Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. Then Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.” When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” Then he said, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” He said further, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.
I love churches. I’m not sure when my affection for worship spaces began, but for as long as I can remember I have always loved Christian buildings. Whenever I travel somewhere new, and have an opportunity to explore a local church – I do so.
The first time I went to Guatemala, while all my friends were bargaining with the local artisans for a blanket, or a sweater, or a bowl, I found myself walking around the village peaking in on the churches. When I was younger I would arrive early for youth band at my home church just so I could walk around the building, sit in the different pews, and even stand up in the pulpit to pretend I was the preacher. In fact, when I came to St. John’s for the first time, Good Friday evening of 2013, I was introduced to the Staff-Parish Relations Committee, and when they inquired if there was anything I needed to know about the church, I asked to see the sanctuary.
When I enter a church for the first time, I have made it a habit to walk to the front near the altar, kneel on the floor, and pray. Sometimes the prayers have been about the safety of the mission trip, or for God to bless the people and preacher who call this space home, or even for God to bless me with a church of such beauty in the future.
One summer, when I was provided the opportunity to lead a group of college students to Taize, France, I found myself walking with my friends and exploring the local town. Between the three daily worship services with 5,000 other twenty-somethings, we had the freedom to do as we pleased, so we hiked around Burgundy, France.
When we entered the small chapel, I was overcome by its opulence. The stained glass was filled with such vibrant colors, letting in just the right amount of light through the scenes of scripture. The crucifix at the front had a triumphant Christ hanging on the cross above the altar. The pews were made of well-worn wood that conveyed a deep sense of time and care. While my friends examined the fine details of the space I walked to the front, fell to my knees, and I prayed.
I must have been there for some time, because when I opened my eyes it took them a moment to readjust to the light. Below my knees, I noticed some writing on the marble stones that made up the floor. While my eyes began to focus on the crude letters, I was gripped with a sense of fear and awe – the floor was made of old gravestones.
With all the beauty surrounding me on the walls, and ceiling, with an altar worthy of a king, and a pulpit raised high in the air, I neglected to notice the most sacred and holy element of the church. The floor and foundation of the worship space was made possible through the saints that have gone on before us, a constant and beautiful reminder that this was holy ground.
Just like every other day, Moses was tending to the flock. The morning was typical, calm, and cool with the dew hanging on the leaves while Moses walked along the path. Perhaps while walking in the still silence, Moses thought back upon his life, and what had led him here. He had grown up around the inner circle of Pharaoh’s cohort, raised by the princess as her own, but when he saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew he could not contain his rage and committed murder. Moses fled from the comfort, power, and prestige of Egypt because he was afraid. He eventually settled in Midian and married Zipporah, the daughter of Jethro the priest.
Moses was tending the flock that belonged to his father-in-law when he led them beyond the wilderness and came to Horeb (“wasteland”), the mountain of God. Walking along the path, filled with thoughts form the past, Moses discovered a bush on fire, and even though it was blazing, it was not consumed. Rather than continue on his journey, Moses turned aside to look at the great sight, to see why the bush was not being burned up. Then God called out from the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he replied, “Here I am.” The Lord commanded Moses to stay put, and remove the sandals from his feet, for the place where he was standing was holy ground. “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.
It was just an ordinary, everyday journey for Moses. A normal routine with no “religious” intentions. He was not going out to seek the perfect modern preacher or guru to learn about what God was calling him to do with his life, he was not sitting in the great temple of Jerusalem, he was just doing his job.
God chose the mountain in the wilderness as the place of revelation and change for Moses’ life. The encounter took place far and away from the sights and sounds of the religious community, this holy moment takes place in the least likely of situations and locations.
A burning bush appeared in the wasteland, but the fire did not consume it. Moses was not frightened away from the bush, nor was he repelled by the sight of something strange, but instead he was drawn toward it. His curiosity propelled him forward, not for religious reasons, but because it was unknown.
God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, loves to make use of human curiosity for his own purposes. Curiosity often leads to discovery, new life, and new vision.
Moses was the one who ran away from familiarity into the unknown. He had left behind his family and calling in Egypt because he feared for his life. He escaped to the place of Midian, found a wife, and a new calling and was settled. It happened in the ordinary and mundane moment of routined life that Moses was jolted into a new reality.
God is the one with the initiative in the situation. Moses was not begging on his knees for God to enter his life, instead it is God who confronts Moses and calls him to a task.
We gather in this space for worship with expectations. We come to church to sing, to pray, to live, to love, and to encounter the living God. It is our hope and belief that in so doing we will come into contact with the divine in such a way that we can be filled and transformed for the coming week. However, if the story of Moses and the burning bush is to come alive for us today, then we must prepare ourselves to be encountered by the living God when we least suspect it.
Years ago, Zig Volskis was preparing to preside over a wedding for a beautiful couple. He had done the necessary pre-marital counseling, he had met with the families to discuss the needs of the wedding ceremony, frankly- he had taken care of everything he needed to for the wedding to be perfect. Like with all weddings he stood at the front with the wonderful couple and began to speak about the holy covenant of marriage, of Christ’s role in bringing two people together as one, and the responsibility to live into this new identity with faithfulness.
Zig had done a lot of weddings. He knew that at some point the bride would start crying, and if he really worked it, the the groom would cry as well. He knew that some of the people in the congregation no longer believed in marriage, but believed in the young people enough to show up. He had done enough weddings to know the routine. But this was to be no ordinary wedding…
“I can’t do this,” the bride blurted without warning. Zig, the great pastor that he was, immediately took over the situation, escorting the young woman out the congregation to have a serious conversation. Thinking that it might just be wedding jitters and nervousness, he invited the young woman to speak. “I can’t do this,” she said, “I’ve had my doubts, of course. But it just hit me right before we walked in. We were waiting for my grandmother to arrive and she was running late. The longer we waited, the more angry my fiancee became. When she finally made it he began yelling at her for ruining this moment, for making us wait on her. The entire time I walked down the aisle and saw him standing at the front, I realized for the first time, that I was making a terrible mistake.” So Zig re-entered the sanctuary, and as calmly as possible, informed everyone that the wedding would no longer take place.
God shows up in the most unexpected times and places. In the midst of a beautiful wedding ceremony the Spirit moved in such a way to give a dose of reality to a young bride about the mistake she was about to make. In the midst of a cold December evening when I was sixteen, God brought me down to my knees and propelled me on a path toward church ministry. In the midst of a leading a flock God appeared in the burning bush to call Moses into something difficult and holy.
I knew a pastor who, every Sunday morning, would kick off his shoes at the back of the sanctuary before entering during the opening hymn. When I finally asked him about this strange practice he casually replied, “this is holy ground.” I think he was right; this space, the inside of our sanctuary, this room where we gather to meet the living God is holy ground. But I also think he was wrong; the ground is only holy because of God’s appearance, not because we say it is.
I love worship, and I love churches. I have had some incredible moments in my life where I have heard a preacher proclaim words from a pulpit as if he or she was speaking to me, and to me alone. I have been in the middle of singing a hymn only to realize that tears were flowing down my face because of the depth and beauty of a God who could love me in spite of my sinfulness. I have prayed at the altar after receiving communion and experienced even just a foretaste of what God’s kingdom is all about. But some of the most transformative and life-giving moments of my life have taken place when I least suspected them, in places far removed from the religious center of the church.
Being called by God into a new life is not something that applies only to clergy, nor is it something that happens exclusively in worship. We are all called in one way or another to live faithful lives for God’s kingdom, whether we are clergy or lay, teachers or students, engineers or musicians, writers or mathematicians. We are given incredible opportunities to respond to God’s calling in manifold ways in our daily lives by loving our neighbors as ourselves, by asking the hard questions that other people are afraid to mutter, by looking at the world through Christ’s perspective.
We are not abandoned and left alone. We see how God is really gracious toward us in the fact that God confronts us in his incredible holiness. The fact that God does not permit his people, the righteous, or the church to perish, means that He refuses to let us go our own way when we act and behave as if we were people who do not need to hear the Good News.
We stand on holy ground, here at church and out in the world, confronted by the Holy One, who searches deep into our souls and knows what we think, what we feel, and what we believe. God cannot allow us to wander off and be left to our own perspectives, but meets us in the ordinary, when we least expect it, and calls us by name: Moses, Moses; Taylor, Taylor, etc.
When God confronts you in the midst of life, how will you respond? Will you continue your journey and ignore the unexpected call? Or will you say, “Here I am”?