Moses sees the burning bush painting
“Could this possibly have some deeper symbolic meaning?”

[A sermon on Exodus 3:1-12, the Uniform Series text for Sunday, July 2, delivered at a small church in southern Indiana]

Rashi, who is widely recognized as the greatest medieval Jewish commentator on scripture, says that when God tells Moses that “this is the sign by which you will know that it is I who have sent you,” God is referring to … the bush. The bush that is burning and not being burnt up is a sign to Moses that he will be able to undertake his mission, unharmed, because the bush is performing its mission, and it’s obviously unharmed – that was one of the first things Moses noticed about it.

Apparently, there has been a lot of speculation about what kind of bush it was that Moses could have seen doing this. There actually is a kind of plant, called the “gasplant,” that can catch on fire and not burn up, due to its abundance of natural oils. However, the Christian tradition seems to have mostly settled on a kind of blackberry, rubus sanctus, which means, actually, “holy blackberry,” as being the bush; in fact, there’s a monastery at the foot of what we think is Mt. Sinai, St. Catherine’s monastery, also known as “the sacred monastery of the God-trodden Mt. Sinai,” which has a chapel built around a particular rubus sanctus plant that is said to be the bush that Moses saw burning and not being consumed, literally, “eaten up.”

Evidently, the holy blackberry is a lot like the wild blackberries around here: it’s common in scrubby parts of the Mediterranean area where it can get enough water, it sends up canes that can reroot wherever they touch the ground, so it can grow into a pretty dense thicket if you let it, it has prickles – as a matter of fact, you can reach in to pick fruit, but you’ll get stuck as you try to pull your hand out of the plant. There are some people who think that the crown of thorns that Jesus wore when he was crucified was made from holy blackberry, and that the berries are the color of Jesus’ blood. It also turns out that the young shoots of the holy blackberry bush can be made into a kind of triple antibiotic ointment that will help heal minor wounds – scientists have checked this, and it really works.

This all goes to show that something can be ordinary – maybe not even considered all that valuable, like a weedy, sticker-y blackberry bush – and still do something great. Because this bush plays a really important part in this story, is a really important character in this story, if you can call a bush a character, which in this case I think maybe we can.

The bush’s mission, in Rashi’s reading, is to help the messenger of God, the angel of God, get Moses’ attention. In a sense, the bush is the assistant messenger of God, facilitating the work of the Holy Spirit of God. And the mission turns out to be wildly successful, too – it definitely captures Moses’ attention. Of course, I suppose we can see why: it’s pretty dramatic, and something we don’t see everyday.

We can imagine, if we think about it, why something pretty dramatic might have been necessary under the circumstances. Moses was busy being a shepherd, and he presumably had a lot on his mind. He was in the middle of what must have been an unusually long shepherding trip – because judging from the maps, he had traveled something like a hundred, a hundred and twenty miles, maybe even more, to get from where he was living in Midian with his father-in-law Jethro, to this special mountain of God, and that is something like 5 or 6 times as far as a shepherd will ordinarily move with a flock, these days … so whether Moses was looking for food and water for these sheep, and not finding it, or kept running into other shepherds and other flocks and had tried to get out of their way, which is what Rashi thinks, or what exactly was going on, Moses was on the job, he was focused on doing what he had to do here; on top of that, another tradition has it that when he actually came upon the burning bush, he was looking for a sheep that had strayed away from the flock. So Moses was doing all the things his father-in-law would expect him to do when taking care of a flock of sheep, but it had turned into a particularly demanding assignment.

So we can see why Moses might have had a little tunnel vision, and why it might have taken something extraordinary to catch his attention, so that God could communicate with him more directly. We might be able to relate to Moses on this one. We can get so preoccupied with our daily routines, with the demands of our schedules, with all the items on our to-do lists, that we lose track of other matters, maybe we forget to pray – even though during those hectic times we probably need prayers even more – or maybe we think we don’t have time to pause, to count our blessings, or to reconnect with God; God is always there, but don’t always notice it or don’t think about it. So it turns out that Moses and we may have something in common, maybe we, too, sometimes we need something dramatic to happen before we pay real attention to God.

And God wants our attention, of course, because God has things to communicate! In Moses’ case, God has a message about the situation of the Israelites that Moses needs to hear and be persuaded by! God has been paying attention, and is completely aware of the situation – has seen, has heard, has felt the oppression of God’s people, so for God it’s time for action, and God has identified Moses for a special task in the situation, namely to be the “shepherd” of those people, so to speak; has decided Moses is just the person to negotiate their flight out of Egypt, and then guide them through the wilderness, back to this very spot. We may be able to follow God’s logic at this point, because Moses now, obviously, knows the way. One of his special qualifications for the mission appears to be that he’s traveled this path before, with sheep, so he can presumably do it again, with people.

We can tell from Moses’ hesitation that Moses doesn’t see the same potential in himself that God does. It reminds us that here we are in at a beginning point in Moses’ relationship with God; this Moses is not the same person we will see later in the Bible, after he has been in constant communication with God for years, or decades. So even though we understand that God has been involved in Moses’ story all along, from the very beginning, Moses doesn’t seem to have done a lot of talking with God before now, and we’ve already seen he hasn’t exactly been paying attention. Beginnings are awkward. If we’re doing a craft, we know, “getting it started” can be a little tricky; the first stitches or the first row don’t tell us what it’s going to look like once it’s really underway; at the beginning of anything is when we have the most to learn, the least experience, a lot of questions … So we probably need to have some sympathy for Moses’ hesitation about this call, for Moses’ need for a sign that this is really God, so this is going to work out according to God’s vision …

And as Rashi reads this, God says, I’ll be with you, and look at the bush – look at that – it works out really well … So, that bush is certainly instrumental in this conversation. But why? Why this particular way of getting Moses’ attention, of convincing him that God is involved in this? Does the image of the bush, on fire, have some deeper meaning, one that we ought to pay attention to, too?

This seems likely. We probably already thought of the fire as a sign of God … we might have thought of the Living God, as Christians we might have thought of the Holy Spirit. Fire does make people think of something alive: it moves, changes shape and size, it dances …

but at the same time, when we think of fire we normally think something is being destroyed. Even when we’re OK with that, maybe because it’s a bonfire and we are trying to get rid of all that scrub wood and debris, or because it’s a campfire and we gathered that wood on purpose, to roast hot dogs and make s’mores – we expect the end result to be embers and ashes. We would be as astounded as Moses is to see fire that is, in effect, living on its own, … in fact, if we imagine a blackberry bush around this time of year, covered with ripening fruit and green leaves … and then imagine this bush is on fire, and still flourishing, thriving, living …

We’ll realize, it’s really the life that is the most attention-getting thing about this whole attention-getting sight, it’s the life that is flourishing in this flame that stands out, and that it’s the mission of the bush to communicate. That life, that lively quality of the bush, is an integral part of the message of the burning bush. Life is the attention-getting feature, certainly – the living quality of flame that signals God’s presence, and then the life of the bush that is going on in that presence  – because if the bush had simply behaved normally and burned up to a cinder, it wouldn’t have been remarkable at all. What’s remarkable is that this bush is on fire and is full of life.

In fact, maybe it’s full of life because it’s on fire. God’s life gives life. That’s part of the message here: the bush is alive with God, a messenger that embodies its message. The early rabbis thought the bush was a symbol of the people of Israel, the people of God, who are the visible support for the brilliant activity of God; the people of God may sometimes be out in an unpromising location; may sometimes be thought of as a nuisance by others, may sometimes seem a little weedy or prickly, and may even feel a little weedy or prickly; but enlivened by the power of God, flourishing, flowering and bearing fruit; and showing surprising signs of life; and then pass that life on, waking people up to the possibilities around them, the amazing possibilities of life that are created and nourished by God, God’s love, God’s power, God’s passion for justice and concern …

Life is attention-getting. This is as true in our own world, far away from the Saudi Arabian desert, thousands of years after Moses. We are drawn to places where it seems like something is going on, we are interested in people who seem to be alive and doing things, we are often energized by others’ energy, others’ expressions of life: happiness, excitement, anticipation, courage, determination, perseverance … all those signs of life, we respond to ourselves. And others respond to those things in us. This might especially be true in the wilderness, where Moses was, where there are lots of expanses of waterless desert, where the signs of life are sparse, and desperately needed.

And there are ways in which our world is also a wilderness, at least metaphorically. Not so much physically – we can see the fields and well-cared for yards all around us – but spiritually, we are living in a time when people, and this might be especially young people, are more and more confused and uncertain about what they can count on, where they can turn for moral guidance, whether there are any solid principles, whether it’s OK to insist that some things are true, or good – I teach in a college, and this semester, I had a class of students who most of whom when it came to the subject of truth, they said, well, how would you know if anything is true? And since we don’t know, we just try not to think about any of that too much … we just don’t care whether we have the answers or not, we try to limit our thinking to what matters for day-to-day … that is, we stay away from those big questions, who am I really, what am I here for … how sad! In a kind of work-driven tunnel vision, not able to see the bigger picture.

We are surrounded by people who need to have their attention caught, to see signs of life, to be called to a real task. Most of us are not going to be asked to be Moses, to lead a whole people through the wilderness to the promised land, and we’re probably thankful for that. But we still have a mission, because we are the people of God, and this means that we are living by the enlivening power of God in our lives. And that is a sign of life – a sign of life individually, and a sign of life in our lives together.

Like the bush, the people of God often seem ordinary, but have the potential to do great things – because of the life given by the living God. Mission doesn’t always involve something career-changing, as it did for Moses. It can involve “blooming where we’re planted,” as the bush did … which may be the perfect place for the Spirit of the Living God to light up, and reach out to someone who needs to hear the message of life.

Evidently these holy blackberry bushes live a very long time. I don’t know for sure whether the particular holy blackberry bush that is in the chapel of St. Catherine’s monastery is the very same one that Moses saw … but even if it isn’t, that particular bush has done some pretty great things, because it has been the nucleus of a community that is now the oldest continuously inhabited Christian monastery in the world, and that has had a special mission in preserving the Word of God for thousands of years; St. Catherine’s monastery was the place where the oldest manuscript of the Greek Christian Bible, the Codex Sinaiticus, was found, in 1844 (more or less); that manuscript has made a giant contribution to Biblical scholarship; and St. Catherine’s continues to show signs of life; just as God’s people do all over the world, including right here – we are enlivened by God, we bear God’s spirit, we communicate God’s message of love and forgiveness … God’s people, right here, show signs of life, of God’s life that God shares with us. And with that kind of life in us, we know we still have a purpose and a mission, and that the mission is possible … in fact, it’s what gives rise to those signs of life in the first place.