As a deer longs for flowing streams
Ever been thirsty? Like in really, really very thirsty? If you have youll be able to imagine what a deer looking for water feels like: Pretty desperate and with only one thing on its mind: Water!
It is this image the psalmist uses when he describes his feelings about God. Thirsty, parched and longing, focused on only one thing: God.
I dont imagine many of us will feel like that about God a lot of the time and would perhaps even feel slightly embarrassed if we did. Pure, passionate and emotional longing for God is not something that is in vogue in our part of the Church or in our world. If anything God is more of a comforting thought in the back ground than something we actively and passionately long to engage with. For most of us God just is and every now and again when things get really difficult and out of control we may have a go at reaching out to him with all our might, but usually well feel that just going about our daily devotions will be plenty of connecting for us and that maybe, if we were to be more passionate about it, that would even be unnecessarily disturbing God.
And sure enough: the Psalmist is in a difficult spot by the sound of it. We hear he has been crying, day and night, he talks about waves and billows going over him, about a deadly wound in his body. He is looking for help and he is expecting it from God and so he is calling out with intensity and focus. Apparently for a while already. People have been asking where his God is, and why he is not helping. And he himself is wondering how long it will be before salvation comes because his soul is cast down and disquieted within him.
I think we can probably all imagine how he felt. Run down by difficulty, exhausted from crying and worrying, feelings of despair creeping up on us, and others around us not being as helpful as we would have wanted them to be, or even downright negative and unsupportive. Its not easy to hold on to your faith at times like that, you need to keep reminding yourself that there is hope, that there will be light at the end of the tunnel and that things will change for the better, no matter how desperate things may seem.
Serious illness or bereavement can do that to you, feeling powerless against injustice can take you there, somebody running out on you, betraying your trust can do it and many, many other things. There are many ways in which we can end up feeling like the psalmist does in psalm 42. And many of us will experience feelings like that at least at some time in their lives. Longing for help, for comfort and love from God, for his presence in the hour of need and frustrated by God taking his time to make things right.
It doesnt seem to be the frame of mind we find Moses in the story we read from Exodus. After his flight from Egypt, after hes killed one of the tormentors of his people in a fight and fled the country, he seems to have settled down. Hes started a family and is working for his father in law as a shepherd. He roams the desert of Midian, looking for nice juicy grass for his sheep. Moses is no freedom fighter! No agitator slipping back across the border to try and stir up his people and start a resistance movement from Midian. Not a man in exile writing treatises on suppression and the fate of his people. He is not even lamenting the injustice done to them. He is just looking after the sheep.
And while looking after his sheep he wanders into the desert a bit further than usual. I imagine it was summer and the usual patches of green had disappeared under the baking desert sun. Or maybe he just felt like a detour that day, a somewhat longer walk than usual. Good exercise, for him and for the sheep, and you never know what you might find in the way of grassy meadows and hidden water holes.
And its there, out of his usual way, that he sees something odd. A bush, burning, but not being consumed. Weird. And of course something that would stir up ones curiosity. And sure enough, Moses diverts from his usual paths a little more to investigate.
There have been all sorts of scientific explanations offered for the phenomenon Moses encounters here and I could easily fill a whole sermon with them. Apparently there are certain bushes in the Sinai desert that when in bloom, look like they are on fire. There is the Fata Morgana theory where heat and light cheat our senses into believing we see something that is not there. It has been suggested that perhaps the bush was being consumed, but that Moses just didnt stay long enough to witness it because it was a particularly fire hardy bush. I thought of the hugging tree I encountered when I visited Alice Springs earlier in the year that turns into itself to protect its inner core from being consumed by fire and so often manages to survive very bad and all consuming fires that will rage around it. However, even if hugging trees would have grown in the Sinai desert, and they do not, would it matter? Not really.
What matters is that Moses, through ordinary human curiosity diverted from his path, is pulled out of the ordinary of his everyday wanderings around the desert into something completely different. His life is about to be changed!
Preceding this scene, in chapter two, there is a very short interlude where we, as readers, are taken up to heaven. There Gods peace of mind is disturbed by groaning and crying from below. The suffering of the Israelites Moses so unsuccessfully tried to do something about earlier, has now reached a level that has reached the high heavens. Very much like deer panting for water I imagine. Completely scorched and intensely longing for some relief from somewhere or other, the people of Israel are desperate and cry out with all their might, longing to be heard.
And God does hear and remembers he has a long standing relationship with these people, and takes notice.
Funny image of God that. Not very attentive of him to wait until the crying and weeping from below is so bad he can hear it all the way up in heaven. Nor is it very comforting that God seems to need to remember to look after his own before he notices anything.
But I think it reflects a reality we, as humans, encounter: That it sometimes takes time and a lot of energy before anything happens, before we feel we are being heard and something or someone has come to help us. God.
Or rather: not God.
Again it is very strange what God actually does after he has heard, remembered and taken notice. He does not hit pharaoh with a lightning bold, he does not make the Nile flood extra badly to drown the Egyptians and save the Israelites in a miraculously provided floating device. No. What he puts into action is more of a DIY salvation with huge human involvement and only a little divine nudge here and there.
After hearing, remembering and taking notice of the dire circumstances of his people God sends his messenger to light a bush and once he has attracted the attention of a curious shepherd he comes down and speaks from the bush. Wouldnt there have been easier ways to put an end to the misery of the Israelites? I am sure there would have been, but scripture tells us that that is not the way this God works, and he doesnt.
God hears, remembers and notices and then calls.
The Holy, the divine appearing in the middle of an ordinary day in the life of someone who may have started the day being a little bit adventurous but was really not looking for anything this extraordinary.
It is not that Moses has, accidentally walked into a "thin place" to meet God. God has organised this "thin place" for him to come and investigate because he wants to speak to him. It is not Moses looking for God like a deer panting for water, it is God who has organised this whole event to throw Moses off track and into his presence.
The religious experience Moses is about to have not brought on by his desperate longing for God, or even his tentative seeking for a holy place, but by the desperate crying of people who urgently need salvation from oppression and injustice.
In scripture there is never a religious encounter just for the sake of it. An encounter with God, an experience of the divine always happens with some purpose and is never just for the gratification of any ones religious yearnings.
Moses. Take off your shoes! Again I could commiserate extensively. Ancient customs, modern parallels and the variety of behaviours an encounter with the divine evokes in a variety of cultures.
I think we probably all get the message without that: Moses is on Holy Ground. And he is made to acknowledge that by taking of his shoes and covering his face.
Did God really speak?
Again I dont think that is important. Moses heard, that is what is important and his listening will change his life and the life of his people. I have seen my people, I know their suffering says God, with the word for knowing conveying intimacy and involvement.
God reveals himself here as a God who has been moved by the misery of his people. Who pays attention not to the powerful and mighty, to beautiful and elaborate worship or neat and tidy devotion, but to the crying out of people in desperate need and that he feels their suffering in his bones.
It is because of this that Moses is called and it is into this that Moses is sent to do something. He who reacted to the injustice and suffering once before with an impulsive explosion of anger is now called into Gods service to go to Pharaoh in more diplomatic service.
"Who am I?" says Moses.
And he knows very well who he is: an impulsive hothead who struck out once and has now mercifully found a family and a place to live in peace, far from the misery of his people. Who am I?
Gods answer to that is not a lengthy setting out of his C.V. and talents that may or may not have qualified him for the job. The answer is short and simple:
"I am with you". Whatever we are or can do is not important you see, what is important when God calls us to do something is that he provides us with the necessary equipment to fulfil that calling by being there with us.
"What will I tell the others?"
People that have suffered at the hands of others, who have been abused and oppressed, will usually find it hard to trust and believe help has come. They become cynical and suspicious. They would not want to rock the boat too much in fear of retaliation. They would want guarantees before they put their lives and what little theyve got left in the way of freedom and material wealth on the line. They did not support Moses when he killed Pharaohs servant and are probably only prepared to venture into anything if there are guarantees they feel they have a good chance of pulling it off.
"Who do I say send me?"
I am who I am sent you, the God of Abraham, Isaak and Jacob, the God of your ancestors.
I am who I am are again words we could dwell on for quite a while. Suffice it to say that it is absolutely unclear what exactly the Hebrew word used here means. To start with it is not a noun but a verb. A verb with no indication of tense.
Just to give a few translations:
I am who I am, I will be who I will be, I am who I was who I will be. There is a lot of room here to manoeuvre and fill in whatever you think God is about, only limited by the meaning of the verb, to be, and the fact that we seem to be talking past, present and future all at once.
God is, and God is in the here and now as well as before and after this moment.
And we, so many centuries later listening to the story, can see how this has been true. God has been the same forever. Time and time again he has heard his people cry and come down to call prophets and leaders to do something about it. He came down in Jesus Christ, who burned in the flames of suffering like the burning bush in the desert but was not consumed by the fire of death and was resurrected to bring salvation to the nations.
God has shown who he is: A God who hears, who does not forget, who takes note not of well thought out and brilliantly conducted worship, but of the cries of despair reaching up to heaven from parched throats and scorched earth.
Who loves the world so much that he gave his only son and who is forever finding people who will be partners with him in the liberation of the suppressed and the bringing down of Pharaohs.
Hope in God. You shall again praise Him. My help and my God.
Things do get pretty desperate in life at times. And there are moments where we feel nobody is paying any attention to our distress. Where is God we ask? And our soul is cast down by the burden it has to carry.
Whole peoples groan and cry and seem to be forgotten in their suffering and oppression while others go about their business leading their sheep to some grassy spot somewhere.
Somebody dies on a cross and it would have been expected that that would have been the end of him. Like a fire consumes a bush, death usually will consume any hope of life and future.
Christ lived, Moses was called, Israel was heard, cries reach God in heaven.
Hope in God, You shall again praise him, my help and my God. Amen.