Do you recall seeing one of those spectacular sunsets, where it looks as though God dipped a brush in the orangey-red colors of the divine palette and flung streaks of that bright color across the blue canvas of the sky? I remember many times driving to and from a speaking engagement or gathered event seeing a world bright and clear and feeling the invitation to look with wide-eyed wonder at the beauty and intricacy of creation—the fields of wildflowers that grew not because someone planted them, but because that was where they were supposed to grow. So, they did. With wild abandon, they grew, not caring if anyone saw them; they burst forth in color because color was what was within them.
At one point on that long stretch of concrete and asphalt, a hawk winged his way across four lanes of traffic. It was probably looking for the little field creatures that scurry through the hedgerows alongside that busy highway. But it appeared as if he was passing judgment on the four-wheeled conveyances that were hurrying through this beautiful day, seemingly concerned only with the destination. He soared with a glint in those piercing eyes, as if he knew a secret that we have forgotten.
One wonders if Moses was enjoying the scenery as he wandered around on that mountain, following his father-in-law’s sheep. Did he bother to look at the majestic mountain pressing upward into the cloud-strewn sky? Did he see the wind-carved sandstone sculptures in the rocks that surrounded him? Or was he more worried about what he might step in as he made his way up the mountain, not quite as spry as the sheep he followed?
Well, at least that bush caught his eye. We can thank God for that. Who knew that on that mountain in the back of beyond, Moses would stumble across God? Not Moses surely. He wasn’t looking. He didn’t want to be found, come to think of it. He was in his self-imposed witness protection program, hiding out from the authorities back home, who had his name plastered across post offices from Cairo to Goshen.
He let his temper get the best of him. Call it righteous indignation if you want; call it an act of justice - protecting one of the downtrodden who was being oppressed. But Pharaoh’s police force called it murder, and even the adopted grandson of the king himself couldn’t get away with murder. So, he ran for his life. Across the desert, he ran with blood dripping from his hands. Or at least it felt like it. His dreams were filled with a nightly re-enactment of his crime of passion. Had to have been. At least for a while. Maybe as the years passed, the hot sun and dry dust eroded his memories enough to honestly forget. Maybe he forgot what he did, where he came from, and even who he was. I think that was his goal. This rescued Hebrew baby boy who grew up in the palace of the greatest king in the known world wanted to forget everything— except how to follow sheep up a mountain. “That’s all I am,” he thought, “all I’m good for, following sheep through the dusty middle of nowhere. Where nothing happens. Where no one goes.”
Except for God. “Take off your shoes,” the bush said. The bush? Yeah, the bush. The burning but not consumed bush. Burning but not consumed? Maybe that’s what drew him. Maybe after all those years of burning and being consumed, Moses wanted to see how it was possible for something to burn and yet not be consumed. Maybe it was the promise; maybe it was the hope that caused him to step aside long enough to have his whole life turned upside down and inside out.
“I’ve come to help,” said the bush, or the angel in the bush, or the voice that wasn’t the angel or the bush but seemed to transcend both. “My heart is broken with the pain of my people, so I have come to help. To set them free.” “Great,” thought Moses, “what’s a bush gonna do against the might of a nation like Egypt?” “I’ve come to help,” says the voice, “I’m sending you.” “Say what,” stutters Moses, “I just follow sheep. I’m not a hero.” “I will be with you,” says the voice as the flames crackle in the silence while Moses chews on this bit of news. “And who are you,” he ventures, wondering if that “not consumed thing” applied just to the bush.
He made his way back across the desert to the land he had abandoned, but this time with a mission, an impossible mission to be sure., You have to wonder if he rolled that name over in his mind with every sandy step: “I am who I am,” said the voice. “I will be who I will be. Tell them ‘I am’ sent you. ‘I am’ will be with you.”
He shook his head at the strangeness of the thought. And then a noticed a hawk flying low in front of him. It wheeled and circled, and, at one point, it seemed to have a glint in its piercing eyes, as though it knew a secret Moses had almost forgotten or had just been told. And his burden seemed lighter for a moment. He lifted his eyes to the hills and then the sky above, and it seemed his direction was mapped out with orangey-red clouds.
“God forbid it, Lord!” The God who seemed so present in creation, who worked through all of Moses’s doubts and hesitations and promised to be present with him throughout this saga, now calls him to move, to follow, to make the journey into the valley of death and out the other side. “Tell them, ‘I Am’ sent you.”
Now things get messy. Now things get painful. Now we are walking into a hornet’s nest. God forbid it, Lord. Did you notice how quickly Peter falls from grace in our Gospel text? Just last week, just a few verses earlier, Peter was top of the class, getting pats on the back and applause from the crowd. Now … “get behind me, Satan.” Talk about your basic fall from grace. And look, he was just trying to stand up for his leader, the one he just called the Christ, the anointed one. He couldn’t comprehend that this Christ would suffer and die, that anyone could get the upper hand on him, that anyone could wield power against him.
Matthew says he rebuked him. We have some of the words, the “God forbid” bit. But what else did he say, you can’t help but wonder. I think he said what he had already said: “You are the Christ! The Son of the living God!” Like a preacher who doesn’t know what else to say and says, “let me say that again!” Peter’s conception of what the Christ would be and do didn’t fit the story that Jesus was trying to tell them. It just didn’t compute in his brain. So, he dared to tell Jesus that he was wrong about himself! That takes a certain amount of chutzpah, don’t you think?
The same amount that we carry around most of the time. Let’s face it, we have a pretty clear idea of what our savior should be doing and how that savior should look and act. And Jesus, if we’re honest, doesn’t fit the mold very well. We’d pick any number of superheroes or secret agents over this carpenter’s kid from Galilee. Though he does rise to that sort of hero level occasion when he says he’s coming back with an army of angels. At least that is what it sounds like he’s saying. But then he goes and confuses us with that last verse in chapter 16. “There are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom” (v.28). Did he miscommunicate the timing? Why are we still waiting for this angelic repayment?
Well, read on. The next chapter begins with the story of the Transfiguration, where a select few got to see … something. Again, we think in terms of battles and punishment and power and winning. And Jesus consistently shows us something else: presence, community, connection. We’re looking at the wrong things, it seems. Moses was stumbling around the wilderness looking after sheep and almost – only almost, thankfully – missed the presence and call of God in the midst of the created world. Peter was stumbling around the Galilean countryside and missed – for a time – the presence and call of God in the person he came to know as the Anointed one. Maybe the God we seek is right in front of us all the time, and if we only opened our eyes to the world that vibrates with the divine presence, we might know who calls us.