The Moses we find here in the wilderness is not the Hollywood blockbuster version of Moses or the Michelangelo statue version of Moses - you know - the heroic figure with a somber noble expression and long flowing hair. This is often the image we conjure up when we think of Moses. But no, the Moses we find here in the wilderness is not a hero or a prophet or a leader. He is a young man, a refugee, a sheep herder, an outlaw. The Moses we find here is a survivor of trauma, an adopted son who sat uneasy with his royal identity, a murderer, a fugitive from justice.
And this story here in the wilderness, after all the drama that he has already endured - after all that, this story of Moses is still just beginning. Moses can certainly be excused for thinking that he had had quite enough tragedy and danger in his life and did not want anything to do with saving his people from bondage in Egypt.
In the very first verse of our reading we are told that Moses led his flock "beyond the wilderness." The first listeners of this story, thousands of years ago, would have felt the hair on the back of their necks stand up when they heard that phrase, "beyond the wilderness." It is an ominous phrase that we mostly pass by as we read. But "wilderness" in the Old Testament - it is mentioned more than 300 times - wilderness indicates danger, foreboding, dread. In the wilderness are animals that lurk and attack. Hunger and thirst are always a threat. These are unpopulated, untracked, unsafe areas. And Moses was not only in the wilderness, he was beyond the wilderness. The wild animals there might be even hungrier, even more ferocious. Moses was keeping his father-in-law's sheep which sounds tame enough, but he was in very dangerous territory.
He was beyond the wilderness.
Three words in English - just two words in Hebrew - and we know that we are in a very scary place.
Being in a very scary place is not at all hard for us to imagine in these days of pandemic and protest. Like Moses, we are beyond the wilderness in this year of fear and uncertainty that has stretched for many months now. Some of us have lost loved ones and colleagues to the deadly disease called Covid-19. All of our lives have been disrupted and upended by restrictions and economic collapse. And then, we are also beyond the wilderness in this year of encountering the insidious power and perversion of racism. We are beyond the wilderness in unemployment numbers in our communities and global unrest that inevitably hits women and children and the poor harder and deeper. We are beyond the wilderness.
And so, this story is for all of us, now. This story is the word of the Lord for us today. It reveals to us two things about God that we need to hear, now.
First, there is no wilderness so wild that God cannot find us there. This is a scary place, but God is there. In fact, God is there, waiting for Moses. God shows up first and puts flame to a scrubby bush. Moses shows up second. The bush is already on fire but does not burn down. It displays an inexhaustible divine energy. Perpetually aflame, this bush. So, not only does God show up beyond the wilderness, God was there first and revealed holy divine presence in this most unlikely place.
Is this something we need to hear on this day, in this time of loss and grief and anger? God is already there. God is right now revealing holy divine presence in any of the unlikely places of our lives. Our places of pain. Our places of loneliness and longing. Our places of intense anger. Our places of exhaustion. Our places of depression and hollow emptiness. God is already there.
And when God shows up, our wilderness places become holy places. "Remove the sandals from your feet," said God, "for the place on which you are standing is holy ground." "Beyond the wilderness" turns out to be holy, not god-forsaken. The wilderness places in our lives too are holy and wide open to God's presence and action and voice and call.
The second thing that this story reveals to us about God is that God is not deterred by our shortcomings and failures. Moses has an arm's length list of reasons and excuses and loopholes as to why he is not the one to do this hard thing - to follow this call of God. And he names them all. This is a case of mistaken identity, he says. God, I think you mean to call someone who is strong and brave and smart and connected to power brokers who can swing a deal for you, God. Not me - I'm a fugitive, an immigrant, a marked man. No, God, not me.
But God is not deterred by our shortcomings and failures. God calls Moses in spite of his checkered past. God calls David even though he was just a shepherd boy. God calls Esther even though she was just a harem girl. God calls Jonah even though he tried to run away. God calls Mary even though she was on the bottom rung of society. God calls you even though you don't feel wise enough or skilled enough or brave enough in this complicated and painful world. If God calls Moses in spite of everything, I suppose we shouldn't be too surprised if God calls us, because God is not deterred by our shortcomings and failures.
This story not only reveals these two things about God but it also reveals something about Moses - and about us too. And that is that the people God calls - flawed people like Moses and like me and like you - are burdened with doubts and indecision. We resist God's call; we come up with excuses. We procrastinate, obfuscate, deliberate, and frustrate the clear call of God. We drag our feet. It's true - we do.
But God persists and promises, "I will be with you." And a few verses later in this same chapter, God even identifies a new and mysterious divine name. "I Am Who I Am" - or maybe the translation is, "I Will Be Who I Will Be" or even, in the suggestion of one biblical commentator, "Whenever God is being God, God will be the kind of God God is." No matter what the translation - it is a name that signals promise. God will be the kind of God that God is.
Many years ago, a young pastor in Switzerland by the name of Karl Barth was trying to find the right words to express the God that is revealed in a burning bush, in Jesus Christ, in the Holy Spirit, in the church. And although he wrote millions of words in his life, this young pastor thought he could do no better than one brief statement. He said, "God is God." This means that we are not - our culture is not - our economy is not - our racial identity is not - none of these things are God. Only God is God.
This shortest of all faith statements has two implications. First, it is a solemn warning not to build any alternate gods. John Calvin, another pastor many years ago in Geneva, once said that the human heart is a factory of idols. We produce and then try to sell alternatives to God - in fact, there is a whole warehouse of cheap alternatives to God that we ourselves have manufactured.
But this short statement, God is God, is also a deep comfort. If God is God, then we believe that God will be the kind of God that God is, a God slow to anger and abounding in loving kindness. God said to Moses, "I will be with you beyond the wilderness." God says to us, "I will be with you in your wilderness places."
In these days of dark discouragement, God's promise is a light breaking in from on high. Thanks be to God for God's inexhaustible, never-ending, always present love.