, they use the well-tried tactic of stirring up racial hatred. ‘These people are different, they’re introducing new customs.’

Christians in many places are susceptible to this kind of kangaroo court and summary punishment. Like Paul and Silas though, many of them have discovered that Jesus gives us freedom despite our circumstances.

The apostles could have felt very sorry for themselves, it would have been entirely understandable after a severe beating. Instead, locked up in the stocks they sing hymns and pray. They have realised that they are free: free in how they react, free to praise God. No one can crush them.

Perhaps we too can learn this – in small way. It was the morning before going on holiday. I was in a rush. Lots to do, emails to send, a sermon to write for when I got back, people to phone. Then when the work was done, packing to start. I was in a bad mood, snappy at the children.

As I was struggling with Jemima’s coat buttons, she began to sing: ‘Sing Hosanna, sing hosanna, sing hosanna to the King of Kings’. It suddenly struck me: I have a choice. I can choose to remain in a grump and stressed by everything there is to do. Or I can accept that it’s all there and make the most of whatever comes my way. To a large degree my mood is my choice. Despite circumstances, Christ gives us freedom.

It’s not recorded what the other prisoners made of the midnight praise party. But the situation was transformed when an earthquake burst the prison door. Yes, earthquakes are frequent in that part of the Mediterranean but Luke is sure this was no coincidence, rather the power of God.

God can give us freedom from circumstances. He can change what is going on around us. This does raise a few questions though: why did God not intervene earlier to save Paul and Silas from a beating? Why did God intervene at all – they didn’t make a run for it when their bonds where broken, and we learn in the next passage that they were going to be set free anyway. Perhaps God’s priorities are different to ours.

God intervenes so that he can give freedom to the gaoler. Convinced by God’s power and amazed that the prisoners have not escaped, the gaoler abandons his plan to kill himself and instead is baptised. God brings him freedom from despair. He has the gift of hope and salvation.

This is the ultimate freedom that puts everything else in context. When we are set free by God’s forgiveness a huge burden is released. When we know God loves us we are free from all sorts of expectations society lays on us, free from all manner of striving. When we accept eternal life in Christ, we are free to spend our lives in a completely different way. Coming to Christ is the best freedom of all.

There’s a model of becoming a Christian here: the gaoler’s family hear the word, they believe and are baptised and then he begins Christian service by tending the wounds of the apostles.

Finally, there is one other form of freedom in this story. Freedom from society’s boundaries, the divisions of class and wealth. Paul, a Jewish zealot; Lydia, a wealthy business woman; a slave girl and a tough Roman gaoler are now members of the Church. In Christ we have freedom, whoever we are in the eyes of the world.

Jesus gives us freedom. Freedom from the power of darkness, freedom despite our circumstances. Freedom to change and freedom to live for him. I wonder, where do you need freedom today? Is Christ calling you to a deeper freedom in him? Let us be silent for a moment and listen to his call. Be free to respond.