Do You Smell Something Burning?

August 31, 2014   Exodus 3: 1-15

Rev. Catherine Purves


     Moses was out in the middle of nowhere.  Our text says that he was beyond the wilderness.  This was the very wilderness where the Hebrews would wander for 40 years after Moses led them out of slavery.  He was near Mt. Horeb which is thought to be another name for Mt. Sinai.  This was a place where there was no food and little water, a desolate place where you wouldn’t expect anything good to happen.  Moses was out there shepherding the flock of his father-in-law Jethro.  He would not have found prime grazing land there, but perhaps it was a flock of goats; they would happily nibble on the scraggly desert bushes and occasional blades of scrub grass.  At any rate, Moses wasn’t doing anything special, just keeping his flock safe and wandering about in this rather bleak landscape.  He was not looking for a religious experience or anticipating a divine encounter.  Why would he?  And then he smelled the smoke.

     One of the fascinating things about this story for me is the fact that this crucial event upon which the whole saga of the Exodus depends seems to hang on a slender thread.  What if Moses hadn’t smelled the smoke?  What if he hadn’t turned aside to see what was going on with that bush.  A burning bush is odd, but it’s nothing like the pillar of fire that would later capture the Israelites attention and lead them through that wilderness.  If you smelled smoke and saw a burning bush, would you expect that you were about to encounter the living God?  At any rate, it looks like it was Moses’ curiosity that triggered the whole series of events that would result in the defeat of Pharaoh, the liberation of the Hebrews, and their arrival in the Promised Land.  I say that because our text specifically says, “When the Lord saw that [Moses] had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses.”  If Moses had not turned aside, would God have spoken?  If Moses had not been paying attention, would God’s presence have been revealed to him?  If Moses hadn’t smelled the smoke, would he have had that world-changing conversation with God?

     I may be overstating my case.  God’s compassion for Israel, and God’s desire to save would not have been thwarted just because Moses failed to be attracted to the burning bush.  But it does make me wonder about how many other ordinary situations, in which God might encounter us, simply get overlooked because we’re too busy to smell the smoke, or we’re not curious enough or attentive enough to hear God’s still small voice.  Obviously, we would be stopped in our tracks by a pillar of fire, but would we investigate a burning bush?

     One of the hallmarks of Celtic spirituality is its strong conviction that God is encountered in the ordinary experiences of our lives.  You don’t have to be in a cathedral or even a humble church like ours to discover that you are standing on holy ground.  You can meet and speak with God while you are milking the cow or plowing the fields or doing the dishes.  And there are simple prayers written for all of these everyday domestic activities.  They are really quite lovely, and they remind us of the surprising nearness and accessibility of God.  Here is a prayer that was said when the fire is being kindled at the start of the day:

I will kindle my fire this morning

In the presence of the holy angels of heaven…

Without malice, without jealousy, without envy

Without fear, without terror of anyone under the sun

But the holy God to shield me.

And here is a companion prayer that is offered when the fire is banked down for the night:

            The sacred three

            To save, to shield

            To surround the hearth

            The house, the household

            This eve, this night

            Oh, this eve, this night

            And every night, each single night.

Perhaps we should have prayers for driving to work, or for weeding the yard, or for reading the newspaper.  How would our lives change if we did?  Do you think we would be more inclined to smell the smoke that signals God’s presence?  Do you think we would turn aside and see what God wants us to see and hear what God wants to say to us?  Do you think that simple curiosity and prayerful attentiveness might open up for us a whole new world of faithful encounters with God?

     This is what happened to Moses at the burning bush:  a conversation was begun, and a relationship was established.  This was a two-way relationship.  It was not forced or coerced.  It never is.  Moses could have walked away at any time.  He might not have stopped to investigate the burning bush in the first place.  He was busy with his goats, after all.  But Moses did stop, and Moses did see, and Moses did listen, and Moses did respond, and so, a relationship was begun. 

     In this first surprising encounter with God the basis for that relationship was laid.  First, God tells Moses that he has seen the suffering of his people at the hands of the Egyptians.  God is not unaware or disengaged from our pain and struggles either.  Our ordinary lives matter to God.  Then God tells Moses, “I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land…”  Not only is God aware, but God has decided to do something about it.  As Christians we can hardly hear the words, “I have come down to deliver them” without thinking of Jesus Christ, God with us, who came down to live with us, as one of us, in order to save us.  This is all good news.  It was a revelation to Moses, and it was the basis for his new relationship with God.       

     It looks like Moses didn’t anticipate what would happen next, and we may often fail to see that this relationship will also demand something of us.  When you smell smoke, and when God speaks, you will find that you are being called to participate in the plans and purposes of God.  “The cry of the Israelites has now come to me;” God said to Moses, “I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them.  So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.”  Our response to a call like that would probably be something like:  Wait!  What?  No!  I was just wandering by when I smelled the smoke.  I have goats to tend.  You’ve got the wrong person.  Someone else will come by who is smarter, braver, less tongue-tied, and more religious that I am.  What Moses said to God was, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh?”  But the only reply that Moses heard amidst the smoke and the flames was, “I will be with you.” 

     The God who appeared suddenly in the midst of Moses’ ordinary life, may also encounter us when we least expect it.  God sees our suffering, the suffering of the whole human race.  And God has decided to come down to save us.  But, we are now God’s instruments.  We are the servants of our servant Lord, Jesus Christ.  We are sent to do the work of compassion in the world, but always with the promise, “I will be with you.”  This work is born out of the relationship that God establishes with us in Jesus Christ.  It is a calling for which we are equipped and sent, just as Moses was, and we are never asked to go alone.

     There is one more important part of this story:  the revealing of the divine name.  God’s relationship with Moses is finally fully established when Moses asks the big question, “Who shall I say sent me?”  God’s response, however, is mysterious.  “I AM WHO I AM.”  What kind of a name is that?  It’s a name that conceals and reveals.  It’s a name that preserves God’s freedom to act and to be, but that still invites relationship.  Like the name Jesus, it is a name that guards God’s holiness while revealing God’s compassionate presence in our midst. 

     Do you smell something burning?  Are you ready to encounter the living God in the ordinary places and mundane activities of your life?  Will you pause in your busyness and look and listen and allow a relationship to be formed?  Will you trust in the promise of the God whose very name is a mystery, when he says, “I will be with you.”?  And will you go where you are sent to be part of the unfolding purposes of that God in our world?  Do you smell something burning?