February 28, 2016
Third Sunday of Lent
First Reading: Exod 3:1-8a, 13-15
God has a way of interrupting our daily activities. His appearance is often unexpected, disruptive, inconvenient. I can’t imagine how Peter’s wife felt when her husband quit his solid fishing job and followed a wandering rabbi. Abraham’s wife must have been surprised when he came home one day and announced that the family was moving to an unknown land. In this Sunday’s reading from Exodus, we find Moses going about his daily work, tending sheep—something that he has been doing for four decades! And yet, God comes to Moses in the bizarre, burning bush, and sets his life on a whole new track.
God as Fire
Old Testament appearances of God are often referred to as “theophanies,” and the burning bush has to be one of the strangest. Moses is watching his sheep, when something catches his eye: “he looked, and lo, the bush was burning, yet it was not consumed” (Exod 3:2 RSV). God doesn’t always use special effects to convey his message, but when he wants to communicate something extremely important, he often does—as when the heavens are opened and we hear the voice of the Father (Matt 3:16-17). In this particular case, God chooses to reveal himself as fire. But why fire?
In fact, fire is one of the only “definitions” of God that we get in the Bible: “God is love” (1 John 4:8). “God is light” (1 John 1:5). “God is one” (Rom 3:30). “God is a devouring fire” (Deut 4:24). He comes on Mt. Sinai “in fire” (Exod 19:18). His fire comes out from the sanctuary (Lev 10:12). The fire of God consumes sacrifices (Judg 6:21; 1 Kgs 18:38). God comes in fiery chariots (2 Kgs 2:11; Isa 66:15). But again, why fire? Fire has qualities that no other visible phenomena have. It is powerful, even ravaging, and yet if you touch it you will only get a burn. You can’t capture fire and put it in a box. You can’t control which way it will go. And yet its power can be used for good—to heat your home, to cook a meal, to light up a dark path. In these ways, fire is like God. Many gods from the ancient Near East were identified as astral phenomena: the sun, the moon, stars, or even equated with animals: the bull, the eagle. But the God of Israel cannot be equated with any earthly thing. He can’t be defined in such a way. However, fire provides the closest analogue, the physical thing that describes God’s elusive, powerful, beautiful, destructive, and helpful characteristics. It is a fitting metaphor for his character.
God’s Rescue Plan
When God reveals himself to Moses at the burning bush, he comes with a timely message: He has heard the cries of his people in slavery in Egypt. He recalls the past—the history of the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He remembers his covenant promise to bring them to a fruitful land. Like a good father, the Lord remembers the promises he made to his children and he observes their current state of affairs. He is not a clockmaker-god who sets the universe in motion and then steps aside. Rather, he comes to Moses to intervene directly in the affairs of humanity and his own people. His plan is simple: he will commission Moses to go back to Egypt and lead the people out of slavery. Of course, a mass migration is not an easy task, but God will assist his chosen representative. Moses famously balks at the invitation.
In response to Moses’ half-hearted objections to the plan and his request to know God’s name, the Lord reveals his sacred name to Moses in one of the most mysterious passages of the Bible. On the one hand, we’ve seen the name of the Lord, Yhwh, many times before this scene of Moses’ encounter. Moses can’t be asking just for the mention of the name so here God gives him something more than that. He offers an explanation of his name: eheyeh asher eheyeh. It is an enigmatic phrase that can be roughly translated “I am who I am” or even “I will be who I will be.” It tells us something about the very nature of God. He is not merely one god among many, but he is being itself. When Moses talks about his encounter with God, he is supposed to say that “I AM sent me.” That is, Being sent me. Thomas Aquinas explains this passage: “But God is the first being, with nothing prior to Him. His essence is, therefore, His being…Now, names have been devised to signify the natures or essences of things. It remains, then, that the divine being is God’s essence or nature” (Summa Contra Gentiles I.22.9-10). The name of God, which denotes being or existence itself, tells us about his nature as being itself. Like fire, which shows us God’s mysterious character, his name, which is meant to disclose him, gives us insight into who he is: Being.
Being “Being” might not sound that exciting, but it shows us that God is foundation of all other beings. He is first before all else. Everything that is has come forth from him. Nothing exists before God, without God, apart from God. He is the origin of everything, including us. Perhaps the next time you find yourself sitting before a comforting fire, something will catch your eye and you’ll notice how the flames describe God in a way that you can’t quite put your finger on. That mysterious fiery Being is the “I AM” that sent Moses to save his people and sent his Son to save us.