A sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent, March 20, 2022
The people of God were groaning under their burdens: cruel slavery, attempted genocide – you remember where Moses’ story began, amid the murder of infants and the interference of Pharaoh among their birthing mothers – and the people cried out (Exodus 1-2). According to the book of Exodus, “God heard their groaning, and God remembered God’s covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God looked upon the Israelites, and God took notice of them.” (Exodus 2:24-25)
The people groan under the burden of war. Their mothers were murdered. The cries of the infants who survived mingle with the tears of great-grandmothers, each as helpless as the next. We have seen it starkly and unambiguously in Ukraine. We have seen it elsewhere; we may have been tempted to turn away.
But God took notice. God saw the people, God heard the people, God remembered the people, God paid attention to the suffering of the people. God came down, God stepped out of heaven, God descended, condescended to speak to Moses about the people.
In fact, Moses nearly blundered right into the angel of the Lord, the vision of the presence of God, standing among the unconsumed branches of fire. He didn’t notice the angel, it seems, only the flames and the curiosity of the shrub that refused to burn, until God spoke directly to him. Like Balaam, whose donkey had to tell him about the angel in the middle of the road – you remember that story?
The king of Moab wanted Balaam to prophesy and to curse the people of Israel as they were encamped nearby, but Balaam would not. Yet eventually he did agree to go to meet the king, although only to deliver what God would say to him. On the way to Moab, God met Balaam three times on the road, but Balaam did not notice. How could he promise to deliver the word of God if he would not even see God standing right in front of him! His donkey saw, and turned aside, and when there was nowhere left to turn, the donkey lay down beneath Balaam, and refused to move. And because Balaam would not see God, and could hardly promise to deliver the word of God if he couldn’t even see God standing right in front of him; because of this, God opened the donkey’s mouth and the donkey told Balaam, “Really? Do you not see what is happening here?” (Numbers 22)
Do you not see? Moses could not see God’s messenger standing right before him.
Moses had given up on his people, on the house of Pharaoh, on all of them. He had left his home in Egypt and settled on the other side of the Red Sea, among the Midianites. He was married. He had a family. He thought that he had put the suffering of his people behind him, that he was turned loose from all of that. So why, in God’s name, did he find himself now, with his father-in-law’s flocks to feed, turning back towards the desert that lies between the land of Midian and the nation of Egypt? Why was he back in the wilderness when God found him? Was he so lost?
God found him, and God said, “Moses! Here I am.”
God said, “This is holy ground.” In the middle of the wilderness, to the side of the path, from the heart of a desert shrub, God spoke, and God said, “This, too, is holy ground.” Because there is no place on earth that God has abandoned.
God said, “I have heard them. I have seen my people, I know their suffering, and I have come down to deliver them.”
Because there is no one whom God has abandoned to injustice, or to violence.
We may have lost our way. We fumble for a path to peace like a drunkard staggering home in the dark. We cry out like cats on a rooftop. We wonder who hears us. We fall silent. We lower our eyes to the ground. We do not see the angel of God watching us, waiting for us to look up, to notice the fire that does not consume, that does not burn, that does not fall from heaven, but kindles among us, right here on earth, because God has come down.
God has come down to deliver us.
The way of deliverance may not look exactly as we expect. The messengers of God may not speak in words that we are ready for – who would have thought that the donkey would talk? But how will we see God if we are not prepared to find Them.
Moses was not certain that God knew what God was doing, sending him back, but God knew. The journey to the Promised Land was not without danger or sacrifice. The way of the Cross, of Christ crucified was and is a stumbling block to many and foolishness to many more. The seeds of peace that we sow and tend may take time to bear fruit, the vine may even seem to be barren for a season, but be patient. For God has come down to deliver us.
We read the stories of the Bible and we ask God: why not come down directly to Egypt instead of waiting for Moses to notice the burning bush? We see the stories on the news and we wonder if we dare ask today: why not come down directly to Kyiv, or to Tigray, or to Yemen, or to Kabul, to the trauma unit, or to the maternity hospital in Mariupol?
God says, of course, I have, and I am, and I will. I have come down to deliver my people. I was born in treacherous circumstances. I survived the genocide of Herod to be crucified by Pilate. I was with the construction workers at Siloam. As a child, I was a refugee in Egypt. I am with the suffering at war. I was killed by a cruel and unjust empire. I am with the thief in paradise. I have seen my people, I have heard their cries, I know their suffering, I have come down.
This is holy ground. There is nowhere that I have abandoned, and no one whom I would not go searing through the wilderness to find.
And you, Moses, and you, and you will be my messenger, to tell Pharaoh of my justice and the people of my mercy.
“Seek God, while God wills to be found” (after Isaiah 55:6). For God is come down to us.