Season of Creation | FIRE
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." (Exodus 3:1-5, NRSV).
Be praised, my Lord, through Brother Fire,
through whom You brighten the night.
He is beautiful and cheerful, and powerful and strong. (Francis of Assisi, “Praise of the Creatures,” st. 7).
Fire. Shout the word in a crowded place, and havoc may break loose. The word may inspire panic. Hear it preceded by “Ready. Aim” and it may be followed by a solemn volley of rifle shots at a funeral with military honors. The word may convey sadness and grief. But when you are hungry and have only raw meat or grains, or when it gets cool or cold at night, the sight, sounds, and heat of fire prompt hope, comfort, even cheerfulness, as Francis of Assisi lauded it centuries ago.
For Moses at around age 80, tending his father in law’s flocks and leading them beyond their usual grazing area toward a place referred to locally as “the mountain of God,” fire, as he saw it that day, prompted something else. It was more than mere curiosity. This was fascination. Fire was leaping from a bush on the side of that mountain, yet the bush itself was entirely unharmed. Here, on the mountain of God, Moses had to “turn aside” from watching the sheep and “see,” get a closer look at, explore, try to comprehend the mystery of this fire.
Rudolph Otto, the Lutheran theologian, would have called this moment in Moses’s life an example of one aspect of the encounter with the Holy, a “mysterium fascinans” (a fascinating mystery). As he is drawn toward the holy fire and looks deeper into it, a voice calls his name, and then leads immediately to the other aspect of such an encounter, “mysterium tremendum” (a mystery that leaves you trembling). Fascination drew him in, trembling awe stopped him short. This was holy ground. Fire was its sign.
And it was not the will of the Holy One who spoke from the fire that this fire be confined to this bush on this mountain on this day. This momentary fire was to be but kindling for an enduring flame it would ignite in Moses’s own heart, a flame to brighten the long, hope-crushing night of suffering, slavery, and oppression that had fallen upon the descendents of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, Moses’s kin, and the people of the Holy One’s calling.
It had been forty years since Moses had fled from them, forty years since he had killed an Egyptian overseer who had treated some of them particularly harshly, forty years since his exile into the wilderness of Midian and his refuge with the local priest’s family, marrying his daughter, to escape prosecution and likely execution. That was a lifetime ago. Surely there were still some memories, some stirrings of regret, some wonderings about what was happening there. But the memories were faded. The stirrings were barely noticeable. The wonderings were few and far between.
Until that fire.
That mysterious fire.
That fascinating, tremor inducing fire.
That holy fire.
From which the Holy One continued to speak.
Moses may have left his former life, and the people in it, behind him. But the Holy One did not.
"I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey… So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt." (Exodus 3:7b-8b, 10, NRSV).
The Holy One has seen and heard, and the holy fire blazes with passion to deliver the people and establish them in what will become their own land. The Holy One will deliver and establish them. Moses will lead their exodus from Egypt.
For the rest of chapter 3 and the first half of chapter 4, Moses offers question after question. Who do I say you are? What if the leaders of the people don’t believe me about meeting you? How will I convince the Pharaoh or even my own people when after all this time away I cannot speak their languages well?
The Holy One does not relent. The fire continues to flame up until it consumes all of Moses’s questions like kindling that raises the temperature of his own heart and ignites in him the willingness at least to return to Egypt, and eventually to lead.
The Holy One never forgets the condition of the oppressed, the enslaved, the rejected, the neglected, the dejected, the objects of salvation, and holy fire blazes with compassion, as for sheep without a shepherd.
As on the day Jesus saw the crowds, helpless and harassed, and healed them, and as evening was falling, fed them all.
As on the night of the resurrection, when two dispirited disciples who had travelled to Emmaus with their Lord, unaware who he was until he broke bread and vanished, suddenly became aware their hearts had been ablaze as he was opening the scriptures to them on the way, and so rushed back to Jerusalem at night to report their amazing experience to the other disciples.
As on the day of Pentecost when tongues as of fire came upon disciples at prayer, and they preached in many languages to thousands of pilgrims, and the church was born in waters that baptized over three thousand.
As on the day when some of you were captivated in your hearts by the vision of the fiery intensity of the love of God for you in Jesus Christ, and you answered a call to follow Jesus, and you were baptized, and have since committed to lead your own children and invite many others to follow his way into those fiery, Pentecostal waters as well.
And perhaps as on this day, here and now, maybe in a hymn or a song we have sung, maybe in the reading, maybe even in this sermon, the fire of the Holy One has caught your eye, and you have turned aside to see, so the passion of the Holy One has ignited your heart, and the vision of the Holy One to bring deliverance in place of every form of evil, injustice, and oppression has consumed your fears, shame, and doubting, and you, before the holy fire, now say with Moses as the Spirit calls your name, “Here I am.”